A LEG UP

Although it has been 20 years since the younger of my two children entered college as a freshman, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I read about Lori Loughlin (an actress that I had never heard of) being sentenced to two months in prison for her recent role in a College Admission Scandal. Ms. Loughlin, at the recommendation of William Singer, a college admissions consultant, knowingly falsified applications of her daughter, to give her a “leg up” in being accepted as a student, at the University of Southern California.
With the High Holy Days less than a month away, hopefully, many of us, if not all of us, ought to realize, that concepts such as “admissions” and “leg up” are very much in play, when it comes to being “admitted” into the Book of Life. Unlike students of today applying the colleges of their choice, all who seek entry into the age-old Book of Life are openly provided with a “leg up” in being accepted. This “leg up” is known as Teshuvah. Contrary to what we have been taught, Teshuvah has more than one meaning.

Outside the realm of religion, Teshuvah means an answer or a response. Just as first-graders in our culture are conditioned to hear: “who knows the answer to…”, so too first-graders in Israel are conditioned to hear the word Teshuvah. Yet, Teshuvah is anything but kid’s stuff. Teshuvah is part and parcel of being an adult in the eyes of our tradition. Children are exempt from answering for their behavior. Adults (provided they are of sound body and mind) are required to. Yet, how many of us live our lives, aware of the fact, that our religion holds us responsible for what we do, just as our religion holds us responsible for what we do not do? In either case, we will be required to provide a Teshuvah; in either case, we required to provide an answer. Unlike other religions, our day of reckoning is not an end of life experience, where we hope to gain entry into heaven at the conclusion of our lives; our day of reckoning is an annual phenomenon, where we hope to gain entry into the Book of Life.

Among the many songs that bring me to tears is The Circle Game. Composed and sung by Joni Mitchell, the artist concludes each of its four stanzas, by hauntingly reminding us: “We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came”. Nonsense! argues our tradition. The entire time period beginning with Rosh Hashana and culminating in Yom Kippur, is predicated upon our returning, retracing our steps, examining our missteps and trying to figure out how to properly step up to the plate, the next time. What disappoints HaShem, is not our mistakes; what disappoints HaShem is a failure – or even worse, our refusal to return and revisit where we went wrong so that we can learn from our mistakes and to profit from that experience. Throughout the year, three times each and every weekday, towards the beginning of what is known as the Shemoneh Esreh, we request of HaShem, to bring us back and to His Torah and His service. We conclude that request, with the words: Blessed are You HaShem who desires Teshuvah. Without exception, Teshuvah is translated in the siddur, as “repentance”. Yet, no mention whatsoever is made of our having sinned or transgressed (that’s the subject of the following prayer). Having begun with a request to bring us back, would it not seem more logical to conclude that request with words translated to mean: Blessed are You HaShem who desires that we return or come back?

When all is said and done, Teshuvah is most often translated to mean “repentance.” Although typically seen as a synonym for “contrition”, “repentance” is anything but.” Contrition indicates that the sinner’s soul is a collection of shattered pieces because of the misdeed. “Repentance”  indicates that the sinner has thought over the misdeed that he committed. But thinking over a misdeed does not in any way indicate remorse. What “repentance” ought to suggest at the very least, is that the sinner realized that he has fallen out of HaShem’s favor and hopefully is prepared to do whatever necessary to regain that favor.

Knowing that Judaism is based on personal responsibility and that we will have to have to answer for what we did (wrong) or neglected to do (right), realizing that Judaism insists that we can return and redo, and understanding the importance in rethinking how to gain HaShem’s favor are much more than three different examples of Teshuvah… Each one provides us with a “leg up” in preparing ourselves for the High Holy Days, so that hopefully we are a “shoo in” when it comes to being admitted in the Book of Life.

FROM ASHES TO DIAMONDS

I have no idea whatsoever how many in our country are aware that ashes can be transformed into diamonds. With the surge in cremations in  this country, companies have opened that will extract the carbon from the ashes of loved ones and turn those ashes into diamonds to be worn as jewelry by the spouses, children, relatives, and friends of the dearly departed. Having been sensitized to the Holocaust during my formative years, I have witnessed the ashes of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen,Treblinka et al being metaphorically transformed into diamonds for decades. Accordingly, I see it as a sacred task to sensitize others to three diamonds that have emerged from the ashes of those murdered by Hitler’s Third Reich for the crime of being a Jew.

Museums have been built throughout the world over this past half century. No longer did Yad Vashem have to serve as a solitary memorial to the Six Million. No longer would those who managed to defy Hitler and his war machine, attempt to put the past out of mind, as they looked ahead to a brighter future. Holocaust museums abound, albeit some have made the choice to widen their scope and focus on tolerance of other (non-Jewish) groups as well. Seventy-five years ago, quotas were very much on the minds of those somehow managed to survive Hitler’s hell. At best countries were opening their gates of immigration to trickles of Jews with no place to go. Half a century later, quotas  were still connected to the Holocaust. When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington, tickets had to be purchased months in advance, because the museum simply could not accommodate all who wished to visit. Those who once closed their eyes to the ashes produced by the  Holocaust, could hardly believe their eyes by the diamonds crafted by those who established Holocaust Museums.

Any city in this country that saw a sizable influx of survivors after World War II, also saw a group unto themselves. True, local Jewish leadership helped in trying to find housing and employment for the survivors who arrived, but rarely, if ever, were survivors absorbed by those Jews, who were long settled, and Americanized. It was not in any way unheard of, for the survivors to be referred to as “greeneh” (Yiddish for greenhorns) – especially, when they began to seize the many opportunities afforded them, by the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, and in doing so financially surpass many other Jews who had already laid stakes in that very same community decades earlier. And yet, those survivors also rose from the ashes. Business acumen and financial success aside, the increasingly few survivors still among us – octogenarians and nonagenarians – are  now venerated by the rest of the Jewish community, as they appear at events connected to Holocaust museums. They are now regarded as diamonds in our midst.

One of the greatest concerns, nay fears, of those about to die, is that they will be soon forgotten. Those concerns, nay fears, were especially well founded by those whose very lives were in the hands of the Nazis. If nobody cared about them while they were alive, why should anyone care about them once their lives were snuffed out? In all too many cases, no cemetery plot has ever held their remains, no kaddish has ever been said in their memory, and no yahrzeit has ever been observed on their behalf. Tragically, so many who perished have been forgotten. As an entity however, as a group of six million, we have allayed their concerns and fears of being forgotten. They have been included in our prayers. Less than a week ago, as we offered up the Yizkor service, we included a paragraph specifically prepared for those murdered by the Nazis. Outside the synagogue, we have included them as well. Throughout this country, Holocaust education has been included in the curriculum of Public education. Students in this country who have never met a Jew, are now being introduced to Jews of European countries whose very existence was so problematic to the Third Reich, that a “final solution” was sought. When it comes to the Holocaust, our elected officials also seek solutions. Whereas the solution sought by German elected officials were inextricably linked to ashes, the solution sought by our elected officials in the field of education is such a shining example that it is inextricably linked to diamonds.

As we observe the 75th yahrzeit of the Holocaust, let us never forget a world turned to ashes. Let us also remember the ubiquitous museums constructed in their memory, the venerated survivors who speak for those who were denied life, as well as those responsible for Holocaust curriculum in our Public Schools. Each one, a diamond in a different setting.

SEDER OF SOLITUDE

Mah Nishtanah? Why is this Pesach different from all other seder experience of previous years? In all likelihood, this Pesach will be one where the introductory words: “Let whoever is hungry, come and eat; let whoever is in need, come and partake of Pesach” ring hollow, in that the typical seder of 15 or more, will be limited this year, to the immediate household. In some cases, that means a couple or even a single individual, will be sitting down to the seder.

Hitbodedut or the act of being by oneself was popularized by Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810). It refers to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation, where one would establish a special, personal and unique relationship with God. As wonderful as it is to be at a seder, with Haggadah in hand, surrounded by family and friends, Hitbodedut affords one a Pesach seder, free from cross chatter, disruption, and being surrounded by a group of individuals with various degrees of interest in the Haggadah. As one who is usually alone for a number of Shabbat dinners each year, I see being by myself, an opportunity to create an atmosphere that would otherwise not be achievable. For example, I bring a text to the table, that discusses the Parsha or Torah reading in-depth. Rather than sit and (at best) engage in discussion with others at the table, I turn to our age-old tradition for conversation. Similarly, Hitbodedut at the seder, means that one need not be concerned with being on the same page of the Haggadah as everybody else. If a certain passage piques one’s interest and begs to be looked at again, if a particular prayer is demanding contemplation, Hitbodedut affords one the opportunity.

“Peaceful” is among my favorite songs recorded by Helen Reddy. Written by Kenny Rankin, it extols the merits of solitude, with “no one bending over my shoulder, no one breathing in my ear.” Peaceful is also a seder of solitude. It brings with it the merit of no one asking: “when do we eat?” For the last several years, I’ve paid close attention to the amount of time accorded to the seder meal. While I cannot speak for the seder at the homes of others, I am incredulous at the amount of time spent, from doling out the matzah signifying the start of the meal, to partaking of the Afikoman (also matzah) signifying the conclusion of the meal. A seder of solitude affords one the opportunity of spending as much time or as little time at the meal as tastes dictate. Last, but not least, a seder of solitude leaves one with just desserts. Rather than concluding the seder in a state of self-admonition for having eaten too much, because one could not restrain oneself from asking for seconds, the seder of solitude enables one to reflect on the “menu of the Haggadah” so that one can determine which passage of the seder was most meaningful, and why.

As much as I love Yiddish along with its proverbs, there is one particular aphorism with which I take issue. Particularly this year. “Alein iz a shtein” or “alone is a stone”. While I admittedly know nothing about rocks, stones, pebbles, and soil, I feel it safe to point out, that a stone is often found with other stones nearby. But even if it is true that a stone is synonymous with solitude, I would urge that one look at the Hallel prayer offered up all eight mornings of the Pesach festival.

“The one stone, the masons despised, became the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). Never discount the importance of one. A regular at daily minyan understands the importance of one, particularly when only nine have shown up. Being so close and at the same time, being so far from making a minyan, serves as a powerful reminder of the importance of one. I have no idea, if, while reminiscing with other participants about the sederaim of yesteryear, whether the question has ever been raised, regarding who is the most important person at the seder? I do know, however, that when it comes to a seder of solitude the answer should be quite apparent.

For those of us who will be sitting down to a seder of solitude this year, let us see it as an opportunity for Hitbodedut. Let us use the solitude to appreciate no one bending over our shoulder, no one breathing in our ear, no one racing through the text of the Haggadah or skipping sections so that we are left bewildered. Let us realize that we need not be bothered about how much time is accorded to the meal. The seder of solitude underscores the importance of one. Personally speaking, I cannot help but feel, that the value of a seder of solitude to the Holy One who redeemed our ancestors from Egypt, is nothing short of unbelievable.