On the Wednesday before Passover, I called Father Mike, the pastor at the Catholic church in my community.
I began by wishing him and his community a happy Easter and he responded by offering his wishes for a happy Passover to our congregation and my family. With the celebration of Passover beginning on Friday night, I explained to Father Mike that I needed his help.
In accordance with the ancient story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt and the commandment, “Seven days shall you eat unleavened bread; even the first day you shall put away leaven out of your houses; for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel” (Exodus 12:15), I briefly walked Father Mike – more formally, the Rev. Michael J. Sheehan of St. Peter the Apostle in River Vale – through the process of cleaning the house before the holiday, thereby ensuring that no leavened products or crumbs remained inside my home. I then said that in accordance with rabbinic tradition, in order to observe the festival I needed, by way of a legal transaction, to sell my chametz to someone who is not Jewish. Such a sale of these leavened products would transfer their possession to another person for the duration of the festival. Anything that I (or rather my wife) had not cleaned, or any product that remained locked in a cupboard, would not be considered to be my own possession until after the conclusion of Passover.
Having enjoyed many conversations with Father Mike in the two years since I moved to the community, I was hopeful that he would accept my request and allow me to sell my chametz to him. Knowing that Friday was Good Friday, I figured that it was out of the question, so I asked Father Mike if he could spare a few minutes for me on Thursday night after dark. He chuckled and then politely explained that his community was having its Holy Thursday mass then, and he would be engaged in prayer all night long. He invited me to attend the mass, and at an appropriate point in the service, he would invite me to come forward to sell my chametz to him. Although initially I was excited by the idea, I hesitated, but with the assistance of a few colleagues, I decided to proceed and to enjoy what I thought might be a good teachable moment.
Over the years, I have been fortunate to attend mass with my Catholic friends, and I even had been present for interfaith events at this particular Catholic church. But I had never attended a mass on Holy Thursday. Until last Thursday evening, I had no reason to do so. And focused only on my need to sell my chametz, I underestimated the power, spirituality, symbolism, and holiness of the entire evening.
I arrived late – I took a little extra time to put my kids to bed – and chose to stand at the back. I was invited to sit toward the front but preferred the sweeping panoramic view of the full-to-overflowing church in front of me. Regularly officiating from our bimah and conducting services, I rarely get to sit in the back and appreciate what a service looks like, so I relished the experience.
I listened to Father Mike’s colleague, Father Camilo Cruz, preach a homily on Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to wash one another’s feet. Father Camilo carried the metaphor beautifully, explaining that feet represent different “walks” of life, feet bear burdens and carry us, feet have cracks and callouses, and feet often can be smelly. The key, he said, was to tend to each other’s feet, wash them, and see the dignity, the presence of God, in each person with whom we come in contact. What a beautiful message.
About an hour later, standing on my own tired feet, the liturgy concluded and Father Mike invited me to come forward. He introduced me as a special guest, and I was given a rousing ovation. I felt confused. The ovation swelled as I approached the pulpit, and Father Mike welcomed me with a handshake and a warm hug.
Father Mike began by explaining our phone call on Wednesday and taught his parishioners about the ritual transaction that we were about to perform. Then he invited me to share a few words. I thanked Father Mike and his community for their graciousness in allowing me to perform this ritual at such an auspicious time. I noted that there have been times in history when relations between Christians and Jews were not as they are today. In essence, the very fact that I could sell my chametz to Father Mike, my colleague and friend, meant that he was ensuring that I could observe the Passover festival properly. I was in his care and under his protection. And if you take the legal transaction of the sale of chametz literally, then Father Mike owned my home until the conclusion of Pesach the next Saturday night. Father Mike and I signed the document for the sale of chametz, embraced one another, wished each other a happy Easter and happy Passover, and I descended from the pulpit to another rousing round of applause.
At first, I did not know why hundreds of people in the church were clapping. Then I realized that they weren’t clapping for me. They were clapping for us and they were clapping for what that moment symbolized for any person of faith. They were clapping for two men, standing in respect of one another’s tradition, finding a way to create a bridge and celebrate their differences at a most profound and holy juncture in both our calendars. They were clapping for goodwill, for love, and most of all for hope.
This Pesach, I was reminded that we live in community with people from all different walks of life. As war is waged throughout the world, as countries try to prevent one another from developing weapons of mass destruction, as we see others try to obliterate and annihilate those who are different, something special, memorable, spiritual, symbolic, and holy happened in River Edge, New Jersey, that Thursday night. I, a rabbi, sold my chametz to Father Mike, a Catholic priest, in the presence of hundreds of witnesses. My presence during a Holy Thursday mass added meaning to the Catholic community’s celebration of the Easter season. Father Mike’s gesture made it possible for my congregation and me to properly keep the Passover festival.
Based on our actions in that time and space, we remembered that we are in each other’s care – and that is as it should be.