Passover shouldn’t be celebrated alone

This year, there will be thousands of extra chairs at Chabad Seders around the world and at the 50 centers here in Illinois. They will be filled in solidarity with Ukraine’s Jews, many of whom will not be able to attend a Seder themselves.

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Sergy, who did not want to use last name, carries the Torah during a prayer service at the Beis Aharon V’Yisrael Synagogue on April 11, 2022 in Lviv, Ukraine. The Jewish community in Ukraine is preparing to celebrate the upcoming Passover holiday even as the war with Russia

A man carries the Torah during a prayer service at the Beis Aharon V’Yisrael Synagogue on April 11, in Lviv, Ukraine. Ukrainian Jews are preparing to celebrate Passover despite the ongoing war with Russia

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

For thousands of years, the Jewish people have celebrated the holiday of Passover with a special ceremonial meal, called the Seder. It commemorates our redemption from slavery at the hands of the ancient Egyptians, and it is full of rituals and symbolism to help us feel the power of that freedom today. It is a religious and historical event, filled with meaning — and it’s designed to be done together with others.

Written into the opening lines of the Seder text — called the Haggadah — is an Aramaic invitation with the words, “Kol dichfin yeisei vi’yeichal,” meaning, “Whoever is hungry, come eat with us!” Welcoming those in need to share our feast is not optional; it’s baked into the ceremony.

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To be clear, we haven’t waited until now to invite guests. Everyone who has the ability to provide for another has already reached out to those less fortunate in the days and weeks preceding the festival. Even on the very night of the holiday, tradition dictates that the more well-to-do members of the community linger in the synagogue to ensure that every last person has a Seder to attend. It is, in fact, a religious obligation to raise funds before the holiday to cover the expenses of those in need.

Nevertheless, the Seder’s liturgy still requires that once again we extend an invitation. “Whoever is hungry, come and eat. Whoever is needy, come join our Seder.” We cannot begin our festival feast until we formally announce we are here for each other, that we are united. These are the opening words of the Seder because they express what Passover truly represents.

Historically, the Jewish people have been persecuted in country after country for millennia. There is hardly a land where Jews have not been tortured, persecuted and expelled from. Yet through it all, we survived, because we remained united. We may live far from each other, speak different languages, wear different clothes — but we still share one heart and one soul. This unity has kept us going through every possible abuse, and so caring for one another is hard-wired in our DNA.

In 1965, a campaign called “The Empty Chair” was launched. The Jewish Federations of North America asked people to leave an empty chair at their Seder table in solidarity with our brethren trapped behind the Iron Curtain of Soviet Russia — an attempt at displaying Jewish unity.

When the idea was presented to the Rebbe — Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory — for his approval and endorsement, he responded, “Certainly, we should add an extra chair to the Seder table. But don’t leave it empty! Fill it with a Jew who wouldn’t join a Seder otherwise!”

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The celebration of Passover, of freedom, is incomplete if not all are free. At the Rebbe’s behest and direction, Chabad has made it its mission to bring this freedom to every single Jew, so they can experience redemption firsthand. Chabad does this by giving out hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Shmurah Matzahs; by providing educational opportunities as well as literature explaining and expounding on the significance of the holiday; and of course, by hosting Passover Seders open to the public.

This year, there will be thousands of extra chairs at Chabad Seders around the world and at the 50 centers here in Illinois. They will be filled in solidarity with Ukraine’s Jews, many of whom will not be able to attend a Seder themselves. And we will share Ukrainian-made handmade matzah with the attendees. Although all seems dark for those who have lost their homes, who have had to leave their lives behind, we can be a light of freedom for them. We can show our solidarity with them at our own Seders, and we can do whatever we can to ease their burden.

This year marks the 120th birthday of the Rebbe. The Rebbe often said if one truly wishes to give him a gift for his birthday, it should be an increase in acts of goodness and kindness. As we prepare to invite “all who are hungry” to our Seders, let us remember his call to honor the past by caring for those in need today.

Rabbi Meir Moscowitz is the regional director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Illinois, a network of Jewish institutions that offers educational, religious and social services to the Illinois Jewish community.

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