Shaarei Shamayim

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SHABBAT HAGADOL 5772

SHABBAT HAGADOL 5772

There was a man who worked for the Post Office whose job was to process all the mail that had illegible addresses. One day, a letter came addressed in a shaky handwriting to Gd with no actual address. He thought he should open it to see what it was about. The letter read: 

Dear Gd,

I am an 83 year old widow, living on a very small pension. Yesterday someone stole my purse. It had $100 in it, which was all the money I had until my next pension check. Next Sunday is Easter Sunday, and I had invited 2 of my friends over for dinner. Without that  money, I have nothing to buy food with, have no family to turn to, and you are my only hope. Can you please help me?

Sincerely, Edna 

The postal worker was touched. He showed the letter to all the other workers. Each one dug into his or her wallet and came up with a few dollars. By the time he made the rounds, he had collected $96, which they put into an envelope and sent to the woman. The  rest of the day, all the workers felt a warm glow thinking of Edna and the dinner she would be able to share with her friends.

Easter came and went. A few days later, another letter came from the same old lady to Gd. All the workers gathered around while the letter was opened. It read: 

Dear Gd,

How can I ever thank you enough for what you did for me? Because of your gift of love, I was able to fix a glorious dinner for my friends. We had a very nice day and I told my friends of your wonderful gift. By the way, there was $4 missing. I think it might have been  those bastards at the post office.

Sincerely, Edna

The postal workers had only the best of intentions. We, on Passover, also have the best of intentions—especially in regard to our waste lines. We make a silent promise that we’ll control ourselves and not eat more than we should. But even with all good intentions—I don’t know about you—but by the time the 2nd day of Pesach rolls around, I feel as round as the proverbial Matzah ball! 

Passover is many things—cleaning and shopping, new clothes, synagogue services—but it is above all else, a gastronomic experience of the 1st order. There is hardly a ritual on Passover that does not—in one way or another—involve food or drink—and all of them in very large quantities. Perhaps it’s the very act of eating in abundance that symbolizes the state of freedom that Passover celebrates—as if the slave and oppressed person takes his 1st and greatest vengeance by stuffing his stomach to the nth degree!

Let me share with you—as I have in the past—something my friend and colleague, Rabbi Basil Herring pointed out to me.  It all starts even before Passover begins, with what used to be a fast day for the firstborn, but which our rabbis with great ingenuity turned into a feast—that which accompanies the Siyum, or “conclusion” of a Talmudic tractate, early in the morning Erev Pesach at the Synagogue. There we eat a hearty breakfast, knowing that it is the last conventional Chametz-leavened food we’ll enjoy for 8 whole days, and so we eat to our heart’s content. Then when we get home we realize that we didn’t finish all the Chametz still lying around in the refrigerator, and rather than throw out all that good food, we are prevailed upon to put it to good use—and add it to our waistline.

Once midday rolls around, Jewish law teaches us that we are to take things easy and eat a light meal. You might think that it’s for health reasons. But nooo! It’s there for one reason: so that we should come to the Seder table famished, ready to consume the proverbial horse. Then we sit down to the table, and tease our stomachs. 

Finally when the Seder rolls around, we 1st make Kiddush—drinking just enough wine, by way of an aperitif, to get the stomach juices flowing. Then we tantalize the taste buds with hors d’oeuvres, dipping some parsley or potato in a little salt water to get us thirsty enough to want some more wine. We start to tell the story of the Exodus—the mitzvah par excellence at the Seder—but rather than merely recount the miracles and the wonders, we give them concrete expression using the most wonderful audiovisual materials, and all of them in the form of—you guessed it—food!

Thus it is that we point to the roasted shank bone sitting succulently on the table’s centerpiece, the Seder plate. Then moments later we look longingly at the boiled egg, the 3 matzos, the Maror—the bitter herbs—in the form of horseradish or bitter lettuce—the assorted symbols of the struggle for freedom. Now we raise them, now we lower them, now we cover them and now we uncover them—all ostensibly to peak the interest of the children at the table—but in truth—to ensure that our minds are not for a moment free of the thought of food.

After about an hour or so, we finally give full rein to the palate as we sit down to partake of—what else—the Matzah. Not just a mouthful, mind you, but properly speaking enough to fill a Japanese wrestler’s gut—1st the Matzah by itself, then as a sandwich overlaid with Maror and that incomparable, indescribable, delicacy known as Charoset. You are expected to eat it all within a few short minutes, the equivalent of at least 2 full conventional square Matzahs—all the better if what you are eating, as we do at my Seder, are the heavy, round, hand‑made variety that settles into the stomach like so many leaden weights.

And then comes the Maror—again in extended quantity, to be followed soon thereafter by the egg dipped in salt water. I can confide to you that inevitably by the time I have finished this point in the meal I am ready to call it quits for the night. Who could eat a thing after all that?

Enough, you say! But the meal has not even begun! They start to bring the chicken soup with its inevitable Kneidlach: some—but not Cheryl’s—known affectionately as “cannon‑balls.” This is followed in quick order by a massive entree/main course, over which the Balaboste has slaved for days, so that Gd help you if you do not finish the “whole thing” down to the last morsel on the plate. Then the mandatory coffee, tea, and dessert. But not the symbolic dessert of macaroons that used to be all one could make or buy on Pesach. Nowadays with our modern food technology, a Pesach dessert can be a full‑blown Viennese table, enough to put the fabled Grossinger’s Kosher Resort, may she rest in peace, to shame.

By now you feel as if your stomach is on the floor—but then with horror you realize that you’ve still got to consume the piece de resistance: the dreaded Afikoman! And so, once more unto the breach, dear friends, we go, and we proceed to ingest another entire entree of petrified dough and water. Finally, 2 more cups of wine are added to the mixture, as you roll your eyes in silent prayer heavenward.

With a touch of black humor, the rabbis of the Talmud tell us that after the meal one should not eat anything for the balance of the night, so that the taste of Afikoman should remain with us. As if anyone in their right mind could even contemplate eating another solitary thing!

And so it goes, the same ordeal, repeated 2 nights in a row, the ritual punctuated by several meals in the interim—not to speak of the whole plethora of so‑called nosh food, from macaroons to chocolate‑covered fruit, and from Carmel brandy to cake to nuts. I’m convinced that the typical Jewish family consumes more food during those 8 days than it does in an average month—a hunch that is confirmed by the kind of frenzied food shopping that takes place during the weeks preceding the orgy!

Jackie Mason was right—there is something mystical about the Jewish attraction to food and the eating experience. I believe it started just before we left Egypt, because our ancestors, contemplating that vast empty desert that lay before them, literally did not know where their next meal was coming from; and so they came up with the 1st Seder—and Jewish stomachs have suffered ever since!

But all kidding aside, there is something serious here, and it has to do with the relationship between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual, in Jewish life. After the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, when Gd informs the people that he is going to provide them with the miraculous food called manna, He makes the following statement (Exodus 16:4): “Behold, I bring forth for you bread from the heavens, so that the people should go forth and collect it day after day, that I may test them whether they will follow My Torah or not.”

What could possibly be the meaning of this verse? How does Gd test the people’s faithfulness by providing them with food in abundance? Surely the opposite is the case, in that your faith is tested in adversity and in the absence of food.

There’s a wonderful answer found in Rabbi Benzion Firer’s Hegyona Shel Torah. He explains that the people had just come to Moses with words of complaint and of longing, saying, “We would have been better off dying in the land of Egypt, where we lived with pots of meat, eating bread to our contentment.” Gd understood these words to reveal the state of mind of the people.

Faced with the prospect of starving to death in the desert, they had begun to create a fetish of food, becoming totally enslaved to providing nourishment. Because they had no food, it was food that rose to the top of their order of priorities. Hence it was that Gd elects not merely to give them what to eat, but to give them the total security of knowing that their food will be provided for them morning and night, day after day, in abundance, and as much as they can consume.

In this way, the value that they attach to food would be deflated, and they would then be able to concentrate on the more spiritual dimensions of life. Then they would have no excuse for not pursuing a life of seeking to come closer to Gd and His Torah—being freed as they were from the demands of the flesh. This was the test that Gd spoke of in this verse.

This, my friends, is also our test. Thank Gd, we live in a time and place that’s overflowing with gourmet delight in abundance. Few among us go hungry—even in these difficult economic times. But therein lays the test. How sad it would be if we, so magnificently blessed, were to miss the point of this Passover plenty and pursue nothing more than to indulge our bodies again and again. That, I believe, has got to be a fundamental lesson of the eating orgy that is Passover and its Seders: To free our minds of bondage to our passions, to be able to look beyond material plenty, and to consider our purpose in this world. The economy has forced all of us to re-evaluate what’s really important and Passover can help so much in this process. 

A full stomach can so easily make us arrogant. Our challenge is to understand that just as Gd gave the Israelites in the desert the manna—so that they would have as much to eat as they wanted—as an act of great love, so has Gd given us so much—even in these difficult economic times—as an act of His great love for each and every one of us. 

The true test, the Torah teaches us, is to be able to enjoy and imbibe with the knowledge that each bite is a gift of Gd’s love. This way, even the mundane and physical act of eating is transformed into an act of transcendence. So go ahead and indulge yourself. But, at the same time, don’t forget the real significance of the gastronomic delight that is Pesach. In doing so we will add no so much pounds and inches, but draw closer to Gd in the process. Amen!

                                                              Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis

                                                              3/31/12

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