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!


CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

It’s carob time again! Come Tu B’Shvat, congregants, Hebrew School students and those who attend Jewish Day Schools prepare themselves perennially to hear all about their “raisin” d’etre.

Perhaps it’s time to branch out, and leave the almonds, figs, and dates alone and look to the trees for a different source of nourishment. Perhaps its time for the trees to whet our appetite for everyday living.

It was the French philosopher, mystic and political activist Simone Weil who taught us: “Whoever is uprooted himself, uproots others; whoever is rooted himself doesn’t uproot others.” Have you ever wondered why with but one exception throughout our  history, we Jews do not seek to persuade non-Jews to see the light and embrace Judaism? Can it be that that our religious leaders have been so well rooted in the religion they represent, that it never occurs to them to try to get those of a different faith to see the light? Conversely, have you ever wondered why over the ages, Church leadership, particularly in Europe, went to such great lengths to get Jews to abandon and forsake Old Israel and embrace Christianity? Were they really that concerned in saving Jewish souls or perhaps subconsciously, they themselves were anything but firmly rooted in their own faith?

In my talk this past Shabbat, I spoke about how I “played hooky” the previous Monday morning  and traveled to Hunt County with Sue Kretchman. Our mission was to visit a nonagenarian who, as a teenager in Germany, was part of the Kinder Transport. Truth be told, my ego got the better part of me, as we set out. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t repress feelings of self-righteousness. After all, I reasoned, how many other Dallas rabbis would go out on a limb and  visit someone they had never met, who had no connection whatsoever to their synagogue? On the way back from a most delightful, eye-opening, unforgettable visit,  I realized that it was not I who went out on a limb, but the countless, remarkable, selfless strangers first in Holland and then in England who went out on a limb for Jewish children escaping Nazis. These strangers were part of a godly group who dared to refuse to succumb to the Machiavellian machinations  of the Third Reich. Amidst the many trees at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem, where the Six Million are immortalized, there is the Avenue of the Righteous, a walkway where tribute and honor are bestowed upon those who saved Jewish lives. Given the many trees, I cannot help but feel that that section of Yad Vashem ought to be referred to as “Our undying gratitude to those who went out on a limb.”

If there was one thing in common shared by our prophets in the Tana’ch, it was their inability to see the greater picture. Moshe (yes, Moses is considered a prophet) saw a burning bush. Amos HaNavi or the prophet Amos saw a plumb line. Yirmiyahu HaNavi or the prophet Jeremiah saw the staff of an almond tree. None of them could see the mission that they were about to be sent on. Being able to see the bigger picture is a rare gift among humans. All too often, one small item catches the human eye, blinding that person to the bigger picture.  Adam and Eve were so focused  on the one tree that was off limits to them, that they lost sight of the lush forest full of trees bearing luscious fruits that were theirs for the taking.

As one who spends hundreds of dollars each year planting trees in Israel, I have every reason to believe that in addition to trees and fruit, the message of Tu B’Shvat ought to go far deeper. Aside from indulging in figs and prunes as well as all other fruit associated with Israel, in addition to planting trees in Israel, I ask that you see Tu B’Shvat as a harbinger of codes to live by. As we are asked to focus on trees, I ask that you bear in mind that those who are firmly rooted will not uproot others and that those who are uprooted will try to uproot others. I ask that you recall how indebted we ought to be to those who went out on limb for us. Above all, I ask that you never forget the price that is paid, when one can’t see the forest for the trees.

A meaningful Tu B’Shvat to all!

METAL FATIGUE

The Talmud tells us Rabbi Akiva was pretty much illiterate until the age of forty. Earning a meager living as a shepherd, he passed by a well and noticed a carved stone. He asked who carved this stone, and they told him that it was the water that constantly dripped on it. From this, he said: “if water was able to carve this stone, words of Torah could surely reshape my heart.”

I thought about Rabbi Akiva’s deduction last week, as I read about the tragic mishap involving Southwest, Flight 1380 bound for Love Field from LaGuardia Airport in New York. If metal which knows neither birth nor death is vulnerable to fatigue, how much more so is a mere mortal whose life begins at birth and ends at death, vulnerable to fatigue.

“I am sick and tired of people who say that if you debate and you disagree with this administration somehow you’re not patriotic. We should stand up and say we are Americans and we have a right to debate and disagree with any administration” said a contender for the office of President a decade and a half ago. A clinical psychologist, I’m not. I dare say however, that this aspirant for the White House was exhibiting “motile fatigue”. The frenetic pace of campaigning notwithstanding, candidates for president are plagued by disbelief (“for the life of me I can’t believe why everyone is fawning over my opponent. I’m superior in every way!”), anger (“it’s simply not fair”) and dread (“there’s no way I’m going back to Nebraska! They aren’t going to vote for me anyway”). Moshe Rabbeinu demonstrated signs of “motile fatigue” when, in exasperation he exclaimed: “How can I myself alone bear your problems, and your burden, and your strife?”

Despite his mother’s cajoling, Xavier refused to get out of bed and get ready for school. Xavier had good reason. The students made fun of him; the teachers talked behind his back. Xavier’s mother was adamant. Her son had no say in the matter. After all he was the principal! Xavier was exhibiting symptoms of “mettle fatigue”.   Xavier simply lacked the mettle – the fortitude to confront his job as well as the courage – to confront the teachers and students and demand the respect that came with the office of principal. When Moshe Rabbeinu fell on his face when his leadership was being contested by Korach, he too was showing signs of “mettle fatigue.”

“Hard work never killed anybody” is a quote attributed to the renowned ventriloquist Edgar Bergan. Mr. Bergan followed up by asking: “But why take a chance?” What Mr. Bergan should have said was “Hard work never killed anyone, but in addition to physical fatigue, it can also cause ‘mental fatigue’”. There was a certain irony in the life of Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe began his career by confronting “mental fatigue”. The Torah tells us that the Israelites did not pay Moses any heed. They were victims of hard labor. They were also mentally exhausted.

Moshe ended his career confronting his own mental fatigue. His eyes had not dimmed, and his vitality had not diminished. Physically, Moshe was in excellent shape; mentally, Moshe was totally exhausted.

Motile fatigue is caused by oneself. Occurrences and situations that leave most others unfazed, cause those susceptible to become “sick and tired” purely through perception, attitude, fear or just because.  Mettle fatigue is caused by others. Those who suffer because of the behavior, comportment or attitudes of others are so worn down, that they lack the mettle to confront or stand up for their rights. Mental fatigue is when hard work, drudgery or demanding schedules with little or no reward or recognition finally overwhelms the individual.

Our prayers go out to the family of Jennifer Riordan, the only casualty aboard Southwest flight 1380. Our best wishes go out to the seven injured. Our admiration goes out pilot Tammie Jo Shults and crew. Our hope is that the NTSB succeeds in its investigation of what went wrong. Whether or not it finds that metal fatigue was the cause, we now have a better understanding of other types of fatigue that affect our lives on a daily basis.