Shabbat HaGadol: It Matters Now, Too

This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the “great Shabbat,” possibly echoing the content of the special Haftarah chanted on this day, which speaks of a “great and terrible day” which is coming.
הִנֵּ֤ה אָֽנֹכִי֙ שֹׁלֵ֣חַ לָכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֵלִיָּ֣ה הַנָּבִ֑יא לִפְנֵ֗י בּ֚וֹא י֣וֹם ה’ הַגָּד֖וֹל וְהַנּוֹרָֽא׃

Here, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great and terrifying day of HaShem. (Malakhi 3.23)

The Prophet Malakhi – his name means merely “my messenger” – brings words to a people demoralized, despairing of truth and no longer so sure that virtue is a reward. They have seen those who cheat and lie prosper, and those who abuse workers and the vulnerable poor grow rich. They have begun to wonder if anything matters at all, and why be good, why try your best, if evil is flourishing?
It’s a perennial question for us Jews, and for those who love us and travel with us. We are preparing once again to celebrate the Pesakh Seder with all those who are part of our community, and for some of us there may be a painful undertone of wondering if it really matters. How can we pay attention to requirements for ridding our houses of hametz when the world seems so overwhelmingly full of something much worse, which we don’t seem to be able to eradicate?
Let me offer you a few brief thoughts if this is where you find yourself on this Shabbat before Pesakh 5779.
1. For those who are moved by comparison: the song is V’hi Sheh-amdah, which reminds us that this is not the first time. Our ancestors have seen worse, and who are we not to keep up the traditions they managed to preserve?
2  For those who prefer relevant symbolism: consider the circumstances of the first Pesakh. Plagues have destroyed much of Egypt’s infrastructure and the people are rightly terribly frightened – as are the Jews who witness the terror. It is at the moment of greatest fear, when one experiences the strongest inclination toward despair and immobilization, that the door to freedom is opened. Not before. The Prophet Malakhi’s message warns exactly of this: the day that comes will be great, but not in the colloquial sense. It will be terrifying. In other words, don’t wait for the situation to calm before responding – it may not calm.
3. And for those who want to consider integrity of practice: in a few days it will be time for you to collect all that is hametz in your house, and to either finish it, give it away, or lock it up and send me a list so that I can symbolically sell it for you, so that you will be living in accordance with the Torah’s dictate that “no hametz shall be found in your possession during the Festival of Matzot.” (Exodus 12.19). As the great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz taught, A ritual that is only followed when you feel like it is no true ritual; a prayer you only recite when you want to indicates that you have no G*d but yourself. And good luck with that.
My friends, this was a difficult week – and this was not the first like it, and it will not be the last. It’s rather like standing in the ocean in rough water just deep enough that each wave crashing to the beach nearly knocks one down. We cannot stop the flow and we cannot get used to it – but in a real community of mutual support and caring, we can hold each other’s hands and together meet the next wave without being swept away.
We are no different from those who came before us, really: we make our meaning as a small island of calm in the midst of a great rough sea of uncertainty. The more we give to it, the stronger it is when we come to need it. Don’t skimp on your Shabbat; don’t short change yourself on your Pesakh; don’t worry if you cannot see the ultimate meaning of all of this ritual, or of the world that surrounds us so overwhelmingly. There is, in the end, a comfort in joining the rest of us in dipping karpas in salt water, in hiding matzah for children to find, and in singing dayenu. May it be enough.

Shabbat Pesakh I: What is this Matzah?

Tonight at sundown over 70% of all self-identifying Jews will observe the beginning of Pesakh (Hebrew for “Passover”). At the very least, they will all have matzah, the symbolic bread of affliction, on their tables – gluten free, locally made, even homemade, matzah is the ultimate symbol of the holy day period. Hag haMatzot, “The Festival of Matzah,” is one of the holiday’s most ancient – and most official – names.
This simple bread is paradoxically rich in symbolism. Matzah is made only of flour and water in a rudimentary form, free of yeast or starter. There’s no magic to it, no rising, no crumb or crust. It is the epitome of fast, easy, straightforward. Yet it is so much more than that: when we consider the matzah, called by our tradition not only the poor person’s bread but also the bread of freedom, we begin to see the midrashim (interpretations) that centuries of sages and commentators have drawn from it.
1. matzah in its simplicity teaches us humility. We may find ourselves leading with our accomplishments, and what makes us special in our own eyes, “puffed up” as if with yeast. Matzah invites us to consider our essential simplicity as our most important and precious trait. If you let go of the outer shell of defense that you carry between you and the world, what might happen?
2. matzah is a demonstration of how few ingredients we really need to make bread. Let it help you consider how much – or how little – you really need in other places in your life.
3. matzah is an invitation to trust in abundance and in potential. The original mitzvah (command) is to clear out our dwellings from all the old bread: the starter, the leftover bread, anything at all that is made of last year’s harvest. Imagine yourself as a subsistence farmer in the ancient Near East, glad if you have some grain left in storage after the long hard winter – and now, just before the new wheat is ready to harvest, you are to take those last grains and clear them out. “You shall have no hametz (“leaven”) in your possession.” (Ex. 12.15)
It’s a demonstration of trust that the new harvest is going to come in, the  new grain will be gathered and we will eat, and survive, and live for another season.
In these days of chronic fear, trust is a difficult quality to come by, whether in each other or in the future. And yes, we American Jews have had it good for a while now, so it was easy to be optimistic and these words basically bounced off our hearts. But as the days pass and we come to know some small measure of the stress and worry our ancestors lived with, we come to see how courageous their hope was. How much they suffered, and yet they were still able to defy fear and sadness, and celebrate all that was good in their lives nevertheless.
Matzah is a symbol of poverty and being beaten down; matzah is a symbol of beautiful simplicity and serene trust in all that is good. When you lift it up at your Seder, what will it mean for you?

Getting Ready for Pesakh: What Is Matzah Really About?

It’s all about the matzah. The official name – and the  most ancient name – of our early spring festival is Hag haMatzot, the Festival of Matzah. Eating matzah is a mitzvah, an obligation for every Jew.

But what if you’re gluten free? this question has of course already been answered by the matzah industry: along with all the other varieties, there is gluten-free matzah. 

But this answer is too quick; it doesn’t give us the chance to really consider the question of why we are obligated to eat matzah in the first place. After all, we are forbidden the five grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. but we can eat them in a matzah state, so the grains themselves are not forbidden….or what?

The answer is not about food at all, but about our illusion of control over our lives. Why matzah, i.e. unleavened bread, bread that is entirely untouched by the natural or introduced presence of yeast? 

Our ancestors lived and died by the amount of grain they were able to grow, gather and store by the hard work of their own hands. One can imagine the care they took in storing grain so that it would last as long as possible without fermenting, which after all is the first step in rotting.

And now imagine a festival which is marked by the cleaning out of all the old grain – even before all the new grain is gathered in. This is our ancestors’ ultimate leap of faith – to clean out the old before the new was a sure thing was to demonstrate with their lives and that of their families that they trusted the old Jewish idea that if you take great care with today, tomorrow you will be all right. 

Note the interesting verb tashbitu in the verse: 

שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל–מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

“Eat matzah for seven days – on the first day, tashbitu the grain from your houses. Anyone who eats hametz from the first day until the seventh day will be cut off from Israel.” – Exodus 12.8

The root of tashbitu is sh.b.t. This hint of Shabbat is possibly meant to remind us that we are not in control; that you can store up all you want against life’s contingencies, and you are not, after all, going to be able to control them.

The eating of matzah is a positive obligation; that is, it is not about avoiding something, it is about doing something. In this case, eating matzah. That is why, even if you are gluten-free, it is incumbent upon you to do so. There is something profoundly symbolic about it, so much so that if you do not, you cause yourself to be alienated from the People of Israel. You do not have to eat matzah all week; just an amount equal to the volume of an olive. If you absolutely cannot eat even that small amount, it’s best to get together with others who are truly gluten averse and 

invest together in one box of that expensive gluten free matzah – one more way to demonstrate our absolute need for each other, and the reason why the idea of being cut off from Israel is the worst outcome our ancestors could possibly envision

Pesakh: You Must Remember This

The following is a teaching of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847-1905), author of the Sefat Emet, a book of his insights into the parashat hashavua and also the Jewish holy days. This is an edited paraphrase of one of his Pesakh teachings:
 
Of Pesakh it says, “this day will be a remembrance for you” (Ex.12.14) and “so that you remember the day you came out of Egypt” (Deut.16.3), and “Keep the [holy days of] matzot” (Ex.12.17). Memory is a point within, one where there is no forgetfulness. It has to be “kept” i.e. guarded lest it flow into the place where forgetting occurs. That is why “keep” and “remember” are said in the same single utterance at Sinai.
Every Pesakh the Jew becomes like a newborn child again, just as we were when we came out of Egypt. The point of remembrance within us is renewed. That primal point within is like matzah, which is just the dough itself, simple, with no fermentation or expansion. On this holiday of matzot the inner point, simple, unchanging, pure, is renewed. We do the work of Pesakh when we fulfill the command “keep the [holy days of] matzot” by taking time to renew the point within, the point of memory. We ask questions of others who remember what we remember, what we need to remember in order to guard that inner flame that keeps and guards us, as we keep and guard it.
 
It is striking that in this teaching, it is very clear that human free will, and human agency, are vitally important to human wholeness. We are not meant to passively sit back and wait for Divine grace to shower down upon us, nor to spend all day praying for it. Abraham, the quintessential Jew, defines that identity by his act of moving forward into uncharted territory – purposeful movement toward meaning is itself part of the creation of that meaning. During Pesakh we are reminded that in order to become the Jewish People, the communal equivalent of Abraham’s journey had to be repeated. Once again we ventured forth, purposefully moving toward meaning, into an unknown future that we would summon by our own act of moving forward.
 
As it is said, nishmat adam ner Ad-nai, “the human soul is God’s candle”. As one Rabbinic commentary observed, it is as if God said to Abraham, “go, and light the way before Me.” As we move forward into the future, as we choose the acts that make our lives meaningful, we bring illumination not only to ourselves, but to God as well. We are partners in a Covenant that truly calls upon us to keep and guard the meaning of our people’s memories through our own actions – and the meaning of those memories will stand or fall upon our willingness to take on that responsibility.
 
May our acts bring the illumination of our memories to bless our shared future.
hag Pesakh sameakh v’kasher, may your Pesakh celebration be joyful and fit.