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Pesach: A Time of Hope and Vision

Dear friends,

I had such plans for this letter. It was going to convey the scent of furniture polish and new blossoms on the trees, and everything that says “new” and “hopeful” and “yes!” since that’s what Pesach is really about.
Then I heard about the tragedy of the Sassoon family. The horror of seven children meeting their end in a fire that swept through their home so quickly that no escape was possible will always haunt me. Ironically they lived right across the street from me, on Kablan, when they lived in Har Nof, but I hardly knew them. Gayle lived in the world of young moms, and the kids of course were much younger than my kids were even at the time. I got to know them as you did in the news and later at the funeral. As the father of the family spoke, I had a feeling of déjà vu. I remembered the Midrash that Gavriel Sassoon quoted from a different funeral that I had attended. I don’t remember exactly how many years ago it was, but it was probably close to thirty years ago. I was still living in Maalot Dafna, which in those years was a religiously mixed upper middle class (for Israel) neighborhood. The adjoining neighborhood was Shmuel HaNavi, and urban slum built for immigrants from the Middle East in the sixties. Today it has been gentrified; the building’s Jerusalem stone facades are almost identical to those of Maalot Dafna and Ramat Eshkol. There are green spots and play equipment. In its earlier incarnation it was grey cement, barren and peppered with young petty criminals who had neither hope nor vision of anything more than what they had. A Sepharadi religious revival slowly took root. Rav Reuvein Elbaz who was still young, spoke their language, understood their souls, would talk to them and change their vision of who they could be. Others joined him in offering the people of the neighborhood what they longed for-meaning and hope. One of the young men, Eliahu Amedi, swept up by his desire to move on, beyond what Shmuel Hanavi offered moved to a yeshiva in the Old City. I didn’t know him or his family, but when he was knifed to death by the Arabs early in the morning on his way to the mikve, it was a tragedy that brought us together as it so often does. The funeral took place in the central square of Shmuel HaNavi. The participants ranged from young toughs in leather jackets pony tails and heavy jewelry to the Mama and Papas of the neighborhood who could have left Morocco yesterday, to the Americanos from Maalot Dafna and Ramat Eshkol to the majority-those who hadn’t yet followed his path, but were on the way to wanting what he wanted stood there in respectful silence. The mood was angry and bitter. Why did the best go? Why do the Arabs walk through our neighborhoods in absolute security while they create an atmosphere of dread to anyone who isn’t one of Them on their turf? The speaker (if I am not mistaken it was Rav Elbaz) said exactly what I heard Gavriel Sassoon so many years later. “There is a garden in heaven, and G-d descends to this world to gather roses in their full blossom to that holy place.” The crowd began to weep without shame. It was clear that he belonged There not here; and that we who remain have a sacred obligation to seek spiritual beauty within ourselves and in others to follow the example of what innocence and beauty really can be.

Pesach is still a time of hope and vision. Here are some things you might want to think about

1-The first part of the Seder is making Kiddush. This tells us that Hashem gives as special dimension of holiness to us that must be acknowledged.

2-This is followed by washing without the usual blessing. This is to tell us that the potential of the night is to restore the inherent holiness that we all have. We can return to G-d the way a child follows his mother in a crowd – his need for her isn’t based on an intellectual decision it comes from a far deeper place.

3-We follow the washing with eating a vegetable. This symbol too takes you back to innocence and purity. Anyone can eat a vegetable with minimum preparation unlike bread which is the result of human creativity and ingenuity. The return to simplicity is thus experiential! When we dip the vegetable in salt water and then don’t go on to the rest of the meal, it also tells us that the beginning and the end of things often are so far apart that they seem at the time to be unrelated, but all is part of a greater plan

4-Then the matzah is broken. This too is a symbol of your relationship to G-d in this world. We is an open book. You can only see the past and present, and even that is not always easy to interest. DO you understand your life? You must see it as half of a whole. This is the piece of matzah that we leave on the table as we read the Hagaddah. The second piece is set aside as the Afikomen, symbolizing that the future is hidden, but one day will be clear and we will how all the pieces fit together.

5-The main part of the Seder is called Maggid, telling the story. Once you have let go of your interpretation, you can hear the story, and listen to G-d’s story as He intervenes again and again in our history. The basic theme is that we were enslaved on every level, and on this night you can achieve liberation on every level if you place your faith in G-d rather than in the human equivalent of Pharaoh or worse still in l yourself. The entire narrative is about both physical and spiritual redemption. The section reaches its climax at the end when we recite each and every step to this sort of redemption, ending with this that Hashem brought us to the one place where we were totally ourselves in the highest sense, the Temple which is called “Beit Habechira” the place of choice, where external reality no longer conceals its inner core and deepest meaning.

6,7,8, 9, 10,11, 12,13. After the leader of the Seder displays the matzah telling us about the speed of the redemption, and the maror to show the bitterness that was needed for us to reach this point of awareness (not that the Egyptians had this in mind) the mood changes. It is now not just the past that we are embracing but the future. When you eat the matzah, the maror, the “sandwich” and later the meal and say bircat hamazon, let yourself feel the real joy and awareness of how much y our life is a gift and your history an act of Hashem’s love. You will see this as things come together in the future, but enjoy it now! Let the children who are far more pure and simple than we are get the prize for finding the afikomen, the secret to the good that is yet to come.

14,15. And now the song, the praise all of which comes from the heart more than the mind, and redeems the mind from its limitations!

All of the above comes from the Shem MiShmuel’s commentary on Haggaddah.

Have the best Pesach ever, the last one till Moshiach!!


Living with Emunah

Dear friends,

Some of you may have been wondering whether I now regret having shared my feelings about the flu. I have been telling you to face up to life’s challenges without flinching. Then, when facing mount tissue, everything I claim to believe in turns to dust?

The truth is, being able to kvetch and denying G-d’s wisdom aren’t exactly the same thing. Does living with emunah mean saying the sky is blue, the whiff of food cooking coming out of the kitchen says “delicious” and every shidduch suggestion ends up with Cinderella finding her prince? When you read Tehillim, you may notice that this isn’t the way King David saw life. He spoke openly about the valley of the shadow of death, about pain and fear. The outpouring of his soul took him to reality’s core. “I shall fear no evil” if you can see the valley of the shadow of death”. The difference between faith and optimism is that a person of faith isn’t dependent on life following the script that they write. Rain is good, it gives you sensitivity to the flow of life, and to Hashem’s power. When the food that isn’t tasty, but is edible can be an eye opener. “Beth’s” mother is a high powered professional. On one hand, Beth admires her mom’s success and her drive. On the other hand, she never dared ask. “Am I as important as your clients” because to her the answer was crystal clear: she wasn’t. The clients came first for mom when it came to the way she apportioned her time, her passion and her emotional energy. Dad stopped their relationship in slow painful increments after his remarriage. To her, the meal was not only tasteless, it was toxic. It was only much later, when she read “My Mother My Father and Me” by Rebbitzen Samet, that she saw things differently. No, she was not as beloved as she wished to have been, nor was she on the top of the list for anyone. Nonetheless, her mom cared about her, took responsibility for her, and did her best given that her own life had been shattered, and the only piece that remained intact was her career. Her dad will never be her dream father, but the fact that he is the only father she will ever have, and that G-d determined that these are the parents she was meant to grow from. This thought changed her perspective. She survived the “meal” learned compassion and feels grateful for what she received. Many of you are familiar with my ever expanding repertoire of Worst Date Ever stories. The winner (at least as of this year) is of the young man who got into a fist fight with a waiter…… and was arrested. When you come home from meeting your Non Basher, you can step back and say, as Orchot Tzadikim recommends for anyone who feels alone, “I need connection with goodness. I have to learn to see Hashem as my beloved and my companion. Not in the abstract. In reality. I have to learn to recognize my longing for connection well enough to let it bind me to the pursuit of goodness wherever it can be found, and recognize that all human connections that have meaning stem from the love of good.

Which leaves us with two seemingly unrelated topics that have to be touched. My flu and the exodus from Egypt.

My eyes were saying “close me”, my body was saying, “bed”. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t hold up my side of meaningful conversations. I stayed home from Neve for five days. No, I didn’t spend the time contemplating The Meaning of Life. I spent the time doing nothing but having the flu, which can be a full time pursuit. I consumed vast numbers of glasses of tea, tried various natural and conventional remedies. I slept with a raw onion cut up in my room. There was no time or head-space for anything else. What does this have to do with the exodus?

The Arizal tells us that the exodus story begins with Adam. He was made in G-d’s image, but the voice of Hashem within him was dulled as a result of his sin. At the end of Parshat Breishit, the Torah tell us that Hashem said, “My spirit shall not resonate within man, because he is also of flesh” meaning that the spiritual and physical sides of Adam’s descendants were no longer equal contenders. The physical side drowned out the spiritual side until all humankind were deaf to any voice except the one that says, “Take”. The great flood ended their downward spiral. Within a short time, we find another story that is equally disturbing. There was a war declared against G-d. This is in many ways similar to the war that Stalin and his ilk declared against religious belief. The communists recognized that belief in a higher power diminished their hold over the people. “Religion is the opiate of the masses” was one of Marx most famous statements. The ancient world’s war against G-d was similar. They built a tower that (to their way of thinking) would demonstrate human ability to master the world; they no longer “needed” G-d. The result was tragedy and dispersion. The enslavement in Egypt was G-d’s giving the Jews, who still retained some of their awareness and capacity to know G-d, another chance at tikkun.

Suffering in and of itself makes changes.

It knocks the arrogance out of you, and once that is diminished the ability to “hear” the G-dliness within you can be regained. The way Maharal phased it is that the beginning of redemption is exile. The way the Arizal put it, is that it allows the “child” to develop in the womb, unencumbered by ego.

I didn’t enjoy the flu, but if nothing else, it deflated my sense of control.

The good news, is that the next step, the wine, matzah, questions etc. are the map of redemption. Stay tuned for the next letter.



Preparing for Pesach

Dear friends,

It is the morning after the night before here at the Heller house. Although Purim was Friday here in Yerushalaim, because the married kids who came in from Neve Yaakov, Beit Safafa (what you never heard of Beit Safafa? Tell me, you heard of London? Paris? How could you have missed Beit Safafa?) . There was also a contingent from Beitar who was with us for Shabbos. The main reason was that we have, Baruch Hashem a new granddaughter who “belongs” to my son Yehudah and his wife Chaya Sara nee Stark (some of you know the Starks or have lived in their guest room). They made the Kiddush in their lobby, and then had over the immediate families (with marrieds, grandkids and others who are not actually relatives but feel like family, they had close to 60 people) for chulent. By the time we got back up the hill, no one had any real desire to do much but hang out. This includes the under- five set, whose idea of a relaxed afternoon is something that the adult mind cannot begin to fathom. They played Purim (including the roll of drunk bachurim lurching around the living room, squealing joyously as they dismember the furniture), giving each other junk food, and conducted numerous search and destroy missions. We all watched it happen in a post Purim food induced stupor. They are so cute that it was actually charming to watch the show, and to wait until after havdalah to restore things to an outward semblance of order.

And now it’s Sunday

How providential that Pesach begins so soon after Purim. Besides providing you with a reason to eat all the junk before it is relegated to the role of unwanted chametz, it also gives you a reason to clean up for real. The Talmud tells us that thirty days before a holiday arrives, it’s time to learn the laws of the coming holiday. I will take this opportunity to share with you some of the hard earned wisdom that I learned over the years with the goal of making the night you sit by the Seder more joyous.

1-Write out a plan now. If you are going to spend the holiday with your rabbi or other frum friends, let them know the good news as soon as possible to ensure that they have room for you. I know that this seems awfully early, but it isn’t. If you find that first person on your list isn’t able to have you this year, move onto the second one, without feeling rejected or rancorous. That’s why you have a list.

2-You own chametz. Yes, you do. You have to either get rid of it or sell it before Pesach. On the same list, write down a schedule of when and how you want this to happen. Don’t leave anything for the last minute if you don’t have to.

3-You might want to go shopping before the holiday. If you live in a frum area, the scene has all the charm of Back Friday. Shop early.

4-If you have your own home, work backwards when planning. If you want to have the day of Pesach free, to relax before the seder and look over some interesting commentaries on the Hagaddah, that means the seder food must be prepared, stored, and the kitchen tidied up the day before. That means that you have to plan to make it ready for Pesach the day before that. Allow yourself time to do this without exhaustion and craziness. The way you do this is to take off the many unnecessary tasks that some of us feel need to be done because it is Pesach. House repairs, painting, purchasing new linins etc. are fun but only put them on the list if you have plenty of time and energy. Similarly, deciding that now is the time to determine which of your clothes have to go, and which can limp through the next season doesn’t have to be done now. The thing is to see that the bedrooms have been vacuumed or their floors washed, (unless you never ever eat in your room, which to me is inconceivable) and that you change the linins before the holiday. You check the closets by darkening the room and using a flash light to seek out edible food (such as a soup nut), not dust. If you are not going to be using parts of your closet, it may be closed for Pesach and placed on your sold list.

5-Bathrooms just require that you store away any chametz products that you may have there.

6-The kid’s rooms can be simplified by either sectioning their closet so that you put the clothing that they are going to wear Pesach in one section and “sell ” the rest, or by going through the closet and taping it in a way that you (but not they) can easily open it, so that you take out their clothing every night. Their plastic toys (such as Lego etc.) can be placed in a Ziploc bag or zippered pillow case (my preference) and machine washed to unjam whatever unknown substances they have put in the crevices. Their games with paper parts (such as monopoly) are best “sold”-buy them a couple of new games for Pesach! Start buying chametz free junk food early on, so you don’t have to re-clean

7- The living room-dining must be cleaned thoroughly. This doesn’t mean do the windows, light fixtures, buy new curtains, and wash the walls. It means see that the chairs rugs and tables are free of crumbs etc. Use furniture polish not water to clean wood. If you own many books, you can take out the ones you are likely to want for Pesach and cover the rest. If you want to have the books easily available, shake them out (don’t examine page by page unless you want to take them to the table. Of course if you never eat while you read, your life will be different…).

8-The main thing is the kitchen. This is where you want to turn on the mp3 shiurim and music, and this is where you want to save your strength to do with some simchah, not exhaustion. The idea here is to really get rid of the chametz. Get boxes ready to put the stuff in, and sell it (or give it to the tzedaka agencies that sell chametz for after Pesach use for poor families). Don’t scrub the pots or redo clean dishes. Just put them away (or close your regular shelves for Pesach). The shelves and their corners may have chametz stuff embedded. Use a spray can of strong kitchen detergent to get the corners, rather than trying to see if you are absolutely positive that the black shadow isn’t a dead soupnut. If it was, you just killed it by turning it into something non-edible.

9-After you finish the shelves (leaving some for use until the end by cleaning them well and then putting newspaper on so that you don’t have to re-clean), it is time for the Bad Guys, the walls stove and fridge. You may have other appliances that you want to use for Pesach such as a microwave or coffee maker. Ask your Rav how feasible it is to clean them well enough to use. Ask before you clean….. This is where Pesach really happens.
What’s it all for?

One of the attributes of Mercy is that Hashem has compassion for you before you even sin. You may wonder why you need compassion at that point. One of the reasons is that as the Talmud tells you, no one can confront their destructive side without help from above. Hashem gives you the strength to take on all aspects of who you are. Chametz is the embodiment of inflated ego. Pesach is freedom from the dominance of illusion and Self. The physical act of getting rid of chametz takes you beyond what you would ever have chosen as a means of doing battle with ego and illusion. It frees you from the confines of your own mind and its limited consciousness.