19 April 2011


Last night, as Passover began, we made note of the fact that it was Patriots Day, which meant two things:  the Boston Marathon had just been run and it was the 236th anniversary of Paul Revere's ride.  So we opened with a reading from Longfellow's famous poem about this critical American event and it was inspiring to see how many people sitting around the table were recite some of its memorable words.
Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.
He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."
The Israelites went up out of Egypt "armed" as well--not just with matzah, as we ordinarily celebrate, but with goods they had "borrowed" from their Egyptian neighbors.  No doubt there were some shtarkers among the crowd who took what they needed from neighbors who had been complicit in the Israelites oppression.  And I'm sure that there were neighbors who were more than happy to oblige, giving them aid for the long journey.  We know, for example, from the story of the "mixed multitude" that it's not without reason to conjecture that many Egyptians left with Israelites.  They wanted out as well.

But the other aspect of this borrowing that interests me is one of my favorite Passover stories, shared by Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus, of blessed memory, who was the grandson-in-law of Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was the Rabbi of Berlin before the Shoah and went with his people to Thereisenstadt, where he remained throughout the war.

Rabbi Dreyfus used to recall how long after the war, when Rabbi Baeck would return to Germany to teach, his American students asked how he could possibly go back to a land that was responsible for the murder of millions of Jews.  "I go back to honor the neighbor who braved her neighbors by putting bread in our pockets as they Nazis marched us away to the camps."

This story's humanity always inspires me, especially at Seders, because it's a palpable example of how a simple act demonstrates the insistence and exemplifies the classically rabbinic teaching from Pirke Avot:  "In a place where there are no men, strive to be one." 

Distinguish yourself.

April 19 is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  

Among the many profoundly moving depictions of events surrounding this cataclysm are the words of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Rebbe to the many in the ghetto and one of the most brilliant teachers, thinkers and writers of his generation.  Life many ghetto resistance leaders, the Rebbe wrote diaries and stored them in milk cans that were buried underground, only to be found long after the ghetto was liquidated. 

The Rebbe's writings are among the most deeply inspiring Jewish words I have ever learned, and so in honor of the Seder's 2nd night falling on April 19, I share what historians say is likely the last entry he wrote before burying the milk can that would only be discovered long after the Rebbe was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto and murdered in Treblinka:
Have mercy from now on, God, on each of us and on the Jewish people--grant us only good things from now on.  May I myself be included with all my family and friends among the Jewish people to receive Your kindness.  Grant us right now the eternal redemption, rebirth of the dead, and a complete physical and spiritual salvation.  Amen.
Tonight is a night of remembrances.  And as challenging as it us for to remember the pain and suffering of past generations, our insistent re-telling of such horrific deeds fuels our survival, in part, as a people.  It's one of the great paradoxes of the miracle of Jewish historical reality. 

But tonight is a night of song, as well.  And our Sages have long taught that the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt in part because they preserved their language, they sang their songs of redemption.

And so here the Rebbe shares these words, demonstrating his concise and playful manner of conveying the deepest of truths.  The end is a bit shaking--but take him at his word.  He means to get your attention.
A person must build for himself ladders  upon which to ascend to Heaven.  Song, a niggun, is one of those ladders, especially when sung after the joy of a mitzvah and with a humble heart.  Every person has a unique portion in the 'world of melody,' so when singing, turn up the sound of your personal song.  If you do not tune in to that personal melody but just sing someone else's song, you are just swallowing someone else's saliva.
On this second night of Passover--may we tell stories of heroism and re-commit ourselves to carry out such actions in kind; may we remember the pain of human suffering, and re-commit ourselves to alleviating it still, near and far; and may we sing songs of redemption in our own voice, parting waters, breaking free.

1 comment:

Amanda said...

This is great, I wish I had seen it before my seder last night.