Tzav: March 23, 2018

Shabbat Shalom.

A few years ago, my children introduced me to a new term, “First World Problems”. While I was aware of the problems of living in a third world country, I didn’t understand what a “First World Problem” was. They explained it to me with this example: A Third World Problem is trying to find food to eat. A first world problem is complaining that you can’t get good pizza in this town. A developing country might have problems getting their children a good education; the first world problem is complaining that your Kindle has run out of battery.

Pesach is almost here, and on this Shabbat HaGadol it is important to talk about being prepared for Pesach. In past generations Rabbis would talk for hours about how to make sure your home was Kosher for Pesach. Today, if you need help you can find your answer on the internet. What is harder than preparing our homes for Pesach, is preparing ourselves for Pesach. Pesach is not just about cooking for a Seder, it is about slavery, freedom, knowing who we are and where we come from.

On the one hand, this seems like a First World Problem. You don’t have to ask questions like these in the third world. They know all about slavery and freedom. In parts of India they still sell their daughters, as young as 6 years old, into marriages with older men, essentially selling them into slavery, because the family needs the money. I heard this week that refugees from sub-Sahara Africa who were passing through Libya, were being captured and sold into slavery by greedy militia members. And lest you think it is ONLY a Third World Problem, we have plenty of greedy farmers and factory owners who either hire illegal immigrants as virtual slave labor promising to pay them but then steal their wages, leaving them too afraid to go to the police lest they be deported.

Slavery is far from dead in this world. It may be forbidden in “civilized” countries but it can be found everywhere, and we have to recognize it as a crime that must be eradicated from the planet. If all people have the God given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, slavery takes away all three. Moses may be speaking of the People of Israel when he declared to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” but the words ring true about all people. God wants humanity to be released from slavery. We Jews should certainly understand this, and we certainly should take on the issue of redeeming people from slavery as one of the most fundamental commandments of our faith.

But there is a First World Problem when it comes to Pesach in our own homes. We can advocate for others on the world stage, but what about at our personal sedarim? When Moses says “Let my people go” to Pharaoh, what is Moses saying to us? Is this just a call for action outside our homes or is there a message about our own lives that we need to hear? Are we enslaved? Are we stuck in a narrow place (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word “Mitzrayim”)? Is this just another example of a First World Problem? A slave must worry about being up before their master; we worry about having to get up before the coffeemaker has a chance to brew our first cup of coffee.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, once said, “There is no room for God in a person too full of self.” At this time of year, we are trying to get rid of all the Hametz in our lives, the leavening that makes us all puffed up. Take a close look at your challah later today. What makes it light and fluffy are the many tiny air bubbles that the yeast fermenting has left in our bread. You won’t find such bubbles in matzah. Even though bread and matzah are made from the same ingredients; it is the lack of leavening, the Hametz that is the difference between them.

Think about the children’s story about the man who complained that his house was too small. The Rabbi told him to bring into his house his dog, his cow, his goats, and his chickens. The man complained that now the house was more crowded than ever. The Rabbi then told him to take all the animals out. Suddenly the house had an amazing amount of empty space. So too, in our lives, we complain that life is filled with so much activity that there is no room to fit anything else in. We don’t have time to volunteer at a soup kitchen. We don’t have time to go and vote on election day. We don’t have any time to speak out on issues like wage theft, refugees and slavery. There is too much in our lives already and we can’t fit in any more.

We are stuck in the narrow place of life. We are stuck in the constraints of time and activity. We are so busy with our lives that we just can’t add anything else into the space. Other people with more time will have to take on the problems of the world. We are having enough trouble just getting through our own days. Sure, there are perfect people in the world who can speak out on behalf of the oppressed, work at a shelter and volunteer at a school and still get a three-course dinner on the table for their family or have time to make handcrafted gifts for the grandchildren. But many of us are far too busy with our lives to be able to do any of that stuff.

The Baal Shem Tov is correct; we have filled up our lives, and we have filled them up with our selves. We have let the Hametz puff us up so much that we can’t fit anything more into the allotted time of the day that God gives us. If we remove the Hametz, we are no longer inflated like bread, we become flat, like Matzah and suddenly there is space in our lives we never knew about. We can find room for God if we only stop letting the Hametz of life puff us up.

Steven Covey, the business guru, shares a parable about this. He takes a large mouth gallon jar and holds up a box of fist sized rocks. How may rocks can I get in this jar? What do you think? Five or six, maybe seven? He puts them in and asks, is the jar full? “Sure” we say. “Oh really,” he replies, and he takes out a box of gravel and starts scooping gravel into the jar. “Now is it full?” “No” we say, we are on to him. He smiles and takes out a box of sand and starts scooping sand into the jar. “Now is it full?” “No” we reply, and he takes out a pitcher of water and pours it into the jar. “Now is it full?” he asks. “Now it is full.” We agree. Nothing more can be added without taking anything out. “So,” he asks, “what do we learn from this?” One man replies, “We learn that no matter how full we think our lives are, there is always more we can fit in.” “No, no, no!” Covey replies, “That is not the point!” Everyone looks bewildered. Covey explains, “If I didn’t put the big rocks in first, I would have never gotten them in at all.”

Pesach is our reminder to put the big rocks of our life in first. Freedom is a big rock. Family is a big rock. God is a really big rock. Kindness is a big rock. Compassion is a big rock. We need to empty our lives of Hametz, so we can fit in all the important stuff. There is always space to fit in the little distractions we love so much. But if we don’t set the big rocks in first, we will never be able to fit them in. There are always emails to return, Facebook posts to read and Instagram pictures to share. But we have few opportunities to hold the hand of someone who is ill and give them comfort. It is far more important to mentor a child in school so he or she can be successful in life. Nobody cares how much money is in our bank accounts nor do people care about the cars we drive, but the world will be a better place when we make a difference in the life of someone else. It could be a friend or a stranger, but the difference we make will never be forgotten. There is always room for God if we just take away our selfishness and our pride.

What are the big rocks in our life? Are they about Mitzvot? Do they show how much we care about others? Are they in line with our values? Are they aligned with what God wants from us? Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with wanting to look our best, sitting by the fire and reading a good book or traveling to someplace we have never been. We are indeed blessed to live in a country that gives us so many freedoms that we hardly know where to begin.

Let this Pesach remind us that we should concentrate less on our First World Problems and more on how we can use our first world freedoms to help those who need our hand to lift them up. Let us rid our lives of the leaven that so fills our lives that we don’t have any space for anyone other than our self. It is true that Matzah is the bread of affliction, the bread eaten by slaves who have masters who don’t give them the time needed for their bread to rise. But Matzah is also the bread of redemption, the bread that we bake when we are too busy helping others to take the time to let our bread puff us up. 

Avadim Hayinu atta B’nai Horim. We were once slaves but now we are free. What enslaves us today and how can we still find our way to freedom? Pesach and the Torah point us in the direction of freedom. Let us work to ensure that all people should be able to walk this path to the promised land. May God help us to appreciate the true freedom in our lives as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, March 23, 2018.