Sunday, April 20, 2014

The True Meaning of Matzah - Seventh Day Pesah, 5774

I suspect that some of you must have a running bet over whether I’m going to begin a sermon with, “I recently heard on NPR…” I’m not sure what the current odds are, but it may be that money is about to be owed:

I recently heard on NPR a fascinating story about a church in North Carolina that really struck me. At St. Albans Episcopal Church in Davidson, a well-appointed outer suburb of Charlotte, there is a new bronze statue on the church grounds, depicting a figure lying, huddled on a bench, wrapped in a blanket. The only body parts of the figure visible are its feet, which display the wounds that, according to Christian tradition, were caused by the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. The statue is titled Jesus the Homeless, and, as you may imagine, has caused no shortage of uproar within the congregation. Some love it, including the church’s pastor, and some hate it. (BTW, the sculptor has a wonderful name that may resonate for some in this holiday season: Timothy Schmalz.)
The Rev. David Buck sits next to the Jesus the Homeless statue that was installed in front of his church, St. Alban's Episcopal, in Davidson, N.C.
What caught my attention when listening to this story is the power of this message. One goal of art, as with religion, is to take us outside of ourselves, to raise our awareness about things that we cannot otherwise see. The message that this statue projects is not the typical theology common to images found in churches - Jesus’s birth or death scenes, or decked out with glorious threads and haloes and rays of light.

Rather, the message here is, remember the needy! You who come to this well-kept suburban church, which could afford to spend $22,000 to purchase the art installation in memory of a deceased member, should remember that there are plenty of people in the world, good, deserving people, who cannot afford a home, much less one in a neighborhood like this. And this is a message that all of us who live in more comfortable environments would do well to remember.

And while some believe that this is an affront to the central character in Christianity, others see this as religious consciousness-raising par excellence. As the church’s spiritual leader Rev. David Buck puts it, "We believe that that's the kind of life Jesus had. He was, in essence, a homeless person."

Now of course, I am not here today to talk about Jesus, even though yesterday was Easter Sunday. Rather, I am going to talk about Pesah, which of course plays a role as the backdrop in the Christian bible for the events surrounding Jesus’ death.

However, I think that the symbolic intent conveyed by the statue is as valent here as it is in North Carolina, and in fact, one of the central mitzvot / commandments of Pesah, the consumption of matzah, is its spiritual analog.

Occasionally, I will admit that we have a problem in Judaism. We try to hit too many buttons at once. When you consider Pesah, for example, you can see how the central message of this holiday might be obscured amidst all the other noise. What are the themes of Pesah? There are several - this is a holiday with at least four names: Hag ha-Aviv (the festival of spring), Hag ha-Herut (the festival of freedom), and Hag ha-Matzot (the festival of flat, tasteless, cracker-like bread), and of course, Pesah, referring to the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. But the central message of Pesah is even more specific than that. It is reflected in the following statement, which we say during the seder, right before we ask the Four Questions that get the conversation about slavery and freedom started:

הַא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, דִּאֲכַלוּ אֲבָהָתַנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְּמִצְרַיִם.  כָּל דִּכְפִין, יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוּל; כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וִיפַסַּח.
Ha lahma anya di-akhalu avahatana be-ar’a demitzrayim.
Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul; kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry, come and eat.
Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Most of us probably rush by this statement on the way to more interesting territory in the Haggadah, or perhaps on the way to dinner, without thinking about it too deeply. It’s in Aramaic, and we all know that when we find ritual passages in Aramaic, it’s because the liturgical framers wanted us to understand. The passage refers to the Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 20b. In enumerating the noble deeds performed by the great sage Rav Huna, the Gemara reports the following:

When Rav Huna was in possession of some medicament, he would take a pitcherful thereof, hang it on the door-post and say: “Whoever wishes to have some, let him come and take it.” … When he was about to sit down to a meal, he would open the doors, saying: “Anyone who desires to eat, let him come in and eat.”

What made Rav Huna a great sage (and not a merely good one) was his willingness to share with those in need. We echo those words when we open our seder, even before telling the Pesah story, by saying, in a language that (at least historically) the Jews understood better than Hebrew, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul,” let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We borrowed this text directly into the Haggadah because it speaks to the values that we highlight on this holiday. We should be more like Rav Huna. When we sit and discuss our departure from Egypt, an abundant meal awaiting us in the kitchen, we should not forget that we are a people whose nationhood was forged in slavery and oppression, and that we should remember (א) there are plenty of others out there who are still suffering, and (ב) that we might just as easily end up in Mitzrayim, the narrow place of Egypt, once again. It is our duty not just to recite this line, but to really mean it. If we do not open up our doors to those who lack food and shelter and clothing, then we must, in subsequent days and months, open up our hearts and our wallets.

And thus, reciting this line at the seder is far from the end of fulfilling our Passover obligation. Think about it for a moment: the first seder was nearly a week ago, and we’re still eating matzah, and (at least for the Ashkenazim) a range of meager foods.

Eating is so central to our lives - those of us who can afford to, do it almost all day long. It’s such a huge part of our personal and macro-economies that we often do not realize how omnipresent it is - how much time and energy we spend eating, or preparing, or shopping for, or growing and harvesting and transporting and all the other tasks associated with food.

So it is remarkable indeed that we eat this lehem oni, this bread of poverty, for eight whole days. Not just one or two evenings, but for about 2% of your calendar year.

Matzah is, or at least should be, something akin to the Jewish version of the homeless Jesus: a reminder: a symbol of what we have vs. what we might not have; a beacon calling us to be at once grateful for our freedom and our ability to dine like free people as well as mindful of those who have no freedom and cannot dine like we do.

Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. This potent message of the seder continues to resonate, even as this festival winds to a close.

My sister, who is living in Budapest, Hungary this year, put together a seder for some family and friends last week. She told me that the matzah that she procured in Budapest was somehow much worse than the matzah that she has been accustomed to in the States.

Now, I’m not sure how that can be - matzah, lehem oni, the bread of poverty, is not something to be enjoyed. But whether you like eating matzah or not, and regardless of its quality and relative tastiness, the meaning of the matzah is consistent: we emerged from oppression so that we can extend a hand to others.

We do not often step over homeless people here in Great Neck, nor are we frequently approached by people asking for money on Middle Neck Road. But there are needy among us here, as there are everywhere. The matzah should remind us of that, as well as our obligation to be like Rav Huna, and figuratively, if not literally, open the doors to those in need.
And so, to conclude, we should use these last two days of Pesah (and for many of us the last days of consuming matzah until the next 14th of Nisan) to consider how we might emulate Rav Huna, how we might fulfill our obligation to care for those who have less than we do. How can we carry the message and symbolism of matzah into the other 98% of the year? Can we commit to the following?

  • Bringing food to Temple Israel when our Chesed Connection collects, or directly to the food pantry at St. Aloysius church here in town
  • Participating in Midnight Run, which we host here at Temple Israel, and helping with Hatzilu, which distributes food to those in need locally
  • Donating to charitable organizations that feed the hungry (e.g. Mazon here in America, Meir Panim in Israel)
  • Helping our children and grandchildren to understand the importance of giving by demonstrating our willingness to do so. Get them involved!
  • Educate yourself on what the issues are surrounding hungry and homeless people. Find your own way to help out. Seek out other initiatives and promote them to your family and friends. Raise the bar of dialogue.

Don’t let the message of the matzah get lost in all the other messages of this season. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Monday, April 21, 2014.)

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