Rabbi Lizzi explores the spiritual technology of the Passover Seder, which, every year, forces us to reckon with our past to understand our present and imagine a radically different future.
Mishkan Chicago's Passover Resource Round-Up
From Me to We: Virtual Passover Seder (Thursday, April 6th)
This sermon is from our March 17th, 2023 Virtual Shabbat service. For upcoming Shabbat services and programs, check our event calendar, and see our Accessibility & Inclusion page for information about our venues. Follow us on Instagram and like us on Facebook for more updates.
Produced by Mishkan Chicago. Music composed, produced, and performed by Kalman Strauss.
[Children happily shouting, playing.]
It's a little bit, it's a little bit what I'm living here right now. [laughs]
Okay, so Torah portion this week is a moment of endings and beginnings. We're reading, as I said, the end of the book of Exodus, the last two parts of the book of Exodus, the sections in which God is giving the Torah to Moses finishing the finishing touches on the, you know, construction of the building of the Mishkan. And at the end of this section, we say the words when we're done reading the book of Exodus, Azad — be strong, be strong, we strengthen each other. And then next week, we begin the Book of Leviticus, you know, and just the standard flow of the calendar. So that's one ending and beginning we're at but also we're entering the new month of Rohde of Nissan next week is Rosh Hodesh Nissan, and so we are ending the month of Adar that we are in in which poor infill with the energy of Purim and the zaniness of forum and welcoming in the new Hebrew month of Nissan and, of course, the energy of Nissan, which is Passover energy, in the holiday of Passover. And so there's a special Torah reading that we do tomorrow morning, if you show up you will hear it in which we read from an earlier section of Exodus. And that's what I want to talk about tonight, because tomorrow Rabbi Steven is going to do some learning on the actual parsha from on Byakko. So tonight, I want to focus on the lessons we draw in honor of Rosh Hodesh and Nissan and the particular Torah reading we do for that. So here's how it begins. By yo Mara oh nine almost Sheva, Ron Barrett's meets Ryan Limor. And God said to Moses and Aaron, in the land of Egypt saying already this is good. This is already good stuff. This month. Hodesh has LFM Rasheem re shown who this month for you is the beginning of the new month and it is the first month of the year for you. Okay, I'm just gonna. Hoda Chazelle Han Roche for the shimmery Shona who Hoolahan the hood che Hashanah. This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months. And it shall be the first of the month of the year for you Head of the months of the year for you, Rosh Hodesh re shone. So okay, if you caught the Hebrew even in the English, tomorrow morning, we will announce not only the coming of the new Hebrew month, but also it's the first Hebrew month it is the first month on the calendar, which is to say next week is not just the beginning of the new month, but also the beginning of the new year. Alright, it's like January 1. We call the first month on the Hebrew calendar Nissan, and it's the month in which Passover falls, obviously. And the tradition says the Torah says Exodus chapter 12. This is the beginning of the new year. Now wait, you say I thought that was Rosh Hashanah, literally the beginning of the new year, which we celebrate in the fall. So the mission teaches that there are four Jewish New Years, the one you know Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei. But if you know the Jewish calendar, you also know that Tishrei is the seventh month, not actually the first month, it's the seventh month, the month of Nissan right now is the first month so that when we get to Tishrei, Rashanna, seven, seven months later, six months later, we're we're hitting our next New Year. The other new New Year's by the way are you know, for the trees to Bichette. And then a day that amounts to something like the marking the taxable year in ancient times, don't worry about it. Okay, all of this is to say, New Year's is coming up this week. And because of that, it is always a good time to reflect on our lives through the themes of the holiday, through the themes of the new year. And also every Jewish holiday is an opportunity to reflect on our lives through the theme of the holiday. So as we're entering this month of Passover, we can think not only about you know, what are our new year's resolutions or our New Year's intentions, but also, how might Passover inspires us to live the lives we want to be living. That's what I want to explore tonight. Okay, so even in that very first line by Yamir, Adonai Elisheva, Allah Rohan meets Ryan lay more. God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, I am struck, that even that first line holds a polarity. And that polarity is that God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, about something that was going to be happening beyond Egypt, not in Egypt, in Egypt, but also profoundly that that line is introducing a set of ideas that is not about Egypt at all. So God is speaking to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, saying, here's how you should celebrate Passover. This is why of course we read it now, because we're getting ready for Passover. We're getting our homes ready. We're getting our minds ready. We're getting our hearts ready. But here's how you celebrate Passover. For the first Passover, God says to Moses and Aaron, you have the families in Egypt, get a lamb, and then they slaughter it and then they smear blood on the doorposts of the angel of death when the angel of death passes over, we'll know which houses were the houses of the Israelites. When you're having dinner, where were sandals on your feet, have your staff in your hand where your travel clothes because you're going to need to go you're going to leave. Right because on that night, the Angel of Death is going to meet out the last plague to the Egyptians. So that's the first Passover weekend instructions for but that little section also contains the instructions for future Passover commemorations that will not that will specifically deliberately not be celebrated in Egypt at all. And that includes no leavening in your houses for a week. Starting that night on the night of the 14th of Neeson. No leaven in your house, don't eat it, don't have it. celebrate this holiday is a true holiday. The text says no working, everyone celebrates do this who caught little lamb for all time. And so to just put a finer point on it. The Israelites are a Vadim now slaves, right and think about the song in the Seder of IDM how you knew how you knew, we were defined by Avoda work, also service. But avodah isn't inherently a bad thing I've ODOT can be a good thing of ODOT can be a spiritual thing. It's just that what makes you a slave is when the avodah is not of your choosing when it's imposed on you. And so the text says one day envisions one day you will be able to choose not to work on a holiday that you're going to remember having been a slave having been forced to work one day you will be able to choose to not work on this day. And that's how you'll know you're really free. And that's what we're talking about. Right so they are receiving this vision of their freedom of mind and body by meets Ryan in Egypt. While they are very much still not free imagining a time when they will be not in Egypt, right in the midst of the worst and actually the darkest Time of their oppression, they are planning, not just to like, muddle through, and somehow make it keep their heads down, avoid the wrath of Pharaoh, which I would understand if that's what they were doing. By the way, that text says that there were plenty of Israelites who that was what they were doing. But rather these Israelites were planning for a future that was going to be radically different from the present, envisioning, planning, imagining for how they were going to look back and remember this moment to write how they're going to look back and remember the Exodus And importantly, how they're going to teach their children, what our values as a people are based on this experience, generating that story while in the midst of that experience. So there are four different places in the Torah, where the text says some version of and on that day, your children will ask you, what does this service mean to you? Maha Vahdat? What is this work or this service to you? And of course, this is the opening for you to say that you were a slave in Egypt, that I was a slave in Egypt. But now I'm not. And then to tell the story of how you and your people got from there to here. And of course, this is what the entire Seder is premised on this idea. There are four questions that symbolizes four children and the four different orientations you might have toward the tradition, all of it is very juicy fodder for Seder conversation at your table. Just to say even that, even that, the fact that we have a ritual whose entire purpose is asking questions, and answering them and discussing them, pointing to items on the table and discussing them embodies the fundamental assertion that is at the core of the Jewish story, which is that human beings are meant to be free to be liberated and to be liberators. And that we believe that transformation is possible things do not have to remain as they are. That's
like, if you take nothing out of the Passover story, it's that you don't get to ask questions or challenge or even be the wicked child. If you're not in an environment that tells you you're free. And if you don't value, the child bringing the hard questions that tradition actually loves that, because it reminds us that we're free, which has been especially important in moments when the Jewish people have not felt free, that we've had this set of rituals to remind us that this is at the core of who we are, and the transformation is possible. And so the rabbi has put together, you know, a set of rituals to get people talking, the items on the plate are designed to provoke conversation based on collective memory, you know, so there's this there's a row of this bone that represents the lamb that was slaughtered and sacrificed the MER, the bitter herb that represents the bitterness of oppression, but also the mortar on the bricks, making us taste that memory. Right. And then the matzah, of course, which is a good one also embodies the polarity of both being the bread of affliction. But also the bread of freedom. It reminds us of Egypt, the meager rations the fact that we were oppressed. And so we needed to leave quickly. We didn't even have time for the bread to rise, but we had to get out of there. But it also represents leaving, or the freedom of leaving, and entering that wide open expanse and carrying with us only what we needed, none of the fluff and getting out and knowing that the rest we would rely on each other for and we would rely on God and we'll figure it out. And we did. And we are. So the matzah then is the bread of liberation. And it's part of why every year that first taste, that first bite is so delicious. And I really feel that way. So this is this is a profound message for anybody who's like in the midst of meats writing, whatever meets Ryan is depression or a job or romantic uncertainty that place that you could be in the darkness of and think I will never exit here but instead pass over consciousness is to have the insight and the faith that there will be a time when you're not there anymore when you're not. When you're not in meats when I am you when you are mentally healthy, have stable employment and money coming in have companionship you will get there. And, and even more that you're going to be able to have wisdom and the lessons of me trying to teach others and you will make the world a better place because of your experience. It's not why you're going through your experience. But that there will be light that comes from this that will come through you and you'll be able to give to others even to new generations. The wisdom of your experience. And God spoke to Moses and Aaron bummy time in it shipped when they were in the midst of their deepest darkness and held out a vision for how not to maintain the status quo, and muddle through, and just eke by, or God forbid, to return to the way things were before, but instead held out a bold vision to transform the Jewish people, which meant the entire region. And of course, now we know the course of history. Right? This is the story at the core of so many different liberation movements throughout the course of history since then, for 1000s of years. And our tradition describes I referred to this earlier that not everyone was prepared to make this bold transformation. In fact, there were some Israelites that heard these very instructions from God to Moses and Aaron in Egypt. And they did not prepare to leave. The tradition says it was maybe 1/5 of the people who actually left. And then somebody argues and says, no, no, it was more like 1/50 of the people who actually left and then someone else says, no, no, it was more like 1/500 of the people who actually could envision the radical difference of the, the vision putting that God was putting forth for them to move toward, and they could actually move toward it. Those are our ancestors, the rest stayed in Egypt. Because they couldn't imagine the future being fundamentally different from the present, they gave up on the possibility of the promised land. And they did it for the comfort of what they knew. So as we bring in Rosh Hodesh, as we bring in the new month, and we always know it's coming, because the moon is waning. And then Rosh Hodesh, happens at the very thinnest sliver of the new moon when it's turned around. And the holiday of Passover comes 15 days later, when the moon is full. And it comes to ask this, this new moon and the holiday of Passover, to ask us, can we imagine a future that is different? Can we imagine it? Can we see it in our eyes? What would it look like? What would it feel like? How would it feel to walk down the street? In that future? Can you imagine a future that is different in some fundamental and visionary ways from the past? And that's for yourself, you know, in your own habits and life, for our city, for Israel? You know, for other places in the world, could you imagine it being different in ways that will lead us towards something better, something better, but that requires us to give up the certainty and comfort of what we know. And adopt the faith and commitment to march towards something new and beautiful. But still a gamble because it's a vision and not yet reality and needs our hands and our bodies and our vision and our commitment, every social movement that has brought about greater equality and value. And even celebration to the genders and races and people of different classes and abilities has been brought about by people who could imagine who could imagine it, who could see it. A world that was different from the one that they were raised in. And they worked tirelessly to create it for more people to bring more people into the promised land. And there are always people who prefer to go backward, or who prefer to keep things the way they are. But we have to be able to imagine a fundamentally different future in order to walk toward it. Okay, I'm gonna go into a place that seems like treading into dangerous territory. But it seems to me that in this upcoming mayoral election in Chicago, we have the opportunity as a city to choose a vision. You know, in our next mayor, this is this feels like a big deal moment for our city. And a vision in which we could truly envision something different and move towards something that feels like taking not exactly a leap of faith, but actually moving toward what feels like the vision of a city that is moving forward or staying the same or moving backward. And some folks in Chicago are doing fine. But many are suffering because of the results of the ongoing budget crisis. It's resulted in closing schools, defunding public schools, and closing mental health care centers, health care centers, there's rising crime, violence, we know all of this. Some of us might feel insulated in the neighborhoods that we live in. And also not I think we're all feeling this in different ways and in some places much more profoundly and acutely. And I think some folks feel like the best we can do is like go back to the way things were before or treat the symptoms of crime. You know, add more police to the streets, outsource our hardest challenge Is and and not take this moment this opportunity which happens to coincide with this month and and this moment on the Jewish calendar to ask how we might envision addressing the fundamental gaps in the systems that gave rise to the crime in the first place. Right? How might we place our Jewish values for caring for people's bodies and minds at the forefront as we enter this next month? Right Passover consciousness, which is to say, Judaism wants us to imagine a city that is not just treating the symptoms of the foundational problems, but fixing those foundational problems at the root, so that we can create a different future, a world class city, imagine a city that prioritizes and invests in public education and health care not as charity to the poor, but as an essential building block of the safety and economic strength and prosperity of the city. That's a great vision, you know, that treats crime not as something to be fixed with increasing punishment, but treated at the root by making sure kids grow up with green parks and safe playgrounds in every neighborhood and where they can get jobs and job training. And we have places where people who need mental health care can go and it's somebody's job to answer the phone when they call. And that where we have enough housing for our homeless, and where we value the cultural diversity of our city and celebrate it, and want to maintain it and amplify it. I am very excited to participate in democracy in our city and vote for a vision that feels visionary. And that doesn't take us backward, but actually, like, moves us toward things that haven't been tried, at least here in Chicago, toward a world class city. I like envisioning that. It feels like a lot is in motion in our world right now. Much is in process. And there are a lot of ways that this could go in a lot of places that we care about.
So as we enter this new month, I want to invite us to embrace newness. Yes, there is a lamb shank and bitter herbs and matzah on the Seder plate, helping us remember the past. But there's also carpus, the green vegetable, or on my Seder plate, often a Strawberry Fruit of the earth, symbolizing springtime, the emergence of new life where there was once cold hard earth, right and symbolizing nourishment, where we thought we couldn't squeeze one more drop from the ground symbolizing the possibility of something new bursting from just a little seed. But that seed needs to be watered and needs to be believed in in order to flower. And so I want to bless us with Pesach mindset, you know, P consciousness, to open ourselves to the seeds of those new visions for ourselves, for our city, for our world. That doesn't lock us into the patterns and habits and justifications and talking points and fears of the past. But that allow us to have the appetite for the journey together. And that we do it together. And we hold hands and walk as Michael Walter says toward the Promised Land toward a better brighter future that we can only get to if we see it if we imagine it and aren't afraid to walk toward it.