On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Metzora: Shabbat HaGadol

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, wonders if asking questions during a Passover seder is a religious mandate, or if it is actually demanded of us, and whether eating kosher for Passover bagels is really in the spirit of the holiday. 

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Welcome to episode 12 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah. We want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism. And subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wonders whether asking questions during a Passover seder is a religious mandate or if it is actually demanded of us and whether eating kosher for Passover bagels is really in the spirit of the holiday.

This Shabbat actually has a special name. It is called Shabbat HaGadol. The name actually is taken from the haftarah, which talks about a yom gadol, a great day. But it is called Shabbat HaGadol. It could also be that it is a very long day or very great day or very important day. It is always the week right before Pesach. So today I'd like to actually get inside of that preparation and what it is that we'll be doing when we gather together for seder with our families, with our friends, as more Jews do than any other ritual act in our tradition.

So I wanted to start by thinking about, what is that we ask of a young person in our Jewish community? What's the first ritual act that we ask them to do? Many of us remember that act. As the youngest one at the Seder, we're asked to ask four questions. And those four questions are not simply specific questions, but also to be encouraged that asking questions is a religious mandate. Some religious traditions tell us don't ask questions. Just do.

Not our tradition. In fact, of the four children, the most difficult one to imagine how they function is sh’eino yodea lishol, the child who does not know how to even formulate a question. And the questions that the traditional asks the youngest person to ask are specific, focused on ritual. But they're just meant to be place savers in case a young person can't ask their own big questions about what's happening in the world, what is the meaning of our tradition, why do we do all of these rituals.

So as we think about the many questions that perhaps perplex us, I think of questions like, why is Passover the most observed of all Jewish holidays? Why is that? It may be because it's at home, not so much in community settings like congregations, and there's a freedom by doing a ritual at home. We can adapt it. We can edit it. But it is the most beloved and the most observed of all those. I also want to ask the question why is the number four so important in Haggadah-- four children, four questions, four cups of wine? And of course, it's better to leave questions just open so people can think of their own answers. But four is that elemental number-- the four seasons, the four directions. There's something very, very basic about a question such as that.

I want to ask questions about all the newfangled things that you can buy for Passover. I mean, kosher for Passover bagels? Are they really in the spirit of the holiday? I want to ask, why is it that Easter and Passover both have eggs as fundamental symbols, the symbol of hope, the symbol of regeneration? I want to ask, how do we make sure to have a meaningful seder? How to keep that person in our family that always rushes through and says, are we almost done yet, and can we skip over all this other stuff?

That is, of course, a big question. How do we make it meaningful? How do we make sure to focus on the things that aren't just in the Haggadah, but in our lives and in our world? When we think about is there hope, is there a way somehow, with all the difficult, painful things that we are facing in our world and our North American communities, throughout the Middle East, and really all over the globe, how do we rise up from seder with a sense of hope and possibility? The karpas, the little symbol of spring, is supposed to visually symbolize hope, but how do we summon hope particularly at this moment in history?

I think of the end of the seder ritual, another moment for the youngest child, to open the door. Remember, historically in the early part of our evolution of Passover, the door was opened towards the beginning of the seder. Why? Because when you invite people, ha lachma anya, let all who are hungry, it's better to do that with an open door and go out and actually say it in the street. Is there anybody that doesn't have a place to go? But given that Jews had lived in very, very threatening and menacing places, we no longer open the door at the beginning. It was too risky. It was too risky to say, we're having seder, come look at what we're doing, because of all of those places where it was not actually safe to be a Jew.

But we moved the opening of the door towards the end of the seder ritual. And we asked the youngest in our gathering to open that door. Why do we ask the youngest person to open the door for Elijah? And by the way, in most of our contemporary Seder rituals, we open the door for Elijah and Miriam, or at least we have a Cup of Miriam and a cup, kos Eliyahu. And I think, why is that? Is it a way to keep those children awake to the end? That may be a good strategy to keep them engaged. I think there's a more profound reason why we ask the youngest person to open the door for Elijah. And that is that that's a moment where only a young person has such a reservoir of hope and possibility. So when they opened the door for Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the prophet, they actually think that Elijah might be there.

And the rest of us, we've grown rather hardened over the years, imagining that there's not a chance in the world that Eliyahu HaNavi is going to be there when we open the door. And Elijah is the one, in our tradition, who will herald a time of harmony, a time of peace, a time of justice and hope. And whether Elijah the prophet is there when our youngest opens the door, we can, in a sense, ready the world for Eliyahu. We can, through our acts, make the world more just, more compassionate, more peaceful, and more whole.

So we rise from seder, not just feeling that wonderful feeling of connectedness with our family and friends and filled with the ritual foods and having done the prescribed rituals, we rise from Seder realizing, believing that the world is for us to shape and to refine and to redeem. And so whether we find Eliyahu, we find a little piece of redemption in our holy word. So I hope that, on this Shabbat HaGadol, you'll have time to think about all the ways that you'll not just physically prepare the table and the foods, but also how do we prepare our hearts and our minds and our commitments for the big questions?

Remember, we're the tradition that not only allows questions, we demand questions. We can find out only what's really at the heart of life when we ask and answer the biggest questions. Chag sameach. May you have a very sweet and holy preparation leading to a joyous observance of Passover.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today-- and we hope you did-- you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week., l’hitraot.