YIZKOR SERMON - EIGHTH DAY PEISACH - APRIL 11, 2015
I love Peisach; yes, I love Peisach – well, I see the looks of disbelief on some your faces! I know you are thinking “he is kidding,” so, let’s qualify my statement: I love many aspects of Peisach, not so much the schlepping of: cutlery, crockery, glassware, all sorts of other paraphernalia and three year old canned goods, with that special label, OUP, from their resting places, only to return: the cutlery, crockery, glassware, assorted heirlooms and other paraphernalia and the same specially marked OUP cans, to their permanent resting places, once Peisach is over. It seems, that the ‘P’ in the OU marking means ‘permanent,’ since those tins, lovingly packed and unpacked, are permanently with us! “One day, I will use that can of gefilte fish, perhaps next year,” I hear you thinking. What’s more, there always seems more to pack away after Peisach is over than originally was unpacked.
But, I love looking at the table, beautifully set, with family heirlooms, those selfsame sets of crockery and cutlery, the wine decanters, all schlepped from inaccessible cabinets and basement storage areas – in anticipation of family and friends, about to gather for the retelling of the Peisach story.
If I were to ask what we learn from Peisach, you might answer “freedom,” “social justice,” or maybe “the right to self-determination” – you’re correct. But Rambam states, writing 800 years ago in his Sefer Hamitzvot, his book of commandments “…..we are to thank God at the Seder, for all the good He has bestowed upon us…..” And we do, for, when concluding the first section of “Magid,” the telling of the story, I quote “L’fichach anachnu chayavim l’hodot l’halel l’shabei-ach, l’fa-eir, l’romeim, l’hadeir, l’vareich, l’aleiy, ul’kaleis” ….. 9 expressions “therefore we are obliged to thank, praise, laud, glorify, exalt, honor, bless, extol and acclaim.”
Over the many years that we sat at our fathers, of blessed memory, seder table, no matter how he conducted, or divided up the chanting of the Hagadah among family and guests, it was he who asked us to rise for this particular chapter, he, who recited l’fichach, anachnu, chayavim, l’hodot; etc, together with my mom; never anyone else.
It took me years to understand, and only after coming to America, that a great lesson of the Seder is, in fact, “Thanksgiving,” because, embedded in the story of Peisach is the obligation – “l’fichach anacnu chayavim,” of saying “Thank you.”
Moses was given his name by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moshe, meaning “drawn from the water.” We don’t know his original name, given him by his parents. In gratitude to the woman who saved his life, the Torah refers to Moses only by the name given him by that woman, Pharaoh’s daughter! The Torah recognizes and respects her actions and implies in this retention of his Egyptian given name unstated, “Thank you.”
Another Peisach example is that since water saved Moses life, and enabled Pharaohs daughter to find him, it is Aaron, who initiates the first two plagues, blood and frogs, both sourced from water. For Moses to have done so would have been the essence of ingratitude to that which helped preserve his life.
His abstention, is in itself, Mose’s unstated, “Thank you.”
The Hagadah, from cover to cover, contains further expressions of thanks, “Ilu Hotsianu Mimitsrayim” – “if God had just taken us from Egypt, Dayeinu, it would have sufficed! – Thank God!
What my parents were saying when they chanted “l’fichach,” was a public, yet private “Thank you.” Thank you for life. You see, my dad was, and my mom is, a Holocaust survivor! We, their children, might not, at the time, have understood this, but as far the other Holocaust survivors seated at our Seder, whom we regarded as family, they understood the meaning and value of the gift of life.
But, here in the country that “invented” the holiday “Thanksgiving,” those two words, “Thank you,” seem to be fading from our vocabulary and even when stated, often ring hollow! People often ask Elaine and I “what American cultural aspects did you first adopt”? Most expect us to respond, “baseball,” “football,” or “barbeque.” O yes, my first car, immediately upon arrival, was a Chevrolet! But, in all seriousness, it was “Thanksgiving,” perhaps, almost unconsciously, because it is rooted in Peisach, Shavuot and Sukkot! However, on Peisach, it is “institutionalized,” part of the Seder, “l’fichach anachnu chayavim l’hodot,” therefore we are obligated to thank, to acknowledge, etc.
How quickly “thank you” is pushed aside, obligations to our parents and others “down-graded,” since life presents us with many other pressing priorities! How often, does gratitude morph into mechanical obligation! Do we not often hear, how children’s responsibilities have somehow become children’s “rights,” or “entitlements”? Most parents give their children everything, out of love and moral, not legal obligation. Should this not be reciprocated, even in small measures, with a genuine, heartfelt, “Thank you!”
Some time ago I, together with thousands, received this tongue-in-cheek mass email. It struck me at the time as not so much humorous, rather as somewhat cynical. It was entitled -
“A Grandparents Answering Machine”
Each of us, has experienced or acted out at least some part of it.
Good morning . . . At present we are not at home but, please leave your message after you hear the beep. Beeeeeppp . . .
- If you are one of our children, dial 1 and then select the option from 1 to 5 in order of “arrival” so we know who it is.
- If you need us to stay with the children, press 2.
- If you want to borrow the car, press 3.
- If you want us to wash and press your clothes, press 4.
- If you want the grandchildren to sleep here tonight, press 5.
- If you want us to pick up the kids after school, press 6.
- If you want us to prepare a meal for Sunday or have it delivered to your home, press 7.
- If you want to come eat here, press 8.
- If you need money, dial 9.
If you are going to invite us to dinner, or taking us the theater, start talking . . . we are listening!
Listening, that is one of the primary purposes of the Peisach Yizkor: Listening to the message emanating from the prayers we collectively call Yizkor.
For Yizkor is our wake up call, especially during Peisach, to say, “Thank you,” to those who deserve it, whether no longer with us or whilst living. It reminds us on a personal and national level, that many sacrificed so much in order for us to be who we are, for our country to be what it is, and for us to survive as a people.
We are reminded that Yizkor is not so much an obligation, and, I’m glad to see so many friends at services today, but an opportunity to say “Thank you,” an opportunity to reflect not only on lives since passed, but the lives we lead today, and wish to lead tomorrow, and in years following.
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald by American troops. I have a picture here of a serviceman, a liberator who, although no longer with us, David Allan’s family belongs and worships here. They are here now, to recall memories of loved ones and their sacrifices in making this country what it is; we owe a “Thank you” to Sid Shafner, here today, for he too fought for the triumph of good over evil and entered Buchenwald in April 1945.
In a few moments we will acknowledge those who gave their all for the State of Israel without whose existence, our lives today would doubtless be very different.
To each of them, we owe a “Thank you.”
Yizkor is, therefore, a uniquely institutionalized Jewish opportunity for saying, “Thank you,” to the best mother or father, brother or sister, child, cousin and friend we once had; or still have, in our lives.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach
Cantor Joel Lichterman
Parshat Va'eira - Mevarchim - January 17, 2015
Hebrew is a powerful medium of communication, perhaps never more so, than when giving expression to the greatest of concepts and fundamentals of life, as illustrated in the Torah.
To illustrate, the word “sufganiyot,” means? “Doughnuts,” as in Chanukah. Whilst it describes a baked or fried delicacy, it is based on the shoresh, or root, of a three letter word, Samech, Fey, Gimel. Example, “sofeig,” to absorb.
The Rabbis of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, describe a student who absorbs everything he is taught, as “sofeig et hakol.” Modern cars use springs and shock absorbers to cushion the ride, these are “sapag za’azu’im,” absorbers of movement. If you live in Miami in summer, you need a humidifier, a “sofeig lachut” to tolerate the humidity.
The Parsha opens with a conversation between G-d and Moses, in which Moses resists G-d’s mission to liberate his people four times. Finally, quote, “G-d’s wrath is kindled in Moses.” Was Moses uninspired? Or was he simply happy with status quo, living comfortably, peacefully, with his family, as a “shepherd in his father-in-laws business!”
The scenario begs a far larger question. Did Moses finally accept the mission out of fear of “G-d’s wrath”? Do you undertake a job, or project, because of someone else’s anger? Can rage inspire change? Think of a Bar Mitzvah student, who refuses to buckle down and prepare for his big day. When you try to assure him of his future success he says that everyone will mock him on that day. Even if you do persuade him to apply himself, his comeback line might be, “I can’t sing.” When he eventually discovers his voice, he’ll say “Can’t my brother just do it again, this time for me”? The conflict rages for nine months, until that fateful Shabbat morning.
You’re frustrated, angry, exasperated. You yell, threaten, take away privileges and finally, the “big day” comes and the “angel” exceeds your expectations. Am I not describing a familiar scenario? Is there a parent or grandparent here, staring at me in disbelief, saying, “not my child!”??
And then, we ask ourselves – “Am I such a bad parent? Do I lack the necessary motivational skills”? And then worse, when it dawns on us “…I am just like my parent!”
Is G-d like a frustrated parent? Why is G-d “filled with anger”? The Kotzker Rabbi suggests that we pay heed to the language of the Torah. It does not say that G-d was angry with Moses, “Im Moshe,” rather that his (G-d’s) anger burned “In Moses,” B’Moshe. “G-d was only able to convince Moses to undertake this “mission impossible” if he, Moses, was infused with G-d’s passion, felt G-d’s anger and indignation, felt G-d’s pain at the suffering of the Hebrew slaves under Pharaoh. So G-d made “His” wrath burn In Moses, in his rational mind, and, deep inside his heart and soul.
In one word, G-d inspired Moses with his, G-d’s PASSION. When you have internalized, or “absorbed” the passion, you can change the world! As did Moses, and others have done.
Each of us must at some point in our lives felt, or experienced this kind of passion, a burning desire, perhaps in an effort to survive a life-threatening situation, or achieve a lofty goal. There is but one caveat.
Pharaoh was imbued with passion “…I shall not let them go…” Balak was driven to destroy the Jewish people, invoking a misplaced trust in the Godly powers of the greatest prophet of the time Bilaam. Haman was driven by the same blind, senseless hatred, so was Hitler and at what cost not only to the Jewish people, and others, whose names I leave to you!
The caveat in realizing our passion is the clarity to delineate that which advances, or reverses the cause of humanity, the moral clarity to distinguish between Godliness and the opposite.
Let me share the following, from an article that recently crossed my screen:
“Last Saturday night, a day after the terror attacks in Paris, my father called to say that my uncle, Philippe Braham, was killed as he was checking out at the Hyper Cache kosher supermarket, just before Shabbos. He was murdered in a neighborhood I know well, Porte de Vincennes, a few minutes away from my high school, and a mere 10-minute ride from my childhood home. He was one of mine, a relative, but together with all the other victims of the horrific crimes last week, he was also one of ours.
Philippe, who was 45 when he was killed last Friday, was anyone who has ever run into a grocery store with plans to run back out in a few minutes, just as the cartoonists killed in the Charlie Hebdo attach were anyone who has ever exercised their right to speak their mind. We fought for these rights in Europe and in the United States, first for some, then for all, regardless of opinion, religion, race or gender.
History books say that we won the battle. Yet, while the Jewish community in France was shocked and shaken by the events on Friday, we were also aware of a lengthy history of targeted violence.
I remember when everyday life in France began to change.
It was about a dozen years ago, and I was not yet a teenager. We lived in the 10th arrondissement, and all of a sudden, it seemed, I had to stop going to the library by myself to get my books for the weekend. I had a beautiful Magen David with blue gemstones, and my mother did not let me wear it outside. My sister and I were not allowed to go in the lobby of our apartment building alone to get the mail.
Around that time, we found swastikas scratched with car keys on our front door. Our mezuzah was stolen. We put another one on, and it too was stolen. Our car was broken into more times than I can recount. A heter, or religious edict, was given for Jewish men to not wear their kipas outside, to protect them from potential attacks.
Then, in 2006, Ilan Halimi was tortured by a gang of North African immigrants; he was remembered by us, forgotten by many others. Cars were burned. A friend was attacked with an ax. In 2012, Toulouse witnessed a Jewish school shooting that took the lives of a rabbi and three children.
I remember the pain, every time a little bit sharper. The France I loved was under attack.
What is happening in France is very real and concrete, and it can be mistaken for specifically French issue. It isn’t. The question is not about French Jews making aliyah or not. It isn’t about whether France should be blamed for not being safe enough. Jihadism is a transnational issue that affects values that we all claim to stand for. The families of the victims feel the loss of their loved ones, and they hear the cries of their children. These were innocents who were cut down for no reason other than what they represented. But what they represented is all of us. And this is what was attacked. By shooting the journalists at Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists shot all of us who write, read, talk and think. By shooting policemen and policewomen, they shot all of us who have ever protected someone. And by shooting the consumers of a kosher grocery store, they killed all of us who go about the life we have chosen for ourselves.
But if we keep the memory of those who have fallen, then the attackers shot at the power to write, but they missed; they shot at the power to read and think, but they missed; they shot at the responsibility we have in protecting our own, but they missed; they shot at our right to live the lives we have chosen for ourselves, but they missed.
In the midst of everything, all we hope for is to carry on with daily life, and in these times of distress, to stay strong and drink to life. Also, to remember the life of my uncle and the other victims of last week’s attacks. And to be able to stand shoulder with the others doing their last-minute grocery shopping as another Shabbos arrives in Paris.”
Mouchka Darmon Heller, who attended Yeshiva University, lives in New York City and works in the field of corporate regulatory strategy.
Heller, Mouchka D. When the Terror Hits Home. The Jewish Week [updated, 13, January 2015] Available from http:www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/when-terror-hits-home
France has for far too long, tolerated the growth of terror within her boundaries, a cancer, eating away and eroding the cradle of liberty, equality, fraternity. Why are we surprised when time and again, the very pillars of tolerance, freedom of expression, and religion are assailed by those whose hatred for these principles that underlie democracy is so profound, that it knows no borders.
We must fight back with passion, commitment and unwavering clarity of a mission whose time has arrived. We must strike back in order to end the calculated barbarity and the unbridled hatred that is beginning to encompass the entire world. If we do not passionately rekindle within ourselves that selfsame “wrath” which Moses felt, fire of Chanukah, the light of Liberty, equality and fraternity, how will we prevail?
Cantor Joel Lichterman
Parshat Bo - January 24, 2015
At the very beginning of time, when just heaven and earth existed, the Torah describes it as a period of “chosech al pneiy t’hom,” “darkness upon the face of the depths.”
The very next order of “creation” business is G-d verbalizing the words “y’hi or,” “Let there be light.” The Jewish people celebrate that separation of light and dark, through Havdalah when on Saturday night the flame of the braided Havdalah candle pierces the dark, accompanied by the words “hamavdil bein or l’choshech,” “he who separates between light and dark.”
We are commanded - be an “or lagoyin,” “a light unto the nations,” so that Jewish values may illumine the minds of all mankind. Indeed the familiar term “dark ages,” describes a period in world history, when anarchy, poverty and ignorance were the order of the day, and, with a few exceptions the worlds population was, unable to read and write.
The eighth plague, locusts, is about to strike the Egyptians. Their presence and intensity will darken the skies and devastate the landscape, reducing the land to nothing. Pharaoh’s councilors and staffs challenge him - “haterem teida ki avda mitsrayim” – “do you not know that Egypt is lost”? Pharaoh gives a little in his negotiation with Moses, but, even facing mounting opposition from his own court, still remains essentially unmoved! His heart and mind remain shrouded in darkness.
To end this plague, he finally admits to Moses “chatati,” I have sinned” and begs “v’yaseir mei-alaiy rak et hamavet hazeh” “just ask G-d to remove this death from me.” Even when normalcy returns, Pharaoh cannot literally “see,” the inevitability of what lies before him. Whilst there is light and the locusts have gone, the landscape is barren, desolate, darkened. Even whilst admitting, “chatah,” “I have sinned.” Pharaoh remains in his own dark world.
Whilst I am relating a biblical tale, I ask you to consider – “do you know someone like Pharaoh?” one so unmoved, so set, so opposed to change or progress that no matter what, that individual is rooted in the inevitable consequence of his or her paralysis?
No wonder that the ninth plague, darkness, is so intense that it is as if you can touch it, feel it! How terrified must the Egyptians have been, when literally rooted to their seats, unable to see each other or their surroundings.
It’s this inability to “see” each other which I fear is turning parts of our world into dark places. It is a self motivated, rather than externally imposed darkness, driven by hate and intolerance, a throwback to the dark ages. Even a Miss Universe competition is overlaid with this selfsame darkness; I know that many of us are beginning to sense an uneasiness that this darkness is encroaching upon our cherished lifestyle, no matter how distant, or remote.
It is no accident that darkness precedes the catastrophic 10th plague, for when darkness plagues us, hope and progress recede. When we cannot see, both in a literal and spiritual sense, we cannot connect. When we cannot connect one with the other, the human spirit withers and recedes into despair and darkness. The events within today’s Parsha, whilst describing physical phenomena, are a clarion call for light program, and everything that they represent.
It’s a history lesson for how not to live, for quality of life does not life exist where there is darkness. Hate flourishes where darkness takes hold, and the human spirit is inevitably suppressed, so that the image in which all of mankind is fashioned, the image of the Divine, becomes invisible and is extinguished from our lives.
Therfore, we are exhorted, “be a light,” an “or lagoyim.” It is our worldly role, our “chosen-ness,” our mission. Even when dark surrounds us, we must, in the beautiful sentiments of the Havdalah, divide ourselves through light, and the forces of good, from dark and the evil it represents.
Next week is Shabbat Shira, an ultimate Shabbat of light, music, and celebration. Encourage a friend, a family member, your neighbor to attend services with you. For, in the true sentiment of Parshat, Bo, “by coming with you,” together, we will add a little more light to a world, in need of all the hope we can offer!
Cantor Joel Lichterman
Toldot – Mevarchim – Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is an American phenomenon, born from noble sentiments and tracing its roots to the very formation of our nation. It is culturally imbedded in our DNA, with scheduling and vacation planning built into the way we order our lives at this time of year. Of course, it is heavily overlaid with the profit factor, its commercialization a bedrock of American consumerism.
It is against this backdrop, that many American Jews inevitably view the events which have unfolded in Israel over the past few weeks. Let me share some extracts from a hurried email, written by our niece, from Jerusalem this past Tuesday:
“Yom shlishi, kaf heh cheshvan, This Morning I woke up to the sounds of sirens sounding in the neighborhood. While I live in Israel and have become accustomed – somewhat – to the sounds of sirens, I have never heard so many before. Was there a police escort driving Bibi Netanyahu through the neighborhood? I got up and woke my 3 young children. My husband and eldest son had already left for shul. The sirens didn’t stop, they were right outside the window…what was going on?
It was now 7:08, usually the most quiet time of the day as the men are in shul and children are slowly starting to wake up. I looked out my window…, at the top of our road I saw police vans, police cars, special forces vans – those big white ones with the blacked-out windows like you see in the movies – And out of them were pouring policemen and soldiers with guns and they were running and more police were arriving and the sirens kept wailing…wait! Where was my son? Where was my husband? They left before 7:00 to daven…..my son studies in the school opposite the shul where all the police were. My husband sometimes davens at the sephardi shul next to the one the police were running to. Please Hashem I said to myself, please let them be safe, no matter what’s going on.
I stood frozen looking at what was going on outside…then my younger children came running to me and I broke my frozen scared horrified stare and turned away from the window. ….. I ran to the radio…Breaking news – 2 terrorists have attacked a shul full of worshippers with knives AXES and guns, while they were davening Shmona-Esray. 4 suspected dead and 5 seriously injured…..Hashem Yishmor.
…..My thoughts turned to the dead and wounded and then to my husband and my son (o.m.g.! Where were they? Were they safe? Were they alive?)
My younger children looked up at me with worry and fear and pure terror in their eyes. I started to cry, I started to pace the apartment…and the sirens outside didn’t stop and the screams outside penetrated the windows and the wave of panic continued to gain force…
7:20, the phone rang and it was my son- “I am fine mom, I was in class when the attack broke out, I am fine, we are staying in the school till things calm down outside, I heard the shots mom, I heard them clear as day! And as I was walking to school this morning a white car came speeding up the road and turned into the road where the attack was. They say on the news that the terrorists drove a white car…maybe it was them? Don’t worry mom, I’ll be home soon.”
Baruch Hashem I said out loud after his call. I was so relieved….
7:30, I and the children sat and continued to listened to the radio…I hugged each and told them I loved them. We waited…For my husband, for their abba. He had left his cell phone at home this morning…The calls started – from family, from work…are we okay, everyone asked.
Where is my husband I thought? I watched the clock…he should be home by now…my mind was racing and the sirens outside continued to drive me nuts – make them stop!!! Please make them stop. At 8:00 I heard the front door – it was my husband back from shul (Baruch Hashem). He had tears in his eyes and we just hugged each other and held each close for the longest time. He hugged the children and then we locked the front door tightly. We were on lockdown. The neighborhood continued to teem with police and maddah (magen david adom). They were searching all shuls for more terrorists…and so this was our day, and we prayed and we cried and we asked why?.....
This, is an Israeli mother’s thanksgiving, for her husband, her child’s safety – thanksgiving, for life itself.
No biblical or Rabbinic formulae can begin to console those mourning the loss of Jewish life in Israel this week – yet, because, and only because, we are speaking of Israel, the following ray of light, emanating from our people at this time, from the people of Israel, places a human face on the darkness of the hour.
One of the first police responders to the terrorist attack, was a Druze officer, a Shi-ite Muslim, Zidan Saif, like many other Druze, an integral part of Israel society. Shot in the head by a terrorist, he was one of the five killed.
The predominantly rightwing orthodox community of Har Nof, where the terrorists struck, is insular, separating itself from many secular situations or encounters, certainly from other religious practices, and often from their own more liberal, or left wing leaning fellow Jews.
Once funeral arrangements were publicized, bus load after bus load of ultra-orthodox Jews, many from Har Nof itself, drove to the funeral, the Islamic-Druze funeral of Zidan Saif, joining thousands of others from across the country, in a final tribute to a Muslim, who died in defense of his Jewish co-citizens, and to offer some consolation and support to his wife and infant daughter.
This is a nation’s thanksgiving for a life sacrificed in defense of its people, Jews and non-Jews, together paying their last respects to a citizen of Israel. This collective act is a valuable Jewish lesson –one of sanctifying G-d’s name, Kiddush Hashem, a nation, tearing itself away from the scene of bloodied tallitot and lives hacked to death, whilst in the midst of prayer, the Shemone-Esray and Kedusha, the very prayers that sanctify G-d’s name!
We are about to recite and sing the prayers of Mevarchim-Hachodesh, blessing the new month of Kislev. Today we say farewell to the month of Mar-Cheshvan, a “bitter” Cheshvan, stained over the past few weeks with the blood of innocent Jewish lives. Chanukah falls in Kislev, bringing with it the light of the menorah, light during a dark period! It is my hope, as I know it is yours, that the Light of Chanukah bring with it the light of peace and hope, the light in which goodwill triumphs over the malevolence of those who wish us harm.
Let us rise and together, read the Y’hi Ratzon prayer. Whilst doing so, in the zechut of those who lost their lives whilst in prayer, or in other acts of terror, let’s add a level of kavana – devotion, to our requests of G-d for a month of good and blessing – “tovah and brachah.”
Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach.
-Cantor Joel Lichterman