I Need Your Help: Invite Someone Extra to Your Seder – Shabbat HaChodesh 5779

You probably noticed that we took out three Torah scrolls this Shabbat.  That is the highest possible number for any service of the year.  

The first is for our regularly scheduled parashah, Tazria.  The second is for Rosh Chodesh.  Today is the 1st day of the month of Nisan.  The Third Torah is to mark Shabbat HaChodesh, which is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Nisan, or, as in our case this year, when Rosh Chodesh occurs on Shabbat itself.

The Shabbat HaChodesh reading is taken from the Book of Exodus, chapter 12.

God tells Moses and Aaron: HaChodesh hazeh lakhem rosh chodashim.  This month for you shall be the head of the months…

We read about the special instructions that the Israelites must follow, beginning today, the first of Nisan.  Not only do they need to get ready for leaving Egypt, at last, they also have to start preparing for Pesach.

Nowadays, we know that Pesach is coming when we see the five pound boxes of Matzah added next to the Hamantaschen display at Costco.  The Israelites did not have Costco yet, so they needed a reminder from God.

Here is a summary of how the Israelites are to get ready for the very first Pesach:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that nothing happens to it.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This serves to ward off the Angel of Death while he is rampaging through Egypt, massacring all the firstborn.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, sandals on feet.

God’s instructions then turn from the present to the future.  The people of Israel will continue to celebrate this seven day festival of unleavened bread every year in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

The instructions stuck.  Not only do we still observe The Festival of Matzah, we also recreate the build-up to the moment of freedom.  That is why we read this special passage about how to prepare.  It is as if we are receiving these instructions as well.

Some of the particulars, however, are no longer practical.  Is anyone here planning to bring a lamb into their living room in about ten days?  How about painting blood on the doorposts and lintels?  It might need a new paint job, anyways?

But the essential messages in the Torah reading are still central to our holiday.  Just as our ancestors did, we clean the chametz out of our homes and eat matzah for seven days.  We celebrate the first night with a special feast.  The Torah says to eat it: “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand: and you shall eat it hurriedly…”

Our Seders today are anything but hurried.  But, in our house we encourage our guests to come dressed up in whatever they would wear if they were exiting Egypt the next day.

There is one other detail in the Torah reading that we make a big deal about, but I wonder how well we are actually fulfilling it.  The very first instruction to the Israelites is to bring a lamb into the house.  But that might not be practical for everyone, so the Torah states:

“But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby…”  (Exodus 12:4)

In other words, people are supposed to get together for these meals.  From the very beginning, the ideal seder has had a large guest list. 

As the tradition of the seder transitioned from the Biblical model—centered around the sacrifice at the Temple—to the rabbinic model—modeled after the Greek symposium—many of the components were maintained.

This includes the idea of including others at the meal.  As we begin the Maggid section of the Seder, we throw open the door and announce:

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם.

כָּל דִּכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵכוֹל.

כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat,

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in the Pesach.

This is one of the only parts of the Haggadah which is in Aramaic, which was the common tongue in ancient times.  That means that it was especially important that participants at the Seder understood these words.

It might be influenced from a passage in the Talmud, describing one of the practices of Rav Huna, an exceedingly wealthy 3rd century Babylonian Sage.

“Whenever Rav Huna would eat bread, he would open the doors to his house and say…”

And now I am going to recite the Aramaic: 

כל מאן דצריך ליתי וליכול

“Whoever needs, let him come in and eat.”

It is almost identical language to that which we find in the Haggadah.  For Rav Huna, it was every meal.  For us, it is just on Pesach.  

A Pesach seder has lots of guests.  It is not uncommon for ten, twenty, thirty, even forty people or more to cram around a table that starts in the dining room, extends into the living room and ends in the hall closet.

At Sinai’s Second Nigh Community Seder, we typically welcome over one hundred people around the tables in the social hall.

But how seriously do we take the words of the haggadah?  When we open up the door, and announce, “let anyone who is hungry come and eat,” do we really expect someone to be waiting on the doorstep?

I need your help.

One reality of the Bay Area is that most people who live here are not from here.  Most of us tend to not have extended family living nearby.  For those who do, the Pesach seder is often an annual family reunion.

Other households have traditions of getting together every year.  The invitation does not even need to be extended, because the tradition of celebrating together has become a fixed custom.  My family in Seattle has an automatic invitation for the second night Seder every year.

But there are many people in our community, I assure you, for whom there is not a seder to which they can count on an automatic invitation.

At my house, we are happy to be welcoming 25 people to our seder this year.  But I have been informed that we have reached the limit of what we can handle, if not space-wise, than certainly sanity-wise.

As the Rabbi of the community, I am concerned about our members.  I worry about people whom I suspect may not have a seder to attend.

So I am asking for your help.  If you are hosting a Seder this year, please add a few more chairs.  Think about someone who might not have a place to go, and invite them.  

If you already have six people coming to your seder, make it seven.  Ten?  Make it 12.  Twenty?   Really, there is very little difference between twenty and twenty five.  It’s chaos either way.  I promise that you will still have leftovers.

Think especially about singles, people without children, and people who are relatively new to the area, or to the congregation.  Also, think about someone who has recently converted, or who is exploring Judaism. 

One of the great things about Sinai is that we welcome so many people from such different backgrounds.  Invite someone whom you don’t know that well.  Invite a person that you have seen coming to shul lately, but whom you have not met yet.  Our family seder’s are enriched every year by having guests from such different backgrounds.

Ha lachma anya is the opening statement of our telling of the story of freedom.  These words ought to mean something to us.

This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Let anyone who is hungry come and and eat.

Let anyone who is in need come and participate in Pesach.

Shabbat Shalom.  Chag Kasher v’Sameach.

Sharing Passover – Shabbat HaChodesh 5777

As we just announced, Rosh Chodesh Nisan occurs this Tuesday.  In other words, the two week countdown until the first Seder begins in just three days.  (Aaaah!)

I am sure you noticed that we took out two Torah scrolls this morning.  That is because this Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Nisan.

In the special reading that we chanted from the second Sefer Torah, God makes a similar announcement to Moses and Aaron.  It is the first day of the month of Nisan.

God gives them instructions on how to prepare.  This is the first recorded observance of Passover.  Here are the basics:  On the tenth day of the month, each household must select an unblemished, one-year-old male sheep or goat.  They must then watch over it for three days, making sure that it does not acquire any new blemishes, which would render it unfit for the offering.

On the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, they are to slaughter it.  They take the blood and paint it on the doorposts and lintels of their homes.  This signals to the Angel of Death that this is a Jewish home.  In his wreaking destruction over all the first born of Egypt, he will know to pass over these houses.

Each household then roasts its selected animal over a fire, and eats it that night with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  They are not allowed to have any leftovers the next day.  Whatever is not consumed that night must be burned up.

The Israelites are supposed to eat in their traveling clothes – loins girded, staff in hand, and sandals on feet.

Then, God switches gears, explaining that the people of Israel will continue to observe this holiday as a seven day festival for all time – in remembrance of being rescued from slavery in Egypt.

More than three thousand years later, our seders, and our observance of Passover, still look back to this moment.

A detail in this first Seder stands out.  The instructions are not directed to the priests, or to the tribal leaders, or to just the men, or even to individual Israelites.  The laws of Passover are directed to households.  People have to come together and share.

Remember the details – no leftover are allowed.  Given those restrictions, a lamb or sheep is way too much for one person to eat alone.  So it has got to be eaten by an entire household.  But what if a whole lamb is still too much for an entire household? The Torah takes it into consideration: “But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat…”  (Exodus 12:4)

Imagine the setting in Egypt.  Israelites are rushing around, trying to get ready to leave Egypt.  They are packing their things.  But in the midst of all their preparations, they have to plan for one final meal.  They pick out the lucky animal, and take special care of it for three days, amidst all the hustle and bustle.

Then, the night before departure – one final feast, a barbecue.  Children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, servants – all come together to share.  Those without large families meet up with their neighbors.  Nobody is left out.  Why?  Because there cannot be any leftovers.

Nowadays, there are surely lots of leftovers after the seder.  At our house, by the time we get to the main course, it is so late, and we have already eaten so much, that nobody has any appetite left.

But the legacy of making sure everyone is included in the celebration of Pesach, in the celebration of freedom, is still with us in two significant ways.

The first is through the practice of maot chittin.  Literally, “coins for wheat.”  Since the time of the Talmud, it has been customary to give kosher for Passover flour to the poor prior to the holiday.  This enables them to bake their own unleavened bread.  Keep in mind, this tradition developed in the days before Manischewitz invented factory-baked matzah.

Giving flour, or money for flour, was considered to be ideal, as it is more dignified when a person can bake his or her own matzah.  Alternatively, a person could give matzah.

In some communities, local Jewish authorities would actually compel miserly residents to contribute towards Maot Chittin.  

A story is told of a woman who once went to her Rabbi with a strange question:  “Rabbi, is it permissible to drink four cups of milk at the seder instead of four cups of wine?

Shocked by the question, the Rabbi asked her why she would want to use milk.

“I am very poor.  I cannot afford wine.”

So the Rabbi gave her a large sum of money, and told her to go buy wine for her seder.

The Rabbi’s wife overheard this exchange, and when the women left, she asked her husband why he gave her so much money.

“Anyone who is intending to drink milk at the seder certainly does not have enough money to serve meat.  So I gave her enough money to purchase both.”

Every year at Sinai, members contribute money towards Maot Chittin.  It enables us, as a congregation, to help feed people.  I am privileged, as Sinai’s Rabbi, to send hundreds of dollars each year to our local Jewish Family Service’s No One Abandoned Here project, as well as to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

The other way in which we make sure everyone is included in Pesach is captured in the opening lines of the Maggid section of the Haggadah.  Ha lachma anya…  “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.”

While reciting these words, it is customary to open our doors to look outside to see if anyone is wandering around, looking for a seder to attend.  Not likely, so this action is largely symbolic.

But many of us try to fulfill this ideal by inviting guests to our seder tables.  Just as the first seder involved entire households, extended families, and neighbors joining together, seders today can be big affairs.  We invite relatives and friends.  For many seders, it is basically the same guest list year after year.  And that is wonderful.  We trace this tradition all the way back to our Israelite ancestors in Egypt.

I wonder, though, if we could do better.  Back in the shtetl, everyone knew everyone else’s business.  If a neighbor did not have a seder to attend, word would get out pretty quickly – and an invitation would follow.  But in our days, when we are dispersed and no longer dwell in tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods, we have no clue about each other’s plans.  We should not make any assumptions.

I assure you that there are plenty of Jews who do not have a seder to attend.

It is one of the reasons that I am proud of Sinai’s Second Night community seder.  It gives us a chance to celebrate together.  It also gives some people a seder who would not otherwise have one to go to.  We are so grateful to Rina Katzen for generously underwriting the seder to help keep the expense down.  Even so, it is still a lot of money for some people.

This year, let us give ourselves a challenge.  For those who are hosting, think about everyone you know.  Is there an individual or a family who might not have a seder to attend?  Invite them.  You do not have to know them well, or even at all.  According to Ha lachma anya we are supposed to literally bring strangers in off the street.

We shouldn’t worry about not having enough space or enough food.  I know from experience that it is always possible to squeeze in one extra person, or even four extra people.  I promise, there will still be plenty of leftovers.

By embracing the spirit of ha lachma anya, we get back to an important part of the first seder in Egypt.  Everyone is included.  Let’s make it happen this year.