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For Your Shabbat Table

Becoming Fathers to Our Children

My son the doctor had a son:
he is now a neurosurgeon.
His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite:
the girl he is not yet married to is not Jewish.
My son the lawyer had a daughter:
she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley:
she's forty-three and just met Mr. Right.

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled a few years ago:
containing little we didn't already know anecdotally.
Still, some of the numbers were shocking.
Three hundred thousand less Jews
than there were only ten years ago?
Forget Zero Population Growth:
we're eating away at our capital. And for what?
Because, as the survey reported, we earn $8,000 per year more than the average
American family!
We're not having kids
so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage.
My kingdom for a horse;
My birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.

The problem is not that Jewish women don't want to be Jewish mothers:
it's that Jewish men don't want to be Jewish fathers.
Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry,
piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution:
“Give us back the husbands that you stole from us!”
Until that revolt, men grew into fathers:
fathers needed to provide, so men worked.
Gradually men stopped working to provide,
they went off to pursue a career,
self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style).
Who would want to be the mother of their children?

Perhaps more than any parsha, ours is laden with domesticity: it is painful to hear, from our perspective,
women pining for children and for their husband's attention
that childbearing would earn them.
More easily overlooked is the husband
who watched sheep all day in order to raise a family.
Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times;
his twin brother led a high-pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle.

'Will our children say kaddish for us?'
was the worry of a generation gone by.‘We have no children.’
is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation. Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused,
overplayed and gauche.
Charged-up activism is annoying. Neither work.
Go get a job! Become successful! is the cry.
And the kids listen, in droves.

One of the positive aspects of the Sixties-Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but idealism. When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn't OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short. The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism.

Parents want to provide children with whatever the parents grew up missing. A greater accomplishment is to provide children with whatever the parent grew up taking for granted.

It is not enough to want grandchildren.
You must want sons who are fathers more than you want sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts.
You must want sons-in-law who are fathers more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons.

My mother taught me that you can never choose to have a child: you can only choose not to have a child.

”For these are the children of Jacob” conveys a faith that the chain is worth more than what a link lacks. We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (for how else will they pay day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.

Made in America

Pulling out of the JFK parking lot was an arrow ‘To Manhattan’ with a silhouette graphic of the world’s most recognized skyline: over the two vertical blocks was painted the American flag. Several hours later having first stopped by the Ohel, (the Rebbe’s resting place) I had my first view of The City in over a year, the unbalanced skyline: the gaping wound of America.

Jewish Brooklyn was thriving and Governor Pataki wanted their votes, campaign posters there are printed in Yiddish and English “er hut unz geshtitz, mir shtitzen em” ; he supports us we support him. Simple, forceful and blunt. New York.

I was there for a conference of Chabad rabbis, shluchim – which serves a lot of us as part class reunion, part family reunion and part shopping trip. The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday Night Banquet. I had brought a friend from Rancho Mirage for the weekend. “What’s our plan, like what happens?” he asked. I wasn’t sure. You eat. Speeches. I don’t like over-promising.

The roll call began. The chairman had trouble with Azerbaijan, had an easier time with Congo, Bulgaria, Armenia, and another forty or so exotic names and gave oratorical flourish to England, Australia and Italy. You really do forget what’s happening outside your niche; you realize that the Rebbe made his niche wherever there were Jews.

Then came the time-line roll call: all the shluchim of the forties and fifties, the sixties, seventies and eighties – there were more in the nineties and 2K’s then all the decades combined!

Then came the children. Nine, ten and eleven year olds who had accompanied their fathers – all rabbis – from the far-off corners of the roll call as well as from a stone’s throw from the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott: Brooklyn Heights, the Financial District (now called Ground Zero) and Park Slope.

The kids made a presentation repeating an identical message in the languages of the countries they came from: Swedish (sounds remarkably like Hungarian), German (snooty-nasal Yiddish), Russian (a cute kid, my cousin’s son) and the run-of-the-mill French, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and English. The message of how they were proud of their parents etc. was undeniably rehearsed: hackneyed and stilted -- there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, or at least not on my face. 

Chaya, my wife, had just spoken last week to a classmate in Florida; her twelve-year-old son is perfectly capable of running every aspect their shul, and practically does. My cousin running a Boston university Chabad House claims his kids are the ones who make a difference in anyone’s life: he tries to stand out of the way and let them do it. Ditto Rancho Mirage.

These kids often leave home at painfully tender ages to go to the yeshiva nearest to them, often enough several hundred miles away. They always hate it and their parents are impossible to talk to the day after they drop their children off at the airport. They go to a Brooklyn, or a Jerusalem or some other place where everyone in the neighborhood goes to yeshiva and reads Yiddish campaign posters and don’t really relate to where these kids are coming from, what they are going through -- or where they are headed.

They go through the yeshiva system, the first few years they are miserable and homesick, crying into the phone, throwing tantrums on their visits home for Pesach and getting accustomed to this pit in their stomach. I admit, this is the worst-case scenario (I hope), some kids don’t have it so rough, but I speak from informed experience: I was one of them. 

But all through those years when the only ones more miserable than the kids are their parents, these boys and these girls keep in them, somewhere even deeper than that pit in the stomach, this burning . . .something: they are going to be shluchim, just like their parents. And amazingly they do.

So those hackneyed words fed them by whomever “we are so proud of you, dear parents and the wonderful work you do” the bothersomely flowery “our small hearts fill with pride” resonated with a truth they might themselves not realize that they possess. 

Seventy years ago the immigrant generation’s traditionally-minded looked with worry at the children born in modernity; how could they ever carry the torch? They looked with them with pity; how could they appreciate something they never saw? They looked with despair; who will say Kaddish for American Jewry? What will become of us?

The Rebbe looked with boastful pride: when Moshiach comes we will show off our kids to him, “Look! And they are Made in America!”

Are we pressuring our kids too much? Are they giving up too much? Will they (don’t even say it) resent an overdose of Yiddishkeit?

The parsha begins with comfort and assurance: not only did Abraham pride himself on Isaac but Isaac prided himself on Abraham. And they looked alike. 

America, you have a gaping wound. We Jews know something about gaping wounds. We know you must heal and make stronger, even, especially in unbearable pain. The greatest of the Greatest Generation, the ones who walked out of the ovens of Europe, heroically putting one Jewish foot in front of the other had kids (from where that optimism?) sent them to yeshiva (amidst the applause of virtually no one) and these survivors, now parents, grandparents and great-grandparents pride themselves on generations that looks like them, looks towards them -- even as the survivors themselves look towards their children, their rightfully boastful pride and nachas.  

The promise of a generation is written on the chubby faces and missing-tooth grins of the Rebbe’s little tikes. Keep up the good work kids. And (I know I don’t say it often enough) thank you.

Ideas and Stories

At twelve, I left Nashville for Pittsburgh’s yeshiva.  I lived in my grandparents’ home; my grandfather was also my teacher. 

He once called my class together at the foot of the stairway and started in his Yiddish-accent sing-song: “You know boys, when you are going down steps, you don’t have to put a foot onto every step.  Jump from the tenth step. Skip nine steps.  I used to jump down steps. But you know, old people, they getting noivis when boys jump steps.  So be nice to old people. When you go down steps, look first if there are old people around.  If they are not there, jump!  If they are there, then this time, walk down the steps.”

Another time he walked into class and caught us beating up . . . I’ll leave his name out -- but he deserved it.  Nothing vicious or horrifically cruel, just boys doing whatever what’s-his-name had coming. “You know boys, I don’t expect you to learn when I leave the class.  When I was in yeshiva, and the teacher walked out, we made teams.  Each team grabbed one end of the bench and pulled it in their way.  One of us watched the door.  When he yelled ‘Chatche! Chatche!’ we put down the bench and quickly sat down before Chatche walked in.  But to hurt each other?  To make fun of someone?  This isn’t play. . .”

I remember some things that I learned in school.  Some of the things.  Some of the time.  I remember the people who taught me.  At times they are right in front of me, even if they passed on years ago.  

My father writes in Think Jewish, “There is a Torah of ink and parchment; there is a Torah of flesh and blood.”  To paraphrase Yanky Tauber’s story of Reb Yisrael Rizhinner, “Ideas are accomplishments in man’s quest for G-d; stories of tzaddikkim are accomplishments of G-d in man’s world.”

The Torah begins with stories of tzaddikim:  Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Miriam. Not until about a quarter through the Book are laws enumerated.  Jews do not call Moses a lawgiver; he is Moshe our Rebbe.

Rashi remarks that a conversation of Abraham’s servant can teach more than a law: the conversation of someone who spent time in Abraham’s daily, mundane presence, affords insight into attaining the Divine.

“Look into the eyes of someone who has gazed upon the Rebbe,” Chassidim of old would say when a traveler who had seen the Rebbe arrived at their shtetls.  

Ideals are abstract: hard to perceive, easy to loose, inviting to ignore. Ideals do not inspire. But reflected in the right eyes, ideals solidify into something clear, immediate and tangible. They become alive, before your eyes. They inspire. And once they have ignited your fire, they live within you. And those who lit the fires are now the fire, alive within you. Consuming, but never consumed.

Hebrews Not Welcome

"No Hebrews Allowed."  It’s the first reference that comes to my mind when I hear us called Hebrews.  Okay, I know YMHA means the Jewish YMCA, and HIAS a Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, but still, Hebrew -- when talking about people, not our language – smacks of long-hand for Hebes.   

In Biblical times the name Hebrew was a put down often enough. Ivri: the one who crossed over. The one from on yonder, the foreigner. And no, Ramses University didn’t credit diversity appreciation courses.  But if Ivri was a put down, it also contained a measure, sometimes substantial measure, of respect.

Abraham is mentioned nine times in the Torah until he is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.  Why the description all of a sudden?  Avraham had crossed over from the Euphrates, had left his home, life, wealth and security to cross over to wherever G-d would tell him to go.  Every immigrant has a measure of courage, of pioneership, showing a willingness to leave all familiar and safe and go to a far off goal. Avraham did it before there was a name for it: the pioneer of pioneering.

Now he was faced with fighting the strongest forces in the world.  Would he shrink?  No, hints the Torah: he is a Hebrew, one who crosses over his comfort zone and never returned to it.  He does what is right, not comfortable.  He is a Hebrew.

Everyone creates his own world.  Circle of friends, obligations, pets, pet peeves, and lives there.  This is their worlds. Then there are those outside their worlds, who don’t take their comfort zone with utmost sincerity and don’t revere their moods.  They’re ready to bend on just about anything and pretty much mind their own business. They look like pushovers.  

Don’t be fooled. When their values are challenged they are fearless.  They have no fear of fear itself. They have no fear of self; they have no self; they have only what they stand for.   

Me?  I’d rather be a comfortable coward.  But what Abraham achieved with sacrifice, we attain without asking for it.  Together with Grandmother’s brown eyes and Grandfather’s black hair.  And if it is unearned it may well be unwanted on some level.  “I know we’re the Chosen People but isn’t it time you chose someone else?”

But in all honesty that is only a part of me.  The other part wants to be an Avraham, wants to have character instead of being one.  And all I need to do is do what Avraham did: walk in the footsteps of his trailblazing.  Because I give Avraham the same (sometimes begrudging) respect that the world gave that Hebrew then and gives these Hebrews now.   

I need only to just plod along until the energy kicks in and I feel the Avraham Ohavi, the love Hashem feels for this astonishing person.  I do what he did and I become what he was.  I live towards him and he lives through me. The Father of the Jewish People. The Hebrews.

Teddy Bear or Eagle: America, What Are You?

This country was founded, settled, defined and furthered by people who left their homes for the unknown. Whether or not they were religious (in the conventional sense) is (and will be) debated by those with agendas. It is unarguable however, that the founders of this country were risk-takers -- and inherent in risk is belief. They were, in other words, believers. 

Appropriately, the fledgling country chose for their symbol the eagle, the Biblical metaphor for mercy, majesty and redemption.  One of the presidents who personified the country’s ethos -- so well they etched his face on a big rock -- was Teddy Roosevelt. Incongruously, his legacy is cuddly, harmless, lovably ineffectual: the teddy bear. 
 
Not only Teddy, but the One to whom this nation pledges that it is under, has softened into someone cuddly to whom we intone pledges and sing that he bless us. He occupies a sacred place along with honor, flag and, well, apple pie.
 
He is not to make us uncomfortable. He is not to demand how we dress, what we eat, the content of our entertainment, what we teach our children. He is not to stick out awkwardly: at odds with what we deem appropriate. He is created in our image. We love him. He is our Teddy Bear.
 
The first word from G-d to Abraham is “Go from your land, your father’s home, your birthplace to the land which I will show you”. No comfort zones allowed. Leave them and only then can you achieve everything I have in store for you, everything of which you are capable. Only by stepping outside of yourself can you grow -- and can I be your God. From childhood on, for over seventy years, Abraham defied the mores of his society and a despotic tyrant who declared himself god. The tyrant threatened Abraham with death if he did not repudiate his belief; Abraham did not waver. Still, after all this, G-d told him: leave the familiar and comfortable.
 
Their gods are of silver and stone, they have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, mocked the psalmist. Not exclusively did he refer to idols from Sunday-school coloring books. A god who makes me feel warm and protected is nothing more than abstract materialism: a warm place to go, home and hearth. For that matter a god who tells you to go is nothing more than an adventurer, if it is only adventure and change of scenery you are after. But when G-d tells us to leave our laurels of yesterday’s accomplishment and take on the new he is really telling us to be alive today. 
 
And (paradoxically) he adds that this will be good for you, you will become wealthy, prosperous and numerous. Not comfortable: good. 
 
Teddy bears are good; for kids; at the boys’ third birthday we throw candy at him and give him honey in the shape of the Aleph-Bet because the words of Torah are sweet. But then we move him on to meat and potatoes: study of these words “for they are our lives and the length of our days”. What is sweet at three, if allowed to linger will turn sacchariny at twenty-three -- and have fostered cavities of decay in the soul.
 
Feeling warm and comfortable is not inherently bad; it becomes debilitating when it is pursued as a goal. 
 
Avinu Shebashamayim - Our God in Heaven.
The majesty of the eternal calls to and resonates in a soul,
a spark of that majesty sent to unfurl the majesty inherent in life on earth.
To bring the majesty of heaven down to earth. 
Heaven: something greater than the comfortable and familiar. The eagle soars there. 
The symbol of America: a nation under.
 

Don't be Consumed by Crisis

The fires are not yet out,
the juries are not yet in. 
But the shock is over,
the counting and rebuilding has begun. 
Ironic that it happens in the parsha of the flood? 

What difference a destruction
from a wall of water or wall of fire? 
They both begin, run their course and die. 
They are both powerful and weak:
depending on circumstance and timing. 
 
But not when you’re in the path of a wildfire. 
If foxholes don’t tolerate atheists
do forest fires allow homage to the gods of water?
 
We’re always in the middle of a crisis:
flood, fire, no money, bad health. 
And crisis means we don’t see a way out. 
The fire is going to be here in ten minutes. RUN!! 
 
And it was in the middle of crises that a little boy stood
and thought that every crisis passes and every power wanes. 
Except the power that puts all powers into motion and controls them all. 
He had no name for this power and no books or people spoke of him. 
But he loved this power and revered it
and couldn’t stand seeing people consumed by crisis
deifying and editorializing powers
that will be out of the headlines in a week. 
 
This power didn’t acknowledge the little boy. 
The little boy grew and grew. 
He never stopped ridiculing people who get all excited by power,
their own or someone else’s. 
Powerful people didn’t like this young man and tried to silence him. 
He kept on ridiculing them and the editorials that glorified power.
He kept on with his abstract power that gives power to everything
– The All-Powerful -- and therefore is the only power. 

He became an old man. 
A powerful man sentenced him to die by fire
but the fire refused to consume him. 
Then the power spoke to him. 
It told him to leave everything familiar. 
Told him to leave a comfort zone. 
The man in his seventies, who had been defying family and society since he was three years old, was told to leave his comfort zone. 
That is how the All-Powerful, now known as the Almighty, sees things.
 
With that begins next week’s parsha and the story of Abraham,
father of a people and tradition that recognizes no power in the face of fire,
be they fires of the Inquisition or pirates of the high sea. 
And this tradition fed a world of billions:
starving and scared in the face of powers and the powerful:
this tradition fed them the knowledge
that there is no power but Him
and no thing to fear but Him Himself. 
So what if they don’t always get the words right!

Two Beginnings

A lady who comes to shul stopped me after Simchas Torah.  She had noticed her son was crying, tears in his eyes.  What's wrong honey, she asked.  Oh, when I see Daddy holding the Torah in his arms I cry.   

I couldn't think of better Simchas Torah nachas. Kids do well to come to shul. They kiss the Torah, sing the Shema, play games, learn a little, lead the service, have their spats (learning to work those out is crucial to becoming community members) and run around outside. Kids that like shul (and that shul likes them) will always be there. Always. 

We begin the Torah this week, again.  Bereishit: in the beginning. Actually, two beginnings: the Jewish people and the Torah.  The world was created for the two beginnings: as a stage for the two to realize their relationship.  We're one year more developed than we were this time last year.  So are our kids.   

A message that the Torah sent us last year may have missed us: we weren't ready for it until now.  Dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah is beautiful: even more so when the Torah has been part of the week all year long.

Dance, Dance, Dance!

 Rosh Hashanah you hear the shofar.  Yom Kippur you fast. Sukkos you eat in the sukkah and take the lulav-esrog. Simchas Torah you have no mitzvah. Simchas Torah, the joy of the torah, the joy of this learning that takes a lifetime, Simchas Torah has no learning. At night, we take the Torah but don’t read the Torah; we don’t even unfurl it.  Simchas Torah we dance. 

We dance with abandon, not looking at the clock, not trying to keep pace, not thinking if we’ll be late for davening tomorrow, just dancing.  The dancing of Simchas Torah.   

Elie Weisel wrote of the Jews dancing on the streets of Moscow during the Fifties.  One night in the year they had no fear, they were not Jews of silence they were Jews of Simchas Torah. My uncle was burned by the Nazis, in a shul in Riga.  He died singing the song of Simchas Torah.   

As a kid I remember Simchas Torah had a bigger turnout in my father’s shul than Kol Nidre.  I don’t know if the then gabbai’s statistics bear me out on that, but a kid’s perception counts, regardless. 

Simchas Torah with the Rebbe:  Simchas Torah with the Rebbe there were more people in shul than the shul could possibly have held. It couldn’t have happened but it did.  Special portable air conditioning units blasted in air through huge vents overhead.  The Chassidim held on to their precious six inches each, and stood on whatever would give them a view, benches, chairs, metal milkcases.  "Get off the milkcases", someone whose view was blocked would shout, shouting in Yiddish, English Hebrew, French. 

Together they would chant the Atah Hareisa verses, robust chanting, more football team chanting than religious music chanting.  The Rebbe would make his way slowly down the aisle – a path to the middle of the shul protected on both sides by thick, strong tables to maintain a crowd that would have overwhelmed a World Cup crowd control pro.    

Normally, no chossid would ever stop the Rebbe to talk, much less extend a hand or touch something the Rebbe was holding, but on Simchas Torah, well, it was Simchas Torah.  They kissed the tiny Torah the Rebbe cradled in his arm.  They beseeched his blessing: may we meet again next year: my father should recover quickly and dramatically:  I should be successful in your holy work. 

Slowly the Rebbe came to the middle of the shul, a tiny area fortressed by tables, with crowds on all sides ascending stadium–like on all sides to the far reaches of the long room.  There was a mad rush as everyone ensured their best spot, some impish chutzpanik tried to block the . . . get off the milkbox! guy behind him.  "Okay I’ll crouch, can you see now, yes, but if you pick your head up I’ll send you flying".   

The Rebbe is surrounded by dozens of dozens of excited nine-year-old boys. 

Ahhah aha ha ya aya ya the wordless Simchas Torah niggun, which in music books rises in crescendo.  Tonight it started at a crescendo. All attention is now in the middle of the shul.  The Rebbe dancing, beaming, lifting the Torah as if an offering to the multitudes towering around him.  The singing is boisterous in volume, joyous but reverent, the type that takes all your emotions and stuns them.  Only in hindsight can you feel how all your emotions sing such singing. 

During the height of the dancing I steal a glance around the room to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe in the eyes of the Chassidim. Sometimes you see more when you don’t look straight on.    

Why did I write this piece about Simchas Torah with the Rebbe? Did I whet any appetites?  I doubt it.  Did I capture a mood? a scene? I don’t think so.  But could I have witnessed this, been a part of it, and said nothing? 

Simchas Torah is in just a few nights.  We will dance.  We will dance and we will sing in our shul and on our street.  Our kids will dance.  And they will remember.

Souls in the Rain

If G-d is "perfect," as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage.
Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride.

What a marriage this has been--a roller coaster of romance, affection, quarrels and estrangement. In every generation, many counselors advocated a divorce while others proclaimed the Groom dead. Yet, the relationship has endured because both partners intrinsically know that they belong together.
When all veils are removed, man manifestly yearns for union with G-d.

According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity. The five key spiritual moments of the season parallel the basic phases of a conventional courtship and union. The holidays invite us to journey through this process again and rejuvenate the relationship.

The Courtship
The Hebrew month of Elul precedes the High Holidays. This month is described in Chassidic teachings as a time when "the King goes out to the field to meet with His people, greeting them with kindness and tenderness, displaying a joyous face to all." We, in turn, "open our hearts to G-d."

This time provides us with an opportunity to get to know G-d.

The Groom Proposes
Four weeks later, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, He makes His proposal.

The world goes haywire, says Master Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luriah. "During the night of Rosh Hashanah," he writes, "the consciousness animating the universe becomes frail and weak." The great Jewish mystics would, in fact, feel physically weak during the night of Rosh Hashanah.

All of existence was brought into being for the sake of this proposed marriage. If we refuse Him, then it was all in vain. The entire cosmos awaits our decision.

The Bride Commits
On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, a piercing sound rises from the Earth: the cry of the shofar. It is a simple cry, expressing man's yearning to connect with the Divine.

We have decided. Our answer is yes.

The Wedding
The wedding day arrives: Yom Kippur. A day described in the Kabbalah as "the time of oneness" in which cosmic bride and groom forge a bond for eternity.

In the Jewish tradition, bride and groom fast on their wedding day. On the day we unite with G-d, we abstain from food or drink as well. The Talmud teaches that upon marriage, all the sins of the groom and bride are forgiven.

That's why this day is called Yom Kippur, "the day of atonement."

The marriage ceremony begins with the stirring melody of Kol Nidre, in which we remove the power from vows and addictions that tie us down. During these profound moments, we attempt to free ourselves from compulsive behavior and negative habits and let go of resentment, animosity, anger, fear and envy.

The traditional Jewish marriage ceremony culminates with the bride and groom entering a secluded room (cheder yichud in Hebrew) to spend time alone with each other. Yom Kippur culminates with the Ne'ilah, or closure prayer, so called because as the sun of Yom Kippur sets, the gates of heaven close--with us inside.

During Ne'ilah, every soul is alone with G-d.

The Celebration
When the bride and groom exit their private room, the party begins. From Yom Kippur we leap into the seven-day festival of Sukkot, described in the Torah as "the time of our Joy."

These days are filled with feasting and ecstatic happiness, celebrating the union between G-d and His people.

Union
The wedding feast is over. The guests and relatives have returned home. In a consummation of the relationship, bride and groom experience intimacy for the first time, their lives melded together as a husband and wife.

Hence, following the seven days of Sukkot, we reach the zenith of the High Holiday season: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, described in the Kabbalah as the "time of intimacy with the Divine." During these two charged days the joy reaches its peak, as G-d and His people merge into a seamless whole. A
Divine seed is planted in each of our hearts.

That's why we recite special prayers for rain on the festival of Shemini Atzeret. What is rain? In the midst of intimacy between heaven and earth, procreative drops from heaven are absorbed, fertilized and nurtured by mother-earth, which in time will give birth to its botanical children.

The Ordinary Month
The honeymoon comes to an end and the excitement begins to fade. Now the marriage becomes about caring for each other and demonstrating trust and loyalty as we work through the daily grind of life.

Out of the twelve months in the Jewish calendar, the only one lacking a single festive day immediately follows the High Holiday season. The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is the time to build a genuine relationship with our marriage Partner in our everyday lives. This is the time to discover the joy born out of a continuous relationship with G-d.

Why Are you Going to Yom Kippur Eve Services?

Kol Nidre
Kol Nidre. Certainly the most attended Jewish prayer of the year. Certainly the most awesome. But why? 

The words are pretty mundane, a basic annulment for
misunderstood, haphazardly applied, ill-advised vows
a person may have taken upon themselves. 
 
There is a similar prayer recited Erev Rosh Hashanah.
To most Jews it is unknown, or at best obscure. 
Kol Nidre everybody knows.
 
One of the books I know only from reviews, is a compilation of last letters from soldiers on the front -- letters to their wives, their mothers, their children, their newborn babies. 
 
From what I have heard of the book there is little in the way of abstract philosophy; it is all about small moments, washing dishes together, sharing a nighttime ride into town, macaroni and cheese.
 
This is how connections are made: small, insignificant interfaces, which could have happened dozens of times before and hundreds later, but that moment – just that moment -- became an indelible connection. 
 
(A mitzvah is a connection – that is the meaning of the word.)
 
Why did that moment take on a life of its own? 
We rarely know, and almost never care;
we just embrace it for what it gives us. 
 
Standing on the outside of the relationship it may well seem overblown and corny; not from the inside.
 
In the collective Jewish experience the Kol Nidre stands out a recurring lighthouse in the tempest of the year, a comfort, and also a challenge that feels right for us.
 
My father says that the nicest thing about Italian opera is that you don’t understand the words. Comprehension can, in flourishing moments, only diminish. 
 
That is why comprehension, analysis can only rob a soldier’s letter of the very reason we would ever care to read them. We don’t know why or when Kol Nidre came to be Kol Nidre, we just know that it is.
 
Niggun evokes that quality which defies analysis and breaks the heart and makes it full. 
Kol Nidre Night is a time for niggun;
Not choirs, not chanting, not necessarily understanding the words, or even knowing the tunes. 
 
That all is preparation of Kol Nidre, to make the Kol Nidre that much fuller. If this past year we didn’t prepare for Kol Nidre – that is why we have a next year. 
 
So now is not a time to analyze, to dissect the moment. Don’t worry if you don’t understand; you’ll have a whole year to learn. 
Don’t worry if you’re not on the right page; every page is the right page. 
Don’t worry if you can’t follow the tune; the tune will follow you regardless. 
 
Now is the time to just be there, to just be. 
 
For now, let us write home our letter from the war front.

When You Least Expect It

Kon-Tiki is the story of brave Scandinavian seamen who crossed the Pacific, from Peru to Hawaii, on nothing more than a wooden raft. They believed that the original Hawaiians first arrived from America, and they set out to prove that with the rudimentary provisions of that time, trans-Pacific travel was possible. 

While sailing, the seamen came across marine life that scientists had believed extinct for thousands of years -- and discovered species that scientists had never known existed. The seafarers said they found all this, because instead of rushing through the water, they allowed the water to rush over them.
 
The machzor has secrets and tales that fill the heart with passion and fill the mind with breathless wonder. Drama: when the Jew Amnon had to be carried to shul for Yom Tov. His body was limbless; the duke had chopped off each knuckle, asking him after each severance if he was ready yet to convert. This wealthy, handsome scholar delivered the Unesane Tokef and died there in shul that Rosh Hashanah. 
 
A neighbor of ours remembers his shtetl shul in Poland: they met in each other’s homes. Everyone cried such bitter tears at Unesane Tokef. How come, he asks, does his congregation sit in their pews throughout the whole Unesane Tokef so impassively?
 
Napoleon, unlike the dukes who preceded him, never demanded the Jews convert; he demanded that Judaism convert. He convened a “Sanhedrin” to redefine the faith to his liking. “The people need religion” he professed, “and religion needs to be in the hands of the state”. Napoleon minted a coin of himself holding the Ten Commandments with Moses bowing down to him to accept them. 
 
Dramatically, Napoleon broke down the walls of the ghetto. Subtly, he broke down the walls of Jewish life. The Jews hailed the emancipation and largely overlooked the threat of government-controlled religion. How distant and abstract it seemed compared to the bloody reality of pogroms, beatings, severed limbs. Except to one person.
 
The Alter Rebbe, although having been twice jailed by the Czar, threw his support behind anyone-but-Napoleon. He died escaping Napoleon. But before he died he heard La Marche de Napoleone. He remarked, “It is a stirring march, a march of victory. But the victory will be ours.”
 
After a day of fasting, marathon davening and heart-searching introspection, an emotionally draining Yom Kippur comes to a close. For many years, as a finale to Yom Kippur, in the shul of the Rebbe, our Rebbe, the throngs would sing Napoleon’s March. Beginning at a stately tempo, the tune quickly energized the crowd. The Rebbe, normally reserved, would majestically climb upon his chair to the singing La Marche de Napoleone. Gusto gave way to crescendo as the suddenly very non-fasting thousands, greeted the Rebbe’s energy with all of their own. The victory stolen from the little emperor.
 
Most of the words in the machzor, the prayer book for the high holidays, are not printed on the pages; they are engraved on the soul. But you only feel the engraving if you listen to the words on the page. You can’t rush through it; you have to ride the tide, letting gallons flow across your deck. When you least expect it you will discover something within you.   Something that everyone thought had left you long ago. Something that you never knew was there.

The Other Rock

“ . . . Come to the land which I have given you. . .a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Parsha.

Friends of mine who are older than me want to go to Israel. But not now; maybe some other time. It’s too dangerous with all that craziness going on there. 
Is going to Israel dangerous?  Perhaps it is. But perhaps not as dangerous as not going.
The danger of going is that something might happen.  Likely? No.  Possible? Like anything else in life.
The danger of not going is that nothing will happen.  Nothing noticeable, nothing remarkable, nothing tangible will happen.  Only a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift will happen. 
And subtle can be profound.  

Abraham Twerski tells of the Manhattanite who finished a night of partying and came home to his twentieth-storey apartment. He flopped into bed and kicked off a shoe.  As he was about to kick off his other shoe, he remembered that someone was sleeping on the nineteenth floor below him; he carefully took off his other shoe and placed it on the floor.  Ten minutes later there was furious knocking on the door.  It was the downstairs neighbor, shrieking, “Would you throw down the other shoe already!”
 
Waiting for the other shoe to fall is nerve racking. Once the chips fall though, you know where they are; they fell, they hit, they broke and now they sit quietly.  
 
Much has been said about the “ghetto” Jew, most of it is pejorative, and undeservedly so.  Ghettoes had walls, outside of which Jews could neither live nor be found after nightfall. Edicts barred Jews from most jobs, landed them with Jew-taxes and branded them with yellow stars and hats.  Death was not the exception.
Ghetto Jews knew the price the outside exacted from them for being Jewish. Ghetto Jews paid the price and got on with being Jewish.  For them, being Jewish meant spiritual grandeur, intellectual profundity, timeless legacy, optimistic future: how lucky to be a Jew.  As Jonathan Sacks says, while much for the ghetto Jew was problematic, Jewish identity was not.

Not so for the Marrano Jew, the less-spoken-of side of the medieval coin. He, afraid of being rendered a penniless wanderer on a leaky boat, allowed the village priest to sprinkle him with water. He attended church; he adopted as best he could all the manners the outside demanded of his faithless conversion.  
But the outside was now in him, and the Marrano Jew lived his life looking over his shoulder. When will they find him out?  When will the shoe drop? What will be the ultimate price of being a Jew?  While much for the Marrano Jew was not problematic (above all finance and bodily safety) Jewish identity was.  
 
In the end, the Marrano could not remain as a Jew.  While a celebrated few died a martyr’s death, most melted into Catholicism.  That was his price.  Not being a Jew.  The Jew who chose the ghetto paid his price, too: but his Jewish grandchildren tell his story.
 
Whether one should at this time go to Israel or not has a personal component, possibly what is appropriate for one is not for another.  But there is a component that must be addressed.  Going has a price.  Not going has a price.
  
In the 1980’s ten of us yeshiva guys spent two years with the Jewish community of Morocco.  We learned how to walk the streets.  And how not to walk the streets: 
Don't walk on sidewalks; you can get too close to someone looking for trouble. 
Walk in the middle of the street: like you own it. 
Walk near parked cars: cars are a status symbol and Arabs hesitate to throw rocks if they might hit a car. 
Don't walk the streets when the bars let out (11:00 PM); a drunk coward is a stupid danger.
And if you’re ever hit, hit back twice as hard, fast, and because within moments you’ll be outnumbered 300 to 1, get lost quickly.
 
But don’t ever, ever run.
 
With all the caution, one of us was hit with a rock in the eye. A well-meaning American, a visiting representative of a Jewish fund-raising organization happened to come to Casablanca then.  He had heard of our friend who was hit. Why don’t you guys cover you yarmulkes with caps, he suggested.  We answered him with polite, non-committal noises.  
 
If he’s still listening, here is the best I can offer – some twenty years later:
If you want to run, you can -- but you can’t just run a mile. You must run a hundred miles.  
If you hide who you are, then you’ll never be yourself. Your kids will never know who you once were -- or who they now are.  
If you hide your yarmulke, then you’ll hide your mezuzah necklace, and even hide your name.   
If you hide you may be safe. If you’re safe you’ll be all the more scared to not be safe. You’ll be scared to be you.
If you don’t hide, you may be hit; if you're hit, you may be hurt.  You may die: many Jews have died for no other reason than who they were. 
Is it worth it, to die for who you are?  That’s not even the question.  The question is: is it worth it to live for who you are.  If who you are is worth living for, then there is nothing to fear.
Once the other shoe has dropped, safety and danger don’t mean the same thing. You can enjoy the trip.

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

Arabs kick in the shul’s windows. 

They take a sledgehammer to the pillars. 

Hoards overrun the place with bloodthirsty shrieks. 

In the name of G-d. 

In the name of national pride. 

In the name of the future.

You can only steal once, goes the saying. But if you want to rob another more than enrich yourself, once is all you need. No one can rejoice for the Arabs. Nothing has improved for them; history indicates that nothing will. The anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel, the anti-West vitriol and violence they export comes from a will to destroy what another has. Were it the desire to have one’s own, pride of ownership would triumph bloodlust destruction.

Why does the world tolerate it? Why do we allow a philosophical tilt-of-the-head ‘but they too have a claim’? Because on some subliminal, unrealized level, it is preferable to knock someone else’s accomplishments than to create our own. 

In the rare, rare, less than once-in-seventy-years case that a Torah court would find a person punishable by death, the Parsha tells us that they should hang. But not overnight; this would diminish the divine image of the hanged. He created us in His image; we are his reflection, even when we are deserving of death. Diminishing our dignity denies His Divinity.

A bomb goes off and carnage follows. Before the terrified shrieks taper off, before the medics finish evacuating the victims, but after having seen to the wounded, a group of men begins collecting the body parts. Limbs occasionally, more often bloody bits of flesh and cartilage, expertly identified and meticulously scraped from walls tree branches and gutters. The gruesomeness is in the details. So is the dignity.

Many call it the ultimate contrast, if not the ultimate response, to the so-called suicide bombings. 

A man or a woman who believes life must end, their own and someone else’s, fills and slips into a vest holding 15 kg of chlorate, sugar and 3mm steel ball bearings to blow up unsuspecting women and children. 

A man or a woman gathers the bits of flesh which moments ago harbored a soul; because though the soul is gone the body still reflects the image of G-d. 

Understandably, there are those who demand the destruction of mosques in retaliation – and it is not necessarily Jews who make the indignant, though not necessarily unreasonable, demand. 

Perhaps we should abide them.

Then again, perhaps we should leave the mosques standing: leave them enough rope to hang their culture of death on the gallows that not long ago accommodated Nazism and Communism. 

But then, perhaps, there will be no one left to take down the corpse. 

And the image of the Divine would be defaced.

Like it or not, people are influenced by their surroundings. And people influence their surroundings. There are no vacuums. Either they’re with us or we are with them. Either the light unto the nations illuminates all or a shadow darkens every space and every corner.

The curious ask: when Moshiach comes to rebuild the Temple will he first destroy the mosque that now occupies that land? The question shows just how remote Moshiach is. If Moshiach were to blow up or burn down a building then he would just be one more conqueror in a city that has known more conquest than any other. 

Worse yet, he too would be conquerable.

Moshiach intimates that those who most strongly advocate the mosque will be the first to recognize the inappropriateness. 

And they will act appropriately. 

In the name of G-d.

In the name of the future.

These words sound outlandishly, ridiculously remote as I tap them on the keyboard, and I’m sure they don’t come across any more credibly as you read them. Point taken that Moshiach is not yet here.

The image of heartbroken people leaving their dreams, but refusing to kill or maim those who led them away, remains weeks after it happened. They were debased, but the image within them shone. That shining can never dim. 

Such is the mandate of the faith to believe. 

And such is the mandate to believe with perfect faith, that ultimately it will shine to the extent that all existence will only accentuate it. 

And such is the mandate of the faith that it can – and will – happen today. 

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

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.

For Hashem your G-d will bless you

One of the 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.. Some of the residents were neither senile nor blind, and were able to acknowledge our presence when we came to light the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady came over and introduced herself in English as Madame Leiberman. I was shocked. She had a hard to place accent. I asked her where she was from.
 
“Guess!” she answered mischievously, happy to be a schoolgirl for a moment. I gave up and she said Vienna. Ah so you speak Yiddish I offered, imagining a comeback in a German-accented Yiddish. 
 
“Zicher, alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish.” All Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. So, you’re a Polish Jew I asked. I’m neither Polish nor a Jew. Ich bin a krist: I’m a Christian, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
 
This all in a sparse room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country. I wasn’t sure what was getting to me.
 
She had her audience now she told her story.
 
Her husband was a Jew, Vienna was a very liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and shared each other’s cultures and many young people intermarried. “Ah but I see you’re not impressed, du hust dach a bord! She was delighted with herself.
 
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 hinger strike --our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
 
She went on with some remarkable insights, but my meeting her and that last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
 
Forget now concentration camp standards. Think us, think America, think 2018. Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scale, food scale, fridge magnets with warning-contents-may-be dangerous-to your-health, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group. Think diets: Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. Think conditions: heart disease, gout - the rest I don’t want to mention. 
 
Measures we have taken 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. Yes, yes you can’t leave something on your plate without thinking of the starving children in India, but. . .isn’t much (if not most) of that politically induced?
 
I feel queasy bringing this up on the tail of a tale retelling an unspeakable time.    But she was on the periphery of it all, her story even more so.
 
How much is spent on (not waste, not this or that being thrown out, but how much is spent on) safeguarding us from not digging in? When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say “Thanks: it’s good to be provided for.” 
 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you’ll be full and satisfied, you should thank He who provides. Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
 
But in this parsha he alludes quite strongly to more. When the place (and the place in Torah refers always to Temple Mount, ((which really isn’t a Jewish place according to, oh, I apologize and digress)) when ascending to Jerusalem) is far from you, and difficult to carry your homage, because Hashem has blessed you.
 
Now we’re talking something heavier; not only does having too much make you sick, it makes you identify more with the body than with the soul. Notice how cows’ heads are so close to the ground? 
 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; diet and fitness can indicate narcissism. Nor does sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table lead unswervingly to good health. But excess leads to poor health of body and soul. And declining a second helping and helping a second can converge for good health of body and soul.
 
Some other time we’ll get to Madame Leibermann’s other wisdom. For now I’ll bask in the land of plenty, the land of opportunity, plenty of opportunity to choose what I won’t eat.
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