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For Your Shabbat Table

REALITY:

Something real. I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists. Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff. Which I don’t need to: I have enough real things around me. Especially toys: big toys because I’m a big kid. And lots of toys, because the one who dies with most toys wins. And I want to win. 

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters. People call me lucky. 
As long as I’m sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters. People call me lucky.
As long as I’m drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters. Unless I wake up.
And because I might wake up, those who aren’t drunk and high feel sorry for me. 
Are they right, or am I?
“Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs” a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.
 
So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, am I lucky? Well yes, maybe.
 
Because there is something other than toys. 
Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence):
Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing)
Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy.
If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.
 
Now I wake up to a whole new world. 
Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life. 
New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new. 
Not “new to me”: new. My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything. 
He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different. 
Something new. 
 
(Torah speaks of the “new moon”, not because the-ancients-believed-that-the-moon-actually-disappeared-on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)
 
Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it – something stirring inside of me. Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.
 
This week’s entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah. If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world. They only resonate in a land beyond toys. And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don’t operate as well in this other world. 
 
But I don’t have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with them helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys. 
 
Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren’t superficial or dimensional. We only think toys are us. Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up. To the real world.
 
 

Silence is Eloquent

“And (the sons of Aaron) died, and Aaron remained silent,” the Parsha. 

It was a Reader’s Digest article I read years ago. About a lady who had just lost her mother, her husband was on his way home from a trip; she alone had to break the news to her little children. People were calling offering condolences: ending with the expected (awkward?) “don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything”. Then the doorbell rang. Her husband’s friend was standing there, a rolled newspaper under his arm. “I’ve come to shine your shoes,” he announced.
 
“What?” she said.
“I‘ve come to shine your shoes,” he repeated. “I remember that at my mother’s funeral, the family was so busy, and with the shock and all, we forgot to shine our shoes. We didn’t even realize it until we got to the funeral home.”
 
He spread the newspaper over the floor, asked for everyone’s dress shoes, and began scraping the soles and polishing the uppers. The woman’s pent up sorrow and shock gratefully gave way to torrents of tears.
 
When tragedy happens, friends worry ‘what do I say’. That we have to say something is a given: that we have to say something is a mistake.
 
Silence is eloquent and heartfelt. Silent presence is a gift that needs no explanation: gold that need not be gilded, a message with no distracting words. The space formed by silence can be filled with simple acts: shoe shining (in a kup-in-galoshin environ) that pave a way from one heart to another, from a Jew to her Torah, from a man to his Creator.
 
For mourners too: if you can’t express your feelings, if you feel cheated all over again -- this time because of the emotional nightmare -- if this all makes no sense, you don’t need to say a thing. Silence lends credence to everything going on inside of you. Silence allows a rebuilding inside of you, a renewal. And that renewal, that rebuilding is the best consolation we have until Moshiach intervenes.

OUR CHILDREN, OURSELVES

The youngest child at the table clears his throat and begins, “Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Mikol Haleilot.”   It’s been repeated in homes across the country, in homes across the sea and in homes across time.

Four sons. We consider the Wise Son the one who turned out right: the nachas. The Wicked One? Well. . .enough said. The Simple One? Alright, not every hamentaschen turns out the way you want. The One Who Doesn’t Know to Ask? Oy, nebach!      Let’s revisit them. We judged the family too early, too harshly and too simplistically.
 
Chacham -- the Wise Son. What is wisdom? The ability to differentiate. A wise scientist knows his different chemicals and their different natures. Our Wise Son in the Haggadah asks “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments?” He pinpoints the details of each mitzvah; he grasps the distinct attributes of each.
 
The Tam, the Simple Son’s question is “What is this?” This: he doesn’t specify, he doesn’t differentiate. If someone misses a complexity, he is simplistic. But this is not necessarily the Tam. Yakov, our forefather Jacob, was called Ish Tam, a simple man. The opposite of simple is not difficult - it is complex.   A wise man grasps complexities, a Tam seeks the unifying factor.   “I know the differentiations of the mitzvot,” asks the Tam, “but ‘What’s this?’ How does this all tie together?”
           
The Simple Son has gone far beyond the Wise Son. But a journey of the mind can take you just so far -- as far as the mind goes. True, the human mind is the greatest tool ever created. It can build cities, cure disease, and possibly send women to Mars. And all this is done, say the experts, using only 5 percent of our brain juices! Still, even if we put the whole load to work, we would never understand that which is beyond reason. Our entire intellect fits into a Size 7 Stetson. How can that begin to fathom an Infinite Creator?
 
And so the Last Son, who has long graduated from Wise to Simple, now embarks on a new journey in Yiddishkeit. He no longer questions, for he is -- on this certain level -- beyond both the questions and the answers. He is awestruck by the magnitude of What he sees. In the face of This, one cannot question or comment, the only response is silence. Silence that allows him to take it all in.
             
 

And then there is another son. No, not the Rasha. One we haven’t mentioned because he is not here. So many Jews, quite possibly a majority of Jews, were not at a Seder at all last year! They don’t come, they don’t leave, they don’t ask. The Haggadah tells us how to speak to each kid. But what if they don’t come? What if we have no effective communication at all?   The answer is in the beginning.  
 
All who are hungry come and eat. All who need, come and make Pesach. They were never really invited, they don’t know there is a place waiting for them at the table, that without them, our table --your table -- is lacking and empty.   They need an invitation from the heart; we must feel the emptiness from their not being there. And surely, one at a time -- just like the Haggadah addresses every child individually -- they will respond in kind.

Soul Offering

When attending a conference, teaches experience, bring along something to read. Thus, seated with my Torah open to the parsha, I was not distraught that the scheduled speaker was predictably late, nor that no one there knew the topic.

An impishly humorous man took the mike, uninvited and unannounced. Most funny people are either depressed or serious; he was serious. He spoke, and I read, both of us relatively content in our roles: he making an occasional joke, me breaking an occasional smile while continuing reading.
 
Then he began speaking of his father, a man I had never met, but had seen in the streets of Crown Heights. A burly man with a flowing white beard, Russian-style casquet and crutches for his bad foot, the latter a gift awarded in defense of Mother Russia. The family tells of the miracle of the shrapnel that took his leg and spared his life. Funny what people from Russia call a miracle. 
 
After WWII, the young family wanted to leave Russia; with a convoluted reasoning only possible in a secretive bureaucracy, the hero was honored to stay indefinitely in the Motherland. But for a brief few moments, the family thought they might leave. The mother said she wanted to sell all that they had. ‘All that hey had’, the impish speaker told us, was two broken beds and three broken chairs.
 
Sell it all, his father conceded to his mother, but not my schach boards.
 
Sukkot is nice time to visit Israel. From every balcony and in every courtyard, little booths mushroom in this rainy season. Covering these booths, called sukkas, are schach, green foliage: palm branches in Israel and California, evergreens in the Northeast (which sprinkle the matzo ball soup) and in my native Nashville, whatever happened to be growing in the yard. (I still like my Nashville schach best.) We have our meals in the sukkah, under the schach.
 
In Russia, of course, making a sukkah was an offense, and eating in one punishable with imprisonment. Being caught with illicit tree trimmings this time of year was unheard of. But this then-young Russian war hero was not going to let all that deter him. He got a hold of some wooden boards – which as schach would have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem or New England, but are halachically valid. The speaker told us that his father kept those boards from year to year. During Sukkot he would sneak to an undisclosed, impromptu booth, place the schach-boards overhead, and for a few moments have his Sukkot.
 
Sell all that we have, said the father to the mother, sell my coat if you have to, he conceded. But not my sukkah-bletlach, not my schach-boards. 
 
Our speaker moved on to something else, and I turned back to my Chumash. I was up to a particular Rashi comment: why does the Torah, when discussing the offerings of rich men, the middle class, and the poor reserve the word nefesh, meaning life or soul, exclusively for the poor man’s offering, asks Rashi. Because, Rashi quotes from the Talmud, the poor man’s soul is in his humble offering. It is as dear to the Al-mighty as a man who has given his life.
 
(This war hero died shortly before the parsha of Vaykira. The night after his family finished the week of mourning, the shiva, the family danced at the wedding of his granddaughter.) 

Mrs. Sandviches

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930. She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads.

 
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time. His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers’ Paradise. In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing.
 
My grandmother came in to his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand. She saw the Rebbe’s face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.
 
The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted. It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.
 
My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion.
 
She would end each telling with: But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!
 
I don’t think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm. I think if she had she would never have been the person she was.   (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher. They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches. She told them she works hard to understand them, why don’t they work to understand her? The teasing stopped.)
 
For two parshas the Torah told us the details of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing. Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled. The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, ‘nediv libo’ describing the people who gave for the Mishkan ‘that their heart was full of giving’.
 
The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people’s. How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality? For that you need passion, a heart full of giving. A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit. By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing.
 
Maybe, just maybe he was. Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future. Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain. If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe.
 
This I know. My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her. Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her – can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed. 
 
She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported. But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.
 
We will read both these parshas this week. We will think they are redundant. We will remember that moving from heaven to earth – bringing heaven to earth – demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy. We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

Sleep

Sleep is not a delicate or romantic.  We slobber. We belch. We mess up freshly-pressed linen.  We mutter senseless, groggy drivel. And all those contour pillows, satin duvets, imported headboards and lacey skirting -- try as they might -- can’t hide the fact that we, thinking, sensitive, provocative, insightful, caring individuals, have by way of sleep morphed into embarrassing slobs.

And yet, we need sleep.  Deprived of it, our bodies simply demand it: the eyes refuse to see, or even stay open; the ears cease to transmit data.  As does the nose, as does the tongue as do millions of the body’s sensors.  The body shuts them down because important work has to be done: every cell discards its waste and simultaneously rejuvenates.  Think of it as your neighborhood supermarket: they close the doors to customers for a time to wash the floors, restack the shelves and count the money you’ve given them.  Without this down time the store cannot function at optimal level, if it functions at all.  Without consistent, adequate sleep we fall apart, slowly but surely: degeneratively.

Still, sleep feels like a waste of time.  It is the least dignified part of our day.  Our bodies are all that is working, our minds, our sensitive side, our spiritual quests are all but dead.  Or so it seems.

Life for us is asleep.  We primarily feel the immediate need of our digestive systems, not our spiritual system.  Our stomachs, our businesses occupy the vast majority of our time and thought; our spiritual journeys are inside books or for the books.  The word reality conjures physical need, not religious endeavor.  That is the way it is.

Because, well, we are asleep.  That is how the Psalmist and the Talmudist see our state of life: exile.  We are asleep.   And so is the Almighty, as it were.  We don’t see his connection with us other than in a groggy haze – and primarily as Facilitator-of-All-My-Needs Deity. 

It is evident that we are asleep.  But we are also sleepers.  We will be awakened one day to a different reality.  It all sounds a bit, well, dreamy.  But then reality usually sounds dreamy when I am asleep.

“On that night the kings slumber was shaken,” cites the story of Esther.  The obvious reference is to the wicked king who decreed death to the Jews.  He couldn’t sleep at all that night until he remembered that he owed his life to a Jew.  That was the beginning of the happy end, or, perhaps, the end to a scary beginning. 

But the king who couldn’t sleep at all that night is reference too, to a King on high.  Whose connection to his people below resembled the soul’s connection to the body when the body sleeps.  Disconnected.  Not present.  Or present but only in a limited, paradoxical way: the lack of spirit highlights the function of body -- and its connection to something beyond the body.

 Sweet dreams.  And wake up to something even sweeter.  

Why Jews Like Gold

Granted gold has some practical applications: photography, conducting electricity and other things we remember as vaguely vital.  But that is not gold.  That is not gold’s worth, that is not why people have been gaga over it for as long as we can remember.

It’s not even that it looks nice; bronze has its own look that in some settings surpasses gold -- but it has never caught attention like gold. Gold is simply a way of marking stature, status if you ‘re more familiar with that word.  A phenomenon that has no intrinsic, concrete worth.  The story is told that in Stalin’s Siberian gold mines the guards didn’t check the forced laborers after a day in the mines; even if the prisoners stole, what could they do with gold in Siberia?  Against the moldiest bread it held no value.
 
So if gold does nothing but separate the haves and the have nots, if it does nothing other than feed the ego of the status-climbing, uh, gold digger, than why would a just and caring and perfect Creator create a virtually worthless empty non-commodity?
 
But there is an important function that gold – together with other of the fine things in life do; they say I care.  Ask a new husband; he’s probably already learned you can’t give appliances for anniversaries.  They’re too functional, they carry too many messages.  “Gee, I hope you’re baking is easier now.”  “You love waffles, don’t you?” “Happy Vacuuming!” 
 
The useless however carries only one message: you are precious. Precious as . .  yeh, you guessed it.  And this message is the raison d'etre for all of creation.  To tell friends, certainly. Spouses, definitely. And in this parsha, Hashem- like good communicative husbands everywhere - says what He wants: “Build me a mikdash that I may dwell within you.”  It is the act of building that allows for G-d to be there, it’s building it out of gold that says you want Him.
 
For reasons the Rebbe told us he could not fathom, Hashem is not allowing us the Mikdash yet.  For now, we must build it out of the intangible (but very real) elements of our relationships with each other and with Him.  But it must be done in the best way possible.  Go for the Gold.  He deserves it.
 
 

My Son the Doctor

“My Son the Doctor”, and “Oh Doctor have I got a daughter for you”, were the two most eligible bachelors in the American Jewish community for over half a century, from the old neighborhood and on over in the move out to the suburbs.  Now we’ve heard so many stories of doctors in the slammer for you-don’t-want-to know-what, that we tend to deify them a bit less.  Or do we?

We still tell tale of the guy who died and went to heaven and on his tour he sees someone walking around with a white jacket and a stethoscope around his neck.  Who’s that, he asks.  Oh, don’t mind him, he’s told, that’s G-d, he likes to play doctor.
 
Talmud tells us that the best of the doctors should be shipped off to Hell.  (I’m not making this up and I’m not exaggerating.) But can you blame them?  When a man’s life is in the palm of your hand -- squeeze too hard and all the blood rushes out of the heart, let go too soon and all the blood runs into the heart -- when you have life in your hands like that, you can’t well be humble, and maybe that’s a good thing because it is not a humble moment.
 
But that’s not enough, it’s never enough.  The doctor then thinks he can predict—he should predict -- what will happen after he let’s go and comes up with “he’s not gonna make it” or in more subtle milieus “things don’t look good”.
 
But can you blame him?  What’s a man to do when everyone’s calling him doc and his momma’s so proud and his staff trusts him and his patients think he knows it all, what’s the man to think of himself?  How does he see that he may be holding a heart in his hand but life is not in his hands, that he can make a man live or make a man die but he has no right over life and death and has no right to do anything but heal?
 
How does he stop making determinations?  How does he remember he’s in a white suit but he is not G-d? 
 
“Verapo yerapeh”.  And you shall surely heal.  Heed these words.  They tell you that you shall heal -- not anything else.  You have an education and good grades and long nights in med school and accolades from your colleagues for the advancements you’ve made in medicine -- but all you get to do is heal.  Not predict. Not determine. And never - to judge. 
 
There is an angel of healing named Malach Rephael.  He comes into the room with the doctor and for all I know he leaves with him too.  There is an angel of judgment, his name is Gavriel and we don’t want him in the room.  Not in this room.  Not at this time.
 
Maybe when you’re a doctor and you see how fragile life is you become immune.  Or insensitive.  Or just plain scared and therefore bravado.  Don’t worry about it.  Remember you are a healer and the angel is doing your work.  And like the plumber you can go home at night and open up a mishna and the angels will be with you.  Listen and you can hear them, singing the sweet tunes of the Talmud that if you were lucky you heard your daddy singing in the other room as you drifted off to sleep in your bedroom, a lullaby that could never be condescending and you never outgrow because it was real and wasn’t directly done to you or for you.
 
Nowadays patients are encouraged to become their own doctor and that’s good because no one knows you better than you know yourself.  So you read up on this and that, surf the web, take out books, buy supplements and present your findings to whomever will listen.  And that is good.  And then you can’t leave well enough alone so you become a full-fledged doctor and start predicting and deciding what will happen and what should happen and you get so lost you forget about healing.
 
Come back, come back, come back to the parsha, to a sanity that begets humility.  Heal you shall surely heal -- and surely you should stay away from anything that is not healing.
 
“Es mispar yomecha amaleh”, I (says the Living G-d) will fill the number of your days.  Reinforcements have arrived. Even patients don’t have to play G-d.
 

The Bargain and the Jew

The story you are about to read is true.  Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.  Some names have been omitted to protect us from the grumpy.  The story first started thousands of years ago, when the world was young. . .

“Fixed!  Fixed! The whole thing is fixed!  You wanted the Jews to get it and never gave anyone else a chance!”  The prosecutor stormed furiously around the chamber.  After a few moments he stopped pacing and turned to face the Judge.  “There is a statutory posting of notice!  Without it this process could well be called a farce.”  He had everyone’s attention now and _ for affect really – he paced a bit more and then resumed.
 
“Have we asked anyone, anyone else if they would accept it?” he bellowed with a flourish.  “Have we talked terms?  Made offers?”
 
“What is your proposal?” challenged the Jews’ advocate.  He spoke softly and deliberately, knowing his adversary had a point that would ultimately have to be acknowledged.
 
“I propose that we go around with an offer and see who accepts!” he answered defiantly.  “Let us offer, in good faith to every nation.  Give them an honest chance.  And one more thing: the Jews get asked last!” 
 
“Agreed.” interjected the One True Judge into the heavenly proceedings. “And you,” he said pointing to the arch-prosecutor, “you shall be the one who brings the offer around to the world.”
 
“Thank you,” said the arch-prosecutor.
 
“You’re welcome, my angel.” replied G-d.
 
So the angel descended heaven to sell the Torah to the world and his first drop was high in the Tibetan mountains.
 
“It’s a Torah,” he told the Master as the llamas looked on.
 
“We appreciate new teachings,” intoned Master.  “Tell us your wisdom.”
 
“I am Hashem Your G-d. Have none before me.”
 
The master smiled sympathetically; the llamas rolled their eyes.
 
“All is One. Truth has many forms.  Form changes.” the master recited solemnly, taking the angels hand in his own.  “Love your knowledge.  Live your knowledge.  Do not allow one knowledge to negate a world of expression.”
 
For I am a jealous G-d, remembered the angel aloud, more to himself than to the master.  No, this won’t work.  They shook hands and the master bowed in deference.
 
The angel came to Khyber Pass.  A band of blond, chiseled men galloped furiously, their women following in tow.  The angel started telling them about his wares.  “I tried the master, but he rejected me.” Said the angel, feeling a bit down.
 
“Master?  What master?  We are the master of all races, not those blabbering, dark people.  What does your Torah say in it?”
 
“You shall not murder.”
 
“Humph!” answered the loudest mouth among them.  Curiously, he was not blond and evidently he had nipped himself above his lip while shaving.  “So why didn’t that idiot in the mountain take your book?  Isn’t that the gibberish he goes for?” The loudmouth’s voice and passion were growing.   “Isn’t it clear that only by the survival of the fittest do we go forward?”  He climbed on a sack of soap roots so all could hear and continued drawing in the people with his charisma and passion.  “Is it not the destiny of the strong to live and conquer and not to be conquered by the weak, ugly, feeble-minded and miserable?” he crescendoed. 
 
“Yawol! Seig!” thundered the handsome crowd.  The angel was ready to leave, but he had one question: How come all of you are so handsome? Don’t you have any ugly people?
 
“Oh no, we have no ugly people,” said one resolutely. 
 
“We did before,” answered the man’s wife, “but we tied them to the trees before we left the forest.  My brother Heinrich and sister Helga were there.”
“This way we have more food.” she added cheerfully.
 
Came the angel further west, along the Seine did he rest. 
How romantic is this view, how divine is this nest. 
Merci monsieur!” the locals sparkled when the angel announced he had a most intriguing gift.  “Mais, quest-qu’il ya dedans?  Can we have a peek inside?” 
 
You shall not commit adultery.
 
“Oh no, we never would!  To be unfaithful to one we love?  To break a vow?  Non, jamais, mon cheri! You must love life and live to love. To see someone living without love or loving without life, now that is unforgivable!  That is greatest breach of faith, the ultimate rebellion against raison d’etre!  A man must always be happy.  Joie de vivres!  Taste these snails and you will see!”
 
“Vay iz mir,” mumbled the angel.
 
He came to a bustling bazaar where everyone was selling something. Anything.  Now I’ll make a sale.
“Ya Habibi!” cried a stubbly-cheeked vendor with a checkered headdress,  “but first let us have tea.”
After three cups, two of which were noticeably laced, the conversation ever so subtly eased towards the merchandise at hand.
 
You shall not steal.
 
“Ah waja waja!” the vendor gesticulated wildly.  “Never, ever take what belongs to another man.  Especially land!  For then he will come back with a bigger stick and get back at you.  People are sneaky like that.”
“What I do,” the vendor added in whisper, “I kill him.  I kill his wife.  I kill his children.  Then, no problem of revenge!  Then build a big house on the land.  If anyone challenges you, look weepy and keep saying my-land-my-land!”  The vendor laughed heartily and insisted on another round of hospitality drinks before the stranger left.
 
The angel flew due north and was able to get into a mahogany-paneled boardroom where (he was told) issues of import are negotiated. 
 
The chief peered through his pince-nez down the table.  “So tell us young chap, why have you requested my time today?  A Torah, you say?  My subordinates have reviewed the documentation that you were good enough to supply.”
 
The chief pushed the scroll back to the angel.  A red-markered circle encompassed the words ‘you shall not be duplicitous’. 
 
“We are in agreement that treachery has no sanction, nor does deceit have virtue.” The chief executive officer took off his specs and wiped his brow from impeccably concealed exasperation.  “You’re obviously new to the world of finance and will undoubtedly prosper once you master financial protocol.”  The meeting was winding down and chief allowed himself to end on a fatherly note.  “While it is true that money makes the world go round, one must be cognizant of the lubrication applied.”  He laughed.
 
The angel flew away.  “So loaded with pomp it’s a wonder their bridges don’t collapse under them.”
 
He flew to a place that called itself united.  He met up with a time management wizard who insisted that the honor-father-mother obligation be compartmentalized to two days per annum and delegated to the office assistant if possible.
 
Then the angel came to the Moshe’s people.  For once they didn’t bargain.  They said if it comes from G-d we accept it, all of it, at face value, unconditionally, immediately and perpetually.  When asked, they said that when you are in love you accept.  You have no business bargaining.

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

“My grandson made a seder in Kobe!”  “150 people!”  “In Kobe Japan!”  “My grandson!”  I was on a trip back to Brooklyn , and had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community.  A butcher by trade.  Polish born.  He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson’s Pesach, some three months before. 

I didn’t get the excitement.  I understand a Zaide’s nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them.  But. . .Chabad has been doing that for decades.  This man’s son is one of South Africa’s most popular rabbis.  I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice
 
He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket.  “Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!”  I was there.  During the war.  The Shangchaier.  The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas.  They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east.  They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai.
 
In Reb Shimon’s living room wall are dozens of family pictures.  Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids.  Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America.  There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building.  They both have on bands with the Jewish star.  “It’s my sister on her wedding day,’ he had told me years before, “In the Warsaw Ghetto.  This picture is all I have of my family.”
 
I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.
 
Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody.”  Now my einikle is making sedorim.  In Kobe!”  You see,” he settled into a conversation. “Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) ‘Show me your face.’ and he was answered “I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.’  The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won’t see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along.   Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . .”
 
Life doesn’t always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant.  You have to just do it and figure it out later.  Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah.
 
The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon’s Kobe.  The Jews, coming form G-d’s deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea.  Should they fight? Surrender?  Pray?  The response was none of the above.  “Move on.”  Just follow what I say and it will all work out.
 
Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why.  He still doesn’t.  Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe.  For 150 people!

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.

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