This week’s Torah portion is called Tzav and it continues the theme begun last week: the instructions on the sacrificial service to be conducted in the Tabernacle, and later in the Temple.
But there is something special about this particular Shabbat: it is called “Shabbat HaGadol” – the Great Shabbat. Now why should this particular shabbat have that appelation? Why not the Shabbat before Shavuot when we commemorate receiving the Torah on Sinai? Or perhaps the Shabbat preceding Rosh Hashana?
The designation of the Shabbat before Pesach being called ‘the Great Shabbat’ derives from what happened in Egypt just before the children of Israel were delivered from slavery. The Hebrews left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan which in the year they left was a Thursday. Count backwards and the previous Shabbat was the 10th of Nisan. You may remember that Hashem instructed the Israelites “..on the tenth of Nisan you will take a lamb, one per household…’ So the choosing of the lamb for each family was done on the previous Shabbat. What is so significant about that is this: That particular shabbat is the very FIRST Shabbat observed corporately by the children of Israel. It is the first time in biblical history that ALL of the children of Israel performed a command of Hashem as a community on Shabbat. Furthermore, in obeying Hashem’s command, they also for the first time, took a nationwide stand against idolatry for the Egyptians used to worship sheep and lambs as part of their rituals. For these two reasons, the Shabbat before Pesach was designated as Shabbat HaGadol.
Since Pesach follows this Shabbat so closely, I’d like to take a few moments to talk to you about the festive meal called the Seder which Jews around the world will observe on this coming Monday evening. A central focus of the Seder meal is what is called the Seder plate, upon which are very specific items and during the Seder we consume 4 glasses of wine at specified times. What is the meaning of these items? What significance do they convey?
First of all, Wine – Every Jewish lifestyle event includes wine, whether a Brit Milah (Circumcision), a Wedding, Shabbat, or the biblical holy days. Wine is produced from the essence that is ‘hidden’ within the skin of the grape; therefore, it exemplifies bringing forth that which is hidden or covered over. In addition, the numerical value (gematria) of the Hebrew word for wine (Yayin) is the same as that of the Hebrew word for ‘secret’ (sod). From these two insights we understand that wine serves to remind the Jew that the spark of divine life within us – in our souls – is there for a purpose: to be brought forth in our behavior in order to be ‘a light to the nations’.
On the Seder plate, we arrange the following items:
1) Karpas – known as ‘bitter herbs’. Usually it will be parsley or cilantro or some green herb that has something of a bitter or acrid taste by itself. Now there’s something very, very interesting about this element of the Pesach seder.
The word ‘karpas’ has a dual meaning. In the account of Joseph, son of Jacob, in Genesis, the word ‘karpas’ is used to designate the soft, comfortable fabric from which Joseph’s coat of many colors was woven. By contrast, at the Seder, ‘karpas’ means a ‘green, bitter tasting vegetable.’ What is the connection?
Rashi comes to our aid by explaining that it was Joseph’s coat of many colors that initiated the process that ultimately caused the descent of the Jewish people to Egypt. The coat provoked jealousy in Joseph’s brothers which moved them to sell him to the slave traders, which then placed him in Potiphar’s house, later falsely accused and imprisoned and finally elevated to the position of Prime Minister of Egypt. And after many years, finally…finally he is reunited with his brethren and after a period of peaceful living in Goshen, ultimately, the family of Jacob were forced into bitter slavery. What began with a soft comfortable fabric yielded the bitterness of slavery. Therefore ‘karpas’ is on our Seder plate.
2) Salt Water – we dip the karpas in salt water to remember the tears of our ancestors when they suffered hard labor and abuse at the hands of the Egyptians. Yet we also note that salt, though bitter and acrid on its own, it sweetens and brings out the taste of that to which it is added. That is why every cake and cookie recipe includes a small amount of salt, for example. Consider the Dead Sea. Nothing can live in it because of the excessive amount of salt, yet its waters have an incredible capacity to heal. People come from all over the world to sit in the Dead Sea and find relief from their pain.
3) Shank bone – the bone is a symbol of the lamb which the Israelites chose and brought, each one to his own home. It had to be a one year old lamb with no blemish of any kind. It was roasted and eaten whole, one in each home, in all the homes of the Hebrew slaves. The bone reminds us of the unity throughout Israel on that night, even as we pray for unity among Jews worldwide today.
4) Charoset – this is a mixture of fruit, sweet wine and spices and is the tastiest of the items on the Seder plate. It resembles in appearance the mortar used by the slaves in building Pharaoh’s edifices. However, the sweeter meaning is derived from the presence of fruit in this mixture. The fruit is a tribute to the faithful Hebrew women in the years of slavery, who despite their hard labor and difficult conditions, continued to birth multitudes of children so that the nation would survive. It is historically recorded that multiple births were the norm for the Hebrew women in those days.
5) a hard-boiled egg – symbolizes the hardened heart of Pharaoh whose cruelty caused such suffering to our ancestors. Yet, as a sign of fertility, the egg also speaks of hope and a future, of new life to come and teaches us that even in suffering, there is always hope.
6) Matzah – the essence of matzah is flour and water – nothing else. Unlike ‘chametz’ (leavened bread) which rises on its own, matzah does nothing on its own. The baker (Maker) does it all. It speaks to us of the simplicity of a life of true inner freedom where we are not weighed down with attachments to earthly pleasures and possessions but free to do and to follow whatever the Maker wants of us. There is nothing wrong with possessions in themselves, as long as we have the possessions and the possessions don’t have us! Matzah teaches us to hold the things of this world lightly, with our fingertips, so to speak; not to grasp on to earthly possessions with an iron grip.
This freedom is what the Exodus was truly all about….and still is.
May your Shabbat and the Pesach to come bring to all of us a deeper freedom of soul than we have ever experienced before and may we draw closer to our destiny of being a ‘light to the nations’.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach (May you have a kosher and happy Passover).