Sunday, April 24, 2011

When I Make Kiddush I think of My Zayde

Every Friday night I think of Zayde. Walking home from shul with him admiring the streets of Yerushalayim; the way he would feign interest in a certain building hiding the fact that he needed to stop and rest; his worn out silk robe; the sound of his dragging slippers as he makes his way to the Shabbat table from the living room; his attempted toss of the velvet challah cover towards the heater just before saying the bracha...and then the Kiddush.

So many memories, yet so many forgotten.

Funny thing about life--we forget stuff, even meaningful stuff. I forget the few serious conversations I had with my mother's father; I forget my first dates with my wife; my children's first steps...not to mention all the Torah I heard, all the wisdom I inherited from my elders.

Of course forgetfullness is a blessing as well. Imagine if all our memories were intact; all our letdowns, all the heartbreak and the tragedy still reverberating in our consciousness.

So I forget a lot about my Zayde-- but not on Friday night. As I stand eyes closed, cup overflowing with grape juice, I nostalgically recall my Zayde in the same position chanting the kiddush. Inevitably, tears would well up in his eyes. "Why", I once asked him, "do you cry during kiddush"? He responded, "I'm crying because when I recite kiddush I close my eyes and think of my father in Poland."

And so, today, surrounded by my family holding the kiddush cup in my hands and reciting the kiddush, I engage in the act of remembering. I remember my Zayde and miss him greatly; I remember the gift of the Shabbat day; I remember what is important in my life;
I remember.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chag Korech Sameach--Happy Sandwich Holiday!

Hillel the Elder used to take the Pesach, Matza, and Marror, roll them together to commemorate the verse 'with Matza and Marror you should eat it. That is called Korech, a sandwich.

The bitter marror; the marror of pain and suffering; the marror of hardship is sandwiched by the tasty paschal lamb and the crunchy Matza.

This message of the sandwich can reflect a truism of our own expressions to God in prayer.
Depending on how one couches the emotion, one's true feelings become clear.

The final psalm of Hallel, indeed the culmination is reached in psalm 118. Yet, if we were to analyze the torso of the psalm, verses 5-18, the bulk of the mizmor, all remind us of the 'marror' experience in the psalmists life: "from the straits I call out to God", "no fear, God will help, I will see my enemies", "encircled by my enemies" (four times in three successive verses!), "I will not fall, I will not die".

However, due to it being sandwiched beginning and ending by genuine praise, thankfulness and joy, we can only surmise that the psalm emits the totality of the author's expression. The inclusio is heightened by the repetition of the verse as the prologue and epilogue: Hodu LaHashem ki tov, ki le'olam chasdo--Be thankful for God's absolute good, His eternal kindness.

A fitting ending for the expression of praise and joy to God on the holiday of Pesach as it too reminds us that though the embittered experience of the slave consumed our people for generations, the spark of redemption, the emergence from the fire, the worthiness of miracles, the journeying together towards a brighter future--they are what ultimately resonate in our hearts and minds (and taste-buds) this Pesach.

Chag (korech) Sameach!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Hallel and the Miracle of Man's Worthiness

Many prayers are taken from Tehillim; Hallel is no exception. They are comprised from psalms 113-118, from 'Hallelu-ya, hallelu avdei Hashem' to 'hodu La'Hashem ki tov' in 118. The word 'hallel' appears in these six psalms seven times focusing our attention on the experience of Man praising God.

We recite these psalms on holidays as an expression of our gratitude to God for doing the supernatural, for changing the course of nature, for saving us from peril.

Truth is, though, miracles happen every day. There is no 'natural', all life is supernatural. So why do we get so excited about a few miracles thousands of years ago? Why recite Hallel for that?

My grandfather asked me this question and then gave me yet another profound nugget that has stayed with me for years. Hallel is not recited when God performs miracles in the world; Hallel is recited when mortal man shines for a moment making him worthy of God's divine intervention.

Pesach is not about God alone; it is about the relationship between a downtrodden nation, subjugated, removed from their homeland, distanced from their God; though not completely. Somehow they held on, calling out to God in pain, in suffering, in desperation.

"23 And it came to pass in the course of those many days that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob."

Years later I found some Tehillim evidence for my grandfather's position. Psalm 113 is prefaced by two very similar psalm, 111, 112. Each one is an acrostic, each one offers praise. But there is one major difference--the subject. Psalm 111 is about God--a logical introduction to the notion of 'hallelu-ya'--praise God. Thus we read:

1 Hallelu-ya
I will extol God with all my heart
in the council of the upright and in the assembly.

2 Great are the works of God;
they are pondered by all who delight in them.
3 Glorious and majestic are His deeds,
and His righteousness endures forever.
4 He has caused his wonders to be remembered;
God is gracious and compassionate.
5 He provides food for those who fear Him;
He remembers His covenant forever.

6 He has shown his people the power of His works,
giving them the lands of other nations.
7 The works of His hands are faithful and just;
all His precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established for ever and ever,
enacted in faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He provided redemption for His people;
He ordained his covenant forever—
holy and awesome is His name.

10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all who follow His precepts have good understanding.
To Him belongs eternal praise.

Psalm 112 is the exact same umber of verses and many of the same phrases appear. It too begins with Hallelu-ya and it too praises. But this time the subject is not God but MAN!

1 Hallelu-ya
Fortunate are those who fear God,
who find great delight in His commands.

2 Their children will be mighty in the land;
the generation of the upright will be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches are in their houses,
and their righteousness endures forever.
4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for those who are gracious and compassionate and righteous.
5 Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely,
who conduct their affairs with justice.

6 Surely the righteous will never be shaken;
they will be remembered forever.
7 They will have no fear of bad news;
their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
8 Their hearts are secure, they will have no fear;
in the end they will look in triumph on their foes.
9 They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor,
their righteousness endures forever;
their horn will be lifted high in honor.

10 The wicked will see and be vexed,
they will gnash their teeth and waste away;
the longings of the wicked will come to nothing.

In order to truly approach Hallel one must be cognizant of the reason why it is so fundamental during special Jewish holidays. We acknowledge a world centered on God, but Rabbi Sooloveitchik taught us that we must remember it is oriented on Man. We should meditate on two prefatory psalms focusing on the unique bond of God and man.

Can man rise to attain God's worthiness such that He shakes the heavens and moves the earth? The answer on Pesach is yes. We celebrate the miracle of man's capacity to, once in a while, find favor in the eyes of God and warrant the natural and the supernatural at once.

Chag Sameach.