Yizkor Pesach 2014
The Seder Table at my grandparent’s houses was one of those interesting affairs. The table started in the dining room, made its way past the wall into the living room and hung a right turn into the foyer. This was unlike my great-aunt on my father’s side, where the table started in the living room, ran through the dining room and into the kitchen, where the kids sat. Now I realize why the two families never got along; I always thought it was because one was Galitziana and the other Litvak…
At Nanny and Grandpop’s house, my mom’s parents, the table seemed to groan under the weight of the Seder Plates and bowls of salt water and bottles of wine and the platters upon platters of food. The table was laden with a stuffed breast of veal and brisket, homemade gefilte fish and chicken soup with dill and soft matzoh balls that my father mocked because they were not hard enough. My mom made them like rocks, which according to my father who actually loved them, could be used by the Israeli army as provisions to be eaten or if necessary as a weapon to be thrown. I recall my hand being slapped by my grandfather as I tried to take the Afikomen a bit too early in the affair. I eventually would get it, but only after an appropriate amount of time and tries had elapsed according to his calculations. I recall the mixing of English and Hebrew, the raucous noise of talking, singing, laughing and of course arguing, and sharing the story from the Hagaddah. The three major denominations of Judaism were all represented and all joined together to celebrate this mix of religion and family at the festive table.
I can trace my life through my movement along that table. I moved from the kids table, where I once chanted the “four questions,” to the main table where I chant the Kiddush, and ultimately now to sit at the head of the table to help lead the Seder. And there I sat this year, with my wife’s family.
They have their own interesting rituals and traditions, as does each family. But one is particularly worth noting. At the conclusion of the Seder, my mother-in-law plugs in the cassette player with a very special recording. They recorded her mother on one of her last Seders at the table, telling stories sharing recollections of times past and a poem. My mother-in-law sits transfixed, the voice carries her someplace else as she listens to her mother re-tell the telling of the Exodus. She drinks in her mother’s words and for those brief moments, Rose Mandel comes alive for her. That is truly the high point of the Seder. And why we need to commemorate those we loved this Yizkor.
For Yizkor is our time to remember. It is our time to reflect back on those we loved. This is our time to recognize how much they continue to mean to us. Often they fade into the background. We are so caught up in the day-to-day things that fill our time. Kids, food, shopping, the house, the spouse and our own selves, just to name the short list. But now is our time to remember them. Those we loved, those who we have lost, often too soon. Oh to have a few more moments of them. For when we remember them, we remember the blessings they brought to our lives. The richness that is ours because of them, the history that is uniquely our individual own because of the way they shaped and influenced our lives. We remember to offer gratitude for their being in our lives. We remember their best as a means to help propel us to be our best. And therefore we remember them as we strive to create the memories for those who come after us as the legacy we leave to them in an unbroken chain of loving and caring.
For a long time, I resisted calls to free Jonathan Pollard. He was convicted of treason, spying against the United States of America. Although his punishment was more severe and although he spied on behalf of the State of Israel, an ally of the United States, his sentence seemed acceptable to me. He was a convicted spy serving a life sentence for betraying his country-that was okay in my book.
However, it is clear from the latest round of Middle East negotiations that Jonathan Pollard became little more than a political pawn, to be played in order to achieve a settlement. If our own government admits that Pollard’s punishment can be overlooked to achieve a political end, then the reason for his original punishment seems to have run its course, and he has paid the price. I do not believe a pardon is in order but it seems reasonable that we permit the time served be sufficient punishment for his treasonous acts.
Notwithstanding the collapse of the complicated formula that included his release to bring an agreement to the Middle East peace talks, Pollard appears to be merely taking up space in a prison as far as the US Government is concerned. So therefore, it seems appropriate to release and deport him to Israel. Pollard does not matter to the United States anymore as evidenced by our willingness to release him. Dangling Pollard in front of those who might believe he matters, only serves to distract the two directly affected parties from the important and hard decisions they need to make. So let us now take the only reasonable course of action, release Jonathan Pollard now.
Soon we will gather around the Seder table and recall our redemption from the suffering of slavery we endured in Egypt. We ask “Why is this night different from others?” This is a particularly profound question for us in this place and time.
We enjoy many blessings. We have prosperity and education; we can live our lives as we choose. We are free. But there are many who are not. What does our freedom mean when there are so many, Jew and non-Jew, who still suffer?
Our tradition teaches us that we are not truly free until all are free. The oppression of slavery comes in many forms including physical, spiritual, and economic. It comes from a sense of hopelessness, the despair that arises when people believe that things cannot get better, that there is only suffering. We are exhorted to help those in need and those who are oppressed to break the shackles that bind them.
We are not truly free until all are free. God’s promise to us is not fulfilled until we deliver on our part of the bargain using our blessings to help others. As we share our prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem,” let us commit to doing our part to help others also reach that profound and great place.
Leaders or anyone concerned with the welfare of others can find themselves confronting a challenging personal conflict. We saw this recently play out in parsha Shimini. Here, the story of Aaron is an extraordinary narrative illustrating the real tension in trying to navigate the waters between public and personal needs. In parsha Shimini, there was an imbalance between the two competing needs and the cost of doing one at the expense of the other was overwhelming.
Nadav and Abihu, Aaron’s sons are killed because they brought an offering of “alien fire” before God. But instead of grieving as any father would, Aaron is admonished not to acknowledge this tragedy in any way. He is to attend to his sacred duties. The needs of the Kahal outweigh the personal need. So Aaron tries to fulfill his duties as the High Priest, as Moses instructed. Aaron is completely silent, suppressing everything related to this horrific incident. It is only when Moses chastises Aaron’s remaining two sons for improper ritual that Aaron breaks his silence. Aaron yells at Moses, unable to contain the emotion that has been bottled up inside.
Moses was so disciplined, that the needs of the Kahal came before everything else including mourning the loss of the two young men, his nephews, Aaron’s sons. Moses could only see the need to properly perform the priestly service to the Almighty on behalf of the people. But it is not his sons that have been slain. Aaron tried to accede to the demands of his position and do as Moses instructed. He however was unable to maintain the discipline of Moses. But when Aaron broke down and showed his pain, Moses was moved and in an act of humanity consoles his grieving brother.
How often are we overwhelmed when a decision has to be made? Often life confronts us with an “either/or” choice. We do not have the luxury of the “both/and” that we speak of in our theoretical and lofty discussions. So often we judge others by the choices they make, when in fact, they often do not see that there was a choice at all. I recall a profoundly difficult time when this happened to me.
We sat in shock in the hospital waiting area immediately after my mom’s death. My dad started to cry. Then suddenly he sucked it all up, steeling himself to the situation saying, “I have to be strong.” And the tears stopped flowing. I on the other hand, could not “be strong.” I needed to grieve, whatever form that took. I remembered a conversation I had with my mom where she asked me if I would cry for her when she was gone. I did.
The differences in our reactions to her death created a rift between my father and me. I needed to mourn in my own way and I could not do it with someone who was trying to impose such control. How different might our experiences have been if I could have understood the discipline my father was trying to exert upon himself. We might have found strength in each other and maybe even the space to share this profoundly sad moment in much more supportive ways. If instead of harsh judgment, I could have found compassion. If instead of toughening himself for some idealized vision of what it meant to be the head of the household, he could have shared his grief with me. It took me a long time to begin to understand. If only I knew then what I know now.