Tomorrow is Shabbat Hagadol, ‘the great Sabbath’, the Shabbat before Pesach. There is no single reason why it bears that name. Some suggest it’s because the rabbi would deliver a lengthy and detailed sermon on the laws of the festival: how to keep kosher, how to celebrate the Seder. Others say it’s because of the closing verse of the Prophetic reading from Malachi which refers to the ‘great and awesome day of God’.
Whatever the case, this is the Shabbat on which we set our minds on the meaning of the forthcoming festival. My fear about Pesach this year is not that we won’t manage the cleaning, or arrange the details. That’s not to imply that I don’t care about such matters. I very much do. In life detail matters, so long as it’s not a fixation.
My fear is that my Pesach will be a sham, that it won’t be real. I asked some friends to write to me about what the Festival of Freedom means to them this year. Here is one response:
In Iraq, a little girl drew a picture of her mother on the floor of her orphanage.
She carefully took off the shoes, lay down on mother’s chest and fell asleep…
(The picture is below – you may well already have seen it. There’s a debate online as to whether the picture was drawn by the child, or created by an adult. Either way, it expressing a heart-rending reality.)
The sender added: ‘I really don’t know how to use human language to interpret such a picture’.
A refugee suffers numerous losses: home, country, language, friends, culture, status, work, possessions, money, – but worst of all is the loss of family. Many have not only lost closest relatives, but witnessed their murder.
The Hebrew Bible stresses family time and again: Noah and the animals come out of the ark bemishpechotehem, ‘in their families’; we leave Egypt and encamp in the desert in families. The whole story of how God redeemed us from slavery is structured round the familiar pattern of children asking their parents. I remember how as a child I used to ask and ask again: ‘What happened when you had to leave Nazi Germany?’
Our notions of security, love, perhaps even freedom, are nurtured in the hopefully safe circle of our parents’, especially our mother’s, presence.
All this little girl has left of her mother is her inner picture. What courage, what sweetness, to draw it around her and then feel safe enough to go to sleep. And what sadness!
Freedom is having your mother, your family, those you love around you, eating together, going to sleep and not being afraid, and waking up and knowing you can do it all again next day without worrying that someone’s going to kill you or blow up your home.
Why do we steal such freedom from each other? How can we give it back, at least some of it back, when it has once been taken away?
As Jews we’ve lived with such experiences and their pain, and sometimes still do. There are millions suffering them at this very moment, waiting at the gates of our humanity for permission to enter in.
These are some of the questions we have to address at our Seder table.