Parshat Tzav Shabbat Hagadol 2018
Although the weather is running hot hotter and coolish, we are now officially in spring and at this time next week, we will be recuperating from our Pesach seder. How time flies! Pesach marks our beginning as a people. Just think – we began as a ragtag bunch of slaves without a country, without a book of rules (the Torah), without anything but a memory of something our forebearers experienced hundreds of years earlier. And we became a people. Rowdy, undisciplined in many ways, haughty, whining, revolt-oriented, dissatisfied, yet ultimately moral, thoughtful and intermittently obedient, no matter what the newspapers say.
Pesach is the time that we both celebrate our birth as a nation and also help to indoctrinate coming generations as they join the chain that extends from the exodus and Mount Sinai.
And today, the Shabbat before Pesach, is called Shabbat Hagadol, the great Shabbat. Why? No one is quite sure. Maybe the words in the haftarah, maybe because this was the Shabbat that the Israelites in Egypt took the pascal lamb and prepared to leave. In any case, that’s a question for another time.
What we will discuss today is what makes Pesach so different from the other days and holidays of the year. It’s a holiday of questions, and so we will proceed in a question and answer format.
The first question is why matzah? We all know the story. The Israelites had to skedaddle from Egypt and didn’t have time allow the bread to rise and voila, we had our own affliction to suffer with each year (only kidding – I like matzah).
But HAZAL being HAZAL they couldn’t leave it at that. Matzah had to have some spiritual message too. And sure enough, they found it. Bread is leavened. It’s puffed up. And people who are puffed up are haughty, disdainful, know-it-alls who feel they are better than anyone else. That describes bread and it describes us, right? Matzah, on the other hand, is plain, no-nonsense, unpretentious.
Rabbi David Stav asks, if that’s so, why are we allowed to eat hametz the rest of the year? Not only are we allowed to but we crave it. How many people do we know who can’t wait for Pesach to end so that they can buy a loaf of bread or a pack of pitas? And I won’t even mention those who stockpile pitas in their freezers before Pesach. The answer is: Unless you are a legit saint, you can’t act humble all the time without making yourself sick, so we put one week a year aside for this purpose, to remind us that we’re just a bunch of stunted breads who have nothing to crow about.
Next question. The heart of the holiday is repeating the story of the exodus. Why? Because the haggada is not a siddur. It’s a living a book with new editions published every year. I think that after the Bible, the Haggada has the largest number of version of a printed book. Why? Because each group in our exclusive society of Jews wants to feel that it belongs to the story, that the story is still relevant to them specifically. Whatever group is “in” this year – will have its own Haggada. Guaranteed.
What are we relating in the haggada? As we retell the story, we want to remind ourselves and even more importantly, we want our children and grandchildren to feel that the story is their story too, because that’s what Pesach is about. Belonging to our extended Jewish family, as well as to our nuclear family.
What do we say towards the end of the seder? L’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim – next year in Jerusalem. And you know, of course, that even those who are in Jerusalem say the same thing. According to Rabbi Karen Citrin, this is a message of optimism. It doesn’t matter where we are now, we hope to be together again next year, and in an even better place.
Yerushalayim can be understood as the actual city but it can also represent a higher plane of existence for us, a better place. As Rabbi David Hartman said, tomorrow will be better than yesterday. Passover marks the turn of the season, the advent of spring where anything is still possible.
We’ve had our share of unpleasantries in the year since last Pesach, and if our recent history is any basis for predicting the future, we will have our share of negative events in the coming year as well, both on the international scene, the national level and in our personal lives.
But Pesach tells us that we have to look on the bright side as well. We got out of Egypt, we got through the desert, we survived the ups and downs of our history past and present, and we are still here, yearning to do better, to see the light of goodness shine on us and on the world. Or at least to get through the day, the week, the month.
I don’t know if such pie-in-the-sky optimism is justified or if it will work on a personal level. As we enter the holiday spirit and cleanse our homes and souls of the hametz, the puffed up arrogance that often sparks bad behavior, perhaps we can take time to decide what is really important for us to do and get to work on it.
That will help to transform the Shabbat Hagadol spirit into a Shana Gedola – a big year – journey, so that when next year we again say, l’shana haba’a b’yerushalayim, we may feel we have actually begun our journey to reach it.