Shabbat HaGadol: When You Cut Off More Than Just the Turkey

Shabbat HaGadol:  When You Cut Off More Than Just the Turkey©
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Tzav 2013/5773
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Passover is one of, if not the most widely observed Jewish holiday during the year.  During these two nights, families gather together, usually with a Maxwell Hagadah, to engage in the ritual of the Seder.  Often times, your family who you might not spend much time with or even speak to for months or even a year, come together and we are a bit nostalgic with this notion. 
But there is the other side – the stress of family.  There’s a reason why almost every mother and father tells their child, “you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family,” because sometimes, they can really bother you.  Family tensions during the holidays are a part of almost all religions.  Here’s a quote from Judith Johnson, an interfaith minister (for the full article, please click here):  
“Below the surface of many family holiday gatherings are mini dramas playing out, contemporary grudges and resentments and unresolved childhood issues. Nothing hurts with such emotional depth as these familial battles. For the tender-hearted, this can be a psychological mine field while self-righteous bullies reign unchallenged. Many silently suffer through these events while dutifully and unconsciously assuming their childhood role as the family black sheep or underdog. Those in secondary roles are often either complicit or oblivious, leaving the underdog to fend for his or herself.”

What’s an example that you might be familiar with?  Remember the movie Avalon?  There was a scene[1] where the family is about to sit down for a Thanksgiving meal and they are waiting for Uncle Gabriel who is late every year, and the debate happens – should we wait for Gabriel to cut the turkey?  Every year, they wait, but this year the kids were more antsy than usual and they said, “Ok, we are cutting the turkey without him!”  They are eating, he comes in, and says the famous words, “You cut the turkey without me!”  Then immediately Uncle Gabriel storms out.  “That’s it, I’m leaving and I’m never coming again.  Now that you are rich in the suburbs, you have changed.  In Avalon, the old neighborhood, we waited until every relative is there until we eat!”  And like that, the family is fractured.  Let’s take a step back – the fight is over turkey!  But these fights over the little things can lead us to take steps back and abandon these family meals.  But we cannot let this happen with Passover. 
Judith Johnson gave tips on how to save your family holidays, and now I’m going to give mine. 
Today, I will give you some tips on how YOU can truly make this night different than ALL other nights. 
I want to focus on one part of the seder, the four sons, specifically, the wicket son. 
The wicked son says, “What is this service to you?” “Mah HaAvodah Hazot Lachem”?  Here is how the Hagadah answers this question, “To you” and not to him.  And since he excluded himself from the community, he is a heretic.  And you should blunt his teeth and say to him, “It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8); “for me” and not for him – if he had been there he would not have been redeemed.”
The problem with the Rasha’s question is that he excludes himself.  He commits the cardinal sin of the Passover seder – he takes himself OUT of the story.  The word Hagadah comes from the root Le’hagid, and it comes from the book of Exodus 13:8:  8 “V’Higadetah L’vincha” And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.' 
When he didn’t like what was going on in the meal, he took himself out of it, like uncle Gabriel.  Exclusion and excommunication can go both ways.  In our parashah this week, we are introduced to a new term that some of you might have heard about – Karet.  And no surprise, the excommunication has to do with what else: food! 
“7:20 But the person who, in a state of uncleanness, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin. 21 When a person touches anything unclean, be it human uncleanness or an unclean animal or any unclean creature, and eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”
The word the Torah uses – Nichretah – he shall be cut off.  What does it mean to be cut off?  According to the JPS commentary, the verb k-r-t was a metaphor borrowed from the cutting down of trees and other forms of vegetation.  The idea is, if you cut off a branch, the tree can recover, but if you cut the tree off at its root, it cannot grow back again.  There are many interpretations for Karet – it could be death by God’s hand, it could have meant banishment, which would have ultimately resulted in death or the extinction of a family or clan.  But if we play with the grammer of the word, we see that it is passive – he shall be cut off – is it possible that it is not God who cuts the person off from the community, but the person themselves who cut themselves off?
In the book of Leviticus, one could get this terrible decry in a number of ways, violating the Sabbath and other holidays, violation of laws of purity, and failure to circumcise one’s male child at the age of 8 days old.  I think the holidays and circumcision have a common theme.  How do we spend the holidays together in a Jewish way?  The answer:  with family, but there is a new trend – the country club Seder.  At this Seder, strangers gather together, or sometimes a small family who doesn’t want to cook, or they don’t have a place, or the family lives up north, and they come for a 30-minute Seder.  I do not envy the rabbi who has to run these Seders as hundreds of people are staring at you and you know what they are thinking – when are we finally going to eat!  There are no family fights, and I’m sure it’s as quiet as a gourmet restaurant, and it’s clean – no one gets their hands dirty, except the help of course.  But is this right?  Judith Johnson thinks so – In strategy 7, when all the other strategies fail, she writes: Strike out on your own for the holidays. If your family gatherings are simply unbearable for you, don't go! There is no law that you have to spend the holidays with your family…Maybe you just want to have a light-hearted time. If so, then give yourself the gift of creating that for yourself with our without other people.”
Thanksgiving, maybe, and if you want permission to not spend it with your family, ok, under extreme circumstances, I’ll give you permission, but I cannot give you permission to do this for Passover!  In fact, I cannot imagine a ‘clean’ Pesach like this!  Sure, you won’t have stress, but you have essentially cut yourself off from the people who might stress you out the most, but also care about you the most.  Often times, we think that our problems are so big that they are beyond repair, like the cutting off at the root in the example of karet. 
Not circumcising your child at 8 days as part of our tradition is even worse – the family is saying, the covenant doesn’t matter – we are cutting ourselves off at the root of the collective Jewish family. 
Pesach is a counter to this notion, an anti-Karet holiday.  We don’t exclude people, rather, we bring them in.  It’s a great challenge to open yourself up!  To open up your table to new people, and sometimes, to open your table to your family who you might be cut off from during the year but you realize that no matter how serious the disagreement, the branches can grow back.  Pesach is the time to share, to let your guard down, to bring in and repair, rather than cut out.
Does it annoy me that I have family members who cannot be away from their phones or tablets for more than 5 minutes, even when I tell them, no phones allowed at the Seder?  Or when my father used to tell the same embarrassing story of us when we were kids.  Yes!  But I won’t cut them out or cut myself off because of it. 
We all have our cut the turkey moments, and it goes both ways.  One year, you may be the insulted, the next, you may be doing the insulting, but we cannot be the wicked son and separate ourselves from our stories.  Pesach is a time to come back, and to ask questions.  All too often, we give up on Judaism, on community, and on God, because of something we think is such a big deal, but when we look back on it, maybe it isn’t.  Maybe it was an insult from someone at shul that you could not let go of so you left, maybe it was praying for wealth and getting poverty in return, or maybe it was something more serious.  In the end, the solution isn’t karet – cutting ourselves off or cutting off others – the solution is Kol Dichvin – Let all who are hungry come and eat, Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.  The text isn’t repeating itself – it saying, there are those who can physically hungry who we need to invite in, but there are also those who are hungry for relationship – who are lonely and need their family.  They need to reconnect to their story, both the story of our people, and the story of your family.    
During this Pesach, may your turkey be cut on time, however you define ‘on time’; may the table be messier at the end than at the beginning; may your family be too loud for you to handle because that’s the way it should be; may the stories told be more savory than even the brisket; and may all of you have what I have am blessed to have – a messy but perfect family that I could never have chosen on my own because God chose them for me. 
Shabbat Shalom.



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