Take a Fiddle When You Are Eating the Maror — for joy is just around the corner

We are heading to Seder nights, folks.  A time hinting of promises of redemption.  At that Seder, the crux of the night is to remember to talk about PESACH, MATZAH and MAROR.  If you don’t, you haven’t fulfilled your obligations of the night.  Pesach is about G-d saving us.  Matzah is the speed in which the miracles unfolded to get us out of that situation.  And Maror?!  What is that doing here with those two – Maror is a symbol of the bitterness and suffering.  Why is that lumped together with Pesach and Matzah…and why does it come last in the order of things?

Well, my friend, it is hard to know that at the time of suffering, but when we get past a crisis, we often do not regret having had to go through that pain.  We often feel that the pain and challenges have made us better people, deeper emotional creatures, and able to appreciate the good times that much more.  Therefore, after all is said and done, after the redemption of our people, we are thankful for the Maror, too.

Which brings me to this delightful old Yiddish song (sung by a Russian singer) that talks about a lesson a Zeide taught his Jewish grandchild.  (Yes, I know, it always goes back to song and dance with me!)  The song, (in a nutshell but not an exact translation), says, ‘My grandfather Reb Yisroel told me…they kicked out the Jew from land to land and he took along his fiddle.  When the heart hurts he takes “the Yidde’le, his fiddel’le, and plays a liddele/song with a lot of feeling.  The fiddel’le tells that life is but a play.” And the fiddle goes on to tell him, “that Simchos [happy occasions] will yet be by the Jews and that the Jews will never disappear.”

“From here to there,” the fiddle goes on speaking from place to place, he carries the song, the Jew in every location.

That is the message, my folks, of the Maror, that even in the bitterest times, we carry the song, knowing we will rejoice again, someday, no matter what.  As the song says, “let all our enemies know, Am Yisrael Chai!”  We are alive, grateful for all our past challenges, for that is what has forged us into a beautiful people.

Here is the link to the song:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WugcDT0VEK0&feature=related

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Also, if you want to see this concept explored in modern-day psychology, there is a growing recognition that there is positive growth that comes from trauma.  Here is an article that talks about it:

http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/ptsd/content/article/10168/54661

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Fifteen Step Program for the Seder – mapping out growth

There are fifteen segments to the Pesach Seder.  These correspond to the fifteen steps that led into the Ezras Yisroel, the part of the Temple where a ritually prepared person would be allowed to enter.

The fifteen stairs leading up to the Temple were unique in that one didn’t just run up those steps.  Each one of these steps had its own song.  Tehillim [Psalms] 120-134 are the fifteen Shir Hama’alos, songs of the steps.  Each step up toward the Temple had a different song and thought associated with  it.

The vision of Yaakov, our ancestor, was of a ladder heading from earth to heaven.  A ladder has rungs.  No one makes a leap from earth to heaven, no one can go from spiritual emptiness to understanding the greatest depths of spirituality in a split second moment.  There are steps leading one to greatness.

In fact, the moon mirrors that concept, too.  It doesn’t go from nil to full-size right away.  Rather, the moon builds up its image, day by day, until the fifteenth day of the month it displays itself in its fullness.

The word Kavannah is often used to refer to concentration in prayer and in following Torah commandments.  The root of the word Kavannah is Kivun, direction.  In order to get the maximum out of our prayer or out of our lives, we have to live it with direction.

As we head to Pesach, if we want the full effect of Pesach to hit us and penetrate our souls, we have to prepare for it.  We have to have “kivun” direction where we want to head.  And then, we must set up rungs to ascend.  Map out how we can progress in do-able steps.

That is one of the messages of the Seder.  We want to get from slavery, from being (in the words of Henry Higgins) “squashed cabbage leaves” to royalty, to the high point of the Seder which is Nirtzah, which means wanted/beloved by G-d.  How to get there?  Not by trying to do a rocket launch into spiritual orbit.  But by taking it step by step, enhancing our knowledge bit by bit, increasing our observance day by day, growing and gaining another rung on the ladder of spirituality.

That is the secret of the fifteen-step Seder, to teach us that there are steps we can take to get to great heights.  If we are willing to do it, step by step.

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What’s the Pshat on Seder Night?

We are told that Torah learning is a Pardes, a beautiful orchard.  The letters of Pardes hint to the dimensions of each verse of Torah.  There is the Pey which refers to Pshat – literal translation.  Every verse in Torah has a literal translation.  So, if it says, “and Avraham journeyed,” we know that literally Avraham journeyed.  Then there is the next layer, the Raysh which alludes to Remez, the hints in the Torah.  Torah verses hint at the Oral Law and, at times, at events in history waiting to unfold.  The next layer in Torah meaning is Daled – Drash, the deeper emotional and spiritual understandings in the verse.  And the last layer is Samech which indicates Sod, the Kabbalah, hidden abstract/mystical meaning to the verse.

The word Seder incorporates three of those letters, but leaves one out.  There is the Samech indicating Sod –telling us our Pesach Seder is redolent with high mystical meaning.  There is the Daled signifying Drash that tells us that every step of the Seder night has deep emotional and spiritual understandings.  There is the also the Raysh for Remez which alerts us there are hints and innuendos to future events yet to come for our people.  But where is the Pshat – where is the literal aspect to the Seder?

The answer, my worthy friends, is WE are the Pshat on Seder night.  We go through literal motions to set all the other things into place.  We literally eat the Matzah.  We literally drink the wine.  We are the actual verse in its simple translation.

This Seder (and onward in our life) we must never forget it is we who often are asked to put the literal into being by doing the commandments.  And through our being so literal, we put into motion real significant deep and mystical forces.  Never shirk your duty of doing the actual literal — for, through it, so much more is put into play.

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Haftorah of Metzorah (G-d can do ANYTHING!)

When I was a little girl, we got a jolly big pumpkin right at the farmer stand.  Bright orange goodness made into mushy nutritious food and pies.  And then my mother declared it was time to make pumpkin seeds.  Guess who got called upon to do the chore of washing those seeds to get them ready?  Yup, yours’ truly, who wasn’t the most cooperative of helpers.

Pumpkin seeds, for those of you who have scooped them out of live pumpkins instead of out of prepackaged snack bags, are smelly and slippery and gooey.  You have to place it in a colander and really work off the goo which envelopes it, separating each slippery pod from its cohorts.  I put up a fuss.  Not me, no way, I wasn’t handling those smelly things.  Why did I have to do it…I didn’t even like pumpkin seeds, said I (though I had never tasted them)…and on and on went my complaints.  My mother warned me, “If you don’t help out in the making of those seeds, you won’t be allowed to partake in the delight of when they are finished.”  “Who cares,” was my quick rejoinder, “I’d never want to eat pumpkin seeds.  Do you smell how putrid they are?!”   My mother warned me a few times over, reassured me that the finished product tasted good, but I was good old stubborn me.  I dug in my heels and refused the job.

The seeds got washed.  They got dried and salted.  And the family sat about sucking out their salty goodness, cracking them open and enjoying them.  Whilst I sat nearby, forbidden from having any.  I learned my lesson.  It doesn’t pay to abstain from working toward the good stuff, even if the working toward it might be not your fantasy job.  After all, don’t we all want to enjoy the end product?

This week’s Haftorah (Melachim/Kings II:6) has an interesting story to tell.  It was the times of Elisha and there was a horrible hunger in the Kingdom of Israel.  If that wasn’t bad enough, just when things weren’t growing properly, the Aram enemy came and besieged Samaria.  Now, even food from outside couldn’t come into the city and folks did desperate things to survive, some of them even becoming cannibals.  Not for nothing was the famine in place, but as punishment for the depravity and idol worship that was rampant there in that land.  Yet, even as punishment happens, there is always an element of pity that Divine Mercy has in place.  The king went knocking on Elisha’s door, knowing full well that the famine was G-d sent, but hoping Elisha would be able to pray and get G-d to have pity on the people.  Sure enough, the prophet Elisha reassured the king that by the same time on the morrow food would be so abundant it would be pennies for the pound.  The king happened to be leaning on the arm of the captain of his army, a man who had a skeptical streak in him.  And while the king took the prophecy at face value, his captain was all shades of a fool and spoke out in a mocking tone, “Even if G-d would install windows in Heaven, you think this prophecy can come true?”  Ah, my friend, prophecies ought not be mocked.  Nor should faith in providence ever be limited by our limitations.    You see, G-d can do anything He wants in His world, at any time, with any given manner and means.  Most times, G-d will use natural occurrences to do His bidding.  However, He is not limited to your imagination.  Just because you can’t imagine how G-d will help, doesn’t mean He can’t.

I interrupt the Haftorah with a true story.  I girl I know called me one day hysterical.  Her husband had just collapsed suddenly into a coma, and they discovered he had advanced cancer.  He was now unconscious and the doctors didn’t think he’d make it.  I told her, “Kiddo, you will do two things:  don’t believe the doctors.  They are not G-d.  G-d gives life, not them.  Your husband will be fine.  Second, you must keep a sense of humor.”  She thought I’d lost my marbles – “sense of humor?!”  Yup, I confirmed, going through crisis is only possible by holding onto faith and humor, I’ve found.  So, I told her to find a way to find something laughable every now and then in the situation.  She didn’t think the second part of my instructions was doable, but she agreed that she believed enough in G-d that she could rely on G-d healing her husband.

Anyhow, she walked into the hospital every day to the ICU with a smile and determination.  One day, the hospital called her into conference.  They decided she was just disconnected with reality and they had to set her straight.  Around the conference table were the team of doctors, a nurse and a mental health professional.  “You know,” they began in somber tones, “your husband is a very, very, very sick man.”  In telling me the story, she chuckled that she had finally been able to find a scenario that seemed off-kilter and kinda funny to her in the crisis.  She realized they were there to make her grasp the fact that her husband was as good as dead at this point.  She spoke up very quietly, in as somber a tone as they, “You know,” she began, “my husband is a very, very, very…,” she paused for drama, and then lifted her voice into a lilt, “…STRONG MAN!  He’s going to make it!”

He did, by the way.  A miracle, if ever the doctors have seen one.  That couple makes a point of visiting that ICU every now and then to remind the medical team that they are not G-d…and that with G-d on your side, everything is possible.

Back to our Haftorah, where Elisha is promising abundant food would be delivered by G-d to the starving people within 24 hours, and some arrogant captain challenges the prophecy.  “Will G-d open windows in heaven…?”  Elisha turned to the captain and sharply said, ‘It will happen.  You will see it, but you won’t get to enjoy it.’ Kinda like my pumpkin seeds.

At that time, there were four men who were stricken with Tzora’as, the skin condition that those who speak ill of others get afflicted with.  The law is that such a person may not live together with society, for by speaking bad of others, they were trying to create a wedge between the general population and their victim.  In punishment, the wedge is used against them – and they are to be distanced from everyone else.  These four men, therefore, were right outside of the city walls, caught between the army camp set up by Aram and the starving residents of the city.  One of them said, “This is ridiculous.  We have no food to eat and are sitting here waiting for death.  Going back into the city doesn’t make sense as there is no food to be gotten there.  Tonight, let us creep into the enemy camp.  If we get killed, at least it will be quick instead of slow starvation.  And who knows, perhaps we can live if we manage to pilfer or beg some food.”  The four set out to do so, and weirdness of weirdness, the entire enemy camp was deserted.  Not a soul was in sight.  The men ate their fill and wondered about the situation.  All was intact, tents, ammunition, food supplies, horses, but there was not a person to be found.  G-d had created noises that the enemy had heard that sent them running for home in fright – kinda like yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded auditorium and emptying it out that way.

The four men decided to share the news with the king…and sure enough, after a scouting party went out, it was confirmed:  the enemy had scrambled back home, frightened, and left behind all their supplies.  The city gates were opened, and the starving masses ran helter-skelter, pell-mell, thousands of them, to the tents of the enemy to feast on the enemy’s left-behind food.  Standing at the gate, watching the abundance of food being eaten was the captain…but not for long, for in the shoving and chaos (think Black Friday stampedes) the captain got trampled to death.  He saw the salvation he doubted, but didn’t get to enjoy it.

So, my friends, as we head into Shabbos, remember well, anything is possible for G-d to have happen.  Believe in salvations.  Trust in G-d.  Pray for His help.  And work toward meriting it.  For if you do, you will get to enjoy the benefits.

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Nisan: Royal Stature Recognized

There’s a story Reb Nachman of Breslov used to tell his Chassidim.

Once upon a time, a prince thought he was a turkey.  He took off all his clothing, sat himself down under a table and said, “Gobble, Gobble, Gobble”.  The king, horrified by this behavior,called in doctor after doctor, psychiatrist after psychologist.  All shook their heads, baffled by the case.  Expensive medications, shock treatments, hours of therapy, nothing helped the prince realize he was not a turkey.

One day, a wise old man showed up at the palace with an offer. “Would you like me to cure the prince?”

“Bless you,” replied the king.  “Can you really cure him?”

“I think I can.  Just let me try.”

No time was wasted on further discussion.  The wise old man was brought into the palace dining room where the prince sat making turkey sounds.  After watching quietly for a few moments, the old man took off his own clothing.  “Gobble, Gobble,” said he, as he crawled under the table to join the disturbed prince.

There was a long silence as the prince looked up in shock.   “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked the old man.

“What are you doing?”

“What am I doing?  Why, I,” said the prince, “I’m a turkey.”

“Well, then so am I,” replied the wise man.

The prince seemed to accept this new turkey, and the two sat there in pleasant companionship.  A few days passed.  One day the old man put on a pair of pants.  “What are you doing?” protested the prince. “You’re a turkey!  Why are you putting on pants?”

“I might be a turkey,” said the man, “but who said turkeys can’t wear pants?”

The prince was soon convinced to put a pair of pants on himself.

A few more days passed.  Then the prince noticed his fellow “turkey” putting on a shirt.  Once more he protested.  “You’re a turkey.  You can’t wear a shirt.”

“Who said shirts don’t go on turkeys?  I can be a turkey and still wear a shirt,” answered the old man.

“Makes sense,” thought the prince.  “Why shouldn’t I be able to wear a shirt and still be a turkey?  I’ll just be a dressed up turkey.”  So the prince put on a shirt.

The wise old man continued each few days, adding a bit more of human behavior into the life of the prince.  Soon he had the prince sitting at a table (“Who said turkeys can’t sit at a table?”) and eating with fork and knife (“Who said turkeys can’t eat politely?”)

The king was overjoyed to see his son “cured” of his turkey sickness.  The prince, once again, acted like all other humans in the kingdom.  He had been convinced he could be a turkey and still act like a proper mentsch.  Sad, he never realized he was a prince.  He still considered himself a turkey…just a turkey doing the same motions as a prince.

Once, there was a time when we were proud to live like royalty, with dignity and lives of full meaning.  Hoping to change us, other cultures told us to turn away from the focus on G-d and to become “cultured” like them.  They promised to respect us and intermingle with us, if only we became like them.

There was a time when our answer to the world around us was a proud no.    In Egypt, even in the midst of our slavery, no Jew dressed like an Egyptian, no Jewish fashion imitated the Egyptian one and no Jewish child was given a name that did not have a hint at that child’s soul source.  They knew it would be tragic for princes to become turkeys.  It is a travesty against the design of the world to decide to live without meaning.

Each holiday in the Jewish calendar has a spiritual force to it, a deeper abstract idea that can be grasped through that moment in time.  We are told that beginning Pesach and for a full month thereafter, a person who focuses his concentration well, can grasp the idea of Malchus – G-d’s kingship.   A person who then “gets it”, understands that G-d is the Ruler of rulers, the King beyond kings, is then annointed as part of the royal family.

Many of us go through motions in our life.  Yes, we’re observant, but do we do it like the prince who went through motions of humans whilst still thinking he was a turkey?  Or do we do it with full spiritual awareness that accessing G-d creates a designation of royalty upon man?

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Rosh Chodesh Nisan

Rosh Chodesh Nissan will be arriving this Saturday.  Nisan’s astrological sign is the lamb.  For the Egyptians this symbol was wealth and power.   For the Jews, this sign was what they would sacrifice for G-d.  All our possessions can be used either way – as something to worship or as something we can use in our service of G-d.

Take stock of all you own and possess.  Are we worshiping our possessions…or using it as a tool to serve the Creator of the world?

We are told, ““B’Nisan Nigalu…” In Nisan we were redeemed and in the future the redemption will also be in Nisan.   One step toward redemption is a sense of unity, which leads me to the next topic to learn about, which is:

KIMCHA D’PISCHAPesach tax season – we give a donation (most common to do it through our rabbi at our shul) so that the poor people will have food for Pesach, too.  Kimcha means flour and d’pischa means of Pesach — we ensure Matzos can be served on every Jewish table.  The story of how Meah Shearim began is tied into this.  When the pioneers who decided to begin settling land outside the Old City Walls first bought the plot of earth to build on, the powerhouse behind the construction project, Rabbi Rivlin, decided to start with a Mitzva.  That first year, before they had funds to build, he planted wheat for Matzos and used the proceeds to marry off an orphan.  Opening a project with kindness gets it off to its proper start, and from that get-go of being used to produce Pesach wheat which funded the marriage of an orphan, Meah Shearim became a nucleus of Torah and Chesed.

We should always start our planning with thinking of the less fortunate – and in this month we do the same by beginning the month of Nissan by giving charity to cover the holiday expenses of the poor.  Being part of a community means responsibility to community.  Same applies for working within a community.  Kimcha D’Pischa you had a choice:  either give or take.  No one was exempt of either one or the other.     

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End of Adar — A Time for Communal Work

The end of Adar, beginning on the 15th day of Adar, in days past was dedicated to public projects.  There were two categories of work being done.  The first was a repairing of the roads, opening of public water-spigots and making sure the way for Pesach Aliyah was ready for the Jews in a physical sense.

There is the famous story of Nechunya who lived in the times of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa.  Every year, at this time of year, he would dig huge wells so that the people traveling along the way to Yerushalayim should have enough water to drink.  One year, his granddaughter fell into the deep well and rescue seemed hopeless due to its vast depth.  The worried townsfolk who were trying to save the girl ran to Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, asking for divine intervention through his prayer.  However, Rav Chanina didn’t even bother praying for her.  He merely said, “she’s fine.”  An hour passed and the girl was nowhere near fine.  She was still at the bottom of the pit and no ladder could reach her.  The folks went to Rav Chanina again, who, again succinctly said, “She’s fine.”  After another hour, by which time naturally the girl should have been drowned, they went again to Rabbi Chanina, who again seemed unconcerned and said, “its okay, she’s out.”  They ran to the well, and they found the girl sitting by the side of the well as if nothing had happened.  They asked her how she got out and she told them that Avraham Aveenu took her out.  Puzzled, they returned to Rabbi Chanina to find out how he had been certain she would be okay and why he wasn’t concerned about her danger.  Replied Rav Chanina, “since her grandfather had dug those wells for altruistic reasons for the benefit of the public, there was no way that any harm would come to his granddaughter through those wells.”

Doing good for the public is a huge merit.  In fact, in shul, we say a special prayer for those who do public work – we pray they be safe from all harms and that they be rewarded for their work.  So those who pay for the electric bills of the Shul, or put out tissue boxes for your use in Shul, or those who collect for the poor of the neighborhood and give out food to those who don’t have, etc – these people get an extra blessing and prayer.  It is important that we try to find ways to contribute to “tzarchei Tzibbur” to take care of the community in different ways –and this time of the year is the perfect time to do it.

Then there were the spiritual public projects in the times past that got done at the end of Adar.  This was to make sure spiritually everyone was ready for the Pesach Aliyah to Yeurshalayim. The Bais Din [Jewish courts] would take care of things that had been waiting because of travel – – judgments that a local court could not take care of, would now be brought to Yerushalayim for the final judgment to make sure these sentences or court cases could be dealt with.  So, for example if there was a murderer on death row, now the Bais Din of Yerushalayim would deal with the issue so that there was no murder left unaccounted for by the time Pesach came around.  [just as an aside – yes, the Jews had a death penalty and death row – but very different than America – here in the USA they can put people to death with circumstantial evidence or by hearsay (I saw him covered in blood and the dead body near him so he must be guilty or by some other criminal saying I saw him kill) In Jewish courts, there has to have been warning and two KOSHER (meaning to reliable, honest people) who saw the actual crime committed.]

On the 25th of Adar was the forced collection of those who hadn’t yet paid up their Machtzis HaShekel – their half token mandatory to be donated for use in the Temple.  Every person had to contribute this half shekel every year.  And if they hadn’t given it voluntarily by the 25th, the Shekel collectors went a’knockin’ on their door and collected the half shekel.

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