By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Yizkor 8th Day Pesach 5778
Last weekend we were able to celebrate our first Sedarim here in Dallas, hosting new friends and members of our Shearith community for both nights. We enjoyed two warm, discussion and ruach (spirit)-filled evenings that both went late into the night. It was a treat to be able to celebrate Pesach with such lovely people, especially since we don’t have any family here in the Dallas area. Growing up, and over the years, the Sedarim have always been a particularly special and festive occasion.
Going back to when my younger brother and I were children, my dad compiled a “Sunshine family Haggadah” from a combination of many other Haggadot and sources, which he reproduced and put in plastic three-ring binders for use by all participants at our family Seder, and would update every year with a new reading or two. From those days in my parents’ home, it became our custom as we sat down at the table for the Seder to have my mom set the tone by reading one of her poems that we included at the beginning of that family Haggadah, entitled, “Room at the Table: A Seder Prayer”.
I’ve heard this poem many times now over the years, but ever since my grandfather died back in 2004, my mom’s reading of this poem has felt a little different. There is more hesitation and emotion in her voice when she reads the passage about “our mothers, our fathers, our dear old Zayde who led us to this table before”. She explains her reaction by noting that “he seemed like such a vital person, larger than life; it never seemed possible he wouldn’t be here”. I couldn’t agree with her more.
No doubt many of us have felt the same way about a loved one who passed away. We hope against hope that life will continue indefinitely. But, as we know, death is a part of our cycle of life, one that cannot be delayed forever. Even someone who pitched batting practice for the old NY Giants in the days of Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott, and who, as a Major in the U.S. Army, was recruited by the Haganah to train its tank defense unit before Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 (he declined because my mother was a little baby at the time and ultimately Col. Mickey Marcus was recruited to fill that role, a story that was told in the film “Cast a Giant Shadow” starring Kirk Douglas), someone of great stature and strength whose physical height and personal integrity in life both cast imposing shadows, was mortal.
I haven’t yet mentioned my grandpa’s name—it was Samson Altman, in Hebrew Shimshon HaGibbor, “Samson the Great”. Truthfully, I always wondered whether my great-grandparents really named him “Shimshon HaGibbor”, or if it was just Shimson but was embellished by virtue of a family urban legend on account of his height and stature, but I have been assured that this was, in fact, his full name. When it comes to the narratives surrounding his biblical namesake, Samson from the Book of Judges, we find a beautiful story that may offer us some comfort regarding mortality and loss. As the book of Judges relates, Shimshon is heading down to the town of Timnah to see the woman he wants to marry. En route, a full-grown lion attacks him, but because God’s spirit gives him strength, Shimshon kills the lion with his bare hands. Sometime later, he heads back in that direction and turns off the main road to see the remains of the lion. There, in the lion’s skeleton, Shimshon finds a swarm of bees, and honey; he eats some of the honey and even brings some back for his parents. The incident appears to have made an impact on Shimshon, because he later refers to it in a riddle he poses to his Philistine enemies, saying “Me-az yatza matok”, “out of the strong came something sweet”.
What a great teaching for us—the lion, the king of beasts, epitomizes strength, and yet even it does not end up living forever. But what is left behind in the wake of the lion after its death? Busy bees producing sweet honey. For our perspective, at first blush, when those whom we love pass away, we tend to think that an era has come to an end. And yet—in the shadow of their remarkable strength, be it physical strength and/or strength of character—their integrity, their wisdom, their values, their commitment to family and to Judaism—there remains a delicious sweetness. It is the sweetness of the legacy which they left behind for us, that we continue to taste even long after we can no longer hug them, kiss them, or see their smiling faces across the room. Their legacy is also one that we reproduce and perpetuate daily through the Jewish values we teach, the choices we make, and the actions we take. We are the bees in the shadow of the lion, building on the strength of those who came before us, busily engaging life to its fullest and living as meaningfully as ever, even though a piece of us has been torn away.
Somehow, through the pain and the sense of loss, we must try our best to find and cultivate the sweet legacy that has been left behind for each of us. It is particularly hard to navigate this feeling of loss on the holiday of Pesach, when the physical absence of our dearly departed at a place like our family’s Seder table is all too noticeable. It is at times like these that we pause for a few moments during our rejoicing to recall and pay tribute to our loved ones who can longer celebrate our rich Jewish traditions with us in this world. We call to mind the memories of mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, sisters, brothers, grandparents, and other relatives and friends, and we look to them for continued inspiration and guidance as today we reaffirm our commitment to keep reproducing the sweet honey that remains in their shadows even after their passing. May their memories always be a source of blessing for us and for everyone who knew them. AMEN
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share