A Synagogue Where We Take Off Our Shoes

Posted on June 1, 2018

One Sunday morning a children’s program leader noticed a little girl standing outside the room, looking in with great eagerness at the fun the other children were having. The leader went outside and invited the little girl inside. “They’ll all laugh at me.” “Why do you think that honey?” “Because I don’t have any shoes.” Heartbroken at this little girl’s poverty, and knowing that she really wanted to join in, the leader tried to convince the little girl that the other kids would not laugh at her. But despite his assurances the leader could not persuade the little girl to join in with the other kids. Another leader came over, one who seemed to have a great ability to relate and talk to the children. She took the little girl aside and spoke with her. This second leader then left the little girl and rejoined the group to lead the next activity. Before she started she said, “OK everyone, before we go any further I want you all to take your shoes and socks off and place them by the wall. For the rest of today we’re going to operate with barefeet.” The little girl who had no shoes beamed, ran over and joined in with the rest of the group.1 When I first read this story and got to the part about the second leader I was waiting for her to take off her shoes and give them to the girl so that she might feel comfortable joining the group. But what that leader did is a much better and more appropriate response. All too often in our world when we try to be inclusive we expect the person outside the group to make a change so that they might be accepted; rather than changing the way we behave to provide a more open and welcoming environment where everyone feels included. In my early twenties as I reflected on the type of Jewish life that I wanted to live what became clear to me was that at the core of the Judaism that I want to practice there must be an egalitarian spirit that ensures everything which is open and available to me is equally open and available to 1 https://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/inclusion/ 2 everyone else regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other defining characteristic. This was one of the primary reasons why Reform Judaism ultimately proved to be so appealing as a way to express my Jewish identity. It offered that inclusive approach and ensured that everyone would be welcomed as an equal. I’m sure we’ve all heard people talking about the Jewish holidays arriving early or late in the calendar. The truth is that they always arrive at the right time, but it can seem early or late depending on when they fall in our secular calendars. This year Pesach-Passover beginning in March felt early, and we Jewish professionals are well aware that the High Holy Days will be early this year, with exactly 100 days until Rosh Hashanah, not that anyone is counting or panicking. One year I remember that Pesach was falling about a week or so before April 15th and Tax Day. That being busy season for accountants it was causing some problems in various Jewish households. I spoke with one family, who shared with me that despite Pesach beginning on a weeknight they would have to wait until the weekend for their Seder as that was the only time when all of the family, including the accountants, could be together to celebrate the holiday. At first glance we might think that this is very nontraditional way of responding to the challenges of our time; but actually, when we read a little bit closer in this week’s Torah portion we can see that there is an important precedent for delaying the festival of Passover. God is speaking to Moses and tells him to tell the Israelites that “when any of you or your descendants are defiled by a corpse or on a long journey when you come to the time of offering the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, they shall then offer in the second month, on the 14th day of the month at twilight.” The Passover sacrifice was supposed to be in the first month, but the Torah sets up the idea that if you’re unable to celebrate at the correct time then there’s an opportunity for a do-over exactly one month later. To this day on the Jewish calendar you will find Pesach Sheni – the second Passover, offering a chance to belatedly celebrate the festival exactly one month after it was supposed to be observed. While the perception is often that the Torah and Jewish law are strict and arduous, this instruction provides a clear indication of how Judaism tries to respond to the needs of the time and ensure everyone is included. In the days of the Torah delaying Passover may have come about due to long journeys or contact with dead bodies – today, perhaps someone overwhelmed 3 by the burdens and stresses of tax season may be our modern equivalent of the person needing to wait an additional month. This text reminds us of the importance of ensuring that everyone is included and involved in the celebration of Pesach. The importance of Pesach is stressed just a few verses later where we read that if a person is clean and not on a journey and refrains from offering the Passover sacrifice then that person shall be cut off from their kin. One of the ultimate punishments that the Torah has. The Torah’s inclusivity is extended even further because it is not just the Jews who are expected to bring the Passover sacrifice, but also the stranger who is included equally alongside them. This second celebration is a reminder of our responsibility to always be searching for ways to include rather than exclude people from the Jewish community. In this way we need to find ways to be flexible around the pressures and challenges of our modern world so that we ensure people are always made to feel welcome. We know in our families that if someone is missing from a family occasion then we feel their absence and it impacts our ability to celebrate. In a similar way we as a Jewish people and community feel the absence of even one person being absent from our communal Passover celebrations. When I joined Temple Shir Tikva 11 months ago to the day, I knew that I was joining a community that sought to welcome and bring people in. The presence of a Board Member with the specific task of Inclusion is a testament to the work that has been done to make sure that everyone is made to feel at home. We have received funding this year from the Ruderman Foundation and CJP to continue this important work of inclusion and we should also celebrate our Board’s decision last month to approve the officiation of Temple Shir Tikva’s clergy at interfaith marriages. Welcoming those of different religious traditions into our community is one of the ways that we can really judge the inclusivity of our congregation. And how could we maintain a position that said we welcome you and we want you and your children to be members here, but only on the day after you are married. I am so pleased that we have made this statement and step towards greater inclusivity for our community and I am sure it is one that will be good not just for us but for the Jewish community as a whole. 4 All too often in our society and the world we exclude people rather than include, we push away rather than bring together and we fail to find ways to engage everyone with our traditions and community. The idea of having a second Pesach serves as a reminder that everyone being included is more important than celebrating the festival on the specific day in our Jewish calendar. As we approach our Judaism today, our commitment at Shir Tikva is to always seek ways to include, to prioritize welcoming others and to make sure that no-one is excluded from feeling a part of this community. We are a synagogue that will always be willing to take off our shoes so that the person who is barefoot feels able to step into the circle. Shabbat Shalom