“Midpoint Musings,” with my best and warmest good wishes to all of you….
For A Sweet and Happy Passover
Rabbi Mark Joel Mahler
On January 1, I did what everyone likely does with retirement six months away. I calculated the number of days until my last day of work. I came up with an auspicious Jewish number,180: 18 for Chai, “Life,” times 10 for the Commandments.
Today I sit and write on the second day of Pesach, 90 days from January 1 and 90 days until June 30, a pivotal day perfect for musing.
If there is a sweet spot for these 180 days in any person’s life – feeling good and excited about my decision to retire, but maintaining focus on the tasks at hand while savoring the many moments that surely are the last time for this and that – I’ve managed to find it. I’ve also minimized the uncertain moments when I dig in my heels trying to slow everything down. But one such moment came crashing upon me at our first night Seder.
My son Moshe asked me about memorable Seders in my life. The first memorable Seder I related to Moshe will be the Seder I’ll relate to you at the conclusion of these midpoint musings. But the next two Seders that came to mind were “lasts.”
The first “last” Seder was in April, 1981. When we came to fulfilling the mitzvah of eating Maror, everyone gasped and choked on the hottest horseradish of our combined lifetimes. Alice’s father, Monroe, was particularly distressed because he had only one lung following a pneumonectomy for lung cancer in 1975, and the follow up radiation treatments had burned his esophagus. His gasping and choking struck me as portentous. Indeed, that Seder was his last, as well as the last Seder when all four of our parents, Alice’s and mine, would be together. Monroe died the following June 23, ironically the date of my parents’ wedding anniversary.
The second “last” Seder came two years later. May all of us live long enough that our children see aging overtaking us, and may we then be well advanced in years. Such was the moment for me with my father that Passover, 1983. My father had recently turned 69. Tellingly, my mother and not my father had driven all the way to Pittsburgh. At the Seder and throughout the visit, I could see that age was overtaking my father. When I watched their car pull away with my mother driving, I wondered if I would ever see my father again. I would not. My father died three weeks later.
Talking with Moshe about these “last” Seders, sad Seders, then summoned the thought that this Passover Seder, 2018/5778 was also a “last” Seder, i.e., my last as Temple Emanuel’s Senior Rabbi. The thought that moment saddened me, not as much as the last Seders with beloved fathers, but sad enough to evoke that fruitless feeling of digging in my heels to slow everything down. However earlier that day, I made a rediscovery that lifted me above and beyond that fruitless feeling.
While rearranging my home library to make room for the books I’d brought home from Temple that afternoon, I came across Mark Twain’s classic “Concerning the Jews.” In response to an article Twain had written for the March, 1898 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Twain received a letter from one of the magazine’s readers whom Twain identified simply as “a lawyer” asking Twain to address anti-Semitism here and in Europe where Twain had recently visited. Twain titled his response “Concerning the Jews.” I used the conclusion of “Concerning the Jews” as the unifying theme of my High Holy Day sermons in 1985/5746. Consider Twain’s masterpiece….
“If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in the world, in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded into dream stuff and passed away. The Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he has always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
I know the secret of our immortality. I knew it when I wrote that High Holy Day sermon anthology in 1985/5746. Thirty-three years later, I know it even better. The secret of our immortality is Judaism.
Judaism alone sustains the Jewish people. And there it was in all its magnificence at our first night Seder when Moshe asked me about my life’s memorable Seders.
Now, as promised earlier, the first Seder that I recalled in response….
It is my earliest memory of a Passover Seder. The memory is vivid. I am with my family at our Seder hosted by my grandparents at their chicken farm in Toms River, New Jersey. We are all standing around a long rectangular dining table (likely we were making Kiddush). My head hardly reaches to the table top. I am no more than four years old.
Not only is this my first Seder memory, it is also my first Jewish memory. Moreover, it is also my first family memory!
There it is in one brilliant stroke of spiritual genius. The experience of a people’s suffering and salvation more than three-thousand years ago, families huddled in their homes on a fretful yet hopeful night, all relived by successive generations of families through rituals instilling hope and courage, joy and justice, in prayers and praises, melodies and memories across the decades, the centuries, the millennia, altogether sounding a sacred and eternal symphony orchestrated by God, with Moses the conductor, and the Jewish people the performers.
And do not doubt. Just as this sacred symphony was encored on a New Jersey farm in 1951, and encored most recently in your home and mine to begin this Passover, this sacred symphony will be encored for the next three-thousand years. And more. If anything earthly can be eternal, we Jews are it, thanks to Judaism.
No question, the various accomplishments of the Jews in Twain’s day that inspired his praises were considerable, yet they surely pale in comparison to the accomplishments of individual Jews in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. However, as inestimable as these more recent accomplishments may be, none of them contribute to the immortality of the Jewish people. Only Judaism can accomplish this feat, both human and divine, that flows so sweetly between the mundane and the miraculous.
All of us had a taste of it at our Passover Seders. Its sweetness is here to nourish us every day, mitzvah by mitzvah on any day.
Wishing you and yours a happy Passover!
 Actually, among the world’s 7 billion people today, our 15 million Jews constitute much less than Twain’s conjecture. We are but .02% of the world’s population.