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Shabbat HaGadol Derasha (Parashat Tzav) - April 2, 2020

04/03/2020 12:51:39 PM



As in any year, I want to start with a comment on the Halachot of Pesach and then go into a theme of the Chag.  But this is not like any other year, so I want to link the two in the summation of what I want to share.  


I spoke last Tuesday night about some of the numerous differences in Halacha this year from other years.  In general, those come from a difference in approach. I have a friend who called this the year of “Ikar HaDin,” a phrase which means the barebone law.  No extras, no attempts to fulfill multiple opinions.  People want to know what has to be done to fulfill the barest requirements.  The Halachic decisors, the Poskim, of the generation have been working overtime to make sure people will know just that.  In terms of Kashering pots or in terms of what to do with new pots or pans and immersing them in the Mikva -- all are variations of going back to the barebone Halacha.  


I have put many of these topics in the Pesach Prep document we shared last week.  Tuesday night’s Beit Midrash was an elaboration on some of those subjects. 


But let’s step back.  How ironic to have this as the Halachic thrust at Pesach time.  There is a long list of things we do on Pesach which are explicitly referred to as “Chumra D’Pischa,” or stringencies related to Pesach.  Some of these are more well known, like Gebrochts, the practice of some to refrain from eating any Matza that comes into contact with liquid.  Others are less well known, like the Ashkenazic practice to refrain from Kashering glass, which started as a Chumra D’Pischa and then ended up applying to the whole year.


There’s a reason why the usual thrust at Pesach is toward more and more.  It is not neuroses or a sign of collective OCD. It expresses something deep in the Jewish sense of self which applies to this Chag in particular.  This is why it has always been typical to go overboard (within reason) for Pesach, and to wonder why others don’t. R’ Yaakov Kaminetzky, z’l, once told his wife that what she was doing in preparing the kitchen was not necessary according to the Shulchan Aruch.  She told him, “the next thing you’re going to say is that according to the Shulchan Aruch you can eat Chometz on Pesach.” But this is the irony of this year, and I will return to it later.  


In terms of the broader theme, there are a bunch of memes about this Pesach that have already circled the world many times.  There’s been a lot about plagues, of course. But there’s another meme which occurred to me weeks ago. I’m sure it occurred to a few million other people but I’m going to share it nevertheless.  I found a comment on it that speaks boldly about this year.  


It doesn’t get read in Parashat HaChodesh but one of the requirements of Pesach in Mitzrayim was that the Jews had to stay in the house.  As the plague of the firstborn was carried out, the Jews were ordered to shelter in place -- V’atem Lo Teitzu Eesh MePetach Beito Ad HaBoker (and you cannot exit a man from the doorway of his house until the morning).  They got released way before May (or June or beyond), but they couldn’t leave their house until the next morning.  


We already know that the Makot in Egypt hammered home the lesson of divine providence, as time after time Hashem made a distinction between Jews and Egyptians.  But nobody is told to stay home to keep the frogs out. For the tenth plague, why do they need to shelter in place? In fact, why, in contrast to the other Makot, do they have to do anything at all?  


It’s the Chag of questions on the Hagada, so let’s add one more from there.  Do we ever answer the four questions?  I mean, even if it’s really one question with four variations, do we ever say why this night is different than all other nights?


Let’s start like this.  The differentiation of the Jews and the Egyptians is a major theme in the Makot story because it was a major failing of the Jews in Egypt.  The verse in Devarim (4:34) which recalls the exodus says that the Jews were removed “Goy M’kerev Goy,” one nation from the midst of another nation.  This conveys how alike the two nations were. It doesn’t say, “Am M’kerev Goy,” one nation from another, different nation.  It uses the same word because there was barely any distinction between them.  


Where could one see this?  It certainly applied in the area of major divine Halachot -- the Jews too were idol worshipers, and Jews stopped doing Bris Mila.  In these practices, we were indistinguishable from the Egyptians.  


But we also know that there were ways in which the Jews stood out -- their language and their names were different, the famous Midrash says.  On these things we were strict, and that still made us what the Hagada calls Metzuyanim, or distinct.   So in Egypt it was not the divine major Halachot  but what we call the Siyagim, the man-made additional fences around the Torah, that preserved some sense of difference.


R’ Meir Simcha of Dvinsk in the Meshech Chochma points this out and he also points out that this is in contrast to the Geula, the salvation, when the Jews came back from Babylon.  At that time, they were stalwart in basic divine Halachot but were lax when it came to the fences around the Torah.  The buildup of the oral law and Rabbinic legislation during the Second Temple is a response to this deficiency. And though some of these fences may be relaxed eventually, regarding others the Gemora in Shabbat says that even Eliyahu HaNavi will not cancel them.  


The image of the Jews in their houses on the night of salvation is about underscoring the importance of separation.  Just a few days earlier, we know that Bris Mila had returned as an imperative, but staying home emphasized the point as well.  You are different, Hashem was saying, and that has to be expressed at all levels, including the performance of explicit divine Mitzvot.  


Why the emphasis on differentiation?  Mingling makes it too easy to forget that we have a separate mission.  According to many, the answer to the four questions is the next line we say: Avadim Hayeenu, we were servants to Paro in Egypt.  We had lost our way, and taking us out of Egypt reminded us to Whom we owe everything.  To survive the death of the first born, the Jews had to do commandments because they needed to be actively set apart as Hashem’s servants.


This is why our celebration of Pesach always recalls that it was our own extra push for separation that helped redeem us from Egypt.  It was not observing the commandments but our own distinctions. This is why there is such an emphasis on what we have added to the Halachot at Pesach.  What the Jewish soul is saying in the making of these fences is that I embrace my approach to worship.  If this is what Hashem has done for me -- if he has given me the gift of life, and the gift of choice, and the privilege to approach Him closer as part of the Jewish people, then I am eager.  No loyal servant looks to do the minimum. This is why Pesach has always been full of doing more and more. We left Mitzrayim so that we could serve, and serve enthusiastically.  


The Rambam tells us that events like what we are experiencing, events on this scale of calamity, cannot be ignored in terms of Hashem’s call to us.  If someone sees nothing but randomness in events like these, the Rambam calls it Achzari’ut, a word which we translate as “cruelty,” but which is more about indifference.  Nobody can ignore such a call.


If you listen to the many Rabbanim addressing this call from Hashem, they do not seek to identify specific shortcomings in Jewish behavior.  It’s not this weakness or failing or that one. A call like this is much broader. The horrific toll in terms of human life, and the slowdown is a shutting off of the system.  It means a dramatic chance to reboot, another term for Teshuva.  I’m not a computer scientist who can tell you why, but I know that when things are going haywire, a reboot allows one to smooth out the kinks throughout the system and come back refreshed and focused.  Everyone has their own specific things which can benefit from a reboot, but reboot we must.  


The very basis for that reboot is laid out at Pesach.  It is about our enthusiasm for our role as servants. That enthusiasm is rooted in our sense of connection to Hashem but it overflows in all directions.  This is called Shabbat Hagadol in contrast to the other major Shabbat, before Yom Kippur, which is called the Shabbat HaKatan. That is because this one is about Teshuva from love and the other one is Teshuva from fear.  It is a Chag of loving kindness, of an energy which is industrious but overflows with giving in many directions.


All around us, we see herculean efforts in giving.  The most rousing reaction to the plague, the most inspiring, is the mobilization of the caregivers -- the doctors, the nurses, the support staff, the EMTs, the sleepless public health officials, the vigilant police and firefighters, the national guardsmen making sure that the quiet streets stay that way.  Their reaction is to rise up selflessly to the challenge and to provide healing and protection wherever it is needed. We know they are professionals, but this level of dedication and sacrifice goes well beyond duty. Just as we say a Mi Sheberach in Shul for the military soldiers, so we have begun to say a Mi Sheberach in the Non-Minyan Minyanim for these soldiers in this horrific battle.  


But we are all mobilized in this effort.  This is the stream, the torrent really, of giving -- of shopping for others while you shop for yourself, of running errands for others while running errands for yourself, of offering succor of all kinds, large and small.  You see the incredible scenes of people reaching out, the armies of volunteers doing Chesed, the feeding of the hungry for Pesach. You might not have expected anything different, but it’s still a scene to behold.


The separation is so hard.  Let’s internalize the ways we stand apart, so that we can engage properly -- in kindness, in generosity, in sweetness.

Fri, June 5 2020 13 Sivan 5780