"I want to tell you something about your father that I’ve never told you before."
It was the night of my father's yahrtzeit, when my family gets together to honor my father's soul. My mother's brother, Rabbi Jacob, recalled the very first time he met my father.
"After the war, we settled into a tiny basement apartment. It is difficult to describe the atmosphere. We were shell-shocked. We were just happy to be alive and have a place to put our heads to sleep. We wanted so badly to rebuild. In those days, it was a miracle to find family that survived.
His brought light into that tiny dark apartment.
“One day, the phone rang and your father introduced himself. He said that he has the same last name, Jungreis, and believes he is a distant cousin. Of course, Mama and Zaydah (my grandparents) invited your father over immediately. Whatever little we had, we were happy to share. Though we survived the flames of Bergen Belsen, we lost grandparents, great-grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. We lost everything that we owned, but at least we had each other. Yet your father had lost everyone. We could not imagine what condition he would be in.
"He walked through the door that night. He was very tall. But what I remember most is his laughter. He would try to cheer everyone up and create a happy atmosphere. Here we were, thinking that we would be helping him, but he touched us all with his joy. He always had a joke to make us smile. His terrific sense of humor brought light into that tiny dark apartment.
“And how he could sing! He had a beautiful voice and would love to sing. I recall thinking how amazing this is: A man who suffered incredible devastation, but can still fill the room with song. What a gift."
Back in Egypt
I wonder to myself how my father found this gift of song, joy and laughter despite all the suffering. How often do we face challenges and feel down and dismal, unable to even extend a smile or a good word?
On Passover, many of us will sit down to the Seder after going through a difficult year. Some have suffered devastation through Hurricane Sandy. Others have faced intense financial pressures, challenges with children or spouses that have caused heartbreak, health issues, or emotional problems. There is no end to the struggles that life can bring. We are confronted with the frightening threat of Iran and the hatred of radical Islam across the world. Rocket fire has sent our brothers and sisters in the heart Israel to find shelter.
This is our own personal Egypt.
On Seder night, we recall our bondage in Egypt – Mitzrayim in Hebrew, derived from the word tzar – narrow. Every generation has its own Mitzrayim – those moments of feeling overwhelmed, as if standing on a narrow path with nowhere to go. At such times we are overcome by the emotion of “narrowness” – feeling constricted, almost choking.
We lay awake, and wonder what will be.
We are back in Egypt.
Darkness to Dawn
On Passover night, we open our Haggadah and fill the night with song. Music is the language of the soul, lifting us to a higher sphere. We sing the Four Questions; we sing Dayenu – thanking God for all His kindness; we sing the Hallel prayer of praise; we sing Echad Mi Yodeyah, Chad Gadya, and other melodies that have been passed down for generations.
As we sing, we recount the story of our people. How in every generation they have tried to destroy us, but God has never forsaken us. How we were afflicted, mistreated and oppressed – but never abandoned. How God heard our cries and remembered His covenant with our ancestors.
Yet why mention all this pain and suffering? Shouldn't we focus instead on the many miracles? Why should our children stay up late into the night hearing about plagues and slavery, and experiencing the bitterness of marror?
On Seder night we have the opportunity to transmit a legacy to the hearts and minds of our children. The legacy that though we have suffered, we have also triumphed. We understood through those years in Egypt that no matter where life takes us, no matter how difficult the challenge, we will never be abandoned by God. Yes, there will be difficult nights ahead. There will be moments that we feel as if we are living in the confines of Egypt. But after the darkest part of night, comes the dawn and redemption. We must never lose hope. Not for ourselves and not for our people.
The Song of Life
The first great song in the Torah comes after the splitting of the sea, soon after the Jews had left Egypt. Our Sages teach that many families suffered the loss of loved ones during the plague of darkness. Imagine how much pain these survivors felt. It would be easy for them to just give up. Yet they found within themselves the ability to transcend all adversity and join Moses in song. The children of Israel refused to extinguish their inner spark.
The song of life must always carry on.
Herein lies the guiding message of Seder night: There will be times when we feel weary. When our spirits are down. When we have no strength. Yet we must never lose our ability to open our hearts with joy. This is the moment that faith is born. God lives within our hearts.
As we guide our children and those who join us at the Seder table, we must remember this message: Do not fall into darkness. Never lose hope. Even in the most difficult times, there is a Divine plan and purpose. This understanding will sustain us and enable us to maintain our spirit. And with that faith we will bring triumph over adversity.
The last days I had with my father were spent gathered around his bedside in song. We filled his gray hospital room with the melodies and prayers that he would sing to us as children. And when we were grown, he would carry our babies on his shoulders and continue to sing his precious song.
On Seder night, we retell the story of our people. We lift ourselves into the realization that despite sadness and loss, we must never close our hearts. This was my father’s legacy: The song of life must always carry on.