Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Days of Remembrance

The last days of Pesach are the first days of the history of the Jewish people. The Seventh Day, although not accorded the status of a separate Chag, is traditionally the day of Kriat Yam Suf - the splitting of the sea - the day on which we actually left Mizraim.

One of the distinguishing differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic haggadot is the phrase "... lir'ot et atzmo..." - "to view oneself" (Ashkenazic version) and "leha'rot et atzmo" - "to show oneself" (Sephardic version). The context is our own identification with Yetziat Mizraim - the Coming Out Of Egypt. As with so much else that appears contradictory within the two great mainstream traditions - let us not forget the Yemenite, the Italian, the Indian, the Ethiopian and other ancient Jewish traditions: if you think it's tough being Sephardi, at least the Rabbanut didn't make you get circumcised (twice) and go to mikveh (twice) before you were allowed to do your compulsory military service! - the two versions of the text are complementary, rather than at odds with ne another. Internally, we must view ourselves as though each of us personally had been redeemed. This is the answer ba'avur ze 'asa H' li betzeiti mimizraim - this is because of what G-d did for me when G-d brought me out of Egypt.

But that is not enough. We must also identify ourselves with Klal Israel - the community of Israel - and this identification must be public, must be for both the other Jews, and for the Nations of the world to see. Because 'am Israel , the people of Israel, is a phenomenon that transcends national, ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries. And in order to carry out the ultimate mission of the Jewish People, we must be visible to the world.

Immediately after the final days of Pesach, we have the observance of Yom HaShoa - Holucaust Remembrance Day. The following week comes Yom HaZikaron, on which day we remember those who fall in the wars for the State of Israel. Over the years, some have criticized the notion of these days. The argument generally holds that Tisha Be'Av is the catch-all day on which tragedies are recalled, and that, the establishment of the State of Israel being of questionable validity in light of rabbinic tradition, it is best to continue to subsume future tragedies with our past.

Perhaps a more gentle way of putting it would be to say that we have suffered enough tragedy, and we do not need to add days of sorrow. We are now in the midst of the 'Omer, a seven-week period of mourning (different traditions observe different portions, while some observe the entire seven weeks); later this summer we will observe the fasts surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem. Haven't we suffered enough?

But for those of us who will light memorial lamps on the last days of Pesach, who will recite the Yizkor prayer, in which our departed loved ones will be invoked by name, is it also correct to say that each one of these should not be remembered? For this is our notion of immortality. For Jews, the dead are always with us. Indeed, many of them are not dead. Talmudic discourse is frequently couched in present tense - even as Amoraim argue with Tannaim across centuries.

There is a famous story of Rabbi Soleveichik as a young boy. Every Friday night his father and grandfather and uncles would gather at the shabbos table and discuss Torah. The discussion generally turned into a passionate discussion of what the Rambam's words meant. One Friday night in particular, the Brisker was arguing vehemently that der Rambam sogt azoy! - "The Rambam says so-and-so!" The arguing appeared on the verge of getting out of hand. The youngster turned to his mother and asked Mama, far vos shreien zey azoy? Lomir gehen fregen dem Rambam vos azoy er meynt! "Mama, why are they shouting like that? Let's go and ask the Rambam himself what it is he means." His mother stroked his head and said, Zissele, der Rambam lebt shoyn nit mehr. "Sweetheart, the Rambam is no longer alive." Imagine the shock to a young child who has heard this man's name mentioned with reverence, his words discussed always in present tense.

But this is how we are. It is part of the amazing legacy of Torah. We schlep our dead along with us. It is one of the greatnesses of the Jewish people. Our loved ones do not die - they live on ins us, in our children, even in generations that we shall never live to see.

There is a story told of the Jewish community in Shanghai during WWII. There came a time when a small number of visas were procured for the United States. The debate was joined in earnest among the rabbis: who should the visas go to? The Roshei Yeshiva were remaining behind with their talmidim - and many others refused to go, in order not to forsake their Rov. Is this any different from parents who followed their children to the gas chambers, to lessen even by one "Amen" the terror and pain of those last hours?

Finally, it was decided that Rav Aharon Kotler z'l should decide who would get the visas. Rav Aharon said: it is not to the greatest Talmidei Chachamim, not to the greatest Tzaddikm that these precious visas should go. Rather, he asked, what kind of leadership does American Jewry need?

This coming Shabbat morning, BS"D, with the rising of the sun, we shall commemorate Moshe's leading us out of Mizraim. There is a beautiful Sephardic custom to pray shacharit on the last dayof Pesach to time the singing of the Shirah Shel Yam to coincide with the rising of the sun - the exact moment at which the sea split.

Fast forward to the end of Deuteronomy - Sefer Devarim. Why is Moshe so reluctant to die? There is much in the midrash about the tricks and the begging and the tears and the pleading and negotiating between Moshe and G-d, with Moshe begging to be permitted to live one more day, to be permitted to lead the people into the Land. And it is always taken as Moshe's stubborn fighting against his fate.

But could it be that Moshe was truly an Adam Gadol? Perhaps, just perhaps, Moshe was afraid that, without him, the People of Israel would feel abandoned. It had happened before - the Golden Calf was created because the people counted the days wrong and expected Moshe to return from the mountaintop on the 39th day, rather than the fortieth.

Maybe Moshe was trying to complete his mission - to bring the People into the Land. Moshe did not lack faith - it was not that he believed the People would abandon G-d after his death - chas veshalom - rather, it is the amazing courage of a true leader of his people, of a true lover of 'Am Israel, who says: "Let me live long enough to hold my child's hand as she walks into the gas chamber."

Let us taste the flat, dry bread of Freedom. The Gemara tells us that we break the middle matzoh so that we may truly eat Lachm 'Anya - Bread of Poverty; that, like the poor who can not afford whole loaves, we too will share in this meager fare. But the Gemera also tells us it is a mitzvah to bring the poor to eat at our Pesach table.

How do we accompany our brothers and sisters in their hour of need? When they need guidance - perhaps just that last hundred yards to cross the Jordan - how do we come to their aid?

Let us remember all those who have been Jews before we were born, who struggled with what it means to be alive, to be Jewish, to be human. Let us not judge those who, in retrospect, seem weak, for we can never know what was in their hearts. But let us draw the courage from the Torah and its way of life, and from the whole history of our People, to move forward and continue to build a better world, a fitting house for G-d.

Sometimes the task at hand is not to strike out in new directions. For most of us, it is a daunting enough challenge to try to walk in the footprints of those who have preceded us.

Yours for a better world.

The ge'ula is before us at every moment.


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