Open-heartedness on Pesach

by Rabbi Josh

11 Nisan 5776

One of the sometimes overlooked themes of Passover/Pesach is that it is also a holyday of open-heartedness, of lovingkindness (chesed). This is rooted in the festival’s nature as the festival of spring (chag ha’aviv), and spring is the time when love is in the air and things are starting to open up and quicken after their winter dormancy. It’s the season when we read from the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs. (Rabbi Daria will lead a short session on that at our matzah baking this Sunday). Pesach is also connected with chesed/lovingkindness because of the core act it celebrates--the Holy One taking us out of Egypt not because of our merits, but as an expression of Divine kindness and love. Our response to then follow the Divine call into the wilderness, not knowing what was going to happen next, also has something of this “lovestruck” quality--when you’re newly in love you don’t act in rational ways .

The sacred practices of the holyday invite us to enter a more open-hearted, chesed-oriented state of mind through the practice of tzedakah/right giving, which- in the case of Passover- is called “kimcha d’pischa” (Aramaic for “wheat for Pesach”). Years ago, it was the practice to distribute wheat to those who needed it, so that they could make their own matzah to make a seder.  We declare in the seder, “let all who are hungry come and eat.” Jewish tradition recognizes that it may not be possible or practical to invite someone into your home for the seder at the time of that declaration, so we have the practice of giving tzedekah to fulfill our words, thereby enabling those who are hungry to eat.

One effective way we can fulfill this locally is through the Seder Sack program of Jewish family and Children’s Services. If you go to www.jfcs.org/sedersacks, you can donate Passover food to homebound seniors, people with disabilities, and struggling families in our community.

This year, in the context of the Pesach story and tzedakah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the real-time exodus of refugees pouring into Europe. Last year nearly 4,000 children, women and men drowned as they attempted to flee to safety, and just this past week, another 400 have likely died by shipwreck as they tried to find a safer home. One organization I’ve felt great about supporting is HIAS (www.hias.org); Originally, they were the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But as they expanded their mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, their actual name no longer represented the organization. They are now known as HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that does essential work advocating for, protecting and resettling refugees of all backgrounds.

These may feel like small, barely “bandaid” gestures, yet they are essential, and provide a real way to express the open-heartedness and lovingkindness that are such an essential part of the holy time we are about to enter.

We know that at Passover we are supposed to recall our slavery, but the haggadah reminds us that “in every generation” we are to not only recall this story, but are supposed to put ourselves in it and relate to it as if we were the ones who actually came out of the narrow place, Mitzrayim/Egypt. Why? So that our own experiences, as we retell them every Passover, might inspire us, in each and every generation, to action. And so we can indeed act- in large and small ways- as the hands of the Divine today. To that end, one of our traditional practices reminds us to look around and devote some of our material resources to holy work, through tzedakah, at this holyday season (as well as many other times throughout the year).

This Passover/Pesah may we remember our sacred story, and may it inspire us to open our hearts, and our wallets, to help those who so desperately need real, life-giving support at this time of their own, very real, and treacherous exodus. Amen.