by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
This year Ramadan began on April 2, Passover begins on April 15, and Easter is celebrated on April 17. These three holidays play distinct roles in the unique cycles of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities of faith. At the same time, they share common characteristics and offer important insight into our shared and inescapable human nature.
All three take place over time. Ramadan is observed for a full month, from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next. Passover is celebrated for 7 days in the land of Israel and 8 days in many Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Easter culminates a holy period that includes the 40 days of Lent and Holy Week. And all three require a change in our habits of consumption. Each in some way provides a corrective for our nature as humans to become slaves to our appetites.
The origin stories of Passover and Easter prominently feature external oppressors (Pharoah and Pontius Pilate.) Yet these holidays, along with Ramadan, ask us to liberate ourselves from internalized habits and routines regarding what, when, and where to consume. What is the goal of changing our eating pattern for a few days or weeks?
All living things require nourishment and hydration to thrive. But for human beings, eating and drinking is more than a biological necessity. For us, culture and society play a huge part in determining what, when, and how much we take in. As far as we know, only human beings have the capacity to change our consumption habits consciously, for moral reasons. Western religion has made the story of Adam and Eve into one of human failure, but human fallibility is not a condemnation—it is an invitation. The perfection of the Garden of Eden was never our destiny; instead, it is a reminder that it is human to desire more than we require in the face of God’s limitless abundance. To behave responsibly we need to erect guardrails to temper and guide our appetites so that the world can flourish, even as we continue to make our human mistakes.
Ramadan, Passover, and Easter are annual opportunities for Muslims, Jews, and Christians to practice our human potential. We liberate ourselves from habitual patterns of physical nourishment to make room for other forms of sustenance. But we still have choices to make about what we do with this freedom. In fact, we can spend so much time and effort on the material aspects of these holidays that we may not experience the liberty we have been granted by them.
Indigenous wisdom applies here, illustrated by this iconic story of an old Cherokee teaching his granddaughter about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the girl. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil—full of anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good—full of joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.”
The girl thought about it for a minute and then asked her grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Just as we accept responsibility for choosing what we put in our pantry and refrigerator with whatever resources are available to us, our holidays remind us that we also have responsibility for deciding the contents of our hearts and minds. The degree to which we feel free will be shaped by these decisions.
As we celebrate these holidays this year, with the brutality and inhumanity caused by human appetite unfolding all around us, may we accept the challenge of being fully human, doing everything we can to starve our anger, greed and sorrow and to feed our compassion, generosity and gratitude.