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For Your Shabbat Table

Diamonds or Rocks

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 oven had broken 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 boy's 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 then 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 four 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 parshah. 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 as 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.

Light After the Darkness

Five-hundred fourteen 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.

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.

House or Home? Thoughts for Tisha B'Av

The fast of Tisha B'Av is being commemorated starting at sunset this Monday until after dark on Tuesday.

Famously, the Spanish Expulsion began on Tisha B’Av, August 2, 1492. But principally this was when the Bet Hamikdash, the Temple, the House of G-d in Jerusalem as it is called, was destroyed.

In English you have two words: house and home.
House defines a building: home connotes an atmosphere. And your home means your atmosphere – where you can be yourself

In someone else’s home there is an implicit social demand that you confine to their atmosphere, what makes them comfortable, their definitions. They may be so gracious we are moved to say ‘I felt like I was almost at home’, but if we acted like we were, our mothers would get angry.

When the world relegates G-d to a corner, a religious corner, he feels like a guest. He does not feel at home. But when the Bet Hamikdash stood, it was a symbol that the Almighty felt at home in the world. This was His home where he set the tone.  

In Hebrew, the Holy Language, there is only one word for both house and home– bayit. But bayit has two dimensions; the physical, and the spiritual.

But if G-d cannot be destroyed,
then how could his home be destroyed?
The answer given: the destruction happened slowly over time.
Jews stopped enjoying being Jews.
Then they stopped acting Jewish.
And soon there was no home there was only a house,
a shell, a façade.
And it soon fell apart.

But the prophets tell us that at the moment the flames of destruction were licking at the walls, the rebuilding already began.

Of course when we look at the consuming fire we don’t see any rebuilding. We don’t see how any rebuilding is even possible -- that is why we need prophets to tell us. Prophets are people who see beyond the moment.

Just as the destruction of the home preceded the destruction of the house, So too, the rebuilding of the home precedes the rebuilding of the house. 

And that rebuilding takes place brick by brick.

With every thought and deed we do, we let the Almighty know that He sets our tone and we follow because this is His home and hearth, and because we love him. When all those stones of the home, those spiritual stones are in place, then the House of G-d will stand. A real house. A physical house, which we can see, and touch and walk inside.

And that is why the Rebbe, an eternal optimist, saw this three-week time of destruction and mourning, as a time of joy and rebuilding.

Every act of kindness, each mitzvah, are bricks in the rebuilding of a better world, a pure perfect and eternal world we sum up in one word: Moshiach. Every quest for knowledge of the Divine within us, and the Divine beyond us, is a testament to the fact that the Jewish way of mourning is to rebuild. And to rebuild in joy.

May these sad days be transformed to ones of gladness and joy with the coming of Moshiach!

Boys will be Men

A soldier, an Israeli soldier specifically, especially when standing in front of the Kotel, meant something to me: pride, virility, bravado and all the good stuff a boy likes. It still means all that to me; but now, overwhelmingly, I look at one of them and all I see is his mother.

It's the paradox of pride in the army, of youth, really. Even when we are young we know how vulnerable their position is; we grow up after all knowing the fallen heroes. And even as we age, we still cheer their pride and their ability and the work that they do. And we know they are cool. 

But... . But . . . .Imma.  And savta.  And little sister. And favorite aunt. And Abba, and little cousin. And can you just send him home already?

I meet soldiers; I talk with them, laugh with them, argue with them, agree with them, put on tefillin with them and more often than not, when we take leave, cry with them. I will never forget the hug a guy from Acre gave me before his going back to duty on the northern front. 

Russian born, easy smile, with a swagger you could actually like. I'm not religious at all, he insisted, I just go to Chabad because I like the rabbi. The rabbi there, the rabbi there, he's great! (He choked slightly and gave a nervous laugh.) When I came back from the front once, the rabbi stopped in the middle of service -- he stopped in the middle of the service! -- and came to give me a hug. (He is smiling now, not really talking to me anymore. Then he comes back.) I put on tefillin. The rabbi asked me to, and once I did it a for few times, I started to like it. Now I miss it if I don't.

There is something about soldiers davening. It shows that prayer comes from a place of strength; it shows that prayer comes from a place of vulnerability. It shows that prayer comes from a place we don't want anyone to see; and from a place that we have a need to share.

Oh the prophets! How they poured on fire and brimstone when they saw a tragedy happening and everyone else was looking the other way. We despised them, or if we were devout, resented them. They were wet-towel-party-poopers as they jeremiad around. We read their words in the haftorahs these weeks. 

A smart old man once told me that he never told his grown children the words 'I told you so'. Neither did the prophets. Once tragedy struck, the prophet was there only to comfort. And cry. And sometimes there were no tears left to cry so he just stood there. Silently. And some saw his silence and thought the prophet harbored an I-told-you-so. But really he was saying 'now you know why I was crying'. 

Every soldier knows that his mission stands above all else. And I don't doubt that. Their mission is vital, to everyone. Every Jew. Every free person. Every non-free person. The enemy must be defeated as conclusively as the Nazis were - and that can only be achieved through the military. I don't doubt it or belittle it for a moment.  I know it in my guts.

But every time I start to pray for their success I see their mothers. Moroccan women in scarves, Kurdish (yes, yes, there are Kurdish Jews in Israel, lots of them) without scarves, Ashkenazi women, standing there stoically, demanding inconsequential things that mothers always do when their kids are going to a dangerous place because they must; "Keep your coat on!" 

I hope I won't be called a troublemaker for making my way to Bethlehem. To the Mother's grave, the mother who prays that her children come safely home. May her prayers be heard on High. They always are. I hope she'll let me listen in.

Miracle on July 4th

Rabbi Shimon Posner recalls a very hot yet special July 4th back in 1976 (and it wasn't the ships paying homage to America's Independence Day).

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 15 feet above the sea, without radio communication. Were they a few inches too low they would have sunk. Were they a few inches to 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.

Through satellite they analyzed 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 10 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 12 that summer and in New York, shopping either in the Lower East Side or Boro Park. 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.

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 Motzoei 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.


Mourning vs. Continuance

A dill pickle is good.
Pistachio ice cream is good.
Together, they are not good.
Good cooking means combining food properly.
Egg and onion is good -- two foods that complement each other.
Ginger and dates - aha! now that's food.
Combining flavors that are not just different but are opposites, has each flavor play on the other, tantalizing each other's strengths and subtleties until a new and dynamic flavor burst forth.

When the Rebbe had a heart attack - it was Simchas Torah, the happiest night of the year with vigorous, near-riotous dancing until late at night - and the heart attack was sudden and severe - the Chassidim in his shul danced.  And cried.  Danced and cried.

Mourning means feeling loss.  And it is a mitzvah to mourn the lost Bet Hamikdash. It is a mitzvah to mourn the loss of the just - this Shabbat is the Yahrtzeit of Aaron, Moses's brother and this Shabbos begins the yearly nine-day mourning for the Bet Hamikdash, Jerusalem's building where heaven met earth.  

The mitzvah of mourning largely translates into refraining, from weddings, haircuts, swimming, new clothes.  It means feeling loss - not so much doing something as much as not doing anything.

There is also the mitzvah of continuance.  Learning the life and thoughts of Aaron and making them your own.  Iterating that his life was one of spirit and that if we continue his spirit than he lives now as much as he did in his lifetime.  Studying the layout and function of the Bet Hamikdash, that were it to be rebuilt tomorrow, we could become its tour guides.  Both are active defiance of the physical loss, the opposite of mourning.

And both are the enigma of Jewish response.  Remembering and ignoring.  Remembering the loss to such degree that we never accept it.  Ignoring the loss like it never happened because that is the only way to ensure that we survive and that the loss does not endure.

It is a poignant paradox.  Counter intuitively, they play on each other.  In yeder Yiddishe simcha is faran a trer, in every Yiddish joy is a tear.  Not letting go.  Not getting lost in memory.  It pulls and pushes yins and yangs.  And with it, a nation is nourished.

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