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.