Rabbi Karen S. Citrin
March 27, 2015

Tonight, I hope you are prepared.  I hope you are comfortable and feeling alert and awake.  Because tonight is “Shabbat HaGadol,” literally “the Great Shabbat,” which is what the Shabbat before Passover is called.  It is traditionally the time for the longest sermon of the year!

Why, you might wonder, a long sermon to prepare for Passover?  Well, there is a lot to do to get ready.  Hopefully, you have not left it to the last minute, like me.  Especially here in Tulsa, as I discovered yesterday, stores can run out of matzah

But this week is not just about buying and cooking Passover foods, it is also about our spiritual preparation and readiness.  One way we experience the Passover story is by asking questions.  We retell the story each year around a table of family and friends with questions old and new.

As you know, the Passover seder contains four questions, usually asked by the youngest member at the seder.  Jews deeply value questions.  In fact, we often like to answer a question with another question!  So tonight, as we look ahead to our Passover celebration that will take place exactly one week from tonight, let us ask four questions and explore their answers.

Question number one:  What should we do with our chametz, our leavened products that still remain on our shelves?  In other words, what do we need to do to get ready?

Just as we scour the Tulsa stores for matzah and other Passover products, our tradition instructs us to scour our homes and remove any last crumbs of chametz.  The Torah bids us to eat unleavened bread during Passover, to remind us how we left Egypt so hastily, that the dough did not have time to rise.  The Book of Exodus instructs us that chametz neither be eaten nor seen in one’s house during Pesach (Exodus 12:18-19).  So now is the time to carbo load on all that pasta!   

Like many things Jewish, the rabbis later came to detail the process of removing chametzB’deekat chametz, the search for chametz involves a careful cleaning of places where food is eaten or stored, a spring-cleaning of sorts.  And the search includes a ceremonial investigation of nooks and crannies by candlelight the night before the seder (Mishna Pesachim 1:1).

One of my sons recently asked me if we were going to do the cool Passover thing with the flashlight and spoon.  It is customary to go through your home picking up last crumbs and sweep them away.  Mentally, the chametz is removed, with a blessing, which declares that any chametz that may have gone undetected is to be like the ownerless dust of the earth.  In other words, it no longer exists, and we can enter into Passover with a free and clear mind. 

Of course we can also donate leavened products to those in need.  Or some prefer to close or tape it shut in a designated place in the home for after the holiday. 

But there is one other layer.  The search for chametz from our homes also has spiritual meaning.  Yeast symbolizes arrogance; that which puffs us up and makes us look down on others.  On Pesach, which celebrates the rejection of Egyptian civilization and the new beginning of Jewish freedom, the matza represents simplicity, a desirable spiritual quality (Don Isaac Abarbanel).  Eating matza for one week reminds us that once we were slaves, and now we are free.  We eat the bread of affliction to remind us that we can help bring about a more just and compassionate world.                  

Question number two:  Why is this night different from all other nights?  This is THE question asked during the Passover seder. The essential meaning of this question is: What is different about this holiday and this time of year?  What do I do differently?  What is different about me?  This question is really a question about our Jewish identity.   Passover is the time to recharge our identity.   

The Exodus is the master narrative of our people.  Or in other words, it is the greatest story ever told.  And it is ours.  This story of our journey from slavery to freedom binds us together around common values, history, and experience.

Think about Moses for a moment.  Moses grew up in two cultures – first the Egyptian culture, and then later discovered that he was a Hebrew and became one.  Much like American Jews today.  Like Moses, many of us navigate and sometimes struggle with the blending of our Jewish identity amidst our American culture. 

At the moment when Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen, he had to ask himself, “Who am I?”  And when God called to Moses out of the burning bush, Moses responded, “Hineni, Here I am.”  Or, “Hineni, Here am I.” (Exodus 3:4)  In his response, Moses affirmed his identity, his place, among the Jewish people.[1]

Rabbi Donniel Hartman,[2] President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, writes, “The distinctiveness of Pesach lies not in its unique rituals but in that it answers the question of who is a Jew.  The Exodus from Egypt was the founding moment of the Jewish people.  We began as a people, even though we as yet had no land, and no Torah.”  The majority were of little faith.  What constituted our collective identity was our decision to affirm our membership in the People of Israel.”  The seder evolved in order to help us relive the story of the exodus.  His father, Rabbi David Hartman, added, “The Haggadah is not a prayer book or revelation of the word of God in which every word has to be uttered in its prescribed place.  A service to zoom through.  Rather, it is meant to be a play in which we the people play very important roles.”[3] 

The four children in the Haggadah remind us that we each have a seat around the table.  Don’t take yourself out.  Put yourself in and ask your question.    

So, why will next Friday night be different?  Yes, we will dip twice and recline, we will eat the bitter herb and maybe if we can stomach it, some gefilte fish.  We’ll debate whether matzah balls should float or if they should sink.  We’ll sing Chad Gadya and Who Knows One.  And hopefully, these customs will help us to truly feel different.  We will feel grateful to be Jewish, and to be a part of the greatest story ever told.  Like Moses, we will proudly say, “Hineni, Here am I.”

Question number three:  Why do we retell the same story year after year?  Jews are the masters of repetition, starting the Torah from the beginning each year, reciting the same prayers each week or even day.  “Memories,” said Elie Wiesel, “are not just what we own, but who we are.”[4]

The main challenge behind this question is how to keep the story relevant with each telling.  How do we keep the memories alive?  How do we tell the old in new ways? 

The central part of the Haggadah is when we say: “In each and every generation people must regard themselves as though they personally left Egypt.”  “B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi’mitzrayim” (Haggadah).   

How do we fulfill this instruction?  How do we make the story personal?  We do so by discovering the ways we are still enslaved and the freedoms we each celebrate with each new year.  What are ten plagues that afflict our world today?  What is something in our lives that we are grateful for right now, that we can say “dayeinu,” that is enough? 

In recent history, women have especially reclaimed the seder story and started to tell it in new ways, through our eyes.  We have remembered the women of the Exodus – the midwives who resisted Pharaoh’s decree and saved the Israelite children.  And we remember Miriam, the prophet, who led the women in song and dance through the parted sea and sustained our people in the wilderness with her well of water.  We have relished our role in the kitchen and reclaimed our place at the seder table.  We have added an orange to the seder plate, to celebrate diversity and inclusivity.

Today, we continue the struggles for equality for gays and lesbians, and for racial justice in our communities.  This month, which marks the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma, is an excellent reminder of how we have marched together in the past, and how we must continue to do so today.  Fifty years ago, in the wake of “Bloody Sunday,” religious leaders including Temple Israel’s Rabbi Rosenthal and citizens of Tulsa gathered together for the first interfaith service in Tulsa’s history.  I hope you will consider joining me this Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at All Souls Unitarian Church for a citywide commemorative interfaith service.  People from all over Tulsa will gather to honor our history, and reaffirm our commitment for racial justice and healing in our city and nation. 

What an excellent way to prepare for Passover.  And a reminder that we must continue to relive the Passover story today in new ways.   

In what ways will you retell the story and infuse new life into your Passover seder next week?  Try seeking out new melodies, new recipes, perhaps a new haggadah, or a new guest at your table.  How will you hold the attention of the youngest members at your seder?  Our Torah teaches, “Tell your child on that very day: This is what Adonai did for me when I left Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  How will you pass on the story so that a child will continue to tell it through his or her eyes years from now?  On Passover, we all become storytellers. 

Question number four:  Why do we conclude the seder with the words, “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim”?  “Next year in Jerusalem.”  I love that even people who are in Jerusalem, conclude their seder with these words.  Yerushalayim, literally meaning city of peace, ir shalom, encapsulates the ultimate vision of peace.

But Jerusalem is not the key word here.  The key word is haba’ah – future – next year.  The whole seder ends on a note of hope and radical optimism for the future.  One of my favorite moments near the end of the seder is opening the door for Elijah.  You can see the anticipation in children, their wide eyes filled with wonder and awe as they peek outside the door and watch to see if the wine goes down a little in Elijah’s special cup.  Elijah the prophet is viewed as the messenger of peace, the bringer of peaceful days.  The Haftarah portion for Shabbat HaGadol captures this vision: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and awesome day of God, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of children to their parents” (Malachi 3:23-24).  There is no greater vision of peace than that. 

The seder ends with a message of hope for the future.  Passover is not about being; it is about becoming.  New possibilities are always present; history can change (Rabbi David Hartman).  Tomorrow will be better than yesterday.  Passover is the turn of the season, the rebirth of spring, the beauty of lovers in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs.  Passover is the night for dreams, for visions about what humanity can be.  Passover is about opening the door to possibility. 

So, on this Great Sabbath, and in the week ahead, ask yourselves: How will you remove your chametz?  How will your Passover experience be different and how will it recharge your Jewish identity?  How will you retell an ancient story in new ways?  How will you open the door and look to the future?

L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem.  Once we were slaves; now we are free.  It is the greatest story ever told.  I wish you a Chag Sameach – a most joyful Passover Festival ahead.                                       

[1] “Here Am I – A Personal Midrash on Moses’ Search for Identity.” Julius Lester. In The Leader’s Guide to The Family Participation Haggadah A Different Night, by Noam Zion and David Dishon.  

[2] “Pesach Defines Who is a Jew.” Donniel Hartman. Jerusalem Post: 1/4/08. 

[3] “On Passover and Family Education.” Rabbi David Hartman. A Different Night.

[4] The Women’s Seder Sourcebook – Rituals & Reading for Use at the Passover Seder. Ed. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, Tara Mohr, Catherine Spector.