People really responded to this question. Over the last year, I have had countless conversations with people who wanted to use this image to talk about the people in their lives. Many seem to draw comfort from the image of all the people they love, sitting together again around a table.
But others say that the question is a very painful one that has led them to think, in wrenching ways, about their feelings and their relationships.
The question makes them wonder:
Who am I?
What tables do I have a seat at?
Where do I belong?
Where do I really fit in?
Where am I really wanted and appreciated?
Not “Where’s Waldo?”
What is my place?
I want to talk today about the idea of having a place in the world, how important it is to feel that you belong somewhere, but also to show how there is a downside to pushing too hard to find that place.
Stay with my image of sitting at a table. This is not just a metaphor; it is a vital reality in our lives. There is a lot of research to show that the child who grows up having dinner with his or her family every night is more likely to succeed. The experts are all in agreement that nothing fosters a sense of belonging, love and self-esteem like family communication. Kids who eat dinner with their families at least five times per week are the least likely to take drugs, feel depressed or get into trouble with the law. The experts say that dinnertime is of more value to child development than school.
To this research, I want to add:
If you know that you belong to your family and this is reinforced every day by sitting at the family table, you know who you are.
You are part of a group.
You have a place in the world.
Where we sit is not a trivial thing in our lives.
You always sat in the same chair in every classroom. You felt comfortable in that seat.
Blindfolded, I could tell you where everyone is sitting in this sanctuary because you always sit in the same seats. This is also true at Shabbos services, and if you sit in the wrong seat at a daily minyan, forget about it.
Why are we like this? We crave being comfort-able, and we are able to find comfort in a set place that is ours.
One woman said to me, “I couldn’t stand my husband. The whole marriage was a terrible mistake. But I do miss one thing: I always had some place to sit in every situation. Now I don’t know where to sit.”
What is the Biblical vision of the Messianic age, of a perfect future? That every person will have his own vine and his own fig tree and no one will make him afraid. Each person will have his or her own place in the world and will live there in peace, prosperity and security. That is the human dream that the Jewish people has given the world.
It sounds so basic: Every person should have a place in the world. That’s the big dream? Yes, because so many of us never have it, or have it and lose it, and are left to feel that we do not have a place where we truly belong.
Some of us are blessed and lucky; we know where we fit in. We had parents who loved us and siblings we stayed close to and we created our own families and we did just fine. And even when someone in the family died, the table in our minds stayed the same, and we were sad but still secure that we belonged.
But some of us are not so blessed and lucky.
We did not have two parents who loved us
and we became estranged from our siblings
and we tried to create our own families but our marriages ended or death took a precious loved one and somehow now …
we don’t fit in, we don’t have a vine or a fig tree and we are very afraid.
We’re so scared.
We never tell anyone how scared we are, but we have lots of fears. And one of our fears is that we do not or will not have a place in the world.
And so we strive, mightily, to make a place for ourselves. We try to convince ourselves that we have found our place in the world.
And there’s the downside, because the scramble to find a place, when it turns negative, becomes what we often call turf.
Think about the game we call Musical Chairs. We want to have a seat at the table. “I get that chair, not you, and I will push you to the floor if I have to but that chair is mine.”
That terrible boss is a human being trying to convince himself that he has a place in the world. Maybe he’s just a mean guy who is using his power as an excuse. But maybe he’s an insecure, scared human being and he’s saying, “I am important.”
Until recently, I never understood the term ‘overqualified.’ I figured, if you have qualifications that are superior to the job requirements, and you want it, why doesn’t that make you a catch for the job? Then I realized: If your boss hires you for the job, he’s scared that you’ll be after his job.
He wants to think that he has a seat at the table, that one of the chairs has his name on it, but he’s scared because he knows that he’s a fake, that he barely knows what he’s doing, that he doesn’t really do his job well at all.
He’s trying to convince himself that he’s a somebody; that he has a place, and he’s scared you’re going to see through him. He wakes up in the morning and he is Assistant General Manager or Vice President for Internal Consumption or Chief Executive Bottle-Washer. This position is his chair, his turf.
It makes him feel like he is someone.
I am not excusing anything, this is all terrible, but it explains a lot.
Underneath, we are all so scared that we’re unimportant.
We have a chair that we hold on to with all our might and all our fear because we’re scared that when the music stops, we will have nothing and no one.
It is one of the reasons why we act the way we do in our jobs.
This pounding need to have a place also affects how some of us act in community life. Jewish communities have so many problems these days, in an economy with fewer resources, but then we make it all worse by the way we fight with each other. I’m thinking about fights in the New Haven Jewish community and in other places across the country and the fights are not about principles and not about philosophy.
We see people fighting with each other over control and turf and position and power.
Here we are trying to do the good work that a Jewish community should do: help the poor, teach the children, program for the aged, and instead we use our energy to fight with each other over who gets the chair.
The Jewish community needs to be reaching out to all those who are unconnected to anything Jewish and we’re worried about who gets a seat at the table of power?
That’s not the table we need to worry about.
I can't stop people from fighting over turf in the workplace; I wish I could.
I can't change all the messes that we needlessly create in our community life; I wish I could.
But I have a modest proposal to put before you today, a modest but I hope symbolically important proposal.
I want to come back to the table in your head. There are a few times a year when having a place at a table really matters. There are points on the High Holidays, there’s Thanksgiving, and there are the Pesach Seders.
Picture the Seder. It is the essence of family. Picture the traditional painting. Bearded Father/Patriarch at the head of the table. Everyone reading and singing from the Haggadah. Long night; children falling asleep after feeding their horseradish to the dog under the table.
How many people converted to Judaism because of that scene, saying that the Seder crystallized everything they loved about Judaism: family, freedom, values, equality, a G-d who cares about everyone, especially the poor and the oppressed?
There are people here who have two Seders every year with some version of that traditional picture. It might mean travel and effort but people go to great lengths to be together on Pesach.
You know the story. Hymie calls each of the kids, “After 52 years of marriage, your mother and I are getting divorced!” The kids all shout into the phone, “Don’t do anything sudden! We’re all coming in for the Seder and we’ll have a family meeting and we’ll work it out! Don’t do anything legal!”
And Hymie hangs up the phone and rolls over to Sadie and says, “It’s all good, honey. But I don’t know how we’re going to get them to come next Pesach.”
What makes this Jewish Joke #49 is that the parents will do anything to have their kids around them at the Seder. And the family is so far-flung and disconnected that they have to go to great lengths to get everyone together.
If you have two traditional Seders with your family and friends, bless you. May you continue to have Seders with your family until you're all 120 and after that may your family go on for centuries doing Sedarim together.
But let's tell the truth. Many of us do not have two Seders like this, and many of us do not have one Seder. And on Pesach, some of us sit at a table with our faces smiling and our hearts broken.
Today, Jewish families have changed. If the traditional Jewish family was a Jewish man and a Jewish woman in their first marriage with their children around them… that age-old scene now only represents 5% of the Jewish homes in America. 5%.
There are lots of reasons and they come down to the fact that we live in a new age and a different kind of society, and some of this is for the better.
So now on Pesach, for so many reasons, it’s hard to create the traditional scene.
And sometimes, it feels bad, because we want that picture of the happy family, sitting around the table.
It’s an important picture for us.
A few times a year, at least, we want to see and feel that we belong.
We want to feel like we have a place at the table.
We want to have a chair with our name on it.
But fewer people have traditional families and traditional Seders and it can feel really bad.
Judaism has always adapted to new circumstances, and we need to keep adapting.
So here’s my very modest proposal.
This year, at Temple Beth Sholom, on the Second Night of Pesach, March 27, 2013, we will have a Community Seder.
There will be no charge.
It will be free
Last year, there were about forty people who came to the Community Seder at another shul in New Haven and half of those people were related to the rabbi and so they had to be there. That means that only around twenty people in the whole area came to the Community Seder to fill that need. And the rabbi and others told me that they knew that if the Seder had not cost 50 dollars a plate, there would have been many people who would have come.
Everything in this world costs money.
Participation in Jewish community life can be financially demanding. There are dues and tickets and pledges and these are all necessary. Many stay away because they think it costs money to be Jewish and they can’t make ends meet as it is. They don’t know about synagogues like this one where we do everything we can to include everyone who will just talk to us about their resources and their needs.
I make no apologies because our Shul works very hard every year to make sure that everyone who communicates with us can be part of us. Yes, there are people who play games, shameful games of cheating our Jewish shuls and schools, but most people are honest and try their best.
Money makes things hard. And for some people this can all be embarrassing and sometimes humiliating.
So even now, maybe especially now, when the economy is hurting Judaism like never before,
We need to tell every Jewish person that he or she has a place in our community.
And we need to send out a clear message that every Jewish person has a place at our table.
On this one night of Pesach, let’s take all the pressure away.
Let there be one night when money is not an issue
Let all who would like to, come and participate in a real Seder.
Now a lot of you with logistical minds are already asking:
How can we do this?
I’ll tell you right now.
We estimate that we can provide a traditional Seder for less than 20 dollars a person.
First, no caterer: We will do the cooking here ourselves. The week before Pesach we will have different committees making everything. We will have what I like to call, “a night of a thousand matzoh balls,” that’s Knaidlach night;
there will be Chicken night, etc. We will have a matzah chairman who will tell everyone how they can get free or inexpensive matzah to drop off at the shul.
And yes, thank you, we will accept sponsors. Several people have already stepped forward to help. One said, “I’ll pay for my family and five others.”
The Haggadah says: Let all who are hungry come and eat. Kol Deechfeen yaytay veyaychol
Speaking of the Haggadah,
The Haggadah, the book that constitutes the service at the Seder, is falling by the way side
Some people say,
A woman calls me up. “Rabbi, wait till you hear about my Seder this year. 28 people. Seven courses,
A 30-pound turkey
Seven kinds of cake
And I say, “That’s great. Do you need any extra Haggadahs?
And she says, “Haggadahs? Oh Rabbi, we don’t want to make a big tzimmes!”
So let me remind you that there is no Seder without the Haggadah. Haggadah means “The Telling,” the telling of the story of freedom and care for the oppressed.
And so we will have a Haggadah, an appropriate booklet for this night, produced by the Haggadah committee. And we will celebrate Pesach as it should be observed.
One night, let everyone be a part of things
So that they can see that not just on this one night
But every night and every day of every year
They have a place here.
This is not a club but a place for everyone to belong
Now, very practically, we need to know if you want to come
And we want to make sure that if you want to come there will be a place for you
So after Rosh Hashanah, please let me know.
Listen: Finding your place in the world is really hard. Some work so hard at it that they turn their places into turf and they are mean to the people around them.
There should be one place where you know you belong, no matter what else happens in your life.
This shul is a table, and you have a seat, no matter what.
This sermon is not just about a Seder; it’s about a vision of a synagogue.
The Seder I’m talking about is a symbol of the table that I want you to have in your head all year long.
There is a chair here with your name on it and there always will be.
When you walk down a street in Israel and you ask someone how things are going, they reply, “Hakol b’seder - Everything’s in order, everything’s okay.”
On this Rosh Hashanah, I hope that everything in your life is okay; I hope that everything is in order. And if it isn’t, I pray it will be soon.
And this Pesach, we will say hakol b’seder –
All are at the Seder
We cherish everyone who is here, no matter what they have or don’t have
No matter who they have or don’t have
And we will look around and say,
“The Jewish community is not wracked by egotistical or ideological divisiveness;
the Jewish community is united and strong.”
Then we will know that hakol b’seder,
Everything’s okay and everything’s in order.
We will sit at the table,
And look around and say,
This is my place in the world.
This is where I belong.