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!”


TEARS OF RELIEF

For the longest time, a set of faux dog tags bearing the names of Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman hung behind my office chair in my New Jersey Synagogue. The fate of those three Israeli soldiers, who fell into the hands of the enemy during the 1982 War in Lebanon were unknown and the three soldiers were therefore listed as missing in action. While I do not recall whatever happened to those dog tags, they came to mind this past week, when it was announced that Israel had secured the remains of Sergeant Zachary Baumel.

I pray that there much needed closure for the family. I hope that three much needed messages will continue to live on, long after Zachary’s remains have been laid to rest at Mt. Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, last week.

We Jews do not forget. It’s part of our collective DNA. Next week, countless Jewish families throughout the world, will be sitting down to special dinner accompanied by Haggadahs, to recall an event that occurred over three millennia ago. Those who include traditional daily prayer as part of their spiritual diet, are reminded of that event twice each day. It is our ancestors being taken out of Egypt.  I cannot help but feel that as Jews, we remember people and events – perhaps not as many as we ought to – but more than many other nations. As Jews, we not only remember foes, but we remember friends as well. Last Thursday evening in Jerusalem, thousands came to remember, as Zachary Baumel finally received a proper burial service, in accordance with Jewish law.
The next time you are in search for a topic for dinner conversation, you may wish to remind guests seated around the table that in Judaism, we believe that there is sanctity to the human body. That’s why we have a Chevra Kaddisha; that’s why the Jewish community will do anything and everything in its power so that that every Jew receives a Jewish burial. Bodies of the deceased are to be accorded dignity and respect. Does according dignity and respect to the human body, also apply to wanton murderers and terrorists who prey upon the innocent? Are the bodies of murderers and terrorists to be accorded the same dignity and respect as their victims? Is the Jewish view of a human body absolute, or does that view allow for exceptions, when it comes to those who willfully desecrate human bodies?  One thing is for sure. The 37-year-old remains of Zachary Baumel were accorded dignity and respect, as they were laid to rest at Mount Herzl, the same cemetery when Jonathan Netanyahu, the hero  of the raid at Entebbe, lies buried.

Even though not all Israelites left Egypt under Moshe’s leadership, independent of the fact that any number of Israelites known as the mixed multitude “took it on the lamb” with our ancestors, as they charted their course for the wilderness, we of later generations have adopted “no Jew left behind” as our credo. This credo is very much ingrained in each and every soldier of the Israel Defense Forces. As a people, we do not differentiate between the living and the dead. Given the choice, members of the Baumel family would have done anything to have received Zachary back alive. Nevertheless, they left no stone unturned at receiving him back as earthly remains.
Come Pesach, the message of true liberation must not be defined as mere commemoration. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder and digest what “Jews do not forget” truly means. If our history is beyond compare, shouldn’t our collective memory be beyond compare as well?  For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, let us sit down to the Seder with renewed appetite toward dignity and respect toward our fellow Jew. If our tradition mandates that we  accord honor to the dead, how much more so ought we to accord honor  to the living. For the Pesach festival to take on vibrant meaning, the words “let all who are hungry come and eat” must take on real meaning, so that no Jew is overlooked or left behind and we set an extra seat for someone who might not have been invited to a Pesach Seder.

Toward the beginning of the Seder, as we participate in “karpas,” may the salt water remind us of the tears of relief shed by the Baumel family last week.

IT’S ALL ABOUT LEAVING EGYPT

Fifty years ago this week, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Black America was stunned and speechless. The sense of loss was beyond proportion. Words however did not fail some in the Jewish community. Among them was Arthur Waskow, who came up with a “Freedom Seder” which was held in a black Church in the heart of Washington D.C. exactly one year later, on April 4, 1969.

As one who sees the late Dr. King as a champion for freedom for his peolpe, I cannot help but feel that a “Freedom Seder,” a “Holocaust Survivor Seder,” a “Yankee Doodle Dandy Seder” or any other new age, creative seder sorely misses the point of what a seder ought to be.  At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, a seder should be all about our ancestor’s being redeemed from Egypt. The Haggadah so much as says so! “Whoever expends much time and effort in relating (our ancestors’) departure from Egypt… all the power to them!” To the best of my knowledge, the Haggadah never makes mention of racial oppression and denying of equal rights to those of a different color skin, nor does the Haggadah make mention of Jews in recovery recalling the enslavement of addiction, celebrating the freedom of sobriety (Mea Culpa! I put together such a Haggadah over a quarter of a century ago when I was drawn to an organization known as JACS – Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others). The Haggadah also makes no mention of Palestinians being denied freedom at the hands of Israeli aggression and oppression (please pardon my cynicism) yet, there are those who dedicate part of their Seder experience to bringing to light the enslavement of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria under “harsh and inhumane conditions” forced upon them by Jewish taskmasters, aka Israeli Security.

Over the ages, various movements and events have borrowed the theme of “Yetziat Mitzraim” or the exodus from Egypt, as presented in the Haggadah, for their own purpose. Even Jewish Communists, who had little or no use for religion and religious tradition, produced their own Haggadah, portraying Lenin as the new Moses, who redeemed the suffering masses from the grip of the wicked Czar. As a child, no Seder would have been complete without a reading bringing to mind the horror of the Holocaust. However meaningful and well-intentioned, to compare Egyptian enslavement with European annihilation is specious. Other than the threat of Israelite males rising up in revolt, Pharaoh desperately needed our people; Hitler desperately needed to rid Germany, Europe and ultimately the world of our people.

Let us pay tribute to the six million on Holocaust Day, let us bring the six million to mind and to heart next week on Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as the second week of November when we commemorate Kristallnacht, but let us set aside the Seder to consider how different this night is from all other nights. Let us proclaim the second Shabbat after Simchat Torah when we read about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood and the ruin it brought him, as JACS Shabbat. For those who genuinely wish to take up the cause of Palestinians living under Israeli rule, let them conduct a special ceremony in Shechem (Nablus) approximately two weeks before Chanukah, so that they can piggyback on that week’s Torah reading where Jacob’s two sons eradicated all the males of that city in retaliation for the rape of their sister Dinah.

Had the events on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, never taken place, I would like to believe that the opportunity would have presented itself for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to have participated at a Passover Seder. Observing the various symbols, joining in on the various passages, I would have hoped that Reverend King would have been moved by a people that preserved stories of an Egyptian oppression so very different than the oppression that was being experienced by his people.

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.