OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

Passover 2024

The Passover seder and the plague of loneliness

Kindness is greater than charity; we must open our homes to those in need of connection.

MAKOM Communities hosts Passover seders for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Credit: JNF-USA.
MAKOM Communities hosts Passover seders for Ukrainian and Russian refugees. Credit: JNF-USA.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer
Rabbi Moshe Hauer
Rabbi Mosher Hauer is the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Jewish organizations in the United States.

Passover means a lot of things to a lot of people. It is the Jewish Thanksgiving, bringing together extended family for an unrivaled feast and lively discussion. It is a forum for sharing and discussing the Jewish narrative of past, present and future and an opportunity to retell a story that has shaped Western values of equality and freedom.

But beneath these more visible elements, the Passover seder represents a critical front in the struggle against loneliness.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called loneliness an “epidemic,” publishing a report aggregating studies that demonstrate the growing sense of loneliness plaguing society and its serious impact, and promoting a national strategy to address it. The report is both enlightening and instructive and should be required reading for Americans of all ages. Our nation faces a real problem with profound consequences. With more awareness, each of us can be moved to implement modest changes that positively impact our own lives, the lives of others and the health of our society.

We can use our Passover seder to both enhance that awareness and to begin to act upon it to create a more connected society, which the data shows is as important a public health measure as dealing with the risks of obesity and tobacco.

The Exodus narrative that has inspired generations of opposition to oppression also teaches us the modest and subtle art of everyday caring: “You shall show love to the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Well before we became Pharaoh’s slaves, we were Egypt’s outsiders.

Those fortunate enough to be free from persecution still need to be seen and supported. It was a frighteningly small step from our initial invisibility as strangers in Egypt to our eventual bondage and oppression. Connection breeds compassion while estrangement produces cruelty. The crushing pain of invisibility was a lesson we learned in Egypt well before Moses made his first appearance on the scene.

This is why the Passover Haggadah opens by proffering an invitation to anyone who is hungry or needs a place to celebrate the seder. But Jewish tradition has never limited the focus of its compassion to the poor. A Talmudic adage notes that kindness is greater than charity as it benefits even the wealthy. Most significantly, the ancient rabbis taught us that we are to make our homes into places where the downtrodden feel like members of the family.

Sadly, as trust is a critical component of socially connected communities, it has been one of the casualties of the epidemic of loneliness. So much so that inviting people into our homes and families is not included among the surgeon general’s recommendations. Yet each of us can make a specific and conscious effort to notice our safely familiar neighbors, colleagues and community members whom we can confidently and safely welcome into our lives. More of us opening our homes to others could go a long way towards combating loneliness and creating a more connected society.

There is nothing like family done right. We live within strong, secure, protective and unconditional relationships. The seder table—and the family dining-room tables of those of all faiths—represents the best of that. It is an environment for sharing the family narrative in which all engage with each other meaningfully. Parents invite their children’s curiosity and patiently respond to their questions according to the specific nature of each child.

Not everyone has the blessing of a supportive family to come home to. Many of our neighbors and community members are single, divorced or widowed. Some are orphaned and others childless. The fortunate ones have friends to share meals with, but even there they need to be “on” and may not feel entirely at home. Many faith communities have programs to match those able to host guests with those who would welcome an invitation. My personal experience over decades of congregational leadership is that—while these programs are valuable both to create a culture of kindness and to open the door to potential relationships—real connection comes from the caring individuals with eyes and hearts open to notice and feel the needs of others. Individuals who will step forward to welcome in others and make them part of their family.

What a gift it is both to them and to us when we provide that strong, secure, protective and unconditional environment to someone who does not have it elsewhere; when we make someone feel at home in our home; when we extend the boundaries of our family.

We must never forget that each of us is the solution to another’s loneliness. Look around you, notice those who need you, reach out and invite them in.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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