My tax professional says I did a clever thing in 2021: I turned 65. It’s very much to my advantage.
Entre nous, I never intended to get old. It was inadvertent. And I became a rabbi later in my journey. I was ordained at 52 in Los Angeles, a city so amoral that even the airport is called LAX. Who am I kidding? I should tell you the meaning of the Torah?
The last couple of years have battered everyone’s faith. Pandemic, polarization, war in Europe. Has God given up on us? Who could blame God, if so? But I embrace the theology of Martin Buber. God is as accessible as our spiritual resilience, our scope for transformation. The question is, in what ways are we prepared to evolve?
The end-of-Passover haftarah includes the famous words, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid… and the lion shall eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7). That’s not what we see on our news channels — quite the contrary — but we trust it is possible. If Russia and Ukraine (or China and Taiwan) are so similar, why can’t they coexist peacefully? “Let them not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9).
Here in Morgantown, this year’s seder — like last year and the year before — was virtual. We weren’t still quarantining, but no one planned a menu in advance because no one could predict the public health situation. This made me sad. I grew up ultra-Reform, but Passover was the one holiday my family consistently observed. I drifted from Judaism in early adulthood, but a hankering for the Haggadah pulled me back. How can we not share charoset and maror? Are we Jews, or aren’t we?
The nechemta, the silver lining, is that I celebrated the second night with a face-to-face seder in Preston County, on West Virginia’s border with Maryland. I only know one Jew in that neck of the woods, but she invites her friends and neighbors, and hires me to lead the not-so-kosher program. Everything’s easier in Preston County.
When young, I assumed the problems of civilization would get solved in my lifespan, but as the world grows messier and my time grows shorter, it seems unlikely. The one ray of hope is us. We can always reimagine ourselves and our community, if and when we are ready. What are we waiting for?
The haftarah declares, Ush’avtem mayim b’sason, “You shall draw water joyfully from the fountains of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). You and I can make salvation tangible: with matzah and gefilte fish, with vaccination and air filters, with tact and patience — “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” to quote that great prophet Abraham Lincoln. We are shocked by the politicization of the virus; the crisis that should have brought us together has instead sharpened our divisions. But what’s the Jewish response? Only to “do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8), a text engraved over the door of my boyhood synagogue in Larchmont, New York. Isn’t that what we’re here for?
I hope you enjoyed your brisket and tzimmes, your eggs and saltwater, your jelly slices and macaroons. But even more, I hope you feel freed from tired norms and limits, hardened habits and patterns. So many of us American Jews are bored or embarrassed by God. Too often we see God as a relic of the old country, a belief of our ancestors. But God is as real as our desire to change — and when has change ever been more necessary than right now? We must heal the nation and the earth with our empathy, our respect for every person, our openness to every viewpoint. Today.
As you stow the Elijah cup and afikoman sleeve for next year, please remember to pivot from g’nut (shame) to shevach (glory). Let this be not only the last Pesach with masks, but the last Pesach with qualms and quibbles and quarrels, with dread and doubt and disdain. Who’s better equipped than we to make it happen? Let us resolve to part the Red Sea of suspicion and animosity, and scale the shore of compassion and solidarity. So may it be God’s will. PJC
Rabbi Joe Hample is the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.