Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Short D'var Torah from Shabbat HaGadol

I don’t usually preach the night of Marriage Reconsecration, but tonight is also Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover, and I feel that at least a word of Torah should be shared. So permit me a vort.

When I was a rabbinic student a friend of mine served a pulpit in Paducah Kentucky. A non-Jew called him up and asked if he could come participate in the congregation’s celebration of Passover. After some chatting, my friend agreed. So on the first night, he showed up for the congregation’s Seder. Afterwards, he looked disappointed, and when my friend asked him about it, he said, “I don’t understand, this isn’t what’s in the Bible! I wasn’t expecting a dinner and storytelling! Where are the sacrifices?” Not actually knowing anything about modern Judaism, he expected the full Levitical routine of sheep offered up and roasted whole.

We laugh, and we sigh, and we slap our foreheads. We marvel at people’s ignorance and rejoice in our own redemption from ‘primitive’ or ‘primitive’ ritual. And yet, perhaps my friend’s biblical guest had a point. As Rachel Adler points out in the Women’s Torah Commentary, when we use the word ‘ritual’, we’re very quick to tack on the word ‘meaningless’ or ‘primitive’. We spend a lot of time and energy dismissing or apologizing for our traditions, or feeling somehow inadequate in their performance, and Passover is a terrific example. We clean our houses and bring up boxes full of half-remembered things, agonize over whether or not Pecans are Kosher or Kitniyot, or how this year we’ll keep Sephardi Kosher-for-Passover and have rice on the table. And then we’ll be sit down with friends and family and participating in the rituals of the seder, rituals that many people find ‘meaningless’, but nearly every Jew engages in, including and especially those Members of the Tribe who feel most distant from affiliation: the unengaged and uninspired.

Why do we do it? Because those ‘meaningless’ and ‘primitive’ rituals are also opportunities for holiness and elevation. They help us, as Elizabeth Ehrlich writes, “infuse the minutiae of everyday life with something more.” No, we don’t offer sacrifices anymore, but the Talmud reminds us that our tables at home are “Mikdash Me’at”, tiny sanctuaries. Which makes us the priests of those sanctuaries. Which means the effort we put in to preparing for the meal, from washing to cooking to setting the table, to the explicit rites we perform in the seder, to even the conversation around the table, is meant to lift us up. They become opportunities for spiritual integrity. So we write our own haggadahs, invite Jew and non-Jew alike to participate, share recipes and stories, even stories of boredom, not only as acts of friendship but acts of fellowship; not only because they are fun, but because they are sacred.

This week in Tzav, we’re commanded that the fire on the altar was to burn perpetually, not to go out. The fire of the altar went out nearly two millennia ago. But the fire within us to search for meaning and find it in our daily tasks—that fire burns on. May our own fire of devotion and holiness always burn. Amen. 

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