Bamidbar (Numbers) 8:1-12:16
June 8, 2012
'In the second month [Iyar] on the afternoon of the fourteenth day, he shall prepare it [the second Passover Sacrifice]; and he shall eat it with matzot and bitter herbs' (Numbers 9:11)
One of the many injunctions in this week’s portion is that of Pessah Sheni – “second Passover” – a “second chance” for anyone who was ritually impure on Passover to bring the festival sacrifice and eat it four weeks later. At this time, though there would be no festival and no prohibition of hametz (leaven) one could partake in this delayed Passover sacrificial meal with matza and bitter herbs.
Although the analogy is not completely apt, this strange combination of Passover, hametz and matza sparked within me some significant childhood memories which may contain important lessons regarding our attitude toward different kinds of “religious” observances.
Throughout his life, my paternal grandfather, Shmuel, was a communist. In Czarist Belorussia, he organized the workers in his father’s factory to protest against their boss. In 1906 he escaped from Siberia to New York and opened a woodworking business, which he handed over to the workers as soon as it became profitable. He was a Yiddishist – an atheist who wrote a regular column for the Freiheit (the New York Yiddish communist newspaper) – and he truly believed that “religion was the opium of the masses.”
When I was about three years old, he crafted for me a miniature “stool and table” set as a special gift; it remains in our family until this very day. He then asked me to try to place my fingers in the manner of the kohanim during the priestly benediction; when I did it successfully, he kissed me on the forehead and admonished me: “Remember, we are kohanim, Jewish aristocracy. Always be a proud Jew.”
As he left the house, I remember asking my mother what “Jew” and “aristocracy” meant.
Another childhood memory is of a train ride we took together from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where I lived, to Kings Highway, where he lived. Two elderly hassidim boarded the train and sat directly opposite us; three neighborhood “toughs” began taunting the hassidim and pulling at their beards.
My grandfather interrupted his conversation with me and looked intently at the drama unfolding in front of us. As soon as the train came to a stop, he lunged forward, grabbed the three hoodlums, and literally threw them out of the compartment. Trembling with fear, as the doors closed with the toughs outside, I asked my grandfather, “Why did you protect them? You aren’t even religious.”
Nonchalantly, he responded, “They are part of our Jewish family. And you must always protect the underdog.
That’s what Judaism teaches.”
And now the point of my reminiscences. In the Brooklyn of my childhood, there were two Passover Sedarim; the first we celebrated at the home of my religious maternal grandmother, and the second with my communist grandfather. On his dining room wall hung two pictures, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who he thought was bringing communism to America) and the other of Joseph Stalin.
On the beautifully set table were all the accouterments – matza, maror (bitter herbs), haroset, the egg and the shank bone – but on the side were fresh rolls for family members who preferred pumpernickel to the “bread of affliction.” We read from the Haggada and my grandfather read passages from Marx, Engels and Shalom Aleichem about communist idealism and our obligations to the poor. For an 11-year-old who adored his intellectual and idealistic grandfather, there seemed to be no contradiction between the different foods and the various and variegated readings.
When I came upon the fascinating law of Pessah Sheni, the “second chance” Passover sacrifice that features the roasted meat, the matza, maror and haroset together with the hametz and without the usual festival prohibitions, this was the closest thing I could imagine to my grandfather’s Seder. An evening that featured the “peoplehood” and familial aspects of a celebration which taught us to identify with the slave, the stranger, the downtrodden, but without fealty to God who placed restrictions upon our diet and our activities. My grandfather was “far away” from the traditional definitions of observance; he was even “defiled by death” – the spiritual death of communism that had captivated his intellectual world like an evil, seductive slave woman (Rav A.Y. Kook, Iggarot R’eya 137).
Such a Seder has no staying power; to the best of my knowledge, none of my Riskin cousins have Jewish spouses or attend Passover Sedarim. By the end of his life, my grandfather himself understood this. In our last discussion before his fatal heart attack, while reclining on the bed of a Turkish bath, he told me of his great disillusionment with communism after reading of Stalin’s anti-Semitic plots against Jewish doctors and Yiddish writers of the Soviet Union.
“I gave up too much too soon for a false god. I yearn for the Sabbaths of my parents’ home. I now understand that all of communist idealism is expressed in the words of our Prophets and experienced in the Passover Seder. You are following the right path…”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, including the Center for Jewish & Christian Understanding and Cooperation (http://www.cjcuc.org) and chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Efrat.