One of the most awkward moments in the haggadah is opening the door for Elijah with the words “Shfoch chamatcha el hagoyim … Cast your wrath upon the non- Jews.”
If we have seder guests who are of another faith, we typically rush through the Hebrew and mumble some creatively non-inflammatory text. Yes. I know the horrific history behind the open-door policy. Showing our gentile neighbors we are not involved in murderous deeds but merely celebrating a family holiday with good food, libation and song. It is a tactic of self-defense against the blood libel.
The Passover-Easter season was a terrifying one for our ancestors not so long ago when hostility between Christian and Jew was raw, nasty and brutal. Thankfully, we have come a long way since those vulgar days of pathological malice; and to underscore this shift, allow me to share a personal story that celebrates tolerance and harmony, not religious dread.
She wished to meet with a rabbi and discuss the Book of Prophets. Teaching a Bible class in her church she wanted insight from a Jewish clergyman. We made an appointment. She showed up right on time. I welcomed her and offered her a seat. She sat down with pad and pen, we shared pleasantries, and then we began the Q&A.
Her inquiries were well thought-out. We had a delightful chat, but as our time together wound down, our conversation took an unexpected turn. I noticed a cast wrapped around her left arm. It was covered with signatures and brief messages from friends and students. I asked if I might add my name to the well-wishers. “Certainly. That would be very nice of you,” she replied. I continued. “May I write speedy recovery on your cast in Hebrew?” A simple, innocent request. Her demeanor suddenly changed.
She looked at me, grabbed the arms of the chair and began to quiver. She stammered in response. “In the holy language of Hebrew? In God’s sacred tongue? I would be so deeply honored.” Shaking, she held up her injured arm and with a Sharpie, I scrawled “refuah shleimah,” on the rough, plaster surface. From her reaction you would have thought I was Moses giving her a signed copy of the Ten Commandments. She stared at the Hebrew characters, transfixed by my message.
After a few seconds, she stood up. In a soft, reverential voice she thanked me for my time, turned and left the office caressing her inscribed cast. I was a bit startled by her actions but understood. We birth Jews are jaded by our rituals, our customs, our traditions, but for an outsider we are the authentic people of faith living the holy words of the Bible. An eternal nation covenanted to God.
Too often we brush aside our treasures, dismissing our magnificent legacy that literally tamed and transformed Western Civilization. Too often I have seen the stranger who values the wonders of Judaism while so many of us cast off the precious, glorious yoke of Sinai with a yawn. And so, I cry out with unapologetic gratitude, “Thank God for non-Jews.” It is they who can inspire us to greater spiritual fidelity while reminding us of the privilege of descent from Abraham and Sarah. Perhaps now when we open the door for the prophet, we should chant “Shfoch ahavatechaw el hagoyim … Cast your love upon the non-Jew.” Somehow that feels much better.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Etz Chaim.