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For Your Shabbat Table

Why Jews Like Gold

Granted gold has some practical applications: photography, conducting electricity and other things we remember as vaguely vital.  But that is not gold.  That is not gold's worth, that is not why people have been gaga over it for as long as we can remember.
  
It's not even that it looks nice; bronze has its own look that in some settings surpasses gold -- but it has never caught attention like gold. Gold is simply a way of marking stature, status if you 're more familiar with that word.  A phenomenon that has no intrinsic, concrete worth.  The story is told that in Stalin's Siberian gold mines the guards didn't check the forced laborers after a day in the mines; even if the prisoners stole, what could they do with gold in Siberia?  Against the moldiest bread it held no value.

So if gold does nothing but separate the haves and the have nots, if it does nothing other than feed the ego of the status-climbing, uh, gold digger, than why would a just and caring and perfect Creator create a virtually worthless empty non-commodity?

But there is an important function that gold - together with other of the fine things in life do; they say I care.  Ask a new husband; he's probably already learned you can't give appliances for anniversaries.  They're too functional, they carry too many messages.  "Gee, I hope you're baking is easier now."  "You love waffles, don't you?" "Happy Vacuuming!"  

The useless however carries only one message: you are precious. Precious as . .  yeh, you guessed it.  And this message is the raison d'etre for all of creation.  To tell friends, certainly. Spouses, definitely. And in this parsha, Hashem- like good communicative husbands everywhere - says what He wants: "Build me a mikdash that I may dwell within you."  It is the act of building that allows for G-d to be there, it's building it out of gold that says you want Him.

For reasons the Rebbe told us he could not fathom, Hashem is not allowing us the Mikdash yet.  For now, we must build it out of the intangible (but very real) elements of our relationships with each other and with Him.  But it must be done in the best way possible.  Go for the Gold.  He deserves it.

My Son the Doctor

"My Son the Doctor", and "Oh Doctor have I got a daughter for you",  were the two most eligible bachelors in the American Jewish community for over half a century, from the old neighborhood and on over in the move out to the suburbs.  Now we've heard so many stories of doctors in the slammer for you-don't-want-to know-what, that we tend to deify them a bit less.  Or do we?

We still tell tale of the guy who died and went to heaven and on his tour he sees someone walking around with a white jacket and a stethoscope around his neck.  Who's that, he asks.  Oh, don't mind him, he's told, that's G-d, he likes to play doctor.

Talmud tells us that the best of the doctors should be shipped off to Hell.  (I'm not making this up and I'm not exaggerating.) But can you blame them?  When a man's life is in the palm of your hand -- squeeze too hard and all the blood rushes out of the heart, let go too soon and all the blood runs into the heart -- when you have life in your hands like that, you can't well be humble, and maybe that's a good thing because it is not a humble moment.

But that's not enough, it's never enough.  The doctor then thinks he can predict-he should predict -- what will happen after he let's go and comes up with "he's not gonna make it" or in more subtle milieus "things don't look good".

But can you blame him?  What's a man to do when everyone's calling him doc and his momma's so proud and his staff trusts him and his patients think he knows it all, what's the man to think of himself?  How does he see that he may be holding a heart in his hand but life is not in his hands, that he can make a man live or make a man die but he has no right over life and death and has no right to do anything but heal?

How does he stop making determinations?  How does he remember he's in a white suit but he is not G-d?  

"Verapo yerapeh".  And you shall surely heal.  Heed these words.  They tell you that you shall heal -- not anything else.  You have an education and good grades and long nights in med school and accolades from your colleagues for the advancements you've made in medicine -- but all you get to do is heal.  Not predict. Not determine. And never - to judge.  

There is an angel of healing named Malach Rephael.  He comes into the room with the doctor and for all I know he leaves with him too.  There is an angel of judgment, his name is Gavriel and we don't want him in the room.  Not in this room.  Not at this time.

Maybe when you're a doctor and you see how fragile life is you become immune.  Or insensitive.  Or just plain scared and therefore bravado.  Don't worry about it.  Remember you are a healer and the angel is doing your work.  And like the plumber you can go home at night and open up a mishna and the angels will be with you.  Listen and you can hear them, singing the sweet tunes of the Talmud that if you were lucky you heard your daddy singing in the other room as you drifted off to sleep in your bedroom, a lullaby that could never be condescending and you never outgrow because it was real and wasn't directly done to you or for you.

Nowadays patients are encouraged to become their own doctor and that's good because no one knows you better than you know yourself.  So you read up on this and that, surf the web, take out books, buy supplements and present your findings to whomever will listen.  And that is good.  And then you can't leave well enough alone so you become a full-fledged doctor and start predicting and deciding what will happen and what should happen and you get so lost you forget about healing.

Come back, come back, come back to the parsha, to a sanity that begets humility.  Heal you shall surely heal -- and surely you should stay away from anything that is not healing.

"Es mispar yomecha amaleh", I (says the Living G-d) will fill the number of your days.  Reinforcements have arrived. Even patients don't have to play G-d.

The Bargain and the Jew

The story you are about to read is true.   Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.  Some names have been omitted to protect us from the grumpy.  The story first started thousands of years ago, when the world was young. . . 
 
"Fixed!  Fixed! The whole thing is fixed!  You wanted the Jews to get it and never gave anyone else a chance!"  The prosecutor stormed furiously around the chamber.   After a few moments he stopped pacing and turned to face the Judge.  "There is a statutory posting of notice!  Without it this process could well be called a farce."  He had everyone's attention now and _ for affect really – he paced a bit more and then resumed. 
 
"Have we asked anyone, anyone else if they would accept it?" he bellowed with a flourish.  "Have we talked terms?  Made offers?" 
 
"What is your proposal?" challenged the Jews' advocate.  He spoke softly and deliberately, knowing his adversary had a point that would ultimately have to be acknowledged. 
 
"I propose that we go around with an offer and see who accepts!" he answered defiantly.  "Let us offer, in good faith to every nation.  Give them an honest chance.   And one more thing: the Jews get asked last!"  
 
"Agreed." interjected the One True Judge into the heavenly proceedings. "And you," he said pointing to the arch-prosecutor, "you shall be the one who brings the offer around to the world." 
 
"Thank you," said the arch-prosecutor.
 
"You're welcome, my angel." replied G-d.
 
So the angel descended heaven to sell the Torah to the world and his first drop was high in the Tibetan mountains. 
 
"It's a Torah," he told the Master as the llamas looked on.
 
"We appreciate new teachings," intoned Master.  "Tell us your wisdom."
 
"I am Hashem Your G-d. Have none before me." 
 
The master smiled sympathetically; the llamas rolled their eyes.
 
"All is One. Truth has many forms.  Form changes." the master recited solemnly, taking the angels hand in his own.  "Love your knowledge.   Live your knowledge.  Do not allow one knowledge to negate a world of expression." 
 
For I am a jealous G-d, remembered the angel aloud, more to himself than to the master.  No, this won't work.  They shook hands and the master bowed in deference. 
 
The angel came to Khyber Pass.  A band of blond, chiseled men galloped furiously, their women following in tow.   The angel started telling them about his wares.  "I tried the master, but he rejected me." Said the angel, feeling a bit down. 
 
"Master?  What master?  We are the master of all races, not those blabbering, dark people.  What does your Torah say in it?" 
 
"You shall not murder."
 
"Humph!" answered the loudest mouth among them.  Curiously, he was not blond and evidently he had nipped himself above his lip while shaving.  "So why didn't that idiot in the mountain take your book?  Isn't that the gibberish he goes for?" The loudmouth's voice and passion were growing.   "Isn't it clear that only by the survival of the fittest do we go forward?"   He climbed on a sack of soap roots so all could hear and continued drawing in the people with his charisma and passion.  "Is it not the destiny of the strong to live and conquer and not to be conquered by the weak, ugly, feeble-minded and miserable?" he crescendoed.   
 
"Yawol! Seig!" thundered the handsome crowd.  The angel was ready to leave, but he had one question: How come all of you are so handsome? Don't you have any ugly people? 
 
"Oh no, we have no ugly people," said one resolutely.  
 
"We did before," answered the man's wife, "but we tied them to the trees before we left the forest.  My brother Heinrich and sister Helga were there." 
"This way we have more food." she added cheerfully. 
 
Came the angel further west, along the Seine did he rest.  
How romantic is this view, how divine is this nest.  
"Merci monsieur!" the locals sparkled when the angel announced he had a most intriguing gift.  "Mais, quest-qu'il ya dedans?  Can we have a peek inside?"   
 
You shall not commit adultery.
 
"Oh no, we never would!  To be unfaithful to one we love?  To break a vow?  Non, jamais, mon cheri! You must love life and live to love. To see someone living without love or loving without life, now that is unforgivable!   That is greatest breach of faith, the ultimate rebellion against raison d'etre!  A man must always be happy.  Joie de vivres!  Taste these snails and you will see!" 
 
"Vay iz mir," mumbled the angel.
 
He came to a bustling bazaar where everyone was selling something. Anything.  Now I'll make a sale. 
"Ya Habibi!" cried a stubbly-cheeked vendor with a checkered headdress,  "but first let us have tea." 
After three cup, two of which were noticeably laced, the conversation ever so subtly eased towards the merchandise at hand.
 
You shall not steal.
 
"Ah waja waja!" the vendor gesticulated wildly.  "Never, ever take what belongs to another man.  Especially land!  For then he will come back with a bigger stick and get back at you.  People are sneaky like that." 
"What I do," the vendor added in whisper, "I kill him.  I kill his wife.  I kill his children.  Then, no problem of revenge!   Then build a big house on the land.  If anyone challenges you, look weepy and keep saying my-land-my-land!"  The vendor laughed heartily and insisted on another round of hospitality drinks before the stranger left. 
 
The angel flew due north and was able to get into a mahogany-paneled boardroom where (he was told) issues of import are negotiated.  
 
The chief peered through his pince-nez down the table.  "So tell us young chap, why have you requested my time today?  A Torah, you say?   My subordinates have reviewed the documentation that you were good enough to supply." 
 
The chief pushed the scroll back to the angel.  A red-markered circle encompassed the words 'you shall not be duplicitous'.  
 
"We are in agreement that treachery has no sanction, nor does deceit have virtue." The chief executive officer took off his specs and wiped his brow from impeccably concealed exasperation.   "You're obviously new to the world of finance and will undoubtedly prosper once you master financial protocol."  The meeting was winding down and chief allowed himself to end on a fatherly note.   "While it is true that money makes the world go round, one must be cognizant of the lubrication applied."  He laughed. 
 
The angel flew away.  "So loaded with pomp it's a wonder their bridges don't collapse under them."
 
He flew to a place that called itself united.  He met up with a time management wizard who insisted that the honor-father-mother obligation be compartmentalized to two days per annum and delegated to the office assistant if possible. 
 
Then the angel came to the Moshe's people.  For once they didn't bargain.  They said if it comes from G-d we accept it, all of it, at face value, unconditionally, immediately and perpetually.   When asked, they said that when you are in love you accept.  You have no business bargaining.

Kobe, Brooklyn, & Egypt

"My grandson made a seder in Kobe!" "150 people!" "In Kobe Japan!" "My grandson!" I was on a trip back to Brooklyn several summers ago, and had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community. A butcher by trade. Polish born. He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson's Pesach, some three months before. 

I didn't get the excitement. I understand a Zaide's nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them. But. . . Chabad has been doing that for decades. This man's son is one of South Africa 's most popular rabbis. I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice. 

He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket. "Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!" I was there. During the war. The Shangchaier. The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas. They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east. They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai. 

In Reb Shimon's living room wall are dozens of family pictures. Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids. Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America. There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building. They both have on bands with the Jewish star. "It's my sister on her wedding day,' he had told me years before, "In the Warsaw Ghetto. This picture is all I have of my family." 

I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.

Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody." Now my einikle is making sedorim . In Kobe!" You see," he settled into a conversation. "Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) 'Show me your face.' and he was answered "I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.' The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won't see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along. Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . ." 

Life doesn't always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant. You have to just do it and figure it out later. Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah. 

The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon's Kobe. The Jews, coming form G-d's deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea. Should they fight? Surrender? Pray? The response was none of the above. "Move on." Just follow what I say and it will all work out. 

Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why. He still doesn't. Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe. For 150 people!

LECHAIM TO CHUTZPAH!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he's in the miracle business.  Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that's hard.  And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in.  They pretty much did.  

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. .  . the sheep (no, I don't know why and let's not go there).  It was the portent of, oh, I don't know, the television?  Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window!  Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you.  We call it chutzpah. 

That's why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach.  Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind: a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been.  

The chutzpah they kept.  The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right.  The Jews who survived Europe fifty-five years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah.  The Jews in America, who were bombarded with "The Disappearing Jew" series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing.  Their own thing. 

The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim - the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt).  The Jews are defined by he who defines them.  (Mitzvhas are often called signs - definitions).  

So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don't get annoyed.  Think chutzpah (it's also recommended  for the blood pressure). 

All those sheep and TV's are not our reality.  Turn it off.  Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long.  And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind. 

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