January 16, 2019

Passover 5774/2014 – What Dementia Can Teach Us About Love, Loss and Liberation

And I shall inscribe on the tablets the words that were upon the first tablets which you broke, and you shall place them into the ark. (Deut. 10:2)

Rav Yosef [said], “This teaches that both the second tablets and the broken pieces of the first were placed in the [holy] ark. From here we learn regarding a Torah scholar who involuntarily forgot his learning that we must not treat him in a demeaning manner.” (Menachot 99a, B. Talmud)

This year, I had planned to write a Talmud-based piece on the importance of refined speech at our Seders. I spread out my books. I began by saying that Passover is the one night of the year when every Jew studies Talmud – the source of our Haggadah’s discussions on plagues, liberation, and of course, the Four Questions (which were originally three).

I planned to show how our Sages actually opened their discussion about Passover in the Talmud: a debate about the correct time to conduct the search for leavened bread in our homes. One would think this material is highly technical, but in reality it’s beautiful and poetic.

The Sages begin by saying that on the ohr of the 14th of Nissan (the day before Passover), we search for leavened bread by the ohr of a candle (Mishnah, Pesachim 2a, B. Talmud).

Ohr means light, as is clear from the second part of the Mishnah. So what is the ohr of the 14th of Nissan? It turns out that “light” in this situation means “night.”

Why do the Sages say “light” when they mean “night?”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “A person should never emit a coarse expression from his mouth.” (Pesachim 3a, B. Talmud)

But is “night” such a course expression? Yes, if you have an alternative. The Sages were extremely careful with speech. For example, Yochanan Chakukaah went out to fields to inspect the much needed wheat crop. When he returned to the city, his anxious colleagues asked him if the wheat crop had turned out well. Not wishing to utter negative words, he said “The barley crop turned out well.”

His colleagues scolded him, saying “Go and give your news to the horse and donkeys…” (who eat barley). What should he have said? “The wheat crop turned out well last year.” (Pesachim 3b, B. Talmud)

If it all sounds strange and overly punctilious to our ears, it probably sounded just as overcooked to the layman 2,000 years ago. Our Sages, however, were making a point.

Speech matters. It is not only our primary means of communication – it is also our primary means of hurting one another. Thus, when we gather at beautiful events like a Passover Seder, we must not waste our opportunity to rise together toward G-d by arguing, condemning, and proffering evidence of each other’s shortcomings. Causing such hurt is nigh onto a sin.

All of this, and more along these lines, I planned to write in my Passover blog. Yet now it seems less important than the non-words which weigh on my heart.

A close family member is rapidly losing the ability to form words, or even to complete thoughts, due to frontal lobe dementia.

As we gather for Passover this year, no one is thinking about hurt feelings or past arguments. We’re all thinking about this magnificent and beloved person who is fading away before our eyes.

Our hearts are broken.

There is a silver lining. Dysfunction is almost completely absent. Everyone brings grace and cheer as the sun dips toward the horizon on our family member’s conscious journey through life.

And oh, how heart-wrenchingly beautiful is that member’s effort to communicate love for us with the vocabulary that remains. It doesn’t matter what we all did this morning or last year or decades ago in the person's memory. It doesn’t matter that a thought gets tangled and lost between the beginning of a sentence and its fragmented end – still our family member yearns to express love toward each of us, and succeeds!

As Rav Yosef taught after he lost much of his memory, a Torah scholar must not be demeaned for losing his learning. Like the broken tablets that once contained the Ten Commandments, the one who has lost knowledge, words, and memories can still teach profound wisdom; if we will just listen with our hearts.

Forget the words. Now is the time to place a hand on that person’s hand. It says so much more than any utterance can.

My pals, enjoy your families. Speak wisely or not at all. Pray for us, and we will pray for you.

May you have a sweet, meaningful and Torah-drenched Passover.

Sal shares a bit of Jewish wisdom at “>accidentaltalmudist.org.