Closing Up the Sermons of Aruch HaShulchan

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Almost a year ago, we started summarizing sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan, R. Yechiel Michel Epstein, a towering halakhist. We stopped at Yom Kippur, since most of the sermons were related to repentance and Shabbat Shuvah, but left four for this season, since they were for Shabbat HaGadol.

Now that we’ve briefly summarized those as well, we can suggest some characteristic elements of his approach to Pesach with his community. With some caveats. First, four is a very small sample size. For all we know, his Shabbat HaGadolsermons were generally completely different than we have here, but these four happen to be the ones that made it into the book.

I don’t think it’s likely, since he seems to have collected these sermons himself. But I see too many writers and readers forget that sample size matters, and I don’t want to make that error.

Second, I want to stress—as I did throughout my summarizing—that corralling the sermons into a form I could present in under two thousand words meant hacking away large chunks. I hope and believe I did so without damaging the overall line of reasoning, that I was able to identify (and omit) digressions rich in their own right but not essential to the main argument, but there’s always the possibility I did not.

With those warnings registered, I intend to make three kinds of points here. First, I will even more briefly suggest the basic message of each of our four Shabbat HaGadol sermons. Let me here, too, stress that this is my best understanding—Aruch HaShulchan did not present his sermons in the ways that public speakers are counseled today, to say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you just said. He said what he said, and left it to us to get the point.

I got that point by reading the sermons more than once, summarizing them in longer form, reading those summaries more than once, cutting all the non-essentials, and seeing where that left me. I hope that in fact gets us to where Aruch HaShulchan would have wanted, but I caution you to be aware of the messenger, and be sure that all errors here are mine alone.

Drasha 5: Chametz and the Way Back to Eden

Sermon 5 developed four themes that I saw: Hashem’s power to defeat all enemies, no matter how powerful they saw themselves as being. Second, the Jewish people’s longstanding chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name. Third, Hashem’s decision to link all the generations, which means that earlier generations’ merits (particularly Yitzchak’s) can prevent the destruction later generations deserve for that chillul Hashem; that truth is one that rationalist heretics deny.

And, finally, the harsh economic realities of our unredeemed world, as opposed to the bounty Hashem wanted the world to have. By putting away chametz on Pesach, we recall that had Adam and Chava acted differently (better), our world would be full of bounty, and we would not need an inedible item like yeast or sourdough to help us find our staple food. So, too, we remind ourselves that sanctifying Hashem’s Name, as Yitzchak did, and as we can do in exile, is the way to one day deserve to be redeemed and returned to a world of bounty.

Drasha 6: Holding on to Hope in the Face of Our Inadequacy

In most cases, Hashem’s active intrusion in history comes only to protect the poor from being robbed or where people merit it through their great goodness or repentance. Mashiach, however, can come even when we do not merit it, as did the Exodus from Egypt.

To symbolize that, the Pesach sacrifice can be offered on behalf of most currently impure people, as long as that impurity will be gone by evening. For Rambam, though, the lowest level, that which comes from contact with the deceased, symbolizes a complete lack of faith, and a Pesach cannot be offered on behalf of such a person.

Continuing the theme that flaws do not make us irredeemable, Aruch HaShulchan understood Moshe Rabbeinu to have convinced Hashem that even our sins should always produce good; our continuing exile produces the good of showing Hashem’s indirect Hand in history, keeping us alive, keeping us in the running for seeing Mashiach will come one day, sooner if we repent.

Drasha 11: Signs, Covenants, and Where They Lead Us

The sermon focused on the kinds of signs Jews are meant to carry with them– primarily, that of covenant (milah), a covenant Jews might fear had been abrogated but that the future redemption will show was always there, and a sign of servitude, shown by tefillin.

Shabbat expresses both those signs, as does Pesach, which is why both are referred to in the Torah with the verbs of zachor and shamor, preparing for and keeping. Since he puts Shabbat central to a Shabbat HaGadol sermon, he seems to have been addressing a reality where Shabbat observance was weakening, and was trying to remind listeners that it’s Shabbat and the senses of covenant and servitude that underlie it (and Pesach) that keep us separate from other nations and connected to Hashem.

Sermon 13: First, Foremost, and Faith

His starting point is that the month of Nisan is different for Jews, whether or not it’s the month of Creation. For Jews, it’s a month of faith—taking the Pesach on the tenth without opposition was the miracle the gave the Jews enough faith to circumcise, the minimum faith they needed to be included in the redemption. It’s for that reason that slaves’ circumcision is indispensable for their owners to be included in a Pesach, even if those slaves haven’t completed their conversion.

Nisan as first month also established a different kind of faith. Using the moon as the determinant of months makes Jews aware of its waxing and waning, a symbol to them that even as Jewish fortunes might sometimes wane, they will always return, as does the moon.

Themes of Aruch HaShulchan’s Shabbat HaGadol

These four brief summaries brings to mind themes of economics—his view of Pesach as a reminder of the lack of need for a leavening agent to secure staples in the pre-sin world of Adam and Chava, a reference he made to the robbing of the poor as the only cause of Hashem intruding forcefully into history where it’s unmerited—of holding fast to observance and to covenant, of remembering and believing in Hashem’s impact on the world, in ways we wouldn’t imagine were possible and sometimes lose faith in expecting.

It seems like a rabbi addressing a populace struggling with faith, finances, and observance, where many are drifting off (as in his hypothetical example of an elected official who would claim he could lay tefillin and keep kosher even as he functioned in non-Jewish politics), and Aruch HaShulchan is arguing that Pesach is the time to remember to stay close.

Fitting His Broader Themes

When I look back at how I summarized the first set of his sermons that we saw, that longer study of his addresses touched on these themes as well. It’s not proof of anything, but if I had to guess, I’d say that was Aruch HaShulchan’s experience of the Jewish world of his time and place: Jews struggling financially and losing their connection to observance and faith, unable to hear his message that the best way to solve their problems would be by believing more, not less, studying Torah more, not less.

I’d bet they heard him as scolding, where he in fact was trying to show them the best way to the solution to their problems, the best way back to redemption of the kind we experienced in Egypt, as quickly as possible.

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