This shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol – the great shabbat, the shabbat before pesach, or Passover. Traditionally, a learned rabbi would expound at length on the laws of Pesach, so the people could be reminded of the right way to do all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and other tasks that are involved in preparing for the holiday….
As we prepare for our seders, it is good to remember that our seders have both a physical and spiritual meal. So I thought that rather than expound on the physical aspects, we could look at some of the spiritual delicacies this holiday offers us…
As you all know, our haggadah—the telling of our Passover story—is like a family album of our people’s journey. The first layer comes from the torah, the story of Exodus – our national liberation from slavery…then the Mishnah, and Gemara, then commentaries, right up to our modern moments…With Go Down Moses, Pharaoh Pharaoh, Miriam’s Song, Ella’s Song…All of these layers reinforce the premise that we have to make sure that we teach our children and that we remember what it was like—is like to be slaves…
Even before the seder begins, the night before, we search our houses for chametz, leavened bread crumbs. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873-1936 Belarus), a Mussar master, asked, “Why does God care whether a Jew possesses a tiny morsel of chametz on Pesach?” His answer is that God doesn’t really care about chametz (and to that I say Baruch HaShem—Thank God). What God cares about, R’ Levovitz surmised, is that we are mindful so that we are ready to reflect on our Exodus from Egypt, the narrow straits. The attention to detail in the search for chametz is meant to wake us up, not unlike the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbis suggest we are supposed to tell a story that goes from g’nut to shevach – from degradation to praise. The simple meaning of that statement is fulfilled the moment we sing Once we were slaves, and now we are free! (sing) – avadim hayenu… ata b’nai chorin.. b’nai chorin.
But the deeper meaning of that, I think, has to do with whether we see ourselves as ever having been redeemed. Have you ever suffered a dark night of the soul, only to wake up the next morning (either literally or figuratively) and see a way forward? Are you in recovery or participating in a 12 step program? Have you ever felt like you were rescued from a bad scene, a big scare, a bad diagnosis, or gotten something good, something really good, that you aren’t so sure you deserved?
Last week, at Kaiser, I sat with a woman whose father was dying, and she was angry at God, and wanted reassurance that she wouldn’t be punished for her anger. She mentioned to me that—for the first time in her life—she was asking “Why me, God?” Her default position had always been, “Why NOT me? Am I so special? No.” I loved that she was able to see that what happens to us isn’t so much about what we deserve, as noticing, being mindful…
When good things happen to you, do you wonder, Why me? Do you express gratitude or even shevach—Hallelujah! That’s moving from g’nut to shevach–from fear to awareness…
You might want to ask people to discuss this before they sing avadim hayinu, and maybe they’ll sing with even more gusto…
Next we arrive at the maggid, the telling of the story itself. A few years ago at my family seder, I included a line about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart during the last 5 plagues, and we launched into a long discussion about God taking free will from the despot, and whether, therefore, Pharaoh was off the hook and God on it for what followed. I took the sentence out the next year, because I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to offer a different way to look at the spiritual message of this conundrum. So I researched it…and I offer it to you…but first a brief few lines of Torah, that ostensibly have nothing to do with Pharaoh’s heart.
In Devarim/Deuteronomy 10, we read…
Deut. 10:12 And now, O Israel, what does YHWH (the four letter unpronounceable name for God) your God demand of you? Only this: to revere YHWH your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God, and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and soul…. 16Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. [Literally circumcise your heart] 17For YHWH your God …upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing them with food and clothing.—19You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This text tells us what we must do: revere, love and follow the Holy Blessed One. But, how? By opening our hearts, softening our hearts, so that we can be just, uphold the cause of the vulnerable and befriend the stranger. This is a powerful message, especially when you think about the powerful image of circumcising our hearts. All the shmutz that encircles our hearts every day—feeling angry and expressing it, making bad choices, yelling at the TV…all those feelings, thoughts, actions pile around our hearts, and sometimes it takes real spiritual effort to remove it. That’s circumcising your heart…
But back to our story… Pharaoh did not embody or practice any of this—his heart had been hardened long ago. But still, you might ask, did God really have to go so far with him and his people? Our commentators through the ages have also struggled with these questions. I’m going to offer three basic arguments, that may or may not satisfy.
The first argument, put forth by Nachmanides (Spain and Israel, 1194-1270) and Sforno (Italy, 1475-1550), was that the hardening was an alternative to coercion from the plagues themselves, preventing Pharaoh from turning from his ways until he had a choice. If Pharaoh turned toward the good of letting us go because of his fear of the plagues, trembling at the signs and miracles, this would not have been a sincere teshuvah, but merely action to avoid pain and suffering. God, according to Ramban, fortified Pharaoh’s resistance to let his psyche survive the plagues and keep following his true path.
But still, why did God have to go so far? Maybe God stopped to give Pharaoh a chance to change, but he turned back to his evil ways each time.
The next argument, advanced by Maimonides (Spain and Egypt, 1138-1204), is that the hardening was a punishment. Pharaoh becomes deprived of free will, the potential to act rightly and the opportunity for teshuvah or turning away from evil. Rambam believed that this punishment was not for refusing to let us go during the first 5 plagues, but went back to enslaving us in the first place, treating us like potential traitors with no proof.
The final argument is that heart hardening is a part of the process of living one’s life. If the way to cut away the thickening around our hearts is to work every day on consciously and conscientiously making good choices, then Pharaoh, throughout his life, and through the first five plagues, had made so many bad choices that even if, on some level, he could finally fathom that he was not all powerful, that he was not a god, he still could not change sincerely and sustain it. His course was set, he was not doing his daily Mussar work, and he had reached the point beyond habit until he was now unable to change. David Hartman, z”l, (US and Israel, 1931-2013) wrote that
God created humans in such a way that once we set out on a course in life – noble or nefarious – we become “wired,” in a sense, to continue on that path. Based on this reading, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart so much as he created a world in which Pharaoh’s ongoing refusal to free the Hebrew slaves gave birth to a self-perpetuating reality. For this reason, Pharaoh represents the antithesis of freedom. He is the embodiment of enslavement, of both the self and the other.
If you are brought up to believe you are a god, you develop a sense of entitlement that is hard to break. A study at UC Berkeley of students playing Monopoly, with one randomly selected student given advantages (more money, more dice, higher payout for passing go), showed that the entitled students evidenced a dramatic change in behavior, including explaining their advantages as though they earned them. Up in Tahoe, one year a group of Bnai Mitzvah students and I staged a play for Passover in which one of them, one of the sweetest, kindest children I know, played God. That evening, after the play, he became what his mother considered “a little too full of himself.” Just 20 minutes as God and a sweet child changed, thankfully only for a moment.
Imagine a life of that entitlement.
Finally, an essential obligation of the seder is that we must consider ourselves as though each of us had come forth out of Egypt. Not just read about it, ponder the symbols, but consider ourselves, present in the moment, sense that we were slaves and we are on the journey out of Egypt, the land of oppression.
To me, that requires that we show the shevach, the praise that comes from freedom and do what God asks of us. How? What do we do every day or at those important moments in our lives to show that we partner with holiness, that we stand on the side of the angels? Bruce Springsteen did that last week when he cancelled his concert in Greensboro NC in solidarity with the people opposing their discriminatory anti-LGBT legislation. You all do it with your work with the Food Bank.
On a more personal level, how do you work toward your own personal escape from Egypt, the narrow place? How do we thumb our noses at our internal oppressors, as well as the ones out in the world?
The great Mussar master, Rav Yisrael Salanter, defined Mussar as the Torah’s antidote to what he called timtum ha’lev, the closed heart that is no longer sensitive and supple. Mussar is meant to re-awaken us to the truths we know well but have “forgotten”. He wasn’t interested in introducing anything new as much as he wanted us to remain sensitive to what we already know.
So you know some habit is bad for you: maybe…
You eat sugar when your doctor tells you not to;
You still smoke;
you don’t get enough exercise…
You yell at your husband, wife, child, mother, brother…
You get angry at them, or the clerk at Petaluma Market.
You cheat on your taxes or a game…
You tell a small lie…
You do something that hurts others, and your own soul along with it.
You did it yesterday, and the day before, and now it’s a habit.
Pesach reminds us that it took 10 plagues before Pharaoh’s heart opened, it took 10 plagues and the sea parting before we really believed God would take us out of there, and still, not long after, we built to Molten/Golden Calf. It’s not easy breaking the patterns of a week, let alone a lifetime. So Pesach is a good time to start, or start again.
I pray your seders are filled with spiritual redemption, escape from the narrow straits you find yourself, deep discussions, lots of laughter and of course delicious food. Shabbat shalom and chag sameach…
I give thanks to my teacher R’ Avi Fertig for some of these insights.
Marian Blanton says
As always, dear Meredith, a very thoughtful drash stressing the need for mindful gratitude in every human interaction within our community.
adele pickar says
Meredith, You have written a most beautiful sermon for Passover – the most meaningful I have ever read. I believe this is your best writing that I have read -so clear, to the point and vey well thought out.
Enjoy all your company tonight. I can imagine your Seder to be simply wonderful. I will be with my dear family and all their friends and always I have a wonderful evening. al 3 generations present.
Happy Passover to you , Sam and Olya and I will see you next week. with love and hugs, Adele
Meredith Cahn says
Thanks so much Adele! And I imagine your seder was wonderful as well… See you soon!
Rabbi Janet Madden says
Kol HaKavod, my smicha sister. What a beautiful gift given over from your beautiful neshama to feed, delight and sustain the neshamot of others.
May this be a sweet season of liberation for all!
Meredith Cahn says
Thank you kind Janet.