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For Your Shabbat Table

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

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

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

Lechaim to Chutzpah!

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

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

Two Rabbis, One Shul

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

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

What is Your Name?

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

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

Live With Death; Die With Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh draydel, draydel, draydel

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

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

Did the Maccabees really win?

Did the Maccabees really win? Should they have? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens. Everything good and beautiful in Western culture (the world in any modern, real sense) has its roots in Greece. Art, poetry, Hippocrates, architecture, sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Can you think of anything more pleasant than a sound mind and body? I defy you.

Even the memory of the Maccabees is a tribute to Athens. Maccabiah, the sports competition that for decades has brought together Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek; the construction of a gymnasium in Jerusalem led –in large measure- to the Maccabean revolt. Every Jewish basketball team named the Maccabees - a name synonymous with Jewish pride – is a vindication of Athens over Jerusalem of the Greeks over the Maccabees. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but as stubborn a fact as a fact can be.
 
Do we not identify with sound-mind-sound-body? Is this not even a quest for most people? Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why then, do those who insist they are “secular” Jews, those who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews bring into their Temple, why do they celebrate Chanukah? Why then, in homes where every empirical vestige of Jewish identity and survival has been cleared from the home to a degree that would make a chametz-searching balabuste green with envy, why in these homes, where no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown is the menorah lit?
 
Yes, I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before that reality the Good Books spoke of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays -- will never be forgotten.
 
Chanukah makes no sense; even the Sages of the Talmud remark that from a legal, halachic standpoint, the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days etc. 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 too well the threat not only of the malicious Greeks, but also of the theoretically benign Hellenists. And this devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. That sound body/mind was a connection between one and the other but offered no ladder to the soul. That without the strife of the spirit, the entrance of the soul into daily conscience, the body and mind are more at peace, like the animals in pasture, but void the purpose of He who created heaven and earth.
 
Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. Not then; as the menorah was being lit, cruse lasting eight days etc., (The fighting continued 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 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 there will be no glitz to diminish the flame, only to add to it luster. 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 waver.

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. 
 

Becoming Fathers to Our Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Made in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas and Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hebrews Not Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teddy Bear or Eagle: America, What Are You?

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

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

Don't be Consumed by Crisis

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

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

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