The Israeli author, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.
He wrote a short story called the “Passover Celebrants.” This story is about a poor man whose job it was to clean and maintain the local synagogue in his village.
It was the evening of Passover when all the Jewish families were having a traditional Passover meal called the Seder. The man was a widower who had nowhere to go for Passover. He couldn’t even afford to purchase special Passover foods for himself and, sadly, no one had invited him to their house.
In a fortuitous moment, he met Sarah, one of the wealthiest women in the community, who had become widowed and she also did not have anyone to share in her Passover meal. She worked so hard to make an elaborate Passover Seder meal even though her husband was deceased. Maybe she did it for his memory but she had been unable to invite anyone to her home. Yet, in this unforeseen encounter, Sarah decided to invite Michel to be her guest and to partake in the Passover meal.
As part of the ancient Passover ritual in the Seder meal, a powerful statement is read in the story of Passover. Agnon includes this moment in his story.
The narrative says, “Let all who are hungry come in and eat, let all who are needy come in and partake in the Passover.” The ritual for this famous maxim is that a person holds up a piece of the unleavened bread, which is called matzah, and recites this statement.
Agnon asks: “What is the difference between one who is hungry and one who is needy?”
Agnon interprets the phrase, “All who are needy refers to people who are not just physically hungry but who may be in spiritual need. For example, it could refer to people who have emotional needs or who have experienced losses from loneliness or other kinds of situations that make them feel in need of support from others.
“It is one thing to experience physical hunger and quite another feeling to be hungry in the soul and in need emotionally.”
Jewish tradition proscribes the commandment to eat the Passover matzah, which is referred to as the bread of affliction. It can include both physical, emotional and spiritual hunger.
The beautiful aspect of this charming story is that both Sarah and Michel celebrated Passover together. One had the physical hunger and the other had the emotional hunger. They found each other and a new relationship blossomed.
The Bible teaches us to respect and care for the stranger in our midst. At holiday times there are people who are alone and they have nowhere to go to celebrate their respective festivals.
This weekend is Passover, which Jewish people observe throughout the world.
In the Western Christian world, Sunday is Easter.
Regardless of one’s religious observance, there are people who are hungry and who do not have the resources to partake in their festive meals. There are still others who feel isolated and who are in need of the community, and yearn for the sense of inclusion.
Religion is supposed to build community with rituals and practices that help adherents to the faith to affirm their place in the faith community. How many of us, regardless of our religion, have reached out to the poor of body and spirit to invite them to join us and enjoy the bounty of our blessings on special holidays?
The stranger could be our next door neighbor, colleague, friend or relative. The stranger could be someone we do not know at all. The stranger could be the wealthiest person in the community. If a person, regardless of their financial status, feels alone at holiday times, then they too have become the stranger in our midst.
Many interpretations are offered about the meaning of Passover today. We remember the servitude that ancient Israelites were subjected to in Egypt for 400 years. Today we look at all kinds of issues that can enslave us besides the actual bondage of slavery in a literal sense.
The Jewish people also look at the liberation from slavery too and celebrate our deliverance at the hands of God.
The fascinating aspect of this narrative is that it concentrates on the themes of community and that the Jewish people worldwide are all sharing the same historic memory from this event. Being together and not alone to recall the Exodus is one of the most important holy days, and this value is of paramount importance in Judaism.
Agnon understood this ethos when he wrote the “Passover Celebrants” story and so too should we remember to include the stranger in our world at our table whether we observe Passover, Easter or any sacred occasion.
Religion should not leave people out in the cold. Everyone wants to feel needed at the same time that they are in need, and hungry for that inclusion.
By being proactive, one never knows, as Agnon’s story describes, the potential for creating new relationships that are sacred and meaningful in our lives. Isn’t that also part of doing God’s work? Don’t we all matter? Are we not supposed to imitate God’s ways in our own lives?
I wish the Christian community a spiritually uplifting Easter, and to the Jewish community I wish a hag sameah, a happy holiday for Passover.