Jewish Journal

What Pages Do You Skip?

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

April 2, 2014 | 6:43 am

I was sitting and talking with my friend, Dave, about his family's Pesach. He was telling me about his late father's haggadah.

"This is the tenth Pesach since my father's death. We have a pile of Maxwell House haggadot that we use every year. I was going through the pile. Just making sure that we have enough haggadot for the family seder. So, I picked up a haggadah and opened it up. In its pages, I found my father's handwriting in pencil. It was the haggadah that he used to use when he led our seders when I was a kid. On the bottom of page 38, I saw this little notation: 'Skip to Page 42.'  And that was when I lost it."

Dave was crying.

The story of Dave's father's haggadah is, on one level, the story of Judaism, written in miniature.

Yes, it means that we inherit a text. On another level, it's the story of Jewish renewal. Jewish history is always about finding and recovering the lost book. The scholar of Yiddish literature, David Roskies, once called the Jews "the people of the lost book." We are those who constantly find and renew the past.

On yet another level, the story of Dave's father's haggadah is about personal Jewish renewal. For the hidden book that we find contains pencil markings telling us which pages to skip.

Each of us has inherited a book from the Jewish past. And in each edition of the book, there are pencil markings that say which pages to skip.

Translation: Some things are in our understanding of Judaism, and what it wants us to do, and some things are not. Only the extreme Orthodox -- and frankly, not even them -- have a metaphorical haggadah with no pencil marks for things to skip.

Liberal Jews live with their own symbolic haggadot with pencil markings about the pages to skip – about the things they leave out of their Judaism.

But pay attention: the notations that say "skip to page 42" are written not in ink. They are written in pencil. The pencil is the great writing instrument of transience. The Hebrew word for pencil is iparon, from the Hebrew word afar, which means "dust."

One generation comes and says that you can skip certain pages, skip certain rituals, skip certain meanings. Another generation comes along and says that those instructions from the past are only in pencil – and that new generation comes along and erases the pencil markings. It says: No, we do not skip this. And/or: it adds its own pencil markings for its generation, and says: In our time, our best understanding of what God wants says: Read this. Do this. And, yes, maybe skip to this. 

I was thinking about this while watching the Simon Schama PBS series, “The Story of the Jews.” Yes, he omitted certain rather important things, and he put in things that, truth be told, might not be that important. That’s the way it is with historians. They notoriously leave certain things on the cutting room floor of memory, only to have a later generation retrieve those memories and make them live again.

When we construct our own personal memories, are we, really, any different?

Each of us is a lost Haggadah. Each of us is carpas, growth and renewal. Each of us is haroset, bricks of sweetness and building. Each of us is saltwater, tears, and sweat, anguish and ambition. Each of us is the zaroah, the shankbone of sacrifices made and offered and remembered. Each of us is maror, bitterness, that can only be consumed when it is mixed with the sweetness of haroset. Each of us is matzah, whole yet broken, broken yet whole. Each of us is a story: from degradation and failure to freedom. Each of us is many more questions that simply four. Each of us is many more children that simply four. And each of us is a moment of Dayennu: O if only I could do just this, just that, it would be enough.

Each of us must cross the waters and symbolically die to be re-born on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Each of us must cross the turbulent sea of conflicting memories and come to the other side. And then, we turn around and we see that the wilderness is still ahead of us, and that we have a long way to go, and that we will get there.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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