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Go ahead and debate the Middle East at your Passover Seder

Why is this holiday dinner different from all other holiday dinners?

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Millions of people around the world — including President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — will host Passover Seders on Friday and Saturday. But, as we ask traditionally in Hebrew on this holiday, “Mah nishtanah?”: Why will this year’s Seder be different from all others?

This year, we need our Seder ritual more than ever. This holiday season, far too many Jews are feeling disheartened and divided from their faith, their people and their homeland. But now isn’t the time to turn away from fundamental questions about the world around us — the Seder actually requires engaging with them. And this year, there’s no shortage of such questions.

Will an agreement with Iran bring security or increased danger to Israel, the Middle East and the rest of the world? Will ongoing political divisions — between Israel and the United States, Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Likud, AIPAC and J Street — signal an unraveling of the Jewish people? Will Israel turn from building more settlements to building the infrastructure for the peace she so desperately needs? Will the plagues of violence and war ever cease in favor of two states for two peoples, living side by side in security and peace? Will recent murderous attacks on Jews in a French kosher market and a Danish synagogue convince the world that antisemitic threats are real and deadly?

At Passover, we tell the quintessential narrative of liberation: from the bitterness of slavery to the promise of freedom. The dry, flat matzah we eat at Seder reminds us that we once knew firsthand the taste of poverty and oppression; the bitter herbs awaken spiritual empathy for those who suffer today. Indeed, the ancient story of the Jewish people illuminates important modern-day social justice issues: immigration, poverty, hunger, police brutality, reproductive freedom and more.

Our Seder ritual ends with the liturgical call: “Next year in Jerusalem.” These words remind us that our ancestors didn’t simply want to leave Egypt; rather, they yearned for a new home, a promised land. For thousands of years, this yearning kept a return to Israel within our spiritual sight.

But when our hearts turn toward modern-day Jerusalem, what do we see? Can we love Israel unconditionally, lauding the Jewish state’s many inspiring accomplishments while still critiquing its missteps?

Thousands of years ago, we left a totalitarian Egypt because we sought a land where human rights and tolerance were assured to all. Our Passover text includes a passage about five rabbis who celebrated the holiday together and believed the Seder was meant to awaken them to action for a better world. They were a diverse gathering: Rabbi Eliezer, a brilliant elder who held views all other sages rejected; Rabbi Joshua, a poor man whose understanding of salvation included righteous non-Jews; Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah, a young sage who challenged the elitism of his era’s academic hierarchy; Rabbi Akiba, the late-blooming scholar of means who called for the Bar Kochba armed revolt against Rome; Rabbi Tarfon, who was Rabbi Akiba’s friend but also his sparring partner over matters of law.

Are our own Passover gatherings as diverse as the rabbis’ table all those years ago? As the holiday of redemption and action approaches, we ask ourselves: Can we come together not just with those who think like we do, but also with those on the opposite side of political and ritual arguments? Can we anchor divisive debates on a deeper foundation of connectedness and mutual responsibility? Can we debate with passion, respect and even humility? Can we taste the sweetness of renewal and the possibility of reconnecting to the deepest ideals of our people: to shape a world of justice, compassion and wholeness?

Our Seder ritual this Passover should transform us, like the five rabbis of ancient times, so that we leave our tables ready to repair the brokenness of our world.

The Passover Seder traditionally begins with the invitation, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” We also invite to our table all those who are hungry for an enlightened faith — a faith that requires debate, dissent and spiritual empathy for the other, a faith that eschews self-righteous claims to exclusive, divine truth in favor of courageous acts against intolerance and bigotry.

The Seder concludes when the youngest guest opens the door for the prophet Elijah, signaling a time of redemption. This year, when faced with difficult questions, there are too many who might take their leave through that open door.

Waiting for redemption is not a winning strategy; rather, each of us must, through our acts of repair and conscience, bring that future time of peace closer. And if we make room for serious, respectful debates about the most challenging issues of our day — offering an authenticity that is too often missing in the interest of papering over differences rather than sorting them out — then the open door can instead serve as a portal to those who will find their way home.