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For Your Shabbat Table

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.) 


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.

My Son The Doctor

“My Son the Doctor”, and “Oh Doctor have I got a daughter for you”, were the two most eligible bachelors in the American Jewish community for over half a century, from the old neighborhood and on over in the move out to the suburbs. Now we’ve heard so many stories of doctors in the slammer for you-don’t-want-to know-what, that we tend to deify them a bit less. Or do we?

We still tell tale of the guy who died and went to heaven and on his tour he sees someone walking around with a white jacket and a stethoscope around his neck. Who’s that, he asks. Oh, don’t mind him, he’s told, that’s G-d, he likes to play doctor.
Talmud tells us that the best of the doctors should be shipped off to Hell. (I’m not making this up and I’m not exaggerating.) But can you blame them? When a man’s life is in the palm of your hand -- squeeze too hard and all the blood rushes out of the heart, let go too soon and all the blood runs into the heart -- when you have life in your hands like that, you can’t well be humble, and maybe that’s a good thing because it is not a humble moment.
But that’s not enough, it’s never enough. The doctor then thinks he can predict—he should predict -- what will happen after he let’s go and comes up with “he’s not gonna make it” or in more subtle milieus “things don’t look good”.
But can you blame him? What’s a man to do when everyone’s calling him doc and his momma’s so proud and his staff trusts him and his patients think he knows it all, what’s the man to think of himself? How does he see that he may be holding a heart in his hand but life is not in his hands, that he can make a man live or make a man die but he has no right over life and death and has no right to do anything but heal?
How does he stop making determinations? How does he remember he’s in a white suit but he is not G-d? 
“Verapo yerapeh”. And you shall surely heal. Heed these words. They tell you that you shall heal -- not anything else. You have an education and good grades and long nights in med school and accolades from your colleagues for the advancements you’ve made in medicine -- but all you get to do is heal. Not predict. Not determine. And never - to judge. 
There is an angel of healing named Malach Rephael. He comes into the room with the doctor and for all I know he leaves with him too. There is an angel of judgment, his name is Gavriel and we don’t want him in the room. Not in this room. Not at this time.
Maybe when you’re a doctor and you see how fragile life is you become immune. Or insensitive. Or just plain scared and therefore bravado. Don’t worry about it. Remember you are a healer and the angel is doing your work. And like the plumber you can go home at night and open up a mishna and the angels will be with you. Listen and you can hear them, singing the sweet tunes of the Talmud that if you were lucky you heard your daddy singing in the other room as you drifted off to sleep in your bedroom, a lullaby that could never be condescending and you never outgrow because it was real and wasn’t directly done to you or for you.
Nowadays patients are encouraged to become their own doctor and that’s good because no one knows you better than you know yourself. So you read up on this and that, surf the web, take out books, buy supplements and present your findings to whomever will listen. And that is good. And then you can’t leave well enough alone so you become a full-fledged doctor and start predicting and deciding what will happen and what should happen and you get so lost you forget about healing.
Come back, come back, come back to the parsha, to a sanity that begets humility. Heal you shall surely heal -- and surely you should stay away from anything that is not healing.
“Es mispar yomecha amaleh”, I (says the Living G-d) will fill the number of your days. Reinforcements have arrived. Even patients don’t have to play G-d.

The Bargain and the Jew

The story you are about to read is true. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty. Some names have been omitted to protect us from the grumpy. The story first started thousands of years ago, when the world was young. . .

“Fixed! Fixed! The whole thing is fixed! You wanted the Jews to get it and never gave anyone else a chance!” The prosecutor stormed furiously around the chamber. After a few moments he stopped pacing and turned to face the Judge. “There is a statutory posting of notice! Without it this process could well be called a farce.” He had everyone’s attention now and _ for affect really – he paced a bit more and then resumed.
“Have we asked anyone, anyone else if they would accept it?” he bellowed with a flourish. “Have we talked terms? Made offers?”
“What is your proposal?” challenged the Jews’ advocate. He spoke softly and deliberately, knowing his adversary had a point that would ultimately have to be acknowledged.
“I propose that we go around with an offer and see who accepts!” he answered defiantly. “Let us offer, in good faith to every nation. Give them an honest chance. And one more thing: the Jews get asked last!” 
“Agreed.” interjected the One True Judge into the heavenly proceedings. “And you,” he said pointing to the arch-prosecutor, “you shall be the one who brings the offer around to the world.”
“Thank you,” said the arch-prosecutor.
“You’re welcome, my angel.” replied G-d.
So the angel descended heaven to sell the Torah to the world and his first drop was high in the Tibetan mountains.
“It’s a Torah,” he told the Master as the llamas looked on.
“We appreciate new teachings,” intoned Master. “Tell us your wisdom.”
“I am Hashem Your G-d. Have none before me.”
The master smiled sympathetically; the llamas rolled their eyes.
“All is One. Truth has many forms. Form changes.” the master recited solemnly, taking the angels hand in his own. “Love your knowledge. Live your knowledge. Do not allow one knowledge to negate a world of expression.”
For I am a jealous G-d, remembered the angel aloud, more to himself than to the master. No, this won’t work. They shook hands and the master bowed in deference.
The angel came to Khyber Pass. A band of blond, chiseled men galloped furiously, their women following in tow. The angel started telling them about his wares. “I tried the master, but he rejected me.” Said the angel, feeling a bit down.
“Master? What master? We are the master of all races, not those blabbering, dark people. What does your Torah say in it?”
“You shall not murder.”
“Humph!” answered the loudest mouth among them. Curiously, he was not blond and evidently he had nipped himself above his lip while shaving. “So why didn’t that idiot in the mountain take your book? Isn’t that the gibberish he goes for?” The loudmouth’s voice and passion were growing.   “Isn’t it clear that only by the survival of the fittest do we go forward?” He climbed on a sack of soap roots so all could hear and continued drawing in the people with his charisma and passion. “Is it not the destiny of the strong to live and conquer and not to be conquered by the weak, ugly, feeble-minded and miserable?” he crescendoed. 
“Yawol! Seig!” thundered the handsome crowd. The angel was ready to leave, but he had one question: How come all of you are so handsome? Don’t you have any ugly people?
“Oh no, we have no ugly people,” said one resolutely. 
“We did before,” answered the man’s wife, “but we tied them to the trees before we left the forest. My brother Heinrich and sister Helga were there.”
“This way we have more food.” she added cheerfully.
Came the angel further west, along the Seine did he rest. 
How romantic is this view, how divine is this nest. 
Merci monsieur!” the locals sparkled when the angel announced he had a most intriguing gift. “Mais, quest-qu’il ya dedans? Can we have a peek inside?” 
You shall not commit adultery.
“Oh no, we never would! To be unfaithful to one we love? To break a vow? Non, jamais, mon cheri! You must love life and live to love. To see someone living without love or loving without life, now that is unforgivable! That is greatest breach of faith, the ultimate rebellion against raison d’etre! A man must always be happy. Joie de vivres! Taste these snails and you will see!”
“Vay iz mir,” mumbled the angel.
He came to a bustling bazaar where everyone was selling something. Anything. Now I’ll make a sale.
“Ya Habibi!” cried a stubbly-cheeked vendor with a checkered headdress, “but first let us have tea.”
After three cup, two of which were noticeably laced, the conversation ever so subtly eased towards the merchandise at hand.
You shall not steal.
“Ah waja waja!” the vendor gesticulated wildly. “Never, ever take what belongs to another man.  Especially land! For then he will come back with a bigger stick and get back at you. People are sneaky like that.”
“What I do,” the vendor added in whisper, “I kill him. I kill his wife. I kill his children. Then, no problem of revenge! Then build a big house on the land. If anyone challenges you, look weepy and keep saying my-land-my-land!” The vendor laughed heartily and insisted on another round of hospitality drinks before the stranger left.
The angel flew due north and was able to get into a mahogany-paneled boardroom where (he was told) issues of import are negotiated. 
The chief peered through his pince-nez down the table. “So tell us young chap, why have you requested my time today? A Torah, you say? My subordinates have reviewed the documentation that you were good enough to supply.”
The chief pushed the scroll back to the angel. A red-markered circle encompassed the words ‘you shall not be duplicitous’. 
“We are in agreement that treachery has no sanction, nor does deceit have virtue.” The chief executive officer took off his specs and wiped his brow from impeccably concealed exasperation. “You’re obviously new to the world of finance and will undoubtedly prosper once you master financial protocol.” The meeting was winding down and chief allowed himself to end on a fatherly note. “While it is true that money makes the world go round, one must be cognizant of the lubrication applied.” He laughed.
The angel flew away. “So loaded with pomp it’s a wonder their bridges don’t collapse under them.”
He flew to a place that called itself united. He met up with a time management wizard who insisted that the honor-father-mother obligation be compartmentalized to two days per annum and delegated to the office assistant if possible.
Then the angel came to the Moshe’s people. For once they didn’t bargain. They said if it comes from G-d we accept it, all of it, at face value, unconditionally, immediately and perpetually. When asked, they said that when you are in love you accept. You have no business bargaining.

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

“My grandson made a seder in Kobe!” “150 people!” “In Kobe Japan!” “My grandson!” I was on a trip back to Brooklyn and had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community. A butcher by trade. Polish born. He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson’s Pesach, some three months before. 

I didn’t get the excitement. I understand a Zaide’s nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them. But. . . Chabad has been doing that for decades. This man’s son is one of South Africa’s most popular rabbis. I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice
He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket. “Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!” I was there. During the war. The Shangchaier. The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas. They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east. They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai.
In Reb Shimon’s living room wall are dozens of family pictures. Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids. Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America. There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building. They both have on bands with the Jewish star. “It’s my sister on her wedding day,’ he had told me years before, “In the Warsaw Ghetto. This picture is all I have of my family.”
I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.
Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody.” Now my einikle is making sedorim. In Kobe!” You see,” he settled into a conversation. “Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) ‘Show me your face.’ and he was answered “I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.’ The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won’t see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along.   Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . .”
Life doesn’t always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant. You have to just do it and figure it out later. Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah.
The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon’s Kobe. The Jews, coming form G-d’s deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea. Should they fight? Surrender? Pray? The response was none of the above. “Move on.” Just follow what I say and it will all work out.
Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why. He still doesn’t. Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe. For 150 people!

Lechaim to Chutzpah!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he’s in the miracle business. Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that’s hard. And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in. They pretty much did.  

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. . . the sheep (no, I don’t know why and let’s not go there). It was the portent of, oh, I don’t know, the television? Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window! Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you. We call it chutzpah.
That’s why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach. Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind: a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been. 
The chutzpah they kept. The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right. The Jews who survived Europe seventy-five years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah. The Jews in America, who were bombarded with “The Disappearing Jew” series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing. Their own thing.
The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim – the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt). The Jews are defined by he who defines them. (Mitzvhas are often called signs – definitions). 
So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don’t get annoyed. Think chutzpah (it’s also recommended for the blood pressure).
All those sheep and TV’s are not our reality. Turn it off. Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long. And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind.

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Sound like double trouble? Over-employment? The latest synagogue sitcom? Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 

We started that way. Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there. Moses’ older brother never was quite his associate rabbi. Aaron was vastly more popular. He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants’ business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home. Mr. Nice.
Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal. The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right.
Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace. Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise. Torah insists on both, hence a team was needed for the making of a people – not an individual.
Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, leadership qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged, and accusations of nepotism drained him. Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 
The brothers’ dichotomy did not abate with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron’s funeral nearly doubled Moshe’s. Not surprisingly, it was only upon Moshe’s passing that despair threatened the people. But while Aaron’s popularity earned him a larger funeral, Moshe’s instruction earned him the role of leader. Aaron’s passing evoked mourning; Moshe’s passing created a terrifying void. Like money, you appreciate leadership when you don’t have it. 
We need our Aarons and we need our Moshes (including our intra-personal, internal ones). One without the other is unbalanced. If we favor the peace over truth because peace doesn’t demand of us and truth does, we’ll get neither. It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is not a sitcom.

What is Your Name?

Where have you been? The question says it all, whether it’s Mom, the boss, wife-hubby, grown children; they are not really asking, they are rhetorically accusing. I have been here where I was supposed to be. Why weren’t you here where you were supposed to be?

The answers are usually excuses, either valid ones or less so. Rarely is the answer ‘I’ve been here the whole time’.
A shepherd sees a little lamb run off and he chases after it, making sure the wolves don’t tear it apart, making sure the lamb has enough water and enough tender green grass.
He sees a bush on fire that isn’t burning. And he knows it ‘s not just another day at the office.
He takes off his shoes in deference. He is told by he-knows-who to go free the people from Pharaoh. 
But they will ask me your name, what do I say? Asks the shepherd. A strange enough question that is matched with an equally perplexing answer: tell them my name is I Will Be As I Will Be. It is the first conversation recorded in the Torah between the world’s greatest teacher and the world’s foremost student.
What is your name? A name is how we relate; it defines who is speaking to whom. If you say Dad, Mr. Smith, Dr. Smith or Sonny or Bubba you’re not talking about you or them; you are articulating a relationship. 
What is your name? How have you related to these people as Pharaoh threw their sons into the Nile, kidnapped their daughters, bathed in newborns’ blood? Used their children’s bodies to fill the quotas of unmade bricks? Where have you been?
And He answers: Tell them I will be as I will be. I was with them the whole time. When Pharaoh bathed in their babies’ blood, it was my blood that was spilled. When he shoved their tiny limbs into spaces meant for bricks, it was me who was shoved in there. Everything they endured I endured with them. Everyone who touched them touched me. Imo Anochi betzora I am with them in their suffering.
A bush is on fire but it does not burn. A nation is threatened with death and killed time and time again but it does not die. They make “phoenix-like” a weak metaphor. 
But how this burning without being burnt? For it is I in the fire: and just as these people will live forever I will live with them. Just as I live forever they will live with me. We’ll both be burning on the way. We will both suffer. But we will suffer together. 
Why though is all this suffering and retelling and reliving of this suffering not melancholy to those who live it and tell it and live it again? Because it reminds them of the second phase of the words spoken to the barefooted shepherd. That together we will live, we will leave. With tangible treasure and unmitigated spirit. Alone. Together.

Live With Death; Die With Life

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O’Rourke, watch it when it does nothing. If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card.

Many act like it ain’t happening. They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead’s hair and apply them with make-up. We’re here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head. 
They exchange stories of (I’m not making this up) the deceased’s delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!) and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca “because Dad loved the water”. But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown. 
Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get ‘there’ in time or at least get there for the funeral? 
And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges. They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters. Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.  
Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads. And they listen. Bury me with my parents. And they listen. I will tell you the end of days. They listen but no words come. I will bless you. They listen and we echo their hearing. 
The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession. Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many.
An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live. She was neither alarmed nor distressed. I’ve lived a good life, said she, and I am old. And I’m happy; my grandchildren didn’t speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do. She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola. She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem. Nor was there a generation gap: she knew her grandchildren shared her world. But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn’s first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language.
It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny. That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren. Everything we want, we want for our kids. More than a man’s vacations, more than a man’s portfolio, if you want to know a man’s dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children.
Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob’s death and then Joseph’s: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life. Actually, not so incongruously. 
Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?  In the face of finality the charades of life stop.
Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds. Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together. At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving. Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed. The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood. And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged. 
The process exhausts us. Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.


The Communists rose to power when Naphtali, Tolchik to his friends, was young.  His father didn't like the smell of it all and told Tolchik to become a shochet: to master the intricate, exacting practice of kosher butchering - the training takes years and the pay is lousy.  "Become a shochet," said Tolchik's father, "if you'll be a shochet, you'll stay a Jew."
Tolchik the shochet and his wife raised their children under the Soviets.  By the early 1950's all had escaped, most of them with false passports.  Except for their grown son Meir and his growing family.

Their other son Berel had escaped with Chana Schneerson, posing as her son.  Upon arrival to New York, Berel became a masterful diamond cutter, and (the grey Soviet's silver-lining) maintained his filial status with Chana (he had the keys to her apartment) and developed a warm relationship with her son, the Rebbe of Lubavitch.  Tolchik and his wife, together with their daughter, settled in Montreal, his son Dovid was in Antwerp and Tolchik was happy, but for Meir's being held by the Soviets.

There is a custom to receive matzah from one's Rebbe before Passover.  Naturally, Berel would be doing so.
"When you receive matzah from the Rebbe," Tolchik told his son Berel, "mention to him your brother Meir."
"But do not ask for a bracha, a blessing," continued Tolchik, "ask for a havtacha -- ask for the Rebbe's assurance -- that my Meir will make it out alive."

Berel never pushed anyone into doing something they did not want to do.  And a chassid does not demand of his Rebbe.  But Berel never refused his father.

The Rebbe handed matzah to Berel.  Berel mentioned his brother Meir and the Rebbe gave his bracha.  "My father requests your assurance that Meir will come out."

The Rebbe's face grew dark and his hand shook.  "Shlep mir nisht beim tzung!" (Don't wrench words out of me that I cannot say) the Rebbe answered with rare sting, and added, "My father-in-law accomplished greater things than this." 

Berel saw tears in the Rebbe's eyes begin to fall.   The Rebbe gave Berel another piece of matzah.  "You will give this to your brother."
"My brother Dovid in Belgium?" Berel asked. 

"No.  Meir.  Not necessarily in America but somewhere close by."

A few years later the family got word that Meir had plans to spirit his family across the border with forged passports.  He failed.  More years passed.  Berel held the matzah for his brother.  Eighteen years he held onto that matzah: matzah, the Kabala calls it the bread of faith. 

Then they heard.  Meir is free!  With his wife!  With his sons!  With his daughter!  They received visas to Canada (not necessarily America, but close by) and Berel got himself to Montreal just as fast as he could.  Berel hadn't seen his brother in over twenty years.  He ran towards his brother.  His brother ran towards him.  He gave his brother the piece of matza.  And then they fell into each other's arms.

Berel's story explains Jacob of our parsha. Jacob mourned his lost son Joseph as dead for over twenty years.  He finally saw him -- a miracle! - but Jacob did not kiss him; he was saying the Shema. . .a jaw-dropping breach of human emotion.    Berel demonstrates that a moment of faith does not separate between long-lost loves.  It holds them together.

Oh draydel, draydel, draydel

When Mom and Dad have a really juicy tidbit to share that they don't want the kids to hear, they whisper it quietly. If the kids come in the room they change the topic to something boring. Kids pick up the trick. When they are playing with the sensational and forbidden, they keep something innocuous around. When an adult or a snitch is coming they quickly hide the contraband and make a big deal of playing with the boring, innocuous decoy. Lookouts are great.

Time was, when getting caught meant more than losing allowance, or a trip to the principal's office. Stalin expropriated minors caught with a Jewish prayer book and threw them into state orphanages. My father's cousin Hessel was among them. (He survived.) "Nadir, nadir, nadir, nisht zogen soidos fun cheder." (Never, Never, never, don't tell the secrets, they were drilled. Their decoy was often a game of red-light-green-light. Yellow light signaled caution; red light, full alert.
In Hellenic Israel accused children were forced to bow before Zeus and swallow bacon. In one instance seven sons, beginning with the eldest, were each commanded to bow, each refused and each met death. Except the youngest. Their mother begged Antiochus Epiphanes to speak privately with the two-year-old. Do not betray your brothers, she encouraged her baby, be worthy of them, and when you join them, tell Father Abraham that while he prepared one son for sacrifice, I prepared seven. 
The decoy of choice in Hellenic Israel was a simple spinning top, which archeology indicates was common then. Dray, as in draydel, is Yiddish for spin, hence its popularity continues under this name.   
Whether in ancient Israel or recent Russia, the punishment revealed the bond between child and book in all its remarkable dimensions. In both cases, children's games braced the parents to rebel with the sword when feasible, to endure the gulag when not.
I once helped a prison deputy warden process Chanukah gifts donated by a Jewish group.
     What's this? he fingered a purple, plastic draydel. 
     It's part of the holiday celebration, I assured him.
     It has a treasured significance, I added, but I don't think that is what you were asking. 
     He laughed appreciatively.
Should I have told him the two-and-a-half -millennia saga of this unpretentious pressed plastic, imbued with the blood of the martyred, the tears of the pious, the endurance of the faithful?
Oh draydel, draydel, draydel, I made you out of clay, and the Almighty Himself breathed into you a soul of fire and you in turn tempered in His people a will of steel. And as you do your exuberant spin, your dance of contagious ecstasy, we dance along with you. 
Against your dance iron curtains fall. So we will spin your dance and spin your tale until the Almighty has you and us land in the land. And when this spin is over, whatever letter we land on we will know: A great miracle happened there.
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