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For Your Shabbat Table

Flying the Friendly Skies & Purpose

Leather seats, user-friendly ticketing, signature blue chips and 16 channel satellite tv makes Jetblue. Before takeoff, their tv screens flash a “Thank you for flying with us. Without you, we’d just be flying a bunch of tvs around the sky.”

From day one to day six the One in the sky was, as it were, feeling low about the earth (and the sky) He was creating. Everything was working in perfect symmetry; it was all faultlessly first class. But. . . .

It took Adam and Eve to take it all in and recognize ‘there is symmetry here, and with symmetry comes purpose. A purpose encompassing everything but encompassed by nothing. Behind a purpose is a Planner -- and that planner is all that is important. And we will call him. Let’s call him G-d.’

That was the first Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year, the first day of creation, which was – if you’re counting days – the sixth day of creation. But the first day of anything that really counts – recognition of purpose. 

Okay, so they (we) messed up as soon as the party got going and were kicked out into a new reality, a new world order where chaos seems to have the upper hand and purpose can only be seen by the help of a guide. A guidebook. A mentor. Study. And focus. 

In this newer reality, we must inculcate ourselves to recognize purpose. To see chaos as temporary (from the word temporal) and illusionary. As you probably noticed, that takes hard work. Nothing is harder than changing an outlook.

Unless, you get lucky. Sometimes you can be startled into a new perception: 

As when you run into the street to catch a Frisbee and you hear an eighteen-wheeler screeching. You’re Frisbee reality is disrupted. 

As when you get to the office by 8:30 for another high-pressured day of appointments and at 8:46 a jetliner crashes into your building. 

As when you hear the shofar. 

These all bypass your mind and are absorbed straight through your kishkes.

Their effect is sudden, stark and powerful. And after the shock they pass quickly, too.

But even in a startled moment, your head can kick in too. Call it a resolution; grasp the wild, elusive energy and channel it into something manageable and enduring. It will slow the energy down a bit, but you will be able to keep it. 

And with resolution, the chaos in life focuses into the purpose in life.

We become grateful that an Almighty Creator has imbued tiny, miserable us with purpose and we thank Him for it. And somewhere up above the skies, He too wishes a sweet year with high resolution. He says something like, “Thank you. Without you, I’d just be flying a bunch of monitors above the skies.”

The Other Rock

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

Friends of mine who are older than me want to go to Israel. But not now; maybe some other time. It’s too dangerous with all that craziness going on there. 

Is going to Israel dangerous?  Perhaps it is. But perhaps not as dangerous as not going.

The danger of going is that something might happen.  Likely? No.  Possible? Like anything else in life.

The danger of not going is that nothing will happen.  Nothing noticeable, nothing remarkable, nothing tangible will happen.  Only a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift will happen. 

And subtle can be profound.  

Abraham Twerski tells of the Manhattanite who finished a night of partying and came home to his twentieth-storey apartment. He flopped into bed and kicked off a shoe.  As he was about to kick off his other shoe, he remembered that someone was sleeping on the nineteenth floor below him; he carefully took off his other shoe and placed it on the floor.  Ten minutes later there was furious knocking on the door.  It was the downstairs neighbor, shrieking, “Would you throw down the other shoe already!”

 

Waiting for the other shoe to fall is nerve racking. Once the chips fall though, you know where they are; they fell, they hit, they broke and now they sit quietly.  

 

Much has been said about the “ghetto” Jew, most of it is pejorative, and undeservedly so.  Ghettoes had walls, outside of which Jews could neither live nor be found after nightfall. Edicts barred Jews from most jobs, landed them with Jew-taxes and branded them with yellow stars and hats.  Death was not the exception.

Ghetto Jews knew the price the outside exacted from them for being Jewish. Ghetto Jews paid the price and got on with being Jewish.  For them, being Jewish meant spiritual grandeur, intellectual profundity, timeless legacy, optimistic future: how lucky to be a Jew.  As Jonathan Sacks says, while much for the ghetto Jew was problematic, Jewish identity was not.

Not so for the Marrano Jew, the less-spoken-of side of the medieval coin. He, afraid of being rendered a penniless wanderer on a leaky boat, allowed the village priest to sprinkle him with water. He attended church; he adopted as best he could all the manners the outside demanded of his faithless conversion.  

But the outside was now in him, and the Marrano Jew lived his life looking over his shoulder. When will they find him out?  When will the shoe drop? What will be the ultimate price of being a Jew?  While much for the Marrano Jew was not problematic (above all finance and bodily safety) Jewish identity was.  

 

In the end, the Marrano could not remain as a Jew.  While a celebrated few died a martyr’s death, most melted into Catholicism.  That was his price.  Not being a Jew.  The Jew who chose the ghetto paid his price, too: but his Jewish grandchildren tell his story.

 

Whether one should at this time go to Israel or not has a personal component, possibly what is appropriate for one is not for another.  But there is a component that must be addressed.  Going has a price.  Not going has a price.

  

In the 1980’s ten of us yeshiva guys spent two years with the Jewish community of Morocco.  We learned how to walk the streets.  And how not to walk the streets: 

Don't walk on sidewalks; you can get too close to someone looking for trouble. 

Walk in the middle of the street: like you own it. 

Walk near parked cars: cars are a status symbol and Arabs hesitate to throw rocks if they might hit a car. 

Don't walk the streets when the bars let out (11:00 PM); a drunk coward is a stupid danger.

And if you’re ever hit, hit back twice as hard, fast, and because within moments you’ll be outnumbered 300 to 1, get lost quickly.

 

 But don’t ever, ever run.

 

With all the caution, one of us was hit with a rock in the eye. A well-meaning American, a visiting representative of a Jewish fund-raising organization happened to come to Casablanca then.  He had heard of our friend who was hit. Why don’t you guys cover you yarmulkes with caps, he suggested.  We answered him with polite, non-committal noises.  

 

If he’s still listening, here is the best I can offer – some twenty years later:

If you want to run, you can -- but you can’t just run a mile. You must run a hundred miles.  

If you hide who you are, then you’ll never be yourself. Your kids will never know who you once were -- or who they now are.  

If you hide your yarmulke, then you’ll hide your mezuzah necklace, and even hide your name.   

If you hide you may be safe. If you’re safe you’ll be all the more scared to not be safe. You’ll be scared to be you.

If you don’t hide, you may be hit; if you're hit, you may be hurt.  You may die: many Jews have died for no other reason than who they were. 

Is it worth it, to die for who you are?  That’s not even the question.  The question is: is it worth it to live for who you are.  If who you are is worth living for, then there is nothing to fear.

Once the other shoe has dropped, safety and danger don’t mean the same thing.  You can enjoy the trip.

Inspiration from Mrs. Thompson

Ole Mrs. Thompson from Prairie Lakes gave in to her grandchildrens and got herself a computer with this thingamgig called AOL, and I don’t know what AOL stands for no how.  But it din’t work, and so she called up the company to complain.

           What’s wrong ma’am, asked the solicitous agent.
           “Well I turn the darn machine on” says Mrs. Thompson, “and it chirps, ‘You’ve got mail’ and so I put on my sweater and go down the driveway to the curb, open up the mailbox, and there’s no mail!!”

Ole Mrs. Thompson ain’t stupid.  She simply has a notion that has been tried and true for decades; mail is at the curb.  And this notion that has served her so well for so long is now hindering her technological advancement. Her grandchildren associate mail with icons and mouses and clicks.  Mrs. Thompson must unlearn her knowledge –that mail is delivered by USPS – in order to master the new knowledge.  She must break her long-standing concepts before this new one can gain space in her head. She must strip away her wisdom of years and the accomplishments of maturity and be open like a baby.

 It’s not just a problem old dogs have, great athletes and astute CEO’s find new tricks challenging –yesterday’s laurels become today’s chains.  Last month three pull-ups was a goal, a challenge and then an achievement.  This month three pull-ups is down in the doldrums.   You must forget Bavli to learn Yerushalmi was the counterintuitive Talmudic dictum. 

This holds true for anyone who wants to achieve, and Jews are nothing if not achievers.  And the greatest frontier, the toughest challenge, is right inside.

When you’re composed you’ve “got yourself together”, right?  No.  You don’t.  When you ‘re composed you are merely in control of showing only what you think the person in front of you should see, or on a deeper level, what you want to see about yourself. When you “lose it”, when you break down, then another side of you, a deeper aspect of you, comes forth. 

So when you are composed you are fragmented: the other parts of you are not present in the same way.  When you break down, in tears that either fall from or well up in the eyes or get caught in the throat, you break down the barriers of that cause fragmentation.  When you break down then, yes, there is a destruction involved, but that breaking down spurs new growth.  Like a seed planted, it dissolves in the soil and then the life force of the earth creates from that blueprint an oak tree.

The Yiddish expression, S'eis nisht do aza ganze zach vi a tzubrochene hartz translates poorly, so poorly ess taigt auf kapores: there is nothing so wholesome as a broken heart.  When we break our fragmentation we become whole: more healed in the process.

It is painful work though, to break down your defenses; you need to feel very safe to do that. 

This is a crucial element of any learning, but certainly of the Rebbe’s insistence on the Mishanic dictum osay lecho rav, get yourself a rabbi.  Rabbis are very much like doctors; as my rabbi told me: you tell the doctor your foot is extremely painful, he pokes and prods and marvels at how well you withstand the pain and then you say, oh, I forgot to tell you doc, it’s the other foot. He (she) can’t help you unless you are able to open up and that can be enormously challenging.  Hence the necessity of Pirkei Avot insisting: get yourself a rabbi. 

Sometimes you only open up when the pain is too great or outside circumstances impose -- an ‘awakening from above’ in the words of the Zohar- isarusa de’le’ayla.  Sometimes you can soften yourself up slowly, methodically, with focused, articulated intent –an ‘awakening from below’ – isarusa de’le’tatta. The former is dramatic and therefore fleeting, the latter is neither.  Elul is the latter, an opportunity, a season ripe for self-reflection, self-discovery, when the pain of it all is more endurable and the rewards more readily available so the process is more endurable. 

Hearing the shofar, regularly, even daily, eases the process as it jump starts it.  The words of King David, the most Jewish of poet-mystic –warriors, evoke many of the qualities that help this hard, and immensely rewarding, work.

The month of Elul affords this; that is why we blow the shofar – a most Jewish of instruments.  The shofar has a triumphant ring, the heralding hear ye hear ye of kings of yore and of collegiate teams marching onto the field to begin their match.  But the shofar also has a plaintive, searching, haunting quality and it is the combination of the two that makes the shofar an effective, evocative tool in  self-discovery.

And self-discovery is what creation is all about.  “And all creation should know that you created it” our chazzan sings hauntingly on Rosh Hashanah.  Which if you think about it is quite radical.  The purpose of creation is re-self-definition.   But you could only do that if you break apart your previous though pattern.  Or if you prefer, you can keep going to the curb to check on the mail.

 

We are created in the image of G-d

Arabs kick in the shul's windows. 
They take a sledgehammer to the pillars. 
Hoards overrun the place with bloodthirsty shrieks. 

In the name of G-d. 
In the name of national pride. 
In the name of the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps we should abide them.

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

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

And the image of the Divine would be defaced.

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

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

Worse yet, he too would be conquerable.

The very name of Mashiach intimates that those who most strongly advocate the mosque will be the first to recognize the inappropriateness. 

And they will act appropriately. 
In the name of G-d.
In the name of the future.

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

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

Such is the mandate of the faith to believe. 
And such is the mandate to believe with perfect faith, that ultimately it will shine to the extent that all existence will only accentuate it. 
And such is the mandate of the faith that it can - and will - happen today. 

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

WITCHES, BLACK CATS, BULLS AND PLANES

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

So I read this parsha's admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now. Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 
Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 
Thou shalt not read omens.

Wait, it's starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant. I don't read horoscopes largely because I think they're bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday's Gemini for Thursday's Capricorn. But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles. 

But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.

What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips? They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control. And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers.
At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive. "Our sole purpose," exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, "is to give Judaism a decent burial." He wasn't being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available. Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit. 

These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right. They were dead wrong - in hindsight. Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 

Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured. You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is. You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon:Bashert. 

Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie. Perhaps in more avenues that one. Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew. The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye. Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe's successors. 

Not that you're relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting. Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors. But if you checked the monitors, don't roll balls or whatever down the aisle. Enjoy your flight. To wherever. It's all bashert. All good. All the time.

Can You Have Too Much Good?

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco.  It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards.  A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind.  Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah.  

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman.  Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you.  In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me.  I asked her where she was from. 

"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment.  I gave up and she answered 'Vienna' in a voice kids use when you ask them what's their favorite ice cream. 

Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered.  

"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish."  
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish.  
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked.  
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon. 
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.

This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country.  I wasn't sure what was getting to me.

She now had her audience, she told her story: 

Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried.  
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!"  

Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison.  I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike! 
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!

That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha.  

Think us for a minute, think America, think 2013.  Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group.  Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. 

Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food.  We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating.  (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.) 

How much is spent on the consequence of digging in?  
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough."  

For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides.  
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals.  

This parsha alludes to more.  When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you. 

Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us. 
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak.  
A cow's head is near the ground, in the trough.  Where is ours?  

The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism.  Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health.  But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul.  And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul.  

Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right.  Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.

Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom.  For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.

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