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D'var Torah by Rabbi Efrat Zarren Zohar

Friday, April 22nd, 2016 / 14 Nissan, 5776


As we enter Pesach, I want to share with you an edited version of one of the most moving drashot about Passover I've ever encountered. Not surprisingly (to me), it's written by David Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Jewish Learning Institute, (also a former Melton teacher and an outstanding educator). In it you will see a very moving video testimonial by Dustin Hoffman which, no doubt, will make your Pesach experience even more meaningful.

"Dustin Hoffman is leading your Seder this year. A few months ago, he was on the PBS show Finding your Roots. The show invites celebrities to dig deep into their genealogies. These family histories always turn out to be illuminating, and often surprising. Hoffman's was not surprising - it is a sadly common tale of Eastern European Jews. But it's his reaction that puts him at your Seder table.

Hoffman's family came from what is now Ukraine, but was in the early 20th century Soviet Russia. His grandfather was able to get to the United States. But he took an enormous risk and returned to Russia to rescue his parents (Hoffman's great-grandparents) from anti-Semitic programs. He failed in his mission. Both he and his father were killed by the Bolsheviks. After her husband was killed, Hoffman's great-grandmother, Liba Hoffman, was sent to a Soviet concentration camp. Somehow she survived, made her way to Argentina, and eventually immigrated to the United States. If you knew the condition of her health (and you will in a moment) her fortitude would be all the more astonishing.

This short summary can't begin to convey the drama of the show as the host reveals Hoffman's family history piece by piece. What makes the drama particularly intense is that Hoffman knows nothing of that history. Everything he's told about his ancestors is a revelation to him.

Here's a video clip of his reaction at the end of the show. You really must watch it (it's only one-minute long) before you continue reading. It opens with him being shown his great-grandmother's immigration form when she entered the United States:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ColbtbywGH8

What a stunning moment.  That "I'm a Jew" comes out of nowhere.  Even he seems surprised.  He says that it was the first thought that came to him, and that it came "forcefully."  It's also the ultimate Passover moment.  He makes what may be the most important verse in the Haggadah come to life. The verse is: "In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he was actually redeemed from Egypt." 

I've always understood the purpose of the verse: to motivate us to learn. There's no way we can feel like Israelites freed from slavery unless we know the history and meaning of Passover.  That's why the Seder is one big educational program.  But I never really understood mechanics of the verse.  How does one get to feel as if he or she actually left Egypt?

Then along comes Hoffman and exposes the true, visceral spirit of the verse.  A mere thirty minutes of knowledge about his past, and he cries out "I'm a Jew."  He doesn't say it.  He gushes it.  He didn't weigh all the information and rationally decide that he's part of the Jewish People.  His feeling of Jewishness burst forth from him, uncontrolled, as soon as learned about his past.

...Hoffman is not simply emotional.  We are watching someone who unexpectedly finds a deep well of passion within himself.  And that passion comes from stumbling upon his Jewish self.  Simply put: Dustin Hoffman was ambushed by meaning. 

This is Judaism's essence.  All of the rules and rituals and texts and ideas and history are there to surprise us.  Jewish life is structured to give us the opportunity to be ambushed by meaning, ambushed by joy... 

Now for the hard part.  Hoffman says something that makes his "I'm a Jew" moment so much more powerful.  Talking about his parents he says, "Why did they want to erase all this?"  His pain and confusion are palpable as he tries to deal with his parents ignoring or hiding the Jewish part of his life.  Earlier in the show (but not in the video) he says the same thing again and adds - with astonishment and sadness - that he can't believe it took until he's almost eighty years old to begin his Jewish exploration.

The hard part?  First, all of us have obstacles that keep us from learning the most we can about Judaism.  Second, each of us is almost eighty: regardless of our level of Jewish commitment, none of us has enough time left to discover the true depth of our tradition.  Finally, and most important, since we're not celebrities no one is going to do the work for us.  We will never know really know about Jewish life unless we ourselves pursue Jewish knowledge.

Start at your Seder.  It doesn't matter whether or not you're the youngest, demand to ask the Four Questions.  Or 40 questions.  Or 400 Questions.  As many as it takes for you to truly understand what it means to be Jewish. 

Because you don't want to be like Dustin Hoffman and settle for an "I'm a Jew" moment.  Accept nothing less than an "I'm a Jew" lifetime."