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For Your Shabbat Table

Why Are you Going to Yom Kippur Eve Services?

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

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

When You Least Expect It

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

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

The Other Rock

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

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

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

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

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

Arabs kick in the shul’s windows. 

They take a sledgehammer to the pillars. 

Hoards overrun the place with bloodthirsty shrieks. 

In the name of G-d. 

In the name of national pride. 

In the name of the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps we should abide them.

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

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

And the image of the Divine would be defaced.

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

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

Worse yet, he too would be conquerable.

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

And they will act appropriately. 

In the name of G-d.

In the name of the future.

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

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

Such is the mandate of the faith to believe. 

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

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

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

Witches, Black Cats, Bulls and Planes

Black cats don’t bother me any more than white or brown ones do. The thirteenth floor is fine as long as the elevator is working. Horoscopes remain unread -regardless of whether we Tauruses need to think bull market or bear. 

So I read this parsha’s admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now. Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 
Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 
Thou shalt not read omens.
Wait, it’s starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant. I don’t read horoscopes largely because I think they’re bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday’s Gemini for Thursday’s Capricorn. But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles.
But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.
What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips? They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control. And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers.
At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive. “Our sole purpose,” exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, “is to give Judaism a decent burial.” He wasn’t being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available. Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit.
These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right. They were dead wrong – in hindsight. Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 
Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured. You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is. You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon: Bashert
Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie. Perhaps in more avenues that one. Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew. The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye. Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe’s successors.
Not that you’re relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting. Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors. But if you checked the monitors, don’t roll balls or whatever down the aisle. Enjoy your flight. To wherever. It’s all bashert. All good. All the time.

For Hashem your G-d will bless you

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

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

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.


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.


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.


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