Pesach Yizkor – April 6, 2019
Rabbi Joe Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
Pesach always has been my favorite holiday. No – I don’t like eating matzah. By the end the 4th day, I usually find myself dreaming about pizza and pasta. What is most special about pesach is not merely gastronomical (although I do love Green Chile Matzah Balls – something I picked up after 14 years in New Mexico). Pesach is about memory. It’s about tradition – the way we come together, tell an ancient story about rebirth and renewal and simultaneously holding on to ancient traditions that bind us together. Pesach is as much about family recipes, personalities around the Seder table, love and laughter as it is about the powerful story of redemption and freedom that we retell every year.
But, as we grow older, we realize that Pesach – and other important occasions as well – are also about loss. It’s impossible for me to go to or lead a Seder without remembering my parents, grandparents and dear family friends who used to sing, laugh, cook for us and eat with us – and who now exist only in fond and fading memories. When I sing Chad Gadya, for example, it is the voice of my father who guides me. When I cook Chicken soup for the Seder, I try to make it taste like my Grandmother used to make it – and I always fall short. And, inevitably it hits me: my memories of pesach propel me to ensure that I create new memories for my children, family and friends, so that they, too can share the legacy of love and caring that shape their connection to Judaism and tradition.
There comes a time in each of our lives when we are suddenly thrust into awareness that a baton has been passed – that we are the ones responsible for telling the story to the next generation – the story that was told to us by our parents and grandparents – and that they, in turn, inherited from those who came before them.
Sometimes this awareness comes gradually. Other times it is sudden, jolting and disruptive. This past week, as I was preparing to host my own Seder, for some reason, I was suddenly transported to the day that I learned that my father died. It was November, 2011. My phone rang. My sister, Nina was calling. I picked up the phone and heard the words: “Daddy’s gone.” At that moment, everything changed. I remember telling someone: “I need to go home – my father just died.”
Saying those words, “My Father just died,” seemed surreal. Impossible. I didn’t cry right away – although many tears were shed in the days and weeks that followed. I managed to hold it together and drive home – although, in hindsight, I probably should not have gotten behind the wheel. I remember looking at other people and thinking to myself: “These people are oblivious. They are going about their daily lives. They are experiencing joys and frustrations, but they still have a father – I don’t.”
Everything changed at that moment.
But the truth is, we have no idea what traumas and tragedies people are experiencing at any given moment. Each person’s loss is unique – but it is also universal. Those of us who have been blessed with relatively painless lives cannot conceive of others’ suffering until we are suddenly thrust into the abyss of loss. Most of us have been there. Most of us were not prepared. Maybe that’s yet another function of Pesach. The Book of Exodus teaches us that the Israelites left Egypt in haste – eating Matzah because there was no time for bread dough to rise. Matzah is not only the bread of affliction, it is also the bread of overnight transformation. On the eve of the Exodus, our ancient ancestors were suddenly thrust into a new reality. They had little, if any time to prepare. Matzah is messy – each year when we open our haggadot, the stale crumbs of last year’s Seder fall into our hands. Each crumb can be seen as a memory. Each speck of last year’s festivities remind us of just how fragile life is. Love and loss are intertwined. Memories, like matza crumbs, get nestled into the nooks and crannies of our life-stories and appear, without warning, when we least expect them. Sometimes they are welcome guests. Other times, they force us to relive the traumas that reshaped our lives in an instant.
When someone precious is taken away from us, we are bequeathed with both a gift and a responsibility. The gift, as painful as it can be to receive, is the opportunity to cherish the memories and the love that has been bestowed upon us. The responsibility is to share them with others and ensure that they will be passed on to the next generation.
On Pesach we celebrate rebirth and renewal. We give thanks for new beginnings and new life – even as we feel the pangs of our loss.
I want to conclude with a poem that I wrote about my father, shortly before he died.
My Father Has Hazel Eyes
My Father has hazel eyes.
I’d like to think when he was younger
He could see a world of wonders
With an emerald sheen
The hardship and the hope
The need to fight or cope
With a panoply of lies.
My father’s skin is smooth
Though easily bruised.
He stares into a distant
Seeing. Not seeing.
Being . Not being.
Perhaps recalling for an instant
When legs and lips and loins competing
Jingling pocket sounds completing
A trajectory of mine.
My father, always singing
(Telling me that he was there).
With ancient rhythms mingling
Through our home and in the air.
His laughter pierced the sadness
His anger deep below
His love was filled with gladness
And his heart did overflow
His hopes lay in his offspring
And his dreams were locked up tight
With every day an offering
Whistling praises in the night.
My father’s voice is gone now
Like a winter’s lawn now
Or a debt repaid
Or a bed unmade
Waiting to be stripped
A hand that’s lost its grip
On the world that spins around him
Or the people that surround him
Preparing their goodbyes.
My son has hazel eyes.
He sees with intuition,
A clarity of vision
Searching hard for things that matter
Amidst the riffraff and the chatter
In the greenish hues of spring
In the songs he loves to sing
And every day a new surprise.