Printed from

For Your Shabbat Table

For Your Shabbat Table


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.


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.


“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 thirty-five 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 the former 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  raised my grandchildren’s parents and they in turn are raising my grandchildren.  Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins.  I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness.  

A Marriage in the Desert

Why was the Torah given in a desert?  The marriage between G-d and His people: when they became “a singular nation in all the land”, with the children being the guarantors, the blast of the shofar.  Such a wonderful experience should have better taken place amidst lush foliage, brilliant flowers and fair weather.  Why in a naked, harsh land without any food or even water?              

On Rosh Hashanah we read the words of Jeremiah:  “So says the L-rd, ‘I remember the bounty of your youth: Ahavat kallulotaich, the love you had for me when you were a bride, as you followed me into the desert, in an land without life.”            

G-d was not choosing on this day a fair-weather nation.  Not for him a people who will be loyal if and when He provides them with a vineyard and orchard under whose shade to indulge and delve into His Wisdom.  He needed a nation who would not wait for a perfect setting to live the life He desired for them.  He needed a people who would take the life given them and do with it what is needed.            

It is easy to find excuses, even easier to push things off.  Study Torah? Oh, that’s not really for me.  You see, I’m a businessman: You know, I work for a living.  I give my tzedaka.  I do my davening.  But I’m busy! I don’t have time to study.  You wanna see what I have to do yet today?  I won’t be going home before nine o’clock.  And it’s been this way for the last two weeks!            
Scholars, those who are involved with Torah a whole day (the professional Jews), don’t take a back seat when it comes to excuses.  Listen, I need a lunch break! And breakfast break and supper break.  I need to have enough sleep to clear my head and enough fresh air to revive me a little.  Then when I sit down I can really hit the books.               

It’s not unusual to hear yeshiva kids who are studying to become rabbis saying if they find a job with the right pay and conditions, they’ll become rabbis. If not: Hey! You gotta support your family.            

Not with such spirit did we survive an exile as long as the golus.  This was not the inspiration with which Jews in Russia and Poland, just over fifty years ago, covered their faces with their hands and defied, “You will chop off my hands before your scissors touch my beard!”

Ahavat kallulotaich, the love that made us follow Him into a barren desert.  There He provided us with water -- from a rock, He provided us with food -- from Heaven, shelter --clouds, and clothes that kept themselves clean and adjusted to the bearer’s growth.              

There is plenty of logic and statistics to prove the rapid demise of the Jewish people.  And there is plenty of spirit to defy it.  A kapo, a degenerate Jew, a despised collaborator, when commanded to eat a tempting meal on Yom Kippur, said simply, “Jews don’t eat on Yom Kippur,” and faced the consequences without flinching.              

This is Shavuos.  A marriage. A union that extends beyond logic and fills each partner with a love that exceeds the limits of devotion. “Don’t say when I have the time I’ll do it: You may never have the time.”  Or the money, the opportunity, the ability, the wherewithal.  Take the first step, towards Sinai, that is all I’m asking of you, and I will come down off the mountain and lead you to the Chuppa.

Royalty and Humility

When her Majesty the Queen graced our shores with all the pomp and circumstance, politesse and reverence, it would be hard to imagine that across the pond a whole bunch of her subjects want to give her the pink slip.  Especially when one of her royal family gets into a royal mess.  End the constitutional monarchy!   If they act like the rest of us, let them stand in line like the rest of us! 

The sentiment has value; stirrings of democracy moved that country to a constitutional monarchy from the off-with-your-head variety.

But what is the citizenry reaching for, to turn themselves into royalty or to make royalty more like them?  Undeniably when the royals try to show a common touch they end up being just common -- but why does it disappoint?  Doesn't our disappointment in them testify that we expect better?  When they let us down, does that not show that they are the standard bearers?  And if the standard bearers go, then what happens to the standard?  Does everyone attain the standard or does the standard get shelved in the attic?

Royalty demands bearing a standard that is greater than the individual, personifying an ideal that was bequeathed not for you to do as you like, but to protect for progeny.  Not to live for the moment but make the moment live suspended in a chain of succession of noble forbearers and towards the promise of the future.  It is inherently optimistic.

Royalty, paradoxically enough, is essentially humility; standing in awe of the majesty of your charge and being totally defined by it.  Being so bound to your subjects as to lose all identity other than the subjects'.  Not calling attention to the self - for this deflects attention from the call of duty.  Hence the Kabala defines majesty as essentially feminine.  (We confuse royalty with tyranny only because lousy royals have consistently done so.)

Being the Queen is not easy; it is most likely the most arduous vocation on earth.  Tradition proscribes a blessing recital upon viewing Her Majesty.  Regardless of whether the monarchists or republicans prevail (note the small r) royalty will still garner attention, lots of it.  If introspection follows, then her Majesty will become our own.

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.

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.  

A Humble Offering As Dear As Life

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.)

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.