Sermon Shabbat HaGadol/Tzav 5780
Congregation Beit Simcha
Where so 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. Being a traditional place, the subject of these two sermons was always fixed. On Shabbat Shuvah the rabbi 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 this week in preparation for the celebration of the Passover that begins next Wednesday night.
It is easy to understand why a rabbi would preach about Teshuvah, the moral return that is so central to our entire being as Jews. That subject of course remains focal for everyone who has ever erred in any part of his or her lives, which is basically all of us. But the subject of chamets seems less referable today.
Chamets, in the technical sense, means any kind of bread-like product and anything that has been adulterated or contaminated with leavened materials.
Removing chamets and making homes kosher for Pesach is a kind of 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, or even any grain product at all that is not explicitly kosher for Passover. Next you have to clean everything carefully, including all the nooks and crannies where any chamets might be hiding. Then you have to remove all dishes and cookware that are made of a porous material and 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 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.
There is an old story that illustrates this.
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 one day he decided to elevate him to head advisor. After it was announced, the other advisors objected. After all, "It was bad enough," the other advisors complained, "just to sit in counsel with a Jew". But to allow a Jew to lord it over them was just too much to bear.
Being a compassionate ruler, the King agreed with them, and ordered the Jew to convert. What could the Jew do? He had to obey his King.
As soon as the act was done, the Jew felt great remorse for this terrible decision. As days became weeks, his remorse turned to despondency, and as months passed, his mental depression took its toll on his physical health.
He became weaker and weaker. Finally he could stand it no longer. His mind was made up. 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. He had no idea that the Jew felt so strongly about it. "Well, if that is how you feel," he said, "then the other advisors will just have to learn to live with it. Your counsel is much too important to me to do without. Go and be a Jew again!" he said.
The Jew felt elated. He hurried home to tell the good news to his family. He felt the strength surge back into his body as he ran, Finally, he burst into the house and called out to his wife. "Rifka, Rifka, we can be Jews again, we can be Jews again!"
His wife glared back at him angrily and said, "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. While that isn’t a possibility during this year of Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Home Lockdown, it is actually quite common.
Fourteen years ago this coming week, during a sabbatical year, most of my own family planned just such a Passover week. I took my three then-very- young children with me and we flew to New York, and 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.
You see, there are tour groups that take over a resort property for the holiday of 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 basically 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.
If you have ever made a house kosher for Passover you know how appealing it would be to have someone—anyone—else do it for you, no matter how expensive or how far you would have to travel.
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 clearly kosher hotel room and completed my children’s bedtime rituals when the hotel fire alarm went off. I called the front desk to see if this was a test or some kind of malfunction, and they told me to evacuate immediately. So I got the kids into shoes and coats, grabbed my cellphone and car keys, and we all headed out into the hotel corridor, where people were running towards the exits. We walked out one exit door that a-7- year-old Gabe opened and saw flames shooting up into the air from the building’s roof—clearly not a false alarm or a drill going on now!—turned around and went back through the building to another exit and got out the front, along with lots of other guests, and headed to the parking lot—it’s the safest place to be in a fire, a large concrete space with no burnable elements. And then we watched the fire, which had begun in the bakery, spread throughout 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, but all the elaborate 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 family to a motel in the nearby town of Liberty wearing the clothes on our back and carrying nothing in our hands. We came back the next morning to find that our stuff had been packed up by hotel employees and was all safe and sound, and we carried that away in plastic bags.
The tour operator, meantime, having been first told of the fire by my dad after I called him in Los Angeles on my cellphone, rearranged everything by mid-morning, and we guests were relocated to another hotel, the Nevele, about 40 minutes away, where the same program was in place. I collected our baggage from the ruins of the Villa Roma, and ultimately we arrived as refugees at the new hotel a little tired but in one piece, with all of our stuff, and no one too much the worse for the experience. Thank God that no one was hurt in the fire. Had it taken place the next night, when the hotel would have been packed and its main dining rooms crowded for seder, it would have been truly catastrophic. But it turned out OK.
I guess that was the greatest example of serious burning of chamets ever…
I have to admit that this 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?
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 and which 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. Emergencies like fires the night before Pesach. Emergencies like pandemics, forcing us out of the routines of our lives, compelling us to face danger and evaluate what we truly value.
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, alav hashalom. Professor Pasamanek was a character—in addition to teaching Talmud he worked as a volunteer at the Sheriff’s Department talking potential suicides off of roofs, and he would sometimes bring 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 that we sometimes 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 ideas about what we stand for, and before too long we find that what we stand for becomes adulterated with the complex infections and adulterations 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.
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.
And to rediscover what truly matters in life: freedom, family, safety from harm. It is these which we also must value at this traumatic time of challenge right now, these which we must balance against one another at times, sacrificing some personal freedom for the greater good of safety from harm, all of us seeking to protect our families. And one more value: the value of faith and belief, of commitment to those beliefs, of living life every day in a way that demonstrates our ideals.
It is these values that Passover reminds us of annually. And, paradoxically perhaps, it is that removal of chamets that allows us to celebrate a truly great Shabbat, and a wonderful festival of Pesach.
May you be blessed, on this strangest of all Shabbat HaGadol with the ability to remove chamets from your own lives. And may this lead, next week, to a Passover of freedom—even in our restricted spaces—and of true peace.