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For Your Shabbat Table

For Hashem your G-d will bless you

One of the places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco. It didn’t smell pleasant, not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards.. Some of the residents were neither senile nor blind, and were able to acknowledge our presence when we came to light the Chanukah menorah. 

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

Brooklyn and the Diamond Exchange

It was a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the Sixties, challenging the young rabbi chairing the roundtable; how can you believe in G-d when science has proven… why keep kosher in an age of government inspection and refrigeration, isn’t it racist to speak of the chosen people. The rabbi was doing his best. Sitting in the audience was an elderly rabbi, long black coat, elegant white beard. He rose to speak. 

“The questions you are asking are good questions, but for this you don’t need to come to Chabad. Anyone who has learned Torah can tell you these answers. But you came to Chabad; now let me tell you why you came.”
 
Everyone there was surprised he could speak English; the rabbi with the immaculate black coat and long white beard began his story.
 
A little boy was walking with his father down a steep hill in the heat of the day. They saw a man coming up the hill towards them, sweating, with a heavy sack on his shoulders weighing him down. When the man reached them the little boy asked what he had in his sack, why he was going up the hill, why he was working so hard.
 
The man told the little boy that his stove oven had broke and he had to come down to the valley to get more stones to build himself an oven. 
 
Why not get more stones, asked the little boy, and build a bigger oven that will keep you warmer and you can have more food -- there must be more stones still in the valley?   Oh, you little boy, said the man, you don’t yet know what it means to have to work, how hard it is to schlep. He put his free hand on the little boy’s shoulder. When you’ll be big like me you’ll be happy with a little oven too.
 
The little boy and his father continued down the hill. They saw another man coming up the hill towards them. Same size man, same size sack, but this man didn’t seem so weighed down.
 
What have you in the sack, the little boy wanted to know, is it stones, are you going to build yourself a small oven? 
 
Oh no, the man smiled broadly, no oven building for me! See, I was down in the valley digging for turnips and I hit a treasure. Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! I have two daughters, two weddings to make, I’m going to open a store and stop peddling from town to town, build myself a house with wooden floors and. . .
 
Why not get more diamonds, interrupted the boy, there must be more left in the valley? Son, said the old man putting his free hand on the little boys shoulder, believe me, I searched the valley clean. I don’t think there is another diamond down there.
 
The little boy and his father continued down the hill
 
You see, said the little boy’s father, when you’re carrying diamonds they’re never too heavy. The first guy may have had diamonds too, but he didn’t know what they were. 
 
The old rabbi with the long white beard looked at the college kids.
 
“You see what the father was telling the boy? A mitzvah is a diamond. Every mitzvah that we do is a precious, precious thing. This is why you come to Chabad; not just to learn a mitzvah but to learn that it is a diamond. When you know they are diamonds than most of your questions will be answered.”
 
I heard this story on a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the early Eighties, challenging the rabbi chairing the roundtable; the questions had shifted with the times: why do we need mitzvahs when we can meditate instead. 
 
A man got up and told this story that he had heard twenty years earlier on a cold wintry night a few blocks from where they were now. He told the story well and ended with the words, “It’s been twenty years since Rabbi Kazarnovsky stood up that night to tell that story. I could tell you dozens of experiences I’ve had since then, but to you it would be meaningless.”
 
I jolted. It was just for weeks since my grandfather died. Rabbi Kazarnovsky was my grandfather. 
 
I type the story with pride and awe. Pride because he was my grandfather; awed because he was my grandfather. 
 
Passion, demands the parsha. You can’t be Jewish out of a sense of duty. An observant Jew? an unsatisfying label. Like an obedient child, a dutiful husband a law-abiding citizen, an observant Jew accepts obligations – yet keeps on trudging. I know we’re the Chosen People, moans Tevye, but isn’t it time you chose someone else. 
 
Duty and diligence are not calculated to inspire, they’re heavy rocks. But when duty and diligence are born of passion they are tough as steel and brilliant diamonds. A heavy load? Maybe, on the scales: but not on my back.
 
“You have to be a rabbi,” a friend told me when I was seventeen, “it’s expected of you, it’s even in your genes”. A duty, he was saying. And I thank a rabbi with an immaculate, long, black coat and an elegant, long, white beard, for showing me it’s a diamond.

Have Children, Solve Your Problems

Five-hundred thirteen years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy.

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?"   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  "Amen, amen".

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah:
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David;
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.

Cookbooks

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks.
 
Jewish cookbooks have changed. Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”. Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation. There is a dearth of color pictures in most. Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them. In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie. In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the Halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish. In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha! Azhi hanna! Come on in.”
 
Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them. A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”. You can’t cook in a bookstore. 
 
Through food, we connect with each other. Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community. It feeds upon itself. In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died. She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher. “I have to do something,” she decided. Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant. Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.
 
It is the Nine Days. A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem. We eat no meat during this time. Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate. Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat. The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel. But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve. You are what you eat. What you refrain from eating defines you.
 
And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision. For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction. In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis. Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again. Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 
 
This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.  This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet. For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission. That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through. And they brought those experiences with them. For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 

The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating. 

Planting in Tears With Joy

I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It tells the horror and it tells it well. I've seen Schindler's List; in a sense, it portrays the horror more effectively than any documentary has. Both are missing a crucial element - the magnitude of Jewish response.

For this I look to two books in particular: "Responsa of the Holocaust" and "Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust". 
 
"Responsa" records halachic questions Jews posed at the time: May one save his child for a selection if it is certain another child will replace him? May one deny her Jewishness to escape? If the forced labor begins before dawn and ends after nightfall when does one put on teffilin? There was one Jew in the Kovno Ghetto who could answer these questions. He had been pressed into the service as chronicler of the Nazi's library: the Germans amaseed books, community and family documents and Jewish articles for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race" - Hitler's own Holocaust Museum. 
 
The second book tells of one Bronia Koczicki who in the Bochnia Ghetto brought her two small sons to be blessed by the saintly Reb Aaron of Belz who was there at the time. He blessed them that "G-d will help". But Bronia would not leave. She asked that her little boys be blessed with "fine generations". He placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.
 
"The woman's lost her mind," people sighed. "Children are being killed in the streets every day and she's worried what type of grandchildren she will have?" Bronia didn't pay them any mind. "We will live through this war," she kept repeating to her children.
 
The first book tells of people who lived with G-d regardless of whether they saw G-d living with them. The second tells of a woman who saw that the future determines the present.
 
"He who plants in tears, with joy shall he harvest," declared the psalmist David. Not only as a reward, note the commentaries, but as a consequence. And move your comma, they add; He who plants in tears with joy: shall harvest. Tears because the world is cold, dark and cruel. Joy because everything is His plan and He has made me a part of it. Bronia's faith is awesome. 
 
The third Temple is built and only waiting for us to allow it to descend, maintains our tradition. For the tzadikim, the rare righteous, the destruction and exile never took place. Bronia, either through learning or instinct, lived with this.
 
And so did those who questioned in the first book. So did those who davened Yom Kippur in the forests of Poland. And when we study and fulfill Torah then we do too - even if we don't know it yet. Somewhere, deep inside of us resonates a tzadik. 
 
The saddest days of The Three Weeks, the period we find ourselves in now, preceding Tisha B'Av, will become the most joyous. Not that the sadness will be obliterated: it will be the cause of the joy. Had we not mourned for two thousand years what would there have been to rejoice? Who from the ancient people would be left to rejoice? Paradoxiacally, our joy and sadness kept us us from becoming an ancient people: it ensured we would remain a timeless people. This joy and sadness were not opposites - they were extensions of G-d, of His eternity.
 
Children of the Holocaust indeed, a befitting memorial to the holy martyrs. May the All Merciful resurrect His Temple and us in time for this year's Tisha B'Av.

Don’t Psychoanalyze!

On the plane back to America, I was sitting next to a psychologist who mentioned to me how important it is for them to never psychoanalyze family members. One of the reasons: it’s not fair. Of course Jews were psychoanalyzing way before Sigmund invited people to lie on his couch, we just had no name for it.

For non-professional a greater danger is pseudo-analysis. “Oh, she always does that, she’s so compulsive.” “There he goes again with his bi-polar.” Worse: “The reason she always helps is because she’s eager to please, it’s her low self-esteem.” “You know why he gives so much Tzedakah, he needs to see his name on a building: typical megalomaniac!”
 
Says who? Is it that simple to know everything going on in someone else’s head? Are you always that accurate with what’s happening in your own head? Secondly, what difference does it make? A good act with bad intentions beats a bad act with good intentions -- and the pavement is a lot smoother.
 
Granted, giving it your best and things not succeeding the way you like is aggravating and unrewarding. We know that. And all G-d asks is that you do your best, the results are in His hands, we accept that. And that no action is ever wasted, good always accumulates, and whether results are immediately recognized or not is immaterial in the long run and from a G-dly, timeless (beyond quantum-physics) perspective redundant. We believe that. But that is not what we’re talking about.
 
Look at it this way: Guy A helps old lady cross street because, the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, she has a wealthy nephew etc. Guy B doesn’t help old lady cross street because the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, wealthy nephew and how dare you think he’s so shallow!! See, bottom line is, the lady needs help; your yin-yang harmony don’t do much. As the Kabala puts it: Love and awe are what make a mitzvah soar. A mitzvah without love and awe is a bird without wings. Love and awe without a mitzvah is wings without a bird. 
 
Okay, so action is it. But, can intentions be improved, sublimated, sanctified? Well, now you’re getting serious. But if your not just doing it, then you’re seriously not getting it.
 
The Parsha? When Pinchas acted decisively he was ridiculed because his grandfather, a pantheistic priest, had done similar: a plus-c’est-change chip off the old block in different circumstance. No, the Parsha begins, he did good, I alone know the inner workings of man, judge him primarily by what he does and unless you’re in the business, your couch is for people to sit on, and if your blessed with it, for overflow company to sleep on.
 

A Nation That Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you've seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth's land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations' condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.

I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.

That was the thought then, we would finally "take our rightful place amongst the family of nations". What happened?

America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.

"We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.

Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: "Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists" …There was an unspoken comfort in that - not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don't make us comfortable.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.

A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week's parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.

The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam - nearly three billion people - a numerical absurdity when you think of it.

But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family's particularism.

Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. "Alone we feel very ordinary" said one after the '67 war, "just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us."

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can't always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.

The Call of the Hero

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now twenty four years since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

President Dubya on his trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall.  Perspective you want?  Keep walking.

 

Torah’s Take on Fake News

Torah’s Take on Fake News: 
How to spot Fake News every time.

This week we read the Episode of the Spies (Numbers 13:1) -- everything you need to know to spot Fake News, whatever the source, whatever your politics.

1) Is this news necessary? 
The spies did not need to spy the Land of Israel. There was ample testimonial evidence that it was a good land and the Almighty had developed a solid reputation for delivering. This was less than eighteen months from plagues, splitting seas, etc.

News is a manufactured item with billions of marketing dollars expended to hook you. Nothing nefarious about that, every item in the supermarket has the same story. If you think twice before buying a two-ounce $10.99 bottle of infused basil, Tuscan-herb virgin olive oil, instead of an $8 half-gallon, think if you need this particular headline news. Is it newsworthy? Is it relevant? Do I really care? How come slow news days never lead to a thinner paper or a shorter broadcast? Because like any product, news agencies are fighting for the preservation and relevance. (BTW I wasn’t fair to infused oil.)

2) Do these news-people have a bias? 
The spies had motives in requesting this assignment; to dissuade the Jews from entering the Promised Land. They didn’t advertise that, but it was there.
Claims of objectivity are not dubious, they are lies. I have a subjective interest in everything, including city-council elections in South Myanmar -- in that case I want them out of my way so I can go back to my soap opera. IOW I’m not objective, my subjective position is indifference. Everyone has a worldview and that is nothing to be ashamed of -- if you are up front about it. Don’t listen to the story to find out what happened, listen to the story to find out what the medium wants you to believe happened.

3) Facts are misrepresented with opening lines. 
Opening phrases are misleading. The spies began their reportage with “it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but…” because every lie needs a grain of truth to be palatable for popular consumption.

4) Extraneous, negative comments set the tone. 
The Spies mentioned the Amalekites even though the Amalekites were not in the Promised land. Since the Jews had already had a terrifying encounter with this war-like people, it would cast the whole endeavor in a negative light.

It’s a trick that amateur gossipers also use regularly. Throw in a few titillating crumbs that have nothing to do with the alleged story; it will get tongues wagging – which is good for business.

5) Give the facts, then the story. The Spies brought the huge ripe fruit. Instead of allowing the fruits to speak for themselves of the lusciousness of the land, they turned the story into a negative: the peoples there are equally big and strong and little Jewish guys like us will be clobbered.

Facts are stubborn things, said John Adams. True that, but not to worry: facts are easily massaged into place. 
Joke: An the Israeli soldier was visiting the Washington Zoo when a baby fell into the lion’s den. The elite paratrooper jumped in and saved the baby, to the grateful tears of the mother and the applause of everyone there. The headlines the next morning was “Israeli Soldier Steals African Immigrant’s Lunch”.

6) Reporters project themselves on stories. 
“We felt like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes,” lamented the spies. Precisely. Because you saw yourselves as such, so they saw you.

7) nuff said.

 

Trust

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth”
Good idea generally, gift horses can be liabilities – expensive ones.
But if G-d is giving gifts, trust Him.
He is not a horse thief

If you don’t trust G-d, then you trust no one: who can you trust?
And ultimately, you don’t trust trust.
How could you get on a plane, if you don’t trust pilots’ licensing?
How could you cross the street if you trust no one to stop on a red light?
How can you buy food that isn’t poisoned?
 
Still, He allows you to verify his Truth.
But He doesn’t advise it:
If you’re lucky, you’ll confirm what He told you,
If you’re not you won’t be wiser, but you will be miserable.
 
But when you get a gift, He still wants you to check it out.
See how you will use it best: Is this a broodmare or a bloodhorse colt?
The spies in our parsha went to see if they will take the gift or not.
The spies a generation later went to see how best to take the land.
 
See how you can do the best job, not if you should take the job or not.
Look the gifts G-d gives you in the mouth. Then go win the race.
 
Moshe added the name of G-d to Joshua’s name.
Without the name of G-d, Joshua might have gotten more involved in the horse than the race.

HOW TO MAKE GREAT KIDS

Have you ever met someone truly great? A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in? If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.
 
Some forty years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times. He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered. Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”
 
The student, Jonathan Sacks, is Emeritus Chief Rabbi of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great). When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him. They asked what made him become a rabbi. He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge – started him on that road.
 
Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness. In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 
 
He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers. Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.
 
“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha. “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver. Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.
 
I am now raising my grandchildren’s parents. Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins. I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness. 

 

Individual Talents

 

This week's Parsha tells of twelve sets of gifts brought as offerings by each of the twelve shevatim (tribes). Although the Torah does not waste words, and although each shevet seemingly brought the same gift, the Torah repeats word for word the exact order of their donation - "Reuven gave..., Shimon gave..., etc.", rather than simply saying "Reuven, Shimon,... and Binyamin each gave..."

Each of the items symbolized different things to different shevatim, relating to that shevet's role. In this sense, each shevet brought a different flavor to their gifts.

All of the tribes conform to the same Divine guidelines, all follow the same Torah, yet each one carries out those very same deeds with their own personal approach.

We often see tension between conformity and creativity, between tradition and innovation. People ask why Judaism has to be so rigid and conforming. Where is creativity? On the one hand we need the foundation stones of our Jewish tradition; on the other, we need an outlet for our creativity, to personalize, to nurture our own individual talents.

Our Parsha tells us that this is not a contradiction. The entire nation, including individuals of every conceivable character and calling, can do the very same deed, down to every last detail, yet each person provides a unique flavor. Two people may do exactly the same thing in a very different manner.

In the same manner, we can live in a civilized society, governed by ethical and moral precepts, yet still thrive as individuals. We can follow Torah and carry out its Commandments, yet still remain true to our sense of individuality. No matter how conformist Judaism (or society, for that matter) may seem, there is always room for personal expression. It does not, however, have to involve rebellion or non-conformity. On the contrary, the greatest personal expression comes from different individuals who are following the same framework yet show diversity and individuality within that framework.

We were blessed with the framework of Torah, of Jewish teachings and practices. Let us endeavor to enjoy and celebrate our Judaism, in the traditions of our predecessors, yet with our own individual flavor - to keep it going for the next generation.

 

Beauty of the Desert

When you first come to the Desert you know it by what it doesn't have:

"Wow there are no trees!"
"No grass!"
"All you have here is rocks and sands!"

Often people feel it so bare and foreign they quickly cover the desert with green like the Amazon.

Later, sometimes, they see that the vastness of the desert has its own stark beauty. They see that this nothingness of the desert is really a lack of noise and distraction. And with all the distraction gone you can sense something that you never knew was there. And then you have fallen in love with the desert.

G-d too fell in love with the desert. The vastness and emptiness, where nothing calls away attention from Him. No water, no plants, no agriculture, no accomplishment and really no endeavor. Just Him.

He likes it when people appreciate the desert. In themselves. Notwithstanding accomplishment and gumption, simply realizing that in the face of Him there is no accomplishment, no endeavor large enough to be worthy of taking away from Him.

He loved the desert so much that he wanted to get married there. And he wanted his kalla-maiden to have that desert quality. "That you followed after me into the desert, a land where nothing grows".

So the Jewish people got married in the desert of Sinai and have a 600,000-word document to prove it. And this document they cherish. We got this at Sinai, they say, because they treasure where they got it too.

Now the Jewish people are again in the desert, part of the Jewish people. The Coachella, in my case. 

We see something more about the desert. We see that it is full of water, but the water is down below and we have to bring it up. The desert too now has room even for our accomplishment. And it still is vast and beautiful with a stark and awesome beauty.

Last Line on Curses

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