SHABBAT HAGADOL 5778
Rabbi Craig H. Ezring of Deerfield Beach Florida tells about a pre-Passover class he had before a group of Jewish doctors. He asked an Oral Surgeon, “With your schedule, who does the cleaning for Passover?” She said that getting her husband to help with the cleaning was like pulling teeth.
Her husband—a Pathologist—happened to be in the room. He asked him if he would consider helping his wife with the cleaning this year and he replied, “Over my dead body!” He then asked the other male docs if they would help their spouses this Passover.
- A Dermatologist told him he was being rash.
- An Ophthalmologist felt he was being shortsighted.
- An Obstetrician felt that he was laboring under a misconception.
- A Neurologist thought he had a lot of nerve.
- A Pediatrician said, “Rabbi, grow up!”
- And the Psychiatrist told him the whole idea was meshuga.
Finally one of the docs yelled out, “But think of all the positive benefits.” And sure enough, positive thoughts began to flow:
- The Podiatrist called out that if the husbands would help it would be a good step
- The Anesthesiologist said that she thought it would be a gas.
- The Cardiologist said that it showed a lot of heart.
- But then the Allergist said that he thought we should scratch the whole idea.
- The Urologist said, “Look, either ‘urine’ or you’re out.”
- And do you know who won out in the end? The Proctologist! Oy!
Seriously, I have never understood why so many men don’t raise a finger to help in the intense labor involved in the preparation and observance of Pesach. As busy as I am preparing in shul, I always help shop, kasher the kitchen, move the Pesach boxes of dishes in and burn the chametz.
A good deal of the discussion at that class was centered around how the change in diet on Pesach can affect the body and its various organs. It’s no secret that eating matzah can cause some abdominal distress—after all the Haggadah calls matzah Lechem Oni (The Bread of Affliction). One of the docs pointed out that drinking 4 cups of wine at the Seders can also cause issues with blood pressure and headaches. And if you think drinking a lot of wine can give you a bad headache…what about the extended family that comes—that, in and of itself, can cause quite a headache.
Another doc pointed out that the sodium count in most chicken soups can be quite shocking to the body…and the sugar in those macaroons can lead to a diabetic coma.
Rabbi Ezring countered that there are positives in what we eat at the Seder. For instance, if your nose is stuffed, all you have to do is take a spoonful of horseradish or bite into a horseradish root and your sinuses will open up like the parting of the Red Sea. I’m grateful to Rabbi Ezring for sharing this with me so that we could all groan a bit like the slaves in Egypt.
Passover is many things—cleaning and shopping, new clothes, synagogue services—but it is above all else, a gastronomic experience of the 1st order. It’s as if we commemorate the slavery of our ancestors by taking our vengeance by stuffing our stomachs to the nth degree! About this my friend and colleague, Rabbi Basil Herring writes:
It starts even before Pesach begins, with what used to be a fast day for the firstborn, but which our rabbis with great ingenuity turned into a feast, that which accompanies the Siyum, or “conclusion” of a Talmudic tractate, early in the morning Erev Pesach…When we get home we realize that we didn’t finish all the Chametz still lying around in the refrigerator, and rather than throw out all that good food, we are prevailed upon to put it to good use—and add it to our waistline.
Once the Seder rolls around…1st we make Kiddush—drinking just enough wine, by way of an aperitif, to get the stomach juices flowing. Then we tantalize the taste buds with hors d’oeuvres, dipping some parsley or potato in a little salt water to get us thirsty enough to want some more wine. We start to tell the story of the Exodus…but rather than merely recount the miracles and the wonders, we give them concrete expression using the most wonderful audiovisual materials, all of them in the form of—you guessed it—food!
Thus it is that we point to the roasted shank bone sitting succulently on the table’s centerpiece, the Seder plate. Then moments later we look longingly at the boiled egg, the 3 matzot, the Maror in the form of horseradish or bitter lettuce, and the assorted symbols of the struggle for freedom. Now we raise them, now we lower them, now we cover them and now we uncover them—all ostensibly to peak the interest of the children at the table, but in truth to ensure that our minds are not for a moment free of the thought of food.
After about an hour or so, we finally give full rein to the palate as we sit down to partake of—what else—the Matzah. Not just a mouthful, mind you, but properly speaking enough to fill a Japanese wrestler’s gut—1st the Matzah by itself, then as a sandwich overlaid with Maror and that incomparable, indescribable, delicacy known as Charoset. You are expected to eat…the equivalent of at least 2 full conventional square Matzahs—all the better if you eat the heavy, round, hand‑made variety [like I do] that settles into the stomach like so many leaden weights.
And then comes the Maror…followed by the egg dipped in salt water. I can confide to you that by this point in the meal I am ready to call it quits for the night…
Enough, you say! But the meal has not even begun! They start to bring the chicken soup with its inevitable Kneidlach (otherwise known affectionately as “cannon‑balls”). This is followed in quick order by a massive entree/main course, over which the Baleboste has slaved for days, so that Gd help you if you do not finish the “whole thing” down to the last morsel on the plate…
By now you feel as if your stomach is on the floor—but then with horror you realize that you have still got to consume the piece de resistance: the dreaded Afikoman!...
Rabbi Herring goes on, but all kidding aside, there’s something serious here, and it has to do with the relationship between body and soul, the physical and the spiritual. After the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, the miracles continued with raining down from heaven the manna and quails in the wilderness of Sinai. When Gd informs the people that he’s going to provide them with all this miraculous food, He declares (Ex. 16:4): “Behold, I shall rain down for you food from heaven…so that the people go forth and collect it day after day, so that I may test them whether they will follow My Torah or not.”
How does Gd test the people’s faithfulness by providing them with food in abundance? Surely the opposite is true—that faith is tested in the absence of food. Rabbi Ben Zion Firer (Hegyona Shel Torah) explains that by providing them with food in abundance, the value they would attach to food would be deflated, and they would then be able to focus more on following Gd and His Torah. They would have no excuse for not pursuing the life of the spirit, being freed as they were from the demands of the flesh. This was their test.
This, my friends, is also our test. Instead of manna we indulge ourselves in an orgy of food, food, and more food. Thank Gd, we live in a society that is overflowing with gourmet delight in abundance. Few among us go hungry. But therein lays the test. How sad it would be if we, so magnificently blessed, were to miss the point of this Passover plenty and pursue nothing more than to indulge our bodies again and again. A full stomach can make for an arrogant person. The true test, the Torah tells us, is to be able to enjoy and imbibe while not forgetting that the whole purpose of the Pesach story was to bring us to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah so we could live a Gdly life and enhance our souls.
Oh, and one more thing. This week we read in the Torah about how the Kohanim were commanded to clean up the ashes from all the offerings burnt on the altar every morning. That’s right…the 1st thing these holy Priests had to do every day was to take out the garbage. With Pesach coming up I think the message we should take with us is that it doesn’t matter whether you wear a suit and tie or a doctor’s white coat...help your wife with the spring cleaning…help her with the preparation for Pesach…help her with the Seders…and help her with the clean up after. And, by all means, take out the garbage. Amen!