Sermon for Shabbat HaGadol
Finally, finally, after a long and trying winter, spring has arrived. Today was a lovely day. It seems that we can put our snow shovels away and get our winter coats cleaned. We deserve a nice long spell of good weather.
Nothing announces that spring has arrived like the onset of Pesach. This Shabbat is called Shabbat HaGadol, the great Shabbat, and it is the Shabbat just prior to our first Seder. The Haftarah reading for tomorrow morning connects us to Pesach as it is from the Book of Malachi, the last book in Prophets, which announces, prior to the coming of God’s day, that God will send us Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the Prophet, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to the parents. Eliyahu HaNavi will be the precursor to the Messiah. He will come before, as our text says, “The great and terrible day of Adonai.” Those of us who are parents know that it will take the appearance of the Messiah to bring parents and children together, to reconcile our differences, and to bridge the gap between the generations. This reference in tomorrow’s Haftarah to the Mashiach, the Messiah for whom we are waiting, is a foreshadowing of the great theme of the Seder- that we move from genut to shevach, from the degradation of slavery to the exaltation of physical freedom. With the eating of the Afikoman, the middle matzah which we break in half and then hide, and the opening of the door for Elijah, the Seder moves from the elation of our physical freedom to the realm of the Messianic Age, from the freedom of the Jewish people to the ultimate liberation of all humanity when the Messiah comes. Allow me to explain.
The Seder as we know it is a late first and early second century phenomenon. After the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E., the rabbis needed to invent another way to celebrate the spring festival since we were no longer able to offer the paschal sacrifice. The rabbis modeled their celebratory meal after the well known Greco-Roman banquet which had four courses: appetizer, entrée, dessert, and then philosophical discussion. The rabbis simply inverted the order, placing the philosophical discussion prior to the serving of the entrée. They were concerned that if they left the discussion, the story of our liberation from Egypt until the end, too many people would just eat and then get up and leave. The rabbis mandated that eating the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah be held after the meal, towards the end of the Seder. The best, like dessert, would be saved for last.
The rabbis of the Talmud translated the Greek word Afikoman as “entertainment” or “dessert.” What it really means, according to the biblical scholar, Robert Eisler, is “he who comes,” referring to the Messiah. The eating of the Afikoman and opening the door for Elijah herald the transition of the Seder from the celebration of our physical liberation to the redemption of all humanity. We go from the particularistic to the universal, from the Jewish people to all peoples. If this is true, and I believe it is, why did the rabbis mis-translate the meaning of Afikoman? Why is there not a more explicit reference to the coming of the messiah in the Seder?
The reason has to do with history. Simultaneous to the origin of the Seder the growth of Christianity occurred. Jewish Christians, those Jews who believed that Jesus was the mashiach, interpreted the symbols on the Seder plate in Christological terms. It is fascinating that only in the Seder are we commanded to explain the meaning of symbols. We are told to explicate the meaning of the Pesach, the lamb bone, the Matzah, the unleavened bread, and the Maror, the bitter herb. We do so to ensure that we are attending the right Seder! Christians would interpret these symbols in very different ways than would we. A similar phenomenon is taking place with the Afikoman. As Rabbi Michael Oblath wrote, “What is interesting to me is the possible connection of the Afikoman to the ritual of the Eucharist…at least, perhaps an original expression of it. For what do we do with the Afikoman? We get the matzah back, match it up with the original piece of matzah (symbolizing Israel, the Jewish people), divide it up and then eat it. Yum! I can easily imagine the Last Supper (if it had been a Seder), Jesus eating with his friends and students, someone giving him the Afikoman (I wonder if he gave out prizes?), and then breaking it up, and saying to his group, something like, ‘Oh, by the way, this represents me.’ Seems a simple evolution of the game of ‘telephone’ to turn that into ‘this is my body…’ No wonder the rabbis, for all intents and purposes, dumped the real meaning of Afikoman.” Jesus and his disciples took the hidden middle matzah and imbued it with Christological purpose. They, in a sense, hijacked its meaning, making it difficult, if not impossible, for our ancestors to continue considering it as a messianic symbol.
So, my dear friends, it is time for us to remove the layers of obfuscation and return to the real meaning of the Afikoman and the Seder- it is a Messianic meal, one designed to transport us from the historical to the meta-historical, from real time to the end of time. When that happens, we will know that Elijah has truly walked through the open door.
Amen. Shabbat Shalom and Pesach Sameach!
Sermon for Shabbat HaGadol