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!


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.

BEAUTY IS VAIN

Sadie Hawkins Day, it isn’t. It’s much older with a totally different intent. The 15th of the Hebrew month of Av, otherwise known as Tu B’Av, which this year coincides with the 15th day of August, although mentioned in the Talmud, has received short shrift throughout Jewish history.

“There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av… The daughters of Jerusalem went out dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. ‘Young man’, they called. ‘Consider whom you choose to be your wife. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain; a woman who revers HaShem is to be praised.’”

Times have changed, but traditionally speaking, what makes the hearts of young men and women go pitter-patter has remained the same ever since Adam and Eve. I believe it’s fair to say “I have nothing to wear” is an inter-generational lament on the part of the fairer sex. Even if it’s true, it’s a sad commentary about (male) society. Are those one wishes to impress more likely to remember the dress of the female or the demeanor of the female? Are those one wishes to win over more apt to recall the outfits or the outbursts. Clothing and comportment are diametrically opposite. Clothing is ephemeral; comportment is enduring.

If the fairer sex frets over what to wear, the male sex frets over where to go. No different than the one they invited out for the evening, the male also wishes to make an impression. Heaven forbid that the guy comes off looking cheap! Is it really so terrible to take a date walking through a windy park or take a drive along the beach? Does going to Chez Pierre guarantee a better time than Chef’s Pizza? Even more important, at which of the two places is one more apt to see the “real McCoy.” Isn’t it fair to say, that for the vast majority of us, our daily lives are more akin to a pizza parlor than to an expensive restaurant? Doesn’t the bright fluorescent lighting of the pizza parlor shed more light on the subject than the dimly lit candle of the expensive restaurant? Doesn’t it behoove us to enter a relationship with eyes wide open?

The aging process is in many cases unkind to one’s looks. It is the exception, rather than the rule, that one becomes better looking with the passage of time. The above cited quote, “charm is deceitful and beauty is vain” which is intoned at the Shabbat table each Friday night, serves as reminder that beauty must never be skin deep. Pirkei Avot or Ethics of Our Fathers is famous for laying out combinations of four. One such combination that never made it into Pirkei Avot, reads as follows:

There are four types of people: Those who are attractive to behold but are inwardly repulsive; those who are repulsive to behold but are inwardly attractive; those who are repulsive, both to behold as well as inwardly; there are those who are attractive, both to behold as well as inwardly.

Yes, it is possible for people to have beautiful personalities as well as beautiful physical features, but bear in mind that personalities rarely, if ever, change. Alternately, physical features – facial  and otherwise, rarely, if ever stay the same.

Our rabbinic sages were on to something, when they designated the 15th of the month of Av as a date for establishing relationships. With Tisha B’Av still fresh in our minds, they were keenly aware that relationships (in the case of Tisha B’Av, the relationship between HaShem and His people) undergo great strain. For there to be any hope at all to withstand the strain, it is essential that those relationships be founded upon comportment and not clothing, sensation and not location, alluring and not luring. May love – true love, sincere and genuine love – conquer all.