Last year, the seder – all of Pesach really – was a blur. We were hardly up from shloshim, the first thirty days of mourning, for my dad. He was on my mind then, but he’s on my mind now too, even – or because of – the intervening time.
As I prepare for the second Passover since my father died, I still can’t get one conversation with him out of my mind.
It’s not just because this will be only the fourth time in my life sitting down to the seders without him at the table. It’s not because there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think of something I’d like to tell my dad, or a question I wish I could ask him. And it’s not even because I can’t believe my young children will never have the chance to steal his afikomen.
Rather, as I’m still struggling to somehow take away the capstone life lessons my dad tried to impart, it’s this one conversation I keep returning to.
My father and I were walking through Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, heading to my sister’s home. It was a Friday night and we were on our way back from the Western Wall.
“Daddy,” I asked, “did you ever think in 1944 that in 2004, you’d be praying at the Kotel, under Jewish guard, walking in Jerusalem with a Jewish government, on the way to Friday night dinner with your grandchildren?”
A child survivor of the Holocaust who’d spent the war years in hiding, my father answered in a single word. “No.”
Left unsaid were two lessons my father showed us throughout his life by way of example: to never lose a sense of history and to always have gratitude for what he had rebuilt.
Coincidentally perhaps, at the seders, it is those two lessons that leap from the pages of the Haggadah. These are the same lessons we are tasked with remembering – and teaching our children – on Passover. The former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, writes that the Exodus is especially about the idea of G-d active in history. And Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union has noted – once in conversation with His Holiness Pope Benedict no less – the overriding emotion we must feel on Passover is gratitude.
My father was eternally grateful; grateful for having survived the Shoah, grateful for the relatives who brought him to the US after the war and who housed him and clothed him, grateful to those who taught him English, and to those who hired him. He was grateful to the United States, where he could live freely as a Jew. And most of all, he was grateful for his family and community.
He was also obsessed with history. He believed the greatest what-if question was “What if there had been a Jewish state in 1940?” That obsession affected every decision he made – from synagogue attendance to choosing schools and summer camps for his children.
My father was obsessed with Jewish history precisely because he was so concerned about Jewish destiny.
While we can’t change history, destiny is ours to be made.
That’s what the Exodus and the Haggadah prove. They relate story after story of those who changed their destiny. We go back to Abraham and Jacob and their choices. We remember how the Exodus began with the choices made by a trio of strong-willed women, the Israelite midwives Yocheved and Miriam who together with Batya, the Egyptian princess, save the life of Moses, who in turn changes the course of the Jewish people’s fate by intervening in the course of history.
As we read through the story again, as we sing Dayeinu and hold a cup of wine for the Hallel, I hope to recognize much more our ability to act to change things for the better. And, thinking of how I’ll be looking down the table at my wife and daughters, my mother and my in-laws, and thinking of the many friends who have been there for me throughout my dad’s illness, death, and since, I’m already filled with gratitude.
It looks like my Dad will be joining us at the seders, after all.