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Lechaim to Chutzpah!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he’s in the miracle business.  Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that’s hard.  And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in.  They pretty much did. 

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. .  . the sheep (no, I don’t know why).  It was the portent of, oh I don’t know, the television?  Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window!  Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you.  We call it chutzpah.
 
That’s why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach.  Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind, a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been.  The chutzpah they kept.  The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right.  The Jews who survived Europe fifty-five years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah.  The Jews in America who were bombarded with “The Disappearing Jew” series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools and Chabad centers were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing.  Their own thing.
 
The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and challenges (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim – the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt).  The Jews are defined by whatever Hashem wants them to define themselves.  (Mitzvhas are often called signs – definitions). 
 
So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don’t get annoyed.  Think chutzpah (it’s also good for the blood pressure). It’s not our reality.  Turn it off.  Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long.  And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind.

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Sound like double trouble?  Over-employment?  The latest synagogue sitcom?  Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 

We started that way.  Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there.  Moses’ older brother never was quite his associate rabbi.  Aaron was vastly more popular.  He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants’ business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home.  Mr. Nice.

Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal.  The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right.

Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace.  Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise.  Torah insists on both, hence a team was needed for the making of a people – not an individual.

Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, leadership qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged, and accusations of nepotism drained him.  Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 

The brothers’ dichotomy did not abate with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron’s funeral nearly doubled Moshe’s.  Not surprisingly, it was only upon Moshe’s passing that despair threatened the people.  But while Aaron’s popularity earned him a larger funeral, Moshe’s instruction earned him the role of leader.  Aaron’s passing evoked mourning; Moshe’s passing created a terrifying void.  Like money, you appreciate leadership when you don’t have it. 

We need our Aarons and we need our Moshes (including our intra-personal, internal ones).  One without the other is unbalanced.  If we favor the peace over truth because peace doesn’t demand of us and truth does, we’ll get neither.  It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is not a sitcom.

I Will Be As I Will Be

“Where were you?”  Whether the question is from Mom, the boss, the wife, the husband or the grown children; they are not asking, they are accusing: Why weren’t you where you were supposed to be?

Your answer is an excuse.  Unless you answer “I’ve been here the whole time.”
 
A shepherd sees a little lamb run off.  The shepherd runs after the lamb: to save it from wolves, to ensure the lamb has enough water and enough tender green grass.
 
While chasing the lamb, he sees a bush on fire, but it isn’t burning.  He takes off his shoes in deference.  He is told by he-knows-who to go free the people from Pharaoh. 
 
But they will ask me Your name, what do I say? asks the shepherd.  A bizarre question matched by an equally perplexing answer: tell them my name is I Will Be As I Will Be.  (It is the first recorded conversation between the world’s greatest teacher and the world’s foremost student.)
 
What is your name?  A name is how we relate; it defines who is speaking to whom.  If you say Dad, Mr. Smith, Dr. Smith or Sonny or Bubba you’re not talking about you or them; you are articulating a relationship. 
 
What is your name?  How have you related to these people as Pharaoh threw their sons into the Nile, kidnapped their daughters, bathed in their newborns’ blood? Used their children’s bodies to fill quotas of unmade bricks?  Where were you?
 
And He answers: Tell them I Will Be As I Will Be.  Where was I?  I was with them the whole time.  When Pharaoh bathed in their babies’ blood, it was my blood that was spilled.  When he shoved their tiny limbs into spaces meant for bricks, it was me who was shoved in there.  Everything they endured, I endured.  Everyone who tortured them tortured me.  Imo Anochi betzora I am with them in their suffering.
 
A bush is on fire but it is not consumed.  A nation is threatened with death -- killed time and time again -- but it does not die. 
 
But how does the bush burn without being consumed?  For it is I in the fire.  Just as I live forever, they live with me.  Just as these people live forever, I live with them.    We will get burnt on the way.  We will suffer.  But we will suffer together.  And we will not be consumed.  Alone.  Together.
 
Why though is all this suffering and retelling and reliving of this suffering not melancholy to those who live it and tell it and live it again?  Because it reminds them of the second phase of the words spoken to the barefooted shepherd.  That together we will live, we will leave.  With tangible treasure and unmitigated spirit.  

Live With Death; Die With Life

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O’Rourke, watch it when it does nothing.  If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card.

Many act like it ain’t happening.  They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead’s hair and apply them with make-up.  We’re here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head. 
 
They exchange stories of (I’m not making this up) the deceased’s delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!)  and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca “because Dad loved the water”.  But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown. 
 
Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get ‘there’ in time or at least get there for the funeral? 
 
And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges.  They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters.  Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.  
 
Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads.  And they listen.  Bury me with my parents.  And they listen.  I will tell you the end of days.  They listen but no words come.  I will bless you.  They listen and we echo their hearing. 
 
The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession.  Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many.
 
An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live.  She was neither alarmed nor distressed.  I’ve lived a good life, said she, and I am old.  And I’m happy; my grandchildren didn’t speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do.  She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola.  She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem.  Nor was there a generation gap:  she knew her grandchildren shared her world.  But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn’s first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language.
 
It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny.  That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren.  Everything we want, we want for our kids.  More than a man’s vacations, more than a man’s portfolio, if you want to know a man’s dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children.
 
Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob’s death and then Joseph’s: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life.  Actually, not so incongruously. 
 
Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?   In the face of finality the charades of life stop.
 
Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds.  Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together.  At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving.  Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed.  The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood.  And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged. 
 
The process exhausts us.  Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.

Cows, Dreams, Galus, Redemption

"...And, behold, seven other cows come up after them out of the River, ugly

and lean of flesh; and they stood by the other [fat] cows upon the brink of
the River." [Genesis 41:3]
 
An important but much-overlooked detail of Pharaoh's famous dream is the
fact that the seven lean cows stood side by side with the seven fat cows on
the bank of the river. In other words, all fourteen cows existed
simultaneously in Pharaoh's dream--unlike in reality, in which the seven
years of famine came after the seven years of plenty were over.
 
This is why Pharaoh's wise men, who thought up all kinds of exotic
interpretations to his dream (e.g., "seven daughters will be born to you,
and seven daughters will die"), did not accept the solution staring them in
the face. When are cows fat? When there's been a plentiful harvest! And when
are they lean? When there's famine. Ditto with the fat and lean ears of
corn. What could be more obvious?
 
But Pharaoh saw the fat and lean cows grazing together. You don't have years
of plenty and years of famine at the same time, said the wise men. The
dreams must mean something else--something less obvious, more metaphorical.
 
Joseph's genius was that he understood that Pharaoh's dreams not only
foretold events to come, but also instructed how to deal with them: they
were telling Pharaoh to make the seven years of plenty coexist with the
seven years of famine. When Joseph proceeded to tell Pharaoh how to prepare
for the coming famine, he wasn't offering unasked-for advice; that advice
was part of the dreams' interpretation. If you store the surplus grain from
the plentiful years, Joseph was saying, then the seven fat cows will still
be around when the seven lean cows emerge from the river--and the lean cows
will have what to eat.
 
The Chassidic masters note that the first galut ("exile") of the Jewish
people came about in a haze of dreams. Joseph's dreams, the baker and the
butler's dreams and Pharaoh's dreams brought Joseph, and then his entire
family, to Egypt, where they were to suffer exile, enslavement and
persecution until their liberation by Moses more than two centuries later.
Jacob's own earlier exile to Charan likewise began and ended with dreams.
 
For galut is a dream: a state of existence rife with muddled metaphors,
horrific exaggerations and logical  impossibilities. A state in which fat
and lean cows exist simultaneously--in which a cow can even be
simultaneously fat and lean.
 
Galut is a place where a thriving economy is both a blessing and a curse,
where the rising tide of freedom unleashes the best and the worst in man,
where a globe-griding Web conveys wisdom and filth, where we're saturated in
spirituality and spiritually impoverished at the same time.
 
But there's a way to deal with this cosmic mess. Listen to Joseph speak
(even Pharaoh recognizes good advice when he sees it). Don't run away from
the dream, says Joseph, don't look for some other meaning. Use it. If galut
presents you with the paradox of the fat cow and the lean cow grazing
together on the brink of the river, use the fat cow to nourish the lean cow.

Make the dream the solution.

Keeping it Real

Get real.  There is a world out there.  Get real, you gotta make a living.  Get real.  98% of America isn’t Jewish.  Get real: neither is 99.999% of the world.  Get real.  Since 1940 Jews have been disappearing faster than just about anyone.  Get real rabbi, these plans are gonna cost money.

Get real.  The Hellenes haven’t just conquered Israel they’ve conquered everything worth conquering.  Get real; everybody loves the theatre and stadiums, including your own Jews. Especially your own Jews: they’re more Greek than the Greeks.  Get real: the High Priest is more Greek than the Greeks. It’s just you and a couple of mountain goats who don’t want to go Greek. 

Get real: the Nile has raised the lushest, funnest, safest place.  Get real: nobody makes better linen, majestic homes, titillating parties.  Get real, 80% of your Hebrews are more Egyptian than the Egyptians and wouldn’t leave if the Good Lord himself knocked on the door.

You don’t get it, do you?

Thou shalt not bow down to idols. Fine, I don’t like bowing and I’ve never seen an idol so I shouldn’t.  I mean those little stone ivory and marble pieces why did those ancients bow down to them.  Anyways who cares, I’m not an anthropologist, I never even use words like anthropologist.  My subscription to National Geographic ran out, (whither Nambia?) and I haven’t heard talk about idols since Hebrew school. 

I celebrate Chanukah I celbrate Passover.  I mark our redemption form the ancient greeks and ancient Egyptians.  I don't worship idols.  I don’t daven in the morning, sometimes I’ll say a short prayer, thanking G-d for this new day, may it be glorious.  I go on-line to check my stocks, I hold my breath.  My morning devotion. 

Did the Maccabees win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 
Were they fighting the bad guys?  They were fighting the Greeks: Athens!  The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece.  Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates,
sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later.  Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body.  I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute.  Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.
The Maccabean revolt began - in large measure - when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem.  Irony of ironies, perhaps.  Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body.  We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah?  Why do Jews who insist they are "secular", who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December.  But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah
-- alone among the holidays - would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense.  The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law.  But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren't looking for loopholes. 
They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself.  They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists.  Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.
It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,
the body and mind are at peace.  Like animals in pasture.
But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,
He wouldn't need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies?  Not at all. 
Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount.  Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem.  Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium?  However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it.  No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

But the Maccabees were not either.  And that  is a miracle.  That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn't have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it's 'too Jewish', in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten.  There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 
Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.
A witness of a people who - at the end of the very long day - did not waiver. 

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells.  “Antiqued” furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line.

Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina.  Multi-million dollar homes are built to “have character”.  If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age.  Old is good.
 
Except for old people.  No one boasts of having their own senior citizen.  Or of being one.
 
And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves.  They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X.  They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived.  When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and – we add for good measure – can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto?
 
For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 
Youth is beautiful.  Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age.
 
The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired.
 
Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor.  In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.
 
Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 
A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing.  It can happen in a young person too:
we call them brats.
 
“Ba bayamim” the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham.  Come of his days.  Each day was full, was lived to its fullest.  He took on the next day with new vigor.  “Old, and with full days”, this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 
 
Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing.  The Talmud calls them dead: “even in their lifetimes, call them dead”. 
 
How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket.  How sad the daughter who holds onto her father’s memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because “he loved the water”.  This is what they have left?  Recipes and beach balls? 
Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents?  Is this legacy?
 
You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 
 
You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured.  A boy with Hodgkin’s is comforted.  You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours.  You learn some Torah.  You teach some Torah. 
 
You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children.  You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 
 
By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 
 
The soul breathes much as wine does:
The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe.  Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 
Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase.  

My Son the Doctor

My son the doctor had a son: he is now a neurosurgeon.  His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite: the girl he is not married to is not Jewish.  My son the lawyer had a daughter: she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley:  she’s forty-three and just met Mr. Right. 

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled not so long ago, containing little we didn’t already know anecdotally. Still, some of the numbers were shocking. 
 
Three hundred thousand less Jews than there were only ten years ago?  Forget Zero Population Growth: we’re eating away at our capital. 
 
And for what? Because we earn $8,000 per year more than the average American family!  We’re not having kids so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage.  My kingdom for a horse; my birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.
 
The problem is not simply that Jewish women don’t want to become Jewish mothers: it’s that Jewish men don’t want to become Jewish fathers.  Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution: give us back the husbands that you stole from us!  Until that revolt, men grew into fathers: fathers needed to provide, so men worked. Gradually men stopped merely working and providing, they went off to pursue a career, self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style).  If there are no fathers than who wants to be a mother?
 
Perhaps more than any parsha ours is laden with domesticity:  from our perspective at least, it is painful to hear the women pining after children and the husband’s attention that childbearing would earn them.  More easily overlooked is the husband who watches sheep all day in order to raise a family.  Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times; his twin brother led a high- pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle.   
 
‘Will our children say kaddish for us’ was the worry of a generation gone by.  We have no children, is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation.  Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused, overplayed and gauche.  Charged-up activism is annoying.  Go get a job!  Become successful! is the cry.  And the kids listen, in droves.
 
One of the positive aspects of the Sixties–Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but an idealism nevertheless.  When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn’t OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short.  The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism.
 
Parents want to provide their children with that what the parents grew up without.  That is good thing and a difficult accomplishment.  A perhaps greater accomplishment is to provide their children with that what the parent took for granted.  When that is overlooked, and the children are not given that what the parent had, then the children grow up without.  
 
It is not enough to want grandchildren.  You must want to have children who are parents: want sons who are fathers more than sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts.  And especially, want sons-in-law who are fathers more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons. 
 
My mother taught me that you can never choose to have a child: you can only choose not to have a child.  Never take for granted the blessing of life that you hold: that what made you what you are. 
 
For these are the children of Jacob: an unmitiagated faith that the chain has an inherent worth greater than what the link may empirically lack.  We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (how else to pay for day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.  

Made in America!

Pulling out of the JFK parking lot was an arrow ‘To Manhattan’ with a silhouette graphic of the world’s most recognized skyline: over the two vertical blocks was painted the American flag.  Several hours later having first stopped by the Ohel, (the Rebbe’s resting place) I had my first view of The City in over a year, the unbalanced skyline: the gaping wound of America. 

Jewish Brooklyn was thriving and Governor Pataki wanted their votes, campaign posters there are printed in Yiddish and English “er hut unz geshtitz, mir shtitzen em”; he supports us we support him.  Simple, forceful and blunt.  New York.
 
I was there for a conference of Chabad rabbis, shluchim – which serves a lot of us as part class reunion, part family reunion and part shopping trip.  The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday Night Banquet.  I had brought a friend from Rancho Mirage for the weekend.  “What’s our plan, like what happens?” he asked.  I wasn’t sure.  You eat.  Speeches.  I don’t like over-promising.
 
The roll call began.  The chairman had trouble with Azerbaijan, had an easier time with Congo, Bulgaria, Armenia, and another forty or so exotic names and gave oratorical flourish to England, Australia and Italy.  You really do forget what’s happening outside your niche; you realize that the Rebbe made his niche wherever there were Jews.
 
Then came the time-line roll call:  all the shluchim of the forties and fifties, the sixties, seventies and eighties – there were more in the nineties and 2K’s then all the decades combined!
 
Then came the children.  Nine, ten and eleven year olds who had accompanied their fathers – all rabbis – from the far-off corners of the roll call as well as from a stone’s throw from the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott: Brooklyn Heights, the Financial District (now called Ground Zero) and Park Slope.
 
The kids made a presentation repeating an identical message in the languages of the countries they came from: Swedish (sounds remarkably like Hungarian), German (snooty-nasal Yiddish), Russian (a cute kid, my cousin’s son) and the run-of-the-mill French, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and English.  The message of how they were proud of their parents etc. was undeniably rehearsed: hackneyed and stilted -- there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, or at least not on my face. 
 
Chaya, my wife, had just spoken last week to a classmate in Florida; her twelve-year-old son is perfectly capable of running every aspect their shul, and practically does.  My cousin running a Boston university Chabad House claims his kids are the ones who make a difference in anyone’s life: he tries to stand out of the way and let them do it.  Ditto Rancho Mirage.
 
These kids often leave home at painfully tender ages to go to the yeshiva nearest to them, often enough several hundred miles away.  They always hate it and their parents are impossible to talk to the day after they drop their children off at the airport.  They go to a Brooklyn, or a Jerusalem or some other place where everyone in the neighborhood goes to yeshiva and reads Yiddish campaign posters and don’t really relate to where these kids are coming from, what they are going through  -- or where they are headed.
 
They go through the yeshiva system, the first few years they are miserable and homesick, crying into the phone, throwing tantrums on their visits home for Pesach and getting accustomed to this pit in their stomach.  I admit, this is the worst-case scenario (I hope), some kids don’t have it so rough, but I speak from informed experience: I was one of them. 
 
But all through those years when the only ones more miserable than the kids are their parents, these boys and these girls keep in them, somewhere even deeper than that pit in the stomach, this burning . . .something: they are going to be shluchim, just like their parents.  And amazingly they do.
 
So those hackneyed words fed them by whomever “we are so proud of you, dear parents and the wonderful work you do” the bothersomely flowery “our small hearts fill with pride” resonated with a truth they might themselves not realize that they possess. 
 
Seventy years ago the immigrant generation’s traditionally-minded looked with worry at the children born in modernity; how could they ever carry the torch?  They looked with them with pity; how could they appreciate something they never saw?  They looked with despair; who will say Kaddish for American Jewry?  What will become of us?
 
The Rebbe looked with boastful pride: when Moshiach comes we will show off our kids to him, “Look! And they are Made in America!”
 
Are we pressuring our kids too much?  Are they giving up too much?  Will they (don’t even say it) resent an overdose of Yiddishkeit?
 
The parsha begins with comfort and assurance:  not only did Abraham pride himself on Isaac but Isaac prided himself on Abraham.  And they looked alike. 
 
America, you have a gaping wound. We Jews know something about gaping wounds.  We know you must heal and make stronger, even, especially in unbearable pain.  The greatest of the Greatest Generation, the ones who walked out of the ovens of Europe, heroically putting one Jewish foot in front of the other had kids (from where that optimism?) sent them to yeshiva (amidst the applause of virtually no one) and these survivors, now parents, grandparents and great-grandparents pride themselves on generations that looks like them, looks towards them -- even as the survivors themselves look towards their children, their rightfully boastful pride and nachas.  
 
The promise of a generation is written on the chubby faces and missing-tooth grins of the Rebbe’s little tikes.  Keep up the good work kids.  And (I know I don’t say it often enough) thank you.
 

Finding Love

"What type of man do I want to marry?" the young woman repeated the question that had been asked of her.
"Well, I want someone kind. And smart.
But not the too-kind type that lets himself be walked on.
And not the too-smart type that lets it get to his head.
Someone who isn't too into his books: someone sociable.
A leader, the life of a party -- but not someone who aggravates with this presence. I'd like him to be handsome, but not haughty. I'd like. . ."

She looked at the Rebbe, seated behind his desk. His smile was broad and his eyes twinkled.
"It sounds like you want to marry more than one person."

I've told this story -- to myself and to whoever wants to listen -- dozens of times. I don't know who the lady was.

But this next story I know happened to Chana Sharfstein: I read her article in a Chabad women's journal and later asked her about it.

Chana (then Zuber) was a young woman in Boston in the early fifties. Her father had brought the family there from Stockholm. Not long afterwards he was gruesomely murdered while walking home from shul on a Friday night. Back then, such things shocked New England.

Chana will tell you that after she lost her father the Rebbe adopted her. Six months after her father's murder, she too, stood before the Rebbe's desk.

Why haven't you married yet? the Rebbe wanted to know.
I haven't met the right one.
What will the right one look like?
A charismatic Prince Charming stepped out of Chana's imagination and into their conversation.
The Rebbe laughed fully.

"You've read too many novels," the Rebbe said, still laughing but growing more serious. "Novels are not real life: they're fictions. They're full of romance and infatuation. Infatuation is not real. Infatuation is not love."

"Love is life," the Rebbe continued. "It grows through small acts of two people living together. With time they cannot imagine life without each other."

Infatuation you fall into. Love you build. And love - the barometer of a successful marriage - is dependant 20% on the person you marry and 80% on the way you marry them every day.

"And they shall build a home in Israel" the Rebbe said in his blessing he sent Chaya and me for our wedding day. A home and a house is not the same thing. They say nothing stresses a marriage like building a house.

May we all be blessed to build a home - the newlyweds and the jubilee-plus anniversarians. Built with small acts. Bit by bit. With time.

WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

When bad things happen to good people.  It’s the title of a book that everyone knows and that no one has ever told me that they read (save a guy who needed to quote it in an article).  It is the title, the question, that resonates all over the place.   

Admittedly, some of the resonance of when bad things happen is a dressed-up, horn-rimmed-polite kvetch of  why me?   (A friend of mine wonders if perhaps people aren’t more bothered by the reverse: when good things happen to bad people!)

But the question – when heartfelt and selfless -- is a powerful one and an ancient one.  Powerful, because everyone relates to it, personally.  Ancient, because it has never been answered, sufficiently.

The answer that I know a little is, in short, that when the good people having bad things happen to them are somebody else, then we have to relieve them of their suffering and scream to G-d How can you!   When the good people are us, then we have to do what we can to relieve the suffering, pray to G-d for strength that we act appropriately  . . .and then go on.

The broken pot is never tested, says the Midrash, only a good pot is tested to see if it can hold up.  That holding up, that becoming greater, is what G-d wants to see.  For understandable reasons: people only grow through adversity, a kid only appreciates the value of money if it is earned, not given.  Etc.  

But. . . well, as Tevye put it: would it ruin a vast and mighty plan if I were a wealthy man?  Couldn’t You, Oh G-d, in Your infinite wisdom, Your infinite power and Your infinite compassion have tested us and made us grow without all this suffering?   

Well, yes and no.  Yes, because he is All Capable. No, because, well, because if He could have, He would have.  It gets philosophical, and it’s important to have that philosophical wealth before the horror strikes.  Abraham searched for G-d for years and had developed a strength, a reservoir of faith, to withstand tragedy.  Like a jogger who is in shape when a heart attack strikes.   

I had the dubious honor of hearing someone claim that the L-rd had revealed himself to him and blah blah blah. I frankly am not sure that anyone revealed themselves to him; and I am quite sure that if anyone did it was a god he created in his own image.   

When G-d revealed himself to Abraham it wasn’t pretty.  He revealed the unreasonable: leave everything, see My promises broken, your wife kidnapped.  And then came the jaw-dropping ‘slice your son’s neck’.

This then is the comfort that gives us strength: we can take anything if we know that it isn’t random.  That its purpose is divine.  That in every sorrow and gut wrench that we have, He is sad,  His guts are being wrenched: “Son, this whuppin’ is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”  

What parent wouldn’t take all the pain on themselves if they could keep it from their kids?  And the unthinkable agony of the parent whose kid, writhing on a hospital bed, cries out to the parent,“Tell them to stop already!”

But kids don’t see the parent’s agony; kids just feel their pain.  Not until they grow up do they see the it hurts me more than it hurt you. We don’t see Isaiah’s ‘in all their pain he has pain’; we just feel the pain that He is not stopping.  Not until Moshiach picks us up and gives us a view from on high: then we can see how it all made sense, that it was all worth it.  That only good things happen, and that there are only good people.  May it come soon.  Until then, (in preparation?) may we kids thrive in a happy, safe and secure childhood. And (because nothing can make Dad happier) may we play nicely together. 

Teddy Bear or Eagle: America, What Are You?

This country was founded, settled, developed, defined and furthered by people who left their homes for the unknown. Whether or not they were religious (in the conventional sense) is, and will continue to be, hotly debated by those with agendas. What is unarguable is that the men and women who founded this country were risk-takers, and inherent in risk is belief. To put it in other words, they were believers.

Appropriately, the symbol of the fledgling country became the eagle: Biblical metaphor for mercy and redemption: majestic, fair, feisty and magnanimous in our language. One of the presidents who personified the country’s ethos, so well that his face was etched on a big rock, was Teddy Roosevelt. Incongruously almost, his legacy became a cuddly, harmless, lovably ineffectual: the teddy bear.

Not only Teddy, but the One to Whom this nation pledges that their republic is under, has softened into someone to whom we intone stanzas and sing that he bless us. We thank Him for the bounty of this great land. He occupies a sacred place along with honor, flag and, well, apple pie.

He is not to make us uncomfortable. He is not to demand how we dress, what we refrain from eating, the content of our entertainment, what we teach our children. He is not to stick out awkwardly: at odds with whatever we deem appropriate. He is created in our image. We love him. He is our Teddy Bear.

The first Biblically recorded message from G-d to Abraham is “Go, for yourself, from your land, your father’s home your birthplace to the land which I will show you”. No comfort zones allowed. Leave them and only then can you achieve everything I have in store for you, everything of which you are capable. Only by stepping outside yourself can you grow -- and can I be your God. This, to a man who from childhood on – for over seventy years -- defied the mores of the corrupted society and a despotic tyrant who called himself god. He had been threatened with death if he did not repudiate his ill-advised beliefs; he did not waver. Still, he was told Go!, leave everything familiar and comfortable.

Their gods are of silver and stone, they have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, mocked the psalmist. Not necessarily did he refer to idols from Sunday-school coloring books. A god who makes me feel warm and protected is nothing more than an abstract materialism: a warm place to go, home and hearth. For that matter a god who tells you to go is nothing more than an adventurer, if it is only adventure and change of scenery you are after. But when G-d tells us to leave our laurels of yesterday’s accomplishment and take on the new he is really telling us to be alive today.

And, (paradoxically, perhaps) he adds that this will be good for you, you will become wealthy, prosperous and numerous. Not comfortable: good.

Teddy bears are good; for kids; at the boys’ third birthday we throw candy at him and give him honey in the shape of the Aleph-Bet because the words of Torah are sweet. But then we move him on to meat and potatoes: study of these words “for they are our lives and the length of our days”. What is sweet at three, if allowed to linger will turn sacchariny at twenty-three -- and have fostered cavities of decay in the soul.

Feeling warm and comfortable is not bad; it only becomes debilitating when it is pursued as a goal.

Avinu Shebashamayim - Our God in Heaven.
The majesty of the eternal calls and resonates in a soul,
a spark of that majesty sent to unfurl the majesty inherent in life on earth.
To bring the majesty of heaven down to earth.
Heaven: something greater than the comfortable and familiar. The eagle soars there.
The symbol of America: a nation under.
 

Recognizing our Creaor

The fires are not yet out,
the juries are not yet in. 
But the shock is over,
the counting and rebuilding has begun. 
Ironic that it happens around the parsha of the flood? 
What difference a destruction
from a wall of water or wall of fire? 
They both begin, run their course and die. 
They are both powerful and weak:
depending on circumstance and timing.  

But not when you’re in the path of a wildfire. 
If foxholes don’t tolerate atheists
do forest fires allow homage to the gods of water?
 
We’re always in the middle of a crisis:
flood, fire, no money, bad health. 
And crisis means we don’t see a way out. 
The fire is going to be here in ten minutes.  RUN!! 
 
And it was in the middle of crises that a little boy stood
and thought that every crisis passes and every power wanes. 
Except the power that puts all powers into motion and controls them all. 
He had no name for this power and no books or people spoke of him. 
But he loved this power and revered it
and couldn’t stand seeing people consumed by crisis
deifying and editorializing powers
that will be out of the headlines in a week. 
 
This power didn’t acknowledge the little boy. 
The little boy grew and grew. 
He never stopped ridiculing people who get all excited by power,
their own or someone else’s. 
Powerful people didn’t like this young man and tried to silence him. 
He kept on ridiculing them and the editorials that glorified power.
He kept on with his abstract power that gives power to everything
– The All-Powerful -- and therefore is the only power. 

He became an old man. 
A powerful man sentenced him to die by fire
but the fire refused to consume him. 
Then the power spoke to him. 
It told him to leave everything familiar. 
Told him to leave a comfort zone. 
The man in his seventies, who had been defying family and society since he was three years old, was told to leave his comfort zone. 
That is how the All-Powerful, now known as the Almighty, sees things.
 
With that begins next week’s parsha and the story of Abraham,
father of a people and tradition that recognizes no power in the face of fire,
be they fires of the Inquisition or pirates of the high sea. 
And this tradition fed a world of billions:
starving and scared in the face of powers and the powerful:
this tradition fed them the knowledge
that there is no power but Him
and no thing to fear but Him Himself. 
So what if they don’t always get the words right!

Days of Awesome. . .Totally

Kid standing in the synagogue lobby sees a bronze plaque “for the brave soldiers who died in the service”; he wondered if it was the Rosh Hashanah Service or the Yom Kippur one!

For those who go to shul two times a year plus bar mitzvahs, I don’t know how you do it!  I mean, sitting through something you have little idea what’s going on and where it’s all heading. ...yet you keep coming back, and that’s incredible.
 
I like history and I love Jewish history.  When I’m in Jerusalem’s Old City and I see the tour guides leading their charges down the street, a street that’s layered with stories, from the time before the Romans, the Romans, a hundred years ago, the battle in 1948, 1967 – and he just leads them along like it’s a route from the Wall to the pizza shop, I feel like stopping those poor, innocent tourists and telling them “You’re being robbed!”
 
But on Rosh Hashanah I’m as guilty as the tour guides.  Don’t get me wrong, in the services we explain what’s going on, everything is translated in English, the singing is transliterated so everyone can sing along, people always tell me how much they learned, how emotional it was, how spiritual, even if it’s a first time but . . .there’s so much I simply can’t cram in there.
 
A few years ago a dear friend stood up in the Davening and told us of how as a little boy hiding from the Nazis in the forests he wanted to daven on Yom Kippur.  He remembered a tune his Shul would sing, and he sang that song over and over again.  Now sixty years later he sang it again . . .and slowly, slowly we joined in. Forget that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, we sang through our tears. One of the ladies met me the next morning waving a handful of tissues:  try a fast one on me again I’m prepared this time.
 
Days of Awesome, and to give it a California touch, totally.
 
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