Printed from ChabadRM.com

For Your Shabbat Table

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.

Healthy Self Awareness

In the first word of last week's Parsha, Vayikra, the last letter of the word (an Aleph) is written in a smaller size than the rest of the word.

The verse tells us 'Vayikra el Moshe' - G-d called to Moses...
 
The small Aleph alludes to Moshe's humility even in the face of such Divine attention.
Conversely, we find in the book of Chronicles that Adam's name is spelt with a large Aleph, symbolizing his greatness - and his awareness of it.
 
Awareness of one's good qualities is all well and good, but it must not go to the head. With Adam, it did. Moshe rectified this error. He recognized his greatness but more importantly, he recognized where it came from.
 
Humility does not mean self-delusion, but rather an awareness of one's talents, tempered by acknowledgment of where they come from. Moshe was aware of his qualities but he did not take any credit for it. In fact, he said 'were somebody else to be granted these qualities, they would surely do even better.'

If we find ourselves feeling inadequate, it is time to remember that we are Adams, with a big Aleph. We are formed by G-d, empowered by Him to care for His Creation. However we must draw upon the spark of Moshe within us to avoid over-confidence and self-aggrandizement, but to remember Who everything comes from. 

Life and Soul Offering

When attending a conference, teaches experience, bring along something to read. Thus, seated with my Torah open to the parsha, I was not distraught that the scheduled speaker was predictably late, nor that no one there knew the topic.

An impishly humorous man took the mike, uninvited and unannounced. Most funny people are either depressed or serious; he was serious. He spoke, and I read, both of us relatively content in our roles: he making an occasional joke, me breaking an occasional smile while continuing reading.
 
Then he began speaking of his father, a man I had never met, but had seen in the streets of Crown Heights. A burly man with a flowing white beard, Russian-style casquet and crutches for his bad foot, the latter a gift awarded in defense of Mother Russia. The family tells of the miracle of the shrapnel that took his leg and spared his life. Funny what people from Russia call a miracle. 
 
After WWII, the young family wanted to leave Russia; with a convoluted reasoning only possible in a secretive bureaucracy, the hero was honored to stay indefinitely in the Motherland. But for a brief few moments, the family thought they might leave. The mother said she wanted to sell all that they had. ‘All that hey had’, the impish speaker told us, was two broken beds and three broken chairs.
 
Sell it all, his father conceded to his mother, but not my schach boards.
 
Sukkot is nice time to visit Israel. From every balcony and in every courtyard, little booths mushroom in this rainy season. Covering these booths, called sukkas, are schach, green foliage: palm branches in Israel and California, evergreens in the Northeast (which sprinkle the matzo ball soup) and in my native Nashville, whatever happened to be growing in the yard. (I still like my Nashville schach best.) We have our meals in the sukkah, under the schach.
 
In Russia, of course, making a sukkah was an offense, and eating in one punishable with imprisonment. Being caught with illicit tree trimmings this time of year was unheard of. But this then-young Russian war hero was not going to let all that deter him. He got a hold of some wooden boards – which as schach would have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem or New England, but are halachically valid. The speaker told us that his father kept those boards from year to year. During Sukkot he would sneak to an undisclosed, impromptu booth, place the schach-boards overhead, and for a few moments have his Sukkot.
 
Sell all that we have, said the father to the mother, sell my coat if you have to, he conceded. But not my sukkah-bletlach, not my schach-boards. 
 
Our speaker moved on to something else, and I turned back to my Chumash. I was up to a particular Rashi comment: why does the Torah, when discussing the offerings of rich men, the middle class, and the poor reserve the word nefesh, meaning life or soul, exclusively for the poor man’s offering, asks Rashi. Because, Rashi quotes from the Talmud, the poor man’s soul is in his humble offering. It is as dear to the Al-mighty as a man who has given his life.
 
(This war hero died shortly before the parsha of Vaykira. The night after his family finished the week of mourning, the shiva, the family danced at the wedding of his granddaughter.) 

Success

Just after the Arabs attacked the Jews in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, the Israel Defense Forces held an emergency appeal in Nashville. My father was speaking, and probably because he couldn’t get a babysitter, he brought me along.  

He ended off with the story of Purim, how Mordechai reminds Esther that what needs to happen will happen, the Jews will be saved with or without you, but if you sit complacently in your palace then they will be saved and you will perish.
 
One lady that I knew stood up and said that for five years they had been setting aside money for a family vacation: three thousand dollars. She gave the money to defend Jewish lives.
 
Success is the most coveted of blessings, appreciated because we feel it is earned. We stepped forward. We did something. We didn’t just talk about it. 
 
You can sit on the sidelines, you can talk and criticize and encourage and curse and bless and it doesn’t make that much difference. Or you can get your hands dirty, your feet black and your bank account red and sweat and cry and plod and slip and fall and. . .and do something. Then, and only then, can you ask for, and do you deserve a blessing: success.
 
Are you needed? Can someone else do it? If Esther didn’t want to do it, or “couldn’t” do it then yes, history would continue its play without her. But if Esther wants to, then all of creation is waiting for her; this is her moment. That is a worthy bracha, a Divine gift, the ability to make a difference: you can kill yourself over something worth living for. 
 
A man came to the Rebbe and asked for a blessing: that he be able to continue learning uninterrupted, with serenity. The Rebbe was uncharacteristically flabbergasted. “There are thousands of kids who aren’t learning Aleph Beis and you’re worried about your serenity!!”
 
Whether we deserve serenity or not is another issue. But as our parsha testifies, serenity was not the blessing of Moses. Holiness was, and that comes through accomplishment, not a stress-free environment.
 
Be careful what you ask for. Or as American Jewry’s beloved creation Tevye says, maybe it’s time to choose someone else. To be holy means to achieve. We would have it no other way. May the redeemer come to Zion, heralds the siddur, and may I play a part is the quiet fervor in those words.

Mrs. Sandvitches

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 in to 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.

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

Why did Bubby always say that? And does it really have to do with the evil eye? Is this evil eye a cousin of walking under ladders with black cats on the Friday the thirteenth? The answers, in order, are: Because she loved you. Yes, but with an explanation. No. 

Kenahora, although everyone thinks is a Yiddish word is actually three words slurred together in Yinglish – the vibrant language of Native Americans of the Lower East Side: kein, the Yiddish word for no or negating, ayin Hebrew for eye, and hara, Hebrew for Evil.
 
Now think back to when she used it: “Such a sheine punim, kenahora.” “You’ve grown, kenahora.” “He’s making money hand over fist, kenahora.” (you should only be so lucky) 
 
I have a friend in, well, I’m not saying where they’re from, because I want to protect myself from what will happen if I don’t protect their anonymity. They make in the seven-digits a year (kenahora). They drive a five-year-old station wagon. He once told me why she insisted on it. Their neighbors don’t have as much, and their neighbors’ neighbors have even less (and they’re still not slumming, mind you). If she gets a new car then her neighbor will be compelled to keep up -- and her neighbor likewise. Somewhere down the line someone is going to be hurting from racing too hard. She doesn’t want that frustration to be caused by her. And not for purely altruistic reasons.
 
Hashem gives us things. Hashem does not give others these same things. This can and does cause jealousy, an unvoiced “Why does she deserve it?” and somewhere on High that energy does not dissipate. It gravitates, and brings into question “Maybe she doesn’t deserve it after all?”
 
Those-who-have-don’t-show doesn’t have to be grounded in smugness. We don’t want that our good fortune should accentuate what others are missing. Which is why boasting is unJewish. And why when something said could be seen as boasting, it is hurriedly whispered and sandwiched between kenahoras and pu-pu-pu’s. 
 
The pu-pu-pu, incidentally, is spitting noises. Spitting as if in disgust. It’s an appropriate Yiddishism: when you see an exceptionally beautiful child you say “Miyuskeit! Pu!” (“Disgusting!”)  
 
Asking Jewish grandmothers how many grandchildren they have can risk a faux pas. While some won’t hesitate to blurt out a number, others will fidget and mumble. Putting a number on a blessing is considered bad taste.
 
You might also notice when men are counting a Minyan they won’t count one-two-three but do something more convoluted.
 
Think it originated in Eastern Europe? This parsha begins with the warning not to count people directly. (There is another reason not to count directly; it negates the quality of Infinite in the person, but that’s for another time.) 
 
See how much your Bubby loved you?

What's In A Name?

This parsha is unique. Since recording Moshe’s birth until the last parsha of the Torah, every sedra mentions Moshe by name. Except this week. Except Tetzaveh. 

We read (in next week’s parsha) the unfortunate story of Jews abandoning their Redeemer for a calf of gold. G-d is incensed, ready to destroy His People and guard His covenant through Moshe alone. Moshe concedes that their sin was audacious, “Yet if you forgive their sin, it will be good, if not -- blot me out from Your Book which You have written." Hashem pardons the people, and, of course, Moshe’s name remains throughout the Torah. So identified is G-d’s Torah with this leader that until today it is known as Moshe’s Torah -- Torat Moshe. However,words of a Tzaddik are not treated lightly by G-d, and although Moshe’s threat never needed to be carried out, it did to some extent, affect Torah. One Parsha, it was decreed would remain without Moshe being mentioned.
 
Yet, the parsha opens “And you shall command the Jewish People,” you obviously referring to Moshe, for even in the parsha where he remains nameless, we sense his connection. It could even be said that his presence in this parsha is too profound to be referred to by a name. Names denote relationships; an individual can be called Dad, Bernie, Dr. Weissberg, Doc, Son, Bernard F. Weissberg MD or Zaidie. All these names reflect the relationship between the individual and those who call him. You is a different class of names. It refers to a person without defining him. It can reflect on how the individual stands outside the dynamics of superficial relationships.   It is the quintessential person, all by himself.   Absolute Moshe.
 
“And you shall command the Jewish People." Command -- or the Hebrew original, mitzvah, reflects a connection between the one issuing the command and the one fulfilling it; (in English the word “enjoin” means both to connect and to command). Mitzvot, aside from being good deeds or commandments are our connection to the Creator.
 
“And you shall command the Jewish People” can be understood as “And you -- in your truest essence -- shall connect the Jewish People." Even stronger than a Tzaddik’s connection to G-d’s Torah is his connection to His people.
 
Who were these people that Moshe staked his reputation, no, his very being, on their inclusion? They were the sinners of the worst kind. Without them, though, he could not survive. He could not be Moshe, he could not be.
 
As a teacher, the lesson he gave us is that no Jew is complete unless all Jews are complete. Staking everything we have on that somebody else’s inclusion, is our responsibility.
 

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