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“From Rasha, with love”

 
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The Passover Seders of my early childhood are now increasingly distant, cherished, and sacred memories.

I recall most vividly two critical moments in those annual family holiday observances presided over by my father: the taste of the maror, the bitter herbs, which I approached with a measure of trepidation — and the discussion of the four sons, which I found still more frightening. Specifically, I recall a sense of dark dismay at the Haggadah’s treatment of the wicked son — the rasha.

My father’s “Litvakish” (Lithuanian) pronunciation of that Hebrew term sounded to my uninitiated young ear as if he were saying “Russia.” My father was a civilian employee of the Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, intimately involved, for example, in the Berlin airlift. I had a keen early awareness of “the enemy” — lawless, godless, despotic, and bellicose. The emblem of SAC, a shield showing a powerful armored fist grasping lightning bolts against a clouded sky, hung in my bedroom.

What terrible things could a mere child possibly have done, I wondered timorously during the reading of the four sons. What sins could he have committed to merit being branded with so derogatory and frightful a title — “The Russia” — with all the evil and danger the name of the Soviet Union evoked? How relieved I was each year when my older brother volunteered to read this passage, sparing me its secretly dreaded burden.

It was not long before I was disabused of my misunderstanding of the Hebrew text of the Haggadah. In time, too, Russia’s repression of Jewish life would soften, the Cold War would end, and the Soviet Union would be dismantled. A measure of freedom and democracy and hope would spread throughout the former Soviet States, including Lithuania (the ethnolinguistic source of my youthful liturgical confusion) and Ukraine.

Though both my Hebrew language skills and my understanding of geopolitics have grown considerably more sophisticated since my childhood seder experience, I responded to the recent news of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with an eerily familiar dark dismay.

The rasha of the Passover Haggadah, at least in our traditional reading of that text, defiantly distances himself from the seder’s celebration of freedom: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” he demands. With analogous defiance, the Russia now occupying Crimea insists that the West — and specifically the United States, its erstwhile Cold War foe — has no legitimate interest, no standing to object to its invasion of Ukraine: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” In so doing, today’s Russia — with an emboldened and increasingly despotic Vladimir Putin at its helm — also has rejected freedom, embracing a bellicose lawlessness of unsettling historic resonance. As the Haggadah puts it: L’fi she-hotzi et atzmo min ha-klal — “By excluding himself from the community” of nations… kafar ba-ikar — “he has denied the most basic of principles”… the freedom that is the birthright of all peoples, and the territorial integrity of sovereign nations.

The Haggadah prescribes that we react to the rasha with strength of purpose, explaining in no uncertain terms that our course, our actions, are a principled response to our historic experience: “Because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The Jewish national experience imposes on us an obligation to champion freedom, a moral and spiritual duty that we are not entitled to shirk or to neglect. “Ever since the Exodus, freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent,” insisted German poet (and, alas, Jewish apostate) Heinrich Heine.

As a Jew, my sadness (and outrage) at the invasion of Crimea is compounded by the rich Jewish history of that region. Jewish settlement of Crimea began as early as the first century C.E., purportedly by descendants of the Babylonian exile and deported warriors of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The participation of Jews in Crimean culture is said to have led to the storied conversion to Judaism of the Khazar royal family, and after their example, much of their kingdom in the seventh to 11th centuries. In the 20th century, Crimea was the site of a number of experimental proto-Zionist semi-autonomous agrarian Jewish communities, which were annihilated during the Nazi Holocaust. Greater Ukraine has seen the best and worst of Jewish history: the birth of the Hibbat Zion, Am Olam, and Biluim movements, as well as the massacres under Chmielnicki in the 17th century and at Babi Yar in 1941. S. Y. Agnon, Hayim Nachman Bialik, and Golda Meir all were products of Ukrainian Jewry, as was Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Jewish communal and synagogue life continues in Ukraine to this day.

No less than Jews at their seder tables, Americans also have an obligation, born of our unique history, to champion freedom, and to chart a principled course worthy of that historic mission. A defining element of the American ethos is recognition that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is, America stands for the principle that freedom is not a privilege granted by rulers and government. Freedom is a universal right, an inescapable consequence of our belief in God — “Because of what the Lord did for me.”

The founding principles of the United States, not unlike the founding narrative of the Jewish people rehearsed around seder tables each year, require a meaningful response and strength of purpose when freedom is threatened by tyrants and terrorists. The rights with which we are endowed by our Creator come with equally divine corollary obligations. The cost of meeting those obligations, it is true, at times may be bitter. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the maror — the bitter herbs we dutifully taste at Passover, as we refrain, temporarily, from our ritual reclining. As a child, I would have preferred to avoid the bitterness altogether. Now I understand. Neither as Americans nor as Jews can we discharge our sacred duties without a willingness to abandon the relaxed posture with which we are accustomed to reveling in our freedom, and when principle so dictates, to face a possibly bitter course.

“The hottest place in Hell,” said Dante Alighieri, in an observation framed and displayed in my rabbinic study, “is reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, remain neutral.”

 

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser

Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.

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Why Ferguson matters to Jews

“Standing on the parted shores of history, we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot:

“That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt; that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness.

“That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”

This passage is read every Friday night at my synagogue, Barnert Temple, and I am moved each time it is read. Ever since I was a teenager, I would picture Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walking hand in hand in 1965, marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama.

 

 

To a daughter on her way to Israel

We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.

“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.

“It comes to 44, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed 45 inches.

“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.

 

 

For all we are worth

What does a person cost?

When I was a kid, science teachers were fond of telling their students (if they wanted to shock or humble us) the chemical value of a human body. It amounted then to about $1.78. With inflation, today you may be worth as much as $4.50.

Now, I don’t want you to get a swelled head (because we’ll be needing it at its regular size), but if you sell off the components of your body, according to a 2011 story in Wired, then your heirs could get $45 million today, according to “Inside the Business of Selling Human Body Parts.” That’s because we live in the West. Blood, organs, and DNA are cheaper in the developing world.

The phrase “human values” normally has a very different connotation, but I have a morbid fascination these days about the price of a person. As I have mentioned before in the Standard, I made a commitment last Rosh Hashanah to take an active role in freeing slaves.

The most recent estimates put the number of slaves in the world today at 30 million. Federal officials report that about 60,000 slaves are now captive in the United States.

 

 

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A reason for optimism

A Frenchman, a German and a Jew were wandering in the desert. All three were parched with thirst. They each craved their favorite drink.

The Frenchman proclaimed, “I am thirsty! I must have a glass of wine!”

The German said, “I am thirsty! I must have a frothy beer!”

The Jew said, “I am thirsty! I must have diabetes!”

Jews are a worrying lot. We often are consumed by fear, and see our glasses of wine and beer as only half full. Perhaps that is from years of persecution, or perhaps it is just part of our DNA. Any way you slice it, we are pessimistic.

 

 

Deep down, you already know

About asking help — and listening to ourselves

It isn’t a news flash that we have access to massive amounts of information today. But the numbers about the numbers are worth reporting.

Dr. Martin Hilbert and a team of researchers at the University of Southern California calculated that the average American met with the equivalent of 40 85-page newspapers containing only information — no ads — per day in 1986. By 2007, we were exposed daily to the equivalent of 174 newspapers. Dr. Hilbert has not yet released any information past that date. I am just hoping that he and his research team aren’t buried under a pile of reports, unable to get up.

 

 

An American’s Yom Kippur in Israel

A man of my age — I am just a few months short of 88 — does not like changes.

We like to be in familiar places, doing familiar things with familiar people. This tendency also applies to the marking of Jewish holidays. I like to be in a familiar synagogue, hearing the voices of familiar clergy, singing familiar melodies and hearing the sound of a familiar shofar.

Back in the 1930’s, when Yom Kippur rolled around, my father would take me to the New Temple of Brno in Czechoslovakia, where we sat in a pew that was completely occupied by family members — male family members, of course. Mother, aunts and sundry female cousins all were relegated to the balcony. My father was one of 13 siblings, so there was no shortage of uncles, aunts, cousins and in-laws to occupy a considerable portion of the temple.

 

 
 
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