Shabbat HaGadol – Parashat Tzav 2012 – delivered by Rabbi David Baum
This Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, signifies the last Shabbat that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. This was when they began preparing, and so, we too begin preparing. For those who have been avoiding the great cleaning, the removal of hametz from your house, well, now is the time to get ready.
Today, I want to talk about why the removal of hametz, leavened products, is so important during this time and its effect on us.
Interestingly enough, Parashat Tzav is always read on Shabbat HaGadol. As we open this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav, we read of the many different sacrifices – individual and collective- covering different times, occasions, and intentions. Each sacrifice, according to the Torah, was to be offered by the Priests in specific ways and with specific detailed procedures.
But what I found most interesting is that the priests did not allow hametz on the alter. We see this in verse 6:9, “8 A handful of the choice flour and oil of the meal offering shall be taken from it, with all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and this token portion shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord. 9 What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons; it shall be eaten as unleavened cakes, in the sacred precinct; they shall eat it in the enclosure of the Tent of Meeting. 10 It shall not be baked with leaven;
The question is, why? On Pesach, the reason is that the israelites had to leave Egypt in a hurry, so much so, that they had no time for their dough to rise. We abstain from having leavened bread during this time for memories sake. Not eating bread for eight days makes us feel a certain way.
I was thinking about how I feel on the eight days of Passover. To be honest, I can’t eat that much matzah, but I sure can eat a lot of bread. Without bread or pasta, or leavened wheat, I might be full, but its not the same type of full. There is something missing, and my body knows it. The truth is, I can never do Atkins because I love bread and pasta too much. One of our congregants shared what eating on Passover is like by saying, “I am constantly opening my fridge, looking around and closing it because I just don’t want to eat.” When you eat leavened products, you feel full, when you eat matzah, there is something lacking.
When I eat a lot of pasta or bread, I feel full, and I feel tired. On Pesach, even though I am supposed to be reminded of the rush of making the matzah, just 18 minutes, I don’t feel rushed, I feel hungry.
But sometimes hunger is a good thing, even on the altar, even on a day to day basis, not just on Passover. The Sefer HaChinuch written in the 13th century tries to explain why keeping hametz which was prepared over a long period of time away from one’s offering, “A person will attain the idea of acquiring the quality of altertness, lightness, and swiftness in deeds on behalf of God.” It reminds me of the famous line that Rabbi Hillel says in Pirkei Avot, “And if not now, when?” All too often, when we see holy work that needs to be done, whether it is feeding the hungry, giving a tzedakah to a Jewish cause, helping or visiting Israel, going to shul, having a shabbat dinner, giving our kids and ourselves a jewish education, we say, “I’m tired, I’ll do it later.” When we are hungry, we are alert, light on our feet, ready to do the work, now, because, really, when are you going to do it?
The Sefer Ha-Hinuch gives yet another reason – leaven puffs itself up, it rises, and it’s a metaphor for people. Haughty, arrogant people puff themselves up, but that is not what God wants out of us. God wants us to be humble, to realize that there is something greater than us, that we are not the only person that matters in the world.
If we combine the two, we see that we have to fast, alert, ready to act, but also humble.
God wants us to be matzah, lechem oni, a poor person’s bread.
In our seders, before we eat the matzah, we break it in half during the Yachatz, right before the Maggid section, the story telling. The Pesach story begins in a broken world, a world of slavery and oppression. When you tear a piece of bread, it doesn’t make a sound, but when you break matzah, you hear a crack. It gets us thinking back to when times weren’t so good. There is a story that I read by a holocaust survivor, Bina Talitman, who spoke about her first day in Israel as a child refugee. She arrived in Kibbutz Kedma together with other survivor children. They were orphans, they were hungry, they were poor, and exhausted from a long journey. She spoke about the first meal they had in the kibbutz mess hall, tables filled with vegetables, cheeses, breads, an all you can eat buffet of delicious foods. She thought about her days in the camps, when all she could think about was bread, but there was never enough to make her full. She would go to sleep hungry, and wake up hungry, but now, her dream came true, she would no longer be hungry!
But she did something peculiar. In the first few days, she would take the bread, and tear it in half, and hide it in her pocket. It was a reminder of the days when she had no bread.
The holy alter of the Mishkan and the Holy Temple was physically destroyed, but spiritually, it was brought to all of our tables. For one week out of the year, we strictly follow the lead of the alter by not allowing leavened products. By doing this, we remind ourselves that no matter how great we are, there were those before us who suffered, and there are still many who do. We cannot close our eyes to them because we want to take a nap after eating all that bread, rather, we have to be hungry. During Pesach, we say, Bchol dor va dor chayav adam lirot et atzmoh, kielu hu yatzah mimitzraim. Each generation must look at themselves as if they themselves had left Egypt, each one of us has to imagine that we too are hungry, we too are broken.
May we all spend our Pesach holiday hungry, missing something, and may we fill that void with Ma’asim Tovim, good deeds, our Torah, and each other, whether we are friends, family, or strangers. Let us all realize that there there is always someone in need, and we can help make them whole.