Sermon for Shabbat Hagdol 5778



Towards the end of this week, we observe the great spring holiday.

Then, a night later, we observe Pesach.

Seriously, it’s great to have baseball back.

So, in honor of that great spring holiday of opening day, let me begin with a baseball quotation.

When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2007, three years after having won for the first time in 86 years, the chairman of the team, Tom Werner, was asked whether this World Series championship felt different than the one before. And, Tom Werner said these beautiful words: “2004 was for our parents and our grandparents…this one is for us and our children.”

Those words touched me deeply and made me think about my own life.

As many of you know, I recently published a book which I had been working on for 15 years. It was a book of personal stories and sermons but it really focused on looking back and was, in fact, my way of honoring the memory of my parents and my grandparents. In many ways, I felt that my late parents were pushing me to finish that project. It really was for them.

I am now thinking about writing another book, while I’m not sure what it will be. One thing I know is that it will be for me and the future.

One idea I have is to write a book about Pesach. There are, of course, a seemingly infinite number of books about this most wonderful and most important of all our holidays and I have to find the niche. But, I think it’s there somewhere.

If I do write about Pesach, there is an idea that I thought of a while ago that I know will find its way into a prominent place into the book and I want to share that idea with you this morning. I taught it before from the bima, many years ago, but I want to teach it again because to me, it represents the great meaning of the Seder night, a meaning which we don’t always consider or are even aware of.

I’ll begin with a question: what are the most important words of the haggadah? I am sure that there are at least as many answers to that question as there are people in this room: avadim hayinu, dayenu, ha lachma anya and so many others. But, I want to share my answer with you and you may be surprised because the words I think are the most important seem so incidental.

We say these words 6 times during the ritual sections of the Seder. They sound so simple. The words are: halaila hazeh, this night.

We say these words during the introduction to the 4 questions and during each of the questions themselves. Mah nishtana halaila hazeh which I like to translate as: Wow! This night, halaila hazeh, is different from all other nights and in each question, we compare halaila hazeh, this night, to all other nights.

And then in the blessing immediately before the 2nd cup of wine, we say that God brought us out of Egypt and brought us halaila zeh, brought us together on this night to eat matza and maror, unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Why do I think these two words are so important?

Here is why. In Exodus, chapter 12, we read the instructions from God to Moses and Aaron preparing the people for the night of the Exodus. In verse 12, we read v’avarti bieretz mitrayim balaila hazeh. I will pass through Egypt on this night, the night of the Exodus. These words were said, according to the text 2 weeks before the Exodus and so God should have said: “that night” rather than “this night” and that’s what the English says. But, the Hebrew says: “this night”.

That is strange. And, what is very strange is that the phrase Halaila hazeh, this night, is only used in the Torah to describe one particular night, the night of the Exodus.

The night of the Exodus is the only “this night” in the Torah. And those words are so important that the Torah tells us that God calls the night of the Exodus halaila hazeh. In verse 42 of the same chapter, the English says: “that same night is the lord’s one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the age”. But, look at the Hebrew. Hu Halayah Hazeh L’ado–nai, which I will translate as: “the night of the Exodus for God is “this night”. For God, and therefore for us, the night of the Exodus has a special name: “this night”.

So, I believe that when we say these words at the Seder, we are not talking about this night of Passover 5778, we are talking about the “this night”, the night of the Exodus. When we sit at the Seder table, we are not supposed to just think of ourselves or, as some read, display ourselves as freed slaves, we are to think of the Exodus as still happening and we are part of it.

This night is unique in that it is an eternal night, one which we step back into each year, one which stands apart from time as we always experience it. The word eternal does not only mean everlasting, it also means “outside of time” and this is an eternal night not subject to the natural flow of time.

The Seder night is when we take our place with our ancestors in the first experience of closeness with God, the first time we were together, as it were. As we begin to count the Omer, we count towards the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the moment when we entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. But this night, before the counting of the omer begins, halayla hazeh, this very special night, is the night of beginning the relationship. It is night of “falling in love” and we are all part of the glorious, miraculous beginning of the relationship.

That is why some people have the tradition at the Seder of reading from Song of Songs: the great love song which the rabbis interpret as a love song between the people of Israel and God.

And that is why, whenever I think of this idea, I think of a beautiful love song written by Billy Joel called: This Night. Part of the melody of that song was based on a Beethoven Sonata and Billy Joel did give Beethoven credit as one of the writers, but the lyrics were his and contain the words: “This Night is ours, it’s only you and I… this night will Last Forever”.

That part of the song could have been written about the Seder night.

So, halaila hazeh, this night, this special night of family, friends, food, song, wine, study, ritual and joy is even more than that. It is a night which lasts forever. It is a night when past, present and future all come together in one glorious moment.

For many things in Judaism, we can say: “That one was for our ancestors and this one is for us”.

Not the Seder night.

God redeemed us and our ancestors from Egypt says the Haggada.

This one is for all of us, we and our ancestors and our descendants are all sitting together at the table at the same time.

And what a glorious night it is.



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