This Shabbat is called HaGadol (“The Great Shabbat”) because it is the last before Pesakh and there is so much to review and reinforce of the halakha of Pesakh. It is also the Shabbat on which we read parashat Tzav, “command”. In a neat little nutshell these two terms cover much ground.
gadol – the word means “big”, and also “important”. The most important thing we are doing on this Shabbat, as Jews study and pray and rest, is to think about the meaning of the Festival of Freedom just ahead of us on Monday evening. Pesakh is a Big, Important Deal: if you heard President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem, he described our holy day in terms I use too. Pesakh is the holiday which describes who we have been, and what we are.
tzav – “command”, from the word mitzvah, “commandment”. Jews are commanded to observe the Pesakh Seder, and further commanded to tell our children about it, so that in their turn they will be able to pass the story along to the next generation. There’s a real poignancy here; we are obligated as Jews to make sure our children know that they belong to a history, and therefore that they are not alone in the world; they have a home, and a people.
I recently read a medical article that reported that children who know their family history handle life’s stresses and challenges better than those who do not know where they belong. The idea is that whether one’s family history is a positive arc or a difficult one does not matter. For a child to know that “in our family, grandmother came to this country with nothing, and her children managed to start a business, and their children were the first to go to college” is to present one kind of hopeful family pattern in which to find one’s own personal inherited strengths; for another child to know that “in our family, we’ve had ups and downs and we’ve had to struggle, and we’ve come to know the strength of determination” is just as empowering a message.
Getting the message of Pesakh across to our Jewish children is, then, vitally important to their sense of self, of security – and, in Jewish tradition, of home, and of belonging. How shall we effectively get that message across?
Eysh tamid tukad al hamizbe’akh, lo tikhbeh – the sixth verse of this week’s parashah commands, “you shall keep a fire burning continually upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Lev.6.6) It is said that, from the time that the altar in the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, the altar remains afire in our hearts – and our challenge is to keep that fire – of engagement, of enthusiasm, of meaningfulness – burning bright, always. With what shall we feed the fire?
Remember that fire ignites fire. We adults are obligated to nurture the fire in our own hearts if we hope to pass it on to the next generation that we are all helping, together, to raise up as Jews. Make your Seder interesting and fun for yourself, and the children will respond. Not magically or all at once, but they will register that this mysterious gathering really is a Big Deal.