text version of sermon delivered on 3/29
This Shabbat is the last in a series of four special Shabbats leading up to Pesah, calledשבת החדש, meaning the Sabbath of THE month, namely the month of Nissan that is about to begin. There is a special maftir reading, and also a special haftara associated with the day, both of which describe the celebration of the Passover holiday, in the the maftir reading, the very first Passover that the Israelites observed in Egypt, smearing lamb’s blood on their doorposts so the angel of death would pass – over their homes, and in the haftara a description of a future Passover that will be observed in a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
Both texts emphasize the importance of the Passover holiday in the Jewish consciousness, in the first case the sense that the very first communal moment that we shared as a people was a Passover celebration, and in the second case that even in the future, in a time when we are expecting the Messiah, we will still be celebrating the Passover holiday, sitting at our seder tables, and telling the story of the Exodus to our children and grandchildren. That this Shabbat is called HAhodesh, the Sabbath of THE month, also shows how important Passover is in Judaism, calling the month the holiday falls in THE month. And when you add to that the fact that statistics consistently show that Passover is by far the most observed Jewish holiday, with upwards of %90 of Jews managing to go to a seder, it is quite clear that Passover is the Jewish holiday par excellence.
I grew up celebrating Passovers here in Baltimore, as each spring my parents would load my sister, my brother, and me into our car and we would drive south from Binghamton to what used to be, at least, warmer spring weather than we were used to in upstate New York. It was a special time for me each year, not only because I was able to see my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, but also because of the holiday itself, the rituals of the seder night, the special foods, and the almost magical way that Passover has of creating a time that feels sacred. Each year Passover was probably the most deeply felt Jewish time of my childhood, along with the fall holidays, and without question looking back I know that the holiday and its themes became core building blocks of my Jewish identity.
There was another spring experience during those trips south in my youth that helped to shape my Jewish self as well, and that was, strange as it may seem, my celebration of Easter. My mother is a convert to Judaism, so I grew up with one set of non-Jewish grandparents, and when Passover and Easter were close together, we would travel from Pikesville to Catonsville to see them, often on Easter Sunday. We didn’t go to Church with them of course, but we would come for Easter dinner, joining with cousins and aunts and uncles from the other side of my family for a meal that did not have four cups of wine and matzah and bitter herbs, but was festive nonetheless. I still remember to this day running around in my grandparents yard on an easter egg hunt, competing with the other children to see how many eggs I could collect, and I also remember sitting with my grandmother at her kitchen table, dying the eggs in bright spring colors.
Those experiences first and foremost affirmed my sense that I was part of a larger world, not just a Jewish world. I already knew this from growing up in a relatively small town with few Jews, and the truth is for a time I was the only Jewish child in my elementary school – the only one! But to know that I had family members who were not Jewish, and what is more to know that they had their own faith tradition that was rich and meaningful, reminded me year in and year out that God didn’t only care about the Jews, and that God wasn’t only interested in the Jews, but that God valued, cared about, and was interested in other faith traditions just as much as Judaism.
At the same time, the juxtaposition of Pesach and Easter left me, even at that young age, with the indelible impression that what we share is far greater than what divides us. I could not help but think, as I searched for Easter eggs, that just the night before I had been sitting with a seder plate in front of my eyes, and there next to the shank bone was a roasted – ? – egg! And if you know anything at all about Easter you know that it is a big candy holiday, with Easter baskets filled with chocolate bunnies, eggs, chicks, and jelly beans, and other tasty treats. But did you ever stop to think about how much candy we eat on Pesah? Chocolate covered almonds, apricots, raisins, macaroons – for crying out loud, we even make chocolate covered matzah! I don’t know about you, but I eat more chocolate during the 8 days of Pesah than I do the rest of the year combined! Just imagine my dilemma – after gorging on chocolate Passover treats, the very next morning I was confronted with a large chocolate bunnie – talk about a good problem!
But I learned another valuable lesson from those experiences, also formative in my Jewish identity, and that was that my Judaism made me distinct, it made me different. I still believe to this day that one of the very best ways to learn about yourself and deeply understand who you are and what is important to you is to spend time with who and what you are not. In some ways it is only through those experiences that the lines begin to form, and you start to have a sense that there are certain core parts of your identity that belong to you and make you part of a particular people with a particular history, a particular story, and a particular relationship with God. Certainly that is very much what Passover is about, but isn’t it funny that I learned that lesson in a powerful way on an Easter egg hunt many years ago.
Last night we had the fortune and blessing to share our evening services with the members of Union Bethel AME Church and their spiritual leader Pastor Sembly. Tomorrow morning, our choir and Beth El members will travel to their church, joining together in worship, study, song, and celebration. This is an experience for our congregation that we take great pride in, and although we are not able to do it every year, when we do do it, we always do it in the spring, when the earth comes back to life, when Jews sit at their seder tables, and when Christians celebrate the origins of their faith, come together in Church, and thank God for the blessing of renewed life, and on the Sunday afternoon of Easter share a sacred meal and look for hidden eggs.
It is a time of year when our faith traditions share more than they do at any other time, and it is also the time of year when we are most acutely aware of our own stories our own history, and our distinctiveness. What is perhaps most important of all is to let this sacred season remind us that God Godself rejoices in our difference, celebrates our distinctions, and accepts each of our paths as authentic and true. And also when we hold ourselves up in the great glory of God’s essence, we know deep down that we are truly all brothers and sisters, and that we have come from the same source, the Living God. I’ll conclude this morning with the words of this old Christian spiritual, a song I am familiar with because it was sung many times by the Jerry Garcia Band – the title of the song, appropriate for us this weekend, is My Sisters and Brothers, by the song writer Charles Johnson – here is the chorus –
Walk together little children,
You don’t ever have to worry,
Through this world of trouble
We gotta love one another,
Let’s take our fellow man by the hand
Try to help him to understand
We will all be together for ever and ever
When we make it to the promised land.