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.