Back to the Salt Mines: Seder Dipping and the Holocaust
Here is something that we do at my Seders every year to bring the reality of my mother's Holocaust experience into the Seder in a tangible way and to emphasize the sense that many tyrants have attempted to destroy us, but that God has saved us repeatedly as a people. Here is the story that goes along with that salt:
During the Holocaust one of my mother's seven camps was Beendorf. This was a salt mine that was 1200 feet below ground and was used to build the guidance systems for the V-1 & V-2 rockets shot over at Britain. By the time my mother was working in this camp, she was suffering from malnutrition. Old wounds on her leg from years before, which had long since scarred over, suddenly reopened due to vitamin deficiency. Walking through the mine, the kicked up salt dust would get into the wounds and sting terribly. Yet, the salt also acted as a disinfectant, keeping the wounds from getting infected.
In approximately 1987, before the East Germans flooded that mine with nuclear waste, they invited survivors back for a final visit. My mother went down into the mine and while there, an engineer guide broke off some of the salt crystals for her from the wall of the mine to take as a memento.
My mother brought the salt crystals back to the United States. Every Passover we scrape a little bit of that salt (along with a larger amount of table salt) into the bowl for our saltwater - now truly the tears of slavery!
Jonathan Lyon, Berkeley, CA
Of Questions, Faith and Freedom: A Personal Exodus
Long before I became a Jew and a rabbi, when I was still a Roman Catholic, I achieved a bit of infamy in my parish for asking difficult questions. Why does God value what we believe more than what we do? Why would a loving God create a Hell? If God is all-powerful, why doesn't God defeat Satan and do away with evil? My priest's answer to all of them was uniquely frustrating and unsatisfactory: it's a matter of faith, which I clearly didn't have. I asked the priest how to get it. "Pray," he said. I told him I prayed and all I ever got were questions. "Pray harder." I did. I got harder ones. One morning after Mass I asked about a particularly difficult religious issue. He glared at me in a furious silence, then pointed his index finger at my heart. "You," he finally uttered through clenched teeth, "you ... are going ... to burn ... for this one." Then he turned and walked away. It was the last time I ever saw him.
As it happened, I was scheduled for a haircut the next day. My barber, a long-time friend, was Jewish. She listened as I told the story. "I don't know why you put up with all that mishigass," she exclaimed. "You keep trying to be a Christian, but you're the most Jewish man I know. You think like a Jew. You act like a Jew. You treat others like a Jew. You even think about God like a Jew!"
The only things I really knew about Jews were they wore odd little hats, didn't eat pork and didn't believe in Jesus. Moreover, my family and I viewed all of them with vague suspicion. I didn't believe I'd ever met a Jew before I moved to Los Angeles. Was she sure? "I haven't been inside a synagogue in 20 years," she laughed, "but I know a Jew when I see one."
That afternoon I called five local synagogues at random. "My name is John," I said. "I'm a Catholic, but someone said Judaism might be a better fit for me. What can you tell me about it?" For the record, this is one of the fastest ways to be put through to a rabbi's voice mail. I left five messages.
Only one person, Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, California, returned my call. He asked me to tell him my story. I did. When I finished he said, "I have bad news for you. We don't have the answer." Then he laughed and added, "Don't get me wrong - we have answers. More than you can count. But we don't have The Answer. On the other hand," he continued, "if you're looking for a place where you can ask life's most profound, difficult and meaningful questions- be willing to accept whatever responses you get to them - then do a bit of studying, thinking and talking about them with others to formulate new questions - and have that be a way of living-- maybe you'll find a home with us." Then he recommended the Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. I enrolled out of curiosity. Studying Judaism began as an adventure in learning. I soon realized it was also a homecoming. My questions were welcomed and encouraged as a road to faith that led both outward and inward. They became my exodus from the narrow straights of dogmatic religious conformity to a rich and fascinating world of unbridled curiosity about God and life. In them I found God, and faith. They led me to Judaism and the rabbinate. They set me free.
Rabbi John Crites-Borak
How good is your memory?
Twain once said, "When I was young, I had such a good memory that I
remembered things that never happened." On Passover, we Jews
commemorate events that happened so long ago we can't ever know
what really happened. But we recount them as if they happened to us.
In our haggadah, we recite, "In every generation, we much live as
if we ourselves had come out of Egypt." The memory of the Exodus -
whether it happened to us or not - is branded on the Jewish
consciousness. It has since become our eternal challenge to "welcome
the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt"
(Deut 10:19). And we believe with perfect faith that every human
being is entitled to a life of freedom, of liberty and human dignity.
Not as a grant by an omnipotent state, but as a gift from God. Let
this be the Pesach during which we remove the chametz
not only from our homes, but also from our hearts. And may it truly
cheruteinu, the season
of freedom for all humankind.
Adapted from Rabbi Hillel Silverman
Saying thank you to our "Host"
So much goes into hosting a Seder meal: deciding the menu, going shopping, preparing food, setting the table, making sure everyone has enough to eat and drink and, when the Seder is complete, the overwhelming cleanup. When the evening is done, no guest would dream of leaving without saying, "Thank you." When we recite Birkat HaMazon, the blessing of gratitude after we eat, we're like a guest saying goodnight to God, "the Ultimate Host." But more than saying thanks for God's feeding us, we say thank you to God for feeding every living being. In the first paragraph alone, the word kol - everything - appears six times.* Whatever our relationship with, or feelings toward, God - and whether or not we feel that God does indeed "feed the entire world with goodness" - by thanking God for feeding the entire world (and not just us), we begin to see the interconnectedness of the world, and just how much we have to be thankful for.
Hearing the Matzah
Daniel informed me that he would be very quiet when eating matzah. "Don't you want to know why I will be very quiet when I eat matzah?" "Because I want to hear the matzah," he told me. I immediately thought that "hearing" the matzah meant the snap, crackle and pop sounds that only dry, crisp, well-baked Passover matzah can produce while being chewed in one's mouth. But I have rethought the matter.
Matzah is accustomed to hearing what we have to say to it. The entire service of the Passover haggadah is recited with the matzah uncovered and serving as the passive, inanimate listener to our tale of bondage and freedom, cruelty and redemption, chaos and purpose. The matzah hears us. How meaningful would it be if we really could "hear" the matzah. Perhaps the matzah might tell us...
This is seder number 3252 for me. I began in Egypt, traveled through the Sinai Desert, and took root in Israel. I was at the Temple in Jerusalem, the palace of David, the herdsman's hut on Golan, the merchant's home in ancient Jaffa. I was present in the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Forum of Rome. I have been in the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Alps of Switzerland, the plains of Catalonia, the vineyards of Provence and the Bordeaux, and the splendor of Byzantium. I have seen Warsaw, Vilna, Kiev, Cracow, Moscow, Berlin, Kobe, Shanghai, Cochin and Bombay. I have been at seder tables spread with white linen, laden with the finest china and most ornate silver servings. I have also been in hidden, dark cellars in Seville and Barcelona, expelled from London and Oxford, and unaccountably and unjustly accused of blood libels. I was also in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, under siege in modern Jerusalem and Safed, in labor camps in Siberia, and I am still in hiding in Damacus and Teheran. I have been around, and I have learned a thing or two.
I have observed the passing of civilizations and empires. I have witnessed profound changes in the world order and it beliefs. Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas and Locke, Marx and Nietzche, Kierkegaard and Russell all postulated and proposed. Monarchy and feudalism, fascism and communism, imperialism and nationalism all arose to structure and improve life and society. I have seen them all pass, and yet the struggle for personal freedom, for meaning and commitment, for peace and understanding, for home and family, is yet to be won.
For a while, people, even my people, thought that I wouldn't be around much longer. But now I am in Springfield and Beverly Hills, Brooklyn and Kansas City, Bogota and Sydney, Paris and even Moscow. I am back in Jerusalem, in Tiberias and Tel Aviv. In fact, I am present wherever people care and hope, are loyal to themselves and their heritage, treasure old values and close family, have proscribed the violence of hatred, and have chosen the path of tradition and faith, of fairness and peace. In short, for anyone who will listen, I am here."
Please pass the matzah, Daniel. I will be very quiet while I am eating it. I also want to hear the matzah.
Stuff Is Not Salvation
This article appeared in Newsweek Magazine just before Christmas. I think it still has great relevance and power. What do you think?
From the magazine issue dated Dec 22, 2008
What passes for the holiday season began before dawn the day after Thanksgiving,
when a worker at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, N.Y., was trampled to death by
a mob of bargain hunters. Afterward, there were reports that some people, mesmerized
by cheap consumer electronics and discounted toys, kept shopping even after
announcements to clear the store.
These are dark days in the United States: the cataclysmic stock-market declines,
the industries edging up on bankruptcy, the home foreclosures and the waves
of layoffs. But the prospect of an end to plenty has uncovered what may ultimately
be a more pernicious problem, an addiction to consumption so out of control
that it qualifies as a sickness. The suffocation of a store employee by a stampede
of shoppers was horrifying, but it wasn't entirely surprising.
Americans have been on an acquisition binge for decades. I suspect television
advertising, which made me want a Chatty Cathy doll so much as a kid that when
I saw her under the tree my head almost exploded. By contrast, my father will
be happy to tell you about the excitement of getting an orange in his stocking
during the Depression. The depression before this one.
A critical difference between then and now is credit. The orange had to be
paid for. The rite of passage for a child when I was young was a solemn visit
to the local bank, there to exchange birthday money for a savings passbook.
Every once in a while, like magic, a bit of extra money would appear. Interest.
The passbook was replaced by plastic, so that today Americans are overwhelmed
by debt and the national savings rate is calculated, like an algebra equation,
in negatives. By 2010 Americans will be a trillion dollars in the hole on credit-card
But let's look, not at the numbers, but the atmospherics. Appliances,
toys, clothes, gadgets. Junk. There's the sad truth. Wall Street executives
may have made investments that lost their value, but, in a much smaller way,
so did the rest of us. "I looked into my closet the other day and thought, why
did I buy all this stuff?" one friend said recently. A person in the
United States replaces a cell phone every 16 months, not because the cell
phone is old, but because it is oldish. My mother used to complain that the
Christmas toys were grubby and forgotten by Easter. (I didn't even really
like dolls, especially dolls who introduced themselves to you over and over
again when you pulled the ring in their necks.) Now much of the country is
made up of people with the acquisition habits of a 7-year-old, desire untethered
from need, or the ability to pay. The result is a booming business in those
free-standing storage facilities, where junk goes to linger in a persistent
vegetative state, somewhere between eBay and the dump.
Oh, there is still plenty of need. But it is for real things, things that matter:
college tuition, prescription drugs, rent. Food pantries and soup kitchens
all over the country have seen demand for their services soar. Homelessness,
which had fallen in recent years, may rebound as people lose their jobs and
their houses. For the first time this month, the number of people on food stamps
will exceed the 30 million mark.
Hard times offer the opportunity to ask hard questions, and one of them is
the one my friend asked, staring at sweaters and shoes: why did we buy all
this stuff? Did anyone really need a flat-screen in the bedroom, or a designer
handbag, or three cars? If the mall is our temple, then Marc Jacobs is God.
There's a scary thought.
The drumbeat that accompanied Black Friday this year was that the numbers had
to redeem us, that if enough money was spent by shoppers it would indicate
that things were not so bad after all. But what the economy required was at
odds with a necessary epiphany. Because things are dire, many people have become
hesitant to spend money on trifles. And in the process they began to realize
that it's all trifles.
Here I go, stating the obvious: stuff does not bring salvation. But if it's
so obvious, how come for so long people have not realized it? The happiest
families I know aren't the ones with the most square footage, living in one
of those cavernous houses with enough garage space to start a homeless shelter.
(There's a holiday suggestion right there.) And of course they are not people
who are in real want. Just because consumption is bankrupt doesn't mean that
poverty is ennobling.
But somewhere in between there is a family like one I know in rural Pennsylvania, raising bees for honey (and for the science, and the fun, of it), digging a pond out of the downhill flow of the stream, with three kids who somehow, incredibly, don't spend six months of the year whining for the toy du jour. (The youngest once demurred when someone offered him another box on his birthday; "I already have a present," he said.) The mother of the household says having less means her family appreciates possessions more. "I can give you a story about every item, really," she says of what they own. In other words, what they have has meaning. And meaning, real meaning, is what we are always trying to possess. Ask people what they'd grab if their house were on fire, the way our national house is on fire right now. No one ever says it's the tricked-up microwave they got at Wal-Mart.
Cultivating Gratitude (You can use this reading before singing Dayenu
or use it as an opening thought for the whole Seder.)
Just let this baby be born health and whole. That’s all I ask.. I said this over and over when I was pregnant with my first child, as if I didn’t know how briefly I would savor the relief when the time came, God willing, as if I didn’t know how quickly and greedily I would begin to come up with new anxieties, new requests, new demands.
How easy it is to live in constant anticipations, promising God and ourselves that we will be satisfied and grateful, if only…but there is always something else. This is part of what makes us human.
When we say Dayenu, on one level we are lying. We say, “It would have been enough.” But we know that this is not true. No single step of our journey out of slavery would have been sufficient. Yet, we tell this lie in order to cultivate our capacity for gratitude. We exercise our thanking muscles, trying at least for a moment to appreciate each and every small gift as if we really believed it was enough.
Of course, we want more. We have hopes and dreams for ourselves and for our children. But for their sakes, and for our own, we must also be able to stop and say Dayenu: “This is enough for us, thank God.” For a moment, to feel that we have everything we need. That is what it means to say Dayenu.
Sharon Cohen Anisfeld