I woke up singing a song.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” a song from Godspell, a line from Mark 1:3, borrowed from Isaiah.
You may think this is odd. A rabbi singing a line from the Gospel. But I can’t shake it. It is so appropriate today for two reasons. This is Shabbat HaGadol—the Big Sabbath. Usually we tie the name of this Shabbat to the end of today’s haftarah, “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.” It’s not a great translation. Yom Adonai, Hagadol, v’Hanorah.”Maybe better, The great and awesome day of the Lord. The verse with its reference to Elijah hints at Passover that is coming. It hints at the Messianic era and a world to come that will live in peace. It hints at our need, our responsibility to prepare for the day of the Lord.
The second reason is that this is one of two Sabbaths that in the old days, the rabbi would give a sermon. Today is the day you all would learn how to prepare for Passover. If you need all of the details, read my email from earlier this week which will direct you to the OU site. You can also check the CRC site and I am happy to answer any questions. I even have a book about the 1001 Answers to Passover questions. So far I have answered questions about stand mixers and Passover towels. People really do care about these things and they want to get it right. But there is more to the preparation than the physical labor.
Prepare. How do we prepare? One way is to search out the leven, the chamatz, that we have. You know the drill. Cleaning and scrubbing and pitching. It is spring cleaning on steroids. And since only you men are here, I can only assume that your wives are home working, and that you will go home and help. Please, go home and help.
That physical labor is important. Simon finds dish washing meditative. I am not sure I do, but as I was cleaning the refrigerator, and scrubbing the schmutz off the shelves and then boiling them, I was thinking about Simon’s meditation.
Lot going to lie. My first thought was “Why am I doing this?” Then I wondered, “What is the purpose of cleaning the fridge?” “How does it help us prepare?” “How does cleaning the fridge make me a better person?”
And here are my answers.
I do it because once a year my house should be sparkling. I do it because it links me to my people, friends all over the country who are doing exactly the same thing. People in generations past, long ago—maybe not their iceboxes—yes we called it the icebox and I still, occasionally make ice box cake, but not for Passover! I do it because we are commanded to prepare for Passover, to rid our houses of leven. Commanded. That’s the word for the day. Tzav. In the imperative form.
The mediation cleaning the fridge continued.
I am really luck to have this refrigerator. It is the one I have always wanted. With double doors and a freezer on the bottom. It is easy to clean and arrange with enough space. Many people in lots of parts of the world don’t even have a little refrigerator. And yet again we are wasting too much food. Almost an entire garbage bag went out. Even after our emphasis on feeding the hungry. Many people have significantly less than we do.
Leven—yeast. Things that rise. Things that are puffed up. Things that take up more space. Last week we talked about the humility of Moses and the humility of the lowly letter alef.
Matzah is the opposite of things that are puffed up. It is the bread of affliction. The poor bread. Lechem oni. The bread of humility.
Humility is one of the soul-traits that mussar talks about. The first one that we should study. I have spent years studying mussar and am still not there yet.
Rav Kook says that humility is associated with spiritual perfection. But it is subtle . The key factor, is honest accuracy, according to Alan Moranis who teaches courses in American mussar.
I have always wondered about people who sit in the same spot every week. I thought maybe it is a little arrogant to assume that seat belongs to you. Sometimes even rude if you say to a newcomer—hey that’s my seat. How warm and welcoming is that? But then, while studying humility with Alan Moranis, I understood. Someone who sits in a predictable place makes room for others to occupy their own space too. Therefore, Alan teaches, humility is occupying just the right of space in life that is appropriate for you while making room for others. Humility is not an extreme quality, but a balanced moderate accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life. It is not being chamatz. It is not being puffed up.
This is the beginning of the spiritual preparation of Passover.
Today’s parsha also talks about humility. When G-d commands Moses to tell Aaron about the ritual of the burnt offering, it needs to be kept burning all day and all night. Moses has to take a back seat. This is about Aaron and his children, the priestly class.
Myron and I had a good conversation about this. When he read these lines, his eyes lit up and he proclaimed, he knew he had a job to do— to keep my fires burning. to keep me enthusiastic. He based it on the note at the bottom of page 613 in our chumash, Etz Hayim, “The congregation, for its part, must recognize its responsibility to see that the enthusiasm and dedication of the clergy is never extinguished.” What a lovely, lovely thought.
Yet there is another message as well. The high priest has a job. To keep those fires burning. Night to morning. Morning to night. Each and every day. Every morning, he is to take off his holy vestments and take the ashes outside the camp to the “pure place,” nothing more than the ash heap. Essentially, he has to take the garbage out, each and every day. Just like everybody else. This way, he can never forget his link to the mundane. It kept him humble. It keeps us all humble.
I have a good friend, Dr. Lisette Kaplowitz, who is a retired principal of an elementary school and a reading specialist. When Sarah was about to start kindergarten I took her to Lisette’s school and she introduced Sarah to everyone. The first person she introduced Sarah to was the janitor. Mr. So and So, I want you to meet my good friend Sarah. Mr. So and So cleans my school. I can’t run my school without him.” It was a powerful lesson. For Sarah and for me. I can’t run CKI without Lljuban, without Susan, without Peg, without all the talented volunteers who help make this place run day in and day out. Lisette’s lesson was so dignified and so humble. When Lisette retired every single janitor showed up at her retirement dinner. I know. We sat at their table.
This week I read a story about the college admission process. An admissions director for Dartmouth received a letter of recommendation from the school janitor. She was surprised. It was unusual to get a letter of recommendation from the janitor. But this student stood out—to the janitor and now the admissions counselor—because the kid would talk to the janitor, clean up after himself and others and urge others to do so. Bottom line—he was kind, he was humble, and yes, he got into Dartmouth.
Rabbi Everett Gendler used to say that a rabbi is nothing more than someone who moves tables and chairs and in New England (maybe Chicago) turns the heat on. It kept him humble. It keeps me humble. I thought about that as I moved tables this week and helped set the tables for the community seder. Congregants, here and elsewhere, often argue that it is not my job to do so. Nor take out the trash. But those tasks are critical to the work of the congregation, to building community. They are about meeting people where they are.
Kindness and humility go hand and hand. Rabbi Sacks in his weekly sermon talks about what enabled the Jewish people to survive. We are commanded to make sure the perpetual light, the eternal light, the ner tamid never goes out. Yet, we no longer have animal sacrifice. What is this sacrifice? Is it still necessary? What keeps it from going out today?
The Israelites managed to figure out five things that replaced the sacrificial system.
The first was gemilut chasidim. Acts of love and kindness. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai told Rabbi Yehoshua, “My son, we have another atonement as effective as sacrifice, acts of kindness, as it is written (Hosea 6:6) I desire kindness and not sacrifice. (Avot deRabbi Natan 8)
Acts of kindness. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that this week. I talked to the kids about G-d leading the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Go ahead, just like the kids do it. Make a strong hand. Now reach out and touch someone. That outstretched arm is the helping hand. If it is outstretched and not clenched, it cannot be a hand of warm. It is the hand of kindness, the hand of friendship, the hand of humility.
Rabbi Sacks rounds out his list with Torah study, prayer, teshuvah, fasting, hospitality. Each of these helps us connect authentically with the divine, since there no longer is sacrifice.
He teaches that what is remarkable is “rather than clinging obsessively to the past, sages like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai thought forward to a worst-case-scenario future. The great question raised by Tzav, which is all about different kinds of sacrifice, is not “Why were sacrifices commanded in the first place?” but rather, given how central they were to the religious life of Israel in Temple times, how did Judaism survive without them?”
For the rabbis, the sacrifices were metaphors, “symbolic enactments of the processes of mind, heart and deed.” They were designed so that the people could draw close to G-d. So that they could experience the indwelling presence of the Divine, the Shechinah. It doesn’t happen when we are not kind to one another.
The Haggadah is designed for us to tell our children what the Lord did for us when G-d led us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. All of the preparation. The scrubbing, the cleaning, the cooking is designed to get us to ask some pretty important questions.
- Why is this night different?
- How do we rid our lives of chamatz?
- What is the narrow place we need to be freed from?
- How can we be humble, kind, loving, hopeful?
As part of my spiritual preparation I always read a new Haggadah. This year I chose two, the (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah which I really enjoyed, even though I am not especially a Harry Potter fan. It has plenty to say about chametz. And the Ayeka Haggadah Hearing Your Own Voice. This one is really helping me with my own spiritual preparation. Every page has a different question to answer. Like “What was one holy moment in your journey this year.” Ultimately it is about finding ourselves in the story, in the journey.
The very act of cleaning the fridge is an act of sacrifice. It keeps us humble. It helps us meditate and find the Divine. It gives us the space to begin to answer the real questions of Passover.
The Israelites were freed from Egypt. Next year in Jerusalem. Next year, all the world redeemed. That’s what Isaiah and Mark meant when they said, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” Indeed, this is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. Cleaning my refrigerator helps prepare us, physically and spiritually.