This week is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. In ancient times it was one of two occasions in the year when the rabbi would give a sermon. The aim of the sermon was to remind the community about the forthcoming festival of Pesach and to expound a little about the laws and customs of this time of year, as the community prepared to celebrate Pesach.
This year, Shabbat Hagadol coincides with parashat Tzav, the portion where we read about the fire burning on the altar, a fire which must never go out. Rabbi Amiel gave an alternate interpretation of this command, suggesting that instead of the fire burning “on it” (referring to the altar), it can also be read as the fire burning “in him” (referring to the priest). Based on this reading, the passage then talks about the fire we should all keep burning in our souls and our spirits; a fiery passion for Judaism and the Jewish people.
Pesach is the most celebrated festival in the Jewish calendar. More than Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, Pesach is the time when the largest number of Jews make a connection with our people and traditions. It is the time that the fire is stoked and the flames burn brightest within. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is the universal message of the seder and its celebration of freedom, equality and justice for all. We are taught that each one of us should move through the seder from degradation to uplift, from slavery to freedom, to each feel that we have been redeemed from Egypt. The seder teaches that the more we tell about the Exodus, the more we are praiseworthy. This passage is not about the number of times we tell the story but rather the depth with which we do so. In recounting the story as if we were there, we are provided with the opportunity to really meditate on what it meant to be a slave and what it now means to be free. It is an opportunity not just for sympathy but for empathy. Know that there are others who suffer like we suffered and commit yourselves to helping bring about their exodus.
We need to do more than read the words; we must internalize the teachings and then go out into the world and take action. It is not enough to be sympathetic to the plight of others; we are enjoined to take steps to make the changes we want to see in the world to feel empathy and be motivated to action. God did not redeem us from Egypt to do nothing; God redeemed us and then gave us a challenge: to follow the commandments, to change the world, to create the future we want to see. Ralph Barton Perry wrote: “There is no boredom like that which can afflict a people who are free and nothing else”. We cannot be free and nothing else. We are free in order to bring freedom, to end oppression and to create the future of which we dream and for which we pray.
Pesach is the time that the Jewish fire within us is kindled; our passions are aroused, moving us to use our freedom to shape the world we want to see.
Let us use the Pesach seder as inspiration to live each day as people who are committed to bringing freedom, hope and peace to others. Our challenge is to keep tending the fire burning within us throughout the year; to feed our souls and our spirits with the learning, beauty, delight and joy of Judaism and changing the world.