Sermon: Pesach in a time of Social Distancing
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 4 April 2020
“Rabbi Hirsch only preached twice a year; on Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat before Passover, and on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat of Repentance, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur… The sermons themselves were two- or even three-hour long discourses, delivered to packed congregations… everyone wanted to make sure of a good seat in the synagogue…”
So wrote Rabbi Hugo Gryn in his autobiography, Chasing Shadows, about his childhood rabbi, Solomon Hirsch, in Beregovo, now in Western Ukraine, just the other side of the Hungarian border. In common with many colleagues in Eastern Europe, Hirsch gave a sermon only twice a year. There was plenty of study and teaching – for men in the Beit Midrash – but on only two occasions would he address the whole community.
Even rabbis who were used to preaching more often would make sure that Shabbat HaGadol was still extra special. And the sermons extra-long.
The tradition of special preaching on this, the Shabbat before Pesach, can be traced back many hundreds of years, as can be seen in Professor Marc Saperstein’s anthology of Jewish preaching. A fourteenth century text quoted therein states that “all Jews are required to gather in synagogues and houses of study on this day… even women and small children must come”; another from the same century that “It is a commandment on this day to discuss matters pertaining to Passover and its laws… it is customary to preach in clear language to men and to women”.
As the last text implies, the focus of these sermons was often on the detail of observance – how to do Pesach ‘correctly’. One rabbi, it was said in a barbed exaggeration, would “ascend the pulpit and preach for six hours on the laws of charoset and karpas”. This might be an exaggeration, but it’s likely that the focus for many was the importance of getting the preparation and the ritual just right.
And that emphasis remains true for many today. Irrespective of their level of kashrut all year round, many kitchens are turned upside down for this one week a year. We may wish one another “chag Pesach kasher v’same’ach” – a kosher and joyful festival of Pesach, emphasising for this one week only, the significance of the ‘kasher’ aspect. Many Jews are used to large and lavish sedarim – for some this is the focal point not just of Pesach but of the whole Jewish year.
So what happens this year?
This year when that level of detail seems itself a luxury; when the ability to buy new for Pesach is limited; when the sort of social gathering that seder normally entails is not possible, and when Shabbat haGadol cannot see packed congregations but is an online only affair?
This Pesach will be different to any other.
Instead of busying ourselves with the detail, with preparation to welcome guests for seder, instead, this year, what? In the face of this gap, it falls on us to ask what this festival is really about, what is its essence? What does it mean to ‘do Pesach’?
So, first, what, really, is a seder?
At its heart is the commandment that once a year, we should, in the words of Maimonides, “recite the story of the Exodus from Egypt with all the eloquence at our command”. As he continues, “All those who discourse at length on the departure from Egypt are accounted praiseworthy”.
Seder is a story telling – a fulfilment of the line in Exodus: “you shall tell your child in that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt”.
Seder is a heavily stylised telling – the haggadah a script, the versions of the telling of different rabbis edited together. (Edited together rather badly, which is why it jumps about a bit).
The seder plate is just the props, to make the telling work.
The frame, the conceit, is in the form of question and answer because elsewhere we read, “and it shall be when you child asks you that you shall tell them…”
So much of what we do on seder night, what seems weird, is intentionally so, in order to encourage the asking of questions.
And if we do not have questions of our own, the script gives us four of them we can ask instead. And the script also reminds us that even if we were all wise and knowledgeable, we would still need to ask the questions and tell the story.
So, this year, when we have to strip away much that goes with seder – the crockery, the tablecloths and napkins, the excessive cooking, the guests, let us focus on the essence – the telling to each other, the reciting of our foundational story. And as we do so, let’s not just share our people’s stories, but our own – who we are, how we came to be here, what are our foundational stories, what values do they produce? Let’s find the time to share our stories with one another. To do so in our homes, and across our homes using the power of the technology that we embrace as a tool for our Jewish lives.
And may that storytelling be with purpose, reflecting on the values that shape us. And one value in particular.
Throughout the week, in the Kedushat HaYom – that part of the Amidah in which we declare the holiness of the day – we will declare Pesach as “chag ha-matzot ha-zeh, z’man cheruteinu” – this festival of unleavened bread, the time of our freedom”. On Wednesday evening we will thank God for taking us “mei’avdut l’cherut – from slavery to freedom”, proclaim that we are b’nei-chorin, free people.
This may feel ironic in our mouths, stuck as we are in our homes. But this is a very specific, Jewish concept of freedom.
A text in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi states: “ein l’cha ben chorin eilah mi she-oseik b’talmud torah” – you do not find a free person except for one who is engaged in the study of Torah. Jewish freedom is not about simple liberty, not the freedom of existing only for fulfilment of one’s own desires – not the freedom to wander, to shop when we want, to gather with whom and where we want, as we choose. These are no the freedoms we celebrate, but the freedom of engagement, of struggle, of duty to others. It is the freedom of obligation and connection.
And never has that freedom been more important – the freedom to do the right thing, to look after one another, to call the person who needs our care, to reach out to each other.
On Wednesday and Thursday evening we will recite Ha lacham anya – “This is the bread of affliction” and anticipate being b’nei chorin – free people. We normally do so as we invite those who are hungry to come and eat. This year, we cannot do this in person. But we can declare the freedom to reach out to those who need; the freedom of mutual responsibility.
Pesach is so much more than its laws, more than concern about kashrut, more than ‘six hours on the laws of charoset and karpas’. Its essence is the telling of our story, the reaffirmation of our values, the recognition that with our freedom as Jews comes obligation to one another.
May it be this that we focus on this Pesach. For despite the limitations that are placed upon us this year, we have never been more free.
Never more free to determine by which values we want to live; never more free to decide what kind of Jews, what kind of people we want to be; never more free to choose the stories we wish to tell.
Never have we been more free to decide how we want to respond to our lack of freedom.