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For Your Shabbat Table

Simchas Torah

Rosh Hashanah you hear the shofar.  Yom Kippur you fast. Sukkos you eat in the sukkah and take the lulav-esrog. Simchas Torah you have no mitzvah. Simchas Torah, the joy of the torah, the joy of this learning that takes a lifetime, Simchas Torah has no learning. At night, we take the Torah but don’t read the Torah; we don’t even unfurl it.  Simchas Torah we dance.

We dance with abandon, not looking at the clock, not trying to keep pace, not thinking if we’ll be late for davening tomorrow, just dancing.  The dancing of Simchas Torah.  

Elie Weisel wrote of the Jews dancing on the streets of Moscow during the Fifties.  One night in the year they had no fear, they were not Jews of silence they were Jews of Simchas Torah. My uncle was burned by the Nazis, in a shul in Riga.  He died singing the song of Simchas Torah.   

As a kid I remember Simchas Torah had a bigger turnout in my father’s shul than Kol Nidre.  I don’t know if the then gabbai’s statistics bear me out on that, but a kid’s perception counts, regardless.

Simchas Torah with the Rebbe:  Simchas Torah with the Rebbe there were more people in shul than the shul could possibly have held. It couldn’t have happened but it did.  Special portable air conditioning units blasted in air through huge vents overhead.  The Chassidim held on to their precious six inches each, and stood on whatever would give them a view, benches, chairs, metal milkcases.  "Get off the milkcases", someone whose view was blocked would shout, shouting in Yiddish, English Hebrew, French.

Together they would chant the Atah Hareisa verses, robust chanting, more football team chanting than religious music chanting.  The Rebbe would make his way slowly down the aisle – a path to the middle of the shul protected on both sides by thick, strong tables to maintain a crowd that would have overwhelmed a World Cup crowd control pro.   

Normally, no chossid would ever stop the Rebbe to talk, much less extend a hand or touch something the Rebbe was holding, but on Simchas Torah, well, it was Simchas Torah.  They kissed the tiny Torah the Rebbe cradled in his arm.  They beseeched his blessing: may we meet again next year: my father should recover quickly and dramatically:  I should be successful in your holy work.

Slowly the Rebbe came to the middle of the shul, a tiny area fortressed by tables, with crowds on all sides ascending stadium–like on all sides to the far reaches of the long room.  There was a mad rush as everyone ensured their best spot, some impish chutzpanik tried to block the . . . get off the milkbox! guy behind him.  "Okay I’ll crouch, can you see now, yes, but if you pick your head up I’ll send you flying".  

The Rebbe is surrounded by dozens of dozens of excited nine-year-old boys.

Ahhah aha ha ya aya ya the wordless Simchas Torah niggun, which in music books rises in crescendo.  Tonight it started at a crescendo. All attention is now in the middle of the shul.  The Rebbe dancing, beaming, lifting the Torah as if an offering to the multitudes towering around him.  The singing is boisterous in volume, joyous but reverent, the type that takes all your emotions and stuns them.  Only in hindsight can you feel how all your emotions sing such singing.

During the height of the dancing I steal a glance around the room to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe in the eyes of the Chassidim. Sometimes you see more when you don’t look straight on.   

Why did I write this piece about Simchas Torah with the Rebbe? Did I whet any appetites?  I doubt it.  Did I capture a mood? a scene? I don’t think so.  But could I have witnessed this, been a part of it, and said nothing?

Simchas Torah is in a couple of nights.  We will dance.  We will dance and we will sing in our shul and on our street.  Our kids will dance.  And they will remember.

How Good to Feel Vulnerable

If you’re looking for nobility search not among noblemen. 
If you’re looking for royalty search not in palaces. 
If you’re looking for aristocracy go to a sinking ship.

In good times and in good places
Everyone is noble and of fine character:
But maybe they only mirror everything around them. 
When everything around is falling apart then inner light  -- and strength – shine.

When bad things happen then good things can happen. 
He, in His infinite wisdom, declared
That only a cloud can produce a rainbow.
Does that mean we have to suffer to flourish? 

Sukkos tries to tell us no. 
But let me work backwards through this thing for a minute. 
Egypt was paradise – the Garden of Eden, lush, healthy, beautiful, stable, prosperous, decadent. 
The Jews wanted only to melt, to dissolve and be absorbed into Egypt. 

The more I learn of this slice of Jewish history
the more I feel that the triumph of the Exodus
was not His taking the Jews out of Egypt –
it was his taking the Egypt out of the Jews.

Fully 80% of the Jews refused to go. 
(Yes, only 20% of the Jews joined Moses for the Exodus.)  Those that went had to learn that everything called safety and security is neither.  Rivers can turn bloody, pestilence can destroy blue-chip commodities, flocks can die, cities can be lost, legacies destroyed.

In WWII, when Buckingham Palace was bombed
People saw that palace rubble and tenement rubble is identical. 
For if G-d does not build the house,
The Psalmist lets us know,
You’re working for nothing.

Does a palace have to be destroyed
For us to sense its vulnerability, its tenement-shared quality?  No, we only have to destroy our allusions of it. 
True aristocrats can do that. 

On Sukkos we leave our secure and beautiful home
For a nearly roofless hut. 
We have our meals there, even if the rain is so strong
The chicken soup turns to water before you finish eating it. 


Significantly, Sukkos is in the fall, the harvest season,
After the crops have come in,
The bills have been paid off.
The storehouses are full,
The logs are on the fire

And you’re about to slip into your slippers.
That’s when you leave your house
And go into your sukkah
And remember what happens to slippers in the rain
And what happens to palaces in blitzkriegs.

For in Sukkos I housed the Jewish people, says the Torah.
I housed them in Sukkos;
In the knowledge of the Psalmist
That all is nothing if Hashem did not build it. 
And to paraphrase Reb Leivik,                                 
Who would rather be anywhere else?

Why Are you Going to Yom Kippur Eve Services?

Kol Nidre
Kol Nidre. Certainly the most attended Jewish prayer of the year. Certainly the most awesome. But why? 

The words are pretty mundane, a basic annulment for 
misunderstood, haphazardly applied, ill-advised vows 
a person may have taken upon themselves. 

There is a similar prayer recited Erev Rosh Hashanah. 
To most Jews it is unknown, or at best obscure. 
Kol Nidre everybody knows.

One of the books I know only from reviews, is a compilation of last letters from soldiers on the front -- letters to their wives, their mothers, their children, their newborn babies. 

From what I have heard of the book there is little in the way of abstract philosophy; it is all about small moments, washing dishes together, sharing a nighttime ride into town, macaroni and cheese.

This is how connections are made: small, insignificant interfaces, which could have happened dozens of times before and hundreds later, but that moment - just that moment -- became an indelible connection. 

(A mitzvah is a connection - that is the meaning of the word.)

Why did that moment take on a life of its own? 
We rarely know, and almost never care; 
we just embrace it for what it gives us. 

Standing on the outside of the relationship it may well seem overblown and corny; not from the inside.

In the collective Jewish experience the Kol Nidre stands out a recurring lighthouse in the tempest of the year, a comfort, and also a challenge that feels right for us. 

My father says that the nicest thing about Italian opera is that you don't understand the words. Comprehension can, in flourishing moments, only diminish. 

That is why comprehension, analysis can only rob a soldier's letter of the very reason we would ever care to read them. We don't know why or when Kol Nidre came to be Kol Nidre, we just know that it is. 

Niggun evokes that quality which defies analysis and breaks the heart and makes it full. 
Kol Nidre Night is a time for niggun;
Not choirs, not chanting, not necessarily understanding the words, or even knowing the tunes. 

That all is preparation of Kol Nidre, to make the Kol Nidre that much fuller. If this past year we didn't prepare for Kol Nidre - that is why we have a next year. 

So now is not a time to analyze, to dissect the moment. Don't worry if you don't understand; you'll have a whole year to learn. 
Don't worry if you're not on the right page; every page is the right page. 
Don't worry if you can't follow the tune; the tune will follow you regardless. 

Now is the time to just be there, to just be. 

For now, let us write home our letter from the war front.

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