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Finding God-Traces on Pandemic Passover

Sermon Shabbat Pesach 5780

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

My favorite innovation at Seder this year comes from an old friend, Simon Menkes, from the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education Ulpan trip to Israel when I was 15 years old. While Seders in California were even more restricted in the numbers who could attend than ours were here in Arizona, he had, I believe, 6 members of his immediate blended family present. His complicated version of the Afikoman hunt involved hiding 5 afikomans around his place for guests to search for, so that everyone found an afikoman, with a Coronavirus themed-prize hidden with it. But some of the afikomans were kind of red herrings, in that they had useful but slightly disappointing prizes hidden along with them, such as an individual surgical mask, or a pair of disposable gloves. But one afikoman was hidden with a real treasure: a roll of toilet paper!

Now that’s a real prize this Pesach…

My friends, this has been an unusual Passover, to say the least. Instead of the large family seders for Pesach, or huge congregational ones that we would normally hold, we were limited to those family members who live in our homes, plus perhaps a few very close relatives or friends with whom we have had a great deal of contact. I’ve been telling people that just last year our inaugural seder at Congregation Beit Simcha we drew 107 people on the first night of Passover, and it was likely the largest congregational Seder in Tucson. This year, the 8 people gathered around my dining room table made our Seder again among the largest in Tucson. What a difference a year, and a pandemic, makes…

Today is the Shabbat of Pesach, nearly halfway through the springtime holiday of Matzah, and of course I’m going to do my traditional complaining about how little I enjoy the bread of affliction. Of course, we are not supposed to enjoy this unleavened tasteless cardboard version of the food that our ancestors ate as they fled Egyptian slavery. And I, personally, fulfill this mitzvah quite completely, eating the classic foodstuff of intestinal disturbance purely out of duty and responsibility. But boy, I just wish our Israelite ancestors had brought along a French baker or two when they headed out into the Sinai Desert and freedom…

Still, my father, Rabbi Baruch Cohon, asked me why I must complain so much about Matzah, so vocally, annually. And so as a kind of minchah offering tonight I bring you a favorite poem on the subject of Matzah by an old friend, Marge Piercy:

Flat you are as a door mat

and as homely

No crust, no glaze, you lack a

cosmetic glow.

You break with a snap.

You are dry as a twig split from an oak in midwinter.

You are bumpy as a mud basin in a drought.

Square as a slab of pavement,

you have no inside to hide raisins or seeds.

You are pale as the full moon pocked with craters.

What we see is what we get.

honest, plain, dry,

Shining with nostalgia

As if baked with light

Instead of heat.

The bread of flight and haste

In the mouth you promise


There are four names for the holiday of Pesach: Passover, of course, reminding us of the Angel of Death passing over the Israelite homes to smite the Egyptians; Chag HaAviv, the springtime festival; Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of Matzah, about which we have said enough tonight; and Zman Cheirutein, the festival of freedom.

Which brings us to the central theme of this great festival: human freedom, liberation from bondage and oppression, the true purpose of Pesach and the inspiration for so many attempts throughout history to free people from the brutal control of tyrants. In fact, two of the founding fathers of America, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, thought the Exodus should be on the seal of the new nation of America, celebrating our liberation from British bondage. They saw themselves, American revolutionaries, as updated versions of Moses, leading their people to freedom.

We use Torah readings during Passover in the same way that we use the Hagadah at the Seder: to teach, remind, and refresh our understanding of the great blessing and value of freedom in every possible permutation. Freedom is too easy to take for granted. We must always remind ourselves of its blessings.

This year, in quarantine and home sheltering and on lockdown, we are tasting just a little bit of the oppression our ancestors experienced in slavery, the lack of freedom of movement and assembly, the absence of close human contact in a regular way. It’s certainly not slavery, and our isolation is not imposed by a Pharaoh; but it’s surely a necessary abridgement of freedom.

In Egyptian slavery we prayed, in essence for deliverance. Every Pesach at the end of the Seder we sing, “L’shana Haba’ah biyerushalayim, Next year may we celebrate our freedom in Jerusalem!” This year, we pray “Next year may we be free of plague and pandemic, to celebrate our freedom together in Jerusalem!” Or even right here in Tucson, where we live, with family and friends.

In addition to the usual suspects for Torah readings for Pesach—the plagues, the Passover sacrifice, the Exodus, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds and the washing away of the Egyptian army and its chariots—there is one unusual special Torah reading, and we’ll chant it tomorrow morning, right here on Facebook Live. It’s from the portion of Ki Tisa in Exodus, and it includes one of the more mystical and puzzling sections of the Torah. Moses asks that God’s presence be revealed to him directly, and God replies, “You shall not see My face and live.”

You shall not see My face and live; the power and presence of the Divine is too much for even the greatest of our ancestors to be allowed to fully encounter it. God invites—well, commands really—Moses to hide his own face in the cleft of a rock, and God allows the divine presence to pass sort of behind Moses. In other words, Moshe rabeinu, our great teacher Moses who supposedly knows God panim el panim, face to face, actually only gets the backside of God…

That’s not to imply that God, well, moons Moses. Although we are created in b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we don’t tend to think that we are somehow subject only to the flippancy of God. No, this curious passage teaches a profound lesson.

We are not going to be saved by gazing at God’s face, by the direct experience of God’s intent. Our way is more complex, more subtle, more challenging—and more honest and beautiful. We have the responsibility to seek God’s presence in the world, to find the God traces that are present everywhere, if we can make ourselves aware enough to look for them. We won’t find God by looking directly at God; we will find God’s face in the presence that God leaves for us to find, like a kind of divine afikoman, in the world around us.

Even when we are stuck looking at the same walls every day. Even we find ourselves marooned with just a few people, or just one, or even alone.

God is there even then. For God is present everywhere. And when, in this season of Passover, on this holiday of freedom, we take the time—time we now have in excess—to look for God, perhaps, like Moses, we will truly see God’s face: in the faces of our fellow human beings. In the beauty of nature. In the small miracles that preserve our existence.

In this shul, or in our own homes.

May we each be blessed, on this Shabbat Pesach, with the ability to find God in our own lives.

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