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For Your Shabbat Table

The Call of the Hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Last Line on Curses

Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art. The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other: “You should have a court case -- and you should win!” “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!” 

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

Thank You For Remaining Jewish

"He could ask for anything!"
He could have any tyna he wanted!"
He could storm the heavens with the injustices he faces every day!"

It was the early sixties and the Hassidim sat with the Rebbe in New York as other Hasidim sat in Russia. It was before American Jewry had discovered the Iron Curtain (Let my people go!), before Scoop Jackson presented legislation on their behalf. It was a Shabbos and the Rebbe was telling of a letter that had been sent to him by a teenager in Leningrad.

"He could have demanded anything from heaven! He could have lodged any protest! Instead. . . " the Rebbe's voice choked on tears. His voice broke. Finally the words came. "Instead what does he ask? He complains that in the middle of his davening his mind wanders! And he is asking what he can do about it!"

I wasn't there that Shabbos. I would have been a baby if I had been. The story was told to me by someone who was there and remembered it over thirty five years later like it happened yesterday. I haven't verified the details.

But this I know. No one who was there davened by rote the next day. And if they did, they felt empty inside -- and were fuller for it.

Golda Meir was born in Russia and came back as Israel's first ambassador. The Commy mantra then was that Russian Jews saw themselves as communists first and their past superstitions were faded, senseless memories, etc. etc. Word got out that Golda Meir would be in shul Rosh Hashanah.

The women in the ladies' section came to touch the collar of her dress. They crowded around her. Goldenyu!, an old man shouted on her way out of shul, leben zolst du! -- a wish with a near imperative ring -- you shall live! Golda didn't know what to say until finally she blurted out in Yiddish, adank aich far bleiben yidden. Her words spread through the throng like wildfire, and she felt her limp words were a poor mockery of prophetic incantation. Thank you, she had told them, for remaining Jews.

So it was. Eastern Europe and America had changed roles, now America was der heim, the home, where Yiddishkeit thrived (relatively) unmitigated by surrounding circumstance. In the early eighties my mother met a man in Moscow who had been a younger boy in the yeshiva in Lubavitch when her father, my grandfather, was there. Her father had gone to America and in this old man's eyes, it was my grandfather, not he, who was living the full Jewish life. They were looking to America for much more than money and mezuzahs , they needed to know that while they were breaking their necks to get a piece of matzah on Pesach, Seders were extravagant family affairs across the sea -- and Yiddishkeit flourished. Otherwise the Jews of Silence would just have been a few lost souls abstaining from yeast in mid-March.

And so it is. Israel is in a time that tries big men. The iron curtain has been beaten into rockets and is falling on them. (Ceasefires mean a time to reload.) Israel needs our money. Because their finances have been interrupted. But that is only a small, small part of what they need. They need our political clout, but that is a small, small amount of what they need. They need our cries of support, but that too is a small, small part of what they need.

They know they are hated like no one else in a region where hate is the biggest cash crop and biggest export. They know they are hated because they are Jews. They know too that we are hated because we are Jews but they need to know that we know that too. That the hate is bearable for us because we know we have something beautiful and in the words of Anne Frank we would never want to give it up.

We look upon Israel with pride and sorrow, like we did a few decades ago, peering through that iron curtain. They need to know that we celebrate Yiddishkeit, not bear it. They need to know we don't hide it and we don't only remember it when somebody hates us. Any burden is bearable if it is meaningful. If we have meaning then they can bear it. If we don't have meaning, then what are they safeguarding?

In the spring of 1967, when the world spoke of an impending second holocaust confronting Israel, the Rebbe spoke of wearing tefillin. He quoted the Talmud that when we wear tefillin it invokes awe among all who see us and it protects us. I know there is much kabalistic exegesis developing the theme, but to me it remains esoterica.

This I know. When Israelis come to America, putting on tefillin often gains meaning for them. They tell me so. They tell me so in words and they tell me so in tefillin. When Americans see soldiers in Lebanon and at the Kotel putting on tefillin, it fills them with something inexplicable. I don't know why; the why I leave to the Rebbe. I just know that it does.

On your ramparts oh Jerusalem I have placed watchmen, assure the prophets. We see them and something shifts inside our chest cavity. They see us and the prophet's assurance echoes. In our wonderment something precious is guarded, nurtured and ready to be served when the kids laughing in the courtyard finish their game and come inside. Free. Safe. Home.

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.
 

Kedoshim Tiheyu

It was in the depths of inhumanity, wrote survivor Gerta Klein, that she glimpsed humanity. A friend in Bergen Belsen presented her with a green-leaf-garnished raspberry. Other survivors tell of Jews with nothing to offer would huddle others close to them to shield them from winter winds.

It was the gulag that threatened Russian Jewry. It was the gulag that sparked a nearly mystical inspiration in American Jews a world away.
 
Kedoshim tehiyu – you shall be holy --  ki Kodosh Ani – for I am holy -- begins the Parsha, and sinks from this mystical high to the abyss of descriptive, decidedly unholy and proscribed alliances.
 
Holiness there cannot be, while engaged in depravity. But depravity’s potential is what makes us holy. In other words, you can’t become anything in a tissue box. To be cool, calm and collected when nothing aggravates is no big trick. To be cool, calm and collected in the heat of rage is a big holiness.
 
Me ma’amakim – from the depths I cry out to You, O God, cried David. Shuls were once built sloping downwards towards the front. The chazzan lead from below. From there can you cry out and that cry can lead.
 
A holy raspberry in Bergen Belsen moves us: is it far from suburban life? Reb Mendel, upon release from the gulag, came to America. Riding along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway he took in Manhattan’s skyline. “Here,” he laughed seriously (as only Reb Mendel could) it is really hard to be a good Jew.”
 
Do what comes naturally! exult the free-spirited. Sing barefoot along the seashore! Barefoot singing is natural, and benign. But as someone who regrets their lost temper knows, natural can be malignant. To never know from temper is inhuman. To let loose your temper – hence lose – is human failure. To control the temper is holy.
 
To control the urges too, states the parsha, is holy. Not every nature was meant to be expressed; subjugation is its purpose, its positive force, its holiness.
 
“Indulge the senses” sounds better than “a pig wallowing in the mud” only because we are partial to ourselves and to our mud. We don’t become freer or truer when we indulge; we become muddied. And the more muddied we become, the more difficult to discern malignant mud from benign mud.
 
Kedoshim tehihyu, you were not meant to be muddied. We have to trek thought the stuff or we could never get to shul. Without the mud we could never know the raspberry.

Odd Comfort

Attending the Funeral of the Holy Martyr Lori Kaye 

Some thoughts I’m having here standing in the lobby where the shooting took place...

Terrorists should not be given airtime, ignore them.   Against my better judgment I googled the shooter in Poway, John Ernest. He’s no KKK stereotype.  A classical pianist, Chopin! this Dean’s List RN looks the part of hospital rounds, not prison yards.  

He consumingly believes that Jews are out to kill Europeans and steal their heritage.  I, a rabbi, the son and grandson of rabbis, know he won’t believe me, but we really, really don’t.  We are baffled: where does it come from? why is he so convinced?    

We know we are not Communists, we know that Jews suffered disproportionately under Communism.  Jews (who denounced all things Jewish) were over-represented in the early years of Marxist leadership – but Jews were over-represented in classical music and medicine as well.

The irrational, vitriol would be called laughably lunatic if it wasn’t so deadly.

Part of me was prepared for this.  when I was six, My babysitter seared into my heart her story from Czarist Russia. A Mendel Beilus was accused of killing a non-Jewish girl to use her blood for matzah on Pesach.    The trial was long and the Jews throughout Russia were terrified.  They fasted every day of the trial from morning to evening, crowded their synagogues and blew the shofar beseeching the Almighty’s mercy.  A guilty verdict would have meant a nationwide pogrom.  Miraculously, Beilus was exonerated.  

The blood libel provided an odd comfort:  if something so patently absurd can be so widely and deeply accepted, then yes, we are good and they are wrong.  
Take a deep breath; this isn’t our first rodeo.  Last week at the Passover Seder we lifted our wineglasses in triumph, “…and this has stood by our fathers and us, for in each and every generation they have risen to destroy us and the Holy One Blessed Be He saved us from their hands...”  Jews have survived for over three millennia, the hatred that ebbed and flowed along the journey has been our foil.  

The brave and kind rabbi of Poway, recounting how his granddaughter witnessed the terror in the synagogue lobby, began to sob; “how can a little girl live with that?”  
Little children have their ancestors’ resilience in their blood.  As they witness terror, they experience love: – she knew her grandfather’s love as he protected the children from the terrorist.  He will put her on his lap.  She will be horrified by his new hands.  She will be enveloped in a sustaining love.

Israel’s Golda Meir famously said she can forgive the Arab enemy for everything except for forcing Israel’s sons kill their sons.  

Against my better judgment I find myself mourning for the terrorist who squandered his life on a phantomic-based hatred which consumed him. I know we will survive, but will he?  I’m surprised that I even care.

Chametz vs. Matzah

        Matzah. Thin, flat bread: either identical, square-shaped crackers if they are machine-made, or round, varying personalities if they are baked in the original fashion. 
            Bread. Soft, light, fluffy sponge-like substance that almost melts when you put it in your mouth. White on the inside and perfectly crusted on the outside.   
            What is the difference between them? Their ingredients are identical (as long as the bakery eschews additives, colorants, preservatives).   The difference is air. Little puffs of this intangible element are trapped in the bread’s dough. They try forcing themselves out, upwards, and force the dough to expand. Remove the air, and matzah and bread -- chametz -- become indistinguishable.
            “Why is this night different form all other nights?” The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is one of the most stringent decrees in all of Torah. Pork, shrimp, stolen goods, none of these forbidden foods must be eradicated from one’s home the way chametz must be. Only idols and their accessories are judged so severely. If the only difference between matzah crackers and Wonder bread is . . . air, then what is the big deal with air? And why particularly on Pesach is it an issue?
            Two individuals. Both are equally gifted: equally bright, charming, wealthy and healthy. One is modest and one is a megalomaniac. What is the difference between them? Nothing. Air. Luft, as we call it in Yiddish. A overbearing sense of self which puffs up one’s self-image. It distorts reality. Ego has no relation to actual self-worth or awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Ego is a condition where self becomes all-consuming. Like a fireplace without a chimney, such a person has no escape valve for bloated subjectivity. It fumes inside, doing irreparable harm. 
Look at the letters comprising the words chametz and matzah. The mem and tzadi they both share. It is the heh and chet that separates them. Chet and heh themselves are virtually identical, only the heh, matzah’s letter, has an opening at the top. A chimney to allow some of the Me Generation out and afford room for a more realistic vision. It may be just a small hole on top: that is all that is necessary for Teshuva to begin its work.
            Yet self can have its advantages too. It can build a strong character, something which has come in handy in two thousand years of exile. But self-worth must be founded on something real and enduring. Something purposeful, not a flimsy mood-swinging ego. Self worth means knowing that each of us was created for a certain reason, a purpose to be accomplished solely by you. Once we destroy ego, in a process we call Pesach, we are capable of self worth. On Shavuot, fifty days later, it is already a mitzvah to have chametz. 
            A healthy self-image is one based on purpose and devoid of ego. It is not as easy as it sounds to separate the two and destroy one of them. It is understandable that when Pesach comes around we’re tired. But we are also gratified. We’ve removed all chametz; all that remains is a clean slate and a simple, flat cracker: the bread of Faith.

Night

There is a story about Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon. They were conducting the Seder in (a town called) Bnei Brak and were retelling the exodus of Egypt all through the night. Until their students came to them and said: “Our Rebbes! The time for reciting Shema has arrived.”

 
All through the night they were retelling the redemption. All through the night. This story happened after Jerusalem was destroyed. The Roman oppression was crushing the remnants of Israel. It was only a matter of time before a number of these rabbis met martyrs’ death. It was night in the fullest sense.
 
What did they discuss? That night there was no talk of strategy, no ad hoc committees, no public relations. They spoke of the Redemption from Egypt. All through the night. It permeated the night and dispelled it. On this night the holy men were connected with a past which assured them of a future. The present had lost significance.
 
The time of the reciting of he Shema has arrived said the students. For immediately proceeding Shema is the prayer And gather us in peace from the four corners of the earth. “You have dispelled the darkness. We hear the echo of the Redemption.”

Reality

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

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

A Heartfelt Silence

“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.
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