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For Your Shabbat Table

Don't Become a Product Of Your Surroundings

My father was raised in the Old Country, in a place called Nujoisy, in the town of Elizabeth. His parents had come there from Israel, where he was born. They had come to Israel from Russia shortly before his birth: they had left Russia after my grandfather's father was murdered in a pogrom. My grandfather's family -- grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins -- had already been in America for a generation.

When my grandmother would get together with the extended family, she would pack a kosher lunch: they quickly nicknamed her "Sanviches". In the streets of her Jewish neighborhood, older kids would snatch the yarmulkes off the heads of her young sons -- my father and my Uncle Laibel. A sneer is not a lesser challenge than a pogrom.

The Frierdiker Rebbe, the Rebbe of that time, had just escaped the Bolshevik's death penalty and was visiting America. My grandmother took her two little boys to see him. She walked into the room and burst into tears. "How am I supposed to raise Jewish kids in aza shverre lant, such a hard land?" 

"It is truly a hard country, zayer a shverre lant," the Rebbe agreed, "a very hard land. But you will raise good, Yiddishe, chassidishe kinder in this country." 

Several years later, my father and his brother, by then teenagers, were with the Frierdiker Rebbe. Everything must be reckoned relative to the time and place where you are, he told them. Your father came from a very different place than you are now. It would not be fair to compare yourselves to him. But you also can't become a product of your surroundings. You must produce your surroundings. You're not boys from the streets. Look up to your father, live towards your father. 

My father and his brother still live towards their father.The Frierdiker Rebbe spoke to them in the early Forties.I first heard the story in the early Seventies, and have heard it dozens of times since. When either of them tells the story, you could think it happened ten minutes ago. 

"These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac". The parsha seems repetitive until Rashi distinguishes the convergent energies vital to education: children living towards their parents, parents living for their children. Sandwiched in between is nachas: yiddishe, chassidishe nachas

Gaining Insight Into Attaining the Divine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Look into the eyes of someone who has gazed upon the Rebbe," Chassidim of old would say when a traveler who had seen the Rebbe arrived at their shtetls. 
Ideals are abstract: hard to perceive, easy to lose, inviting to ignore. Ideals do not inspire. But reflected in the right eyes, ideals solidify into something clear, immediate and tangible. They become alive, before your eyes. They inspire. And once they have ignited your fire, they live within you. And those who lit the fires are now the fire, alive within you. Consuming, but never consumed.

Hebrews Not Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teddy Bear Or Eagle? America, What Are You?

This country was founded, settled, developed, defined and furthered by people who left their homes for the unknown. Whether or not they were religious (in the conventional sense) is, and will continue to be, hotly debated by those with agendas. What is unarguable is that the men and women who founded this country were risk-takers, and inherent in risk is belief. To put it in other words, they were believers. 

Appropriately, the symbol of the fledgling country became the eagle: Biblical metaphor for mercy and redemption: majestic, fair, feisty and magnanimous in our language. One of the presidents who personified the country’s ethos, so well that his face was etched on a big rock, was Teddy Roosevelt. Incongruously almost, his legacy became a cuddly, harmless, lovably ineffectual: the teddy bear. 

Not only Teddy, but the One to Whom this nation pledges that their republic is under, has softened into someone to whom we intone stanzas and sing that he bless us. We thank Him for the bounty of this great land. He occupies a sacred place along with honor, flag and, well, apple pie. 

He is not to make us uncomfortable. He is not to demand how we dress, what we refrain from eating, the content of our entertainment, what we teach our children. He is not to stick out awkwardly: at odds with whatever we deem appropriate. He is created in our image. We love him. He is our Teddy Bear. 

The first Biblically recorded message from G-d to Abraham is “Go, for yourself, from your land, your father’s home your birthplace to the land which I will show you”. No comfort zones allowed. Leave them and only then can you achieve everything I have in store for you, everything of which you are capable. Only by stepping outside yourself can you grow -- and can I be your God. This, to a man who from childhood on – for over seventy years -- defied the mores of the corrupted society and a despotic tyrant who called himself god. He had been threatened with death if he did not repudiate his ill-advised beliefs; he did not waver. Still, he was told Go!, leave everything familiar and comfortable. 

Their gods are of silver and stone, they have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, mocked the psalmist. Not necessarily did he refer to idols from Sunday-school coloring books. A god who makes me feel warm and protected is nothing more than an abstract materialism: a warm place to go, home and hearth. For that matter a god who tells you to go is nothing more than an adventurer, if it is only adventure and change of scenery you are after. But when G-d tells us to leave our laurels of yesterday’s accomplishment and take on the new he is really telling us to be alive today. 

And, (paradoxically, perhaps) he adds that this will be good for you, you will become wealthy, prosperous and numerous. Not comfortable: good. 

Teddy bears are good; for kids; at the boys’ third birthday we throw candy at him and give him honey in the shape of the Aleph-Bet because the words of Torah are sweet. But then we move him on to meat and potatoes: study of these words “for they are our lives and the length of our days”. What is sweet at three, if allowed to linger will turn sacchariny at twenty-three -- and have fostered cavities of decay in the soul. 

Feeling warm and comfortable is not bad; it only becomes debilitating when it is pursued as a goal. 

Avinu Shebashamayim - Our God in Heaven. 
The majesty of the eternal calls and resonates in a soul, 
a spark of that majesty sent to unfurl the majesty inherent in life on earth. 
To bring the majesty of heaven down to earth. 
Heaven: something greater than the comfortable and familiar. The eagle soars there. 
The symbol of America: a nation under.

Children's Math

How long since you had to look inside a math book? Because here's a question that might have got by you: 
A down payment on a home costs $5,000. 
Housing one brain-damaged man for a year costs $20,000.
How many families lose homes to mental retardation? 

This extra-credit teaser comes from a Nazi-endorsed schoolbook(currency adjusted). It was the first steps in curing society of the unneeded. Shortly after, with the country now ready, beautiful killings (euthanasia in Latin) began. 

It is comforting to think that Nazis were demons rather than humans. But following their defeat you couldn't find an anti-Semite west of the Elbe. When questioned by Allied troops the mayors around Dachau professed no hard feelings to the Jews. They were not demons; they were people who legalized euthanasia.

Euthanasia makes sense. The animal kingdom, Greek culture and Darwinism all lend their credence. The only one withholding credence is a pesky verse in our Parsha; forbidding murder and suicide, "for in the image of G-d I have created you." An absurd abstraction in the face of home ownership. 

What is this 'image' of an allegedly formless being? 
Who are you to tell me how to spend my money? 
How to run our affairs? 
You're nothing but a stranger amongst us. 
Do you know the suffering of caring for this person? 
Must we fit your bill? Who asked you anyway? 

Many if not most Jews of Germany did not see themselves as bearers of any message: Regardless, the messenger of a bad message must be liquidated. 

It seems so foreign: jackboots and German shepherds, J's on Jewish stores, marches in the night. 
It is so foreign, so unreal, so out of our context, so un-American. 
True, it is also the very opposite of what this country was built upon. But. . . 

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum. 

Always an abstract, vague undercurrent feeds into, and later evolves into, bold statements and policies. Just after this verse about the murder-image thing, follows the verse to be fruitful and multiply. The verse is repetitive and the juxtaposition so stark that the Talmud equates the lack of procreation with murder and spilling blood. Both at some level deny the G-dliness, the holiness, the sacredness of the human soul and form. 

Logic it makes. If human image is divine then it must be furthered and multiplied. If it is not multiplied, then the sanctity is diminished -- and on some level -- questioned. 

The highest birthrate in the world, I am told, was in the Jewish Displaced Persons Camps of Europe following the war - a courageous and bold revocation and retort to the Final Solution.

My father was once challenged by a woman," But I want my girls to have the good things in life, dance classes and party dresses. You can't give them these things when you have too many kids." 

"Would your kids prefer," asked my father, "to have one sister and four party dresses or two sisters and two party dresses?" 

I have heard it said that having children could tie up free money. 
To not have a child because of financial consideration? 
Should we do the math?a

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