But can we live a life only with happiness and ignore suffering?
Monday, April 14, 2014
“What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat!”©
by Rabbi David Baum
Acharei Mot 2014/5774 - Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
In one word – how would you describe the feeling of Passover?
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 Egypt.”
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.” Leviticus 16:1
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 leaders.
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 suffering?
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 suffering!
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 heard them? No.
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 slavery?
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 together.
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 ritual.
Brooks writes, “Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.”
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 complete.
They tried to kill us. We survived. Now let’s eat.