Making Room at Our Pesach Tables

(Note: This letter was posted yesterday as a comment on my Open Letter to Girls Who Lost a Parent, a column that I wrote several months ago for Links magazine. Disclaimers: My father passed away before my fourth birthday. I am a regular contributor to Links magazine and greatly admire the efforts of Mrs. Kohn to help orphaned girls.)

R’ Horowitz:

During this joyous time of the year, I appeal to all of Klal Yisroel to please look around and try to be in tune to the needs – and the pain of – the orphans and widows in our communities.

Although this doesn’t apply directly to Pesach, I’d like to bring it up as an example. A widow called me shortly after Sukkos of last year deeply pained. Her 6-year-old son had insisted on going to the men’s side during hakafos as he didn’t want to remain in the women’s section and be ‘different’ than his friends. Hesitantly, his mother sent him down and watched from the balcony to see what would happen. What she saw broke her heart. Her son, shy by nature, stood at the outside of the circle trying to break in. He nearly got trampled, so he backed off and watched close-by. Hundreds of men, his uncles included, passed him by, some nodding their heads in his direction. Nobody thought to stretch out their hands, invite him to join the circle, or perhaps even put him on their shoulders.

Sure, we can be dan l’kaf z’chus (judge favorably) but for the purpose of kabbala al ha’osid (future improvement), can we open our eyes, try to find children who may need a boost and give it to them. A smile costs nothing but gives so much. So does a pat on the back. An outstretched arm. A two-minute conversation.

R’ Horowitz, I hope you don’t mind, but there’s one more story I’ve got to add.

A married man recently told me that when he was orphaned as a young teen (at age 14). He tried to put on a ‘macho man’ demeanor but of course, he was deeply pained. He was a bright boy, a strong learner and very popular. At age 16, he went to learn in an ‘out-of-town’ yeshiva and had a terrific z’man. When he came home for Pesach, he tried to share with his mother all about how wonderfully his learning had been. All of it fell flat. His mother didn’t get the lingo and was busy with the cooking. He told me that at that moment he felt like committing suicide. He said he felt like the entire good feeling of the z’man had been destroyed in his mind, as he had nobody with whom to share his success.

I beg all of you: Please look around and try to be in tune to the needs of others – especially the orphans and children who are living in single-parent households. We can never bring back their parent but we could offer them some time and some love.

Sarah R. Kohn
Editor, Links Magazine

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

It is a time-honored tradition to begin our Pesach Seder by inviting guests to join us at our tables. Much ink has been spilled and many beautiful Torah thoughts offered to explain why we express this invitation when we are already assembled at our Seder table as opposed to, say, in shul, where we would actually be inviting guests to come home with us.

I would like to suggest that we mention this open invitation to needy people in the very first words of our Pesach Seder to support the notion that this nedivus halev (generosity of spirit) is really the essence and the core message of the Pesach Yom Tov. Sure, there are many mitzvos associated with Pesach. But our ‘take-away’ from the reliving of our exodus from Egypt is to reach out to those less fortunate among us. Freedom has its responsibilities – along with the comfort and security that comes along with being a free people. (Please review this dvar Torah for an insight into the Torah’s admonition to us to treat converts kindly.)

Especially during the Yom Tov season, there are so many opportunities to display this generosity of spirit all around us. All you need to do is to open your hearts and minds to ‘walk a mile’ in the shoes of others for whom Yom Tov brings heartache along with the simchas ha’chag.

Just think for a moment of what it is like to be a single adult sitting at a Seder table listening to his/her nephews and nieces singing the mah nishtana and reciting their Torah thoughts. Please don’t ask them why they are ‘picky’ or offer unsolicited advice. Just provide your friendship and support. Perhaps consider suggesting a shidduch for him/her or hosting a Yom Tov meal for singles in your community where young men and women can meet and perhaps find their life-partner.

– Just think for a moment of what it is like for the children of your spiritual, amazing ba’alei teshuva friends who, like Ruth, gave up the comfort of their families to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle, watch their classmates play with their cousins in shul on Yom Tov. Perhaps consider inviting a ba’al teshuva family over for Yom Tov meal or two and provide friendship and a sense of belonging to them – and their children.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like to be an ‘at-risk teen’ returning to his/her home for Yom Tov. He/she may look brave and his/her counterculture trappings may strike you as an ‘in-your-face’ repudiation of our communities value system. Trust me, please, when I tell you that they are just nice kids trying to sort things out for themselves and deal with their challenges. A ‘cute’ barb from you may be the final straw that informs them that they are unwelcome in our community, while a kind word may be letting them know that they are valued – and wanted. Don’t ask the kids “Which yeshiva they attend?” (They may have just been expelled from school or in a work setting). Just ask them a more generic “How are things going”, or ‘What are you doing’. Take a genuine interest, please. If they say they are going to college, ask them what courses they are taking, etc. And please try using these words when you see a rebellious-looking kid in the back of shul that hasn’t come in a while, “It is so nice to see you.” Or “It’s such a pleasure to have you in shul.” And please make sure that your tone is warm and accepting.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like to be the parent of such a child in our close-knit, ‘fishbowl’ communities. Imagine how difficult it is for the father of an at-risk kid to do the right thing and walk with his child to shul – perhaps even coming much later than usual to tefilah in order to wait for his son to wake up. My home phone rings off the hook in these days before Yom Tov as parents of at-risk kids call for advice on how to navigate the minefield of raw human emotions when their children come home for chagim. Please, please be good friends and good community members.
– Just think for a moment of what it is like not to be able to afford nice Chol Hamoed trips for your children. Perhaps consider going to the home of your child’s rebbi or morah who dedicated their lives to chinuch in the next few days. Write them a personal card thanking them for all they do for your children, and if you can afford it, give them a substantial financial gift and tell them to treat their children to a special chol hamoed trip that they otherwise would be unable to afford.

It is this type of generosity of spirit that will bring the long-awaited redemption and comfort us with the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash where we will once again partake in the bringing of the Pesach offerings.

© 2007 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

2 comments on “Making Room at Our Pesach Tables

  1. How sad that even in what is thought of as close-knit communities, this kind of blindness persists. The young boy whose uncles didn’t include him. I would have said after that story that there is a major difference between men and women. But the story of the yeshiva student who couldn’t engage with his mother about his experiences also points up the risk that segregated learning leaves mothers unable to relate to what their sons are learning – and the son may have thought that she should instictively know what he was talking about, but clearly did not. A failure on both sides.

    And the father that is ashamed to come to shul late so he could come with his son – a shonda that that type of scrutiny exists, and that the appearance is more important than engaging the son.

  2. Thank you for printing this!

    I am a BT and am now married with a family. However several years ago I was in University (Brandeis) and As a BT I didn’t have anywhere to go for seder. Well 4 of my friends were in about the same boat. So we got together and put on a Seder at my apartment off campus. It was a great seder with people I had known all year and a few I had just met as they got dragged in at the last minute. Nothing but 12 Jews enjoying a seder together.

    I also dragged home anyone I could for shabbat dinners every week that year. I was well known for standing outside of the shul on friday nights and asking anyone who stood still long enough if they would come for dinner.

    I’m in Israel and married with kids now, but I still miss those dinners, nothing like 10 or so random friends around a shabbat or seder table to make you understand what a mitzvah kindness is.

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