This year, the Jewish and Christian calendars aligned to overlap the beginning of Passover and Good Friday. Burna Dunn and I were invited to share our first-ever Passover Seder with Jewish friends, sandwiched between our own celebrations of Maundy Thursday and the Easter Vigil. Thirteen days later, we joined our Jewish hosts at Boulder’s Holocaust Remembrance event.
The two evenings were adventures into the unfamiliar customs of the very tradition that shaped Jesus’ faith. Both evenings were surprising—in surprising ways. This adventure begins with Rabbi Ori Har from Boulder—one of my spirit colleagues who offered blessings during my ordination as a Deacon in June, 2013.
Rabbi Ori and her husband Oz DiGennaro hosted 18 people for Passover this year. We joined other friends and family members as we arrived on Friday evening, April 4. A long line of tables was spread for the evening and there was a great buzz of activity in the kitchen. Hors d’oeuvres were set out on a counter while last minute preparations were completed. We were welcomed into the chaos and purposeful fun of a multigenerational party.
Copies of the Haggadah (the stories and prayers offered during the Passover celebration) were at the ready. Grown children and several grandchildren enlivened the evening—a festival of liberation. Friends and family included Buddhists, Baha’is, a Lutheran grandmother, two Ecumenical Catholics, and several adult children who acknowledged varying levels of observance of their Jewish heritage. The genuineness of the welcome was infectious and there were warm hand clasps and embraces all around.
At 6 p.m. Rabbi Ori welcomed everyone to the table, poured the first cup of wine, and recited the prayer:
“Prepare the meal of the supernal King. This is the meal of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah [God’s presence in the world]. The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all their hosts were completed. And on the seventh day G-d finished His work which He had made, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy, for on it He rested from all His work which G-d created to make.”
Rabbi Ori reflected after the celebration, “This year the Seder night fell on Shabbat and the kiddush we chanted [included] the blessings over the creation of the world. In each Shabbat candle lighting and kiddush we bless both the miracle of creation and the miracle of redemption at the time of the Exodus from Egypt.” I became aware during the 15 steps of the Seder—the candle lighting, the prayers, the hand washing, the vegetable and salt water, the matzo, the story telling, the blessings, the festive meal, the Psalms of praise, and the singing—that I had stepped into a neglected part of my own spiritual heritage. We were the last to leave just after 11 p.m.
The whole evening was almost impossibly rich with drama and symbolism. It seemed to me that central theme was God’s saving act of passing over the Hebrew people during the last days of their captivity in Egypt. But Rabbi Ori pointed out that for Jews the central theme of the Passover is liberation. I realized that focusing only on the activity of God can miss the possibility life offers. The journey through the Red Sea, to Sinai, and into the Promised Land is the journey of the liberated life: transcending assumed barriers, entering a vastness where we discover our true selves, and deciding to fully inhabit the possibilities we discover as our own Promised Land.
The continuation of our discoveries took place Wednesday evening, April 15, at Boulder’s Yom HaShoah event at Congregation Bonai Shalom. Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) marks the anniversary of the uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1945. The levity of the Passover Seder was replaced by the solemnity of recalling the catastrophe of genocide at the hands of Nazis before and during World War II.
Congregation Bonai Shalom, on Cherryvale Road in east Boulder, is a small synagogue. The worship space was full with around 100 people, including three elderly survivors of the Holocaust and several adult children and grandchildren of survivors. These three elders were reverently acknowledged and asked to light the candles on the bimah, the large central podium where the Torah scrolls are read.
The evening began and ended with chanted prayers. Participants read excerpts from four stories written by Holocaust survivors, their family members, or other close observers. The survivors present and several others, including Rabbi Ori, offered their own reflections. These were provocative samples of the literature of remembrance and candid personal reactions to the readings.
For me, the highlight was hearing the speakers wrestle with a profound paradox: the weight of remembering the horror of the Holocaust and the claim of the Passover heritage to be a liberated people. On the one hand, three generations after the fact of genocide, Jews must bear the weight of memory and personal loss as living witnesses of a human tragedy. On the other hand, they must freely embody a reverence for social justice on behalf of all human beings everywhere, without allowing the weight of the past to paralyze their creative, healing involvement in human affairs.
Celebrating Passover with Jewish friends offered an intimate experience of modern Judaism. Meeting Holocaust survivors, their children, and grandchildren was a way to connect for the first time with an inescapable part of my own heritage. The Passover celebration of liberation and the Holocaust remembrance of genocide—choosing to live in freedom and acknowledging illusion and hatred—reminded me that I am larger than the particular tradition in which I was raised and deeper than the familiar practices that frame my present faith journey.
It becomes clear that the Christian Eucharist—the sacrament of bread and wine that reflects a deep memory of the Passover meal—is a way of tipping the scale of remembrance in the direction of liberation. Jesus grasped the connection between Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (“Listen, O Israel: YHVH is our God; YHVH is one! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God….”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”) Knowing that loving God is fulfilled in simultaneously loving ourselves and our neighbors creates a new possibility in anyone’s escape into freedom: transcending the darkest memory and embracing the most hazardous liberation.