My sacred task as rabbi is to ignite the God-given hidden spark within each person, and connect this light to others through building spiritual community. The tool of ignition, inspiration, and agitation is our Torah, 70 Faces and all, and my task is make Torah come alive (through diverse venues) in the present so it will live in the future. I seek to be a madrich/guide and leader who can help others traverse through the windy pathways of life.
Acharei Mot 2014/5774
- Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
In one word – how would you describe the feeling of
Many people say joyous, and in fact, our greeting for
Passover is, hag kasher v’sameach, have a happy, and a kosher Passover.
But let’s think back to Passover – is it a happy holiday?
There’s an old Jewish joke:“What is a Jewish holiday?They tried to kill us, we survived, now let’s eat.”We focus on the ‘we survived, now let’s
eat part, but the first part?We
tend to skip over that.
Let’s think back to the story – we have the killing of
infant boys, drowning them in rivers, we have perpetual slavery – think about
slavery for a moment.Who in here
has seen the movie 12 Years A Slave?The movie is a true story about, Solomon Northup, a free African
American man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.The movie shows the bitterness of his ordeals – the
beatings, the hard labor, the inhumane treatment, both physical and mental, but
also the fact that there was really no way out.If you escaped, you were immediately killed.The only way out of slavery was
death.Can you imagine
living like this?Eventually,
after 12 years, he is freed and returns to his family in New York.
Now think about this, in our seder we say the words, “B’chol
dor va’dor chayam adam L’rot et atzmo kielu hu yatzah mimitzraim” “In every
generation, one must look at him/herself as if he/she had personally left
We have to put ourselves back into the shoes of the slave –
imagine if you actually lived through it – what is the purpose of reliving
those dark days?How can you
possibly relive the suffering and also be happy?
Our parashah, Acharei Mot, deals with a similar issue, and
the Torah hits us with it right away:
“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of
Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord.”
As Aaron is about to begin his service again, he is reminded
of the bitterness of the loss of his two sons, but it’s not just Aaron, it’s
also Moses, who lost his nephews, and the people, who lost two up and coming
Why is he reminded of this right before we read about the
customs of Yom Kippur?Rashi sees
it as a warning, ’… that he should not die in the way that his sons did”, Ibn
Ezra even sees this verse as telling us how they died: “This parashah
signifies that the sons of Aharon brought incense into the area behind the
curtain” (to Lev. 16:1).
But the Etz Hayyim Humash notes that “this is one of
the parashiyyot whose name and opening words set the tone for all that
follows” (to Lev. Ch. 16).
So what follows?Today, on the days immediately preceding Pesach, we read about Yom
Kippur.Yom Kippur and Pesach
actually have some things in common.On Yom Kippur, we are supposed to wear kittels, and on Passover, there
is a custom to wear a kittel to the seder which is our family custom.
There are many reasons for this given, but one of them is
that it is close to the garment, the white linen cloth, that the Cohen Gadol
wears as he entered the kodesh hakodashim, and so we invoke Aaron the high
priest, who lived through the suffering of the death’s of his children, but
it’s also the garment that the dead wear when they are buried.
It seems kind of dark doesn’t it?
Our people have always been heavily influenced by the
societies that we live in.There
are times when societies focus on suffering, like say, the Middle Ages, but I
think we live in a time where we focus on the other side – being happy.David Brooks wrote a wonderful article
about this subject this week in the NY Times:
“Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of
conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life
is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they
often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We
live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last
year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.
But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past,
they don’t only talk about happiness.”
I myself felt compelled to go to a presentation on happiness
with Dr. Tal Ben Shachar, so I’m just as guilty!We live in a culture that is obsessed with being happy all
the time.Take a look at the most
popular song in the U.S. – it’s called “Happy” by Pharrell
But can we live a life only with happiness and ignore
In our parashah, we read about two goats – one is meant to
be sacrificed as a sin offering, the other is meant for Azazel.It is not to be sacrificed, but sent
off into the wilderness never to be seen again along with the sins of the people.This is what we commonly refer to as the ‘scape goat’.Looking at this is a ‘scape-goat’ as a metaphor,
we often times look at suffering as the thing that holds us back from achieving
greatness and true happiness, but this is not the case.
Brooks continues: “It is often the ordeals that seem most
significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.”
What does it mean to be ‘formed’ through suffering?When I thought about this question, I
immediately thought of a custom in our family of using the actual root for
maror (bitter herbs).
My grandfather always insisted that we use the actual root,
not the store bought horseradish, for maror, and his job every year was to take
the root that we use for bitter herbs and grind them himself, with his own
hands.As he got older, he
recruited my little brother to do the task, and Richie would do it with a mask
and goggles on, and it took a long time.When I ran my own Seders, I continued the tradition – we don’t use the
store bought horseradish, we use the real deal, but I always wondered, why not
use a food processor?
I do it, without the gloves, the mask, or the goggles, and
it takes me no time and no tears!No
Well, perhaps I’m missing something; perhaps I’m avoiding
the bitterness and pain that comes from making the maror.
As many of you know, my grandfather is a Holocaust
survivor.For years, we never
really heard his story until I came back from the March of the Living.He opened up and started telling us
about the horrors he experienced; actual slavery, physical, mental, and
spiritual.When you hear these
stories, you cannot help but be disturbed, and changed, but do I wish I never
Passover is an embrace of both suffering, and of
happiness.We embrace all of what
got us to become who we are.What
would Passover be with maror, the bitter herbs?What would I be without my grandfather’s story of actual
I wish he did not have to suffer, I wish no one did, but we
cannot go back in time to change events – we can only come to terms with them,
and find meaning in them.
Brooks continues in his article, “The right response to this
sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely
religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard
experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it
into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln
sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with
psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and
expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves
already be dead.”
Now we return to the kittel – it doesn’t just represent
death, but also renewal and re-birth.It’s the same colored garment that the daughter’s of Jerusalem wore as
they went into the fields on Tu B’Av to find their soul mates, which also
occurred on the heels of a great tragedy, Tisha B’Av.
Tragedy and rebirth need each other; they must live
The Haggadah quickly introduces the theme of brokenness at
the beginning of the seder with Yahatz, right before we begin the Maggid
section.Rabbi Neil Gilman talks
about why we do this:
“Its trajectory will take us from brokenness at the outset
to wholeness at the end.In the
words of the Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4), when we instruct our children, we “begin
with the disgrace and end with the praise.”That trajectory is expressed verbally throughout the
Haggadah, but frequently, in Judaism, theological reflections are also
articulated in another language, ritual behavior.Here we echo the opening words of the Haggadah - “This is
the bread of affliction...” - by the ritual of breaking the middle matzah.It will eventually be made whole again
through the act of eating:the
first half at the beginning of the festive meal, and the other half at its
conclusion, for the afikomen.”
What gets us through the suffering is holiness and
Brooks writes, “Recovering from suffering is not like
recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out
The Seder and this holiday teach us that the whole and the
broken live together, and we come out different than we did before.
May we embrace true simcha, but realize that the sufferings
of the past, whether it’s through the history of the Jewish people, or your own
history, should not be ignored, but also embraced.
We don’t know why these things terrible things have happened
to us, but we know that over time, they have made us more whole, and more
They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat.
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