Pesah Sermon

-delivered in on the 2nd day of Passover at Ramah Darom

חג כשר ושמח
When you think about it, this is a quite strange thing to say.
Have a kosher and happy holiday?
For many who have prepared a home for passover, these seem like diametric opposites. And it seems incredibly difficult to attain a kosher for passover home as well as maintaining happiness. (especially if you don’t attend pesah at Ramah Darom!)

It does make sense to wish a חג שמח, we say this on many hagim. but why would we remark on kashrut? Why not say, may you appreciate or attain liberty or may you enjoy the beginnings of Spring. Why wish people a kosher Passover?!

Pesah does stand out as a time when more people are interested in kashrut than usual. Not only kashrut, but the intricacies of the law. Many many people adopt a more stringent practice on passover than the rest of the year. This is even acknowledged in the tradition of tending towards the stricter position when Passover is involved.

In the Talmud in Berakhot it says שואלין ודורשין בהלהות הפסח קודם שלושים יום- that we start to learn the laws of Passover 30 days in advance, presumably to give ample time for application of these principles. In the Conservative movement we usually are open to, if not favor being lenient whenever reasonable, but generally not with regards to Passover.

Whether it’s not eating bread, or attending a seder, many of us can think of examples of individuals that we know who push the extent of their religious observance for Passover. In mentioning this to a friend last shabbat, I was told of a coworker who, on Passover, would take the cheeseburger off the bread and eat it between two pieces of matzah! Because we don’t eat bread on passover of course! While that is a bit of an extreme example, to a greater or lesser extent we can all think of instances of this, from families who tend not to eat out on Passover to individuals who though the rest of the year may rely on the ingredient list on a package to decide what products to eat, on Passover chooses only products with a hekhsher. And many remember with affection their meager school lunches and perhaps taking pride in the reactions of classmates or coworkers at their surprise at our choices of cuisine.

Why is this? Why would our people who try to hard to balance tradition and change push so heavily towards tradition on this time of year? Why would individuals who generally don’t express their connection to Judaism though observing tradition, find unique ways to mark Passover. What is it about passover that awakens in us the need to be particularly stringent or even just the need to add more practices to our regular repertoire?

This is all further compounded by the fact that pesah is meant to celebrate freedom from slavery and the liberation of our people. Why mark freedom with a proscribed list of the 14 very specific steps that represent the very ordered agenda for the evening, the seder? How does eating karpas and then maror demonstrate this? Why is reading the same passages each year the ritual for marking liberation?

I could think of much more obvious ways of marking freedom- for example, a night with no proscriptions, where everyone is free to relax and choose how to spend the order of the evening. And I’m sure with some creative thinking, most of you could manage to arrive at better ways to mark freedom too. I’m also almost certain that no one would concoct a seder as the way to mark freedom.

So how did we end up celebrating pesah with a seder and being particularly restrictive in our practices?

I didn’t find the answer to this question in the traditional literature, and am not sure I have an airtight answer, (if you have ideas or insights, I’d love to hear them over the course of the holiday) but I did come across an insight that perhaps leads us in the direction of an answer.

The Slonimer Rebbe, author of the Netivot Shalom writes about how Nisan, called the first month of the year by the Bible, is a sort of New Year unto itself. He ends up comparing this new year with Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, the theme is repentance and we hopefully, take stock of our actions. At this time of year, the prays speak of “who shall live and who shall die” and The motivating impulse is yirah, fear. G-d sits apart and judges each of us objectively, though we hope and implore that G-d treat us with hesed, lovingly.

Nisan, however, comes in Spring, and represents a different kind of renewal. On Pesah we read Shir-Hashirim, The paradigmatic love poem fitting the theme of spring when “love is in the air” and fitting because, as the Slonimer Rebbe, notes: Pesah is a celebration of G-d who acted out of love and redeemed us from slavery in Egypt. G-d rescued us, not because we deserved it, but because of love. In this model, G-d acts as a partner in a relationship with us.

Rabbi Benjie Siegel noted about Shir Hashirim that it is a quite egalitarian notion of relationships. Both parties speak, both parties love, and they describe each other in what seems like a more mutual relationship than we would expect of the Bible. By reading this description of love on Pesah, we are claiming that G-d’s love for us requires a mutual reciprocation, as it were.

Perhaps it is this framing which helps ground us in our increased observance around Passover. In response to G-d’s act of love, of bringing us out of Egypt, we mark our relationship through mitzvah. In our earthly relationships, we can all think of examples of actions that we perform, not because we particularly want to, but because we have a commitment to and feel love for others. Perhaps in your families examples might be washing the dishes even when tired, or stoping to pick up groceries when you’ve had a long day. The mitzvot of pesah are our ways of reciprocating G-d’s love, When we choose to eat matzah instead of bread, clean our houses, perform the order of the seder are all our way of returning G-d’s love for us demonstrated initially at the redemption we are celebrating today, and at other times in our national and individual history.

.בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים

In every generation, each  individual is required to see herself as if she was redeemed from Egypt. G-d’s redemption, was not only between G-d and the nation of Israel as the two entities, but are to be experienced by each and every individual. G-d’s act of love, in redeeming us is not only a national act, but a personal one. Perhaps is why each individual celebrates his or her unique relationship with G-d by performing the mitzvot on Pesah.

May we each deepen our personal relationship with the Divine this pesah and may we continue to find ways to continue to mark G-d’s love and though mitzvah, further this relationship over pesah and year-round.

Hag Kasher V’Sameah.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *