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 SKULENER REBBE

Our rabbinic sages thought that they covered all bases, when they zeroed in on the conclusion of  Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbat, otherwise known as the 92nd psalm. Interpreting the double simile that the “tzaddik (righteous person) will flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar in Lebanon, he will grow tall”, our sages delineated between two different types of tzaddikim. The former produces others like himself,  while the other does not. The former actively influences others through suggesting, prompting and even cajoling, while the latter serves as a role model, placing no demands whatsoever upon others.

Had our sages known about the Skulener Rebbe, they would have realized that there is yet a third type of tzaddik. Unknown to the vast majority of Jews, the Skulener Rebbe shunned notoriety and would not entertain the notion of spiriting Jews away from other synagogues or rabbis. Unlike other Chassidic Rebbeim, the Skulener Rebbe insisted that the spotlight shine upon the individual Jew, rather than the leader. The Skulener Rebbe had a name – Yisroel Avrohom Portugal and he was taken from this world towards the beginning of this month, at the ripe old age of 95.

Yet, in his own self-effacing unassuming way, it is the Skulener Rebbe in my opinion,  and not the leaders of other worldwide Chassidic sects, who embodied the tripart essence of the Pesach Seder, in which Jews in all parts of the world will be participating, later this week.

It was the great sage Rabban Gamliel, who reminded us, that whoever does not use the Seder to expound upon Pesach, Matzah and Maror does not fulfill his duty. When all is said and done, it was the Skulener Rebbe who in his everyday life, exemplified Pesach, Matzah and Maror.

Unlike Matzah and Maror, there is no blessing over Pesach. Pesach, represented by the shank bone, is reminiscent of the Passover sacrifice. A tzaddik – one, who is of the caliber of the Skulener Rebbe – is himself a sacrifice. He role as Rebbe is not to make a name for himself, but to give up his time and to devote his days to serving others. Photogenic, he wasn’t; charismatic, he didn’t yearn to be. And yet, the still small voice (I Kings 19:12) that we make mention of each Rosh Hashana, was in essence the still small voice of the Skulener Rebbe that could be heard loud and clear.

If Matzah is tantamount to simplicity, then the Skulener Rebbe came as close to exemplifying  matzah, as any religious leader. The Skulener Rebbe took but one meal a day and got by on little sleep. Predictably, his lifestyle was one of humbleness. And yet, despite the fact that his picture was not splashed all over, although there are no Skulener sites on the internet to supply us with countless stories and endless religious instruction, on any given day, long lines of Jews formed outside his home in the hope of benefiting from sagacious counsel or simply to receive a blessing.

When other Rebbes are called to their makers, they continue to be venerated in their death, just as they were venerated in their life. Accordingly, their burial plot becomes set apart from other burial plots earning it the title Ohel. I may be wrong, but I cannot help but feel that the resting place of the Skulener Rebbe will not be set apart from others in that cemetery in Rockland County, New York.  What distinguished the Skulener Rebbe, was not any edifices he built in life, but the learning, the mitzvot and the countless deeds of kindness that defined his life.

“A tzaddik must feel the hurt and pain of his people,” said the fictional Reb Saunders to his son’s friend Reuven Malter in Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen.” There was nothing fictional about the Skulener Rebbe. Whenever one came to unburden himself/herself to the Rebbe, he would literally cry. It’s not that tears came easily to him, it’s that his heart and neshomeh (soul) were directly linked to his tear ducts. The tsorres (problems) of those who unburdened themselves to the Skulener Rebbe, were his tsorres, their bitterness was his bitterness, their maror was his maror.

As well-known, meaningful and appropriate terms such as Alav HaShalom (peace be upon him), Zechrono l’Vracha (may his memory be a blessing) are, there is a third term that we ought to add to our vocabulary. It applies to Rabbi Yisroel Avrohim Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe. Z’chuyoto yagein aleinu (may his merit protect us). As we participate in fulfilling the teaching of Rabban Gamliel this Friday and Saturday evening, as we explain Pesach, Matzah and Maror, let us also bring to mind the Skulener Rebbe, whose many merits will surely protect us.

* I am indebted to Joseph Berger whose recent article in the New York Times was the impetus for this week’s column.

HAVING YOUR SAY AT THE SEDER

Statistics have it that more Jews participate in a Passover Seder than light Chanukah candles. Before you delude yourself into imagining how proud HaShem and Moshe are knowing that the revolutionary event of the Exodus from Egypt lives on millennia later, consider the fact that there are a good many contemporary Jews who conduct a Seder for purely selfish reasons. The Seder provides them with a forum to further a point of view that they hold as sacred. Put differently, in many instances, the Passover Seder has evolved into the most politicized tradition known to our people.

Politicizing Passover is nothing new. Close to a century ago, following the overthrow of the Czar, Communist leadership used the Passover Seder to advance its cause. Nicholas II was seen as Pharaoh, Vladamir Lenin was portrayed as Moses, life in Czarist Russia was indistinguishable from Egypt where cruel enslavement of the masses ran rampant, and the Soviet Union under Communism, where everyone enjoyed “equal rights,” was a panacea perhaps even superior to the Promised Land.

With the most modicum of imagination, the Passover Seder serves as the venue for any number of causes you hold to be sacred. At present, I’m sure that there are those who use the Seder to advance the plight of the poor Palestinians living in bondage under the wicked Israelis who deny them dignity as a people.

Don’t hijack the Passover Seder for selfish reasons. For two nights a year, even disaffected Jews ought to be able to find it in their hearts to accord Moses his rightful place among our people. As for using the Seder to further one’s personal agenda, one might consider using the conclusion of Passover as an appropriate time.

It would bookend the festival. Rather than watch the dissipation of Passover encroach as the crumbs of the Seder are brushed aside, a post Passover Seder could provide symmetry. Should you wish to resort to maror and matzah to highlight the plight of those you maintain are being denied freedom, then by all means! A post Passover Seder affords you to introduce bread and all over symbols to represent a future filled with hope. A post Passover Seder guarantees that the festival not only begins with interest and participation but ends with interest and participation as well.

It would show that you are no usurper. Those with an agenda all their own feel that they deserve a platform. If so, don’t deny Moses the platform that is his. Show others that you have the courtesy and sensitivity to permit Moses eight days of fame each year. Once Moses has had his say, beginning with “And you shall tell your son on that day” (Exodus 13:8) and concluding (seven days later) with “HaShem shall do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (exodus 14:14), you will have ample time to have your say and customize the message of Passover to fit your needs.

It keeps it in the house. You have every right to champion whatever cause you feel to be important. Do so within the walls of your own home. Chances are that others really don’t care about the beliefs you hold to be so sacrosanct. On the other hand, it may very well be that others care a great deal and are repulsed by those beliefs. Why should you be the cause for acrimony in the community? Doesn’t the Seder begin by extending an all-inclusive invitation? Keep your politicized Seder with your beliefs inside your own home where you can rant and rave to your heart’s content.

STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS

Rabbi Yehudah was one brilliant sage. By creating the mnemonic D’tzach, Adash, B’achav, he provided an excellent way for all to be able to recount the ten plagues (D’tzach is comprised of three letters, representing three words: dam – blood, tzfardaya – frogs, kinim – lice. The same hold true for Adash and B’achav). Far be it for me to place myself in the league of Rabbi Yehudah, but I too would like to offer a mnemonic device – three actually, to help us recall the very essence of Passover:

From slavery to bravery. Meaning no disrespect, but the very first Passover? A success story, it wasn’t! While it is true that our ancestors successfully left Egypt, Egypt never successfully left them. For the cynics among us, the generation that was led out of Egypt exchanged being enslaved to Pharaoh for being enslaved to their own human foibles. Had that generation not lacked faith in HaShem, as well as in itself, it could have easily made the journey to the Promised Land in a matter of months at most. But because those who left Egypt could not shake off the slavery and because they possessed not even a scintilla of bravery, they ended up taking the long way home. If any generation could lay claim to the “lower forty” (as in years), they could. Unfortunately, “from slavery to bravery” was not within their grasp.

Grain causes pain. Story has it that we are living in an era where eating healthy has become synonymous with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are cautioned against trans fats, triglycerides, and a whole host of other harmful foods Americans ingest. Despite what you see on the supermarket shelves, diet-wise, Pesach is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Forget the burgeoning food products that Jewish homes just have to have for an eight day period of time. I am no nutritionist, but even I know that staples such as: chicken, beef, fish, fresh fruitm and vegetables make for a healthy diet.  Interestingly enough, not one of these foods requires Kosher for Passover certification. Believe it or not, we humans can manage quite nicely for the time period of Passover without cake and cookies, as well as other baked delicacies. Other than the Seder night, there is no requirement to eat matzah! Humor me and sit down to a meal of broiled salmon, a baked potato, steamed broccoli, freshly tossed salad and wash it down with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. You too can survive eating a meal on Pesach that requires no kosher for Passover certification.

History is mystery. Why should an event – however earthshaking it may have been – that took place over three millennia ago continue to have such an impact on Jews throughout the world? What’s more, the amount of hagaddahs with new translations, interpretations and explanations that continue to be published each year is simply mind boggling.  Add to that the burgeoning of Kosher for Passover products that are introduced into the already flooded market and it seems that Pesach continues to grow, rather than diminish in importance each and every year. It’s simply beyond me why Passover affects so many in so many ways. No puns intended, but Chanukah doesn’t even hold a candle to Pesach, regardless of how many families from the nominally Jewish to the highly observant light up the dark winter nights. Nor does our appetite for observing Yom Kippur come close to what takes place on Pesach. The irony of it all is that upon being commissioned by HaShem, Moshe doubted he would have any impact on the people of that generation. However well founded Moshe’s doubt may have been, in no way could Moshe foresee the impact he would have generations later. Here we are over three millennia later, still crazy (in the most positive fashion) about a festival that commemorates our peoples exodus from Egypt.