Living a life that is ultimately serious: SHABBAT HAGADOL - March 27, 2015

This week's Torah portion reports instructions given by God to Moses concerning Aaron and his priestly descendants.  For all those of us who are not kohanim, we could either skip the parasha, or we can listen in. Eavesdrop, as it were.

Soon we will all be sitting at our seder tables.  We will retell an old story. We think it's for children... all those rituals that are meant to prompt our children to ask questions or give the youngest ones at the table a chance to revel in the applause of their parents and grandparents as they sing dayyenu or ask the Four Questions.  And let's not forget the highlight for the little ones of searching for the afikomen and the presents that are an inevitable outcome of the  best hide-and-go seek game. But, here's my take: The seder - like the Torah - like Judaism as a whole - is about the choices each of us makes between a life that is ultimately serious and a life that is not.

I don't like to resort to a patently false dichotomy that divides the world into two sorts of people - or maybe as the Haggadah seems to do at first read, into only four sorts of children. It doesn't take many years in the world, if your eyes are open, to know that life is complicated and choices are not simple. Seriousness of purpose takes a variety of forms and encompasses a great variety of experiences.  There are many ways to make the choice for the serious life; one path does not suit all.

Nor does the serious life exclude much that we prize in daily existence.  There is  time for friends, laughter,  learning, travel, playing basketball, walking on the beach. And it certainly does mean- it actually requires - love.

But, I have been through enough good and bad to know as surely as I know anything that life is a serious business, and that each of us has the choice to make it so for ourselves and for our families and for those around us. Every day we have the choice to use our time well or to waste it. Every week we can either make the world around us a little better or we can leave things as they are.  The Torah aims from start to finish to set before us the choice and to help us to make it wisely.

So does the holiday we are about to celebrate.

Come on, Sydney: You call ritualized storytelling, gefilte fish, a few songs, an aunt you don't really want to kiss, you call that serious???   And then we finish with Elijah supposedly visiting our home, a round of "When Israel was in Egypt land," "Who knows One?",  L'shana habaa b'Yerushalyim".  And then someone will say.. hey, what about Had Gadya.

This is serious?  A song sang about dogs, cats, oxen, sheep, water ,fire, sticks and the Angel of Death.  Why is this the conclusion of our seders. It's so late in the evening,  half the family is asleep on the sofas in the living room, all the kids are fast asleep upstairs. And then this childish rhyme, so bloody, so violent.  And it's not even in Hebrew.  The stick beats the dog, who bites the cat, who ate the goat.. and so on.  

But tell me: Aren't you feeling these days what a violent world we live in, with someone doing violence to another all to prevalent?  Cause and effect are unstoppable.   The redemption we have been talking about all along and work for and await does not arrive.    The seder and the song cannot conclude until the cycle stops.  And when might that stop?  When God defeats the Angel of Death.

No more serious warning to anyone seeking meaning in life can be issued than that... no greater challenge can be posed to the worth or purpose of a serious life. For if there is no hope to change the world as it is and always has been until human beings, with God's help, overcome the cycle of destruction, and hate and death, why not just seize the moment for pleasure?  The wicked child is right: "Had he been at the Sea of Reeds, he would not have been redeemed", because there never has been and there never will be redemption.  If this is so, Passover is just a great opportunity to get the family together, even if Aunt Minnie requires a kiss.

The seder is about asking questions; few of which are actually answered. But we can pose this question and answer it, I believe, in a way that directs a life of hope in the service of redemption.  Today, when Judaism is no longer taken for granted, when even the seder, which was once the ritual celebrated by the most Jews, can no longer be taken for granted, it is all the more important that we honestly, passionately, and compassionately, ask and try to answer the question. Life is serious, your life is serious. It matters to the world and it matters to God. Let's act to make it so.

Life is serious Passover insists because there is suffering all around us and we can relieve it. We cannot put an end to death but we can stave if off with care, with compassion, and a more just distribution of the earth's bounty. Even God, who according to our master story, redeemed Israelite slaves from Egyptian oppressors, couldn't stop the people  from infighting and complaining. But you and I can redeem days, families, societies, and lives. This is enough. This is dayyenu. We are needed for this work.

Life is serious, too, because if all    goes well or even if it doesn't and you are at peace with  it, we can sit back and recline on a chair at the conclusion of the Passover seder with our family and friends around and know that life is good, life is sweet. The Angel of Death is not vanquished, Had Gadya will be sung again next year.  The world is far from perfect. We are far from perfect but we can live with that as we try to be just a little better tomorrow and the day after that.

Next year in Jerusalem..  Chag Sameach to all of you..and Shabbat Shalom

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