How a Reform Jew Keeps Passover

Sermon given April 14, 2000, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Last year, late on the Saturday evening during Passover, Toni and I went to enjoy a quiet dinner at Karam’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant. Deep on the west side, that establishment is usually not where one runs into members of our congregation, but that night, as we walked in the door, we saw a couple who belong to the Temple. When we went to greet them, the wife told us that, upon first seeing us, she had whispered to her husband: “Oh no, there’s the rabbi. He’s going to see that we’re eating here during Passover.” Her husband pointed out that we were probably not inspecting all the restaurants in town, just to see who wasn’t keeping Passover strictly. Indeed, he said, “They must be here to eat, too.” Not being Jewish, the husband wasn’t entirely sure if eating there was right or wrong. If it were not permitted, though, this rabbi would certainly be in no position to impose sanctions on his wife.

The dietary rules of Passover are complicated. Some Jews eat rice, corn and legumes during Passover; others consider eating those foods to be gross violations of Jewish law; and still others couldn’t identify a legume if it hit them in the face. How, then, should a Reform Jew keep Passover?

Tonight, we observe Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Sabbath” before Passover. In days of old, rabbis gave sermons only twice a year, and this Shabbat was one of those two times. The theme of this sermon was always the laws of Passover. Tonight, I will not break tradition, but will offer seven ways that every Reform Jew should keep Passover.

1. A Reform Jew should attend a Seder.

Studies of our American Jewish community indicate that more Jews attend Seder than any other Jewish observance, even Yom Kippur services. And yet, too often, I hear people joke about the content and quality of their Passover Seder. Some express pride in how much of the service they skip. Others have no service whatsoever. Their Seder is no more than a family gathering to eat matzah ball soup.

Many, though, are quite serious in the way the conduct the Seder. They spend weeks preparing, not only the food, but also the way in which they will conduct the service. Yes, they may skip some pages that seem less relevant. They may read almost everything in English. They may significantly shorten the Seder to accommodate children. Nevertheless, they are careful to communicate the message of Passover to all who are present, to share our Jewish traditions with the next generation, and to make this Jewish experience a meaningful part of home life. May each of us lead or attend such a Seder this year.

Under the best of circumstances, the Passover Seder is held in the home. However, recognizing that many Temple members and guests may not be able to hold a Seder at home, we do offer a Community Seder on the second night.

2. A Reform Jew should observe the holy days of Passover.

For Reform Jews, Passover lasts seven days. The first day of the festival, and the last day, are holy days in Judaism. Just like every Shabbat, and much like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews traditionally do not work or go to school on these days, but rest, study and attend worship services. Certainly, most Reform Jews will not take those days off from work. However, we all should make these days holy.

We mark these occasions by attending Passover morning services. This year, we are making attendance at services on the first day easier, by offering a Passover breakfast and Early Festival Worship at 8:00 A.M, in addition to the 10:30 A.M. service. A Reform Jew can make that day holy by attending services, and then go on to work, if necessary. On the seventh day, if attending the 10:30 A.M. service is not practical, then make that day sacred on Tuesday night, April 25, by kindling lights, blessing the wine and matzah at home, or by coming to the Temple for the Dessert Seder.

Whatever our individual practice, we must not scoff at those Jews who do not go to work or school on those days. The first and last days of Passover are legitimate Jewish holidays. For Conservative and Orthodox Jews, who observe eight days of Passover, the first two days and the last two days are holy. We must support our fellow Jews who observe the holy days scrupulously, especially if they are our co-workers or classmates. Let us not be among those who accuse them of “making up holidays to get out of work.” May we instead join them in sanctifying our holy days at the beginning and end of our seven-day festival.

3. A Reform Jew should be rededicated to the Jewish people during Passover.

On Passover, we are linked to Jews everywhere, as we sit down to Seder tables throughout the world on the same night. We recall that we have been slaves in many times and places since Egypt. We are grateful for God’s liberating power. We stand in awe of the fortitude of fellow Jews who have worked to set our people free from persecution throughout the ages. We acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of the sacrifices made by our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel. We rejoice in the freedom of our people.

During Passover, let us commit ourselves to labor on behalf of our global Jewish family. May we ever be God’s partners in assuring the freedom of our people everywhere. Let us make one more charitable donation, one more act of tzedakah during Passover, to assure the welfare of our Jewish people throughout the world. Let us commit the words of our mouths and the work of our hands to the welfare of the people of Israel and the Land of Israel.

4. A Reform Jew must work for freedom during Passover.

We are taught, “Remember the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” During Passover, let us never forget the festival’s theme of freedom. May we be mindful of those who are enslaved by poverty and hunger, by illness or by prejudice, by homelessness and by hopelessness. May the festival inspire us to yet another act of tzedakah, to help the needy of our larger community, wherever in the world they may be. Let our voices and our deeds struggle for the freedom of all humanity. Our Passover Haggadah tells us that we are not truly free until all men and women live at liberty and in peace. May we rejoice in our own freedom by committing ourselves to the liberty of others.

5. A Reform Jew must hope during Passover.

At the Seder, we shall open the door for the prophet Elijah, the biblical crusader for God. At the end of his life, Elijah did not die, but was taken up into the heavens in a fiery chariot. Our tradition teaches that the prophet will return to us, to herald the coming of a messianic age in the future. Significantly, we are not permitted to wait idly for God to send a Messiah. Instead, we Jews are commanded to repair this broken world, little by little, to build the messianic future with our own hands, with God’s help.

Often, we may despair. Our world seems so rife with trouble, so sad and irreparable. On Passover, festival of freedom, we open the door, not only to Elijah, but to the possibility of a brighter future in a world at peace. Let us begin during Passover to hope, to dream of the reality of a more perfect tomorrow, and to work toward making the dream real.

6. A Jew must strive for faith in God during Passover.

On Wednesday night, more than a few self-proclaimed atheists will sit around Seder tables. Also present will be many whose faith is unshakable. Most of us, though, will be in the middle. We believe in God; we wish to believe in God; and yet, we experience doubt. We question God, which is very much a part of being Jewish, for we are called Yisrael, Israel, meaning, “one who struggles with God.”

The Seder service does not mention Moses, because we are not to focus on a human liberator, but on our God. May we strive, even if the struggle is difficult, to develop our faith in God during Passover, each in his or her own way.

7. A Jew must observe Passover dietary restrictions.

Yes, we should refrain from eating hametz, foods that are forbidden during Passover. Technically, hametz consists of five grains – wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye – when those grains are mixed with water for long enough to rise. Some Jews don’t eat corn or rice; some don’t eat garlic. I have no argument with Reform Jews who observe those additional restrictions. However, I do not. Therefore, I ate at Karam’s last Passover. Corn tortillas, in my practice, are permitted, as are foods with corn syrup.

Whatever Passover dietary restrictions we adopt, we should do so with seriousness, with consistency, and with purpose. We can learn discipline, by staying with our Passover dietary restrictions throughout the week. We may sanctify our homes for the holiday, by removing forbidden foods from our refrigerators and our pantries, and we may symbolize that act of cleansing by checking every nook and cranny for hametz. We must not bring ridicule on our faith, on our people, on Reform Judaism or on our Temple by eating obviously inappropriate foods in public during Passover. We lose respect for ourselves, and we relinquish our esteem in the eyes of others, when we eat sandwiches, rolls and pastries in restaurants during Passover.

You no doubt noticed that I left the dietary restrictions to the end of this sermon. I did not “save the best for last.” In fact, as concerned as I am that some among us will ignore these mitzvot altogether, I am equally disconcerted by those whose obsession with these dietary laws obscures the deeper meaning of the holiday. We eat matzah to remind us of the poor bread our ancestors ate in slavery. We eat matzah to remember the bread that our people baked so quickly as they were leaving Egypt. We eat matzah to call our minds to the plight of others who eat only poor bread all year, not by choice or by ritual, but because they are not free, just as we were slaves in the land of Egypt.

When we badger ourselves or one another about a drop of corn syrup in a Coca-Cola, but fail to work for freedom, we are in violation of Passover. When we spend days preparing pesadich cakes but do not reach out to our fellow Jews, we are not keeping Passover. When we pop Pesach macaroons into our mouths but fail to praise God for our blessings, our Passover is downright treife.

This year, may each of us indeed have a “kosher Passover.” May we keep Passover, in what goes out of our mouths and in what goes into our mouths. May we observe the festival, in the foods served on our Seder tables and in the services conducted there. May we faithfully seek to be God’s partners in securing the welfare of our Jewish people, and in fighting for the freedom of men, women and children everywhere. Then, may our Passover observance truly be pleasing in God’s sight.