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For Your Shabbat Table

For Your Shabbat Table


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.)

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 into 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 these parshas for the next two weeks.  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.

Is Sleep A Waste Of Time?

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 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 effect 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 cup, 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!”  On a summer trip back to Brooklyn I 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 from 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 and let’s not go there).  It was the portent of, oh, I don’t know, the television?  Now imagine you're 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, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, 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 limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim – the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt).  The Jews are defined by he who defines them.  (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 recommended  for the blood pressure).

All those sheep and TV’s are 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.

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