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For Your Shabbat Table

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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.
 

The Landing Of Letters That Would Not Be Burned

The young Hasidic woman took off her shaitel;
and let her long blond hair down.  
Styled in the latest fashion she would pass;
about her baby she wasn’t sure.
Hopefully he wouldn’t cry on the train;
and she wouldn’t have to change his diaper.
The Nazis did a spot-check;
a dark–haired German woman was ordered off,
Bronia was complimented
as the paradigm of German motherhood.  
The SS soldiers were horsing around.
“Pipe down,” Bronia admonished,
“you don’t want to be waking up a future soldier.”

 
Late at night an SS guard sat down next to her.
He was agitated,
and must have judged her a sympathetic woman.
The killings out east were too much he said.
He showed her pictures of the mass shootings.
She was hoping her horror would be taken as sympathy for his shattered nerves.  
“In Zhitomer,” he said, “was the worst.”

I read this story in Yafa Eliach’s book.
It was the most current reference
of that once-vibrant Jewish city that I had heard.
That line ‘in Zhitomer was the worst’
has stuck with me ever since.
 
I was in 770 -- Lubavitch in Brooklyn.
I was finishing davening and I overheard two bochurim, probably about nineteen years old talking about
-- the word caught my attention --Zhitomer.  
They were too lighthearted to be talking about, well, that.
I eavesdropped.  They were talking about a day camp one of them had just finished.  He did or didn’t like the head-counselor, color-war was good, the 200 pair of tzitizis didn’t arrive ‘til the second week of camp, the kids liked “American football” better than baseball;
yeh, you try doing line-up in Russian. . .

Rabbi Chanania was being burned at the stake by the Romans; they had wrapped his body in the Torah scrolls and drenched them in water to prolong his agony.
His students, (how lacking a word!) his Chassidim, displaying a presence of mind I can’t call my own,  
asked him, “Rebbe, what do you see?”  
He, displaying a selflessness I see clearly in my Rebbe, answered “I see the scrolls are burning,
but the letters are floating into the air.”
It’s been many long and painful years
since the scroll of flesh and blood that I loved so much was removed from the ark that was the only frame of reference I ever had.
I could never have imagined spending a Tishrei -- the whole holiday season from before Rosh Hashanah until after Sukkos and Simchas Torah -- without once joining the Rebbe.   
Hundreds came to spend a full month there.  
(When France passed legislation banning vacations abroad for longer than a two-week duration, there was talk of making an exemption for Jews going to New York for Tishrei.  I don’t know how that all ended up.) Thousands more came for parts of Tishrei, a Rosh Hashanah, a Simchas Torah.  
Rabbis and stalwarts of communities in the Tri-state area (New York lingo for anyone who lives where Manhattan is simply ‘the City’) had to be in their places for Yom Tov. You would see them rushing in after havdalah
at the end of Rosh Hashanah, the end of Simchas Torah, to get Kos Shel Bracha, some of the blessed wine from the Rebbe's Havdalah cup.  
They would come to "Bet Lekach", to say the beracha on the lulav and etrog.
 
Those letters -floating into the air-casually drop from the mouths of teenagers
who talk of Zhitomer in terms of Jewish continuity (though they would never use such a term) instead of Jewish burning.
In terms of Jewish day camps instead of concentration camps.  
Oblivious of the revolution they are making they do line-ups and camp cheers.  
In Zhitomer like it was Brooklyn, Tel Aviv or El Paso. Singing Shma Yisrael where once it was screamed. Oblivious to the miracle coursing through them.   
 
I feel a loneliness come Tishrei,
this month of breathtaking awe,
unmitigated joy, exuberance, quietude
all wrapped up in so fleeting a month.  
And this loneliness is what astounds me,
almost puzzles me of the Chassidim of Rabbi Chanania.  
I know it wasn’t callousness for their Rebbe’s suffering that prompted their question ‘what do you see’.
It was their connection beyond body and beyond words. A connection to him, to what he was connected to,
to each other, to themselves.
Maybe if I had what they had
I wouldn’t feel the loneliness that I do.
For now, I think of the most eloquent response
to the unimaginable:
The teenage counselor bochurim in Zhitomer.

The landing of letters that would not be burned.

The Other Shoe

“ . . . Come to the land which I have given you. . .a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Parsha.

Friends of mine who are older than me want to go to Israel.  But not now; maybe some other time.  It’s too dangerous with all that craziness going on there. 

Is going to Israel dangerous?  Perhaps it is.  But perhaps not as dangerous as not going.
The danger of going is that something might happen.  Likely? No.  Possible? Like anything else in life.
The danger of not going is that nothing will happen.  Nothing noticeable, nothing remarkable, nothing tangible will happen.  Only a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift will happen. 
And subtle can be profound.  

Abraham Twerski tells of the Manhattanite who finished a night of partying and came home to his twentieth-storey apartment. He flopped into bed and kicked off a shoe.  As he was about to kick off his other shoe, he remembered that someone was sleeping on the nineteenth floor below him; he carefully took off his other shoe and placed it on the floor.  Ten minutes later there was furious knocking on the door.  It was the downstairs neighbor, shrieking, “Would you throw down the other shoe already!”
 
Waiting for the other shoe to fall is nerve racking. Once the chips fall though, you know where they are; they fell, they hit, they broke and now they sit quietly.  
 
Much has been said about the “ghetto” Jew, most of it is pejorative, and undeservedly so.  Ghettoes had walls, outside of which Jews could neither live nor be found after nightfall.  Edicts barred Jews from most jobs, landed them with Jew-taxes and branded them with yellow stars and hats.  Death was not the exception.
Ghetto Jews knew the price the outside exacted from them for being Jewish. Ghetto Jews paid the price and got on with being Jewish.  For them, being Jewish meant spiritual grandeur, intellectual profundity, timeless legacy, optimistic future: how lucky to be a Jew.  As Jonathan Sacks says, while much for the ghetto Jew was problematic, Jewish identity was not.

Not so for the Marrano Jew, the less-spoken-of side of the medieval coin. He, afraid of being rendered a penniless wanderer on a leaky boat, allowed the village priest to sprinkle him with water.  He attended church; he adopted as best he could all the manners the outside demanded of his faithless conversion.  
But the outside was now in him, and the Marrano Jew lived his life looking over his shoulder.  When will they find him out?  When will the shoe drop? What will be the ultimate price of being a Jew?  While much for the Marrano Jew was not problematic (above all finance and bodily safety) Jewish identity was.  
 
In the end, the Marrano could not remain as a Jew.  While a celebrated few died a martyr’s death, most melted into Catholicism.  That was his price.  Not being a Jew.  The Jew who chose the ghetto paid his price, too: but his Jewish grandchildren tell his story.
 
Whether one should at this time go to Israel or not has a personal component, possibly what is appropriate for one is not for another.  But there is a component that must be addressed.  Going has a price.  Not going has a price.
  
In the 1980’s ten of us yeshiva guys spent two years with the Jewish community of Morocco.  We learned how to walk the streets.  And how not to walk the streets: 
Don't walk on sidewalks; you can get too close to someone looking for trouble. 
Walk in the middle of the street: like you own it. 
Walk near parked cars: cars are a status symbol and Arabs hesitate to throw rocks if they might hit a car. 
Don't walk the streets when the bars let out (11:00 PM); a drunk coward is a stupid danger.
And if you’re ever hit, hit back twice as hard, fast, and because within moments you’ll be outnumbered 300 to 1, get lost quickly.
 
But don’t ever, ever run.
 
With all the caution, one of us was hit with a rock in the eye. A well-meaning American, a visiting representative of a Jewish fund-raising organization happened to come to Casablanca then.  He had heard of our friend who was hit. Why don’t you guys cover you yarmulkes with caps, he suggested.  We answered him with polite, non-committal noises.  
 
If he’s still listening, here is the best I can offer – some twenty years later:
If you want to run, you can -- but you can’t just run a mile.  You must run a hundred miles.  
If you hide who you are, then you’ll never be yourself.  Your kids will never know who you once were -- or who they now are.  
If you hide your yarmulke, then you’ll hide your mezuzah necklace, and even hide your name.   
If you hide you may be safe.  If you’re safe you’ll be all the more scared to not be safe.  You’ll be scared to be you.
If you don’t hide, you may be hit; if you're hit, you may be hurt.  You may die: many Jews have died for no other reason than who they were. 
Is it worth it, to die for who you are?  That’s not even the question.  The question is: is it worth it to live for who you are.  If who you are is worth living for, then there is nothing to fear.
Once the other shoe has dropped, safety and danger don’t mean the same thing. You can enjoy the trip.

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

Arabs kick in the shul’s windows. 
They take a sledgehammer to the pillars. 
Hoards overrun the place with bloodthirsty shrieks.  

In the name of G-d. 
In the name of national pride. 
In the name of the future.
 
You can only steal once, goes the saying.  But if you want to rob another more than enrich yourself, once is all you need.  No one can rejoice for the Arabs.  Nothing has improved for them; history indicates that nothing will.  The anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel, the anti-West vitriol and violence they export comes from a will to destroy what another has.  Were it the desire to have one’s own, pride of ownership would triumph bloodlust destruction.
 
Why does the world tolerate it?  Why do we allow a philosophical tilt-of-the-head ‘but they too have a claim’?  Because on some subliminal, unrealized level, it is preferable to knock someone else’s accomplishments than to create our own. 
 
In the rare, rare, less than once-in-seventy-years case that a Torah court would find a person punishable by death, the Parsha tells us that they should hang.  But not overnight; this would diminish the divine image of the hanged.  He created us in His image; we are his reflection, even when we are deserving of death.  Diminishing our dignity denies His Divinity.
 
A bomb goes off and carnage follows.  Before the terrified shrieks taper off, before the medics finish evacuating the victims, but after having seen to the wounded, a group of men begins collecting the body parts.  Limbs occasionally, more often bloody bits of flesh and cartilage, expertly identified and meticulously scraped from walls tree branches and gutters.  The gruesomeness is in the details.  So is the dignity.
 
Many call it the ultimate contrast, if not the ultimate response, to the so-called suicide bombings. 
 
A man or a woman who believes life must end, their own and someone else’s, fills and slips into a vest holding 15 kg of chlorate, sugar and 3mm steel ball bearings to blow up unsuspecting women and children. 
 
A man or a woman gathers the bits of flesh which moments ago harbored a soul; because though the soul is gone the body still reflects the image of G-d. 
 
Understandably, there are those who demand the destruction of mosques in retaliation – and it is not necessarily Jews who make the indignant, though not necessarily unreasonable, demand. 
 
Perhaps we should abide them.
 
Then again, perhaps we should leave the mosques standing: leave them enough rope to hang their culture of death on the gallows that not long ago accommodated Nazism and Communism. 
 
But then, perhaps, there will be no one left to take down the corpse. 
 
And the image of the Divine would be defaced.
 
Like it or not, people are influenced by their surroundings.  And people influence their surroundings.  There are no vacuums.  Either they’re with us or we are with them.  Either the light unto the nations illuminates all or a shadow darkens every space and every corner.
 
The curious ask: when Moshiach comes to rebuild the Temple will he first destroy the mosque that now occupies that land?  The question shows just how remote Moshiach is.  If Moshiach were to blow up or burn down a building then he would just be one more conqueror in a city that has known more conquest than any other. 
 
Worse yet, he too would be conquerable.
 
Moshiach intimates that those who most strongly advocate the mosque will be the first to recognize the inappropriateness. 
 
And they will act appropriately. 
In the name of G-d.
In the name of the future.
 
These words sound outlandishly, ridiculously remote as I tap them on the keyboard, and I’m sure they don’t come across any more credibly as you read them.  Point taken that Moshiach is not yet here.
 
The image of heartbroken people leaving their dreams, but refusing to kill or maim those who led them away, remains weeks after it happened.  They were debased, but the image within them shone.  That shining can never dim. 
 
Such is the mandate of the faith to believe. 
And such is the mandate to believe with perfect faith, that ultimately it will shine to the extent that all existence will only accentuate it. 
And such is the mandate of the faith that it can – and will – happen today. 
 
Strengthen my faith for me, will you?
 

Witches, Black Cats, Bulls and Planes

Black cats don’t bother me any more than white or brown ones do.  The thirteenth floor is fine as long as the elevator is working.  Horoscopes remain unread -regardless of whether we Tauruses need to think bull market or bear.

So I read this parsha’s admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now.  Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 
Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 
Thou shalt not read omens.
 
Wait, it’s starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant.  I don’t read horoscopes largely because I think they’re bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday’s Gemini for Thursday’s Capricorn.  But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles.
 
But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.
 
What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips?  They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control.  And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers.
At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive.  “Our sole purpose,” exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, “is to give Judaism a decent burial.”  He wasn’t being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available.  Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit.
 
These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right.  They were dead wrong – in hindsight.  Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 
 
Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured.  You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is.  You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon:Bashert
 
Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie.  Perhaps in more avenues that one.  Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew.  The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye.  Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe’s successors.
 
Not that you’re relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting.  Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors.  But if you checked the monitors, don’t roll balls or whatever down the aisle.  Enjoy your flight.  To wherever.  It’s all bashert.  All good.  All the time.

Blessings From Hashem

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco.  It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards.  A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind.  Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman.  Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you.  In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me.  I asked her where she was from.

"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment.  I gave up and she answered ‘Vienna’ in a voice kids use when you ask them what’s their favorite ice cream.
 
Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered. 
 
"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish." 
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. 
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked. 
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.
 
This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country.  I wasn't sure what was getting to me.
 
She now had her audience, she told her story:
 
Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried. 
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!” 
 
Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison.  I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike!
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
 
That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
 
Think us for a minute, think modern America.  Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group.  Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks.
 
Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food.  We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating.  (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.)
 
How much is spent on the consequence of digging in? 
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough.” 
 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides. 
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
 
This parsha alludes to more.  When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you.
 
Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us.
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak. 
A cow’s head is near the ground, in the trough.  Where is ours? 
 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism.  Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health.  But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul.  And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul. 
 
Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right.  Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.
 
Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom.  For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.
 

Brooklyn and the Diamond Exchange

It was a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn.  A roomful of Jewish college kids in the Sixties, challenging the young rabbi chairing the roundtable; how can you believe in G-d when science has proven… why keep kosher in an age of government inspection and refrigeration, isn’t it racist to speak of the chosen people.  The rabbi was doing his best.  Sitting in the audience was an elderly rabbi, long black coat, elegant white beard.  He rose to speak.   

“The questions you are asking are good questions, but for this you don’t need to come to Chabad.  Anyone who has learned Torah can tell you these answers.  But you came to Chabad; now let me tell you why you came.”
 
Everyone there was surprised he could speak English; the rabbi with the immaculate black coat and long white beard began his story.
 
A little boy was walking with his father down a steep hill in the heat of the day.  They saw a man coming up the hill towards them, sweating, with a heavy sack on his shoulders weighing him down.  When the man reached them the little boy asked what he had in his sack, why he was going up the hill, why he was working so hard.
 
The man told the little boy that his stove oven had broke and he had to come down to the valley to get more stones to build himself an oven. 
 
Why not get more stones, asked the little boy, and build a bigger oven that will keep you warmer and you can have more food -- there must be more stones still in the valley?   Oh, you little boy, said the man, you don’t yet know what it means to have to work, how hard it is to schlep.  He put his free hand on the little boy’s shoulder.  When you’ll be big like me you’ll be happy with a little oven too.
 
The little boy and his father continued down the hill.  They saw another man coming up the hill towards them.  Same size man, same size sack, but this man didn’t seem so weighed down.
 
What have you in the sack, the little boy wanted to know, is it stones, are you going to build yourself a small oven? 
 
Oh no, the man smiled broadly, no oven building for me!  See, I was down in the valley digging for turnips and I hit a treasure.  Diamonds!  Rubies!  Pearls!  I have two daughters, two weddings to make, I’m going to open a store and stop peddling from town to town, build myself a house with wooden floors and. . .
 
Why not get more diamonds, interrupted the boy, there must be more left in the valley?  Son, said the old man putting his free hand on the little boys shoulder, believe me, I searched the valley clean.  I don’t think there is another diamond down there.
 
The little boy and his father continued down the hill
 
You see, said the little boy’s father, when you’re carrying diamonds they’re never too heavy.  The first guy may have had diamonds too, but he didn’t know what they were. 
 
The old rabbi with the long white beard looked at the college kids.
 
“You see what the father was telling the boy?  A mitzvah is a diamond.  Every mitzvah that we do is a precious, precious thing.  This is why you come to Chabad; not just to learn a mitzvah but to learn that it is a diamond.  When you know they are diamonds than most of your questions will be answered.”
 
I heard this story on a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn.  A roomful of Jewish college kids in the early Eighties, challenging the rabbi chairing the roundtable; the questions had shifted with the times: why do we need mitzvahs when we can meditate instead. 
 
A man got up and told this story that he had heard twenty years earlier on a cold wintry night a few blocks from where they were now.  He told the story well and ended with the words,  “It’s been twenty years since Rabbi Kazarnovsky stood up that night to tell that story.  I could tell you dozens of experiences I’ve had since then, but to you it would be meaningless.”
 
I jolted.  It was just for weeks since my grandfather died.  Rabbi Kazarnovsky was my grandfather. 
 
I type the story with pride and awe.  Pride because he was my grandfather; awed because he was my grandfather. 
 
Passion, demands the parsha.  You can’t be Jewish out of a sense of duty. An observant Jew? an unsatisfying label.  Like an obedient child, a dutiful husband a law-abiding citizen, an observant Jew accepts obligations – yet keeps on trudging.  I know we’re the Chosen People, moans Tevye, but isn’t it time you chose someone else. 
 
Duty and diligence are not calculated to inspire, they’re heavy rocks.  But when duty and diligence are born of passion they are tough as steel and brilliant diamonds.  A heavy load?  Maybe, on the scales: but not on my back.
 
“You have to be a rabbi,” a friend told me when I was seventeen, “it’s expected of you, it’s even in your genes”.  A duty, he was saying.  And I thank a rabbi with an immaculate, long, black coat and an elegant, long, white beard, for showing me it’s a diamond.
 

Have Children, Solve Your Problems

Over five-hundred years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country’s homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.
 
On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While “in every Simcha is a tear”, in every calamity there is joy.
 
It was not easy to watch as a Jewish woman screamed, “Doesn’t anyone in the world have pity on us?”   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.
 
The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father’s caress was manifest redemption.
 
Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 
 
On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  “Amen!” she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  “Amen, amen”.
 
Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in – notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation’s infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.
 
Childrearing is not a ‘woman’s issue’.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 
 
Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren’t worth a hill of beans.
 
The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah: Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 
 
There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.
 
Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David; He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!  The father looks on and blesses them.  A people unconquered. 

Cookbooks

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks.

Jewish cookbooks have changed.  Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”.  Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation.  There is a dearth of color pictures in most.  Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them.  In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie.  In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the Halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish.  In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha!  Azhi hanna! Come on in.”
 
Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them.  A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”.  You can’t cook in a bookstore. 
 
Through food, we connect with each other.  Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community.  It feeds upon itself.  In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died.  She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher.  “I have to do something,” she decided.  Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant.  Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.
 
It is the Nine Days.  A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem.  We eat no meat during this time.  Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate.  Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat.  The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel.  But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve.  You are what you eat.  What you refrain from eating defines you.
 
And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision.  For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction.  In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis.  Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again.  Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 
 
This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.   This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet.  For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission.  That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through.  And they brought those experiences with them.  For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 
 
The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.

He Who Plants in Tears, With Joy Shall he Harvest

I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, some six years ago.  It tells the horror and it tells it well.  I've seen Schindler's List; in a sense, it portrays the horror more effectively than any documentary has.  Both are missing a crucial element - the magnitude of Jewish response.

For this I look to two books in particular: "Responsa of the Holocaust" and "Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust". 

"Responsa" records halachic questions Jews posed at the time: May one save his child for a selection if it is certain another child will replace him? May one deny her Jewishness to escape? If the forced labor begins before dawn and ends after nightfall when does one put on teffilin?  There was one Jew in the Kovno Ghetto who could answer these questions.  He had been pressed into the service as chronicler of the Nazi's library: the Germans amassed books, community and family documents and Jewish articles for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race" - Hitler's own Holocaust Museum. 

The second book tells of one Bronia Koczicki who in the Bochnia Ghetto brought her two small sons to be blessed by the saintly Reb Aaron of Belz who was there at the time.  He blessed them that "G-d will help".  But Bronia would not leave.  She asked that her little boys be blessed with "fine generations".  He placed his hands on their heads  and blessed them.

"The woman's lost her mind," people sighed.  "Children are being killed in the streets every day and she's worried what type of grandchildren she will have?" Bronia didn't pay them any mind.  "We will live through this war," she kept repeating to her children.

The first book tells of people who lived with G-d regardless of whether they saw G-d living with them.  The second tells of a woman who saw that the future determines the present.

"He who plants in tears, with joy shall he harvest," declared the psalmist David.  Not only as a reward, note the commentaries, but as a consequence.  And move your comma, they add; He who plants in tears with joy: shall harvest.  Tears because the world is cold, dark and cruel.  Joy because everything is His plan and He has made me a part of it. Bronia's faith is awesome. 

The third Temple is built and only waiting for us to allow it to descend, maintains our tradition.  For the tzadikim, the rare righteous, the destruction and exile never took place.  Bronia, either through learning or instinct, lived with this.

And so did those who questioned in the first book.  So did those who davened Yom Kippur in the forests of Poland. And when we study and fulfill Torah then we do too - even if we don't know it yet.  Somewhere, deep inside of us resonates a tzadik. 

The saddest days of The Three Weeks, the period we find ourselves in now, preceding Tisha B'Av, will become the most joyous.  Not that the sadness will be obliterated: it will be the cause of the joy. Had we not mourned for two thousand years what would there have been to rejoice?  Who from the ancient people would be left to rejoice?  Paradoxiacally, our joy and sadness kept us us from becoming an ancient people: it ensured we would remain a timeless people.  This joy and sadness were not opposites - they were extensions of G-d, of His eternity.

Children of the Holocaust indeed, a befitting memorial to the holy martyrs.  May the All Merciful resurrect his Temple and us in time for this year's Tisha B'Av.

his Temple -- and us -- in time for this year’s Tisha B’Av.

Don’t Psychoanalyze!

On the plane back to America, I was sitting next to a psychologist who mentioned to me how important it is for them to never psychoanalyze family members.  One of the reasons: it’s not fair.  Of course Jews were psychoanalyzing way before Sigmund invited people to lie on his couch, we just had no name for it.

For non-professional a greater danger is pseudo-analysis.  “Oh, she always does that, she’s so compulsive.”  “There he goes again with his bi-polar.”  Worse:  “The reason she always helps is because she’s eager to please, it’s her low self-esteem.”  “You know why he gives so much Tzedakah, he needs to see his name on a building: typical megalomaniac!”
 
Says who?  Is it that simple to know everything going on in someone else’s head?  Are you always that accurate with what’s happening in your own head?  Secondly, what difference does it make?  A good act with bad intentions beats a bad act with good intentions -- and the pavement is a lot smoother.
 
Granted, giving it your best and things not succeeding the way you like is aggravating and unrewarding.  We know that.  And all G-d asks is that you do your best, the results are in His hands, we accept that.  And that no action is ever wasted, good always accumulates, and whether results are immediately recognized or not is immaterial in the long run and from a G-dly, timeless (beyond quantum-physics) perspective redundant.  We believe that.  But that is not what we’re talking about.
 
Look at it this way:  Guy A helps old lady cross street because, the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, she has a wealthy nephew etc.  Guy B doesn’t help old lady cross street because the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, wealthy nephew and how dare you think he’s so shallow!!  See, bottom line is, the lady needs help; your yin-yang harmony don’t do much.  As the Kabala puts it: Love and awe are what make a mitzvah soar.  A mitzvah without love and awe is a bird without wings.  Love and awe without a mitzvah is wings without a bird. 
 
Okay, so action is it.  But, can intentions be improved, sublimated, sanctified?  Well, now you’re getting serious.  But if your not just doing it, then you’re seriously not getting it.
 
The Parsha?  When Pinchas acted decisively he was ridiculed because his grandfather, a pantheistic priest, had done similar: a plus-c’est-change chip off the old block in different circumstance.  No, the Parsha begins, he did good, I alone know the inner workings of man, judge him primarily by what he does and unless you’re in the business, your couch is for people to sit on, and if your blessed with it, for overflow company to sleep on.

A Nation That Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you’ve seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth’s land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations’ condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.
 
I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.
 
That was the thought then, we would finally “take our rightful place amongst the family of nations”. What happened?
 
America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.
 
“We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.
 
Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: “Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists” …There was an unspoken comfort in that – not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don’t make us comfortable.
 
Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.
 
A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week’s parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.
 
The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam – nearly three billion people – a numerical absurdity when you think of it.
 
But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family’s particularism.
 
Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. “Alone we feel very ordinary” said one after the ’67 war, “just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us.”
 
Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can’t always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.

The Call of the Hero

Have you ever heard of Reb Mendel?  He smuggled Jews out of the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.  The Communists gave him fifteen years in the Siberian gulags.

Ever heard of Mume Sorah? She did the same, but they never bothered sending her away.  For decades her family never knew her yartzeit; they still don’t know where, if anywhere, the Communists buried her.

Heard of the mother who backed out of the driveway and pinned her toddler under the rear wheel? She lifted the car by herself and saved her son.

When we ask heroes where they got the strength to do incredible things, they give lousy answers.  Inevitably, their answer is “I had to do it,’ or to put it differently, they couldn’t not do it.  It’s not just modesty that makes them squirm when looking for answers, it is the almost-awkward simplicity.  For, regardless of their level of articulation they cannot come up with any good reason for why they did what they did.

Reasons are powerful motives for doing things.  Logic is compelling.  But logic is in the head, not the guts.  So logic compels our minds to move.  A mother’s love is not in the head; therefore all of her moves.  Even parts of her she never knew she has, moves to free her baby in danger.  She can’t put it into words because there are no words in the gut.  There is a place so profound that it cannot be made shallow with talk.

And there, right there where the deepest (no, you can’t really even subjugate them to the word) emotions reside, there the Jew has nothing but a visceral connection to G-d. Not a staid, progressive links-in-a-chain connection, but a reflexive, instinctive metal-to-magnet connection. You can’t feel it and you could live a life without ever knowing it was inside of you.  Because like heroes, it doesn’t look to present itself.  But if the moment calls for it, the response is automatic and Jewish. (Think of sworn atheists that when it came down to it they gave their lives rather than surrender their identity, Or the Jew-in-name-only who when things were counting on him came through.)  Why? I just couldn’t do anything else.  

We have mitzvahs that we like.  Family Seders with favorite recipes; Chanukah songs and latkes; Purim plays and Sukkah parties.  A melody that lifts you to your feet, a Talmudic insight that dazzles in its elegant simplicity, a Chassidic story that soothes with its empathy.  They each relate to a different aspect of our personality and strengthen it Jewishly. But all these precious experiences, for all the growth they give us, do not touch our kishkes .  Only the aspect of a mitzvah which is beyond our intellectual grasp and not within our emotional embrace can resonate so deeply. These mitzvahs are called chukim, and it is with these mitzvahs that our parsha begins.

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they lose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now twenty-three painful years since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

President Dubya on his trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall. 
Perspective you want?  Keep walking.

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