This a text version of my Shabbat morning sermon from 4/1/17
In my very first year of rabbinical school, in one of my classes, one of our assignments was to read the weekly Torah portion and to be prepared to discuss it. This was the first time in my life I had ever read through the entire Torah week by week, and everything was going along very smoothly. Genesis was wonderful, all of the great stories about the patriarchs and matriarchs, their various trials and tribulations. Exodus was terrific, with the Passover narrative, and Moses, and Pharaoh, and the plagues, even if it bogged down a little bit at the end with all of the information about the tabernacle. Then we got to Leviticus. And I began to read this morning’s Torah portion, Vayikra, with its descriptions of the various animal sacrifices, and how the animals were killed, what was done with parts of their bodies, how the blood was sprinkled, and I had no access to it. There was no narrative at all, but even worse the material was so obscure and arcane, there was no way for me to feel any connection to it.
So I went to a young rabbi who was teaching at the time at the University of Judaism where I was studying, and I told him there seemed to be no way for me to connect to Leviticus at all. And this is what he said to me – “Think of the most valuable thing you own. Something that is important to you, something you need in your day to day life, maybe even rely on. Maybe your car. Now imagine this – you’ve got a nice new Lexus. But you feel that maybe you’ve done something wrong. So you go to the rabbi in your neighborhood, and the rabbi says ‘here is what you are going to do. Take your new Lexus, and offer it up as a sacrifice to God. Take it to the local junk yard, hand it over to the worker there, and watch as the car is put into one of those car compactors, and crushed to bits.’”
Then my teacher said “that is probably the best way for us to get into the mind of an Israelite who brought an animal to the Temple in Jerusalem to sacrifice it as an offering to God. That animal was the most valuable thing that Israelite owned. By far. It was something he relied on, maybe every day, for food, or plowing his field, or both. And yet he was willing to take that thing, as valuable as it was, as important as it was to him, and to hand it to the priest, watch the priest slaughter the animal, and in his mind give that animal over to God.”
Now I didn’t have a new Lexus back in those days – but the idea – the image – helped me understand the book of Leviticus, helped me connect to it – and also gave me a powerful insight into what our ancestors experienced as they approached the Temple, the Priest, and they believed God’s presence, willing to sacrifice something that was enormously valuable to them for a chance to feel closer to that Divine Presence.
So with that sense of sacrifice as context, I would like to think with you for a moment about a growing trend I see in the community today, and about how maybe we should be willing to make some sacrifices – not talking about your car! – relatively small sacrifices – sacrifices of time, maybe of inconvenience, maybe travel – so that this trend does not continue to grow.
The trend itself I would guess you probably have all heard about, maybe even experienced. I’ve seen it with Hanukkah, and it is happening now with Pesah – where a family will decide to take their celebration of the holiday and move it to the closest convenient weekend evening – even thought that is not the actual holiday. So for example people will have their Hanukkah dinner and party on a Saturday or Sunday evening before the holiday starts, because it is more convenient for members of the family. This in my mind was not ideal, but Hanukkah at the end of the day is not one of our major holidays. And by the way, even if people move their Hanukkah dinners, they still seem to light the menorah on the right nights.
But now people are starting to do it with Pesah. So for example this year the seders are held on Monday and Tuesday evening, the 10th and 11th of April. And I know there are some people who are planning to have the seders on the weekend before, say on Saturday night the 8th. And I understand how much easier it makes the holiday! First of all you don’t have to worry about getting up for work on Sunday, like you do on Tuesday or Wednesday. On Saturday people don’t have to rush to get home from work to make it to the beginning of the seder. If people want to travel from out of town, it is much easier and much less disruptive to travel for the weekend, and not miss work. I get it! And if you push me, and say is it better to do it on Saturday night than to not do it at all, I would probably say yes.
But I would ask you to keep the following things in mind. The first is there are a series of commandments that each Jew is supposed to fulfill on the evening of Passover at the seder. The eating of matzah is only one, but also the eating of bitter herbs, the 4 cups of wine, even the telling of the story at the seder table is considered to be a mitzvah, a commandment. And the tradition is very clear – if you don’t do those things on the night of the seder you have not fulfilled the commandments. The only way you can is by doing it on the right nights.
The second thing is I think it is an important lesson to teach our children and grandchildren by saying this takes priority. The Passover seder takes priority. It takes priority over work, or inconvenience, or time or travel issues. And if you take children out of school to travel to get to the Passover seder on the right night, or if they miss school the next day, or if you take a half a day off of work, it shows your children and grandchildren how important this is. And they will remember that – they will remember “my family put everything else aside so we could come together for the seder.” It was that important. It is a great lesson to teach our kids.
And the last thing is this. Sometimes to live a full and meaningful Jewish life, you have to make some sacrifices. In fact I would argue that sometimes making sacrifices helps us to live a full and meaningful Jewish life. We are not talking about sacrificing the most valuable object that we own, something our ancestors were willing to do for God and for the tradition. But if our ancestors were willing to do that, shouldn’t we be willing to make some small sacrifices here and there to give our Judaism the respect and honor it deserves?
Having the seder on the right night may require some sacrifice. It may be inconvenient, it may create logistical difficulties or travel problems. But it is the right thing to do. For us, for the tradition, maybe most importantly of all for our children and grandchildren. May we all be blessed to sit with the generations of our family at the seder table – on the eve of Pesah – for many, many years to come.