Shabbat HaGadol

This year is different from all other years

Shabbat HaGadol is the Shabbat before Pesach.  It is often a time to reflect on the upcoming holiday and prepare spiritually.  This year’s Seder will have a different feel on so many levels.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks captures how this year is different than all other years as he says: “We have never been more alone. We have never been less alone.”

He is right.  We have never been more alone as we think about a Pesach where our loved ones will not be around the table with us.  And think about people who literally will be alone this Passover.  How can we observe this holiday of gathering when we cannot even sit at the same table?

And while we have never been more alone, it is also true that we have never been less alone.  Amazing technology has helped keep us connected – the possibility of online Seders where we can see one another and interact is beautiful. And it is more than that. Rabbi Sacks observes that we are united as an entire world in ways we have never felt before.  Together, we join in understanding and empathy as we share the experience of eating the bread of affliction and taste the bitterness of the maror together with people around the world.

We are united in sharing the experience of plagues – illness, scarcity, darkness where we cannot see one another or go out, death. In our shared anguish, we never have been more connected. These connections might transcend this pandemic and ripple in profound ways into the future. Rabbi Sacks teaches that the most important question to emerge from this year’s Seder is: Will we hold onto the lesson of interconnectedness as we emerge from the pandemic?

This and so many other questions stir in our hearts.  How do we cope with this moment?  How do we deal with fear, loss and anxiety?  How do we stay connected while separated?  Judaism’s power is that is gives us tools for times like this.  It gives rituals to give voice to the contrasting emotions and experiences of a moment. It creates space to think about the most important questions of our time. It leads us to activism that can help change us and the world around us for the better.  This morning, I would like to share pieces of the Seder and the holiday that can give us some guidance and perspective.

Take a moment and think about Rabbi Sack’s words: “We have never been more connected.”  Let that be a guiding theme in your Seder.  This virus knows no borders or boundaries.  It does not distinguish based upon nationality, gender, religion, economic status.  We are linked and interwoven together through this shared experience.

Passover and the Hagaddah emphasize these links. Redemption happened because of the bravery of many heroes both inside and outside our community:  the midwives, Moses’ mother who had the courage to place him in a basket on the Nile, Miriam, who looked after him – and Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses from the Nile.  Redemption comes not just from God, but from a variety of heroes from different communities, faiths and backgrounds. A key character in Passover is Pharaoh’s daughter – a righteous person from a different faith and culture – in fact from the home of the person seeking to destroy us – whose compassion and kindness changed our fate.

Concern for every human is woven into the Seder.  Part of the 10 plagues ritual is pouring out a little wine as each plague is recited.  According to a midrash in the Talmud (Megillah 10b), the angels in heaven were singing songs of praise as the sea closed and the Egyptians drowned.  God silenced them: “My handiwork, my human creatures, are drowning and you want to sing a song of praise?”  We pour out wine because our joy is diminished with every human loss.  The Seder acknowledges loss of every precious life – and reminds us to do the same.

The ethic of interconnected humanity is also in the Ha Lachma Anya prayer at the beginning of the Seder. We invite ALL who are hungry and ALL in need to join us.  Real freedom is caring for others with our heart and souls.  The story to tell this Pesach is the myriad cases of people caring for other: heroic doctors and nurses, volunteers, neighbors looking out for one another.  It is the young person from our synagogue making face covers for medical personnel and all the people buying meals at restaurants to be shared with health care workers. Might this awareness of interconnectedness and the power of kindness and sacrifice allow us to emerge down the line as a more caring society?  Rabbi Sacks hopes that awareness of shared suffering can create sparks of hope.

Let reciting the plagues move your heart and soul not only to the connections to this moment, but to giving voice to emotions, and present actions which can make a difference.  The first plague, dam -blood, fouls the Egyptian water supply.  The Nile stank and the fish died.  The people are frantically digging for water, while Pharaoh returns to the palace.  The image of lacking crucial items to survive is poignant and speaks to the immediate need to allow our medical professionals the supplies they need both to survive and do their jobs of saving lives.  The more you mine the story, the more you process that emotions and respond to the moral imperatives of the moment.

The penultimate plague is choshech – darkness.  It is a darkness that is so thick it can be felt and people could not see one another.  The Torah says: For three days no one could get up from where he or she was. Stuck inside, we understand this plague in a way we never did previously.  In interpreting this plague, some teach that the darkness was spiritual or psychological. In the Etz Chayim commentary explains this plague as: “a deep depression, which manifests in lacking the energy to move about or to be concerned with anyone other than themselves.”  We have seen and felt this. Darkness and depression are real.  My wife Mimi shared an article describing how we have lost our anchors for dealing with life – the rituals which move us through moments – graduations, Bar Mitzvah, shiva, weddings.  In the absence of those anchors we feel the darkness described in the 9th plague.

Yet amidst the darkness is light.  An interesting detail of the final commandment is that the Israelites experienced light in their homes during this plague.  What was the light in the Israelites home?  It was the ability to care, to act with kindness. It was faith in God.  It was the ability to see an eventual end to the darkness.  As limited as our choices seem right now – we have the ability to chose how we respond.  Will we fall into melancholy or despair -will the darkness overwhelm us?   Or can we hold onto and create the hold of kindness and hope which sustained our ancestors at this time.

And as we look at how the Haggadah describes the plagues, parts of the Haggadah which used to seem silly or irrelevant ring in a different way.  The rabbis use exegesis to teach that it was not just ten plagues, but perhaps 50 or 250.   I used to read that section and think the rabbis were simply being ridiculous – but maybe there is a deeper truth I never saw.  Plagues beget more plagues, which beget more plagues.  It is only when we do our part to stop the plague, that the plague stops multiplying.  The Seder holds deep truths for this moment.

Ultimately the Seder teaches us to hold onto hope.  We affirm in Chad Gadya, that God slays the angel of death.  May it be so.  We sing Next Year in Jerusalem – imagining the realization of personal and national dreams.  Let yourself hold onto hope. Picture emerging from your home and embracing one another.  Imagine a bit into the future where we live the lesson of interconnectedness because we have shared in an experience of suffering. The haftarah of Shabbat HaGadol  imagines a time when parents and children’s hearts reorient toward one another.  Hold onto and help to build a world where the ties between our generations lead us to build a framework of redemption.

May we have a meaningful Passover.  May we use this time to reflect on the question: “How can we emerge differently?”  May pain and loss diminish.  May we all partner together to help those in need. May we find and create light. May we hold onto hope and find moments of joy and connection that will sustain and inform.

Amen.  Shabbat Shalom.