COMFORT FOOD

Even though there is no shortage of reasons why we have the tradition of eating dairy foods on Shavuot, I should like to offer one more reason. I do so because milk, from which all dairy foods derive, is the epitome of paradoxes. Originating in the udder of a cow (or goat or sheep or any other kosher mammal), milk is encased in a pouch of flesh (udder is a meat available for human consumption in other cultures). Yet, the moment milk is extracted from that pouch of flesh, “dairy distancing” comes into effect, both as far as time and space.
Yet, paradox defines Judaism. As a world population, we Jews are in the decimal digits. As far as land, (the State of Israel), the vast majority of states in this country are larger than the State of Israel. Yet, if American culture and society are any indications, one could easily be duped into thinking that Jews are a significant portion of the population. Jews are overrepresented in the fields of law and medicine. Jews play a major role in entertainment – so much so, that many believed that Ed Solomon (sic) of the Ed Sullivan show was Jewish (he was married to Sylvia Weinstein). The Irish comprise 10% of the population of this country. Yet, in my lifetime, I have never been aware of politicians in this country running for national office being concerned about the Irish vote. Nor does Ireland or its population and politics garner front-page news the way Israel does. So entrenched is the paradox of Jews and Israel in this country, that few if any, even regard it as a paradox.

It is not in any way unheard of for non-Jews, to see Judaism as an extremely logical religion. Perhaps so. But Jews, as well as the Jewish State, defy logic. I am no statistician, but I am told that if the number of Jews killed throughout history by the outside world “in the name of heaven” were fed into a computer, then according to logic, there should be no Jews left on the face of this earth. No different than the one-day supply of oil, discovered in the ransacked Temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, Jews defy the odds. Even Look Magazine ran a front-page story in 1964 on “The Vanishing American Jew”. Look Magazine has long been consigned to history; Jews continue to make history. Jews are a paradox when it comes to lasting power. No other people could endure what we Jews have endured and continue to exist, much less thrive. So too the Jewish State. According to military analysts in the Pentagon in the Spring of 1948, the newly established State of Israel did not have a “snowball’s chance in hell” of survival. Then again, paradoxes pay no heed to logic, analysts, or predictions.

Perhaps the greatest paradox concerning our people is our resistance. Judaism is and has always been resistant to outside forces. While the Hellenists, the Romans, the Church (the Crusades) the Communists, and the Nazis were successful in destroying Jews, not one of these enemies could claim victory in destroying Judaism. If anything, the exact opposite turned out to be the case. Known for our obstinance, we Jews defiantly sounded the shofar, lit Chanukah candles, baked Matzahs, and conducted seders even under the most hellish conditions. At the same time, Judaism is extremely vulnerable to forces from within. Unlike the impotence of our enemies, we Jews can cause Judaism to vanish and disappear. All we have to do is to ignore our religion with its traditions and practices. Within a short time, Judaism will cease to be. Perhaps, this is the greatest paradox of all. We Jews have within our ability to undo what the enemy has tried to do over the ages. All that is required of us, is to do nothing. 

Comfort food has been defined as food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value. Perhaps so. With the festival of Shavuot soon upon us, I propose that cheese blintzes, calzones, lasagna, and pizza be considered comfort food. By eating dairy, let us find comfort, that like milk, we Jews, despite our numbers, are a paradox as far as our importance in this country. Let us find comfort in realizing that typically, milk has a short shelf life. We Jews, however, have been around for ages. As far as Jewish lasting power, expiration dates are academic. Most important of all, let us find comfort in knowing that when it comes to milk, we cannot afford to ignore, without risking placing the cow in jeopardy. Similarly, when we ignore Judaism, we risk placing ourselves in jeopardy. Regarding milk, it has been said that it is good for all ages.
So too Judaism.

A meaningful Dairy Festival of Shavuot to all

ZIKARON and ZECHER

Dictionary definitions aside, I feel it safe to say that a memorial honors a person or an event. It wasn’t until recently however, that I felt it safe to say why the Kiddush on Friday night contained both Zikaron and Zecher, two very similar words akin to memorial, arbitrarily translated as “remembrance” and “memorial.” With Memorial Day less an a week away, I offer what I believe to be three distinctions between the terms Zikaron and Zecher, in the hope that these terms add meaning and significance to a day that I cannot help but feel is not accorded its proper due.

Despite untold hours sitting in the dentist chair with my mouth open, I know next to nothing when it comes to terms such as “mesial” and “distal.” I do know however, that dentistry is one of the few professions, if not the only profession, where “injection” and “extraction,” antonyms if you will, are commonly used terms, in that a dentist does both. I also know that the terms “injection” and “extraction” help explain the difference between Zikaron and Zecher.

Zikaron,hearkening back tothe creation story, connotes injection, in that it relates everything HaShem saw fit to place into this world. Zecher, hearkening back to the story of the exodus from Egypt,relates everything that occurredwhen our ancestors were taken out of Egypt. While both terms are so very similar, in that they ask us to recall an event, both terms are so very different, in that the Zikaron events of creation of the world and the Zecher events of creation of a nation are diametric opposites.

It has been close to 8 decades, sinceRobert Lee Scott Jr. brigadier general in the United States Air Force and flying Ace of World War II wrote God is My Co-Pilot. Close to 5800 years ago, HaShem came up with the converse. As far as HaShem was concerned, we humans were His co-pilot. Once the six days of creation had taken place, HaShem handed over the controls to us. Yet, it is He who remains in charge. Every Friday evening, during Kiddush; we are reminded of this through Zikaron. But we are also reminded of one other thing during Kiddush as well. We are reminded that just as HaShem devoted His energies to this world for the very first six days ever recorded, so too are we reminded that we need to devote our energies to our comtemporary world for six days each week. Hence, the other Kiddush term, Zecher.

Perhaps Memorial Day can be seen and appreciated along similar terms. Zikaron ought to be understood as those in our armed forces who injected themselves in the fight for liberty; Zecher ought to be understood in terms of our being able to extract and enjoy the blessings of freedom, thanks to those in our armed forces who gave of themselves and put their lives on the line.
Time was, when American students were called upon to remember the blessings of this country on a daily basis, with reciting  the Pledge of Allegiance. This was Zecher. Time was, when a day was set aside at the end of May to pay tribute to those who were prepared to give their lives – and at times did – for their blessed country. This was Zikaron.  Last but not least, during the Song of the Sea, which we recite in the daily Shacharit service, we are reminded HaShem, Ish Milchamah, HaShem is a warrior (Exodus 15:3). That’s Zecher. HaShem’s warrior days are long over. HaShem now limits Himself to overseeing battles and wars and  keeping a watchful eye over those who risk their lives, as they fight for freedom and liberty. Let us set aside one day a year to keep those whom HaShems oversaw throughout battles and wars in our hearts. That’s Zikaron.

A meaningful and moving Memorial Day to those in Uniform

CAVE MEN

Justified or not, the term caveman connotes primitive, uncouth, and uncivilized individuals. When it comes to what we in contemporary society seem to be proper behavior, a caveman is regarded as the antithesis of one who is looked up to because of admirable traits, respectability, and comportment. With the intent of dispelling preconceived notions toward cavemen, I should like to bring to mind, three “cavemen” from our heritage, who were exemplary when it came to caves.

Leaving Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Israel, one enters the highway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.  That highway is referred to as the Ayalon, a name hearkening back to Yehoshua, Moshe’s successor. Persuading the sun to stand still over Givon, and the moon to remain fixed over the valley of Ayalon, Yehoshua was able to proclaim stunning victory over the Amorites. By all accounts, it was quite a feat. In my opinion, however, an even greater feat occurred at the cave of Makedah, near what is now Beit Horon. It was at the cave of Makedah, where Yehoshua kept his word to the Givonites, despite having a good reason not to. It was at the cave of Makedah, where Yehoshua meted out justice to five kings, who declared war against the Givonites for having forged a pact with Israel. Realizing that they were about to be vanquished, the five kings sought refuge at the cave of Makedah. When Yehoshua learned about their whereabouts, he gave orders to seal off the cave until he and his regiment could arrive and give those five kings their just desserts. Thanks to Yehoshua, the cave of Makedah, in my opinion, is a cave of loyalty.

If one were to head in the opposite direction upon landing in Israel, bypassing Jerusalem, toward the Dead Sea, one would reach Ein Gedi. There are caves at Ein Gedi as well. Centuries after Yehoshua and the cave of Makedah, the drama was to unfold between King Saul and David, his perceived adversary. King Saul’s fear of and hostility toward David was such, that it depleted the King of tactics, energies, and resources that were sorely needed to rout the Philistines, Israel’s preeminent enemy. Pursuing David, rather than the Philistines, King Saul and his entourage find themselves at Ein Gedi. David is closer than King Saul realizes. Much closer. It is in one of the caves at Ein Gedi, where King Saul enters to answer nature’s call. Unbeknownst to King Saul, David and his inner circle are in that very same cave. David, however, is well aware that his nemesis is mere feet away. Taking his sword, David slashes the corner of King Saul’s robe, which moments before had been removed. David’s message to King Saul was implicit. “Just as I ran my sword through your robe, so too could I have run my sword through you”. David’s message to his inner circle was far more explicit: G-d forbid that I should do this thing to His Majesty, HaShem’s anointed, by stretching out my hand against him”. Because of David, and his ability to refrain from doing what others would have done in a similar situation,  the cave at Ein Gedi, in my opinion, is the cave of integrity.

Zigzagging to the north, east of Akko and north of the modern city of Karmiel, there is the ancient city of Pekiin. Pekiin also has caves. It is believed that a little over 1900 years ago, the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, together with his son Eliezer sought refuge from the Romans in one of those caves for a period of 13 years. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was set up by the Romans and ended up a victim of a sting operation. His crime was speaking the truth about the Romans who brought their way of life to Israel. When word got back to the local Roman authorities, a price was placed on Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s head. The great sage was wanted dead or alive. In turned out that the cave where he hid, was known to all his many students. Dressed in sports attire to throw off anyone who might follow them, in the hope of discovering the hiding place of a fugitive from (Roman) justice, his students continued to study Torah from their learned and revered master. It just so happens, that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s yahrzeit is Lag B’Omer, this Tuesday. Others would have spent their time as fugitives, differently. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai decided to spend his time as a fugitive disseminating Torah. Because of this, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s cave in Pekiin, is the cave of invincibility.

Three caves of renown. Three caves embodying the values of loyalty, integrity, and invincibility. Three caves are a source of pride for our people. Three caves that give new meaning to the term cave men.

THE VERY FACT

Being the lover of Yiddish that I am, it was more than with a modicum of interest, that I recently read an article by Shalom Goldman, Professor of Religion at Middlebury College (Vermont) about Yiddish Plague Songs. In that humans, being the creative creatures we know them to be, have been known to react to crises through song, Professor Goldman writes that Simon Small (Shmulevitch), songwriter, lyricist, bard, actor, badkhn (wedding entertainer), balladeer, and early recording singer, responded to the Spanish Flu, the epidemic of a century ago that killed ten times as many Americans than the current crises, with the song Menshenfresser (devourer of people). If Menshenfresher is any indication of the general feeling that pervaded this country a little more than a century ago, then based on what has been forwarded to me within the last few weeks, I cannot help but feel that in reacting to the current pandemic, we’ve come a long way.

Just as Germany coined the term schadenfreude, a term that can be understood to mean rejoicing at the misfortune of others, so too did Germany coin the term galgenhumor, more commonly known to us as gallows humor. Gallows humor refers to cynical humor as a form of reaction to traumatic situations. My first glimpse of gallows humor as a reaction to the current pandemic was a YouTube forwarded to me, showing Shayla Fink of Winnipeg, Canada, sitting at the piano, playing an upbeat song she composed, called “Corona, Corona”. Since then, I have received other, similar parodies. Mah Nishtana? How do we explain these diametrically opposite reactions to life-threatening plagues?

In that all parodies I have received have been composed by Jews, I cannot help but feel, that as a people, we have come a long way. A century ago, when the very notion of a Holocaust against our people was totally unfathomable, we Jews were already in possession of a persecution complex. Justifiably so. Our brothers and sisters in Eastern Europe were still dying in pogroms. A total of 1,326 pogroms were taking place across Ukraine, around the very time the Spanish flew was indiscriminately attacking helpless individuals in this country. True, there was no anti-Semitic strain in the Spanish Flu, but a victim is still a victim.

One of the first lessons implicit in the Torah is that of time. As soon as HaShem began the creation process, “evening” and “morning” were introduced. Once HaShem concluded His role in the creation process, Shabbat was introduced. In both cases, humans adjusted their lives to time. Until recently – it wasn’t until less than a century ago, that electricity was commonplace in the homes of the country – society adjusted itself to going to bed at sunset, waking up at daybreak and setting aside the Sabbath as a day of rest. Within the last few decades, society transformed itself, so that time had to adjust itself to society and more specifically to the individual. It may very well have begun with foods such as instant coffee. The radar range or microwave oven exacerbated our ever-growing impatience by turning hours into minutes and minutes into seconds. It is time that conforms to us; we don’t conform to time. And so, we are indignant to a virus that interrupts our daily schedule. We regard it as some kind of joke, albeit in the poorest of taste and we respond accordingly.

Because these United States of America have proven to be the ultimate equalizer, Jews and non-Jews alike, have developed a sense of invincibility. Advancements in technology and medicine have made us smug. With the cold war having been consigned to history, Americans seem to have adopted the attitude actor John Wayne portrayed in his role as a cowboy, on the silver screen. Perhaps our 43rd President captured that attitude best on September 11th, 2001, when he in effect said: “No tinhorn terrorist was going to keep him out of Washington.” That very same attitude was very much evident last month when American college students defiantly flocked to the Florida beaches. No foreign virus was going to prevent them from having fun in the sun. How very differently, the attitude of Americans manifested itself, when this country was overtaken by the Spanish Flu. Back then, the people of this country – in no small part a conglomerate of immigrants – would have to wait close to another 2 ½ decades to hear the encouraging words: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

The parodies will undoubtedly continue. Whether they are worth listening to, is a matter of preference. The very fact that we Jews no longer bewail epidemics, the very fact that Americans can afford to respond to the Coronavirus with indignation, the very fact that that we see ourselves as being invincible, says more about us than it does about the virus.

TODAH RABAH

For decades now, the United States has served as a de facto role model for Israel. There is a good reason for this, in that that the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, lives in the United States (Israel’s current Prime Minister was schooled in Philadelphia, for those who have wondered about the absence of a typical Israeli accent when he speaks English as well as his command of the language). Similarly, there are those who estimate that as many as half a million Israelis are currently living in this country. Add to that the number of Christians who are pro-Israel, and it is easy to understand the mutual admiration between the two countries.

With Israel, celebrating its 72nd birthday this Wednesday, perhaps it would be of interest to look at The United States in the year 1848 when it also celebrated 72 years as an independent country. The similarities and contrasts are, in my opinion, worthy of consideration. John Taylor served as President; George M. Dallas served as Vice-President. Each held that position for one term. Taylor was not re-elected President; Dallas never rose to become President. Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu on the other hand, is by all accounts, the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history, despite the fact that Israel’s political system makes our political system look like child’s play (read into that what you will) and that despite all odds, he has mastered the art of pulling a rabbit out of his kippah, time and time again. 
Population wise, the United States had grown ten-fold in its first 72 years of existence. In 1776, there were approximately 2 ½ million inhabitants between the Atlantic and the Pacific (excluding territory that was soon to become the Dominion of Canada). By 1848, there were 23 million inhabitants within those very same boundaries. Put differently, the nascent United Stated state could proudly boast close to a ten-fold increase in population during its first 72 years. Not that it is a contest, but Israel is able to lay claim to a 15-fold increase during that same period of time, having grown from 600,0000  to just under 9 million! Perhaps of even greater interest,  is the California Gold Rush of 1848.by all accounts, it was the largest mass migration of people in this country, with 300,000 Americans hoping to either stake their claim or sell merchandise and provide services to those hoping to stake their claim. No such parallel exists in Israel, given the fact that in square miles, Israel is even smaller than New Jersey. Size aside, given the realities of the current crises, Israel, like the United States and most, if not all other countries, is presently in lock down mode, where migration simply does not take place.

Having mentioned the current crisis that has effectively paralyzed the world, it would be of great interest to compare breakthroughs in the field of medicine in the 72nd year of the existence of this country and breakthroughs in the field of medicine, as Israel celebrates 72 years of statehood. In 1848, history was made in the northeast of this country, with the opening of Boston Female Medical College (it merged with Boston University School of Medicine a quarter of a century later). It was the first medical school for women in this country. How it was received at the time is worthy of speculation. Also worthy of speculation, are reports released earlier this month, by Ofir Akunis, Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology, that scientists at The Galilee Research Institute, better known by the acronym Migal, are on the cusp of developing the first vaccine against the coronavirus If all goes as planned, the vaccine could be ready within a few weeks and available in 90 days.

Up until now, come the 5th of Iyyar, Israel has had every right to celebrate the anniversary of its independence, proclaimed 72 years ago in Tel Aviv by David Ben Gurion. This year, in my opinion, Israel has the need to celebrate the anniversary of its independence, however, subdued that celebration may be because of the full lockdown order. Among its many accomplishments, Israel has every right to celebrate its political system, despite its foibles. Juntas and resignation of top leadership take place in other countries. When it comes to leadership, Israelis disparage; they do not depose. Israel has every right to celebrate its awe-inspiring growth. Had Israel behaved like other countries, it would have taken immigrants from Russia and Ethiopia and settled them in “no man’s land” in the Negev. Israel has every right to celebrate its breakthroughs in the fields of science and medicine. Its Scientists and Doctors are not only looked up by Israelis, but they are also looked up to by the world. Let us join with Israel as together we celebrate 72 years of naches. Todah Rabah!

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.

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU

There are two things about Havdalah that many of us are unaware of. The first is that Havdalah is not, nor has it ever been limited to the conclusion of Shabbat. Each time a festival mentioned in the Torah is brought to a close, Havdalah is recited. Accordingly, Havdalah is recited at the conclusion of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Pesach, etc. The second is that it is not necessary that wine be used when reciting Havdalah. Hamar Medinah (literally, the wine of the land, although it is more commonly understood to mean the beverage of the land) is arguably also acceptable. With the exception of water, there are those who recite Havdalah over coffee, Coca-Cola, or whatever happens to be the leading thirst quencher. Rabbi Elijah Kramer (1720-1797) more commonly known as the Gaon of Vilna, would make it a point to bid farewell to Pesach, by reciting Havdalah over beer! The venerated sage maintained that in doing so, he was following the custom of the time.

I have no idea what the impetus behind the custom of the time was back in the mid to late 18th century, but I do know that in a land devoid of Dr. Pepper,  Rabbi Elijah Kramer must have had an excellent reason for choosing beer as Hamar Medinah over any other popular beverage at the time, especially over wine.

Historians tell us, that ancient Egypt was a class-conscious society. So much so, that there was one beverage for the wealthy and another beverage for the poor. The wealthy of ancient Egypt drank wine; the poor of ancient Egypt drank beer. Assuming he was aware of Egypt’s class-conscious society, perhaps the Gaon of Vilna was “bookending” the festival of Pesach. Eight nights earlier, Jews in the Diaspora introduced the festival by focusing on the bread of the impoverished. Now, as Jews are bidding a farewell to Pesach, it makes perfect sense to do so, by focusing on beer, the beverage of the impoverished.

The Egyptian word for beer is “henkat.” Among the many character traits for which our sages were known, was their penchant for wordplay. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised, if rabbinic leadership around the time of the Gaon of Vilna and prior to the time of the Gaon of Vilna was aware of the Egyptian word “henkat” and saw a similarity between that word and the Hebrew word Chanukat (as in Chanukat HaBayit or the dedication of the refurbished Holy Temple). After all, a parallel existed between the one-day supply of oil defying nature and burning for seven additional days and the Sea of Reeds defying nature and splitting apart, creating a pathway for the Children of Israel, seven days into their journey of freedom. To carry the parallel further, Antiochus made life unbearable for our people; Pharaoh made life unbearable for our people. Perhaps, in choosing “henkat” for the first chometz to cross his lips as he recited Havdalah, the Gaon of Vilna was attempting to ensure that the similarities between the  Festival of Freedom and the Festival of Lights along with their shared message of victory over the enemy, not be swept away with the crumbs of the Pesach matzah.

The Egyptians were the pioneers of fermentation. Fermentation aided the Egyptians in perfecting the caste system they treasured so very much. There are those who maintain that yeast was known to the Egyptians long before other civilizations. This would explain the Egyptians refusing to break bread with foreigners, including Joseph (Genesis 43:32). Superiority was not only very much evident between Egyptians and others; superiority was also very much evident within Egyptian society as well. If wine was for the wealthy and beer was for the blue-collar worker as noted above, then the Egyptian society in which our ancestors were enslaved, was one where all people were created equal, some more equal than others. Perhaps this too was very much on the mind of the Gaon of Vilna, as he recited Havdalah at the end of Pesach, cup of beer in hand. Referred to as the season of our freedom, the Festival of Pesach not only serves to remind us of freedom from enslavement by another nation but also of freedom of class distinction. Why, even in personal preparation for the festival, our rabbinic sages made it a point to spell out and include one who receives his meals from the soup kitchen (viz. the pauper) when adjuring Jews to refrain from eating hours before the seder, so that all – rich and poor alike – come to the seder with an appetite.

I pray, that just as Pesach was properly received, so too is it properly escorted. Even if beer is not your beverage of choice for Havdalah, bear in mind that there is great symbolism in “bookending the festival” (introduce it with the bread of impoverishment; conclude it with the beverage of impoverishment).  Consider how henkat and Chanukat evoke similarities between the two festivals.  Recall that true freedom is experienced when society is no longer defined by social or economic class so that no Jew ever looks down upon another Jew. Here’s looking at you!

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.

TASTING THE PAIN

Want to make me grimace? Tell me that you feel my pain. Or anyone else’s pain for that matter. As a rabbi, as one who has been in the presence of a goodly number of individuals who are either hurting emotionally, in mental anguish or in physical pain, I cringe, grimace and wince whenever I hear a well-meaning but witless individual make an attempt to sound empathetic. Because no two people are identical, it is impossible for any human being to feel the pain of any other human being.

One can, however, see the pain of others; one can, however, see that others are in pain. And that’s precisely what happened when Moshe made that fateful decision to abandon the lap of luxury of Pharaoh’s palace and go out to his enslaved brethren. It was there amidst the Children of Israel that Moshe saw their pain (Exodus 2:11). One look was all it took. Especially, when Moshe cast his eyes in all directions and realized that there was no one else prepared to so much lift a finger to correct the injustice of inhumanity. Moshe saw the pain of others; HaShem saw how it pained Moshe. And the rest as they might have said is biblical history.

Pain in others is poignant. While those who are in the presence of people in pain, as well as those who are cognizant of people in pain, cannot feel the pain being experienced by the sufferer, they can be very much aware of that pain. They know that others are hurting. As a result, it saddens them. It may even break their hearts. But they are not the ones who furrow their brow or clench their teeth or contort their faces when the pain becomes excruciating. Moshe saw the pain of his brethren; HaShem knew their pain (Exodus 3:7). And true to His word, HaShem embarked on delivering the seed of Abraham from enslavement to freedom.  HaShem made good on His word to liberate them from a foreign people in a foreign land and deliver them to freedom, as they embarked on a journey that would ultimately bring them to the Promised Land.

In recounting an event of our people that occurred over three thousand years earlier, our rabbinic sages were redoubtably realistic. They realized that it was impossible for later generations to know the pain of their Israelite ancestors in Egypt. They understood that it was futile to expect later generations to see the pain of their ancestors in Egypt. Instead, they embarked on a different course. They mandated that later generations taste the pain of their Israelite ancestors in Egypt. Building on the biblical commandment of ingesting matzah and maror at the seder (the Torah commands that we eat Korban Pesach together with matzah and maror. Yet, ever since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash or holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Korban Pesach has ceased to exist), our sages handed down the following: If, after reciting the blessing for eating matzah, one ingested a capsule of pulverized matzah in keeping with the minimum amount of a little over one ounce of matzah, one has fulfilled the mitzvah. If, however, after reciting the blessing for eating maror (typically horseradish or romaine lettuce including the bitter root), one ingested capsules of pureed maror in keeping with the minimum amount of a little over one ounce of maror, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. Consider the following: should it ever happen that you conduct a poll, asking others who have been regular participants at the seder, to list three things they liked best, it is highly doubtful that fulfilling the mitzvah of eating the maror would ever make it into that list. That’s precisely why our rabbinic sages were adamant that the maror must not only be eaten but tasted as well. Put differently, if our ancestors tasted the bitterness of subjugation as they endured the pain of slavery their entire lives, then surely, we ought to be able to endure the bitterness of maror for a few brief moments. Surely, we ought to be able to taste their pain.

Come the second Wednesday and Thursday evenings of this month, you’ll have a difficult time finding Moshe, the one who saw the pain of enslaved ancestors, as you read the Haggadah. Hopefully, HaShem, who knew the pain of our enslaved ancestors, will have an easy time finding you at the seder table. Equally as important, I look forward to hearing from you how you tasted the pain of enslaved ancestors, as you fulfill the mitzvah of eating the maror at the seder.

With Blessings for a Meaningful and Memorable Pesach!


NEXT YEAR IN JERUSALEM

There is a fifth question, that we would do well to ponder two weeks from tonight, at the Pesach seder. Why is it that at the end of Seder, we proclaim: L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalayim or Next year in Jerusalem (it should be noted that we proclaim the very same at the conclusion of  Yom Kippur as well, but that is not within the scope of this week’s message)? What is it about the Pesach Seder, that it warrants such final words? I don’t believe that it would be an overstatement to say, that more than a few of our ancestors in Egypt, believed that they would never see anything other than mortar and bricks. And yet, the celebration of Pesach is not so much about recalling the endless night of our ancestors being slaves in Egypt, as it is of the morning after, with its never-ending challenge of freedom.

“Next year in Jerusalem” reinforces the belief of a morning after. Say what you will about this year, but never speculate about the current confronting hardships. Temporally, next year and this year are 12 months apart (13, if it is a Jewish leap year). As far as our trials and tribulations, what next year might bring, could turn out to be eons away. Few, if any inmates of Auschwitz could foresee and fathom the life-changing freedom of Pesach 1945, as they defied the enemy and mustered the inner-strength to “celebrate” Pesach 1944. “Next year” connotes a new year as well as a different year. “Next year” connotes a better year, irrespective of how terrific or trying this year happens to be. 

“Jewish” DNA is about remembering. “Jewish” DNA does not distinguish between good and bad as well as the happy and sad. As Jews, we not only remember the past, but we also sing about the past. It matters little whether the past recalls our personal shortcomings (Ashamnu, sung time and time again every Yom Kippur) causing us shame or whether the past the evokes denial of freedom to our people (Avadim Hayyinu, sung immediately following Mah Nishtanah or the Four Questions at the Pesach seder) which ought to evoke anger. We sing about the past because we know, that just as better times preceded difficult and trying times, so too will better times follow difficult and trying times. It makes perfect sense therefore, that L’Shanah HaBa’ah B’Yerushalyim or Next Year in Jerusalem, the final words of the Pesach seder are sung as well.

“Next year in Jerusalem” serves as a promise. Generations of our people clung to that promise, despite the fact, that Jerusalem, as well Israel, was regarded as a pipedream. And yet, Israel ceased to be a pipedream a little more than 7 decades ago, with a united Jerusalem to follow,19 years later. “Next year in Jerusalem” serves as a reminder that promises are kept. There are those who maintain that given this reality, “Next year in Jerusalem” is no longer applicable. After all, countless Jews from around the world have visited Jerusalem, with a good many participating in a Pesach seder there as well. However cogent that argument, “Next year in Jerusalem” very much deserves to remain as part of the Pesach seder. Tradition aside, “Next year in Jerusalem” reminds us, that promises carry weight – so much so, that as far as Judaism is concerned, there is a sound basis to see promises indistinguishable from reassurances. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a message  of hope. Regardless how things appear to be at the moment, it is no indication of how things will be in the future. It’s merely a matter of time. “Next year in Jerusalem” is a pledge that “there’s got to be a morning after.” No matter how foreboding it may seem at present, there is a sun that will rise – sooner than many of us think – that will not only brighten our day, but our lives as well.

“Next year in Jerusalem!”