Rabbi David Steinhardt
April 8, 2017
I don’t know about you, but often I think that “the older I get, the more I don’t know.” Now, that might be a function of experience and the realization that the world is really more complex then I had ever thought. Or it may be a function of having been wrong so many times…My kids used to laugh at me when they would ask questions and almost reflexively, I would try to answer. That would be my job as a father, as I saw it. And then they would say, Abba, it’s okay to simply say you don’t know. How many times have I told you that my greatest lessons consistently have come from my kids? It’s hard to admit, we don’t know…
Questions and answers… Questions without answers. That may be a central consideration of Passover. This is Shabbat HaGadol. And you know that this “Great Shabbat” is about preparation for Pesach. At one time the rabbi would give all the teshuvot, all the answers as to how to properly observe the upcoming Festival. And services could go on for hours and hours, like at B’nai Torah. No longer. Now we have the internet. Do you want to know about what is kosher for Pesach… go to Google and you’ll find a host of rabbinic organizations and authorities that will help. Or… simply call my office.
But somehow referring to this Shabbat as “HaGadol” because of the length of the service, simply doesn’t cut it. There has to be a greater reason, something more meaningful. And, of course, there is.
We know that these are times of greater spiritual awareness. The preparation necessary for Pesach may be tough, but it has an impact because, it forces us to think about why we are doing all of this. And in that thought there may be a growing sense of connection and spirituality. Shabbat HaGadol refers to this Shabbat, but the sages also referred to Shabbat HaGadol as the way it will be when the Messiah comes. There will be “gadlut” an expansion of one’s sense of the reality of God. Our consciousness actually changes. Something holy is going on.
And Shabbat HaGadol may be more specifically tied to the verse found at the end of the Haftarah which was chosen for this Shabbat before Pesach. We read the words of Malachi…Malachi is concerned that our offerings reflect a purity, both physically and spiritually. And that religious life, he reminds us, is about ritual and it’s about behavior.
And the haftarah ends with the following:
Behold, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome great (Gadol) Yom Gadol, day of the Lord. And he shall reconcile parents with their children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I will not strike the Land with utter desolation.
This is where I want to focus.
Why is it Elijah that’s being sent?
Well, we might go to the obvious. Elijah, in our tradition, will herald the coming of the Messiah.
In a few nights we will open the door for Eliyahu Hanavi. Why? Because although, we will celebrate the redemption our people once experienced as we were freed from Egyptian bondage, we know that the world is not fully redeemed. And so we hope for a future redemption, a time when we will all be free. When we will all be safe. When all will be well fed and comfortable.
But that’s not what the prophet in the haftarah is predicting. No, there is another aspect of Elijah that he foretells. It is that Elijah will turn the hearts of parents to children and children to parents. Years ago, I’m sure you remember we used to speak about this as the answer to the worrisome generation gap that plagued a generation as things were changing so rapidly. It’s not the same today. In fact, we are finding that millennials tend to be more conservative then there parents…
So there is the Elijah that heralds the coming of the Messiah. We know Elijah is with us at the Seder, promising redemption. And we have a sea, a chair for Elijah at every bris, reminding us to hope and instill in each baby boy a sense of significance.
And there is also another image of Elijah. This one comes from the Talmud. It is contained in the word. TEIKU. TEIKU is found in the Talmud. After pages of disagreement, we see sometimes arguments do not get resolved. Rather, we find a word, TEIKU. It is an acronym. Tishbi Yitareitz Kushiyot. When the Tishbi, Eliyahu HaTishbi, when he comes all our questions will be answered.
And the conversations move on.
This is a profound teaching coming from our tradition. Other religions have catechisms, and they have absolute descriptions of belief and behavior.Other religions have dogma. We don’t. We have arguments, disagreements, multiple opinions, and debate in a process searching…and some answers are not to be found.
So I was thinking Elijah is going to be sent. And the hearts of children and parents will be turned towards each other. And what Elijah is doing is telling you that you can hear the question and you should know that you may not have the answer.
One of the great issues plaguing the public conversations today. Everyone thinks they have the answer. They think they know. But what do they know? And how do they process disagreement? Because when you are so sure of yourself, you can’t hear what the other is saying.
Maybe more necessary than the answer to our child’s question, is the response, I HEAR YOU…the proper response.
And so, on this day, when we think about the upcoming holidays it might be wise for us to ask ourselves why are there four questions that begin our conversation at the Seder. And the astute reader will see that these questions aren’t answered. They are asked…And the response may be in the search we join to find answers…
Think about this. What would be the net result if we as a society today defined our problems…How do we get from where we are to where we want to be? And ask each other the questions as we step by step walk through the answers…Could we do that? In order to do that we would need to hear the other.
Again, look at the haggadah. It presents four sons or four children. And each is different. And each needs to be instructed. But each needs a teaching that is appropriate for him…The wise son gets a complicated legalistic answer. The wicked son evokes fear and we try to bind him away from the community. The simple gets a simple answer. And the one who doesn’t ask…he is opened up.
The rabbis were teaching us something so important. They were teaching us how to listen to our children. They weren’t teaching us how to teach our child, rather to hear them, to see where they are at.
We all want to be heard. We want to be hard in this world where there is so much noise, and so much distraction. You know the Facebook phenomenon. There are people posting everything they do, everything their children do…every thought they have…why? It is out of this desperate call…Listen to me! Hear me! See me! Notice me!
Elijah is a symbol for being heard…and being answered. And if we’re not there yet, then we can be the ones to help us get there. How?
By listening to the one next to you. By listening to the one nearby. By listening to your spouse and your child… And if we all listen better, then we bring the Messiah.
There is holiness in learning and listening. You know that, our central declaration of faith tells us – Sh’ma Yisrael, Listen Israel!!!
Sometimes I think about big problems in ways that may be simple. So often when I think about conflicts around the world, I think about the fact that the parties involved don’t feel heard…each has narrative and neither side can listen to the other…
I learned this great midrash about Sarah and Avraham and Hagar and Ishmael. You know the story. Ishmael was teasing Isaac. It was really angering the jealous Sarah…and so she complained to Avraham. Get rid of the slave woman and her son.
And we know, Avraham does. He sends them immediately into the wilderness. And there are those who say, enmity between their descendants continue to this day.
Could it have been avoided? Traditional commentaries say NO. According to a contemporary feminist midrash it could have been avoided.
For Sarah was saying…Avraham listen. These people are really bothering me. They are making me feel awful. But it’ll change. I don’t need you to do something at this moment. I just need you to listen. Just need you to listen. I never wanted you to throw them into the desert to die and that’s the cry of so many wives… just hear me!”
So if the haggadah is in the telling… We are challenged to be the listeners. It’s so unusual in these days. Maybe that’s why thousands and thousands of dollars are spent on therapists… Not so much because of what they say… but because they listen.
And I know, and I have often said…the most important thing I can do as a Rabbi…is not to speak but to listen.
So maybe it’s time for me to end this sermon…
Shabbat Shalom everyone…MAY YOU EXPERIENCE THE GEDOLOT OF THESE DAYS…AND MAY SOME OF IT…IF NOT MOST OF IT COME FROM OUR CAPACITY TO HEAR, TO LISTEN…TO EACH OTHER, TO OUR CHILDREN AND TO THE WORLD OUT THERE THAT NEEDS HEALING…AND REDEMPTION.