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Eliminating Adulteration

Sermon Shabbat HaGadol/Metzora 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha

Tucson, Arizona

A rabbi is cleaning the house for Passover when he comes across a box that he doesn’t recognize and his curiosity gets the best of him. He opens the box and inside finds 3 eggs and $2,000.

He goes to the kitchen and asks his wife to explain the contents. She tells him that every time he gave a bad sermon, she put an egg in the box.

He says, "Well, in twenty years, only three bad sermons, that's pretty good. But what about the $2,000?"

And his wife says, “And every time I got a dozen eggs, I would sell them for $1…”

In view of that tendency, I suspect most congregants would prefer we used the Eastern European model of how rabbis did sermons. Where many of our ancestors came from in the “Old Country” it was not common for the rabbi to preach a sermon every week. In fact, in most congregations the rabbi preached just two sermons a year: one on Shabbat Shuvah, between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and one on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath prior to Passover. The subject of these two sermons was fixed. On Shabbat Shuvah the rabbi always preached on repentance, Teshuvah, a highly appropriate subject for that time of year. And on Shabbat HaGadol, this “great Sabbath,” he preached on the subject of chamets, the leavened products that must be removed from our homes in preparation for Passover, the holiday that begins next Friday night with our sold-out Seder right here at Beit Simcha.

It is easy to understand why a rabbi would preach about Teshuvah, the moral return central to our entire being as Jews. That subject remains focal for everyone who has ever erred in any part of his or her lives, which is all of us. But the subject of chamets seems far less important and much less referable.

So just what is chamets? In the technical sense, it means any kind of bread-like product or anything that has been adulterated or contaminated with leavening.

Removing chamets and making homes kosher for Pesach is an annual agony for anyone who keeps even moderately kosher. First, you have to remove from your house all the obvious chamets, any food product that might be leavened or have leavening in it, and any grain product not explicitly kosher for Passover. Next you have to clean everything carefully, including all the nooks and crannies where chamets might be hiding. Then you have to remove all dishes and cookware that are made of a porous material, which cannot be used for Passover even though they are kosher for the rest of the year. Then you have to clean where they were. They you have to clean the counters and stoves, and boil in hot water anything you might want to use on Passover that isn’t porous but might have come in contact with chamets. And only then can you bring in all the Passover plates and cookware and start the major preparations necessary for the Seder and the week of meals. Just talking about it is probably making some people here uncomfortable, I am certain… including me.

Frankly, you can make a case that the entire reason Reform Judaism started was so people would not have to clean their homes for Passover. Look, even devoutly Orthodox Jews have some resistance when the subject of Pesach cleaning comes up.

A midrash: Once upon a time in a far-away land there lived a king who had a Jewish advisor. The king relied so much on the wisdom of his Jewish advisor that he decided to elevate him to head advisor. But the other advisors objected. After all, it was bad enough just to sit in counsel with a Jew. But to allow a Jew to lord it over them was too much to bear.

Reluctantly, the King agreed to their demands and ordered the Jew to convert. What could the Jew do? He had to obey his King.

As soon as the act of conversion was done, the Jewish chief advisor felt great remorse for this terrible decision. Soon he became despondent, and his mental depression took a toll on his physical health. He became weaker and weaker.

Finally, he could stand it no longer. He burst in on the king and cried, "I was born a Jew and a Jew I must be. Do what you want with me, but I can no longer deny my faith."

The King was very surprised, and said, "Well, if that is how you feel, the other advisors will have to learn to live with it. Your counsel is too important to me to do without it. Go and be a Jew again!"

The Jewish advisor was elated. He hurried home to tell the good news to his family. He burst into the house and called out to his wife. "Rifka, Rifka, we can be Jews again, we can be Jews again!"

But his wife only glared back at him angrily and said, "Idiot, you couldn't wait until AFTER Pesach??"

In fact, some Jews dislike Passover preparations so much that they choose to go away for the holiday to an all-kosher institution to avoid this agony of observance. If you have ever made a house kosher for Passover then you know how appealing it would be to have someone else—anyone else—do it for you, no matter how expensive or how far you would have to travel.

There are tour groups that take over resort properties for Pesach and make it completely kosher for the festival. For these Passover retreats, the tour operators bring in an entire team of mashgiachs, rabbis trained in supervising food preparation, and turn the resort into a kind of Kosher-for-Passover cruise ship, with all the elaborate preparations of Pesach done for you by the tour group. You can see these “let us make Passover for you!” ads featuring places in Phoenix, New York, and even Italy right here in our Jewish Post newspaper.

13 years ago this coming week most of my own family planned just such a Passover week. I took my three then very young children and we flew to New York, then drove up to the Catskill Mountains—once known as “the Jewish Alps”—to spend Passover at a resort there with my parents and siblings and their families.

Being on sabbatical that year meant that it was one of the few Passovers of my life when I could actually let someone else do it all for me and experience this Pesach-resort phenomenon first-hand. When my parents graciously invited us to go to the Catskills that year, we accepted. And there was one truly unique and highly exciting part of the whole experience.

To set the scene, ‘twas the night before the seder and all through the house—er, sorry. It was the night before Seder and we had just settled into our kosher hotel room and completed my young children’s bedtime rituals when the hotel fire alarm went off. I called the front desk to see if this was a fire drill, but they told me to evacuate immediately. I got the kids into shoes and coats, grabbed my cellphone and car keys, and we headed out into the hotel corridor, where other guests were running towards the exits. My then 7 year-old son Gabe spotted an exit door so we went through it, only to see flames shooting up into the air from the building’s roof in front of us—clearly not a drill!—turned around and went back through the building to the front of the hotel, then headed to the parking lot, usually the safest place to be during a fire, a large paved space with nothing that can burn. And then we watched the fire, which had begun in the bakery, spread through the main building.

Eventually, 40 fire trucks arrived from all over Sullivan County, New York. They couldn’t do much but contain the fire to the central building. All the elaborate advanced preparations were clearly not going to result in a kosher for Passover resort, or a seder the next night—or, for that matter, a place for us to sleep that night. So I took my kids to a motel in the nearby town of Liberty wearing the clothes on our back and carrying nothing in our hands. We returned early the next morning to find our stuff had been packed up by hotel employees and was all safe and sound, and we carried it away in plastic garbage bags.

The tour operator, meantime, rearranged everything by mid-morning, and all the guests were relocated to another hotel, the Nevele, 40 minutes away, where the same Passover program was in place. Later that day we arrived as refugees at the new hotel, tired but in one piece, with all of our stuff and no one too much the worse for the experience. No one was hurt in the fire, although the entire main building burned to the ground. Had the fire taken place the next night, in a packed hotel with its main dining rooms crowded for seder, it could have been truly catastrophic.

I guess that was the most serious burning of chamets ever…

I have to admit that wild night could not have been timed more thematically for any Jew, let alone a rabbi, to experience. After all, what is Passover but the remembrance of leaving in a rush in the middle of the night with nothing but the clothes on your back? And what could be a more explicit Pesach experience than to feel like a refugee, carrying your bags on your shoulder as you lead your children by the hand? It certainly helped shape my feeling about immigration and refugees and seeking asylum.

And what could have possibly been a more appropriate place to spend the night before the beginning of the Festival of Freedom than a town called, I kid you not, Liberty?

Sometimes we need a major shock like that to bring us to the realization of what matters most in life, to allow us to remove the overlay of stuff that we accumulate over time that prevents us from realizing just what is most important. When we are confronted with a true emergency we come to understand what matters in our lives: family, physical safety, and freedom, for example.

Emergencies help us understand what is truly chamets in our lives, and what isn’t.

I heard a fine sermon once on chamets, from a professor of mine at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, the inimitable Talmud teacher Steve Pasamenek, of blessed memory. Professor Pasamanek was a character—in addition to teaching Talmud he worked as a volunteer at the Sheriff’s Department talking potential suicides down, and he sometimes brought his County-issued gun to class with him, an unusual decoration in a very liberal and anti-gun Reform rabbinical seminary.

Anyway, just before Passover Dr. Pasamanek’s sermon was on chamets—the need to remove it from our homes, cleaning up the mess we allow to accumulate over the year. But his greater message was that we also need to be vigilant about the way chamets infects and ameliorates our ideals and goals. We start out in life with clear ideas about what we stand for, but before too long we find that our values become adulterated with the complex infections, leavenings and ameliorations of the world around us—chamets. Our job at the time of Pesach is to remove that chamets from our lives, allowing us to return to the finest and most ethical versions of ourselves that we can be. It is to cut out all the adulteration, to cleanse our homes and our souls of the contamination that has so insidiously insinuated itself into our lives.

What can you remove from your own life on this Shabbat HaGadol, this time of focus on taking out the chamets? What have you allowed to quietly change or degrade or damage or even pervert your ideals, to ferment them away from your true beliefs, who you really are? How can you seek to remove the leavening and come back to what you really should be?

And what can you do over this period of preparation to rediscover what truly matters in life: freedom, family, safety from harm.

It is these values that Passover reminds us of annually. And, paradoxically perhaps, it is this dedicated removal that will allow us to celebrate a truly great Shabbat, and a wonderful festival of Pesach.

May you be blessed, on this Shabbat HaGadol, with the ability to remove chamets from your own lives. And may this lead, next week, to a Passover of freedom and peace.

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