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.

KRISTALLNACHT, A WINDOW TO OUR EXISTENCE

Kristallnacht (the night of shattered glass) ought to take on greater significance this year. Not just because this Friday and Shabbos  mark the 80th anniversary of what Adolph Hitler hoped to be “the beginning of the end” for Jews of Europe, but it brings with it a powerful message to each and every one of us, especially the “oy vey” Jews who, as a result of a lone lunatic in Pennsylvania, are all of a sudden beginning to question their physical safety at synagogue services.

Numbers aside (close to 100 Jews were murdered, while windows were shattered and buildings, including synagogues were set ablaze), Kristallnacht serves as a stark reminder that not only did the German government not protect the Jews, but it was Nazi officials themselves, who ordered German police officers and firemen to do nothing as the riots raged and buildings burned. Unless  blazes threatened Aryan-owned property, firefighters were forbidden to extinguish any flames. Yet, here in this country, immediately following the disaster in Pittsburgh, community-wide programs were held, including one here in Dallas, where the Chief of Police spoke, and a letter of support was read from the Mayor. A cogent argument can be made that random acts of mayhem and carnage notwithstanding, Jews living in the United States of America ought to feel more secure than Jews living in any other country, outside of Israel.

The flames of Kristallnacht shed light on yet another catastrophe that was very much evident in Germany. Whether out of zeitgeist or fear, many non-Jewish Germans either stood idly by, as the wanton destruction took place or cheered the frenzied mobs on, as those mobs wreaked havoc on synagogues as well as stores and homes owned by Jews. While I can only speak for Dallas, the outpouring of support and solidarity from non-Jewish friend and stranger alike, has been most heartening. For far too long throughout our history, when confronted by the deadly deed and venom of the anti-Semite, we Jews knew only too well, that we had no one to turn to but ourselves. Yet, within these last two weeks, it was the outside world who turned to us! I, for one, cannot help but feel that it is so very unfortunate, that we Jews do not show greater appreciation to this outpouring of solidarity.

Close to three decades ago, Reuven Bulka, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Machzikei Hadas in Ottawa, Canada, published a book about misconceptions of Jewish life. One misconception concerns the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. According to Rabbi Bulka, there is no connection between the breaking of the glass under the chuppah and the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem. Rather, the breaking of the glass finds its origin in the Talmud, where a rabbi, an invited guest at a wedding, deliberately threw his glass at the wall, thereby shattering that glass, in an effort to temper the level of joy that had gotten out of hand. I should like to add yet another reason for the breaking of the glass under the chuppah.

Eighty years ago, in Germany, the breaking of glass signified destruction of a past, hatred of others and lives in turmoil. Under the chuppah, the breaking of the glass represents the exact opposite. Under the chuppah, the breaking of the glass represents building a future, love of each other, and a life of harmony.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Teima, a rabbinic sage who lived at the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (135 C.E.) reminds us that 80 is synonymous with strength. Let’s draw strength, knowing that we live in a country where the government protects Jews. Let’s draw strength, knowing that we live in a society where non-Jews are genuinely concerned about us and Israel. Let’s draw strength, knowing  that we are part of a tradition where, provided it is done under the chuppah, the shattering of glass is among the most beautiful sounds we ever hear.