As My Mother Disappears Before My Eyes

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As my mother nears her 98th birthday in June, the dementia that has consumed her brain is taking more and more of her away. It’s as if there’s been an invasion of a body snatcher.

My mother is, on the one hand, still there. She sounds, smells and feels the same. But increasingly, she has entered into oblivion.

In my last three visits, she didn’t know who I was – I, her son of 65 years.

In my visits these days, I try and discover where she is and what she thinks about and remembers. I’m no longer asking her if she knows who I am. She may indeed know, but I don’t think she easily remembers my name.

One of the tragedies of advancing dementia is the utter isolation that sufferers progressively experience as they move through the fog left by lost memory. It’s also difficult and painful for us who love them because we can’t help but grieve as we watch them disappear.

My mother’s world has become so very small. She had always lived an active and fully engaged life invigorated by family, friends, people, Jewish community, causes, and ideas. Then, she began to forget things. She couldn’t find the words that had once flowed so easily past her lips. She couldn’t recall the memories that made her who she was and defined her world. She didn’t know the names of the people she loved. And she couldn’t recognize anyone in the room.

My mother has always been exceptionally verbal, and though she still talks up a storm, her words are nearly impossible for me to understand, and I know her better than most people.

I’ve asked myself what is actually left, what remains of all that she was, learned and knew. Thankfully, certain things haven’t yet left her. She retains her essential sweetness, gentleness, kindness, generosity, and joy when she looks into my face and has some recognition that I’m an important and familiar person to her, but I wonder what the content of the familiarity is.

For those who suffer with dementia, it’s as if the life cycle has been reversed. They undergo a great unlearning, an unmaking of themselves, a reversion to a uncluttered brain – but this time, the mind is shutting down and not opening up.

Sometimes, nevertheless, my mother offers a pearl of wisdom. Last week she said, “We all have to love each other – for what else is there!?”

Because my mother can’t hear, can’t see and can’t walk, I sit very close to her when we interact, touch her constantly, look into her face from five or six inches away, and speak very loudly into her left ear, the better ear of the two. If I’m able to break through the fog of her confusion, she may know me, but most of the time I’m not sure that she does.

In being with people with dementia, it’s important for us to remember that when the mind goes our bodies carry powerful memories too that may remain. A mother never forgets the vibrations, smell and energy of her child, and I, her son, certainly have never forgotten my mother’s vibrations, smell and emotional presence.

After all the years, what’s left between her and me has come down to this – the purity of a love between a mother and a son. I cherish this and pray that she still does too.

Each time I leave her I kiss her and say directly into her ear: “Mom – I love you!”

“I love you too,” she always says.

I hope she knows that it’s ME who has spoken those words, and not just some stranger showing her love and kindness.

Yom Haatzmaut – Reflections 2015

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Who could have imagined 67 years ago that Israel would become as economically viable, politically and militarily strong, technologically advanced, and creatively cutting-edge as it is today?

Who would have dreamed that Israel’s Jewish population would grow from 600,000 souls in 1948 to nearly 6 million today?

Who would have thought that after having had to fight seven wars, endure two Intifadas and bear-up against ongoing terrorist attack that the Jewish state would remain democratic and free despite little peace with its neighbors and no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

All told, even with her imperfections and serious challenges, Israel is a remarkable nation, testimony to the spirit, will, ingenuity, aspiration, creativity, and sacrifice of generations. Today Israel is like none other in the world, more culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, more intellectually, artistically and academically productive. The depth and breadth of her accomplishments are nothing shy of breath-taking.

On the occasion of Israel’s 67th Independence Day, Jews the world over are well to take stock, celebrate her massive accomplishments, mourn and honor her dead, and ask what unique place the Jewish state holds in the innermost heart, mind and soul of the Jewish people.

This is no easy task. Permit me to offer some thoughts as I reflect on Israel’s meaning:

Israel is far more than a political refuge as envisioned by political Zionists. It is more than the flowering of the Jewish spirit as dreamed about by cultural Zionists. It is more than the fulfillment of Jewish memory and religious longing as experienced by the entirety of the Jewish people.

Israel starts with the land, with Jerusalem at its heart, for the land has been a key focus of Jewish consciousness for three millennia. The land of Israel is at the center of our history and is an essential element of our Jewish faith. But Israel is far more than land.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way in his moving volume Israel – An Echo of Eternity: “Israel reborn is an answer to the Lord of history who demands hope as well as action, who expects tenacity as well as imagination.” (p. 118) “The inspiration that goes out of Zion today is the repudiation of despair and the example of renewal.” (p. 134)

In this spirit the Zionists sought to create a new kind of a Jew, at home in the land, self-activated, self-realized, independent, creative, and free. They understood, however, the limitations of their state-building endeavor. Heschel said: “The State of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible.” (Ibid. p. 223)

In other words, the political state is not and cannot be regarded as an end in itself. Rather, the Jewish state represents a challenge and a promise that will rise or fall based on how our people and Israel’s government uses or misuses the power that comes with national sovereignty. With this in mind a Jewish state that was founded upon the principles of democracy and that is worthy of its great mission must challenge our individual and communal ethics, our nationalism, our humanity, and our faith.

May Israel be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, and may her citizens and all the inhabitants of the land know justice and peace.

What We Jews Can Do In Their Name

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We Jews are living this week between two significant holidays of commemoration. Last Wednesday evening and Thursday the Jewish world mourned those who perished in the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah. This Wednesday evening and Thursday we will mourn those who died defending the people and state of Israel on Yom HaZikaron.

The breadth and depth of the losses of the Jewish people in the Shoah (The 6 million plus 5 million others) and the land of Israel since 1860 (25,000 Jews killed with many more thousands injured and maimed) to our people confounds the mind and breaks the heart. It doesn’t matter whether we were alive or personally affected in our own families by the events that these holydays commemorate. Just knowing about them creates familial memory.

We are a people defined, in part, by memory. The good and noble deeds our families and forebears performed during their lives, upon their deaths, pass to us as zechut (merit), and we live in the after-glow of their accomplishments, decency and nobility, and we dwell in the shadow of their suffering and unjust deaths.

How ought we to remember our people’s history of suffering?

In the wake of so much tragic history, how ought we to understand our lives today?

What ought we do to emulate that which was most noble in their lives?

The Talmud teaches that miracles ceased with the Temple’s destruction, but since, miracles of another sort have occurred.

When we’re seen and heard for what we really are as Jews, is this not a miracle?

When we love our people and tradition fully, is this not a miracle too?

Now that the Jewish people has lost so many innocent and righteous men, women and children to violence and hate over time, what ought we to do in their memory?

We can speak in their place, and pray in their name.

We can do what they are no longer capable of doing and let our lives be an extension of theirs.

We can learn and live our people’s tradition, language and history since they can no longer learn, speak and carry forward the life of our people.

We can love and support the state and people of Israel because their hands and hearts have been stilled.

We can comfort others who grieve loss because they can no longer offer solace.

We can be happy since they can no longer laugh, love our children and all children because they can no longer love, and carry their memory and good deeds forward so they will be remembered and the world will become kinder, more just, and more peaceful in their name.

Zecher tzaddikim livracha! May the memory of the righteous among the Jewish people be a perpetual benediction.

Vote ARZA Slate Before April 30 in WZC Elections

If you have not already done so, please click now onto this link https://www.reformjews4israel.org, register and vote for the ARZA Slate (i.e. the Association of Reform Zionists of America).

As a delegate on the ARZA Slate (I am #25), we America Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism represent 1.3 million American Jews.

Here is the complete Slate of ARZA Delegates: https://www.reformjews4israel.org/slate/

There is a one-time only administrative charge of $5 for young Jews (18-30) and $10 for Jews (over 30).

I love this video by a fellow ARZA delegate – great video from slate member Yael Dadoun!

Questions and Answers!!!!

What is the World Zionist Congress? The Parliament of the Jewish People representing all of world Jewry.

What is the ARZA Platform?

  • Support for gender equality in the State of Israel
  • Support for religious equality in the State of Israel
  • Support for peace through commitment to a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Why does it matter that you vote for ARZA?

ARZA currently holds 39% of the US representation in the World Zionist Congress based on the results of the last election for the WZC. Consequently, over the past five years $20 million has been given to the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) to support its programs, congregations, rabbis, outreach, and social justice work. The Israeli government has also provided 4 new buildings for Reform communities around Israel because of our large American Reform Zionist representation.

The government of the state of Israel does not give any money directly to the Reform movement except through special programs. However, the government does fund generously orthodox schools and synagogues. This is not only unfair; it is a violation of the spirit of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence. We American Reform Zionists support our movement and others in Israel struggling through the courts to be treated equally under the law.

In the meantime, we must raise money to support our Israeli Reform movement, and our success in this WZC election is one sure way to do that.

Note that the Israeli Reform movement is a significant leader in support of the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem and our 45 congregations, 2 kibbutzim, strong youth programs, nursery schools, Tali schools, and pre-military programs all over the country.

Our movement supports civil marriage unions in Israel without having to involve the Chief Rabbinate, egalitarianism at the Western Wall, anti-Racism laws, anti-Poverty activism, and many other social justice causes.

A vote for the ARZA slate will also deny funds for settlement building in the West Bank.

ARZA needs your vote and I am asking that you and every Jewish individual in your household register today at the above site, pay the $5 or $10 administrative fee depending on your age, and then vote for the ARZA Slate. Thank you in advance!

If you have trouble voting, please call (844) 413-2929 or email AZM@election-america.com

Rabbi John Rosove, Delegate – ARZA Slate #25

Terezin – a poem by Hanus Hachenburg z’l

Tonight and tomorrow is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

This past October, I was with a group from my synagogue that visited Terezin. We were led by a survivor of Terezin, Auschwitz and a death march back to Terezin, Pavel Stansky – now 93 years old. Pavel was a teacher then, and devoted his time with the children to try and bring them some happiness in those dark days, weeks and months.

A total of 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through Terezin. Of these, about 100 came back.

This poem was written in 1943 by Hanus Hachenburg, z’l.

“That bit of filth in dirty walls,
And all around barbed wire,
And 30,000 souls who sleep
Who once will wake
And once will see
Their own blood spilled.

I was once a little child,
Three years ago.
That child who longed for other worlds.
But now I am no more a child
For I have learned to hate.
I am a grown-up person now,
I have known fear.

Bloody words and a dead day then,
That’s something different than bogie men!

But anyway, I still believe I only sleep today,
That I’ll wake up, a child again, and start to laugh and play.
I’ll go back to childhood sweet like a briar rose,
Like a bell which wakes us from a dream,
Like a mother with an ailing child
Loves him with woman’s love.
How tragic, then, is youth which lives
With enemies, with gallows ropes,
How tragic, then, for children on your lap
To say: this for the good, that for the bad.

Somewhere, far away out there, childhood sweetly sleeps,
Along that path among the trees,
There o’er that house
Which was once my pride and joy.
There my mother gave me birth into this world
So I could weep . . .

In the flame of candles by my bed, I sleep
And once perhaps I’ll understand
That I was such a little thing,
As little as this song.

These 30,000 souls who sleep
Among the trees will wake,
Open an eye
And because they see
A lot

They’ll fall asleep again. . .”

Notes: This poem is preserved in a typewritten copy. In the right corner, “IX. 1944” is written in and on the right side, the following is written in pencil: “Written by children from the ages of 10 to 16, living in homes L 318 and L 4176.” The poem is unsigned, but the author was identified by O. Klein, a former teacher at Terezin, as Hanus Hachenberg. He was born in Prague on July 12, 1929, and deported to Terezin on October 24, 1942. He died on December 18, 1943 at the age of 14 in Oswiecim (i.e. Auschwitz). The copy is likely from a later date.

The above notes and the poem are taken from “I never saw another butterfly… Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944.” McGraw-Hill. New York. Printed in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). 1971. Pages 22-23 and 78.

A decision that should have been resolved before marriage

Nathan’s father died soon after he was born, and before his death he asked his wife to be certain that their son would become bar mitzvah at age 13. His wife Joanne created a warm Jewish home, joined our synagogue, entered Nathan into Religious School, celebrated Shabbat every week bringing an assortment of friends into hers and Nathan’s home, and Nathan became Bar Mitzvah.

I met Nathan when he was six years old. He was, even as a child, smart and thoughtful, kind, talented, and graced with a gentle charisma that drew people to him.

I stayed close to him and his mother, but tragically, Joanne was diagnosed with cancer and died when Nathan was 17. Before her death, she arranged for him to live with dear friends who took Nathan into their home as their own, and I made Nathan pledge to stay in touch with me as I would do with him.

I’ve always believed in Nathan, and once suggested to him during his college years to consider the rabbinate, as he had everything it took to be an effective rabbinic leader. He appreciated the thought and my confidence in him, but explained that since he didn’t believe in God this was a path he could not take honestly.

Nathan went on to become a teacher and worked in the inner city public schools for five years with 4th grade children and their parents trying to help these kids to love learning, to develop strong study habits and to work their way up and out of poverty.

Like many teachers in these circumstances, Nathan burned out. The work was tough and he found himself fighting against a strong current of family illiteracy, gangs and drugs. He wanted to help others, but he had to find a new way. So he applied to law school and now is working as a public defender.

Nathan and I talk infrequently, but we’ve maintained a special bond. He’s now 34 years old and married to a wonderful non-Jewish woman who is generally supportive of his raising their children as Jews, to a point. Three months before the baby would be born he called me to talk about brit milah. He wanted it. His wife didn’t. What to do? I spoke at length with him about this and offered to speak with his wife, but she didn’t want to then. Nothing was resolved.

Four days after Nathan’s son was born, he called me desperately needing to talk. He explained that he was on cloud nine and in the dumps. On the third day of his son’s life, he raised the issue of a brit milah again with his wife, and they had the most alienating fight of their relationship.

He explained that his wife couldn’t imagine taking a knife to her new-born baby. She charged that the circumcision was a form of mutilation, and her maternal instinct wouldn’t permit it.

Once again he explained to her all his reasons why he wanted his son to enter the Covenant of Abraham, saying to her, “I feel deeply Jewish in my guts and I want my son to be Jewish too, that not doing this meant distancing himself even further from the father he’d never known who wanted him to be a Jew, from the mother who raised him as a Jew, and from his Jewish heritage altogether. “

He asked me for wisdom about what to do.

I suggested that he also say the following to her:

“Yes – the bris can be momentarily painful to our child, but mohalim (ritual circumcisers) use wine as a way to calm the baby while the brit occurs. The wound may be sore for a couple of days, but that’s it. Compared to the birth experience, a brit milah is far less traumatic, and it heals quickly. It isn’t mutilation at all. It’s the most fundamental and ancient of Jewish rites going back 3600 years. This is something very deep for me and I am asking you to allow it.”

“Nathan,“ I then said. “Your instincts are right. Those Jewish parents who choose not to bring their sons into the Covenant of Abraham separate themselves and their children from this 3600-year rite of passage and ineffable relationship with God. This is about Jewish identity and continuity. Since you and your wife have agreed to raise your son as a Jew, you must do this.”

We left it there, but I checked back with him a couple of days later. He said: “We had another argument last night with a friend trying to mediate, but she has decided that she can’t abide with the circumcision. I’m very angry, but she’s not changing her mind… I can’t maintain my anger and tarnish what is the happiest moment of my life. I have no choice but to move forward. All of this has reinvigorated my desire to give my son a Jewish education, for him to become Bar Mitzvah. My wife has said that she is supportive of that. She recognizes the huge sacrifice I’m making…I hope my son will some day make a choice to have a brit. Will you perform a naming even without a brit?”

I told Nathan I would. He understands, however, that the naming without the brit milah is half-done.

Nathan’s situation confirms my conviction that this kind of a decision has to be made before marriage even takes place.

I have confidence in Nathan and trust him to do everything he can to raise his son as a Jew. I hope his wife comes around one day on the brit milah, and sooner rather than later. Time will tell.

When an Unsure Jew Falls in Love with a Religious Christian

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This week I spoke with a young man who was raised in my synagogue but who I haven’t seen since he became Bar Mitzvah. He is now 24 years old, kind, openhearted, intellectually superior, and well-educated. He is a grandchild of survivors of the Holocaust, feels Jewish in his heart, but has arrived at an important crossroad, which is why he called me.

He is engaged to be married to a young woman who seems to be his equal in heart, mind and soul. She is a religious Christian whose father is a pastor of a small evangelical church. For two years they have been in love. In that time they have talked deeply about God, faith, the soul, love, and marriage.

He acknowledged that he is not knowledgeable about Judaism. He said that he believes in God and that Jesus is “the son of God.” I asked, “Does this mean that you believe that Jesus’ ‘essence’ is fundamentally different from the essence of any other human being?”

Classic Christianity affirms that Jesus was both wholly divine and wholly human, whereas all other people are wholly human but not divine. My young friend acknowledged that though he believed that Jesus was a deeply unusual and inspired man (according to Paul and the Gospel writers), he did not believe that Jesus was “divine” any more than he or I are divine.

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had feared that he had become already a religious Christian.

I have studied Christianity seriously and respect it as a substantial faith tradition. However, I explained to my former student that I love my mother just as he loves his mother, but I am not required to love his mother, nor is he required to love mine. In this way, Christianity is not mine for all kinds of good reasons, just as Judaism does not belong to Christians for an equal number of good reasons.

I told my young friend that based on his understanding of Jesus, he was not a Christian, and that he owed it to himself and to his fiancé to understand not only Christianity as deeply as he can, but Judaism as deeply and as fully as he can as well. I intimated that he simply didn’t know enough to honestly turn away from his own 3500-year religious, ethical and cultural tradition and history and take on another religious faith without serious thought and study.

I told him that there are some people who were born Jewish who now claim to be “Messianic Jews,” that is, they identify with Jewish culture and ethics but have accepted Jesus as the “Christ Messiah.” Those people, I explained, are, truth to tell, no longer “Jewish” by any Jewish definition despite their claimed origins. They are Christians, pure and simple.

Jews believe that the messianic coming will occur only when peace, justice and compassion characterize all aspects of human affairs, and not before.

I also explained that the reason we Jews do not accept the idea of God incarnate is because such a notion is, according to all streams of Judaism, idolatrous. For Jews, God is always beyond comprehension, beyond form, beyond concept, beyond ideas. God is infinitely and eternally greater than anything that even the greatest minds and spirits can imagine or intuit. Though the idea of God incarnate was a brilliant theological innovation initiated by Paul of Tarsus and developed by the Gospel writers and early Church Fathers in order to help people understand that which is beyond comprehension, it is not, for us Jews a true Truth.

I told my young friend that, with respect, he needed to learn Judaism, and that both he and his fiancé needed to more fully understand each of their religious traditions and how they fundamentally differ from one another. I urged them to learn Judaism together, talk about everything honestly, openly and directly, and find a Jewish community in which to experience, as adults, the richness that Jewish religious life offers.

I recommended that they read a sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah in 2012 on intermarriage, its risks and dynamics, so that they could understand more fully the context in which my former student himself was living as an American Jew – See http://www.tioh.org/about-us/clergy/aboutus-clergy-clergystudy

I recommended, as well, two books that hopefully would stimulate their thinking and address the yearnings of their hearts and souls:

Christianity in Jewish Terms – Essays by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer. 2000. Westview Press. An exploration into the meaning of a set of Christian beliefs as understood by some of our most thoughtful Jewish scholars and thinkers.

God in Search of Man – by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Among the most important rabbinic figures of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel was a profound theologian, philosopher, rabbinic and mystic scholar, poet, social activist, interfaith and Zionist leader.

I invited my friend to call me any time, that I cared about him and his family, and wished him only happiness and fulfillment.

Hunger in America– For Your Passover Seders

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In the United States, there are 48.8 million Americans (32.6 million adults of whom 6 million are seniors, and 16.2 million children – equaling 16.7% of all American men, women, and children – nearly 1 in 6 – 14.5% of all American households) who are “food insecure,” defined by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a “lack of access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”

There are many government programs and charitable organizations that seek to address the “temporary emergency” that these 48.8 million Americans face every day. MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger reports that in FY2011, the Federal government spent $94.8 billion in food and nutrition assistance programs, and America’s largest hunger-relief organizations spent $1.2 billion, and still nearly 49 million Americans today are food insecure. Clearly, neither the government nor charitable organizations have been able to feed all those in need.

During the Passover Seder we say “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”

How are we to respond to this mitzvah?

The answer isn’t just to give of our charitable dollars to the poor and hungry in our neighborhoods and communities, but to support local, state and national hunger policies that seek to to make it easier for poor working families and individuals to get the food and nutrition that they need.

MAZON offers a reading for our Seder meals with specifics on what we can actually do in the fulfillment of the mitzvah to feed the hungry.

Ha Lachma Anya

This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. As it says in the Torah, “Seven days shall you eat matzot, the bread of poverty and persecution so that you may remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal.

At its most fundamental level, the Passover Seder is meant to remind us that we know firsthand the suffering and degradation faced by those who are poor. We know the sharp pain of hunger, the slavery that is poverty and persecution; and we also know that this memory, this shared experience, compels us to act.

Ha Lachma Anya. This is the bread of poverty.

17 million children face a constant struggle against hunger, and hungry kids can’t learn or grow to their full potential.

Let every hungry child come and eat, with a Reauthorized Child Nutrition Act that improves and expands school meals and summer, afterschool and childcare nutrition programs.

Ha Lachma anya. This is the bread of poverty.

Six million seniors face food insecurity and 35% of seniors must make the impossible choice between paying for food and paying for heat/utilities.

Let every hungry senior come and eat, with a Reauthorized Older Americans Act that increases funding for Meals on Wheels and senior congregant feeding programs.

Ha Lachma Anya. This is the bread of poverty.

49 million Americans struggle to put food on the table and feed their families.

Let every hungry family come and eat, with adequate funding for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition assistance Program).

Ha Lachma Anya. This is the bread of poverty.

This is Passover, we say Dayeinu.

We have had enough.

This year, we will work together so that all who are hungry can finally come and eat.”

Write your congressional representatives and ask them to support the tReauthorized Child Nutrition Act, Reauthorized Older Americans Act, and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition assistance Program).

For more information, see Mazon’s website: http://www.mazon.org – Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger is the only organization in American Jewish life devoted solely to the issue of hunger.

Chag Pesach Sameah!

“The Impact of the Likud Election Victory on the Israeli Political Landscape” by Jim Lederman

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I am grateful to my colleague, Rabbi Dow Marmur of Jerusalem, for passing along to me this in-depth analysis of the just-completed Israeli election called “The Impact of the Likud Election Victory on the Israeli Political Landscape” by a long-time foreign correspondent, Jim Lederman at http://www.jimlederman.com/

Lederman’s essay is an insightful and comprehensive analysis of how PM Netanyahu won the election and the cross-currents of political interests that are now at work in his trying to form a ruling coalition government. Correspondent Lederman also considers what has taken place between President Obama and Congressional Democrats vis a vis Netanyahu following the Prime Minister’s speech to Congress and as a consequence of statements Bibi made and the strategy he used in his successful election campaign.

This is a 15-page blog that is well-worth reading to better understand the challenges both PM Netanyahu faces domestically and what Israel faces internationally behind his leadership.

Jim Lederman is the longest-serving foreign correspondent in Jerusalem. In the past, he has been the Israel correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., NPR and the New York Post. Since 1992, he has been the Senior Israel Analyst for Oxford Analytica, specializing in the political, military, economic, social and religious movements in the Middle East. He is the author of Battle-Lines: The American Media and the Intifada (Henry Holt, 1992), and his articles have appeared in a wide variety of major newspapers and journals.

Pesach is Coming – Time to Ask Ourselves the Big Questions

To be curious is the first quality of the wise. Wise people know that they do not know and are open to learn something from everyone.

The Passover Seder will soon be upon us, and there is much about the Seder that is mysterious. Nothing is as it seems. Everything stands for something else. Deeper truths are there for the seeker. Everything in the Seder evokes questions.

I have compiled a list of questions that might be sent in advance to your Seder participants or asked around the table during the Seder itself. You may have questions of your own that you would wish to add.

Afikoman – Breaking the Matzah

Questions: What part of us is broken? What work do we need to do to effect tikun hanefesh – i.e. restoration of our lives? What t’shuvah – i.e. return, realignment of our lives, re-establishment of important relationships – do we need to perform to bring about inner wholeness and reconciliation with others? What is broken in the world – i.e. what remains unfair, unjust, unresolved, in need of our loving care and attention – and what am I/are we going to do about it?

Mah Nishtanah – How is this night different from all other nights?

Questions: How am I different this year from previous years? What has changed in my life this year for better and/or for worse? What ‘silver lining’ can I find even in my disappointments, frustrations, loss, illness, pain, and suffering? What conditions in our communities, nation and world have worsened since last we sat down for the Pesach meal?

Ha-Chacham – The Wise Child

Questions: Who inspired you this past year to learn? Who has been your greatest teacher and why? What are the lessons you have gleaned from others that have affected you most in the year gone by?

Ha-Rasha – The Evil Child

Questions: Since Judaism teaches that the first step leading to evil is taken when we separate ourselves from the Jewish community and refuse to participate in acts that help to redeem the world, have we individually stepped away from activism? Have we become overcome by cynicism and despair? Do we believe that people and society succumb inevitably to the worst qualities in the human condition, or do we retain hope that there can be a more just and compassionate world? Are we optimistic or pessimistic? Do we believe that people and society can change for the better? Are we doing something to further good works, or have we turned away into ourselves alone and given up?

Cheirut – Thoughts of Freedom

Questions: If fear is an impediment to freedom, what frightens me? What frightens the people I love? What frightens the Jewish people? Are our fears justified, or are they remnants of experiences in our individual and/or people’s past? Do they still apply? Are we tied to the horrors of our individual and communal traumas, or have we broken free from them? What are legitimate fears and how must we confront them?

Tzafun – The Hidden Matzah

Questions: What have we kept hidden in our lives from others? Are our deepest secrets left well-enough alone, or should we share them with the people closest to us? To what degree are we willing to be vulnerable? Have we discovered the hidden presence of God? Have we allowed ourselves to be surprised and open to wonder and awe? If so, how have we changed as a result?

Sh’fach et chamat’cha – Pouring Out Our Wrath

Questions: Is there a place for hatred, anger and resentment in our Seder this year? How have these negative emotions affected our relationships to each other, to the Jewish community, the Jewish people, the Palestinians, the State of Israel, to any “other”? Have we become our own worst enemy because we harbor hatred, anger and resentment? Do the Seder themes and symbolism address our deeply seated anger, hatred and resentment?

Ba-shanah Ha-ba-ah Bi-y’ru-shalayim – Next Year in Jerusalem

Questions: What are your hopes and dreams for yourself, our community, country, the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the world? What are you prepared to do in the next year to make real your hopes and dreams? Have you visited Israel and when do you plan to visit again? Despite disagreements with the policies of the government of Israel, if you have them, how can you demonstrate love for the state and Jewish people in spite of legitimate criticisms you may have?

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and now a writer, lecturer and teacher, has written an important piece in Haaretz called “Three points to make when fighting over Israel at the Passover Seder – It will be impossible to bridge the gaps between the leftists and rightists, because both will be correct. So, I offer three things worth noting.”

See Haaretz at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.649565?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

or go directly to his blog at https://ericyoffie.com/passover-seder/

Note: Rabbi Yoffie is always worth reading, especially in these times, as he presents a wise, moral, balanced, and pragmatic voice of contemporary Judaism.

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