This sermon was originally delivered at our Friday Night Shabbat service on April 12th. You can watch it now on Mishkan’s YouTube channel.

It has been my dream to host a Learner’s Seder: a safe and supportive learning environment to experience the rituals of Passover, with great food and good company, designed for those who are celebrating this holiday for the first or second time. Two years ago – for our inaugural attempt – my mom and I schlepped homemade chili for thirty people in the back of an Uber and then flipped the Mishkan HQ to accommodate our Intro to Judaism students and their loved ones. Last year, the event was staffed and catered (thank you, Mishkan staff!). And this year, we are moving to a larger space and expanding the Learner’s Seder to include current students, alumni of the program, and anyone who needs a spot at the table (if that’s you: we still have some spaces left, sign up online). We are also putting together our own haggadah, stripping back the text to its essential elements to make sure the holiday is accessible for everyone – no prior experience necessary.

As a result I have been spending a lot of time with the haggadah, the text that guides us through the seder so that at the end of the evening we can declare that everything has been done k’hilkhato, k’khol mishpato, v’hukato – according to its laws, all of its statues, and its customs. And I have to say, folks, Passover is a strange holiday. Truly, it is. I can find analogues between the rest of our holidays and those celebrated in other religious communities. Lighting candles for Hanukkah? Diwali. Dressing up and debauchery for Purim? Mardis Gras. Fasting for Yom Kippur? Ramadan. Only attending synagogue once a year for the Rosh HaShanah? Easter. But sitting down for a meal that begins with parsley in salt water and ends with a mouthful of matzah, that includes raising a toast to (and opening the door for) the ghost of Elijah, that repeatedly punctuates the evening with the question: what in the world does all of this mean? The Passover seder is our most observed, and most idiosyncratic, tradition.

The point of all this (and an answer to the question: what in the world does all of this mean) is to get us to to tell the story of Passover: how our ancestors journeyed down to Egypt, became enslaved under an oppressive regime, toiled for four hundred years, and then were miraculously liberated from bondage – leaving in such a hurry that they didn’t even have time to let their bread dough rise. And not just remember the story, but relive it. The historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi argued that the seder is not intended to be a pantomime, but the collapsing of the past into the present. He writes, “Memory here is no longer recollection, which still preserves a sense of distance, but re-actualization.” When we open the haggadah and read “It is for this that God brought me out of Egypt,” we are supposed to mean it.

We are asked to own this story because it is our story. But we are also asked to own this story because it is the one we have needed to hear in every generation, including this one.

For in the end, the Passover story is about the impossible becoming possible. It is a reminder that the world as it is now – as intractable as it may seem – does not need to be the world as it is tomorrow. The key is to believe (after all, there can be miracles if you believe), not as an act of naïveté but a posture of resilience, courage, and vision. There is a reason that leaders of other marginalized communities have drawn from our story to inspire movements for social change. The tale of an enslaved people becoming free, despite the many obstacles set against them, shows that there can be a path forward if you just have the audacity to see it – even if it is one that has never been walked before.

Of course, the haggadah presents a simplified version of this story. We are enslaved. We cry out to God. Moses appears. Burning bush. Let my people go! Ten plagues and, boom, we are free. But reality was much messier. Moses had to work hard not only to convince Pharaoh of his vision for a better future, but even the Israelites – the ones in slavery, the ones who yearned most for change.

When Moses initially meets with Pharaoh to demand our freedom, the latter responds by increasing our workload: instead of giving us the straw needed to make bricks, we would now have to gather our own. Unable to produce the same amount of bricks in the same amount of time, our foremen are beaten. They entreat Pharaoh, who refuses to change his conditions. On their way back to the other Israelites, they encounter Moses and his brother Aaron. “Yeire Adonai aleikhem v’yishpot, they say, “May God bear witness and punish you, for you’ve handed Pharaoh and his advisors the sword by which they mean to kill us.”

During the seder, we read about four children: one wise, one wicked, one simple, and one who is silent. The foremen are the wicked children, the ones who ask the provocative questions that many of us are thinking but are perhaps too polite or too afraid to ask. See what you’ve done, they say, you’ve made things worse. What’s all this to you, Moses – protected by your status as a former prince of Egypt? You’ve never been a slave. What do you know? What makes you think that things are going to change? And these aren’t bad questions. The Israelites have been slaves for four hundred years, and in those four hundred years it is unlikely that Moses was the first person to dream of freedom. Yet, still bearing the shackles of slavery, the foremen know that dreams are not the same as the real world.

So how could they listen to this wise child, this know-it-all who had the privilege of encountering the Creator of All Things in a burning bush. There were other wise children in this story too, people who had the hope and imagination to envision something bigger than the narrow view in front of them: the midwives who saved Israelite children from Pharaoh’s murderous edit; Yocheved, Moses’ birth mother, who secreted him away with the dream that there was a better future for him; Bat Pharaoh, Moses’ adoptive mother, who saw a child in need where others might have seen a stranger of no concern to them; and Miriam, a prophet in her own right, who – alongside her brothers – will help lead our people to freedom. (Note that these are all women).

Then there are the simple children, the ones who ask: What are you even talking about? Slavery is all I know. Slavery is all my parents knew. Slavery is all my grandparents knew. The memory of freedom has faded into history, a myth as distant as it is unattainable.

And of course, there are those who continue to labor away in silence. Broken by loss. Bent by hopelessness. There are bricks to make and we are just trying to get through one more day.

Yet just as we are told that all four children are sitting at the seder table, so too are each of these people part of the journey out of Egypt. For in the end, we leave together as an erev rav – a mixed multitude: the wicked, the wise, the simple, and the silent. The hopeful and the disbelieving. The faithful and the naysayers. All ages, all gender expressions, all abilities. And also slaves from other tribes, and Egyptians who had been crushed under the heel of the same exploitative systems, and perhaps even some of the privileged class who no longer wanted to participate in a society that treated human lives as disposable. I wonder if the Israelites saw the people who walked out of Egypt with them as strangers or if they saw them as one of their own. Regardless, they walk together and, at the foot of Mount Sinai, become a single people of common cause and shared purpose.

This year, as we gather around the table, we might find that a different four children are attending our seder. Maybe it’s a Zionist, an anti-Zionist, the one who just wants everyone to get along, and the one who doesn’t want to talk about it (because, for the love of God, it seems like it’s the only thing rabbis give sermons about now and even they’re tired of it). It’s the aunt who donates to AIPAC sitting next to the cousin who protests with If Not Now. It’s the sibling who volunteers with the Friends of the IDF breaking matzah with the friend who supports the American Friends of Combatants for Peace. Or maybe the ideological differences are smaller, but in their proximity no less painful. With this to look forward to, coming together for Passover becomes a daunting proposition. It might be the fear of a knock-down-drag-out fight. Or maybe it’s just wanting to avoid the awkward tension, a sense of disagreement or distance even if it remains unspoken.

I want to give a shout out to Mishkanite Aliza Becker who wrote some helpful tips on how to navigate these conversations (or make an intentional choice to not have these conversations) at the table. You can find her article online, on our Passover resource page. She outlines skills that I believe are not only essential for navigating our s’darim, but moving forward through the months ahead: entering dialogue with an open heart and mind, showing respect and empathy for everyone, demonstrating a spirit of curiosity, encouraging everyone to participate so that we can hear each voice at the table, and – perhaps most importantly – understanding how our story calls us toward every place where there is still sorrow and suffering in the world.

But what I want to talk about now is why we’re even sitting at that table in the first place. Why show up for this singularly strange dinner party which, this year in particular, is shot through with anxiety?

I sincerely believe that just like the erev rav, the mixed multitude, of the Passover story, the people you will sit with at the seder – even with our sincerely held differences – have a shared vision: one of safety, of peace, a future where all people are able to live with dignity and freedom. I know this is true because I’ve spoken to so many of you, to people who are like and unlike each of those four children. And our collective hope (which is a very Jewish hope, by the way) draws from the same source: the memory of an enslaved people becoming free, the journey from oppression to liberation, the impossible becoming possible. The Passover story. Our story. This is why we need to tell (and retell) it. It is for this that God brought me and you and all of us out of Egypt. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Recollection is a holy act: we sanctify the present by remembering the past.” In recalling how we walked alongside each other then, we become more capable of doing so now.

Next Shabbat, the one preceding Passover, we read from the book of Malachi: “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the Day of God arrives, awesome and terrifying. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents.” More than a messianic hope for the end of times, the cup of wine and the open door we offer Elijah is a reminder that repair is possible – and just as our recollection of the past is for all of us, our tradition’s vision of the future includes each of us as well. The breakdown of relationships we are experiencing at this moment, whether at the seder table or in our communities or on our social media, is not irreparable nor does it mean we should give up on the project coming together. In fact, difference, debate, and distrust is part of the Passover story (see the infighting between Moses and the Israelites). And so is the moment we emerge on the other side of the Reed Sea, the road behind us littered with pain and loss. It was there, on the edge of the wilderness, that we chose to set aside what was pulling us apart, so that we had the capacity to hold each other – parent and child and neighbor and stranger. So that we could rest our heads on each other’s shoulders and cry. So that, unburdened, we could dance. So that we could open up our hearts and sing as one.

This year, I want you to leave space for Elijah at your seder. I want you to insist on using the biggest glass for his wine, to fill it to the brim. I want you to fling open that door, as far as it can go. To have a vision of a better future is the first step toward reaching it. When we believe in the impossible, it becomes possible.

Shabbat shalom and, if I don’t see you before Passover, hag Pesah sameah.