Open a door: We do this daily. In, out, home, work, shops, bathrooms, with a handle, with a keycard, revolving, automatic, doorman – our lives are marked by these careless crossings of thresholds and we rarely pause to notice and reflect. A door is just a door.
Then comes Passover, complete with the rituals and symbols that invite us to stop and think and grow and improve the quality of our lives and of all those around us. One of the most simple, startling and lesser celebrated ritual moments of Passover is the moment that gave the holiday its name – the moment in which we remember the threshold of freedom and open our front door, blurring, briefly, the boundaries between private and public, past and present. Back in Egypt, the front doors of the Hebrews were shut tight, dripping with blood, and the Lord of Hosts passed over, and spared our lives. As dawn rose, the doors opened and we were free to flee. This week, blood-free, our front doors will beckon, ready to be opened once again with intention and purpose: these nights are different – a door is not just a door.
‘Opening the Door’ is supposed to happen twice during Seder – once at the beginning, and once towards the end. Thus, I interrupt the weekly listing of biblical verbs from the annual Torah Cycle to bring you a the holiday version of a verb deluxe – including a super brief guide and an accompanying collection of inspirational sources for why and what and how to open wide and make it matter.
- The first open-door moment comes when we first sit down to the Seder table and proclaim ‘let all who are hungry come and eat’. This grand gesture made it into the Hagaddah inspired by an obscure Talmudic reference to a rabbi who wouldn’t sit down to dinner before opening his front door and inviting the local poor to sit at his table. Nowadays, the gesture is mostly an empty one. Whoever is sitting around our Seder table has already rsvp’d. But imagine – this year – with so many out of jobs, so many in need of nourishment and support – can we really, literally, open our front door to those in need? Can you, right after reading this, review your guest list and address book and maybe make one more phone call to make sure the doors are open to let all, even those invisible, who are often the most in need of love, enter the door, sit and eat, and celebrate this night of hope?
Try this: as you sit down to Seder and proclaim the opening lines – open the front door. Let the chilly night air enter and pause briefly, silently perhaps, to count your blessings and bless the roof over your head and the faithful door that protects you from danger and provides you with shelter. Then get conversation going – what are we inviting tonight? Who are we inviting this year to sit at our table? What does it mean to open a door to the world? (check out this video clip, courtesy of UJA Texas – they nailed it: OPEN THE DOOR)
- The second door opening comes at the end of the meal, as the fourth glass of wine is raised and Elijah the Prophet is invited for dessert. It’s a dramatic moment, but we don’t always get there or remember what it’s all about. Opening the door to Elijah is tied up to the historical evolution of the Seder, as Jews, often persecuted minorities in foreign lands, relied on supernatural forces to help them survive. The front door, closed for protection from hostile neighbors, was opened ceremoniously, and briefly, to express trust and hope and let in some optimism. This, anyway, is one of many reasons cited for this custom. The Hagaddah also has a text that goes along with that door opening moment – a problematic proclamation beseeching God to pour wrath upon the gentiles.
For many of us today, this text proves to be a problem. Many non Jews will be sitting at our Seders and many more, outside our front doors, are our friends and, often, family. How can we open our doors to the rest of the world not with fear but with affirmation? What do we do with this historic but hostile text?
In the 1870’s, Leopold Stein, a German Jew and one of the first reform rabbis Rabbi, struggled with this part of the Hagaddah and replaced the wrath with spirit – providing us with the first of several modern alternatives:
‘Pour out Your spirit on all flesh
May all nations come to serve You
Together in one language..’
So try this: As you open the door to Elijah invite your guests to come up with wishes for tolerance between people of all different faiths. Invite prayers for open doors for prisoners like Gilad Shalit, and for the people of Gaza who are not free to leave their city. Spark a conversation about what it would look like to have a world free of fear from the other. Yes, anti Semitism is on the rise, and yes, the plight of our ancestors that led to these ancient prayers is honored and remembered – but can we move beyond and open our hearts and front doors to the hope of progress? Yes, we can.
The keys to freedom are in our hands, and we have to turn the handle. And open the door.
Yehuda Amichai, the late Israeli poet prayed it like this:
“I want a God who is like a window I can open
So I’ll see the sky even when I’m inside.
I want a God who is like a door that opens out, not in,
But God is like a revolving door, which turns, turns on its hinges
In and out, whirling and turning
Without a beginning, without an end.”
For more sources for the Seder, click here: open the door – inspirations and sources