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For Your Shabbat Table

Bows and Arrows, Gulags and Freedom

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.

You Can't Become Anything in a Tissue Box

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-

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.

2 Rabbis, 1 Shul

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

We started that way.  Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there.  Moses' older brother never was quite his associate rabbi.  Aaron was vastly more popular.  He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants' business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home.  Mr. Nice. 

Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal.  The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right. 

Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace.  Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise.  Torah insists on both, hence a team - not an individual - was needed for the making of a people. 

Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged; accusations of nepotism drained him.  Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who.  

The brothers' disparity did not end with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron's funeral nearly doubled Moshe's.  

But significantly, it was only upon Moshe's passing that despair threatened the people.  Aaron's popularity rewarded him with a large funeral, Moshe's instruction earned him the role of leader.  Aaron's passing evoked mourning; Moshe's passing created a terrifying void.  Like money, you appreciate leadership when you lose it.  

We need Aaron and we need Moshe.  One without the other creates imbalance.  If we favor peace over truth because peace makes allowances and truth makes demands, we'll get neither.  It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is no sitcom.

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