Unwelcome Addition to the Seder
Monday, April 14, 2014
Written in a symbolic Place of Vulnerability
The Haggadah is all about the telling, by Onkelos the teaching, by Maimonides the showing. The story changes and it remains the same. We always have one foot in the personal and one foot in the universal.
Each year we squeeze the story for more of what it means — for the individuals for the community the nation the world — for the concentric circles to which we all belong.
What it means, it’s a good question, but not the only question.
Attached to this year’s meaning is the silent heart of grief, which always precedes the what-it-means question.
The world: still cracked. Hate corrupts, love repairs. We know this. But the first response is always the silent heart of mourning, which is the silent heart of suffering, which is the opening to the heart of wisdom. Some time into the future we will respond by knowing: what to do.
For now: open a moment to the silent heart of suffering, still a part of our story, our story a part of the world story.
Pray for peace in the grandest and most individual ways: the peace of the near and the peace of the far. And healing for the losses, and some sort of comfort for us all.
Make everything holy
Wash yourself clean
Eat something green
Separate physics from spirit
Tell a good story
Get more clean
Bring back spirit into physics
Spit out your hurt
Make an Everything sandwich
Have tea together
Pay attention to endings
Insist on happiness
The Story of Passover
We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.
They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.
Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned (one of the visitors did) that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to, and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.
Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story? he asked to no one in particular, because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home, takes it inside, and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.
And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling, making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.
There is always that space, that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.
Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.
Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more of what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same. They correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).
One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I knew. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.
I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than her sister my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left up there of the borscht belt and I figured he was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.
On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all. I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over — nice looking guy about ten fifteen years older than me — and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind in a suburb so I went to find her.
It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days; cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus at the corner grocery from a hothouse in Canada and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.
She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both for five minutes and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me; I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.
I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.
I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.
I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year, something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.
It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it, so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough; it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue. This from Onkelos’s translation into Aramaic.
Because the telling is not enough, you can tell it over and again but if you don’t squeeze it for all it means and it means differently when you squeeze it good then you are not getting at it all the way. You have to teach it as well as tell it, it has to be understood especially by the teller who understands more the more it is squeezed and parsed and examined and turned every which way to release meaning. You have to coax out all the secrets from their hiding places. You have to teach it over and above tell it.
That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.
In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested in my uncle as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.
The Problem of Addiction
Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction
The death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by his story, we are saddened like everybody, but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.
It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction, how a person with twenty plus years of clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, etc., didn’t he have enough help, all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.
It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you have it for life, and it requires vigilance daily, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.
You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – you name it. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.
The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror.
At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom.
Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substance. The problem has a physical component, and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.
It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that. No one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him or her what he has to do for herself.
You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him or herself.
I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person makes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: all you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.
Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.
I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense; every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].
Only Everything is everything.
Rabbi jsg runs a program called Shalvah, “serenity” in Hebrew, that meets every Thursday night at Congregation Neve Shalom, 7 PM. It was founded in 1981 by Rose Mass and jsg.
Jones hungers in a way that cannot be
filled. It waits an active waiting its eyes
tracking you wherever you go.
Jones is an emptiness. A space a
hunger a bottom-less-ness.
Jones will not be filled by drugs by
booze by love by success by food by –
You may try to fill Jones with all or
some of these. Jones can only be filled
Until you encounter Jones — its
unformed and empty-ness — until you
fill Jones with something more
nutritious, sustaining, full — Jones waits
patiently and poised to spring.
You can spot Jones every morning in
the mirror and you will need to.
You will learn not to wrestle Jones; you
will learn to be bigger than Jones.
Jones is hovering and you are called to
How Do You Know Jones
Does it matter? I could tell you but it’s
I know Jones. What difference does it
make – how?
I see Jones every morning in the mirror
and Jones knows me.
I have come to know Jones better, I
think, than Jones knows me. I have the
It’s not much of an edge but that’s all I
need — an edge.
The edge keeps both Jones and I on
our toes. Nimble. That edgi-ness.
It’s a matter of degrees, edges;
Absolutes? No way.
Jones loves absolutes, will try to
distract you with them –
Do not be distracted.
Stay on the edge. Keep the edge. The
edge, baby, the edge is everything.
The Dragon Jones
You need a lot of friends to elude that
dragon. Friends and talk. Talk talk, then
Jones insinuates itself within, the
dragon Jones. The dragon will try to
engage you in conversation. Do not. No
talking with the dragon.
Talk to your friends.
Talk to others who know the dragon.
Make it daily. First today, then
tomorrow, the next day, etc. Every day
the dragon perches.
Every day is the day to meet the
dragon. Today, for example.
Take your friends with you until you
understand. We have to be together on
Alone — we are lost.
Near Jew-town in Cochin, there is a restaurant, near the water, nice location and well equipped, that was once a large home. This is still obvious from the street.
It once was the home of one of the sustaining families of the Pardesi synagogue, our guide said, where we read the Torah on Shabbat. The Koder family were prominent Jews, the patriarch Samuel started an electric company and a chain of department stores. The home is built on a Portuguese model, some of it even gabled in Europe, three floors, one for each child. The Koder family came to Cochin from Iraq in the early nineteenth century, the home dating from the early years of the twentieth century.
Ralphy had brought kosher chickens, frozen, with him from Mumbai and gave them to the chef at the restaurant. At the restaurant, they have all the old recipes of the family that once lived here, said Ralphy, and on special occasions they prepare them. Ralphy, always conscientious and respectful, knew the Shabbat preparations were not complete without the [kosher] chickens. So he packed them up and checked them through IndiGo, Indian domestic airlines to Cochin.
We had Friday night and Saturday afternoon meals at the restaurant, called Menorah, featuring the recipes of the family that once occupied the house. The chefs were delighted to serve the meals honoring the predecessors of the restaurant. Who once lived there lives again through the family recipes featured in that house. The restaurant is named Menorah.
There were many courses. They were excellent and often a surprise. There was a dark chocolate gelatinous dish, for example, I had never experienced before, not a pudding not a jello, something startling and wonderful. And, of course, the kosher chickens from Mumbai, prepared in the deep roasted tandoori style.
We made the blessings in the melodies I had heard in my heart at the synagogue, reviving the melodies in some approximate form that are bled into the stone floors, the walls of this home now restaurant, honoring the social ritual religious spiritual physical nexus in eating with a nod to memory that the restaurant, the neighborhood, the street, the synagogue maintains. Respect and rooted gestures have a place, even in a restaurant.
It was the week in Torah when we rise to the top of the mountain, see G*d, and have a little something to eat and drink (cf. Exodus 24:11). Amen.
Two Thanks-giving Stories
There was a contest on the radio. Write or speak your gratitude on this Thanksgiving. What are you grateful for? the radio announcer asked. Send in your story.
I heard the winners. It was a tie. Two women, one from California, one from Massachusetts.
First, the woman from California spoke. She was a sheep rancher, she raised sheep on a ranch in California. Her father before her worked the ranch. The ranch had been in her family for several generations.
She was, I imagine, a woman in her late forties. Her husband now also worked the ranch, along with her eighty year old father. They all lived right there on the ranch.
She spoke of the difficulties in running such an enterprise these days. The cost of harvesting and processing the wool is for the first time greater than what it can be sold for, in addition to which there has been five years of drought in her area. “There’s dust in everything,” she said, “and the grazing land is parched and cracked,” her flocks thin and diminished, her father old and tired, herself and her husband frustrated.
I waited for the punch line. What was she grateful for on this Thanksgiving? I wondered.
The night before telling her story, it rained. It rained an inch and a half. The dust liquified back into the earth, the earth smoothed and healed off some of its cracks, but this was not the source of her gratitude. Certainly all the difficulties of running a sheep ranch in these days were not solved by an inch and a half of rain. This was a bonus, a sign, perhaps, a clue, but not a solution, not even a temporary one, it may have been a joke: God writes straight with crooked lines. Rain, as if that would make a difference.
What was she grateful for had to do with her tired 80 year old father who has seen so many seasons come and go on the ranch, something to do with herself and her husband working the family ranch scouting the sky week after week, month after month, year after year for rain. It had to do with the shared judgment about their business which is fragile, outdated, bound up with the shared destiny of one family, one plot of land, one generation after another, being in that thing together, the tenderness as she described her father waddling into the farmhouse after a long day of work, and the brave possibility that the ranch would yet turn a profit somehow. Another season. The possibility, the hope of a future, measured not only in rain but in the dignity of these human beings who hope, who imagine it working, again, for the sacred possibility of the future, hope, hope, hope. Hope sustains, everything possible when you have hope.
The second woman tied for first prize in the radio contest. She was from Massachusetts, a Jewish woman I imagined, from her name, from her brand of humor. She was very funny. About the same age as the other woman, late forties. This was her story: It has been almost a year since he died, she began, and still she hasn’t set up a tombstone for him. It was a marriage no one thought would work — he had been married 3 times previous, she several times herself. Neither looking to get married ever again, they met. Against all advice, against their own better judgment and plans for living, they married anyway. Out of the chaos of two lives and ex-wives and kids and step kids and recriminations they found deep love, love that outlasted the complexities of their lives, and calmed them, tamed them both.
She spoke her story touching, funny, sad. A year after they married, he became ill, given not much hope for even another year. He lived six, living with dignity and joy and living more deeply than ever before because everything was so precious. Every moment.
Now he was gone. She was broke. Public aid in Massachusetts had all but dried up. She had not been able to find full time work, she was substitute teaching in Boston. What was she grateful for? I was waiting to hear.
This: first, many friends. They called her regularly and invited her to meals, she usually declined but loved the invitations. Someone brought over a load of firewood to heat her wood burning stove as winter came on. She was grateful because she had felt her heart unlock to life so freely that it would never close again, the great gift of love that changed her permanently.
The last thing she said: I’m alone, broke, but not unhappy, not in the least afraid. As a matter of fact, I’m rather content, she said, because I believe something, my little way of thinking about things, that may sound wacky but I really believe this –
I think of him as if he has gone away somewhere ahead of me, as if to find the perfect apartment, you know something near a bookstore, where there is a cafe that serves fresh raspberries all year round. He has gone there ahead of me to find the perfect place for us, she said. I am as certain of this as I am of anything: we will meet again, and because I believe this, I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving, content and not at all afraid of the future. Everything is possible when you believe in something.
These are the two American stories of gratitude that I heard on the radio just before Thanksgiving.
I listened and then I wrote my own tale of gratitude. It had to do, like the ones I had heard, with health, and loving somebody, with what I believe that gets me through the long nights, with a vague sense of possibility, that everything is going to be all right, of hope, I suppose, that accompanies all our lives like a sense of something fine arriving from the distance, something good, hope, that’s it.
In the distance, it’s God you are discerning, or nature, or whatever it is you believe in that animates your life. This is what you are hearing bearing down on you:
it’s going to be all right.
is going to be just fine.
Have a wonderful holiday.
james stone goodman
united states of america
Kristallnacht Night of Broken Glass
November 9, 1938
Surely this is the beginning of the end
Outside they are howling in the street
Broken glass everywhere
My business destroyed
Humiliated and assaulted
Remember this night
Official beginning of war against the Jews
Goebbels’ pogrom; the threat
Of international Jewry
Synagogues destroyed 101
Businesses destroyed 7,500
Jewish souls arrested 26,000
Sent to camps
What kind of threat are we?
To the Future –
They took our property our livelihood
It began with greed
Emptied out into evil
It has a face
Passive and blank
A hollow nation
Do not respect the darkness
Three days after Kristallnacht, on November 12, Goering called a meeting of the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage and discuss strategy. Goering, Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Walter Funk and other high Nazi officials.
The intent of this meeting: shift responsibility for Kristallnach to the Jews, and to create strategy using the events of Kirstallnacht to promote a series of antisemitic laws designed to remove Jews from the German economy.
An interpretive transcript of this meeting is provided by Robert Conot, Justice at Nuremberg, New York: Harper and Row, 1983:164-172:
“Gentlemen! Today’s meeting is of a decisive nature,’ Goering announced. “I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another. Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled.”
“[The Holocaust] was not only genocide, but it was also the greatest theft in history.”
– Natan Sharansky, Chairman of Jewish Agency, NY Times, May 3, 2011.