Posted tagged ‘Pesach’

Empty Chairs

April 11, 2012

At the Passover Seder, we begin the Four Questions by asking “Why is this night different from all other nights.”  This year, for me, that question was but an echo of another with which I had to contend:  “Why is this Seder different from all other S’darim?”

That difference was that this year, for the two S’darim that I attended, there were some painfully empty chairs, either literally or figuratively that in past years were occupied.  They were the chairs that in the past were occupied by the members of my family but this year stood empty.  With the my wife living in Detroit as a result of being transferred there by her “day job,” and it not being one of the weekends when my congregation has contracted for her to return and serve as our partime cantor for our worship services, she  remained in Detroit, sharing the S’darim with her mother, her brother, her sister, their spouses and their children.  My eldest daughter, Shira, remained in Louisville, where she lives and works, conducting her own Seder with her friends. Since, like the Cantor, our 28 year old son with autism, Josh, visits the Quad Cities every other weekend – weekends when the Cantor is home – he spent Pesach at his group home in Iowa City.  As for our youngest, Helene, the price of comparative airfares dictated that she travel from her school in Minneapolis to Detroit to share Seder with her mother.   Therefore this was the first Pesach of my entire life (not counting the year when I studied in Jerusalem) when I had no family with which to share the holiday.  This was the first Pesach since my wife and I met in which we have not been together for Seder.

My wife and I both knew that this would be difficult for me.  We spoke of it as we parted the week before.  But just how difficult it would be did not really strike home for me until I was reviewing the physical layout of the congregational Seder and looked at the head table, at which point I was confronted by the empty chairs that in the past were filled by my wife and my children.  Others would be assigned those seats but of course it simply would not be the same.  Pesach is such a family time and I found myself overwhelmed and overpowered by a dreadful sense of loneliness; one that I carried with me all the way through the S’darim.  One that I still carry with me, even now that the S’darim are passed.  It is a loneliness not unlike the loneliness I felt on the first night at home after my wife moved to Detroit and Helene went off to college; when at the end of the evening I walked through the house, turning off the lights on my way to my bedroom, passing all those rooms, especially those bedrooms, so recently occupied but now empty.

I share this with you because all too often we take our families too much for granted.  There are even times when, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we have viewed their companionship as more of a burden than a blessing – as we yearned for some “alone” time; for time just for ourselves.  But let us be careful of what we wish for.  It is nice to grab some private time but it is only nice when we can place it side-by-side with family time.

Over the past several months, there have been those who have jokingly quipped with me, asking, “Isn’t it nice to be leading the bachelor life once again?”  I, on my part, have jokingly responded, “Not so much so, for in my situation I only get to bear the burdens without enjoying the benefits of bachelorhood.”  But joking aside, without the companionship of my family, my life has been incomplete.  In truth, there have been times when it has felt more that incomplete and closer to meaningless.  For it is our loved ones who grant the truest meaning to our lives and without them there remains a vacuum which perhaps is impossible to fill.

As we move beyond Pesach, if there is anything we should carry away from it, let it be the warm memories of our families gathered round our Seder tables and how we should never forget how are important those we love are in our lives. Let us hold them close and hold them dear.  On their account are our lives blessed.

The Power of Pesach

March 28, 2012

Over 30 years ago, I read an article which reported a statistical study of Jewish observances.  The big news in that article was that while many Jews assumed that the most observed Jewish holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the statistics indicated that by a wide margin it is not Yom Kippur but rather Pesach (Passover).  Just the other day I did some online searching to see if this is still the case.  While I could not find any current statistical data, what I did find was article after article, from diverse Jewish sources, that continue to claim that Pesach is the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.

Why is that the case?

Of course one reason that is commonly held is that Pesach is such a family affair.  Traditionally, the centerpiece of its celebration – the Seder – takes place in the home.  It is not uncommon for family members to travel great distances so that they can share the Seder with their loved ones.  But is family togetherness a sufficient enough explanation for the overwhelming popularity of this celebration?  While it is certainly a significant contributing factor, by itself this explanation is not sufficient.  After all, there are many important opportunities for family gatherings.  If coming together with family is such a driving factor then how come we do not necessarily see this happening on such major family occasions as birthdays and anniversaries?  On those occasions, relatives living at a distance are quite content to fulfill their familial obligations with a phone call or a card, and maybe even sending a present.  Even when relatives are local, they can find themselves struggling to come to agreement upon a date and time for such a celebration.  The drive for family togetherness just does not seem equal to the power of the commanding voice of our personal schedules.

While the desire for family togetherness is important on Pesach, there has to be something more which lifts this holiday above all others on the Jewish calendar.

Could it be the rituals?  There is no question but that Jews love the powerful symbolism that are at the heart of Seder rituals.  Personally for me, the most powerful is when we take wine out of our cup as we recite each of the Ten Plagues, thereby symbolically diminishing our joy because the sweetness of our freedom was acquired at the price of the suffering of the Egyptians. But as powerful as the Seder rituals are, they alone cannot be the driving force behind the enormous popularity of Pesach.  For if it truly were the rituals, that indeed would be ironic, considering how so many American Jews have come to almost completely ignore the rituals of Shabbat.  If the need for rituals is so compelling, then why do our people cast aside the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rituals of our faith which are available to us on a weekly basis, not even to mention those that are daily available to us?

Perhaps the factor that carries Pesach over the top is history, for this is a holiday which seriously connects us with our Jewish past.  It strives to imaginatively bring us back to Egypt; to help us sense, even if just a little, what it might have been like to be a Jew living in slavery and then miraculously tasting the sweetness of freedom.  It reminds us of where we came from; our roots.  We need to connect with our history for it empowers us to better understand and appreciate how and why we came to be the people and the Jews we are today; to a better understanding of ourselves.  Deep in our hearts, whether or not we wish to openly admit it, we know that we are more than just this moment in time.  We are who we are today, not just because of what we are doing today with our lives, but also – significantly also – because we are the product of generations of our families – of Jews – who have struggled to reconcile their lives with the world in which they have found themselves, and often doing so by viewing their lives through the lens of Judaism.  Passover reminds us that as Jews, we are on a journey which began long before we were born and will continue long after we are gone.

In order for us to derive the fullest benefit of this Pesach encounter with the past, we should not limit our reflections solely to the ancient history of our people.  Rather, we should take this Pesach opportunity to reconnect and reflect upon our very own personal and family histories.  We need to confront not just the historical Jewish journey of the our people but also the personal Jewish journeys on which each and every one of us have been engaged.  As we sit at the Seder table we need to ask ourselves many personal questions:  How did we come to this point in our Jewish lives?  What were the contributing factors that have helped to make us the Jews we are today?  Who were those special people that had a hand in helping us to mold our Jewish selves?  How have we expressed our gratitude for this legacy we have received?  How have we worked to pass on these gifts to others?  How will we mold our Jewish future in such a way as to render due homage to our Jewish past?  As we recall the journey of our ancient ancestors from slavery to freedom, let us also ponder the Jewish journey of our own lives.

Have a joyful, reflective, and inspiring Pesach!

Daily Dayenu

May 10, 2011

At this year’s Congregational Seder, while we were singing and reciting “Dayenu,” I could not help but be struck by the spiritual confluence of 3 events which took place within the last few months:  my surgery and subsequent illness, my congregation’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and Passover.

The message of the “Dayenu” is summed up by its title, for the translation of dayenu is “It would have been enough for us.”  The text takes us through the story of the Exodus and breaks it down into each of the blessings our people experienced in the course of that event.  Recounting each of those blessings, we respond by saying “Dayenu!” – if this had been the only blessing which we experienced then “it would have been enough for us.”  But of course, each of those blessings was not the only one from which our people benefited.  The story of the Exodus is one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  However, even as we retell the story, we seem to take those manifold blessings for granted.  Therefore the task of “Dayenu” is to recount each individual blessing, and in so doing, reveal to us the magnificent tapestry of blessings which constitute the true miracle of Passover.

The Exodus was not the only time when we have experienced blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  More often than we appreciate, our lives are a tapestry of blessings.  We live among miracles but do not always recognize them.  This brings me back to my congregation’s 150th anniversary and to my recent illness.

The fact that Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa has survived and prospered for 150 years is the direct result of a long chain of blessings.  There have been so many dayenu moments in the history of our congregation and there have been so many dayenu people – both laity and clergy – who have made that history and our very existence possible.  Each of these moments and each of these people was a special gift – a blessing – for our congregation.  Each one brought to us their own brand of miracle.  Indeed, it was their collective miracles which made us the congregation we are today.  But whether or not we realize it, the blessings and the miracles continue today.  They are to be found in so many of the people who give and do so much and who labor to keep our congregation alive, vibrant and meaningful.  These are our current dayenu people and they are busy continuing to create our dayenu moments.

As for my illness, it has awakened within me a sense of the dayenu in the course of daily living.  There is an old joke about a doctor coming out of surgery, informing the family that the operation was successful but the patient died.  These days I resonate with that joke for my surgery was successful but I almost died from  post surgical blood clots.  Indeed, I would be dead today had it not been for my coincidentally going to the Mayo Clinic for my 6-week post surgical follow-up.  After experiencing my symptoms and being instructed by the physician’s assistant in my pulmonologist’s office that all I needed to do was depend more on my asthma medications, it was the doctors at the Mayo Clinic who quickly picked up on the seriousness of my life threatening condition and hospitalized me.  There is nothing like a near death experience to help one to appreciate the fragility and impermanence of our lives!  We tend to live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow when the harsh reality is that there is no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow.  Today – this very moment – may be all that we have left.  If we find ourselves awakening in the morning, we should recognize that we have been blessed with the gift of another day.  In fact, in our Jewish tradition, there is a prayer we are supposed to offer upon awakening – “Modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla.  Rabbah emunatecha – I give thanks before You, everlasting Sovereign, for You have returned my soul to me.  Great is Your faithfulness.”  Every morning is a dayenu moment.  Life is far shorter than we choose to believe.  All our moments are precious, for any one of them could be our last.  It is up to us to choose whether we treasure them – whether we embrace them with the appreciation of a dayenu – or we squander them.  Likewise, when it comes to illness and the other trying times in our lives, we are quick to discover who are our dayenu people; who are those people whose concern and caring bring into our darkest moments the brilliant miracle of a healing of the spirit.  There are too many people who we take for granted; too many people who we think of in terms of “What have you done for me lately.”  Yet the fact that they populate our lives and fill it with their love and concern, and their eager willingness to help and comfort, is most certainly deserving of a heartfelt dayenu; a dayenu for each and every one of them.  They each are a blessing which we should never take for granted.

May each and every one of us come to appreciate the dayenu moments and the dayenu people in our lives!

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.