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For Your Shabbat Table

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, than 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 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.

Lose Weight Now!!

Lose Weight Now!!

To lose weight the most effective exercise is push-aways — but they are extremely difficult to do. You need to stand near a full smorg n Viennese table and push AWAY!!

You can’t just walk away or move away but you’ve got to PUSH away!  Because, let’s be truthful, you’re vulnerable. Forget about “just one little nibble”, one little WHIFF will have you gorging yourself sick in minutes. 

You’re vulnerable but you are not weak… as long as you can remember your weakness and you push-away. Pharaoh’s Egypt was arguably the most decadent regime in history. And for all of their undeniable spiritual underpinnings, the Jews knew they were drawn to his fleshpots and to be blunt, his orgies. So they fled. So quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. Recognizing our vulnerability is our greatest strength.  Pushaways not only develop endurance, enhance well-being, promote sound body/sound mind, but fleeing the gorge allows our spirit to soar.  It’s a discipline Kabbalists call isquaphia. Eat happy. 

Good Shabbos 

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

“My grandson mad e a seder in Kobe!”  “150 people!”  “In Kobe Japan!”  “My grandson!”  I was on a trip back to Brooklyn several summers ago, 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 five 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!

Coronavirus

It takes a Rebbe to see the globe as a village. Before we ever heard of a coronavirus, the Rebbe had planted men and women to be wherever they could benefit Jews, including Chinese cities whose names I can’t pronounce.  From the little I know of this unfolding story, Chabad in Palo Alto, Riverside and throughout China coordinated relief for people whose lives they share.  The word contagion, for all it’s dreadful connotation, is Latin for “to touch together”. May the Rebbe’s love for all G-d’s children prove to be the only spreadable element in this saga. 

Shabbat Shalom

Lechaim to Chutzpah!

 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 fifty-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

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

 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

Hugs

 Hugs

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 Shneerson, 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.

 

 

Did the Maccabees win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 

Were they fighting the bad guys? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens! The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece. Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates, sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body. I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute. Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.

The Maccabean revolt began – in large measure – when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body. We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why do Jews who insist they are “secular”, who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays – would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense. The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. 

They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists. Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.

It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,

the body and mind are at peace. Like animals in pasture.

But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,

He wouldn’t need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. 

Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount. Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

But the Maccabees were not either. And that  is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s ‘too Jewish’, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 

Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.

 A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waiver.

Did the Maccabees Win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 

Were they fighting the bad guys? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens! The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece. Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates,

sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body. I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute. Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.

The Maccabean revolt began – in large measure – when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body. We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why do Jews who insist they are “secular”, who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays – would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense. The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. 

They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists. Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.

It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,

the body and mind are at peace. Like animals in pasture.

But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,

He wouldn’t need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. 

Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount. Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

 

But the Maccabees were not either. And that  is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s ‘too Jewish’, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 

Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.

 A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waiver.

Old Age. Old Wine

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells. “Antiqued” furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line.

Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina. Multi-million dollar homes are built to “have character”. If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age. Old is good.

Except for old people. No one boasts of having their own senior citizen. Or of being one.

And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves. They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X. They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived. When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and – we add for good measure – can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto?

For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 

Youth is beautiful. Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age.

The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired.

Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor. In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.

Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 

A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing. It can happen in a young person too:

we call them brats.

“Ba bayamim” the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham.  Come of his days.  Each day was full, was lived to its fullest.  He took on the next day with new vigor. “Old, and with full days”, this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 

Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing. The Talmud calls them dead: “even in their lifetimes, call them dead”. 

How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket. How sad the daughter who holds onto her father’s memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because “he loved the water”. This is what they have left? Recipes and beach balls? 

Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents? Is this legacy?

You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 

You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured. A boy with Hodgkin’s is comforted. You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours. You learn some Torah. You teach some Torah. 

You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children. You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 

By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 

The soul breathes much as wine does:

The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe. Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 

Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase. 

 

A Link in The Chain

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 two 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.

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