By Rabbi Ari Hart, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Emor (Leviticus 21:1−24:23)
If you had to distill the holiness of a Jewish holiday meal into one symbol, what would it be?
Would it be the freshly baked challah? Bubbie’s china? The special bottle of scotch?
This week we read Parshat Emor. A large chunk of the portion lists and explains the days and rituals of the Yom Tovim we continue to celebrate thousands of years later: Shabbat, Pesach, Shavout, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
These holidays make the fabric of our religious lives. Each has its own unique preparations, physical and spiritual. Each has its unique rituals, stories, and meanings. Each brings families and communities together in different, beautiful ways. However, there is one aspect that unites them all, that elevates these days from just a nice meal with family and friends. What is the unifying symbol that ties them all together?
Maimonides in Hilchot Yom Tov (The Laws of Holidays) 6:18 writes: “While celebrating a holiday, when a person eats and drinks, they are obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 16:11). But someone who locks the doors of their house, eating and drinking with their children and spouse [alone], and doesn’t provide food or drink to the poor and downtrodden, is not participating in the joy of [G-d’s] commandments. Rather he participates in the joy of the gut, and about them it says, their sacrifices are like bread for the dead; all who eat of them will become impure, for their bread is for themselves…”
The Rambam is unequivocal – any holiday celebrated without including the poor and vulnerable is just hosting another dinner party. There is nothing wrong with a dinner party, but that’s emphatically not what the holidays listed in Emor are.
Thus, I would argue that the symbol of a holy feast is not the nicest sukkah, the biggest spread of food, the most delectable cheesecake. The symbol of a holy, Jewish holiday feast is the open door.
At the beginning of the Pesach seder, we open our doors and proclaim “Kol difchin yetei veyichol, ditzrich yetei veyifsach! – Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are in need come celebrate Pesach!” In previous eras, this was a literal invitation; the hungry were in the streets and within earshot. Hearing this invitation they would come and join. Today, there may not be hungry people in earshot of our front doors to invite to join us as we begin our Pesach seders. However, this spirit, for Pesach and each and every Jewish holiday, mustn’t be forgotten. This is something that is all too easy to forget, especially in our atomized, virtually hyper-connected but in reality dis-connected world.
Each of us can take the Rambam’s message into our own lives. Invite someone beyond your normal network of family and friends to the next holiday meal. Invite someone who may have suffered a loss recently, someone who has felt at the margins of the community, someone who might not celebrate the holiday meal otherwise. This move can happen beyond ones home as well. One can also support others in creating their own celebratory meals on through initiatives like Maot Chitim.
For Passover at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, we host an Open Seder. There is no cost, no reservation required. All who wish can join. This past Pesach I was so uplifted to look around the room and see 75 different people, some members, some from miles away, some celebrating their 80th Pesach seder, some experiencing it for the first time, all joined in food, song, and celebration at one giant table.
As we read Parashat Emor, and we anxiously count the days between two of our major chagim, Pesach and Shavuot, let us recommit this vision of Jewish holidays. As we approach Shavuot, and all the holidays thereafter, may we open the doors, literally and figuratively, to our homes, our shuls, our community, thereby transcending a holiday meal into a meal that creates a Holy Day.
Rabbi Ari Hart is rabbi at Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob Synagogue.