Monday, April 25, 2011

Yizkor Reflections

Since today is the last day of Passover (for Reform Jews), this morning, we will be having services. At these services, we will include the Yizkor, or memorial prayers. At the Yizkor service, we remember loved ones who have died. If you think about it, the concept of remembering loved ones during a festival is a bit strange. After all, holidays are supposed to be joyous. Why should we focus on something so sad at such a happy time?

The answer, of course, is that joy and sorrow and intertwined.

There's something about celebrating a holiday that makes us acutely aware of both joy and sorrow. Pesach, in particular, is filled with this duality. No other Jewish holiday is so universally celebrated. The experience of sitting around a seder table with loved ones and friends, telling our story that is both old and new, singing familiar songs, laughing at the same jokes – year after year gives us a sense of continuity and comfort. But there is also the awareness, as each year progresses, of beloved family and friends who once graced our table but who are no longer with us. When a loved one dies or becomes incapacitated, holidays, in particular, can be very difficult. The empty seats around our tables remind us of both the fragility of life and the need to hold on to each precious moment that we can share with others.

But loss is not only confined to death. My family started a tradition in Albuquerque of writing the names in one of our haggadot of every person who attended a seder at our home. Each year, as we open that particular haggadah, we see these names and remember who shared the holiday with us. This year, I must confess, was somewhat strange. Although we had a wonderful seder with many new friends and some family, it was different. The people with whom we had shared pesach for 14 years – whose names were written in our haggadah – while still life-long friends - no longer were our neighbors. They weren't at our seder. We know that we will soon begin new traditions here – and we have made wonderful new friends - and yet, it will never be exactly the same. With every new beginning there is always an ending. In addition, since we are still in the process of unpacking the myriads of boxes that are part of any new home, we couldn't find our own haggadot and had to borrow some from the Temple. As such, we didn't have the record of those previous seder guests written on the pages of the "memory" haggadah.

Even though the text of our borrowed Haggadot was exactly the same as our own, it still didn't feel complete. Our Haggadot had our wine stains and matzah crumbs from previous years. The books that we had always used had been held by loved ones whose presence then filled our hearts with joy and whose absence now reminded us of what once was and can never be again.

For me, personally, Pesach brings another tinge of sadness. Each time I lead a seder I think about my father. I remember how he used to lead the seder with energy and enthusiasm. He would sing at the top of his lungs and we loved to be around him. My father now is facing the end of his life in a nursing home – strangled by the fog of Alzheimers. Most of the time he sleeps or stares into the distance. But occasionally, he finds some spark of memory – oftentimes when hearing a song – oftentimes a song from the seder. The last time I saw him, I brought my guitar and sang to him – when he heard "Dayenu" he suddenly perked up and started singing along with me. Then we moved to "Echad Mi Yodea" – he knew every word….

Joy and Sorrow, laughter and tears – that is the essence of Pesach. Truly, that is also what it means to live life fully. When we embrace all that life has to offer; when we take the risk of loving another person, we know that, at some time in the future, that love may bring us to grief when we have to say goodbye. Grief and love are intertwined.

And so, we come back to Yizkor. By remembering those whom we have lost- even at our time of greatest rejoicing – ultimately, we are reaffirming the holiness of our lives, our relationships and our love.

Chag Sameach

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gribbenes - A Poem for Pesach

Gribbenes - A Poem for Pesach

I was recently reminded of this poem that I wrote a few years ago by Doctor Randi Thompson – a friend and former congregant from Albuquerque. It first appeared in an article I submitted for the Men's Torah Commentary – published by Jewish Lights Press and edited by Rabbi Jeff Salkin.

May you all have a wonderful Pesach!
Gribbenes (parashat Bo)

© Rabbi Joe Black - Pesach, 5768

This year, on Pesach, I ate my father's food:
Gribbenes, Gehachte Leber, and Gefilte Fish*
My Doctor tells me it hardens my arteries
But I think it softens my soul.

I wonder if Pharaoh ate gribbenes?
His heart hardened, melted, hardened, melted –
Like schmaltz
Floating on the surface
With each successive reconstitution --
Thawing, cooling, thickening, slickening
Until, finally
It merges into the mixed multitude
of shredded leeks, onions, bones and flesh that gather
On the bottom of the pot.

Pharaoh, after some prodding, hardened his own heart.
It was he who chilled his veins, sinews and arteries.
It was he who refused to open his eyes to the greasy truth
That haunted him with each successive plague:

Night after sleepless night – he felt them:
The shortness of breath
The sharp pain that radiated
From the back of his neck to the tips of his fingers…..

If only, godlike, he could have seen the blockage
If only hearing, seeing, welcoming freedom's cry
Could somehow miraculously have melted away his stubbornness
Flowing effortlessly into the banks of the Nile.

But then, of course,
We would have no story.

* Gribbenes is rendered chicken fat. Gehachte Leber is chopped liver, and Gefilte Fish is….Gefilte Fish…..

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Burning Books Redux

I read the news about the slaughter of United Nations workers in Afghanistan with dread and anger. That an angry mob would brutally murder International peacekeepers in order to revenge the burning of a book- any book- is chilling.

And yet, I was also chilled when I read about the "church" in Florida that put the Koran on trial, found it guilty of blasphemy, and sentenced it to death by burning.
When I was in Seminary, I wrote my Rabbinic thesis on an obscure book that documented a "disputation" between a Christian prelate and a Rabbi. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jewish communities in Europe were often subjugated to staged "trials" in which they were forced to defend their faith in order to avoid expulsion and/or the confiscation of property. Public burnings of the Talmud and other holy texts often took place at the conclusion of these events as well.

While there is no excuse whatsoever for the murderous actions of those responsible for the killings in Afghanistan, I shudder when I read of medieval tactics used to demonize faith. The Koran is not evil. Islam is not evil. History has shown repeatedly that those who feel called by their faith to commit acts of violence and condemnation are the true criminals.
Burning a book is not equivalent to murder. But book-burnings all too often lead to violence.