(Delivered at Riverway Unplugged Service, April 15, 2011 – posted at www.jewminations.com)
This Shabbat is actually a special Shabbat called Shabbat HaGadol, or the Great Sabbath. What makes this Sabbath so great is, unsurprisingly, subject to great debate. Some claim that this is the time aligns with the time in the story of Exodus when the miracle of the pascal lamb occurred—just prior to their departure from Egypt, and just prior to our experience of Passover. Other authorities claim that Shabbat HaGadol got its name from the age-old custom of rabbis sharing with their community sermons that were “great” in length (don’t worry).
What is unequivocal is the consensus that unlike regular Shabbatot, which stand alone, distinct from the week it succeeds and proceeds, this Shabbat significantly points toward the week to come. However you view this Sabbath, Shabbat HaGadol points to Passover.
Passover is the most widely practiced Jewish holiday in the world. More people in the Jewish community participate in Passover Seders than show up to shul on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur. Just think about that for a moment– we “sell more seats” to Passover than we do to Yom Kippur. This tells us something: Passover is a kind of High Holy Day– that is if you consider people voting with their “seat.” But of course it’s different–we’re in homes. You don’t need a rabbi for a long sermon (maybe you’ve got mom or dad for that). Just bring your voice and your appetite. So tonight, rather than having me simply utter sermonic jabber, let’s do this together, shall we?
Here’s how we’ll start. I’ll say a few words, and you fill in the blank.
“The answer, my friend, is ________”
“He is a big fish in _____”
(Ok, let’s take it up a notch, and quote royalty)
“I’m proud to say she’s my buttercup, I’m in love: ______”
(and for my fellow English majors)
“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks: [______]”
These are all examples of what? Metaphor.
What’s a metaphor?
Etymologically, metaphor is a Greek word, deriving from “meta” meaning “over, across, beyond,” and “pherein ” meaning “to carry.” So, metaphor means to carry us beyond. For this reason, Cicero described metaphor as a kind of borrowing, in which we take meaning from one thing and pass it to another. It’s a linguistic hand-me-down (that is, if you’re okay with using a metaphor to define a metaphor).
David Brooks this week wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times on metaphors, in which he discusses a fascinating book by author James Geary called I Is an Other. Geary’s book, published in February, explores how “metaphors are not at the rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think,” but actually at the very heart of it. Geary describes metaphorical thinking as an instinctual way of comprehending things. On average, we use 1 metaphor for every 10-15 words (or about 100/sermon)
Where would we be without metaphor? For one thing, our literature would lose its luster:
“What light through yonder window breaks? It is Juliet, applying her luminous restorative night cream!”
Yeah, not quite the same. And likewise, imagine where our tradition would be without metaphor. Fill in the blank:
“V’ahavta et Adonai Elohecha________________”
“And you shall love your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your might.”
No metaphors, no V’ahavta!
And it goes on:
The Lord is my __________
Metaphor is how we practice theology. No metaphors, no 23rd Psalm.
The very word “Adonai,” means “My Lord,” the same words uttered by servants to their human superiors throughout the Bible.
Adonai Echad, God is One. No metaphors, no Shema!
Avinu Malkeinu: Our Father Our King. No metaphors, no Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah: the head of the year. No metaphors, no loquacious, tedious sermons….
So I’ll take my own cue and cut to the chase… or make my case….or wrap this up.
Brooks’ Op-Ed and Geary’s book could not have arrived at a more suitable moment in our calendar. We’re preparing for Passover. Not only by cooking and planning, but also by thinking. There is no metaphor as embedded in the collective thinking of the Jewish people than the extended metaphor that plays out during the Passover Seder.
The Rabbis understood this well. They intuited that metaphor was the key to operationalizing our treasured values.
They taught in the Mishna, a 3rd c. text, a teaching that is among the most famous words in the Passover Haggadah:
B’chol dor vador chayav adam lir’ot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim.
In every generation, the human being must see oneself as if he or she actually came out of Egypt.
Imagine that– we’re obliged to see ourselves living in this metaphor. Passover is the time for us to consider: Why would you want your children seeing themselves as if they were slaves who were liberated?
Passover begs this question because Passover is one great metaphor. And it’s not merely cognitive and comprehensive. We have to live it, not only think it.
This is why it’s a meal. Of course, eating is perhaps the most commonly employed metaphor– we digest ideas, we chew on questions; even Weird Al instructs us to “Eat it, just Eat it.” But what’s amazing about Passover, is on Passover we actually do eat it! The charoset is a metaphor for mortar, the horseradish for the bitterness of enslavement, etc.
We eat the metaphor. We put it in our bodies, it affects us, it strengthens us. It changes the way we not only think but ACT in relationship to modern day parallels to its story: The enslaved, the hungry, the strangers, the Pharaohs, the Liberator, and the one who stand up and says “Let Me People Go.”
On the table outside is a series of supplements to your Seder table. These are intended to help your metaphors come to life. Take one and copy it. Or don’t—just google and find your own based on matters that you care about.
Bring it to the table. Because if there’s one metaphor that we know holds true it’s this: You are what you eat.
Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and a Meaningful Metaphorical Passover Season!