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Some Things You Can Discuss at Your Seder this Year

Shabbat HaGadol

April 12, 2014


This, the Shabbat before Pesah, is known as Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat. And what a great Shabbat it is – the chance to see and to celebrate a special birthday of a great grandmother and the naming of her great grandchild!  This after all, is part of the central message of what the story of Passover is all about.  It is about continuity, and about families gathering together, about the generations passing on, from one generation to the next the message of our people.


While each of our holidays has its own unique character, surveys consistently confirm that the Passover seder is the most broadly celebrated Jewish ritual. This is saying a lot, because it is up against some pretty stiff competition.  We’ve got Chanukah, with the lighting of the menorah, Purim when we dress in costume, both of which celebrate the victory of the few over the many, the sheer joy of Simhat Torah, when we sing and dance with the Torah.  We’ve got the promise of new beginnings with Rosh Hashana, and the celebration of the earth with Tu B’Shevat, to name but a few of the many ways throughout the world in which Judaism sanctifies life, history and nature.


But among all these superstars throughout the year, Passover stands out as the most compelling of all of our holidays.


Take for example the following story I have told before about a husband who gets on the phone and calls each of his adult children, living around the country. He calls the oldest son living in California and tells him he must come home right away because he and his wife are having severe marital problems, and are going to get a divorce.  His daughter in Chicago is told the same thing, as is his son in Phoenix.  Each has the same reaction, saying, “Don’t do anything rash.  You have been married for over 35 years.  We will fly home right away so we can sit down with you and Mom and talk about this.”  After speaking with the last child, the husband hangs up the phone, looks at his wife and says to her:  “Done.  They will all be here for Pesah.  Now we just have to figure out what we are going to do to get them here for Rosh Hashana.”


What is it about Pesah that makes it so appealing?


It could be because it is a time that the family comes together for a meal. But it is much more than just a meal, for there is a story and a narrative that accompanies the meal.  I want to suggest that we consider this morning the aspects that make it more than just a festive dinner, that we reflect on the deeper meaning of our gatherings.  We, like our ancestors do so because it is a commandment, a biblical commandment, to tell your child what God did for us in Egypt.  That sentence alone, is pregnant with meaning, on a number of levels.


A few years ago I recall a speech at an Aipac conference a week before Passover. The speaker cited one of the most important passages in the Hagadah.  “V’hee she’amdah, that in each and every generation there are those who rise up who seek to destroy the Jewish people.”  What I found remarkable was not so much that this elected official knew the verse and applied it correctly to Israel’s predicament, after all he is Jewish.  Interestingly, the very next speaker cited the same passage in his remarks as well.  But what I found especially of interest was that the second speaker gave the fuller citation.  He went on and added the concluding sentence of that paragraph which is – “But the Holy One Blessed be He, saved the Jewish people.”


The non-Jewish political leader, who by the way was my good friend, Congressman Steny Hoyer, got it right, and included the final sentence of the paragraph, the one about God.


Having been asked on a number of occasions to review and comment on speeches before they have been given I know that these speeches are often written and vetted by staff members and others, but still, I found it ironic that the non -Jew was the one who included reference to God saving the Jewish people.


As we all know, it is Moses who is left out of the Haggadah, not God. But for too many of us, it is the other way around.  It is God that we leave out of the story.  Our sages omitted Moses from the Haggadah because otherwise, we would revert to the natural tendency to idolize human beings and heroes.


So when we tell the story, I suggest you raise the issue about God’s role in our deliverance. Don’t be afraid to engage in a discussion about theology, and how we understand the role of God in the Passover story, and in our lives today.  But don’t just ask the question, do some homework.  Be prepared to discuss – are there ways in which we see manifestations of God in the world today?  Be ready to be challenged — Did God redeem and save us only then?


And in regard to the part about Moses being left out — Discuss at the dinner table what can we learn from Judaism’s approach to heroes? Do we err today when we idolize famous people such as movie stars?  In contrast to the path our sages pursued we seem to have developed a cult of personality culture, where the every move of every celebrity is chronicled.  How important is it to know so much about the antics of Linsday Lohan’s rehab routine or Kim Kardishian’s tuchus?


I don’t know about you, but personally it is for these reasons, I am uncomfortable with the language of Twitter and Facebook. I find it disdainful to ask someone to “Follow me on twitter, or like me on Facebook.”  The first one sounds egotistical and the second one sounds desperate.


Can you imagine, the greatest leader of all time, Moshe rabbeinu saying either of these phrases? One of his greatest attributes is his modesty.  So when we sit around the table with our families, we can also talk about what we can learn from the example of Moses.


Part of the appeal of Passover is that we tell our story – the story of our people, of our families, and who doesn’t like stories?


But in telling that story, I would like to suggest that we discuss the eternal message of what it means to be a part of a people who experienced not just slavery and then were freed, but who were given a Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Our discussion should delve into the implications of what this past has on what it means to be a Jew today.  This is a great opportunity to tell the amazing story of an amazing people.  We should kvell over what it means to be a Jew, and pass that pride on to the next generation.


I recently was overseas visiting the Jewish community in Georgia, where I saw first-hand some of the work that we as a Jewish community do to sustain and support each other, and of the heroic efforts to maintain Judaism in remote parts of the world. Our work is known as hesed, which means lovingkindness.  Hesed is not just a Hebrew word.  It turns out, believe it or not, the word has entered the Russian lexicon.


A month or two ago, during the unrest in Crimea and Ukraine, the Director of the Hesed Program sponsored by the Joint in Sevastopol gave a letter to individuals serving the elderly and needy members of the Jewish community saying that whoever holds the letter is performing humanitarian work at the local Hesed center. The letter was presented to the Russian soldiers manning the roadblocks into and out of the city.  While these soldiers were prohibiting access to the city to all who sought to enter or leave, when the soldiers saw the letter, and read the word Hesed, they said, “You are here to do work of Hesed?  Of course, you can pass.”  These Russian soldiers knew and understood that part of our mission and purpose as Jews is to perform deeds of chesed, of mercy.


And finally when we sit around the table, we should reflect upon what is happening in the current political climate. There are those who will seek to attribute the breakdown of talks with the Palestinians to Israel.  After all, the Secretary of State implied as much when he spoke earlier this week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Contributing to the atmosphere, just a few months ago, President Obama welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with an interview in which he said that it was incumbent upon Israel to seize the moment, implying that the onus to make peace was on Israel.  No equivalent words were expressed, and no interview was given prior to the arrival at the White House of PA President Abu Mazen.  And here, I would suggest, once again, we can learn from Moses.  He knew the importance of speaking up on behalf of his people, and of defending them – even when he knew they had done wrong.  In the aftermath of the Golden Calf he spoke up on their behalf.  Israel today does not lack critics or those who will point out its ills.  What it needs most are those who will be willing to courageously stand up and defend it.


So on this Passover, when we gather with our families, let us think about what we can learn from Moses and from our sages, from the eternal messages of Judaism, and let them be a part of our discussion this Pesah.


Hag Sameach to all.



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Stuart Weinblatt

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is the President of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America. From 2009 - 2014 he served as Director of Israel Policy and Advocacy for the Rabbinical Assembly.
Rabbi Weinblatt is the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland, a vibrant Conservative synagogue of 650 families he founded in 1988, along with his wife and a handful of families.