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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Passover Sermons 5770


Second Dvar Torah for Pesach (Day 1), 5770.

My wife likes to joke that I treat food as if it were medicine. I guess that early on in my parents’ home, I internalized the idea that you don’t consume foods like green tea, blueberries, and tofu because they taste good, a debatable point at best for some, or even because they’re healthier for you than very tasty cheese fries, a point that is irrelevant for others. You eat them because they’re loaded with, well you name it: phytochemicals, antioxidants, micronutrients, essential fatty acids such as Omega 3 and Omega 6, high density lipoproteins, and polyunsaturated fats. Certainly, there is more than ample evidence that much of our chemically treated, commercially prepared food supply is potentially quite toxic; we have more than ample information that a balanced diet of high fiber, low fat foods consisting mostly of fruits and vegetables is quite good for you, and can also be quite tasty. However, I think that I have taken this basic, scientifically grounded wisdom a bit far. Imagine the scene. As a regular green tea drinker, I look at green tea as the magical preventative and powerful cure all for whatever may or does ail me: a sure shot antoxidant weapon in my internal arsenal against oxidized chemicals in the body that scientists have labeled, significantly enough, free radicals! Now, from time to time I engage in the quintessential American ritual: I eat a ton of junk, most of which I really like. If I wind up feeling sick to my stomach, do I resolve not to eat like that again? No, of course not, I’m an American, and that kind of resolution is, frankly, un-American, the kind of behavior you would expect of, well, a free radical! I simply boil a pot of water, pour it over my favorite green tea, and poof!, all is well with Rabbi Dan-i-el! I might as well become a marketer for the green tea industry. My ad line? “GREEN TEA—THE WONDER DRINK BURSTING WITH ANTIOXIDANT GOODNESS!"

We all know that no food is a wonder drug with magical medicinal powers, even though we may allow ourselves to be duped by the natural foods industry into wanting to believe this. However, as we move from seder to seder –a culinary experience filled with rich spiritual symbolism- we certainly can understand the power of food as spiritual medicine that deepens our sense of personal meaning and our connection to God and values. Consider the teaching that you will find in the synagogue announcements in front of you. We began learning this teaching this past Shabbat. It comes from the Mishnah, and it is quoted in full in the Haggadah:

Rabban Gamliel said: “Whoever has not referred to these three matters connected to the Passover has not fulfilled his obligation (to tell the Passover story), and these are they: Passover, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs.
Passover: because the Omnipresent passed over the houses of our ancestors in Egypt.
Unleavened bread: because our ancestors were redeemed in Egypt.
Bitter herbs: because the Egyptians embittered the lives of our ancestors in Egypt.
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he personally has gone forth from Egypt, since it is said (in the Torah), “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, ‘It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:8)’"
Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise, glorify, honor, exalt, extol, and bless the One who performed for our ancestors and for us all these miracles. God brought us forth from:
Slavery to freedom, anguish to joy, mourning to festival, darkness to great light, subjugation to redemption.
So, we should say before God Halleluyah (that is, the psalms of Hallel, Ps. 113-118.)”

Note the three foods that one is supposed to talk about during the obligatory telling of the Exodus story at the seder: the Passover offering, the matzah, and the bitter herbs. As I mentioned on Shabbat, Exodus 12:8 mentions God’s commandment to the Israelites and their descendants to eat these three foods together as part of the feast commemorating the Exodus. Our teacher, Rabban Gamliel, transforms this commandment –which by his time was obsolete, given the prior destruction of the Temple- into a commandment fulfilled through words, based upon Exodus 12:27: we are to tell our curious children that the Pesach offering recalls how God pasach, passed over our houses during the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. Of course, we know that, even without the Passover offering, we still do more than talk about this three food concoction: we continue to eat matzah and bitter herbs at the seder, even though we no longer eat roasted lamb. Therefore, for the Mishnah and Haggadah, seder food is about memory.

But is it about more than memory of things past, and perhaps also a kind of culinary medicine directed at our spiritual health? One Talmudic commentator seems to think so. Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, also known by his acronym, the MaHarSHa, was a sixteenth century teacher who lived in Poland. He was one of the rare Talmudists who wrote as extensively about the aggadah, the non-legal narratives and moral teachings of the Talmud, as about the Talmud’s legal arguments, the Halakhah. Eidels wrote the following intriguing explanation –recast in a contemporary idiom by me- for why we talk about these three foods, and eat at least two of them, at the seder.

Eidels asks why it is that, of all the Torah’s commandments, these three are singled out with the explicit requirement to publicly ask why we do them, then to explain the reasons? Normally, when I perform a commandment, I say the blessing thanking God for commanding it, but that’s all I do. Here, I have to actually have to experience the meaning of these three commandments. He then explains that consuming the Pesach offering, the matzah and the bitter herbs was a kind of spiritual antidote for our ancestors as they made the hard climb out of physical slavery into physical freedom. As the Haggadah even explains to us, our ancestors’ slavery was not only physical but spiritual as well. They lived with a slave mentality that subjected them to the idolatrous, morally bankrupt consciousness of their masters, the Egyptians. Eating the Passover lamb, an animal revered by the Egyptians, freed them from feeling subject to their gods; eating matzah, the bread of escape that reminded them of their redemption, was a further step in their feeling liberated from the spiritual afflictions placed upon them by their oppressors; eating the bitter herbs helped them recall that slavery is bitter not only to the body, it also embitters and distorts the soul by sullying us with the dangerous impurity of inner passivity and dependence. Thus, the generation of the exodus had to consume these three foods as palpable reminders to digest –literally and symbolically- the spiritual message of freedom and redemption. In our day, the MaHaRSHa teaches, we are doing the same thing when we sit at our seders, speaking about and sampling matzah, bitter herbs, and by extension, the Passover offering.

Rabbi Eidels’ interpretation of Passover, matzah and bitter herbs offers great spiritual insight to us as we transition from seder to seder. We American Jews –and Americans in general- possess unparalleled physical, economic, and political freedom: we are truly blessed. Pharaoh does not hold us back physically. Yet, it is obvious that we too at times find ourselves slaves to the idolatries of the contemporary spiritual Egypt: those negative after images of freedom’s blessings that, if not mastered, will master us and hurt us as we travel in the wide open spaces and market places of our very free and aggressively consumerist culture. One need only walk through an American mall –the richest symbol of American liberty and privilege- with critical lenses fitted to one’s eyes to witness how easily an individual’s prioritization of values can be blunted. Money, material glut, and the confusion of want with need are spiritual stealth bombers that ever so subtly distract us, dull our consciousness and rob us of intellectual independence. In a society like ours that is dependent upon independent thought, courageous moral action, and commitment to community, entanglement in servitude to the world of things will only bring us existential heartache. Worse yet, that kind of narcissistic spiritual enslavement which masks itself as the liberty of luxury can only be used as a very dark tool in the hands of political elites: how they would love to foist a new Egypt, with themselves in the role of Pharoah, upon a public too drunk with the preoccupations with our stuff to ever notice what hit us.

Now we are slaves, next year we will be free. Tonight we will look again, taste and speak of those ingredients in the paschal sacrifice: hopefully that taste of outer and inner freedom will linger in our mouths and stay with us for the rest of the year.

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