Thursday, March 29, 2012

Getting ready for the seder.

Vayikra and the seder

March 23, 2012

Temple Beth Jacob of Newburgh

There are many korbanot discussed in Leviticus and the fourth aliyah of parashat Vayikra gives us the zevach shelamim the offering of well being. This offering is not mandatory but offered from time to time when things are going well and you want to show appreciation. You didn’t do anything that requires you to bring it. You didn’t sin, you didn’t curse. You just have good things going on and you want to rejoice and give thanks.

But you don’t want to do that alone. You rejoice and give thanks with others so you bring your animal to the Temple, let the cohanim slaughter it, remove the suet which is burned completely as smoke as a token portion for God, leave a little something for the cohanim and then you take the now roasted animal for a feast with family and friends.

Life is good, you want to celebrate and you want to share the joy. And don’t forget, eating an animal depletes your flock so this was a big deal.

The idea of a ritualized meal is a very old idea. The heightened religious experience of eating food dedicated to God is part of the reason. Sharing food is already intimate enough and now we share with the Divine! That is really something. The more obvious sense of relaxation around a meal seems to me to be so elemental that I can’t imagine that feeling never existing.

And of course, to this day, we have a ritualized meal each Spring with the Pesach seder. What is the highlight? There are many for many families but surely it must be gathering around. Everyone gathers, it is festive and whether modest or abundant the food is always good, always special and we give thanks whether we want to or not. We are thankful for the springtime and the promise of months and months of warm weather. We are thankful for our friends and family, that we are surrounded by people who care about us. We are thankful we are blessed with what we have and then we are thankful we are free.

The seder helps us express that thanks. It gives us a framework to repeat words, and repeat actions that tell the story of moving from sovereign life, to living under someone else’s rule to living in slavery and then ultimately to sovereignty and living with the freedom of ethical rule.

Back to Torah, just imagine the preparations for the zevach shelamim. You have to make provisions for the journey to Jerusalem and then choose the animal which you do very carefully. You have to either let the animal walk with you or get some kind of cart for the trip to Jerusalem because if the animal is bruised on the journey, it might not be suitable for the offering. You have to find lodging in Jerusalem and then, getting very excited, head off to the Temple, the largest building you or anyone else has ever seen. And then, flushed with the power of the ritual, you celebrate with friends. And it’s all good, it’s great! It may be a lot of work but it’s worth it.

We live in an age of convenience. We live in a time where we don’t need to get up out of our seats to go to a reference book to check some fact. We don’t need to wait for the right season for a specific fruit. We can get almost anything at anytime and often we can get anybody else to do it for us. And all of this is great because it is more convenient. But there is still something to be said for doing it yourself. We live in an age of convenience but at the same time we live in an era of contrived complications. We take things upon ourselves that give us the pleasure of accomplishment. Whether it’s a craft or Sudoku or some new hobby or working out, a lot of the time we’ve saved by convenience we now spend on other time consuming activities because we like accomplishing things.

Our seder is an old thing to which we want to bring convenience because that is what we do. The seder in my lifetime has changed from solemn to festive and even silly. Most of these changes are great when it means we can engage those at the table. I would just encourage us not to try to make the seder too convenient. Passing a pitcher of water around for urchatz so everyone can partake is not convenient. However, having everyone wash means everyone is part of the seder. The transition is made from the very start that those at the table go from observer to participant. We don’t watch the leader wash, watch the leader dip, watch the leader taste. We wash, we dip, we taste. We go through these movements

It may be more convenient to eat when the food is ready but we wait to make it through the story. We tell the story of how we went down to Egypt and how we were rescued. And it takes longer but a good story takes some time. We may adjust, we may edit, we may move along there or linger here because that is what drama needs but we don’t cut corners. The seder, if we are very fortunate, should transition from an inconvenient thing to a DIY thing. The seder should move from the old telling our grandfathers used to do to a vibrant discussion of freedom and gratitude and hope for the future.

The afikoman, everyone’s favorite was a solemn munching on the worst dessert ever. And then it turned into a game and then the game had a prize and the prize became more elaborate and now, often, the prize is the moment with the joy of watching children’s eyes bug out. I like that too. But can we turn that moment into a moment of gratitude everyone can share in? The afikoman is the official dessert meaning it is the last morsel we all eat meaning we finish an amazing meal with a boring taste so that when we get to birkat hamazon, we can remember to be thankful for our food, any food we get no matter how grand or modest. And just as we all settled ourselves to start the seder together, we all come back from the kitchen or bathroom or chasing the kids or whatever and settle ourselves again, focus ourselves again, eat a crumb of afikoman matzah and finish the journey.

It would be more convenient to just stop there but we would miss hallel and more wine and chad gadya and who knows one. In my family, these are big moments. It is a struggle to get ourselves back into seder mode but we are always grateful we did.

And we haven’t even talk about the historical journey or the spiritual journey or the metaphysical journey. We’ve arrived at the end of our seder and we barely discussed so much of it. Good thing we’ll be back next year.

Bringing a zevach shelmim, an offering of well being was not convenient but the effort was worth it. Planning and producing a seder is not convenient but the effort is worth it. It is worth it when you are together. It is worth it when we remember our past and when we discuss how to apply ancient lessons to the present. It is worth it when we celebrate our good fortune of being free.

Next week I will talk about different haggadot. But until then, Shabbat Shalom, an early chag Sameach and with two weeks left to go, let’s begin our preparations.