Faith Commons

by Rabbi Nancy Kasten

Holy days in all three Abrahamic traditions overlapped in April this year.

Jews celebrated Passover by retelling and embodying their redemption from slavery in Egypt at the seder meal. They read, “In every generation a person must see themself as if they themself had gone forth from Egypt and recite these ancient words: ‘All who are hungry, let them enter and eat. All who are in need, let them come celebrate Passover with us.'”

For Christians, each day between Palm Sunday and Easter offered the opportunity to dwell on the meaning of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. According to the Gospel of John, on Maundy Thursday Jesus gave his disciples this instruction: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.” 

Muslims observe Ramadan, fasting from sunrise to sunset to share in some measure the experience of those who do not choose their hunger and thirst. A special prayer of repentance is recited every night during Ramadan. The Hadith on Ramadan attributes this quote to the Prophet Mohammed: “In the month of Ramadan, the gates of heaven are opened, and the gates of Hell are closed, and every devil is chained up.”

While our traditions may be particular, the call is common: to renew our empathy through refreshing our spirit. To attend to our own soul, that we might see the pain of another. To remember that as humans, we are a package deal; oppressors and the oppressed, and also lovers and beloved. We prove our capacity to chain our devilish impulses when we create heavenly circumstances and opportunities on earth, rather than hellish ones. And in doing so, hope is reborn, bringing joy in its wake.

This sounds so simple, but it is not so easy. To feel the pain of another is demanding. To open oneself up to suffering in the world can overwhelm us, especially right now. As a colleague said to me recently, “We talk about the urgency of now, but now EVERYTHING is urgent.” The litany of injury to life is vast, and grief and guilt are inevitable byproducts of our open hearts. But shutting out the pain of the world requires hardening our hearts, trapping grief and guilt inside, where they take up space that otherwise could flow with love. 

That is why these holy days are not celebrated in isolation. When we join with others to create a space where the Holy One is served, and reside in that space of redemption, safety, and love, we are liberated from habits of mind and heart that enslave us. We are free to be renewed and reborn, to see the other as a part of ourselves we don’t yet know. We are free to feel their pain and answer it with compassion. After experiencing Passover, Easter and Ramadan during the pandemic, we are acutely aware of the essential role community plays in the corporal and spiritual aspects of their observance. Only a community can build a sustainable place to hold both sadness and joy, where hope is never snuffed out by despair. 

As we move through April toward May, forging ahead in the cycle of life and faith, we will continue to be called to respond to the challenges and injustices of this moment. Our endurance will depend on the communities we choose to spend time with and to hold our hearts, even as we hold the hearts of others.

May you find those communities and invest in them, finding strength in knowing that your efforts do make a difference, and finding more room in your heart to love and be loved.