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Two Voices, One Table: Balancing Empathy and Vigilance At Our Passover Seder© 

Parashat Metzorah/Shabbat HaGadol, 2024/5784 


Are you a Purim Jew or a Pesach Jew?


What could that possibly mean?!? Are there some Jews who prefer  Matzah over Hamentashen?!?


I did not coin this phrase; I learned it from Yossi Klein HaLevi, a Jewish thought leader and Hartman Institute Fellow. 


Passover Jews are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; Purim Jews are motivated by alertness to threat.




“Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive. The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat.”


The question is, which Jew are you now, and which one should you be? Which Jew do we need to be at this moment in the calendar, between the two holidays of Purim and Pesach? 


Our tradition believes in multiple new years. In Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, we learn that four days in the year serve as the New Year, each for a different purpose: The first one mentioned is the first of Nisan.


The New Year began on Monday night with Rosh Chodesh Nisan. But what happens if you forget to celebrate New Year’s, as I’m sure most of you forgot to? Usually, we come up with New Year’s resolutions before the day, and then we commit ourselves on day one, but this year, we got an extension, and we get the start on the 14th of Nisan. 


What type of Jew do you want to be in this coming year: the Purim Jew or the Pesach Jew? Here is what Yossi Klein HaLevi would say if he were here today:  both. 


He writes, ”Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.” 


In other words, think about it this way - let’s say you have a choice: sit alone or sit with someone else whose views are vastly different and which could upset you. Which table would you choose to sit at? 


So, you chose to sit alone. Here’s the catch: You have another choice: sit alone for the rest of your life or sit with that other person. Which would you choose?


Imagine a lifetime of just speaking to yourself, of a Seder for one, year after year. 


He added that our task was to find the middle ground so we could sit at the same table. 


As we think about our Seders, many of us have subjects we do not discuss. We actually review our list at the beginning of every Seder. Every year, the list gets longer. 


Alas, the Seder is the place to have profound conversation. The Seder was the Jewish version of the symposium. The ritual of sacrificing the Pascal lamb and eating it was replaced with the act of talking about the lamb and eating together. We read in the Hagaddah, which comes from the word L’hagid, to tell: 


Even if we were all wise people, geniuses in the world, and Torah, it would still be a mitzvah, a sacred commandment, for us to tell the story of our ancestor's rescue from Egypt. 


Rabban Gamliel went further when he said that whoever does not discuss the Pascal offering, Pesach, matzah, and maror, at the Seder has not fulfilled his obligation. 


It was also a time to discuss complex ideas, tell the stories of our ancestors, and, yeah, have a lot of fun. Children were encouraged to ask questions, which were and are essential to the Seder ritual. 


So why do we have a do not discuss list?!? 


The answer isn’t for us; it’s for you, our esteemed guest. The list is there to protect you…from yourself and your tongue. Not surprisingly, Judaism has a lot of advice for how we use our words. 


In this week’s parashah, we learn about the person afflicted by Tza’arat. Some translate it as leprosy, but it is a scaly skin affliction. 


The Torah does not explain why the person is afflicted with Tzara’at (the skin affliction) , but the Rabbis and commentators says that the metzorah, the person with this skin affliction, is a person who has spoken with an evil tongue, ‘motzi shem rah’.  This must dwell outside the camp until his tzara’at (the skin affliction) is cured – he is also utterly alone.  


But they are alone in other ways as well—when others hear what they say about them, they are shunned. When you hear this person speaking ill, the listener must be thinking, ' If they are talking bad about this person, what do they say behind my back?’  The evil tongue can break families and communities apart, causing people to be alone and to dine alone. 


The evidence of lashon harah as the cause of tzara’at (the skin affliction) comes from the story of Miriam.  In Numbers 12:1, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe for taking a Cushite woman, but they also say, “Has the Lord only spoken through Moshe?  Hasn’t He also spoken through us?”  We see here that Moshe’s authority is challenged, and to set it up, they are trying to defame Moshe with this claim.  Miriam is punished with tzara’at (the skin affliction)  and has to be removed from the camp for seven days.  God singles her out and punishes her not only with tzara’at (the skin affliction) but also with solitary confinement and loneliness. Is this two-fold punishment, both physical and psychological, fair? 


Now imagine that she did this at the Seder table. I doubt Moses’s wife Tzipporah would have invited Miriam back for the Seder next year. And where would Miriam go for Seder? Would she not be alone? 


Words in Judaism hold a special significance. In the creation story, God doesn’t use God’s hands or tools to create the world; rather, God speaks the world into existence with words.  


Have you ever heard the term, Abracadabra?  It is likely an Aramaic word, one of our holy languages. The literal translation of the term is: ‘I create as I speak’. As human beings are created Betzelem Elohim, in God’s image, therefore we, too, create as we speak. 


Just as God needed boundaries to create the world, we need boundaries to create our world. There have to be places we cannot go, that we will not go for the sake of our relationships and ourselves. Those boundaries are often subjective, and each person and family must navigate them carefully. 


And yet, if every place is a no-go zone, we are at a minefield, not a Seder table. 


And, let’s face it, the issue this year is Israel. How can we not talk about Israel and the Palestinians and the war in Gaza? How can we not share the story of our vision for the Promised Land that our ancestors so longed for millennia? 


The sacred conversation at the Seder can serve as a microcosm of the larger Jewish experience. To embrace depth in the form of nuance, of finding the balance between the Purim Jew, ever vigilant against threats, acutely aware of the dangers that surround us, and the Pesach Jew, driven by empathy for the oppressed, striving to break the chains of injustice. 


In truth, we are called to be both. Just as a bird cannot fly with only one wing, our Jewish identity also requires a balance between these two perspectives. 

 

To be solely a Purim Jew risks becoming insensitive to the suffering of others, while to be solely a Pesach Jew risks becoming naive to the dangers that persist in the world.


Our task, then, is to find the middle ground and navigate our reality's complexities with empathy and vigilance. This means engaging in difficult conversations, even when they challenge or make us uncomfortable.


At the Seder table, where the story of our liberation is retold year after year, we are reminded of the power of words. Just as words can build bridges, they can also erect barriers. The prohibition against lashon harah, evil speech, teaches us the profound impact our words can have on others and on ourselves because we create worlds and realities through our words. 


As we gather around the Seder table, let us embrace the tradition of dialogue and debate. Let us make room for the difficult questions, listening with open hearts and minds. It is through this exchange of ideas that we truly fulfill the commandment to remember and honor the legacy of our ancestors.


In the coming year, may we strive to be both Purim Jews and Pesach Jews, holding fast to the values of empathy and vigilance as we continue on our journey toward freedom and redemption.

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