At the first Passover, we marked our doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb to protect us from the Angel of Death (Exodus 12:23). Although that was a one-time ritual, doors continue to be a central symbol of the holiday. It is a symbol that seems more relevant than ever in an age when nativism and xenophobia clash with timeless Jewish values of loving and welcoming the stranger.
We begin the Passover Seder by issuing an invitation to the hungry and needy to join us in the bounty of the holiday, modeling ourselves on the actions of Rav Huna (Talmud Bavli, Taanit 20b), who opened his doors at every meal and called, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.” Near the end of the Seder we open our doors again for Elijah the Prophet, harbinger of salvation. Traditionally this is coupled with recitation of biblical verses invoking God’s anger upon those who oppressed and tormented our people at our time of vulnerability. Even when the present is filled with danger and oppression, we maintain our hope and faith, striving for a better future, as symbolized by Elijah and the vision of “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Subtle echoes of opening ripple throughout the Seder, such as the injunction to “open” (at patach lo) for the midrashic “fourth child” who doesn’t know how to ask a question, and the praise psalm of Hallel calling on God to open the gates of righteousness for us (Psalms 118:19). We can almost hear the hinges creaking as we take in the message to open doors for others by teaching and seeking justice in our world.
The Hebrew letter dalet was originally a pictograph of a door, a delet. It is equal in gematria (Hebrew numerology) to the number four, the pervasive number of the Seder (four cups, four questions, four children). Passover can help us open the doors of our hearts to new possibilities of understanding, belonging, and action.
The Seder recalls our own homelessness as wandering refugees from slavery in Egypt, and even further back, to our ancestor who was called “a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5). Throughout the centuries and especially during the Holocaust era, Jews have particularly known the pain of being unwanted refugees. We have literally been out-of-doors and shut out. This Passover, we can be moved to do better for today’s refugees.
Today there are 65 million refugees in the world, a number unparalleled since the aftermath of WWII. Both the United States and Israel are nations of immigrants and refugees. But recent trends are troubling. The current U.S. Administration, known for anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, aims to cap legal refugees admitted to the US at the lowest number in decades. Meanwhile the Israeli government has caused controversy by moving to expel some 38,000 refugees. Both actions stand in contrast to Passover’s message of welcome, compassion, and freedom.
My own community in Westchester County, New York is helping to welcome our second refugee family by supporting a local group: PART One, the Pleasantville-Armonk Refugee Task Force. PART One began when a group of neighbors found themselves in attendance at a local pro-immigration rally. They formed the group and brought in their congregations, Pleasantville Community Synagogue and Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, to provide volunteers and because they discovered that their activism was significantly driven by their own Jewish identities. In Westchester there are now ten groups active in resettlement, and most are affiliated with synagogues! HIAS, a Jewish organization that works for immigrants and refugees, has inspired many of us to get involved.
The famous poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door,” is by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus. My colleague Rabbi Mona Alfi recently led her congregation, B’nai Israel in Sacramento, in joining the Golden Doors Campaign, painting the doors of their synagogue gold as a symbol of welcome to immigrants and refugees. Where once long ago we painted our doors with lamb’s blood to protect us from the dangers outside, we can now (literally or figuratively) paint them gold to welcome others inside. May this Passover be a time when we open our hearts and our doors to those seeking refuge in our world today.
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D. is a rabbi, writer, and teacher of Jewish wisdom and spirituality as featured on her site: wellspringsofwisdom.com, a virtual retreat center focused on Jewish symbols from nature (Instagram: @wellsprings). She leads Pleasantville Community Synagogue in Westchester, New York, teaches Rabbinic Literature at the Academy for Jewish Religion and the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, and has just joined the newest cohort of Rabbis Without Borders.