Hofmann LSD 298 courtesy.
(photo credit: )
I've lately been pondering the convergence of Pessah in the year 1943 with a scientific discovery made in Basel, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Let me explain the connections I see.
As I began preparing for Pessah last week, I recalled that we are in the midst of twin anniversaries that go back 64 years - the discovery of LSD's potency by Dr. Albert Hofmann, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising - both of which occurred in conjunction with that year's Pessah.
The first accidental absorption of lysergic acid diethylamide-25, and then, three days later, the first conscious ingestion of a minute quantity (250 micrograms) of this chemically synthesized psychoactive substance, have had, through its subsequent manufacture and distribution, a transformative psychological, social and cultural influence on the world.
A mixed influence, to be sure, as not all users experience the same effect. For some, it has been a spell-binding journey of kaleidoscopic colors and spiritual exaltation, while for others it has been a journey through hell and a visit to the depths of despair and depression. For some, indeed, for many, it has been a visit to both these polar opposites, either on the same trip or in vastly contrasting trips.
THE HUMAN psyche is a delicate mechanism, an arena where powerful internal forces strive for dominance and control. Aldous Huxley describes one function of the brain as a filter, one which carefully and constantly screens input and prevents overload, or, in kabbalistic terms, an excess of light for the strength of the vessel, a crisis which can cause a shattering, a shvirat hakeilim.
Scientists are said to estimate that the human brain can process one million bits of information every second, but that only 40 such bits become conscious. When this screen is lifted or made more permeable, the resulting flood of sensations, images, and concepts can upset the individual's balance or lift him or her to new heights of inspiration. As William Blake wrote, "When the doors of perception are cleansed, everything will appear as it is, infinite."
This perception, I would add, includes an appreciation of the interconnectedness of all things, the inner meaning of the One God, as I understand the phrase. Ben Azzai avers, "There is no person that has not his hour and no thing that has not its place" (Pirke Avot, 4:3). Likewise, Ein od milvado - "There is no place that lacks God's Presence" (Devarim, 4:35).
To me, therefore, the maintenance of balance and the quest for justice, in all realms, is the implied mandate of this experience, even a religious obligation.
THE FIRST of these signal events, the accidental LSD absorption, occurred on April 16, 1943, which, following the Hebrew lunar calendar, coincides with the 11th day of Nisan.
In 1943, 11 Nisan fell on a Friday, Erev Shabbat Hagadol. This special Shabbat precedes Pessah, which is biblically designated to begin on the 14th day of Nisan, in the evening - Seder night. That year it fell on a Monday, the evening of April 19.
April 16 was the day on which Albert Hofmann, the chemist who had first discovered LSD-25 in 1938, and then set it aside as being of no observable value, decided to cook up another batch and test it again.
At some point during the experiment he could not help but notice unusual physical and mental phenomena. The full account of these changes and his subsequent actions are fully described in his book, LSD - My Problem Child, which I highly recommend. He did not know to what to ascribe the onset of these phenomena, but he suspected that LSD-25 was the cause, a minute quantity of which, he reasoned, might have been absorbed through his skin.
Three days later, he tried the experiment again. This time he purposely ingested, orally, a minuscule quantity of the compound and was rewarded with the first full-blown, conscious LSD trip in history.
Although Hofmann is not a Jew, I am persuaded that his experience replicated the true meaning of the Pessah Holy Day, which is known in our liturgy as Zman herutenu, "the Season of our Liberation."
This year, the 11th day of Nisan also fell on a Friday, March 30, while the 14th day of Nisan, Erev Pessah, again fell on a Monday, April 2, with the Seder in the evening, although both anniversaries occur 17 days earlier than in 1943, according to the solar calendar.
IN 1943, another signal event occurred. Nazi generals, intending to make an offering to their f hrer on his birthday, April 20, directed their war machine in an attack on the Warsaw Ghetto.
To their shock and dismay, the lightly armed but desperate and determined Jewish residents mounted a counterattack and drove the Germans out. This revolt was the first civilian uprising in occupied Europe.
The defense of the ghetto lasted for three weeks, and pockets of resistance continued to be active for several months afterwards. The heroic resistance of the Jews and the dismay of the German forces and their collaborators marked a psychological turning point in the war. The Poles were emboldened by Jewish resistance to stage their own revolt a year later, and the uprising encouraged partisan fighters, concentration camp prisoners, and Allied forces alike. It punctured the myth of Aryan invulnerability and led to the ultimate defeat of the Nazi regime.
Thus, the struggle for freedom encoded in the Haggada was manifested in multiple ways in that terrible and magnificent spring of 1943, 64 years ago.
This holiday, we need to give thanks for our continual process of liberation and redemption and rejoice in it again and again. We should lift a Fifth Cup to the many journeys we have taken, and the ones yet to be made, by all of humankind, to the time of our true and lasting liberation.
The writer, an essayist, is founding editor of Agada and lives in Safed.