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For Your Shabbat Table

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.


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 loose 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 four 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.


Torah’s Take on Fake News

Torah’s Take on Fake News: 
How to spot Fake News every time.

This week we read the Episode of the Spies (Numbers 13:1) -- everything you need to know to spot Fake News, whatever the source, whatever your politics.

1) Is this news necessary? 
The spies did not need to spy the Land of Israel. There was ample testimonial evidence that it was a good land and the Almighty had developed a solid reputation for delivering. This was less than eighteen months from plagues, splitting seas, etc.

News is a manufactured item with billions of marketing dollars expended to hook you. Nothing nefarious about that, every item in the supermarket has the same story. If you think twice before buying a two-ounce $10.99 bottle of infused basil, Tuscan-herb virgin olive oil, instead of an $8 half-gallon, think if you need this particular headline news. Is it newsworthy? Is it relevant? Do I really care? How come slow news days never lead to a thinner paper or a shorter broadcast? Because like any product, news agencies are fighting for the preservation and relevance. (BTW I wasn’t fair to infused oil.)

2) Do these news-people have a bias? 
The spies had motives in requesting this assignment; to dissuade the Jews from entering the Promised Land. They didn’t advertise that, but it was there.
Claims of objectivity are not dubious, they are lies. I have a subjective interest in everything, including city-council elections in South Myanmar -- in that case I want them out of my way so I can go back to my soap opera. IOW I’m not objective, my subjective position is indifference. Everyone has a worldview and that is nothing to be ashamed of -- if you are up front about it. Don’t listen to the story to find out what happened, listen to the story to find out what the medium wants you to believe happened.

3) Facts are misrepresented with opening lines. 
Opening phrases are misleading. The spies began their reportage with “it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but…” because every lie needs a grain of truth to be palatable for popular consumption.

4) Extraneous, negative comments set the tone. 
The Spies mentioned the Amalekites even though the Amalekites were not in the Promised land. Since the Jews had already had a terrifying encounter with this war-like people, it would cast the whole endeavor in a negative light.

It’s a trick that amateur gossipers also use regularly. Throw in a few titillating crumbs that have nothing to do with the alleged story; it will get tongues wagging – which is good for business.

5) Give the facts, then the story. The Spies brought the huge ripe fruit. Instead of allowing the fruits to speak for themselves of the lusciousness of the land, they turned the story into a negative: the peoples there are equally big and strong and little Jewish guys like us will be clobbered.

Facts are stubborn things, said John Adams. True that, but not to worry: facts are easily massaged into place. 
Joke: An the Israeli soldier was visiting the Washington Zoo when a baby fell into the lion’s den. The elite paratrooper jumped in and saved the baby, to the grateful tears of the mother and the applause of everyone there. The headlines the next morning was “Israeli Soldier Steals African Immigrant’s Lunch”.

6) Reporters project themselves on stories. 
“We felt like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes,” lamented the spies. Precisely. Because you saw yourselves as such, so they saw you.

7) nuff said.



“Never look a gift horse in the mouth”
Good idea generally, gift horses can be liabilities – expensive ones.
But if G-d is giving gifts, trust Him.
He is not a horse thief

If you don’t trust G-d, then you trust no one: who can you trust?
And ultimately, you don’t trust trust.
How could you get on a plane, if you don’t trust pilots’ licensing?
How could you cross the street if you trust no one to stop on a red light?
How can you buy food that isn’t poisoned?
Still, He allows you to verify his Truth.
But He doesn’t advise it:
If you’re lucky, you’ll confirm what He told you,
If you’re not you won’t be wiser, but you will be miserable.
But when you get a gift, He still wants you to check it out.
See how you will use it best: Is this a broodmare or a bloodhorse colt?
The spies in our parsha went to see if they will take the gift or not.
The spies a generation later went to see how best to take the land.
See how you can do the best job, not if you should take the job or not.
Look the gifts G-d gives you in the mouth. Then go win the race.
Moshe added the name of G-d to Joshua’s name.
Without the name of G-d, Joshua might have gotten more involved in the horse than the race.


Have you ever met someone truly great? A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in? If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.
Some forty years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times. He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered. Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”
The student, Jonathan Sacks, is Emeritus Chief Rabbi of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great). When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him. They asked what made him become a rabbi. He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge – started him on that road.
Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness. In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 
He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers. Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.
“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha. “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver. Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.
I am now raising my grandchildren’s parents. Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins. I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness. 


Individual Talents


This week's Parsha tells of twelve sets of gifts brought as offerings by each of the twelve shevatim (tribes). Although the Torah does not waste words, and although each shevet seemingly brought the same gift, the Torah repeats word for word the exact order of their donation - "Reuven gave..., Shimon gave..., etc.", rather than simply saying "Reuven, Shimon,... and Binyamin each gave..."

Each of the items symbolized different things to different shevatim, relating to that shevet's role. In this sense, each shevet brought a different flavor to their gifts.

All of the tribes conform to the same Divine guidelines, all follow the same Torah, yet each one carries out those very same deeds with their own personal approach.

We often see tension between conformity and creativity, between tradition and innovation. People ask why Judaism has to be so rigid and conforming. Where is creativity? On the one hand we need the foundation stones of our Jewish tradition; on the other, we need an outlet for our creativity, to personalize, to nurture our own individual talents.

Our Parsha tells us that this is not a contradiction. The entire nation, including individuals of every conceivable character and calling, can do the very same deed, down to every last detail, yet each person provides a unique flavor. Two people may do exactly the same thing in a very different manner.

In the same manner, we can live in a civilized society, governed by ethical and moral precepts, yet still thrive as individuals. We can follow Torah and carry out its Commandments, yet still remain true to our sense of individuality. No matter how conformist Judaism (or society, for that matter) may seem, there is always room for personal expression. It does not, however, have to involve rebellion or non-conformity. On the contrary, the greatest personal expression comes from different individuals who are following the same framework yet show diversity and individuality within that framework.

We were blessed with the framework of Torah, of Jewish teachings and practices. Let us endeavor to enjoy and celebrate our Judaism, in the traditions of our predecessors, yet with our own individual flavor - to keep it going for the next generation.


Beauty of the Desert

When you first come to the Desert you know it by what it doesn't have:

"Wow there are no trees!"
"No grass!"
"All you have here is rocks and sands!"

Often people feel it so bare and foreign they quickly cover the desert with green like the Amazon.

Later, sometimes, they see that the vastness of the desert has its own stark beauty. They see that this nothingness of the desert is really a lack of noise and distraction. And with all the distraction gone you can sense something that you never knew was there. And then you have fallen in love with the desert.

G-d too fell in love with the desert. The vastness and emptiness, where nothing calls away attention from Him. No water, no plants, no agriculture, no accomplishment and really no endeavor. Just Him.

He likes it when people appreciate the desert. In themselves. Notwithstanding accomplishment and gumption, simply realizing that in the face of Him there is no accomplishment, no endeavor large enough to be worthy of taking away from Him.

He loved the desert so much that he wanted to get married there. And he wanted his kalla-maiden to have that desert quality. "That you followed after me into the desert, a land where nothing grows".

So the Jewish people got married in the desert of Sinai and have a 600,000-word document to prove it. And this document they cherish. We got this at Sinai, they say, because they treasure where they got it too.

Now the Jewish people are again in the desert, part of the Jewish people. The Coachella, in my case. 

We see something more about the desert. We see that it is full of water, but the water is down below and we have to bring it up. The desert too now has room even for our accomplishment. And it still is vast and beautiful with a stark and awesome beauty.

Last Line on Curses

Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art. The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other: “You should have a court case -- and you should win!” “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!”
In this week’s reading, The Al-mighty Himself pours forth his wrath with a Writer’s attention to original detail that makes the stomach turn and a Poet’s turn of phrase that makes the head swell.
There is nothing in our history not written and accounted for in these passages, not the cannibalism of the Roman conquest, not the kapos of Poland and Germany. Perhaps if I were not such a Jewish history addict, the verses wouldn’t have boggled me like that.
Now picture this: a courtroom. A judge calls in the defendant and reads off the charges. The defendant took his victim, drugged him, called in several of his assistants and methodically, with forethought cut the man’s stomach open, removed organs, put in foreign substances, drugged him some more. The victim luckily made it out of this ordeal alive, and made it safely home. 
Then the judge reads the very last line: the defendant is a surgeon who did surgery in a hospital with the patient duly under surgery and the operation was successful.
Things change with the last line. Until the last line we get increasingly dizzy with assaulting details: the last line flips everything into perspective.
Some people instinctively relate to life through the last line: we call them tzaddkim. There is a story of a young boy of ten, the son of a tzaddik. His father the tzaddik always read the Torah, including this week’s Tochacha – the vivid curses. 
One year the tzaddik was away and was unable to read the Tochacha: someone else read the Torah in his place. The little boy heard the Tochacha being read and he fainted. For months he was bedridden. Finally, after he recovered they asked him why the Tochacha affected him so deeply – don’t you hear it every year?
“Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when a my father reads the Tochacha I hear only blessings.” (Needless to say, the little boy was soon recognized as a tzaddik in his own right.)
I’ve heard that when the Rebbe was a little boy the pogroms (the third wave of the last czars) hit his hometown of Nikolaiyiv. He spent nights in the basement of his apartment building, comforting children even younger than himself. 
Many years later the Rebbe wrote that since he was a small boy he was drawn, magnet-like to the concept of Moshiach. He described it as a time that would give meaning to the long and bitter Jewish history. That it would be a last line.
The trouble is that when you’re in the middle of the story you cannot fathom that there is a last line, and the very mention of it is aggravating. “The people would not hear him for their shortness of breath,” the Jews in Egypt could not endure Moshe’s talk of redemption: they were too overcome by the reality around them to fathom there could be a last-line ending.
I go back to the account of the Warsaw Ghetto I was reading. I scroll through the horrific deja-vu afflicting Israel. Again. I too, in my Egypt, have shortness of breath. I am somewhat relieved that there are giants who are high enough to see the last line. And see it not as a distant vision as rock-solid reality. 
The words ‘speedily in our days’ take on new meaning. Or maybe I’m just giving them a new attention.

Bow & Arrow

Have you ever shot a bow and arrow? I haven’t. In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’omer. But they never took us. Archery by proxy. 

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews). The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields. If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows. (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.)
A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat. But he doesn’t have a long flowing beard; he doesn’t have any beard at all. In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows.
In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?) took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.  
One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out. The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page. He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night. And for the next day. Luckily he was released to his parents. He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland. But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out.
So I have been told. I never asked the lookout to verify the story. I’m glad my kids can learn outside of basements and take scheduled breaks to play red light green light. And on balance, even though I’d rather have shot bows and arrows, I’ll even forgive those teachers who took us on archery-deprived picnics.

The People and the Place


During my week in Israel I had my fair share of buffets. All were good. Two were outstanding. None brought me to tears. Except this one:

At the Wall: an endless stream of humanity throughout the day. And greeting each one on the men’s side is the indefatigable and deeply humble Shmulie Weiss. I counted fifteen pairs of tefillin on his table, with three being worn at that very moment and another dozen pairs or so in the drawers. The reason more weren’t being worn right then was because we got there at the tail end of a thunderstorm and the Wall Plaza was virtually deserted.

The man pictured was from Russia and had never been Bar Mitzvah’d under the Soviets; he was virtually giddy from putting on tefillin for the first time.  A group of thirteen-year-olds from LA, students of Sinai Akiba, were eager to not just put on the tefillin but wanted to wear them as they approached the Wall with their notes in hand.  I quite literally lent a hand.

There were dozens of non-Jewish tour groups there too and seeing the Wall Effect on them too was an honor.  I made eye contact with them when I could, and they responded by asking all the questions they had pent up inside.  A group from Bratislava asked their questions too and then requested if I could bless them in Hebrew.  As I began one of them fell to his knee and bowed his head.  I met Italians, Poles, French, Chinese, Malaysians and some from remote places too.  They came alone, they came with their priests, they came with groups.  They prayed for the safety of the Jewish people.

It’s breath-taking to see the intoxicating effect that the Tefillin-Wall combo have, and it is breath-giving to be a part of it.

The Wall Effect.  But what is the Wall already?  It’s not even a remnant of Solomon’s Temple as so many believe.  It’s the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple Mount to make the ground level to build the Temple, or Beis Hamikdash as we call it in our native tongue.  Yet it’s effect is unparalleled.  The only thing I have seen like it is when people come the Rebbe’s Ohel resting place near JFK.  It’s when and where you sense something greater than yourself – within you.

And so this one-item buffet moved me.  This nexus of the People and the Place.  I want to go back

Two Consenting Adults

"Two consenting adults".

This three-word mantra, which condones every four-letter word, has been the avant-garde on every affront to this week’s parsha. Nor is it a cause without merit: we don’t want government poking its nose into our business any more than necessary. And we have a bad history with inspired lynch mobs. 

But two-consenting-adults is no longer about civil liberties. Its cause, increasingly more often stated than implied, is to coerce society (us) to accept, then condone, then celebrate, then embrace any and all (have you heard this word lately?) abomination.
But first, what makes an abomination abominable? Is it social mores? Berlin of the thirties shattered forever that once-popular faith. Is it nature, or instinct? What would constitute unnatural (and therefore wrong) a heart-transplant? Ultimately, neither nature nor nurture can -- nor perhaps should -- decree what is or is not abominable.
Abomination may be considered an old-fashioned word. It is, if you’re a teenager and forever lasts fifteen minutes. The ancient Romans and pagans alike celebrated most of what we consider abominable. It was only with the spread of monotheism via the church and the mosque that Jewish concepts became widespread. 
The concept spread widely, but conduct remained remarkably unchanged, except for going underground. For while the concept was basically Jewish the understanding – and misunderstanding of it – was fundamentally pagan.
But getting back to the mantra. In Yiddish, as in Yinglish, we dissect a phrase by playing with word stress. “Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles,” takes on different lives depending on stress. 
Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?” = I thought Herbie was going.
“Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?” You mean he didn’t go yet?
“Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?” Whatever for? I told him he’s meant to be in New York!
So let’s stress and tease some meaning from the mantra.
Two? and why do you discriminate against three?
Consenting? you know there’s no across-the-board consensus on when and where consent begins and ends.
Adults. Aha, so you think that every culture throughout the ages has been as repulsed as you are by this loathsome (no issue with the vocabulary, this time) abomination? In Rome it was accepted. (Why does that dear town keep coming up? Athens was quite a cesspool itself.) In Eastern countries it’s reflected in their poetry. 
Some argue that Western society confuses children with victimhood. They maintain that adults know that there are greater joys to be had than Disneyland and there isn’t a thread of evidence that kids wouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion given all the facts that a loving experience lends.
Twenty years ago abomination was society’s description for what now passes as prideful alternative lifestyle. Unless you have an adolescent time frame then don’t be too smug that the unthinkable will, for better or for worse, metamorphose into acceptance.


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.


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.) 
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