Shabbat HaGadol, Kabbalat Shabbat Sermon

Rabbi David Edleson
April 10, 2019

So, let me start with a question. Show of hands, who in here has been on a special diet of some sort in the past few years?

  • Who’s not eating Gluten?
  • Who’s not eating Dairy?
  • Who’s doing Paleo, or Low-Carbs?
  • Who’s not eating red meat?
  • Low salt? Low sugar?
  • Who’s vegetarian? vegan?

It seems that as Americans, we are very comfortable with all sorts of diets, all sorts of food restrictions, but for many of us, not eating bread for week seems like way too much. I can’t tell you the number of Facebook posts I get each year with Jewish friends taking a selfie of eating a sandwich, or doughnut, or other yeasty treat with a big spiteful grin on their faces.

This is Shabbat HaGadol, the GREAT SABBATH, and not just because it is Emma Marden’s Bat Mitzvah!

This is the shabbat when rabbis traditionally gave a big long sermon about Passover observance. So to fit with that tradition, but also to be Reform and get to the point, I want to suggest, as your rabbi, that this year you actually give it a go to just eat Matzoh. And if gluten is the issue, salads without croutons.

And unlike regular kosher rules, eating only matzoh during Passover has good, ethical reasons. More on that later.

To prepare for Passover, I was listening to a bunch of podcasts, and one was an interview with a group of college students asking them about Passover, what they loved, what bothered them.

One of the things that came up over and over that bothered them, was the sense of rejoicing at the suffering of the Egyptians. Now it is true that we have reinterpreted and reshaped the Haggadah to get rid of the worst aspects of gloating, but I want to suggest that if we had been enslaved, beaten and killed for hundreds of years, when we saw the people who had tormented us suffer, most of us would have been rejoicing and gloating, too. We are, after all, humans, and while it might not be the most ethical reaction, it is certainly a profoundly human reaction. I’m not sure denying it or seeing it as unevolved is very helpful or realistic.

If each of us is to indeed see ourselves as if we left Egypt, I think a certain amount of exaltation is needed.

At the same time, we have learned in our long history, that our being slaves in Egypt and then being freed is not only OUR story – it is a universal story of the human condition. It is the archetypal story of people longing for self-determination and freedom. Our Torah specifically teaches us that there are lessons we must learn from Egypt:

For example, Exodus 23: “Do not oppress the outsider among you; you yourselves know how it feels to be the outsider, because you were foreigners in Egypt.

Or Deuteronomy 15: “When you free your slave, do not send them away empty-handed, remember: you were slaves in Egypt.”

One of the things our people have learned, and that our prophets preached and rabbis pointed out, is that for our freedom to be sustainable and lasting, it is tied up with how we conduct ourselves, and that our freedom is tied up in the freedom of those around us.

We can’t be truly free in the long run, if our freedom comes at the expense of the of freedom from those around us.

As Jews, we grow up with the words, “Never Again” in our mouths and our hearts. With the rise in anti-Semitic violence around the world, and here in the US, those words have a renewed sense of relevance.

However, it is important that we remember that there are two ways to ‘hear’ those words, “never again.” It can mean, ‘never again’ for me and my people, my group; or, it can mean, ‘never again’ for me or anyone, or any other group. Never again can be a way to tribalism, or a way to shared empathy and rule of law. It can be xenophobic or it can be universal.

I think that one of the divides we saw recently in the Israeli elections is this exact difference. As Jews living here in America, we are not living under constant threat of attack from missiles, from terrorists, from knifings, decade after decade, and so it is easier for us to focus on the universalism of “Never Again,” and see that the creeping annexation and occupation of lands intended for the Palestinians as a violation of our ethical duties. Seeing how America has changed since a single attack on 9/11, I’m not sure any of us is in a position to judge how either the Israeli Jews or the Palestinians react to the events and the conflict there.

I am personally saddened by Netanyahu’s re-election, and the continued strength of the extreme religious Jewish right there. I am disappointed, as I have been repeatedly disappointed by elections here in the US. And while I have my opinions and values, I also know that I could be wrong, and that perhaps in terms of Israel’s safety and security, Netanyahu knows more than I do. I try to remember what a miracle it is that as Jews, we have a nation and that it is democratic and has regular peaceful elections, something unheard of in that region, including among the Palestinian ruling organizations. Democracy is messy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Humans are complicated.

However, as a rabbi, I believe that Passover teaches us to hold both the particular events of our history as if we have lived through them, but at the same time to hold the universal ethical truths taught by those experiences. We have to reflect on both, not giving into to tribal vengeance and chest-beating, but also not forgetting that the particulars, the details matter.

Reform Judaism is centered in the prophetic vision of social justice of the great Hebrew Prophets. Those prophets realized that our survival as a people, as a nation, as a free nation, depends on how we exercise power, how we treat others, and whether our leadership becomes corrupt and cruel. They realized that we are all connected, and our freedom is linked to the freedom of those around us.

As Rabbi Martin Luther King Jr wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The Torah teaches us that our freedom is holy, and we should rejoice in it, but that our freedom is also tied up in how we treat the weakest among us, and how we treat the strangers among us, especially those under our control. I’ll let you decide if I am talking about Israel or the US. Which gets me back to eating matzoh at Passover.

Matzoh, as you know, is the bread of refugees, fleeing for our lives, without time to let bread rise. It is also the bread of the poor, who can’t afford yeast breads that spoil quickly.

When we eat only matzoh, the idea is not to suffer per se, but to remember that we have been refugees, and we have been poor, and if we are not now, it is only by the Grace of God. We eat matzoh to create a physical sensation of solidarity with those who today are refugees, who are poor, who are food insecure. We eat matzoh to remind ourselves that ‘never again,’ doesn’t only mean for us.

So while there is much we can do as individuals, and as a community, to help those who are now in bondage, who are now fleeing war and genocide, one way our tradition has given us is for this week, for us to remind ourselves of our solidarity with others by eating this simple, sacred bread for a week.

And what better lesson could there be for Emma, and all our b’nei mitzvah that as Jews, our tradition connects us to those in greatest need, for we have been those people, and it has taught us the power of empathy and of solidarity.

As our prayer book reads:

Standing on the parted shores of history
We still believe what we were taught
Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt
That there is a better place, a promisesd land;
That the winding way to the promise

Passes through the wilderness.
That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon