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!


CAUSING PAIN

Every so often, it rears its ugly head. It seems that there those of us (Jews) whose lives are incomplete unless they take up the cudgel against circumcision (which is really a misnomer, in that Judaism mandates a Brit Milah or Bris; Judaism has nothing to say about circumcision, as circumcision is solely a medical procedure.)

Far be it from me to try to look  into their souls and try to figure what possesses them, much less attempt to discern the thought process or lack thereof, of “concerned” parents wishing to spare their eight day old son from “unnecessary pain.” One thing I am fairly certain of is, that G-d believes in payback and that G-d has a sense of humor – at times a wicked sense of humor. Take it from a rabbi whose mother bestowed the name “Shawn” on him, lest he go through life with a name that might be misconstrued as being too Jewish. That said, I have a most troubling dream…

I have a most wonderful dream. In the troubling dream, I dream that in eighteen, twenty, twenty-two years from now, all Jewish male children who were “spared” a bris – circumcision and all – by their parents, become drawn to halachic Judaism. As a result, they are going to be confronted by quite a task, which is also quite a mitzvah. In my most wonderful dream, I dream that the parents who “spared” their son a bris, become drawn to halachic Judaism and realize the terrible sin they have committed.

I consider myself neither a historian nor a sociologist, but during so called normal times in Jewish history, (short of the Holocaust, when there was no hiding from one’s Judaism anatomically speaking and the Greco-Roman period, when there was infatuation with the au natural body with its original factory equipment) the foreskin has caused more problems for Jewish males than the lack of foreskin. Having officiated at the funeral of a hemophiliac who died of AIDS, I held back the tears as I heard his bereaved father tell me how his son was denied a Hebrew school education, along with a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, because no uncircumcised Jew could participate in any Jewish ritual according to their rabbi at the time (G-d save us from such rabbis.) Under normal circumstances, foreskin on a Jew has always been considered to be a mark of shame.

A Soviet official who managed to keep his Judaism secret, risked his entire career as he burst into the apartment of the clandestine Mohel of the community, pulled out his revolver, and ordered the Mohel to take his equipment, don a blindfold, and come with him as he drove him to an undisclosed apartment. Where the blindfold was finally removed, the Soviet Official turned to the Mohel and said, “Enter my son into the Covenant of Abraham!”

I can’t recall the last time I was together with (Jewish male) friends, where we shared our own bris experiences and how much pain we were in and how long it lasted. I could tell you (but I won’t) about any number of men sitting in my office, telling me about the scars they will take with them to their graves because of parents who were emotionally abusive, overly and unrealistically demanding, yet so very stingy when it came to praise and encouragement.  Not that I have any say in either matter, but given the choice of the pain caused by a bris or the pain inflicted by (I’ll be overly kind) well-meaning parents, I’ll take the former, thank you.

The newspaper article that engendered the above remarks, posed the following question as part of its title: “If Parents Skip the Bris, Can a Son Still be Jewish?” As far as I’m concerned, the wrong question was asked. The article should have been titled: “If Parents Skip the Bris, Can The Parents Still be Jewish?”