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!”


THE LUCK OF THE IRISH, THE SUCCESS OF THE JEWS

Whoever told you that there is absolutely no connection between St. Patrick’s Day and Judaism were so occupied checking to see whether or not Irish eyes were smiling, that he overlooked the fact that three Jewish Holidays give us good reason to rethink Irish Linens, Irish Sweepstakes, and Irish Coffee.

Close to two millennia before Irish Linen was introduced into this world, our Rabbinic sages spoke of Yom Kippur Linen. Linen is one fabric that the Torah forbids us to mix with wool (Leviticus 19:19). When such a mixture occurs, it is referred to as Shaatnez. And yet, throughout the year, the Kohen Gadol or High Priest wore an “avnet” (translated as girdle/belt) made of Shaatnez. It was as though the Kohen Gadol was exempt from the prohibition of Shaatnez. On Yom Kippur however, the shaatnez exemption did not apply to the Kohen Gadol. In place of the avnet of Shaatnez, the Kohen Gadol girded himself with an avnet of pure linen. Perhaps the non-Shaatnez avnet, was to serve as a reminder that on Yom Kippur, there are no exemptions. On Yom Kippur, we are judged equally, from the Kohen Gadol in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to the lowly Stable Boy in Yavneh.

The very first of what was to become the Irish Sweepstakes took place in Dublin, on May 19, 1939. The very first of what could be considered the Jewish Sweepstakes, took place in the Hebrew month of Adar, close to 2500 years ago. The Jewish sweepstakes were vastly different than the Irish Sweepstakes. For one thing, the Jewish Sweepstakes were sweep-stakes of destruction. Rather than pick a winner, the Jewish Sweepstakes were focused on a date that would give Haman the go ahead with his plan of cleansing ancient Persia from Jews. Aside from confiscating homes, businesses and worldly possessions of Jews, Haman’s real interest in the Jewish Sweepstakes was not wealth, but the destruction of Persia’s Jews. I may very well be a lone voice, but it is simply beyond me, why the idea of sweepstakes has not left negative associations and connotations with our people. And yet, despite those Jewish Sweepstakes and due to the efforts of Mordechai and Queen Esther, it was ultimately our people who were the winners.

Not long after the world was introduced to the Irish Sweepstakes, the Jewish World was introduced to a Pesach Haggadah that would make its way into countless Jewish homes in this country.  The Irish pride themselves with Irish Coffee; Maxwell House has every right to pride itself with Jewish Coffee. I could be wrong, but it’s possible, that back in the day,  Maxwell House was among the first, if not the first coffee to receive rabbinic certification as being Kosher for Pesach. In that Maxwell House Coffee had used as its slogan “Good to the last drop” for some time already, it’s beyond me why they didn’t capitalize on that slogan, by placing it on the back cover of its Passover Haggadah, under a picture of a seder participant dipping his or her finger into a goblet, as the Ten Plagues were being recounted with ten drops of wine. In my opinion, such a caption would have been sheer marketing genius!

I don’t begrudge the Irish their linens, their Sweepstakes, or their coffee. I would hope, however, that American Jews become aware of Jewish linen, Jewish Sweep Stakes and Jewish Coffee. Hopefully, all three convey important messages to us about Yom Kippur, Purim, and Pesach. Hopefully, there is more than a modicum of truth to the term “luck of the Irish.” Hopefully, the very same can be said about the success of the Jews.

THE CROWN OF ALL VIRUSES

The Talmud teaches that questions are asked, and lectures are given on the laws of Passover thirty days prior to the festival. Finding ourselves within that time frame,  I cannot help but focus on the ninth plague that led to our ancestors’ liberation from enslavement and exodus from Egypt, that of darkness. I do so because there is a plague of darkness, that casts a giant shadow over the world at this very moment. As a result, no different than the Egyptians of biblical days, an entire population is currently paralyzed by fear. Contrary to what we have been fed by the media, the greatest casualty of Coronavirus has not been those who succumbed to the illness, but rather those who have succumbed to clear thinking and logic. Statistically, more people die from the  Influenza virus (also known as the Flu) each year, than those who have died after contracting Corona Virus. Yet, the Flu has not caused citizens of the world to panic. Moreover, those who decline the flu shot, are not shunned by society for living with abandon and recklessly putting the lives of others at risk. Rather than see this as a new or different strain of the flu and take it in stride, society has chosen to work itself into a frenzy. Webster’s Dictionary defines frenzy as inflammation of the brain. How ironic! People who go to any length to avoid the remotest possibility of contracting Coronavirus, flock to others who suffer from inflammation of the brain. Because of that irony, the plague of darkness appears to be running rampant.

A Wall Street warrior, I’m not. But anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the business world realizes that the panic we have permitted to run rampant will have ramifications that will be crippling and far-reaching. I’ve never been a fan of hand sanitizer and latex gloves (I continue to employ the old-fashioned method of washing my hands regularly with soap and hot water), but it is safe to predict that anticipated shortages of these two commodities are but the tip of the iceberg. With the Asian economy on the road to shut down, the American economy will feel far more than a pinch. Especially when it comes to that which we import from Corona Virus “infected” China. With no one to show up at factories in China, it’s only a matter of time, until shelves become empty in the United States. With presidential aspirants attempting to impress the public that such a crisis would never have been permitted to germinate under their leadership, not one of them has looked the American public in the eye, warning that this country must become self-reliant. Not one has attempted to convince us, that it is essential that the United States remains largely economically unaffected, certainly when it comes to imports, should the economy of another country find itself compromised. And here I fault politicians of both parties. Obviously, we are unable to realize that self-reliance is both achievable – we learned that lesson courtesy of OPEC – and vital to this country. Until we learn the lesson of self-reliance so that we cease to be a country beholden to imports, we will remain paralyzed by the plague of darkness.

Decades ago, I asked my mother if scientists will ever come up with a cure for cancer. She truly believed that in time, scientists would make such a discovery. My mother then added that when that happens, some other dreaded disease will rear its ugly head. For someone who never completed High School, my mother was quite capable of sagacious insight. There was a time when Diphtheria was of epidemic proportions (a mere 5 years ago, despite vaccines, 2,100 people succumbed to Diphtheria, yet I fail to recall any mass hysteria at the time); there was a time when Polio was of epidemic proportion; there was a time when Tuberculosis was with good reason, feared like the plague. Hopefully, I’m wrong, but it’s merely a matter of time until some other disease comes to the fore with mass hysteria breaking out, yet again.

Will we permit this current plague of Darkness to prevail and paralyze us?  One of the realities that we refuse to confront, is that disease is a fact of life. Despite our fantasy of being able to control everything that comes our way, we are served reminders from time to time, that there are destructive forces greater than us, however temporary they might be.

Let cooler heads prevail so that hysteria does not wreak havoc. Let us view Coronavirus in proper perspective. Let us merit leaders who will put our country on a path of self-reliance. Let us realize, that disease is a fact of life and we have an obligation to combat that disease, let us recognize the reality that another disease is headed toward us and that it’s just a matter of time. Above all, let’s bear in mind that it’s time to prepare for Pesach.

OF NECKS, TONGUES, AND CHESTS

For those of us who are intrigued by words or phrases, there is a Purim law found in the Shulchan Oruch or Code of Jewish Law that language-wise is worthy of further ponderance:

“Whoever sticks his hand out to take (money), we give him.” One would do well to ask why the editor of the Shulchan Oruch didn’t specify: “If a poor man approaches you” or “Whoever is in financial need?” The term sticking out a hand, whether phrased in Hebrew or English, is worthy of discussion. Let’s do English.

Sticking out a part of one’s anatomy makes for perfect Purim parlance. The difference between the annihilation of the Jewish people and the preservation of the Jewish people depended upon Esther’s preparedness to stick her neck out for her people, both figuratively and literally. No different than Moses, Esther could have continued to live the lap of luxury. Taking his own initiative, Moses went out to his enslaved Israelites and took up their cause. Although the prince of Egypt never proclaimed such, he was in effect telling the downtrodden masses “You are my brethren… ”

Esther was no Moses. Neither was she a Jonah, who attempted to hightail it out of town to escape responsibility. Yet, only with the slightest prodding on the part of Mordechai, Esther decided to cast her fate to the wind (and if I perish, I perish). Like Moses, Esther realized that she had to decide whether she was part of the Jewish people or whether she should remain insulated from them, thanks to the walls of the royal palace. Given the King’s fickle nature, Esther was well aware of the distinct possibility that she would soon be resting her pretty little head on the chopping block, awaiting the effects of the executioner’s ax. Poetic justice was served, however. Esther stuck out her neck; the King extended his scepter.

Esther stuck her neck out and saved the day. Had the Jews merely stuck their tongues out at Haman and his countryman once they gained the upper hand, it would have saved us much consternation. But the Jews in the Purim story did much more than stick their tongues out. In fact, they did much more than exact revenge. Bear in mind, that not one drop of Jewish blood was spilled. Yet, the Jews were not content to hang Haman and his ten sons. In Shushan alone, they went and slew hundreds, while elsewhere in the kingdom they slew 75,000 of our enemies.  As much as our people are to be applauded for not plundering, shouldn’t we be perturbed and even abhorred for actions and behavior that were way out of proportion and defy revenge, much less justice? Perhaps, we can make some sense of what our ancestors did by employing the following reasoning. The Jews of Persia stuck their tongues out at adversaries. We of later generations must learn to stick our tongues out at adversity.

Have you ever wondered why Mordechai is referred to as Mordechai the Jew? Not once is Esther referred to as Esther the Jewess! Could it be that unlike Esther as well as all other coreligionists, Mordechai earned that title of distinction? Is it possible that Mordechai earned the title Jew for what he did to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all other Jews? Put differently, Mordechai was the only Jew who earned the right to stick his chest out with pride, because of how he acted. It wasn’t that Mordechai was proud to be a Jew (an accident of birth), it was that Mordechai had every right to be proud for stepping up to the plate as a Jew. If Haman was deserving of the nefarious distinction to be referred to as an Agagite  (Esther 3:1), then surely Mordechai was worthy of the praiseworthy distinction to be referred to as a Jew.

While the graggers twirl, perhaps a moment or two are in order to reflect on the messages and teachings of the Purim Megillah. Perhaps, Purim reminds us how necessary it is for us to stick our neck out for our people. Esther averted catastrophe by being prepared to do so. Perhaps Purim cajoles us to stick our tongues out at adversity as we take the necessary measures to confront adversity and destroy it. Perhaps Purim challenges us to stick our chests out, as a reward for stepping up to the plate. Only then, will the gladness and joy mentioned regarding the Jews in the Megillah take on real significance for Jews of this generation, as well. 

  

LEAPIN’ LEAP YEARS

This Shabbat, much of the world will be served a quadrennial reminder. Instead of February being comprised of exactly four weeks, this year an extra day will be added. As a result, newspapers will show photos of elderly couples celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary together with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, even though they were married in 1960. I recall officiating at a marriage Saturday night, February 29th, 1992. Come Shabbat, the bride and groom will be celebrating their 6th wedding anniversary.

But February 29th serves to remind us that calendrically speaking, we live in an imperfect world. Otherwise, why would adjustments be necessary to the Gregorian calendar? For us as a people, calendar adjustments are old hat. We Jews have been adjusting our calendar far more frequently (seven times every nineteen years as opposed to once every 4 years), far longer (millennia rather than centuries), and with results that are far more reaching (have you ever heard of Christmas being early or late, lehavdil like the High Holy Days) than the greater society in which we live. 

For those who nevertheless maintain that the world HaShem gave us is perfect, then wouldn’t it make perfect sense for us to have a perfect calendar requiring no adjustments?

February 29th ought to be able to serve yet another purpose. It ought to remind us that from the standpoint of religious observance, we Jews are simply not part of the Gregorian calendar. The first seder will never fall on a Sunday night, a Tuesday night, or a Thursday night. It matters not whether there is 365 days to the year or 366. Similarly, an extra day at the end of February will in no way affect the day of the week when we usher in the Jewish New Year. It can never happen that the first day of Rosh Hashanah will be a Sunday, a Wednesday or a Friday. It is therefore safe to bet that the last day of February (whether it be the 28th or the 29th) will on no way affect when (on what day of the week) we celebrate our Holidays. Succinctly stated, we Jews have our festivals; the Christians have theirs.

February 29th ought to be a day of challenge, regardless what day of the week it falls. While it is true that each life that comes into this world is allotted a specific numbers of days, it is also true that every so often, we are gifted with an extra month (on the Jewish calendar) or an extra day (on the Gregorian calendar). It would therefore behoove us to take to heart Psalm 90:12, where we ask HaShem: Teach us to count our days. Properly understood, we are asking HaShem for the ability to make our days count. Shouldn’t HaShem have  every right to ask us what we did with the gift of an extra day in February that He gave us? What answer will we be able to give? American culture has desensitized us to gift of time. As a result, we ignore the magic of the moment, as well as what can be accomplished, by setting apart say, 20 minutes each day and devoting that time to a special project or mitzvah. With this in mind, my suggestion, nay my challenge to you, is to do something special on the extra day, the month of February accords you. Because it coincides with Shabbat, invite someone to Shabbat dinner to celebrate “leap day”. Send someone flowers with a note wishing them a “happy leap day”. Drop someone a note and date it, February 29th, just to tell them how special that person is. After all, how often does one receive notes or any other correspondence, dated February 29th? If you are not a regular attendee at Shabbat services, what better day is there to make a leap of faith than “Leap Day?” Shouldn’t an extra that comes once every 1,460 days, merit a deed or activity that is extra special?  

I hope that February 29th serves as an opportunity for us to realize how fragile calendars are. I would like to believe that February 29th sensitizes us to the difference between the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian one. I pray that we make that leap of faith and do something phenomenal on a day regarded by many as merely a phenomenon.

PRESENTING PRESIDENTS DAY

It’s none of my business how you celebrated Presidents Day earlier this week, if at all. However, as an American Jew, I would suggest that aside from Presidents Day, in addition to Presidents Day, or as an augmentation to Presidents Day, there be a Presidents Day with another “twist”. For those of us who are strong supporters of Israel, for those of us who realize that ever since May 1948, no two American presidents have viewed Israel from the same perspective, much less have been supportive of Israel in the same way, I believe that it is important for us to celebrate American Presidents who have either extended themselves to the Jewish people, the Jewish State, or both.

I would expect that the Hebrew word “ Todah” is known to a good many American Jews. Permit me to introduce a synonym, “Hakarot HaTov” ( Hakorress HaTov for those such as I who continue to insist on pronouncing certain Hebrew words with the inflection and intonation of the shtetl). Literally, it means recognition of the good. A much better translation would be “gratitude”.  For those who have much love for and a great deal of pride in this country, I strongly suggest that each year, come Presidents Day, we look back on two or three Presidents for whom we American Jews owe a HaKorress HaTov. From a non-partisan, purely subjective point of view,  I suggest the following three presidential candidates.

Despite urging and “sound” advice from Secretary of State George Marshall, President Harry S. Truman reluctantly agreed to a meeting with his old business partner Eddie Jacobson, provided that Jacobson not raise the topic of the soon to be proclaimed  Jewish State. Just one look at his fellow Kansan standing in the Oval Office with tears streaming down his cheeks, and Chaim Weizmann in tow, the President vociferated: “You win, you bald-headed s*n-of-a-b**ch.”  A mere 5 ½ years later, when introduced to the leadership of Conservative Judaism as the man who helped create the State of Israel,” Truman retorted, “What do you mean, ‘helped to create’? I am Cyrus. I am Cyrus.”

Fifty-two years ago, last month, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol visited LBJ at the Johnson ranch, here in Texas. Armed with an extensive shopping list to replenish the depleted Israel Airforce and Army (France was no longer a patron of Israel) after the miraculous successes of the Six-Day War, the Israeli Prime Minister received pretty much what he asked for from the American President. When it came to Israel, the word “no” was simply not part of President Johnson’s vocabulary. Perhaps LBJ summed up his relationship best when speaking with Arthur Goldberg, the American Ambassador to the United Nations, less than 2 months  following Eshkol’s visit: “I sure as hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel.” A great speaker, President Johnson wasn’t. But perhaps his most prescient and memorable words to the Jewish community, soon after he assumed the presidency in November 1963, were: “You have lost a very great friend (his predecessor, J.F.K.) But you have found a better one.”

I have no idea who coined the phrase “only in America”. I do know, however, that for decades it was frequently uttered by previous generations of Jews in this country who extolled the virtues of these United States. Arguably, that phrase never rang truer than during the second week of October 1973. Caught unprepared, the IDF was fighting for its life, as it was attacked by Egypt on Yom Kippur Day. Aside from mounting casualties, the Israeli Air Force and Army were dangerously low in equipment that had been destroyed by the enemy. While Henry Kissinger, the Jewish Secretary of State procrastinated when it came to rearmament (in his view a bruised and bloodied Israel would have far less of its trademark chutzpah in peace talks with its Arab neighbors, once a truce was put into place) a Quaker President known for occasional tirades against Jews, stepped in, took control and overruled Kissinger. As President Nixon recalled: “When I was informed that there was disagreement in the Pentagon about which kind of plane should be used for the airlift, I became totally exasperated. I said to Kissinger, “Goddam it, use every one we have. Tell them to send everything that can fly.” Within hours, American cargo-configured aircraft, packed to the gills, were airborne headed for Israel.

Come Presidents Day, may log cabins and cherry trees always be part of our collective past. Come Presidents Day, may American Jews reflect on Presidents who serve to remind us how truly blessed we are, living in this country.