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For Your Shabbat Table

When to Walk and When to Talk

“We’re getting divorced. But we’re doing it amicably, with mutual respect.”When ex-spouses (or ex-es) describing their divorce sound like “we’re withdrawing our offer on the house we looked at Thursday”, you can get the idea that they never invested enough to be hurt by the loss. 

But listen again: you’ll hear emptiness in the voice:
Pain in the heart.  
Yes, the stigma is lost. 
Yes, some koffee-klatch and water-cooler conversations
have an “everybody’s-doing–it” attitude. 
No. No one who went through divorce thinks it’s painless.

But if pain-free divorce is a myth (in the shattering),
divorce is a reality, an option more than it ever was.  
To be sure, since this parsha was first delivered,
the option was always there.  
But as my father puts it, so was a tourniquet.  
When the body is facing death you use the tourniquet, otherwise it can do more damage than good.  
(Many first aid courses no longer teach tourniquet application because of its overuse.)  
Complimenting the legalization of the parsha,
was the frustration of the Talmud:
“When husband and wife divorce, the Holy Alter sheds tears”.

Husbands and wives are not the only things getting divorced.
Divorce is not just a legal proceeding; it’s a way of life:
A mindset.
You get in a fight with a friend; send them a letter telling them why you’re not going to have anything to do with them anymore. Your family gives more sting than honey? don’t feel bound or stifled by them.
And divorce, disengagement isn’t always such a bad idea.
But when to walk and when to talk
Is not a question that gets a lot of attention. 
It can’t. It‘s too easy to walk:
Why bother with gut-wrenching screaming matches
When you can just stroll away?
 
There is no pat answer as to when to hang up the phone or when to give back the ring.
But the tourniquet overuse is worth reflection.
For marriage to work,
divorce cannot be considered a possibility.
Call it the D-word.
The ineffable, unthinkable.
Forget that it exists.
Relationships can’t work
when breaking-up is knocking on the door.
Not with spouses, friends, cousins, brothers, in-laws,
grocers or gardeners.  
(Tip: Treat everyone as your most important client.)
 
And a fight does not necessarily mean
a break-up is on the way;
It can just as soon (if not just as easily)
be a stepping-stone to a balanced, strong,
fulfilling and happy relationship.
Better an acrimonious relationship
than a non-combative drifting.  
Not always, but when in doubt throw out the tourniquet;
And remember tears are being shed.

Witches, Black Cats, Bulls and Planes

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

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

Cure for the Body and Soul

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

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman. Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you. In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me. I asked her where she was from.
 
"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment. I gave up and she answered ‘Vienna’ in a voice kids use when you ask them what’s their favorite ice cream.
 
Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered. 
 
"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish." 
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. 
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked. 
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.
 
This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country. I wasn't sure what was getting to me.
 
She now had her audience, she told her story:
 
Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried. 
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!” 
 
Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison. I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike!
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
 
That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
 
Think us for a minute, think America, think 2019. Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group. Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks.
 
Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food. We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating. (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.)
 
How much is spent on the consequence of digging in? 
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough.” 
 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides. 
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
 
This parsha alludes to more. When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you.
 
Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us.
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak. 
A cow’s head is near the ground, in the trough. Where is ours? 
 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism. Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health. But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul. And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul. 
 
Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right. Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.
 
Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom. For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.
 

Loving Your Fellow Jew

Not since Sunday School, Miss Judy’s class, do I remember paying any attention to the story. 

       Two mothers who shared a room came before Solomon (in Sunday School we were not told that they were fallen women). One baby was found dead in the morning and each claimed the surviving baby as her own. This wisest of men rendered judgment: since we cannot prove to whom the baby belongs, we shall split him and give each woman half. One woman spoke thus: Please your majesty, I surrender my part. Just don’t cut my baby.

This woman, pointed Solomon, is the true mother.
 
What was the Wisdom of Solomon here, couldn’t any Fredrick Forsyth protagonist come up with such a solution?
 
Perhaps (perhaps): A mother is naturally protective and sees her baby as an extension of herself. Her intuitive reaction to Solomon’s solution would be to grab the baby. Scream. Pull out her hair, attack the other woman, attack the judge. 
 
Solomon’s test was counterintuitive; a mother’s love is that she is ready to give up her everything -- even her instinct to hold onto the child -- for the child -- and no one can fake that.
 
Gush Katif has been emptied “ahead of schedule” and “with less violence than anyone predicted”. The enduring part of the story may well be beyond the headlines.
 
Consider: practically since their inception, the current Jews of Gush Katif have never been sympathetically portrayed. They know it and it eats at them.   They’ve been called Nazis and Jewish terrorists at worst and the Jewish equivalent of the Michigan Militia at best. 
 
They sustained 4,200 mortar shells attacks. (Imagine how many homeowners would still be in Rancho Mirage after three.) In addition to 12,000 shooting incidents. Their children have been murdered and the lucky ones survived missing fingers, legs or motor control. They feel they have been sold out, cheated by their once-biggest supporter, raped by the army they were a part of and still are, and their hard work awarded to the murderers of their children. They seem to have been emotionally unprepared.
 
If ever a human being had a breaking point, this must be it.   
If ever a people had the ability and the rage to revolt (they are arguably the best-trained and best-armed civilian population on planet earth) this was the time.
If ever a moment is too poignant to be dressed up for the cameras, this must be it.
 
Instead of attacking and revolting, they mourned and wept. They asked the soldiers “how could you? Do you know who you look like? Look me in the eye!”   They locked arms; occasionally, some had to be pried apart and carried, but they never raised a hand. In a very few instances teenagers threw sand (heck! Arab kids did that to me for holding a camera inside a bus!) and paintballs. There was no revolt, no violence; no hand was raised to a soldier and considering the circumstance, barely a harsh word. 
 
These people have a lot of love. More than that, love must be their core. Love of the land certainly, they declared so constantly. But more than love for the Land of Israel, they love the Children of Israel. In this Solomonic moment, they showed that they were on that land foremostly in defense of their people. Argue the wisdom of their position, but the veracity of the love of their people is the most stunning – and least expected – outcome of their last two weeks. And possibly the most enduring, too.
 
The. . .what shall we call them?. . .refugees?. .. former residents of Gush Katif? . ..whatever. They want very much to live together as a group. As I understand it, those who see them as a nuisance do not eagerly pursue the idea, ostensibly believing that spreading them out will deflect further agitation. 
 
They might both be wrong. Wherever they live, these people will influence their neighbors. They’ve been to hell and back in a nightmare they never dreamed. Being stranded in hotel lobbies and stranded in bus stations is not likely to break them.  
 
They have lost everything; we have found something in them they may not have realized they possess. 
 
They love their people more than they love their land. More than they love their most cherished dreams. Even more than their political egos. 
 
We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to perceive this love. 
We need his wisdom not to squander it.
 

Birth of Moshiach

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

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy.

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?"   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  "Amen, amen".

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah:
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David;
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.

Cookbooks

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

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

Nourishing a Nation

A dill pickle is good.
Pistachio ice cream is good.
Together, they are not good.
Good cooking means combining food properly.
Egg and onion is good -- two foods that complement each other.
Ginger and dates – aha! now that’s food.
Combining flavors that are not just different but are opposites, has each flavor play on the other, tantalizing each other's strengths and subtleties until a new and dynamic flavor burst forth.

When the Rebbe had a heart attack – it was Simchas Torah, the happiest night of the year with vigorous, near-riotous dancing until late at night – and the heart attack was sudden and severe – the Chassidim in his shul danced. And cried. Danced and cried.
 
Mourning means feeling loss. And it is a mitzvah to mourn the lost Bet Hamikdash. It is a mitzvah to mourn the loss of the just – this Shabbat is the Yahrtzeit of Aaron, Moses’s brother and this Shabbos begins the yearly nine-day mourning for the Bet Hamikdash, Jerusalem’s building where heaven met earth. 
 
The mitzvah of mourning largely translates into refraining, from weddings, haircuts, swimming, new clothes. It means feeling loss – not so much doing something as much as not doing anything.
 
There is also the mitzvah of continuance. Learning the life and thoughts of Aaron and making them your own. Iterating that his life was one of spirit and that if we continue his spirit than he lives now as much as he did in his lifetime. Studying the layout and function of the Bet Hamikdash, that were it to be rebuilt tomorrow, we could become its tour guides. Both are active defiance of the physical loss, the opposite of mourning.
 
And both are the enigma of Jewish response. Remembering and ignoring. Remembering the loss to such degree that we never accept it. Ignoring the loss like it never happened because that is the only way to ensure that we survive and that the loss does not endure.
 
It is a poignant paradox. Counterintuitively, they play on each other.  In yeder Yiddishe simcha is faran a trer, in every Yiddish joy is a tear. Not letting go. Not getting lost in memory. It pulls and pushes yins and yangs. And with it, a nation is nourished.

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 Dwells Alone

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

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

The Call of the Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they 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 what, twenty five years already 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, just ten minutes ago in fact, 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.

LONG LIVE THE GRACIOUS QUEEN

The immediate images of her that come to mind, that saturate newspapers, magazines, television and what have you, is marching bands, swirling horses, jewels galore, huge palaces: a pomp and pageantry that boggles the mind more than it connects to Richard the Lion-Hearted or whoever.

But the immediate image is not the whole story; we have nearly the pomp and a lot more glitz with movie stars, athlete stars, moguls and politicians. With them it disgusts us, with them it leaves us; with her it intrigues us, with her it endures.  With her it is regal.

There is the image of her that emerges less immediately, a reserve, a pensiveness, a quiet pride that may sometimes look arrogant: she doesn’t need us for her to shine, adoring crowds may even diminish her stature.

Deeper yet we sense her sense of duty, a quiet determination to carry on whatever it is that she represents and never to be vulnerable to the whims and windfall of public opinion or fashion.  Enduring. Permanent.

A jubilee is a lifetime’s biggest segment to help us measure, and that can afford us some perspective.  And even though you can’t really get perspective when you are still in the middle of a story, still, no celebs can even think in terms of jubilees.  

There is a shtetl story of when the Czar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.  Enough Jews rejoiced then; the Jew-hater was dead, now Jew-hatred would die.  (We now like to think we know just how naïve they were.)  But there was one Jew in the shtetl, Yankel, who when he heard of the Czar’s murder he wept.  Yankel, why are you crying, his shtetl wondered.  Not for the Romanovs, he assured them, but for my grandchildren’s davening.  How, when I am teaching them “L-rd our G-d King of the Universe”, will I be able to describe to them what a king is?

If her grandfather’s cousin once served as an example of monarchy, Her Majesty serves as an example of aristocracy.  I cringe when I hear the Jewish Princess thing.  Princess does not mean pampered, does not mean protected, and certainly does not mean pomp or fashion (petit-bourgeois pomp?). Princess, as in the Talmud’s “the honor for a princess is seen in her reserve” is aristocracy.

So for giving the world this example, I thank her. Thanks to her, unlike Yankel we need not weep for our daughters, we need only teach them – and learn ourselves.  Long live . . . well, their Gracious Queen.

 

HOW TO MAKE GREAT KIDS

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 now chief rabbi Emeritus 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. 
 

Desert

I was sitting at the dining room table when a movement outside the window caught my eye: I looked up to see a roadrunner. For those of you not in the Desert, a roadrunner is a bird: a cross between a woodpecker and an eagle that hasn't eaten for a week. From this roadrunner's mouth hung a white lizard, which looked like a Mattel dinosaur that hadn't been painted yet.

I ran to grab my new camera, a birthday present, a digital AK-47PX or something. My kids have been too busy to show me how it works and I've been too slow to learn.

I snapped away as the roadrunner repeatedly flung the lizard to the ground until the lizard's neck became covered with blood. The pictures, of course didn't come out, so no, National Geographic hasn't come calling.

To the right of our place forty homes are going up; to the left, hundreds already have. The desert vistas are giving way to tract homes. Those who haven't been to the desert are surprised when they get here; they expected endless sand dunes meandering around. Those who live here, think of it as hotter than Los Angeles, with better air than the Valley and less traffic than Orange County. With homes, golf courses, pools and malls the desert part of it is easily forgotten. Or ignored.

The desert is desolate, bare; where survival is chancy and death is a given. Where without irrigation and air-conditioning you would never go, never mind go for a honeymoon. But this is where the good L-rd took us as soon as we left Egypt.

There was no food, no water, and enough sun and scorpions to kill us all many times over. And we went. Blindly. Trustingly.

He led, we followed. Years later the marriage went sour; He remembered our blind love and so He turned a blind eye. Then we got sour with Him and so we too, turned a blind eye. And we settle into being an old married couple, aware of each other's shortcomings and not looking to rock the boat. And before we have a chance to get grumpy there comes along a Rebbe that brings a zest and a zing and everything back into the marriage. And we're back on a honeymoon.

For a honeymoon there is no place better than the Desert. Not because of the golf courses. The desert has its own beauty. The vastness, the emptiness the stark majesty calls to the fore something big, majestic and unchanging. Trees and grass, for all their beauty and usefulness, block that. Houses and fences, for all that we need them, call to mind our accomplishment. In the face of accomplishment, stark majesty is lost.

We go back to the desert, that state of blind love and that state of breathtaking majesty. Our love, His majesty. His love, that majesty that pulsates somewhere inside of us. Underneath all the accomplishments. Another anniversary draws close; we hold His hand and are grateful that our marriage feels young.

Torah 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 a 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.

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