Parshat Tzav — Shabbat Hagadol
April 4, 2020 — 10 Nisson 5780
Let’s play the word game known as opposites. I give you a word, you give me the opposite.
The opposite of day is…night.
The opposite of wet is…dry.
The opposite of cancelled is…charoset.
I’ll explain how charoset is the opposite of cancelled, but first let’s talk about the word cancelled. Cancelled is the verb of this season. In the Jewish world, in the world at large, so much has been cancelled. Big events, community dinners? Cancelled. Graduation ceremonies from high school and college and graduate school? Cancelled. March madness? Cancelled.
The word cancelled has a more benign first cousin, postponed. Postponed sounds nicer than cancelled. But we all know that very often the practical effect of postponed is in fact cancelled. When school gets postponed, when the NBA’s basketball season gets postponed, those classes, those games are for all practical purposes cancelled. The week of school that your child did not have is not coming back.
The word cancelled has a sad tone to it. There are good reasons why all this life and culture and learning got cancelled. It is the right call. Cancelling is necessary to preserve life and health in the face of the Coronavirus. But there is no denying the dampening of the spirit that happens when so much of what we love gets cancelled.
All of which brings us to charoset. Charoset is a sweet paste made of fruits and nuts eaten at the seder. Charoset is often taken to symbolize the mortar that bound the bricks that the Israelites used to build the pyramids of Egypt. Charoset is a symbol of bitter bondage.
But there is a counter narrative midrash for Charoset as well. I had always loved this midrash But I never really understood the full power of this midrash until now.
Why is Charoset made with apples? The midrash teaches that the Israelite men had given up on life. Life was so hard, day after day. Week after week. Month after month. It was dark and depressing. Their love of life got cancelled. Their joy got cancelled. Their faith in their own future got cancelled. As a result, they did not want to bring a new generation into being. Why have kids? What’s the point? They lost interest in their wives. They lost interest in their lives. All they wanted to do at the end of the day was to go to sleep.
Faced with husbands who had lost their love of life, the Israelite women seduced their husbands under the shade of an apple tree so that a new generation could come into being, so that the Israelite people could continue.
What were these Israelite women thinking? That they could change the world? That slavery would end? That their children would be born free? No! To the contrary. Slavery lasted for 430 years. These Israelite women seduced their husbands under the shade of an apple tree knowing full well that they could not change the world; that slavery would not end any time soon; that their children would not be born free.
Why then did they do it?
Because the Israelite women would not let their fundamental belief that life is beautiful and worth living get cancelled. Not even by slavery. Not even by slavery that continued indefinitely. The Israelites women were saying: I love life. No matter what. I am going to be grateful for this day, and for every day. No matter what. That is the resilience of the Israelite women. That is the apple in the charoset. That is why the opposite of cancelled is charoset.
All of us could use the resilience of these Israelite women just about now.
When we wake up to the relentless bad news, the sobering numbers on health and life, the sobering numbers on the economy, we need an apple in our charoset.
When we wake up to the uncertainty of it all, how long will this last, and nobody knows, we need an apple in our charoset.
When you sit down on Wednesday to a seder table of 2, or 3 or 4, instead of your usual 20, 30 or 40, we need an apple in our charoset.
When we miss seeing people, when we get tired of the awkwardness of crossing the street when we see somebody we would love to hug, we need an apple in our charoset.
When we worry about the education of our children, their isolation, how much they miss their friends, their schedules, their activities, their routines, we need an apple in our charoset.
When we look in the mirror and are horrified by our hair. OMG our hair? It’s been weeks, months since our hair got cut, or styled, or colored, or whatever we need to do to look our best, and we do not look our best. Far from it. We need an apple in our charoset.
What would the resilience of the Israelite women seducing their husbands under the shade of an apple tree look like today?
Well first and foremost, it looks like the doctors, nurses and medical care professionals who are on the front line. This past Friday afternoon I got an email from one of our members. He is a doctor. Not an emergency room doctor. Not a critical care doctor. Not an infectious disease specialist. Not an epidemiologist. He has a different specialty—one not particularly connected to Covid-19. But his hospital was looking for any doctors who might volunteer on a Covid-19 floor. He said yes. Send me. So on Shabbat he left his wife and children and went to serve on a Covid-19 floor.
There are doctors, nurses, and medical care professionals in our shul who do this every day. 12 hours a day every day. And doctors, nurses and medical care professionals throughout our Commonwealth, our country, and the world.
Like the Israelite women who know that slavery is not ending any time soon, and affirm life despite that, these courageous healers wake up every morning and, in the midst of the greatest darkness, give all their energy and strength to heal and to help and to love.
What about the rest of us? As this plague continues indefinitely, how do we not cancel but channel the resilience that we admire in others?
Maya, I was so moved by the story of what your family had for dessert last night. Your mother Elissa had shared that your favorite dessert is a red velvet cake. In anticipation of your big day, she called the baker. Mr. Baker, could we please order red velvet cake for 250 people! It is our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. And then, as Covid was spreading, and social distancing was increasing, and new rules were coming out, she called the baker again. Mr. Baker, could we change the order to 100. Later, I am so sorry Mr. Baker, could we have red velvet cake for 50.
Later, Mr. Baker, could we change the order to 25. Mr. Baker, we are going to need to change the order again, this time to 10. And then the last call. Mr. Baker, could we have a red velvet cake for 4.
Last night, you, your brother Nate, and your proud parents Elissa and Dan enjoyed your red velvet cake together. Not what you had originally anticipated, but beautiful in its own way.
Maya and Cooper, your Bat and Bar Mitzvah this morning, from your homes, from your kitchens or living rooms, surrounded by your immediate family, with your friends and other family watching on-line, is not what any of us had originally anticipated. But this moment is beautiful in its own way. You are both role modeling how to put an apple in your charoset. Like the Israelite women, you say yes to life. You did not cancel your Bat or Bar Mitzvah. You did not postpone. You did not reschedule. You said yes to what is with a strength and resilience that are going to serve you very well in life.
The Israelite women did it in Egypt. We can do it today. The best response to radical uncertainty is radical resilience.
When life gives us cancelled, we make charoset out of apples. Shabbat shalom.