For Your Shabbat Table

Remebering our Beginnning



This is a story about love.

Of a forlorn forsaken girl,

Broken, humiliated and desecrated,

To the point that she saw herself

As deserving to be so.


And then, her hero savior

Showed up to her aid

And humiliated her tormentors

Slayed her pursuers and bid her

To follow him on an impossible journey

Through impassable hurdles.


And she followed.

She loved him.


And her loved her:

Choosing her though she was

Bare, emaciated, uncomely.

Yet, he wanted no other

For she was his true love.

In her elopement she took

Hardtack: a scarcely edible cracker



That sailors took on long sea-journeys

Though through the Desert did he lead her.

And he asked her that on their elopement anniversary

She again eats the hardtack

To remember her love for Him.

And this she does, the bride maiden,

For three thousand three hundred thirty-five anniversaries

And counting she remembers,

Re-enacts her love.


It hasn’t been a fairytale romance

There have been harsh bumps that threatened their trip direly.

But it has been a love story.

A story that began with love and has love throughout.

It is our story, and you are the main actor.

Share this matzah with fellow members of the tribe

Who may not have their own

And tell your children of the love that is now their own.


How the Experts Got It So Wrong

Historians know little about destiny, AKA history in foresight. Check Jewish encyclopedias, almanacs, theses, analyses and expositions published as recently as the 90’s and you will find minimal mention of the Rebbe or Chabad. However virtually all publications and studies of the past decade reflect the meteoric growth and ubiquitous presence of Chabad in every locale and feature of contemporary Jewish life. 

Why was the story missed by inarguably erudite and engaging professionals?
Largely because the story of Chabad was neither a story of an organization nor the development of a movement as much as a saga of the heart. How one person was so driven by love for Jews that his love shrank the globe. And that love was so contagious (the truest of love always is) that those who were caught up in it soon lost their ego-centric conceptions and were able to view others—even those different from them—with love. And love is acceptance of the beloved. This does not show up on graphs or trends or predictions.
I was born into a Chabad family. My parents and all four grandparents were devoted to the Rebbe, as their parents had been devoted to the preceding Rebbes of Chabad for generations. Which means don’t expect greatness from me: I am a spiritual trust-fund baby, and like conventional trust-fund babies we rarely produce the rags-to-riches drama that those born without achieve.
What I do have is my mother’s teaching, that without knowing what was you can’t know what is. When she was a girl, Chabad in America was largely confined to her parents' living room and less than a handful of similar homes. Alone, they kept embers of Chassidic ecstasy alive until the Rebbe’s father-in-law, his predecessor, arrived on these blessed shores to breathe life into their efforts. My grandfather, with his flowing white beard and long black caftan, frequented toy stores to choose rewards for the children who came to his home for his teachings and my grandmother’s gefilte fish.
From the enthusiastic assimilationists to the stoic traditionalists, all saw America as a lessening of tradition. The Rebbe counterintuitively concurred: this loss of tradition — and the nostalgia and inertia it often implied — would spark excitement in the generations who are encumbered by neither. 
Be flexible, the Rebbe instructed my Uncle Moshe when sending him to Minnesota in the ‘60s. Not flexible in what you stand for, but in your methods of achieving the goal. Synagogue dues never became the spine of Chabad shuls. Generation gaps were simply not recognized. Ideological differences became irrelevant. Only in retrospect can one see that a revolution was born.
I don’t know much about souls: what I do know is their effect. The Rebbe, who never took a day’s vacation, who probed a Rashi commentary until he made it glow, is the same Rebbe who sought the Jew in Dakar and the Jew in prison and the Jew around the corner.
Twenty-eight years ago the Rebbe passed and obituaries were written, for the Rebbe and more or less for the Chabad he bore. There was no prediction of astronomical growth. How could there be, unless one was looking at the love? 
We now have the benefit of hindsight, the blessing of history. It comes to us without effort. Destiny is not so available, it demands our input, our effort. Now, more than ever, we, this generation, need to discover and inculcate the Rebbe’s love for each other.

The picture that captured the story of our nation

The picture that captured the story of our nation
by Rabbi Uriel Vigler
Chabad Israel Center, NY

A powerful picture made the rounds on social media this week. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s certainly true here. In fact, this one picture captures the story of our nation—past, present, and future. 

As Israeli Col. Golan Vach and his crew worked alongside local rescuers to locate the bodies of a Jewish couple buried in the Champlain Towers debris, Vach noticed that many of the books he came across were from the Talmud. A photographer snapped the photo of him handing over several of the holy volumes to a South Florida Urban Search and Rescue team member, with the tremendous piles of rubble and dust in the background. The image soon spread across American Jewish social media and WhatsApp groups.

We are deeply pained by the loss of so many lives. Already 54 bodies have been found, and 80 remain missing. Each one has family and friends who love and miss them. The loss is immeasurable, and the heartache of those still waiting for news is overwhelming.  

And out of the devastation, what was rescued? The Torah. The Talmud. The central text of our nation, the people of the book. 

This is the story of our nation since time immemorial. What has kept us going throughout millenia of exile and persecution? The holy Torah. 

This week we begin the 9-day mourning period, culminating in Tisha B’Av, the day both our Holy Temples were destroyed, turned into piles of rubble and debris. For the last 2,000 years we have been in exile, pained and suffering, longing to be reunited. But one thing has kept us strong: the Torah, our book, our faith. 

In fact, when the Roman Emperor Vespasian was about to destroy the Temple, he granted the Jewish sage Rabbi Yochanan a single request. What did he ask for? He asked him to spare Yavneh—the city of learning—and its sages. This way, although the physical Temple was turned into rubble, the Torah knowledge and texts remained intact, able to serve as our source of strength for the last 2,000 years!

As a Jewish nation we have suffered so much for those 2,000 years. We have faced persecution after persecution, pogroms and tragedies. And what has kept us going and will continue to keep us going through this tragedy too? Our strong belief in G-d and His Torah. 

The pain of the Surfside collapse is tremendous! And while we reach to the Torah for comfort, we demand that G-d end this exile and all the tragedies immediately, with the coming of Moshiach and the ultimate Redemption. May He comfort the families of the Surfside victims together with all other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem!

 Pic Words.jpg

We Are All Surfside!

 We Are All Surfside
by Rabbi Uriel Vigler;
Chabad Israel Center, NY

When I think of a safe, comfortable place to live, one of the first places that comes to mind is Miami. No earthquakes, terrorists, or tragedy … just warm weather, blue skies, endless ocean, peace and quiet. It’s irresistible. And I know I’m not alone.

So when the Champlain Towers collapsed last week, the whole world was horrified. And we’ve been glued to the news ever since. Each time we receive the heartbreaking update about a body being discovered, we mourn with the victims and their families. And we feel the collective pain of those still waiting for any news of their missing loved ones, some of whom I know personally, and many of whom belong to the local Chabad community in Bal Harbor led by Rabbi Sholom Lipskar.

I tried to Google, “What are the odds of a building collapse in America?” and the only results were related to the Miami condo collapse. That’s how rare this tragedy is. There’s nothing to compare to, no history, no statistics.

We live in the US, not some third world country. We have building regulations and extensive know-how. Engineers know how to build structures that can withstand hurricanes, sea erosion, high air pressure, earthquakes, and more. And this is a modern building, built in the ‘80s.

None of the theories put forth so far can explain what happened. Theories such as cracks in structural columns, vibrations from construction next door, barrier island erosion, subsidence exacerbated by sea-level rise, sinkholes and seawater weakened structures all fail to adequately explain how a building can suddenly collapse in the middle of the night.

And yet, it happened. It’s a disaster that defies logic. Yes, we know that everything in the world comes from G-d, but this is one we can’t begin to comprehend. Why did this tragedy happen? And on the heels of so many similar tragedies in recent months: First, the deadliest civilian disaster in Israel’s history where 45 people were killed in the Meron crowd crush. Then two people died when a tiered seating structure collapsed in a synagogue in Givat Ze’ev, and 14 people fell to their deaths in the cable car disaster in Italy.

But just as the tragedy is beyond our understanding, the cure will also defy nature and logic. Even though experts say the chances of finding anyone alive at this point are virtually nil, still we pray and hope and hold out.

We know our Heavenly Father can perform miracles. Millions of pounds of metal have already been removed from the scene. Israeli teams have flown in. And while the work remains painfully slow, we remain hopeful.

As Jews, we don’t give up. As long as there is the minutest chance that someone will be found alive, we continue to hope, to pray, and to demand a miracle from G-d.

This is the story of our nation. A nation which has persevered throughout millennia, remaining optimistic in the face of terror and devastation. That’s our heritage, and it now stands us in good stead. Let’s storm the heavens and demand that G-d perform a miracle and rescue all the people who are still trapped. Pick a mitzvah to do in their merit and start immediately.

We pray for G-d to rebuild the Temple, bring Moshiach, and wipe away our tears. That will be the final and ultimate cure for all our suffering.

When The World Fell silent

When The World Fell Silent 
Rabbi Mendy Lew, Stanmore, UK

As Shabbat ended last week, the terrible and tragic news quickly filtered through of the demise of former Chief Rabbi Sacks. In recent weeks, even as news of his wellbeing became more and more ominous, we continued praying for him and for his recovery. We hoped. We believed. 

It was not to be. 

Some years ago, he remarked that the possibility of death was not theologically challenging to him. He believed passionately that one’s journey in this world ends when G-d deems the individual as completing his, or her, unique mission. Not a moment sooner. Not a moment later. Last Shabbat, G-d summoned our beloved teacher, mentor and friend back home. 

There has been understandable sorrow throughout the Jewish community, in this country and beyond. There has also been an outpouring of grief by non-Jews all across the world. His powerful arguments and reasonings in defense of goodness and integrity crossed all boundaries.

He was rightly acknowledged as a gifted orator and writer, whose writings and lectures profoundly touched all. He could capture any occasion and immediately put it in the right context and framework. His brilliant essays and wise words were highly sought after. In a world of confusion and disorder, his message resonated as the voice of reason and clarity, an expression of morality, and a call to justice.

His energy and spirit, his belief in the future, his embrace of modern technology, his ability to see others and to trust them, his fairness, his humility, his determination and his undoubted, extraordinary, talent and intellect were awesome, and enabled him to connect with all ages and all types. He saw the humanity in each person. Nothing else mattered. 


Standing by the coffin on Sunday, powerful emotions were swirling through my mind. Due to current government regulations, the crowd was sparse - limited to close family members and a number of communal figures. It would not be unreasonable, in normal circumstances, to have expected a mass gathering well into four figures. 

It seemed most unfair, improper, disrespectful even.  

At the same time, there was something intensely compelling. It was peaceful, quiet and calm. In some strange and mysterious way, the tranquil setting only served to amplify the greatness of the man. In the hushed gathering, one could focus on how a mere mortal could rise so majestically high. 

It was specifically this emotional setting which prompted Rabbi Rosenfeld to break out into the moving melody from Psalm 63: “My soul thirsts for You”. Reminding us all of the epitaph for which Rabbi Sacks himself yearned - that he was one who thirsted for G-d.

Since we all innately believed that Rabbi Sacks was one of ours, it is easy to forget that he was also a private citizen. Away from the adoring crowds, the doting masses and the loving community was a man trying to be a good husband, father and grandfather. This was not lost on me during the funeral, where the family were granted their final opportunity to be alone with their beloved patriarch. 

It is also what prompted a particular conversation between Rabbi Sacks and me to come flooding back. 


But, first, a brief history:

I feel privileged that Rabbi Sacks played an essential part in my life since my early childhood. Being close to my parents, there were many memorable interactions between Rabbi Sacks and Elaine, and my own parents and family.

In 1992, when I entered the Rabbinate in this country, I attended the customary interview by Rabbi Sacks - the newly installed Chief Rabbi. As I entered his office, I realized that our relationship was about to change - forever. My longstanding friend was about to become my teacher, my mentor and my guide. 

It was not a downgrade. On the contrary. It deepened the existing bonds. It opened up a channel of communication, which would go a long way into helping mold me and shape me - utilizing my own unique gifts and talents. 

Which brings me back to the particular interaction, which popped up during the funeral.

Chief Rabbi Sacks had been explaining to me the effect of a Rabbi on his congregation. He illustrated his point with the well-known prayer and song from the Yom Kippur Mussaf service: “Mareh Kohen” (the appearance of the High Priest). 

The prayers on Yom Kippur afternoon describe in vivid and graphic detail the sublime and magnificent service of the Main Kohen in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There was high drama and awe-inspiring moments. 

The highlight of the service was the Main Kohen’s entry into the Holy of Holies. The entire edifice was holy. Only select people could enter and perform. But the Holy of Holies, where the Holy Ark was placed, was of so sacred a nature that no one was ever permitted to enter, under penalty of Divine retribution. It was the chosen place, in this physical and material world, for G-d’s spirit to rest. 

Yom Kippur was the exception. On this precious and sacred day, the Kohen Gadol was required to enter and pray on behalf of the people. In that tiny physical space - where Heaven and Earth literally come face-to-face - the Main Kohen would beseech and plead with the Almighty that the people should be granted forgiveness, and that the world should enjoy good health, stability and economic success.

Upon his safe exit, the people would look at him intently - ‘Mareh Kohen’. They waited expectantly on his reassurance that the coming year would be a good one. For them, their families, and for the Jewish people. And indeed for the entire world.

Rabbi Sack’s point was that while the people looked at the kohen Gadol in awe and admiration, they were also trying to assess his inner mood. Was he optimistic, confident and hopeful - expressed with a smile and a calm demeanor? Was he worried and concerned - reflected by the opposite?

‘Mareh Kohen’ - the appearance of the Kohen - according to Rabbi Sacks was vital to the confidence and mood, and the mental wellbeing, of the people. His positive and upbeat body language would remove any anxiety and help to raise their spirits. 

Knowing how much it meant to the masses, the Kohen always made a point of carrying himself with joy. His portrayal of confidence and optimism would go a long way in ensuring that the people kept their sanity and focused on their own personal growth and opportunity.

In the excellent Koren-Sacks Yom Kippur Machzor (page 900) Rabbi Sacks concludes this point as follows: “At critical moments the appearance of the leader shapes the mood of the nation.” 

All those years ago, he reminded me of this point. The Rabbi is the face of the congregation. He is the leader of his particular ‘nation’. If he remains upbeat and confident, the community follows suit. This remains the challenge to any Rabbi in what can often be a very lonely place.


A year or two after that interaction it was my turn to ask Rabbi Sacks a follow-up question. A personal one. 

“At critical moments the appearance of the leader shapes the mood of the nation.” I wanted to know if, away from the public eye, this also applies to the man of the house? 

Behind closed doors, a husband’s mood will determine if it’s a happy abode, or one filled with dread and gloom. 

A father’s countenance when he enters the home will either bring soothing and calm to the children, or fear and terror. 

Does the man of the house have a responsibility to what goes on in his private space? Does he have a moral obligation to always be upbeat, calm and pleasant so that the home is a warm environment in which one can flourish, develop and grow?

Rabbi Sacks gave me one of his irrepressible smiles. He didn’t need to say another word. The implication was clear: the inner sanctity of home life is, in many ways, even more vital for a mood to be set. 

In the Holy of Holies - which is marriage - the High Priest, the husband, must utilize intense sensitivity, compassion and kindness if the sacred edifice and space is to remain firm, strong, warm and loving. 

As a father, he must be equally gentle and compassionate in the home so that the children can live healthily, in an atmosphere of love and embrace, and to be fortified with emotional stability.


That interaction came flooding back to me on Sunday. 

The world knows and acknowledges how much Rabbi Sacks was a leader for our time. How he almost singlehandedly lifted individuals, communities and societies by his sheer presence, confidence and belief. 

The world knows how much our own High Priest found the inner resolve and motivation to help our lost generation find its equilibrium and balance. To elevate us on his journey of optimism and belief. 

The world accepts how much toil and tears he invested for our future. That the traditions of the past be fused with modernity to create a model looking forward with confidence and faith.

Because Rabbi Sacks believed that: “At critical moments the appearance of the leader shapes the mood of the nation.” 

On Sunday, the second part of the equation was laid bare for all to see. Especially with the moving and powerful words by his younger daughter, Gila, who shared a little of the warm and cozy climate at home. How much they benefitted from him being their father - away from prying eyes.

Yes, Rabbi Sacks was indeed a High Priest to his family - creating a loving and warm home where marriage, affection and love could sparkle and glow, and where their children could find the space to develop and grow. 


When a loved one passes away, the mourner needs to summon up the strength to appreciate the loss, and to value the contribution of that individual to one’s life. How much effort and toil is dispensed to allow the journey of life to unfold.

When a Chief Rabbi passes away, we as a community must do the same. To summon up the strength to appreciate the loss, and to value the contribution of the Chief Rabbi to one’s life. How much effort and toil he dispensed to allow our religious and spiritual journey to unfold.

The best and most appropriate manner to remember the great man, Rabbi and friend is to grow in our learning - and in our Jewish identity.

We should also actively work towards becoming good role models to others, and especially to those in our immediate circle. To be kind, caring, understanding and loving. To be fair and honest, with love, sweetness and compassion.

After all: “At critical moments the appearance of the leader shapes the mood of the nation.” 

May the family of Chief Rabbi Sacks find true comfort and consolation. May we as a community find the same.

From Splitting Seas to Entebbe, from Soothsayers to UN Councils

From Splitting Seas to Entebbe, from Soothsayers to UN Councils

Behold a people! These are a people unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled. They will not be spoken of in military academies for years to come; they will confound military academies forever. So spoke he who hates Jews three millennia ago, so (dares not) speak the one who hates Jews today. 

Six days in June, their air force flew less than fifteen feet above the sea, without radio communication. Were they a few inches too low they would have sunk. Were they a few inches too high, the radar would have picked them up. All the planes made it. They came unto the airfields where the pharaohs once ruled; had they come moments earlier or moments later the sun would not have blinded the watchtower’s eyes.  But the sun was just so, and they destroyed Egypt within minutes.

They analyzed through satellite the desert that bears the name of the mountain that gave them their destiny, and there they found in the Sinai a strip of terrain just firm enough and just wide enough to cross the desert with their heavy tanks.   Now all they needed was a tank battle. To displace tanks it takes a minimum of three to one ration in favor of the attacker. But the children of Israel had the ratio of three to one against them. Mathematicians out there! what were the odds against the Jews? But they won.

And less than ten years later again, only this time it is my memory, not only my fascination, that leads my quest to delve into the eye of G-d Himself. I was twelve that summer and in New York. Shopping either in the Lower East Side or Boro Park, I do not know. I had just devoured an orange and vanilla ice cream popsicle, my fourth of the day. They were a quarter or less and I kept on getting change from my father as he sat in the parked car reading while my mother shopped – as he always did. 

It came through on a radio playing by an open shop on that hot day; a plane was hijacked with loads of Israelis. Air France Flight 139 on route to Paris. And a day or two later, in my grandparents Besonhurst home, a call from Nashville came. One of the ladies in shul, Elise Rosenberg --my friend Ari’s mother – had a sister on that flight. I don’t know her sister’s name but as I got older and went to Morocco and returned to share my two-years of memories with Elise, I got a fuller picture of this woman. Born in Fez, to the prestigious and ancient Assouline family, she like many North African Jews had lived in both Israel and France and had family in both countries and traveled between them. 

Elsie was fasting every day and saying Tehillim for her sister. By the time my parents hung up the phone with her, I went from being worried the way a boy is worried when he hears disturbing news to being obsessed the way only a boy can be. We went into Shabbos with the question: will the government of Israel negotiate or not? There were hot opinions around the table, my father, my grandfather, and everyone else. And then Motzei Shabbos leaving my grandfather’s Avenue O Jewish Center, where O meets Bay Parkway, we heard the radio again and rushed home to hear the full reports. They were saved!! And I still remember my mother punching both fists in the air like a boxer who won the championship. I have since devoured every morsel of information I could get on that story. It was an unprecedented maneuver and in the three-decades plus since, it remains unparalleled.

The next morning of course was the Bicentennial and I had been waiting for this since we arrived in New York. We got a good spot under the Verrazano to watch the big ships from across the world pay homage to the Red White and Blue. A man was hawking commemoration issue booklets for $2.00: “they’ll be worth a lot a hundred years from now!” The fire-ships let out jets of water in celebration and the Italians (seemingly everyone there except us) roared when the red white and green passed under the bridge. The next day you could board the ships. The Israeli ship was packed: old ladies were crying and young men were reverently fingering the flag and an old lady admonished a strapping young sailor not to stand too close to the edge of the ship: ”you could fall in!” and he smiled, glad to know his grandmother had sent her sisterhood to look after him. 

And the Rebbe spoke of this miracle:

Within a week the UN of course was meeting to. . .what else than condemn Israel for invading a sovereign country.. . .

Behold a people, these people are unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled. From where do they draw their strength, asked this figure in the Bible? And those who knew the Rebbe at the time had a surprisingly nuanced answer: he has not military might at all, do not try to defeat him with force for he has none. He gains his power from his speech (interestingly, he had a speech defect) so you too must vanquish him with speech. Back then they hired soothsayers; since no one knows where to find a good one, they hire ad agencies and think tanks instead. And they curse the Jewish people; sometimes for cash, sometimes for accolades -- an oftentimes more effective means of purchase. . .

And this soothsayers curses turn into blessings. Beautiful, poetic blessings, stirring and heartwarming. 

I see them from the hilltops. . a nation that dwells alone . . .

. . . who can count the infants of Jacob? . . .

. . . (The Almighty)  observes no evil in Jacob, no transgression in Israel. . .

. . . a people that arise like an awesome lion and does not lie down til he eats his prey.

So it was and so it is. As they curse us our blessings flourish, as they hate us we become beloved.

How goodly your tents O Jacob, like gardens by the river, cedars by the water.

And the op-ed page continues speaking of the future: 

. . .a star will shoot forth from Jacob, a staff shall arise from Israel. . .

The people who invented history , invested history, will outlive it. 

We live in trying times – just like our grandparents did – just as our grandparents’ grandparents did – only we thought we wouldn’t have to. Now they curse the Jew by calling him a Nazi, books are written claiming the Jewish people do not exist. And other books are written claiming that if they do exist they are responsible for all that is horrible. The spoken word, the written word, the Jews weapon, turned upon him.

Miracles in biblical proportion defy nature, seas split, clefts reform to squash hiding soldiers, and the sun stands still. The spoken word in that epoch too has a power outside of our frame of reference. Soothsayers curse. But now military miracles can be assessed (if not understood) with conventional lexicon, and the power of the pen and the passion of the poet is inherent in every revolution known to man. Our miracles then, are more earth-bound, they stretch the elasticity of nature without rupturing it. But when you take in the whole picture of our people’s existence – just within the time span of my life! –you are overwhelmed by the miracle called Jews. Did I mention the first Gulf War? (Thirty-nine scuds destroyed thousands of homes that were filled with people and no casualties!?! Had I claimed that would happen one month before it happened, I would have been locked up in the fully farm.) Jewish toddlers gather at the Kremlin to sing Shma?!?

From curses come our greatest blessings. We are grateful O L-rd.  But frankly we are also tired. That thing about a star shooting forth from Jacob? . . . could you speed that up a little bit? Please? And until then, those boys we have to send out to make those logic-defying military victories possible, can you please make sure they come home to their mothers? 

I meant to pay homage to the land I was born in, the land that gives bigotry no sanction, the land with an ethos unprecedented in history, the land that I love with a love born in gratitude. But I realize now I can only take care of this country by taking care of the Jews.



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 more than twenty five 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 a 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.


What's With The Bow & Arrow?

Have you ever shot a bow and arrow? I haven’t. In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’omer. But they never took us. Archery by proxy.

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews). The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields. If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows. (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.)

A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat. But he doesn’t have a long flowing beard; he doesn’t have any beard at all. In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows.

In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?) took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.  

One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out. The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page. He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night. And for the next day. Luckily he was released to his parents. He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland. But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out.

So I have been told. I never asked the lookout to verify the story. I’m glad my kids can learn outside of basements and take scheduled breaks to play red light green light. And on balance, even though I’d rather have shot bows and arrows, I’ll even forgive those teachers who took us on archery-deprived picnics.

Humanity in the Depths of Inhumanity

It was in the depths of inhumanity, wrote survivor Gerta Klein, that she glimpsed humanity. A friend in Bergen Belsen presented her with a green-leaf-garnished raspberry. Other survivors tell of Jews with nothing to offer would huddle others close to them to shield them from winter winds.

It was the gulag that threatened Russian Jewry. It was the gulag that sparked a nearly mystical inspiration in American Jews a world away.

Kedoshim tehiyu – you shall be holy --  ki Kodosh Ani – for I am holy -- begins the Parsha, and sinks from this mystical high to the abyss of descriptive, decidedly unholy and proscribed alliances.

Holiness there cannot be, while engaged in depravity. But depravity’s potential is what makes us holy. In other words, you can’t become anything in a tissue box. To be cool, calm and collected when nothing aggravates is no big trick. To be cool, calm and collected in the heat of rage is a big holiness.

Me ma’amakim – from the depths I cry out to You, O God, cried David. Shuls were once built sloping downwards towards the front. The chazzan lead from below. From there can you cry out and that cry can lead.

A holy raspberry in Bergen Belsen moves us: is it far from suburban life? Reb Mendel, upon release from the gulag, came to America. Riding along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway he took in Manhattan’s skyline. “Here,” he laughed seriously (as only Reb Mendel could) it is really hard to be a good Jew.”

Do what comes naturally! exult the free-spirited. Sing barefoot along the seashore! Barefoot singing is natural, and benign. But as someone who regrets their lost temper knows, natural can be malignant. To never know from temper is inhuman. To let loose your temper – hence lose – is human failure. To control the temper is holy.

To control the urges too, states the parsha, is holy. Not every nature was meant to be expressed; subjugation is its purpose, its positive force, its holiness.

“Indulge the senses” sounds better than “a pig wallowing in the mud” only because we are partial to ourselves and to our mud. We don’t become freer or truer when we indulge; we become muddied. And the more muddied we become, the more difficult to discern malignant mud from benign mud.

Kedoshim tehihyu, you were not meant to be muddied. We have to trek thought the stuff or we could never get to shul. Without the mud we could never know the raspberry.




Something real. I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists. 
Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff. 
Which I don’t need to: I have enough real things around me. 
Especially toys: big toys because I’m a big kid. 
And lots of toys, because “the one who dies with most toys wins” and I want to win.

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters. People call me lucky. 
As long as I’m sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters. People call me lucky.As long as I’m drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters. Unless I wake up.

And because I might wake up, those who aren’t drunk and high feel sorry for me. 

Are they right, or am I?
“Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs” a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.
So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, I am. . . lucky? Well yes, maybe.

Because there is something other than toys. 
Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence):
Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing)
Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy.
If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.

Now I wake up to a whole new world. 
Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life. 
New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new. 
Not “new to me”: new. My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything. 

He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different. 
Something new. 
(Torah speaks of the “new moon”, not because the-ancients-believed-that-the-moon-actually-disappeared-on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back, -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, particularly Jews, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)

Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it – something stirring inside of me. Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.
This week’s entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah. If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world. They only resonate in a land beyond toys. And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don’t operate as well in this other world. In this super-rational view from above.  

But I don’t have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with these concepts helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys. 

Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren’t superficial or dimensional. We only think toys are us. Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up. To the real world.

Chametz vs. Matzah

Chametz vs. Matzah

Matzah. Thin, flat bread: either identical, square-shaped crackers if they are machine-made, or round, varying personalities if they are baked in the original fashion. 

Bread. Soft, light, fluffy sponge-like substance that almost melts when you put it in your mouth. White on the inside and perfectly crusted on the outside.   

What is the difference between them? Their ingredients are identical (as long as the bakery eschews additives, colorants, preservatives).   The difference is air. Little puffs of this intangible element are trapped in the bread’s dough. They try forcing themselves out, upwards, and force the dough to expand. Remove the air, and matzah and bread -- chametz -- become indistinguishable.

“Why is this night different form all other nights?” The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is one of the most stringent decrees in all of Torah. Pork, shrimp, stolen goods, none of these forbidden foods must be eradicated from one’s home the way chametz must be. Only idols and their accessories are judged so severely. If the only difference between matzah crackers and Wonder bread is . . . air, then what is the big deal with air? And why particularly on Pesach is it an issue?

Two individuals. Both are equally gifted: equally bright, charming, wealthy and healthy. One is modest and one is a megalomaniac. What is the difference between them? Nothing. Air. Luft, as we call it in Yiddish. A overbearing sense of self which puffs up one’s self-image. It distorts reality. Ego has no relation to actual self-worth or awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Ego is a condition where self becomes all-consuming. Like a fireplace without a chimney, such a person has no escape valve for bloated subjectivity. It fumes inside, doing irreparable harm. 

Look at the letters comprising the words chametz and matzah. The mem and tzadi they both share. It is the heh and chet that separates them. Chet and heh themselves are virtually identical, only the heh, matzah’s letter, has an opening at the top. A chimney to allow some of the Me Generation out and afford room for a more realistic vision. It may be just a small hole on top: that is all that is necessary for Teshuva to begin its work.

Yet self can have its advantages too. It can build a strong character, something which has come in handy in two thousand years of exile. But self-worth must be founded on something real and enduring. Something purposeful, not a flimsy mood-swinging ego. Self worth means knowing that each of us was created for a certain reason, a purpose to be accomplished solely by you. Once we destroy ego, in a process we call Pesach, we are capable of self worth. On Shavuot, fifty days later, it is already a mitzvah to have chametz. 

A healthy self-image is one based on purpose and devoid of ego. It is not as easy as it sounds to separate the two and destroy one of them. It is understandable that when Pesach comes around we’re tired. But we are also gratified. We’ve removed all chametz; all that remains is a clean slate and a simple, flat cracker: the bread of Faith

Terms of Endearment

This last week you’ve been together with people whom you certainly  love very deeply, but whom you are rarely together with for so long or so consistently.  Many a meme-worthy moment that makes.  You’ve also been separated from people whose company you may or may not appreciate but whom you need to make contact with if your business enterprise is to stay afloat and weather this storm.                                                                                                                                                  

Inevitably, both aspects of isolation make one consider communication, or as Oxford experts put it: “the imparting or exchanging of information or news”.  Oxford would do well to consider the Latin original communicare, to share.

There is the utilitarian function of communication of getting information from Point A to Point B but this is not the heart of communication.  At all.

Our Parsha, our weekly Torah rhythm, is referred to as Vayikra, which means And He called.  He, meaning G-d, called to Moses.  And certain that we’d miss the nuance, the classical Rashi offers that Vayikra is a term of endearment.  Endearment: the way angels call to each other.  Which begs the question:  I don’t know much about angels (I’m far from one) but I know they are not winged, caped, haloed fairies.  Rather they are beings not defined by time, space or much of what constitutes the human condition.  So, why do they need to “call’ each other? “Hey Raphael, can you send over some healing potion?  You were late on last month’s order!”

The heart of communication- its purpose really - is to foster love.  This is why angels call to each other.  This is how G-d called to Moses and this is fundamentally how He wants us to call to whomever we call.  While in isolation, use Effective Communication Methods and other self-help books (note whom these books are designed to benefit) as doorstops.  Take out Vayikra.   

Rabbi Pam, to whom many turned with their marital issues, reflected that if husbands and wives would stop calling each other from one room to another and instead walk to the room where their spouse is before calling them, half the cases that come before him would disappear.

In isolation distractions are lessened.  With focus, our terms of endearment can be heightened. And our blood pressure lowered.

Isolation - We're All in this Together!

Everyone must be in isolation. Everyone.  Isolated.  Do you catch that counter-intuitive dual dynamic?  Isolation does not work unless everyone is unified in separating.  Nor does isolation work if an individual decides to "do his own thing".  So we can only operate as individuals if we join common cause to do so.  We can only be alone if we are together and we can only be together if we are alone.  

Those who follow the weekly Parsha rhythm are amused, or amazed, that this dynamic is accentuated in this week's double-Parsha, the last two Parsha of exodus.  Vayakhel, as the penultimate parsha is called, means to assemble, that Moses must gather the people together before addressing them, not simply for the practical aspect of 'hear ye! hear ye!' but because when we gather as one we are more sensitive to the message.  And the last Parsha (the ultimate one) Pequdei, speaks of the detail, the individual.  

We are viable individuals only if we are of the same purpose, in our totality.  We are only together if we maintain our individuality.  And with this message, the Rebbe reminds us, we conclude the Exodus -- from Egypt certainly, but the ultimate Exodus too, when all mankind will be of one mind and heart.  He will gather us in.  One by one.  Together.

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

Why did Bubby always say that? And does it really have to do with the evil eye? Is this evil eye a cousin of walking under ladders with black cats on the Friday the thirteenth? The answers, in order, are: Because she loved you. Yes, but with an explanation. No.

Kenahora, although everyone thinks is a Yiddish word is actually three words slurred together in Yinglish – the vibrant language of Native Americans of the Lower East Side: kein, the Yiddish word for no or negating, ayin Hebrew for eye, and hara, Hebrew for Evil.

Now think back to when she used it: “Such a sheine punim, kenahora.” “You’ve grown, kenahora.” “He’s making money hand over fist, kenahora.” (you should only be so lucky) 

I have a friend in, well, I’m not saying where they’re from, because I want to protect myself from what will happen if I don’t protect their anonymity. They make in the seven-digits a year (kenahora). They drive a five-year-old station wagon. He once told me why she insisted on it. Their neighbors don’t have as much, and their neighbors’ neighbors have even less (and they’re still not slumming, mind you). If she gets a new car then her neighbor will be compelled to keep up -- and her neighbor likewise. Somewhere down the line someone is going to be hurting from racing too hard. She doesn’t want that frustration to be caused by her. And not for purely altruistic reasons.

Hashem gives us things. Hashem does not give others these same things. This can and does cause jealousy, an unvoiced “Why does she deserve it?” and somewhere on High that energy does not dissipate. It gravitates, and brings into question “Maybe she doesn’t deserve it after all?”

Those-who-have-don’t-show doesn’t have to be grounded in smugness. We don’t want that our good fortune should accentuate what others are missing. Which is why boasting is unJewish. And why when something said could be seen as boasting, it is hurriedly whispered and sandwiched between kenahoras and pu-pu-pu’s. 

The pu-pu-pu, incidentally, is spitting noises. Spitting as if in disgust. It’s an appropriate Yiddishism: when you see an exceptionally beautiful child you say “Miyuskeit! Pu!” (“Disgusting!”)  

Asking Jewish grandmothers how many grandchildren they have can risk a faux pas. While some won’t hesitate to blurt out a number, others will fidget and mumble. Putting a number on a blessing is considered bad taste.

You might also notice when men are counting a Minyan they won’t count one-two-three but do something more convoluted.

Think it originated in Eastern Europe? This parsha begins with the warning not to count people directly. (There is another reason not to count directly; it negates the quality of Infinite in the person, but that’s for another time.) 

See how much your Bubby loved you?

The Night The King Couldn't Sleep

Sleep is not a delicate or romantic. We slobber. We belch. We mess up freshly-pressed linen. We mutter senseless, groggy drivel. And all those contour pillows, satin duvets, imported headboards and lacy skirting -- try as they might -- can’t hide the fact that we, thinking, sensitive, provocative, insightful, caring individuals, have by way of sleep morphed into embarrassing slobs.

And yet, we need sleep. Deprived of it, our bodies simply demand it: the eyes refuse to see, or even stay open; the ears cease to transmit data. As does the nose, as does the tongue as do millions of the body’s sensors. The body shuts them down because important work has to be done: every cell discards its waste and simultaneously rejuvenates. Think of it as your neighborhood supermarket: they close the doors to customers for a time to wash the floors, restock the shelves and count the money you’ve given them. Without this down time the store cannot function at optimal level, if it functions at all. Without consistent, adequate sleep we fall apart, slowly but surely: degeneratively.

Still, sleep feels like a waste of time. It is the least dignified part of our day. Our bodies are all that is working, our minds, our sensitive side, our spiritual quests are all but dead.  Or so it seems.

Life for us is asleep. We primarily feel the immediate need of our digestive systems, not our spiritual system. Our stomachs, our businesses occupy the vast majority of our time and thought; our spiritual journeys are inside books or for the books. The word reality conjures physical need, not religious endeavor. That is the way it is.

Because, well, we are asleep. That is how the Psalmist and the Talmudist see our state of life: exile. We are asleep.   And so is the Almighty, as it were. We don’t see his connection with us other than in a groggy haze – and primarily as Facilitator-of-All-My-Needs Deity. 

It is evident that we are asleep. But we are also sleepers. We will be awakened one day to a different reality. It all sounds a bit, well, dreamy. But then reality usually sounds dreamy when I am asleep.

“On that night the kings slumber was shaken,” cites the story of Esther. The obvious reference is to the wicked king who decreed death to the Jews. He couldn’t sleep at all that night until he remembered that he owed his life to a Jew. That was the beginning of the happy end, or, perhaps, the end to a scary beginning. 

But the king who couldn’t sleep at all that night is reference too, to a King on high. Whose connection to his people below resembled the soul’s connection to the body when the body sleeps. Disconnected. Not present. Or present but only in a limited, paradoxical way: the lack of spirit highlights the function of body -- and its connection to something beyond the body.

Sweet dreams. And wake up to something even sweeter. 

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.