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Appreciating the Gifts of Passover (Passover 04-20-19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Appreciating the Gifts of Passover
I find that as times change, the Seder and its rituals mean something different to me each year. A few years ago, I gravitated towards a Haggadah called, “A Night to Remember.” It made me feel as if the Exodus was being replayed in my lifetime, accentuating stories of Jews escaping to the “Promised Land” from the DP camps, from Ethiopia, and from Russia. It presented a modern version of Dayenu, and captured how the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements embraced the freedom and redemption themes of our tradition. Last year, desiring something that was light and fun, I utilized a culturally attuned Millennial Haggadah from Jewbelong[1].
This year though, I’m just looking for some peace of mind, I’m not so concerned with what Haggadah I’ll use. I’m shifting my focus to Passover’s themes of beneficence and gratitude. The following story lifts my spirit and I hope it will inspire you as well.
Lady Amelie Jacobovits, the wife of Rabbi Imanuel Jacobovits, the Chief Rabbi of Britain for over 20 years, recalls Passover 1941[2], which she experienced as a young child during the Nazi era. Although she merited much honor and glory in her later years, she claims the Passover of that war-torn year was the most extraordinary one of her life:
“I was born in the years preceding World War II and lived content and well-loved by my family in Nurnberg. By 1933, however, my world was getting darker till, one day, Nazi storm troopers marched into Nurnberg ordering that all major buildings must fly the swastika flag by evening. In 1936, my parents took us to Paris, as my father had been appointed rabbi of the prominent Rue Cadet synagogue. Within a few years, as the political situation deteriorated, my father was conscripted into the army and had to leave us. In 1940, when the Nazis began bombing Paris, my mother fled with us — her four children — on the last train before the main onslaught. It was the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
The mass of people on that train — a tornado of humanity — repeatedly wrenched us from one another. Months later, on another leg of our desperate journey, I lost track of my family altogether and began to wander from village to village. Lone children all over were doing the same.
One night just before dawn, I could go no further. I knocked on the farmhouse door of what turned out to be a kind, courageous gentile farmer. He took me to his cellar where I found another little girl. Eventually two boys and another girl joined us. None of us admitted we were Jewish for several days.
It was a dire winter. Each morning, a few rays of light would poke their way into the cellar through two windows high on the wall — our only eyes to the world outside. The farmer had lowered us into the cellar through those windows and every day through one of them he lowered a net with five morsels of food and a bucket for our natural needs. Strange as it sounds, we were very lucky. In that difficult winter, five homeless children developed values so different from those today — as well as a bond of lifelong friendship.
One day, peering from the cellar up through the windows one of us noticed a streak of sunlight in blue sky. A few days later, another saw blades of grass penetrating the frozen terrain. We had no calendar or sense of time, but we concluded that, if the weather was indeed changing with spring on its way, maybe we were nearing Passover. Each of us children came from a different range of Jewish commitment, yet we shared a strong desire to do something to celebrate what we sensed was the upcoming Passover holiday.
When the farmer appeared with our food the next morning, we asked if he would lower in tomorrow’s basket a small amount of flour, a bottle of water, a newspaper and a match. Two days later we received a small bottle of water, but we had to wait several days for the flour. The entire region was drained of provisions, with everything being transported north to Germany. Our host the farmer had himself barely anything to eat.
A day later, a newspaper came through — and then a match. We waited a few more days. We saw a full day of sunshine and blue skies, and we decided that, in order to cultivate a festive spirit, we would switch clothing with one another and wear them as if new. So we changed clothes; the two boys trading and the girls exchanging dresses. Before evening we baked our matzah, though we hadn’t a clue how to do so. We poured water into the flour and held the dough in our bare hands over the burning newspaper on the floor. We produced something which resembled matzah, and whatever it was provided enough for the five of us.
That night we celebrated Passover. One of us recalled by heart the kiddush — the blessing that sanctifies the Passover night. Another remembered the Four Questions – the part of the Seder the young children recite. We told a few stories of the Exodus that we remembered having heard from our parents. Finally, we managed to reconstruct “Chad Gadya,” the song which typically ends the evening.
We had a Passover to remember. With no festive food, no silver candlesticks and no wine – with only our simple desire to connect with God — we had a holiday more profound than any we have known since. I thank God for allowing me to live to be able to tell my children and grandchildren about it. Even more, I feel obligated to the younger generations of my family, who never experienced what I did, to pass on the clarity it gave me — the vivid appreciation of God’s presence in my life, of His constant blessings, wonders and teachings…and of His commitment to the survival of the Jewish people.”
I think this is a beautiful story to help us to appreciate our own Seders. We will lack the intensity and drama of Lady Jakobovits’ setting, but we’ll probably have our family together, for Passover is one of the few times during the year that relatives and friends from far flung places unite. We will have festive foods and elegant candlesticks. Our clothes will adorn us, our houses will be sparkling clean and the weather outside has finally warmed up; there is so much for which to be thankful.
Eckhart Tolle, in “The Power of Now”, says, “As soon as you honor the present moment, life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.”
Therefore, on Seder night, when we say the Shehecheyanu blessing, thanking God for keeping us alive to experience this night, let’s appreciate the gift of family being together, in a safe setting, surrounded by abundance, and be thankful that we’re able to pass on and celebrate revered and cherished traditions. From the asking of the Four Questions to concluding with Chad Gadya, let’s relish each moment as a gift.
A Zissen Pesach to all!
Rabbi Neil, Judy and the whole Heicklen/Schuman family
[2]This article originally appeared in The Jewish Women’s Journal of the Jewish Renaissance Center, a learning institute for women located in New York City.

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