Jewish Journal


March 29, 2007

A Place at the Table

Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)


A few years ago I invited a Mormon family to our seder. The presence of non-Jewish guests in our home changed the dynamic in many ways, not the least of which was our newfound enthusiasm for giving clear and thorough explanations of the rituals we observe each year. This Mormon physician with his wife and three daughters sat respectfully, asking me the most insightful questions.

I commented on the depth of their queries only to learn that in response to my invitation they had spent four weeks researching Passover and Jewish customs. We should only prepare so zealously.

This week's portion, Tzav, begins with the directive "command." According to Rashi, this opening word is an expression of encouragement (zerizut) for present and future generations. It refers to the bringing of sacrifices to the altar and although mandated in the Torah, as with prayer it is the intent (kavana) in bringing an offering -- of atonement, thanks or peace -- that is at its core.

Has the Passover seder become a glorified Jewish meal or rote obligatory ritual, and is there a message here? Even in the realm of traditional recipes, too many of our young have not been taught to create the Passover experience or replicate the foods of past generations. The next generation needs to accept the responsibility of passing on the lesson or it dies with us.

Our children live in a society where they have many friends of other faiths. Sadly, their limited religious education ended at 13, and when seeking meaning in life they rarely turn to their tradition. Are we truly a "light unto the nations" and do we reach beyond our co-religionists?

Furthermore, if the command to "love the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt" can animate our beliefs, then surely inviting a non-Jew into our home will provide the ideal opportunity to reinvigorate our celebration.

If ever there existed an antidote to blind, ignorant hatred of the Jewish people, it is a seder invitation. When we observe our annual Shared Heritage of Freedom Shabbat service at Temple of the Arts, our African American guests comment for months on how moving it is to break bread and pray with Jewish people. When hate mongers speak in their community and vilify Jews, they are the first to stand up and renounce those bigots.

Our Committee for Righteous Deeds arranged the Chicago premiere of a History Channel documentary I co-produced, "Diplomats for the Damned," in April 2001. At the invitation of his eminence Cardinal Francis George it was held at the magnificent Holy Name Cathedral. This documentary lauded the heroism of four Christian Holocaust-era diplomats who issued visas that saved many Jewish lives. Children of two diplomats featured in the documentary, Jon Paul Abranches, Portuguese diplomat Aristedes de Sousa Mendes' son, and Abigail Bingham Endicott, daughter of U.S. diplomat Hiram Bingham IV, attended.

Although the cardinal graciously opened the Bernardin Center for a post-screening reception, I had to express my reservations.

"What's the problem?" he asked.

I explained that some of the survivors we invited kept the dietary laws and could not participate. The solution was heart-warming. The cardinal invited a kashering team to cleanse and certify the kitchen, explaining to the priests, sisters and staff what the process was all about.

Passover is an annual opportunity to reinvigorate our tradition and give the next generation its role in leading the seder and analyzing its universal message.

The awesome responsibility of explaining it to non-Jewish guests is one good option as the great Shabbat reminds us of the need to prepare with enthusiasm.

David Baron is rabbi of the Temple of the Arts at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills.

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