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The Orange in the White House – Pesach 5776

Through the inundation of the presidential campaign, the established stalwarts of our calendar remind us of the bigger and larger cycles of our lives. In Jewish households, Passover is one of the most significant of these points in the mandala of time. Looking through the lens of our impending Seder(s) anticipating an historic outcome in this presidential election season … I see orange.

It was my first Passover Seder at Temple Micah. The tables were set with all the ancient symbols of our tradition that help us to celebrate freedom and its promise: among them matzah, a hard boiled egg, a shank bone, bitter herbs. Sitting rather conspicuously among these familiar elements was a large, round orange! There certainly were not citrus fruits in the bundles carried by our ancient ancestors as they left Egypt … and I had never seen an orange on the Seder plate in my grandparents’ home (my template for the Passover ritual). So, I asked the question of my new community members: What was an orange doing on the Seder plate?

The orange, I learned that evening, sat on the Seder plate to remind us of the historical exclusion (and more recent inclusion) of women into Jewish leadership and practice. It was not the most elegant or logical symbol. Apparently, the choice of an orange derived from an urban legend of some traditional rabbi uttering something to the effect of: A woman has as much business being a rabbi, as an orange belongs on the Seder plate!

While I did not fall in love with the symbol itself, the idea of it and the fact that someone chose to put it there reflects a couple of essential aspects of Judaism. The first of these elements is that Judaism is a living, breathing entity. It is changing and evolving and not static. While the rituals we do today have roots in tradition and can be traced back through time, they simultaneously integrate meaningful and relevant insights from our contemporary world. This openness to change suggests a willingness to continually examine what is just and fair. At our best we in engage in this process of examination through the lens of our core values and truths. It is one of these truths that lies at the heart of the orange’s journey to the Seder plate.

From the very beginning of our Jewish story we are challenged to remember and respect those individuals who have the potential to get caught on the fringes of society. The Torah accounts numerous times that the Israelites need to care for ‘the orphan, the widow and the stranger’, all individuals who tended to get lost in Biblical society. While these specific designations certainly fit the Biblical world, they also speak literally and figuratively to us and our world. The Biblical author did not possess the world view needed to acknowledge, for example, the exclusion of women. However, the Biblical author did understand the essence of compassion, mercy and justice and challenged the audience keep those values as at the forefronts of their hearts and minds. Through the eyes of his time and the lens of these values, he named ‘the widow, the orphan and the stranger’ as those needing our attention. Today, we Jews take the same lens and have the same obligation to name those in need of our attention. Whether those in need be widows, orphans and strangers … or women, immigrants or Palestinians.

While, I still do not love the orange, itself, on the plate … I am thankful for the opportunities that we have to see our world through the lens of these values that I still believe hold true today. I relish those ways in which Jews thoughtfully update our tradition to address the needs and realities of our contemporary lives. I look forward to the ways that we creatively integrate these new perspectives into our rituals and traditions … even if they are oranges on Seder plates.

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