In the seventeenth century, the founder of the Chasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov connected this haftarah bayom hahu with a special custom of an 8th day Pesach afternoon meal called the Moshiach Seudah complete with matzah, four cups of wine, and a special focus on the final redemption. Our kiddush today will feature matza of course and you can drink 4 little shot glasses of kosher for Passover brandy if you like, but we as Reform Jews won’t be toasting to the Lubavitcher Moshiach any time soon. But if he came and declared kitniyot to be acceptable on Pesach, I’d consider it…
And I can tell you that the Jews for Jesus and other so-called Messianic Jews have a field day with this idea of the Messianic banquet and they have taken it on as their own. So I’m careful to even teach about it or talk about it.
But here we are as Reform Jews on the 8th day of Passover and its not about Messianism. Unlike the last day of Sukkot which has its own name, Shmini Atzeret,, the last day of Pesach is not a separate holiday. There’s no association in the Torah between the last day of Pesach and any event or occurrence in our Jewish history.
My mother, zichrona l’vracha, was a staunch Reform Jew, but I grew up celebrating 8 days of Passover because she believed that any Jew of any denomination should always be able to eat in our house. (She also once confided to me that she kept 8 days because it wasn’t worth kashering cleaning and cooking all that just for 7.)
But she believed deeply in klal Yisrael, in all Jews having bottom lines that cut across the denominations, things that we could hold in common with each other.
I grew up as a Reform Jew with a tremendous appreciation for Jewish tradition, with a family and a synagogue that didn’t just do away with a tradition if it was inconvenient. In my vision, our City Shul will ask questions of the tradition but if there is no reason to separate from the rest of the community’s custom we should consider carefully our own stance.
Two personal reflections on why I appreciate that stance so much, so far.
First, although I’ve given up the Ashkenazi custom of not eating rice and beans on Pesach—and I’ve just come from leading a Seder with my Guatemalan congregation Adat Israel where my “flat bread” was corn tortillas—I still celebrate 8 days of Passover in terms of not eating chametz. One year I went to Shabbat services which also happened to be the 8th day of Pesach at a local Reform temple. When challah and sandwiches and Presidents Choice chocolate chip cookies came out for kiddush, I felt a stab of “in your face, we don’t keep 8 days” that was, I thought, unnecessary. As a guest in that synagogue of course I didn't say a word, but we left before lunch and felt pushed out by the very public display of not doing what so much of the rest of the community was doing. And of course, I was hoping to snag a lunch out of being in shul, as our fridge was already empty at the end of Passover!
Maybe its “audacious hospitality” that counsels us to serve food that every guest can eat. Trust me, as a vegetarian for close to 40 years, I appreciate food accommodations more than you can imagine, after many luncheons of being told I can have the cole slaw and potato salad that was alongside the cold cuts. I want any guest to be able to eat at our shul today, and frankly, at any kiddush. And that is why we also strongly favour vegetarian kiddushes without meat, but if we did serve meat, I would hope it would be kosher, so any Jew can eat with us.
And the second example I hold close to my heart because of the time of year it is—my mother’s second yartzeit is in 2 weeks. Most of you know I said Kaddish daily for my mom. I wasn’t ready to be the one, during that year of personal mourning, to organize a daily minyan for myself, so I went to Reform temples which do have a daily minyan. I forgot that most large Reform synagogues will say Kaddish without a minyan. They don’t want to offend the 4 or 5 people who have come for Kaddish and make it feel as if they came “for nothing” and I really appreciate that. Now for me, that wasn’t the traditional comfort of saying Kaddish in community, but I kept my peace until I really didn’t feel comfortable any longer. One day, I asked the service leader if he would wait until I found a minyan in the building, where there were often many people coming and going around the time of the evening service. I did that for a few days, pulling Jews from meetings and from the parking lot, until one day I spotted a Bar Mitzvah tutor in the hall with her students. Aha, the teacher in me said, perfect teaching moment. I asked them all to please come to the minyan so I could say Kaddish. The 2 kids turned to me and said, “We can’t, we are being picked up in 5 minutes and we need to get home. We have a lot of homework.” The tutor said nothing. I thought to myself, what exactly are we teaching our Reform kids about being Jewish? About being Bar Mitzvah? More than that, I wondered, does being a Reform Jew mean we have absolutely no obligations whatsoever?
I fear the Reform movement’s acceptance of not needing a minyan to say Kaddish leaves people with a sense of having no obligation for each other. Because its the path of least resistance it lets us abdicate our responsibilities to “be there” for each other.
So our City Shul shiva group finds a minyan for shiva Kaddish even when there are only 5 people in the house at minyan time, and I’m actually asking people today to sign up to be called upon to make the minyan should it be needed. And I’m asking you, if you have kids who have had Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to sign them up too. Let them know what it means to have a sense of Jewish obligation to the community. There will be a sign up page on the table outside.
Which brings me to the specialness of this morning in our calendar. It is on this morning that we add yizkor to our service, and in our shul, its the first time since Yom Kippur that we’ve said yizkor together.
The yizkor of Passover is exactly the same prayers and the same liturgy as on Yom Kippur, but it has a very different feeling. It follows the high of our Passover Seders, the wonderful singing, the being with friends and family. But there is a moment in the Seder when we realize there is an empty chair, there are the tunes our loved ones enjoyed but they aren’t singing, and we are using their recipes, their absence is so keenly felt. Then there is another moment in the Seder when we take a matzah and break it in half. We keep one piece for ourselves and we wrap a second piece up and send it off into the world somewhere to be hidden. We know that we can’t complete the Seder unless we find that piece. We cannot continue until those segments are brought together. We try to piece the 2 into 1, but its a different matzah now, crumbled and a bit misshapen. It’s a jagged piece even when we do fit the two pieces back into one. We try to make whole that which was broken, but for those of us who say yizkor today, we recognize and acknowledge that it is never the same.
It is yizkor which helps us hold the fragmented pieces together in the company of others who have been broken too, and who understand.
This holiday, more than any other, calls us to combine the bitter with the sweet. There’s no better analogy than the eating of maror with charoset. We taste the bitterness, and we bless it, al achilat maror. Then we dip it in sweet apples and cinnamon, to soften its bite. Thats what we do when we come together for yizkor. We soften the bitterness just a little.
It is powerful to do this. It is important to do this. This makes community.
I’ve been asked for two years now to offer yizkor services on the other times of the year besides Yom Kippur that we are “supposed” to—last day Sukkot, last day Pesach, and last day Shavuot. The problem is, those days are most often on weekdays, not on convenient Saturdays like today. I am willing to offer those services if I know we will get a minyan. Let’s try, starting with Shavuot, do the other 2 next year, and assess. Now I’ve been a bit tricky. I’ve told you why we should celebrate Pesach in the traditional way, for 8 days. But I’ve scheduled yizkor services for first day Shavuot this year, and Shmini Atzeret and Pesach next year on their 7th days because frankly they are either Sundays or holiday Mondays. So yes I’m not consistent. On this one I’ll go the “Reform” way to make it happen. Those services are listed on a second sheet outside and I’m asking you to sign up to “make the minyan” for festival yizkor beginning this June.
Today, after the Torah is put away, before Aleynu, we will pause in our festivities to say yizkor. As I say each Yom Kippur, I have no issues with those with living parents and siblings who leave—there will be time enough for them to say yizkor when they jin the company of mourners. And I have no issues with those who wish to stay, to say Kaddish for the 6 million or for those who have no one to say Kadish for them, or those who wish to be in support and in solidarity with those who remember even though they themselves are not mourners. This one is personal choice, friends, and there really is no”right” or “wrong” decision.
And after yizkor, those who symbolically hold the broken piece of matzah will rejoin the world of the festival, making kiddush, making motzi, making a l’chayim at lunch. And we will know that whether you have never felt a loss or whether your Seder felt sadder this year because of a loss; whether your custom is to celebrate 7 days of Passover or 8, whether you eat rice and beans on Pesach or you don’t, whether you gave up on matzah last night or are a die-hard matza-eater until tonight, we are one community holding together each other’s broken pieces into one so that we can continue.