Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, April 7, 2022
In This Moment: April 8: The Holy Trifecta; The Sixth Child
In This Moment
This week's Shabbat-O-Gram is sponsored by Stephanie and Dan Zelazny
in honor of their son, Jakob, becoming a Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.
Above, see the cover of a hand-made Haggadah, written by Jews hiding in the Ukrainian city ofBoryslav, south of Lviv (during the Holocaust it was part of Poland). It has an incredible backstory that is detailed on the Yad Vashem website, Here's some of it: The Landau family, Shmaryahu and Sarah and their children Elimelekh, Judah & Tamar were saved by the Kushiotko family, who allowed them to hide in their home for a year and a half. Often they had to hide in the dark, airless space under the floorboards without food or drink until the danger passed. On Passover the Landaus were allowed to Kosher their oven and prepare Kosher matzahs (using a coffee grinder the grind the grain). Shmaryahu Landau recited the text of the Haggadah from memory to his son Elimelekh, who wrote and decorated it. After the war, Elimelekh made his way to Eretz Israel on his own, arriving in 1945. Others from the family followed. This story of hiding from danger amidst unspeakable atrocities became frighteningly current this week in light of the stories being told by families just emerging from hiding in places like Bucha, as the Russians have retreated from the suburbs of Kyiv.
The unspeakable horrors of Bucha will now rest alongside a growing list of places where atrocities have challenged our abilities to take it all in, and to respond. It's hard to go on with "business as usual," and in fact, even our celebration of "Encanto" on Friday takes on added significance in light of these horrors. Cantor Kaplan and I will still bring a sense of lightness and joy to the service, but we also may speculate on that fine line that separates an "enchanted" home from one that is cursed. How can one even think of returning home when your entire city has been decimated? It so happens that that very theme is broached in this week's portion of Metzorah, which discusses homes where the structure itself is "sick."
That's precisely what happens to the magical Casa Madrigal in "Encanto." There's lots more to talk about (and one person we won't talk about) than the cursed house. It turns out there's a lot that's Jewish about the film, including the name Madrigal itself. The name may have originated among Spanish Jews who converted during the Inquisition. And even if the family does not have Jewish roots, it's a very Jewish story, one familiar to all of us. So let's sing some great songs and join in exploring this new filmmaking phenomenon that reminded us what we love so much about Disney - as if there would be a need to defend Disney these days! ;)
Lots of other things going on over the coming week. I'm participating in a state-wideclimate justice panel on Monday, and don't forget to register for our free Zoom Seder on the first night next Friday, an excellent way to augment your family Seder. We'll get you through the first part, and then at 8 you are on your own to eat, schmooze and finish up.
A special Mazal Tov to Jakob Zelazny and family on his Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning. Also, a reminder that since we won't have services next Friday on the first night of Pesach, this Friday I'll be reading the yahrzeit lists for both weeks.
The Holy Trifecta
This coming week will mark a rare confluence of holy days for the three Abrahamic faiths. While Easter and Passover often align, the month of Ramadan shifts through the seasons. This year, for the first time since 1991, Ramadan will coincide with Passover and the Christian Holy Week to produce that unusual spiritual trifecta. Last year we came close, but missed out by a few days. Passover can begin anywhere from March 25-April 21and Easter has a similar range, occurring between March 22 and April 25. This year the first Passover Seder takes place on the evening of April 15, smack in the middle of Ramadan, and Easter falls on April 17. The Orthodox Easter, which follows a different calendar, this year falls on April 24.
The coexistence advocacy group Preemptive Love wrote of last year's near-confluence:
"May the convergence of Passover, Easter, and Ramadan remind us that we really do belong to each other, that our diversity is part of what makes us, us. That there is room at the table for us all."
But this year, that convergence is actually happening. Ironically, the same very full calendar that brings these simultaneous celebrations has prevented our local faith communities from finding time to gather in person to commemorate the moment, so we are marking it here, in writing.
My friend Dr. Kareem Adeeb, longtime Imam at the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies and Chairman of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, shares his thoughts:
"This is a unique opportunity to show the affinity among the three Abrahamic faiths and the fact that we are thankful to our Creator, each faith in its own way, but having the same goal and objective: recognizing that as God’s creation we are equal in His Eyes and entrusted with spreading affection, affinity and respect for each other."
And my friend Rev. Mark Lingle,Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut, adds:
"As the holy month of Ramadan in Islam, the week of Passover in Judaism, and Holy Week in Christianity coincide this week, we have a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the diversity of faith and the interconnection of our faiths. Each of our traditions honors and gives thanks to God for life, creation, freedom, and community. The fact that our prayers are spoken differently does not diminish one or the other. Rather, this diversity of expression embodies the variety that God embedded in creation itself. We celebrate each other's tradition as we observe our particular holy days. As we do, we recognize how similar we are--human and child of God--so that our work in this world should not be done alone. Rather, we come together drawing on the heart of our respective traditions to see the spark of the Holy in others, to work for justice for all people, particularly those marginalized by society and our systems, and to love as we are loved."
I share my colleagues' anticipation of this sacred amalgamation, which presents us with diversity at its finest and stands as a symbol of hope for brighter days. In the past, these commemorations have often unfortunately spurred hatred, drumming up conspiracies, decrees and pogroms. But this year, we thirst for peace and understanding. In Jerusalem, for example, despite a recent uptick in violence, Jews, Christian and Muslim leaders are working together to tamp down tensions. The past two years have seen festive celebrations on all sides marred by war and the pandemic. No one wants that to happen again, and this year's confluence only intensifies that call.
So let the next fortnight be our common Sabbath, our joint pause amidst the chaos, so that Abrahamic people of faith everywhere might take stock of the common roots of our salvation narratives, even as our stories have branched off in diverse directions. We may be chanting from different hymnals and eating different foods (hold the ham, please; but here, have a piece of matzah!), but we're all chanting songs of salvation and we'll all be eating much too much (at least after dark), with our families gathered around the table.
So much has brought us together in common cause these past few weeks, particularly in rallying behind our neighbors in Ukraine. Now, over these comings days, let's be inspired by our stories of hope, so that we might gain strength for the hard work ahead.
Happy Ram-East-Over to everyone!
The Sixth Child
This Passover, Children will ask about Ukraine.
In light of Bucha, what do we tell them?
That we must never avert our eyes.
The Passover Haggadah speaks of Four Children who ask about the Exodus from Egypt. Back in the late 20th century, Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg suggested that we add a Fifth Child, the one who did not survive the Holocaust. Perhaps now there is a sixth. This post-Holocaust child is alive and well and sitting at our Seders, eager to understand how something that happened eight decades ago affects their own life, and how that very real event could possibly be squared with the story of Moses, the plagues, the miracles of Sinai and a supposedly omniscient God.
“What meaning can this Seder have,” this Sixth Child asks, “in a world that’s seen such unbounded evil?”
Next week, as Jews sit down to Seders across the world, the Sixth Child will ask most urgently about Ukraine, and how the world could allow genocide to happen yet again. We have no choice but to answer them, and to teach them that they were born to be witnesses to the crime of genocide wherever it occurs. And then we must proceed to tell the story, of a Russian Pharaoh so evil that he tried to murder an entire country.
Our answer, ultimately, must be that, as much as we wish to change the channel from the horrors we are seeing, we must never avert our eyes.
We’ll still sing and schmooze and snack on sweet haroset. We’ll dance and laugh and hide the afikomen, and once again strain to rise from eight decades of shiva and turn Hitler’s demise into a more lasting victory for humankind. But this year’s Seders will be dead serious, as we shuttle in time from the embattled academiesof Bnai Brak to the bunkers of Kharkiv . Conceding that we can no longer count on divine assistance to settle disputes—and in fact bowing to the knowledge that it is downright dangerous to see divine purpose in the course of international events—we’ll roll up our sleeves and begin melding swords into plowshares on our own. But we’ll concede, as Ukraine has taught us, that sometimes the plowshares have to be repurposed into old Soviet tanks first.
“About two decades ago, when my oldest son was three, his pre-school commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day as it did every year. My son did not understand much of what he was told, and he came home confused and frightened. “Dad, what are Nazis? What did they do? Why did they do it?” And I did not want to tell him. I, who had grown up amid the silence and fragmented whispers that had filled me with so many fears and nightmares, who had written a book about a boy who almost loses his mind because of his parents’ silence, suddenly understood my parents and my friends’ parents who chose to be mute.
“I felt that if I told him, if I even so much as cautiously alluded to what had happened over there, something in the purity of my three-year-old son would be polluted; that from the moment such possibilities of cruelty were formulated in his childlike, innocent consciousness, he would never again be the same child.”
The child must be told. There is a time for speech and a time for silence, a time for cryptic, fragmented whispers—and a time to openly explain precisely why it is so important for us to become living witnesses. That requires, at least for teens on up, a curated but-not-too-edited viewing of the scenes from Bucha.
For Jews, the most repeated verse of the Torah is the one from Deuteronomy 6known as the Sh’ma:
Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!
When you look in a Torah scroll at this sentence, one thing becomes immediately clear, even to a person who does not read Hebrew. Two letters are larger than the rest, the final letters of the word Sh’ma and Echad—the ayin and the daled.
Commentators have speculated that the reason for the two enlarged letters is that when you put the ayin and daled together, you get the word “Ayd.” Witness. There is something about the Sh’ma that calls on each of us to bear witness.
Unlike most Hebrew blessings, there is no place to say “Amen” after the Sh’ma. Typically, if we respond “Amen” we have fulfilled the responsibility of saying that prayer. Not so with the Sh’ma. Each person must actively recite it, usually in full voice, so that we can hear ourselves affirming divine unity, each of us bearing witness to it on our own.
Amen is what bystanders say. Amen is the polite applause after a chamber concert. Amen is the nod of agreement after a sermon or the broad smile after a bar mitzvah speech. Amen is clicking “like” on Facebook.
Amen is what spectators do. The Sh’ma is for witnesses.
And so is the Seder.
“We were all slaves to Pharoah in Egypt” is the chant recited right after the child asks the Four Questions. We not only bear witness to the suffering of our ancestors; we become them. We are Rabbi Akiva, burned at the stake in the first century, with the Sh’ma on his lips. We are the martyrs of the First Crusade in 1096, the victims of the Spanish Inquisition, the Czarist pogroms and the Holocaust. And in recent decades, we are witnesses to people from all backgrounds who have borne the brunt of genocidal terror, from Cambodia and Rwanda to Syria and Srebrenica. All were slaves to Pharaoh.
When we respond to the Sixth Child who asks about Bucha and Mariupol and the six million refugees (internal and external), with the scripted reply, “We were slaves in the land of Egypt,” we’ll be bearing witness to the trials and the triumphs, the courage as well as their unbearable suffering, of our brothers Moses and Volodymyr. We’ll be saying, for all to hear, that their story has become our story. Ukraine’s suffering is our own.
How Individual People Can Most Help Ukraine - The Atlantic One way to try to maximize your helpfulness is to look to the principles of effective altruism, a philosophy of doing good that’s focused on funneling time and money to where they’ll have the most impact. A framework that effective altruists sometimes use to consider their priorities is grading problems on three criteria: importance (or “scale”), tractability (or “solvability”), and neglectedness.
Who Defines Russia’s Atrocities in Bucha? - The Atlantic - After Bucha, a debate will consume editorial pages: Is Russia committing genocide in Ukraine? Diplomats and politicians will be compelled to answer that question. Rather than wringing their hands about whether the events meet a legalistic definition enshrined in United Nations agreements, they should cite the Human Rights Watch report on alleged atrocities. A 31-year-old woman, it says, was raped by a Russian soldier, who threatened the life of her 5-year-old daughter; the invaders gunned down a mother and her 14-year-old child as they ran from a grenade thrown into their basement shelter. Or they should invoke the toll of Bucha: bodies, wrapped in black bags, piled like firewood into the back of a van collecting the corpses from the streets. Two months ago, these were human beings, living perfectly suburban lives. Whether this constitutes genocide hardly matters when it is precisely evil.
Last Tuesday was the final session of our "New Jewish Canon" class, this time discussing key works by Telushkin, Ochs, Hyman, Sarna, Freedman and the Artscroll Siddur. We focused on what has changed over the past half century in Jewish prayer and education. What would be the core curriculum for the "literate Jew?" At the end, we assessed where American Jewry is headed. Should we be optimistic or pessimistic? Click on video to the left to watch the session.