Shabbat HaGadol

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel

This Shabbat is not merely Shabbat. It is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before one of our most ancient and holy festivals. We will have cleaned our kitchens, perhaps our cars, and definitely any other place we might eat in our homes. Not one crumb of chametz will be found in our homes, but what about in our hearts? In the opening of the Torah service, when we sing “Bey ana raheitz” we are singing an Aramaic passage from the Zohar. This same mystical commentary teaches an important lesson about Egypt and our escape from it, our liberation from it. The Zohar looks at the word Mitzrayim, Egypt and sees M’tzarim, mi, “from”, tzar, “narrow”. The Zohar argues that when Gd took us from Mitzrayim, he also wanted to take us from our narrow places, from our constricted opportunities, from our narrow-mindedness.

I have regularly shared that I hoped people would spend as much time cleaning their minds and souls as they spent on their kitchens. What do I mean by that? Jews are an introspective people. Even though we are called the People of the Book, actions are very important to us, DOING the mitzvot are important. Cleaning the kitchen is important. Purging our expired foods is needed, but we also have to purge our expired souls! As we have been trapped inside our homes, have we considered those who do not have cozy homes? Have we remembered those outside?

The 10th chapter of Pesachim, speaks about the seder. In the very first mishnah, on the very first page of that chapter, it says that even the poorest person, the one entirely dependent upon the good-will of the community, that person, is required to have a full seder, to eat and drink like a king. There is a story of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, the grandfather of the similarly named Rabbi Soloveitchik who led YU for decades. A woman came to him before Pesach, asking if it was acceptable to use milk instead of wine for the four cups of the Seder. He answered her by giving enough money for an entire meal. His wife wondered “You gave her money because she can't afford the wine, but why so much?” The rabbi answered "If she wants to drink milk at the Seder, it is obvious she has no meat for Pesach. So I gave her enough to buy wine and meat for the entire Holiday."

This is one of our narrow places, at this time of year, we worry about our needs--especially after you go Passover shopping. Our budgets are not what we would like them to be, yet now is the time when people need help! Which makes me think of our parsha, of the sacrifices of atonement. Last week we learned the different options for the sin offering, for a high priest or for the entire community, the sacrifice was to be of a young bullock; for a king or a prince, the offering was to be a young male goat;for other individuals, the offering was to be either a young female goat, or a female lamb; for poor individuals unable to afford these, two turtle doves or two young pigeons could be substituted, one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering; for the very poorest individuals, an ephah

of unscented fine flour could be offered instead of an animal.

It says a lot about both the Torah and our rabbinic ancestors that the details of the sacrifice of atonement differed based on one’s means. The punishment not only fit the crime, but also the criminal! Since I am not an economist, I cannot tell you the relative salaries of those various positions or categories, but I would imagine the cost was intended to be significant!

This year we have all had to make sacrifices. Our seder tables will have many more empty chairs. We may not have all the dishes we desired. People are having to make tough choices about having a seder alone or joining friends in alternate ways. Ultimately, the command of Pesach is not to eat, possess or benefit from chametz. No matter our living situation, we can make that happen. While in other years I might have recommended truly removing all chametz from your home, this year, with grocery challenges, I emphasize selling your chametz, locking it up in a cabinet or pantry and buying it back AFTER Pesach--if it is needed.

I want to close with a poem I wrote a number of years ago:


We shudder to hear this word.

We think it archaic, ancient, past.

We pray that our prayers are the answers,

that our words heal the wounds we cause.

Yet, we are called to atone, at Pesach,

During the Omer, the month of Av, Yom Kippur.

and every day in between.

We are asked to repent for sins large and small--

Yet we wonder about the word SIN.

Rabbis fear to speak it,

afraid of turning off those on the fringe.

And yet, it looms large.

To eat chametz on Pesach IS to sin,

to separate oneself from the Jewish community.

I will offend by saying this, but we ignore at our own peril.

But every sin has a remedy, even without sacrifice,

we can return, each and every day.

We can see that our actions have an impact,

that each mitzvah repairs the world.

That is not just a dream of the most fervent,

but a blessing for us all.

A sin is an opportunity.

It is a call to action.

It is the clarion call to change.

Will we answer it?

Will we listen?

Will we offer the only sacrifice we know?

--Prayer and Tzedekah?

Our much smaller than normal Seder