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For Your Shabbat Table

Jewish Continuity

My son the doctor had a son: 
he is now a neurosurgeon. 
His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite: 
the girl he is not yet married to is not Jewish. 
My son the lawyer had a daughter: 
she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley: 
she's forty-three and just met Mr. Right. 

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled two years ago: 
containing little we didn't already know anecdotally. 
Still, some of the numbers were shocking. 
Three hundred thousand less Jews 
than there were only ten years ago? 
Forget Zero Population Growth: 
we're eating away at our capital. And for what?
Because, as the survey reported, we earn $8,000 per year more than the average American family! 
We're not having kids 
so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage. 
My kingdom for a horse; 
My birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.

The problem is not that Jewish women don't want to be Jewish mothers: 
it's that Jewish men don't want to be Jewish fathers. 
Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry, 
piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution:
"Give us back the husbands that you stole from us!" 
Until that revolt, men grew into fathers: 
fathers needed to provide, so men worked. 
Gradually men stopped working to provide, 
they went off to pursue a career, 
self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style). 
Who would want to be the mother of their children?

Perhaps more than any parsha, ours is laden with domesticity: it is painful to hear, from our perspective, 
women pining for children and for their husband's attention 
that childbearing would earn them. 
More easily overlooked is the husband 
who watched sheep all day in order to raise a family. 
Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times; 
his twin brother led a high-pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle. 

'Will our children say kaddish for us?' 
was the worry of a generation gone by. 
'We have no children.' 
is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation. Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused, 
overplayed and gauche. 
Charged-up activism is annoying.  Neither work.
Go get a job! Become successful! is the cry. 
And the kids listen, in droves. 

One of the positive aspects of the Sixties-Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but idealism. When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn't OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short. The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism. 

Parents want to provide children with whatever the parents grew up missing. 
A greater accomplishment is to provide children with whatever the parent grew up taking for granted. 

It is not enough to want grandchildren. 
You must want sons who are fathers more than you want sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts. 
You must want sons-in-law who are fathers 
more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons. 

My mother taught me 
that you can never choose to have a child: 
you can only choose not to have a child. 

"For these are the children of Jacob" conveys a faith that the chain is worth more than what a link lacks. We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (for how else will they pay day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.

Mrs. Sanviches

My father was raised in the Old Country, in a place called Nujoisy, in the town of Elizabeth. His parents had come there from Israel, where he was born. They had come to Israel from Russia shortly before his birth: they had left Russia after my grandfather's father was murdered in a pogrom. My grandfather's family -- grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins -- had already been in America for a generation.

When my grandmother would get together with the extended family, she would pack a kosher lunch: they quickly nicknamed her "Sanviches". In the streets of her Jewish neighborhood, older kids would snatch the yarmulkes off the heads of her young sons -- my father and my Uncle Laibel. A sneer is not a lesser challenge than a pogrom.

The Frierdiker Rebbe, the Rebbe of that time, had just escaped the Bolshevik's death penalty and was visiting America. My grandmother took her two little boys to see him. She walked into the room and burst into tears. "How am I supposed to raise Jewish kids in aza shverre lant, such a hard land?" 

"It is truly a hard country, zayer a shverre lant," the Rebbe agreed, "a very hard land. But you will raise good, Yiddishe, chassidishe kinder in this country."

Several years later, my father and his brother, by then teenagers, were with the Frierdiker Rebbe. Everything must be reckoned relative to the time and place where you are, he told them. Your father came from a very different place than you are now. It would not be fair to compare yourselves to him. But you also can't become a product of your surroundings. You must produce your surroundings. You're not boys from the streets. Look up to your father, live towards your father.

My father lived, and his brother still lives, towards their father. The Frierdiker Rebbe spoke to them in the early Forties. I first heard the story in the early Seventies, and have heard it dozens of times since. When the story is told, you could think it happened ten minutes ago.

"These are the generations of Isaac, son of Abraham, Abraham gave birth to Isaac". The parsha seems repetitive until Rashi distinguishes the convergent energies vital to education: children living towards their parents, parents living for their children. Sandwiched in between is nachas: yiddishe, chassidishe nachas.

A Torah Of Ink & Parchment & A Torah Of Blood

At twelve, I left Nashville for Pittsburgh's yeshiva. I lived in my grandparents' home; my grandfather was also my teacher. 

He once called my class together at the foot of the stairway and started in his Yiddish-accent sing-song: "You know boys, when you are going down steps, you don't have to put a foot onto every step. Jump from the tenth step. Skip nine steps. I used to jump down steps. But you know, old people, they getting noivis when boys jump steps. So be nice to old people. When you go down steps, look first if there are old people around. If they are not there, jump! If they are there, then this time, walk down the steps." 

Another time he walked into class and caught us beating up . . . I'll leave his name out -- but he deserved it. Nothing vicious or horrifically cruel, just boys doing whatever what's-his-name had coming. "You know boys, I don't expect you to learn when I leave the class. When I was in yeshiva, and the teacher walked out, we made teams. Each team grabbed one end of the bench and pulled it in their way. One of us watched the door. When he yelled 'Chatche! Chatche!' we put down the bench and quickly sat down before Chatche walked in. But to hurt each other? To make fun of someone? This isn't play. . ." 

I remember some things that I learned in school. Some of the things. Some of the time. I remember the people who taught me. At times they are right in front of me, even if they passed on years ago. 

My father writes in Think Jewish, "There is a Torah of ink and parchment; there is a Torah of flesh and blood." To paraphrase Yanky Tauber's story of Reb Yisrael Rizhinner, "Ideas are accomplishments in man's quest for G-d; stories of tzaddikkim are accomplishments of G-d in man's world." 

The Torah begins with stories of tzaddikim: Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Miriam. Not until about a quarter through the Book are laws enumerated. Jews do not call Moses a lawgiver; he is Moshe our Rebbe. 

Rashi remarks that a conversation of Abraham's servant can teach more than a law: the conversation of someone who spent time in Abraham's daily, mundane presence, affords insight into attaining the Divine.

"Look into the eyes of someone who has gazed upon the Rebbe," Chassidim of old would say when a traveler who had seen the Rebbe arrived at their shtetls. 
Ideals are abstract: hard to perceive, easy to lose, inviting to ignore. Ideals do not inspire. But reflected in the right eyes, ideals solidify into something clear, immediate and tangible. They become alive, before your eyes. They inspire. And once they have ignited your fire, they live within you. And those who lit the fires are now the fire, alive within you. Consuming, but never consumed.

No Hebrews Allowed

"No Hebrews Allowed."  It’s the first reference that comes to my mind when I hear us called Hebrews.  Okay, I know YMHA means the Jewish YMCA, and HIAS a Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, but still, Hebrew -- when talking about people, not our language – smacks of long-hand for Hebes.   

In Biblical times the name Hebrew was a put down often enough. Ivri: the one who crossed over. The one from on yonder, the foreigner. And no, Ramses University didn’t credit diversity appreciation courses.  But if Ivri was a put down, it also contained a measure, sometimes substantial measure, of respect.

Abraham is mentioned nine times in the Torah until he is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.  Why the description all of a sudden?  Avraham had crossed over from the Euphrates, had left his home, life, wealth and security to cross over to wherever G-d would tell him to go.  Every immigrant has a measure of courage, of pioneership, showing a willingness to leave all familiar and safe and go to a far off goal. Avraham did it before there was a name for it: the pioneer of pioneering.

Now he was faced with fighting the strongest forces in the world.  Would he shrink?  No, hints the Torah: he is a Hebrew, one who crosses over his comfort zone and never returned to it.  He does what is right, not comfortable.  He is a Hebrew.

Everyone creates his own world.  Circle of friends, obligations, pets, pet peeves, and lives there.  This is their worlds. Then there are those outside their worlds, who don’t take their comfort zone with utmost sincerity and don’t revere their moods.  They’re ready to bend on just about anything and pretty much mind their own business. They look like pushovers.  

Don’t be fooled. When their values are challenged they are fearless.  They have no fear of fear itself. They have no fear of self; they have no self; they have only what they stand for.   

Me?  I’d rather be a comfortable coward.  But what Abraham achieved with sacrifice, we attain without asking for it.  Together with Grandmother’s brown eyes and Grandfather’s black hair.  And if it is unearned it may well be unwanted on some level.  “I know we’re the Chosen People but isn’t it time you chose someone else?”

But in all honesty that is only a part of me.  The other part wants to be an Avraham, wants to have character instead of being one.  And all I need to do is do what Avraham did: walk in the footsteps of his trailblazing.  Because I give Avraham the same (sometimes begrudging) respect that the world gave that Hebrew then and gives these Hebrews now.   

I need only to just plod along until the energy kicks in and I feel the Avraham Ohavi, the love Hashem feels for this astonishing person.  I do what he did and I become what he was.  I live towards him and he lives through me. The Father of the Jewish People. The Hebrews.

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