TEARS OF RELIEF

For the longest time, a set of faux dog tags bearing the names of Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman hung behind my office chair in my New Jersey Synagogue. The fate of those three Israeli soldiers, who fell into the hands of the enemy during the 1982 War in Lebanon were unknown and the three soldiers were therefore listed as missing in action. While I do not recall whatever happened to those dog tags, they came to mind this past week, when it was announced that Israel had secured the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel.

I pray that there much needed closure for the family. I hope that three much needed messages will continue to live on, long after Zachary’s remains have been laid to rest at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, last week.

We Jews do not forget. It’s part of our collective DNA. Next week, countless Jewish families throughout the world, will be sitting down to special dinner accompanied by Haggadahs, to recall an event that occurred over three millennia ago. Those who include traditional daily prayer as part of their spiritual diet, are reminded of that event twice each day. It is our ancestors being taken out of Egypt.  I cannot help but feel that as Jews, we remember people and events – perhaps not as many as we ought to – but more than many other nations. As Jews, we not only remember foes, but we remember friends as well. Last Thursday evening in Jerusalem, thousands came to remember, as Zachary Baumel finally received a proper burial service, in accordance with Jewish law.
The next time you are in search for a topic for dinner conversation, you may wish to remind guests seated around the table that in Judaism, we believe that there is sanctity to the human body. That’s why we have a Chevra Kaddisha; that’s why the Jewish community will do anything and everything in its power so that that every Jew receives a Jewish burial. Bodies of the deceased are to be accorded dignity and respect. Does according dignity and respect to the human body, also apply to wanton murderers and terrorists who prey upon the innocent? Are the bodies of murderers and terrorists to be accorded the same dignity and respect as their victims? Is the Jewish view of a human body absolute, or does that view allow for exceptions, when it comes to those who willfully desecrate human bodies?  One thing is for sure. The 37-year-old remains of Zachary Baumel were accorded dignity and respect, as they were laid to rest at Mount Herzl, the same cemetery when Jonathan Netanyahu, the hero  of the raid at Entebbe, lies buried.

Even though not all Israelites left Egypt under Moshe’s leadership, independent of the fact that any number of Israelites known as the mixed multitude “took it on the lamb” with our ancestors, as they charted their course for the wilderness, we of later generations have adopted “no Jew left behind” as our credo. This credo is very much ingrained in each and every soldier of the Israel Defense Forces. As a people, we do not differentiate between the living and the dead. Given the choice, members of the Baumel family would have done anything to have received Zachary back alive. Nevertheless, they left no stone unturned at receiving him back as earthly remains.
Come Pesach, the message of true liberation must not be defined as mere commemoration. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder and digest what “Jews do not forget” truly means. If our history is beyond compare, shouldn’t our collective memory be beyond compare as well?  For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder with renewed appetite toward dignity and respect toward our fellow Jew. If our tradition mandates that we  accord honor to the dead, how much more so ought we to accord honor  to the living. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” must take on real meaning, so that no Jew is overlooked or left behind and we set an extra seat for someone who might not have been invited to a Pesach Seder.

Toward the beginning of the Seder, as we participate in “karpas,” may the salt water remind us of the tears of relief shed by the Baumel family last week.

IT’S ALL ABOUT LEAVING EGYPT

Fifty years ago this week, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Black America was stunned and speechless. The sense of loss was beyond proportion. Words however did not fail some in the Jewish community. Among them was Arthur Waskow, who came up with a “Freedom Seder” which was held in a black Church in the heart of Washington D.C. exactly one year later, on April 4, 1969.

As one who sees the late Dr. King as a champion for freedom for his peolpe, I cannot help but feel that a “Freedom Seder,” a “Holocaust Survivor Seder,” a “Yankee Doodle Dandy Seder” or any other new age, creative seder sorely misses the point of what a seder ought to be.  At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, a seder should be all about our ancestor’s being redeemed from Egypt. The Haggadah so much as says so! “Whoever expends much time and effort in relating (our ancestors’) departure from Egypt… all the power to them!” To the best of my knowledge, the Haggadah never makes mention of racial oppression and denying of equal rights to those of a different color skin, nor does the Haggadah make mention of Jews in recovery recalling the enslavement of addiction, celebrating the freedom of sobriety (Mea Culpa! I put together such a Haggadah over a quarter of a century ago when I was drawn to an organization known as JACS – Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others). The Haggadah also makes no mention of Palestinians being denied freedom at the hands of Israeli aggression and oppression (please pardon my cynicism) yet, there are those who dedicate part of their Seder experience to bringing to light the enslavement of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria under “harsh and inhumane conditions” forced upon them by Jewish taskmasters, aka Israeli Security.

Over the ages, various movements and events have borrowed the theme of “Yetziat Mitzraim” or the exodus from Egypt, as presented in the Haggadah, for their own purpose. Even Jewish Communists, who had little or no use for religion and religious tradition, produced their own Haggadah, portraying Lenin as the new Moses, who redeemed the suffering masses from the grip of the wicked Czar. As a child, no Seder would have been complete without a reading bringing to mind the horror of the Holocaust. However meaningful and well-intentioned, to compare Egyptian enslavement with European annihilation is specious. Other than the threat of Israelite males rising up in revolt, Pharaoh desperately needed our people; Hitler desperately needed to rid Germany, Europe and ultimately the world of our people.

Let us pay tribute to the six million on Holocaust Day, let us bring the six million to mind and to heart next week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as the second week of November when we commemorate Kristallnacht, but let us set aside the Seder to consider how different this night is from all other nights. Let us proclaim the second Shabbat after Simchat Torah when we read about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood and the ruin it brought him, as JACS Shabbat. For those who genuinely wish to take up the cause of Palestinians living under Israeli rule, let them conduct a special ceremony in Shechem (Nablus) approximately two weeks before Chanukah, so that they can piggyback on that week’s Torah reading where Jacob’s two sons eradicated all the males of that city in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah.

Had the events on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, never taken place, I would like to believe that the opportunity would have presented itself for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to have participated at a Passover Seder. Observing the various symbols, joining in on the various passages, I would have hoped that Reverend King would have been moved by a people that preserved stories of an Egyptian oppression so very different than the oppression that was being experienced by his people.

HAVING YOUR SAY AT THE SEDER

Statistics have it that more Jews participate in a Passover Seder than light Chanukah candles. Before you delude yourself into imagining how proud HaShem and Moshe are knowing that the revolutionary event of the Exodus from Egypt lives on millennia later, consider the fact that there are a good many contemporary Jews who conduct a Seder for purely selfish reasons. The Seder provides them with a forum to further a point of view that they hold as sacred. Put differently, in many instances, the Passover Seder has evolved into the most politicized tradition known to our people.

Politicizing Passover is nothing new. Close to a century ago, following the overthrow of the Czar, Communist leadership used the Passover Seder to advance its cause. Nicholas II was seen as Pharaoh, Vladamir Lenin was portrayed as Moses, life in Czarist Russia was indistinguishable from Egypt where cruel enslavement of the masses ran rampant, and the Soviet Union under Communism, where everyone enjoyed “equal rights,” was a panacea perhaps even superior to the Promised Land.

With the most modicum of imagination, the Passover Seder serves as the venue for any number of causes you hold to be sacred. At present, I’m sure that there are those who use the Seder to advance the plight of the poor Palestinians living in bondage under the wicked Israelis who deny them dignity as a people.

Don’t hijack the Passover Seder for selfish reasons. For two nights a year, even disaffected Jews ought to be able to find it in their hearts to accord Moses his rightful place among our people. As for using the Seder to further one’s personal agenda, one might consider using the conclusion of Passover as an appropriate time.

It would bookend the festival. Rather than watch the dissipation of Passover encroach as the crumbs of the Seder are brushed aside, a post Passover Seder could provide symmetry. Should you wish to resort to maror and matzah to highlight the plight of those you maintain are being denied freedom, then by all means! A post Passover Seder affords you to introduce bread and all over symbols to represent a future filled with hope. A post Passover Seder guarantees that the festival not only begins with interest and participation but ends with interest and participation as well.

It would show that you are no usurper. Those with an agenda all their own feel that they deserve a platform. If so, don’t deny Moses the platform that is his. Show others that you have the courtesy and sensitivity to permit Moses eight days of fame each year. Once Moses has had his say, beginning with “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Exodus 13:8) and concluding (seven days later) with “HaShem shall do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (exodus 14:14), you will have ample time to have your say and customize the message of Passover to fit your needs.

It keeps it in the house. You have every right to champion whatever cause you feel to be important. Do so within the walls of your own home. Chances are that others really don’t care about the beliefs you hold to be so sacrosanct. On the other hand, it may very well be that others care a great deal and are repulsed by those beliefs. Why should you be the cause for acrimony in the community? Doesn’t the Seder begin by extending an all-inclusive invitation? Keep your politicized Seder with your beliefs inside your own home where you can rant and rave to your heart’s content.