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
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.