As many of you know, for hundreds of years, it was the practice in many Jewish communities that the rabbi of the community preached but twice a year: on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, and on Shabbat Hagadol before Passover. The rabbi's preaching on these two shabbatot spoke to the importance of each as a time of preparation for the holiday that followed. Equally important, it spoke to the comparable weight of these two sets of holy days as the two spiritual pivots of the Jewish year. As I have explained before, Passover, coming in the first month of the biblical year, is the high holy day of the Jewish home, as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the high holy days of the synagogue. If we count from Nisan, then Tishre with its holy days is the seventh month, and if we count from Tishre, then Nisan with its holy day of Passover is the seventh month, and as we know, in the biblical ordering of things, the number seven is special. It is not coincidental that each of these sets of holy days includes a period of preparation that precedes it.
For my theme this Shabbat Hagadol, I would like to address a great irony and paradox in our observance of Passover. Passover, or Hag Hamatzot, as the eight-day period is called in our liturgy, celebrates our freedom: it is z'man heruteinu, the season of our liberation. But ironically, this holiday that celebrates freedom is circumscribed by more laws and by more restrictions than any other time of the year. Our dietary restrictions on Passover far surpass those of the rest of the year. The prohibition against eating hametz is in many ways stricter than the laws regarding non-kosher food. A drop of a non-kosher ingredient that falls into a pot of kosher food is nullified one in sixty; a drop of hametz on Passover defiles any food or utensil that it has touched. Just think of the care we exercise in the purchase of foods before and during Passover. Other laws regarding the holiday are equally complex""the laws of selling and destroying hametz, kashering utensils and searching the home. And then we come to the Seder, and this great banquet that celebrates freedom is accompanied by demanding instructions and exacting rituals. Halakhic authorities tell us how much wine we must drink from each cup in order to fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups of wine, how large that olive size piece of matzah really needs to be; and how large a portion we need to have of the marror, the bitter herbs. And we ask: is this what we mean by freedom?
Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the period before Pesah is actually more about slavery than it is about freedom. What characterized slavery, as described in the Humash, is rigorous labor, in Hebrew called perekh, which the rabbis explained is hard physical labor that is taxing on the body. Our pre-Passover preparations capture this to some extent. We bend, we scrub, and we schlep, capturing to some small degree the hard labor of the Israelite slaves. And then we do the closest thing you can do to simulating a move from place to place right in your own home""we empty cupboards of hametz food and dishes, move them to another place in the house, and replace them with our Passover food and utensils, reliving to some small degree the ancient drama of our ancestors packing their belongings and setting out from Egypt towards the Promised Land. The preparation before the holiday is, as I see it, part of our reliving each year the drama of our Israelite ancestors moving from slavery to freedom. And even if we pack our bags to spend Passover away from home, we are in some way reliving that process, even if South Florida or other more exotic places are not quite the Promised Land.
It is again no mere coincidence that our great celebration of freedom is called a Seder, a word that means order. It is to teach us from the very first that freedom does not mean that each person is on her own, or that freedom means we may now do whatever we fancy. We celebrate freedom by creating order and structure. We are provided with a script, a libretto, as it were, for the evening. It is our guide. But at the same time there is freedom to maneuver within the order. We can add flourishes of our own, we can add interpretations and commentary, we can add new readings that address our current-day situation. As you know, there have been more editions published of the Haggadah than there are of any other single Jewish work, including the Bible. The plethora in Haggadot is testimony to the freedom that comes from having a sense of Seder, of order, and from having a text handed down by tradition that is fluid enough to allow for growth through the ages. The structure of the Seder assures us that within the diversity there will be a common center that will hold us together. Open any Haggadah from any of religious movement and you will see not only diversity but also commonality""the structure of the Seder keeps us together, and anchors us in history, and in a world of tradition and memory.
The details of the holiday can be overwhelming. There is a danger that we can get so caught up in the details that we fail to enjoy the holiday. We must remember that rejoicing on the holiday is also a mitzvah. We can become so exhausted in our preparations that we will fail to enjoy the company of our family and friends at the Seder table. We can become so preoccupied in fulfilling each detail of each observance of the holiday that we can miss out on experiencing the inner joy of the season of liberation. All the mitzvot, all the requirements of the season have an aim, which is to help us to experience Exodus in our own lives, to identify with the march of our ancestors from slavery to freedom, to absorb that experience in our bones and impress it in our hearts. Let us use the tools of the holiday to help us reach these goals; let them not become the goals in and of themselves. Let us use these tools to help create structure in our own lives, and structure for the Jewish lives of our children. May these many beautiful mitzvot of the season open us to experience the renewal of this festival of renewal and rebirth.
As I get ready for Passover,
I pray that I will have the strength to prepare for the holiday.
I pray that I will take advantage of this special time to rid myself of the leaven in my own home and heart.
I pray that I will not get lost in the details of the preparation to the point that I lose the true sense of the holiday:
A season of joy and liberation,
A season of rebirth and renewal,
A season of celebrating the joys and blessings of family,
A season of remembering past sufferings and redemption, and of anticipating a perfected world.
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