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For Your Shabbat Table

A moment of Faith Holds Long-lost Loves Together

The Communists rose to power when Naphtali, Tolchik to his friends, was young. His father didn't like the smell of it all and told Tolchik to become a shochet: to master the intricate, exacting practice of kosher butchering - the training takes years and the pay is lousy. "Become a shochet," said Tolchik's father, "if you'll be a shochet, you'll stay a Jew." 
Tolchik the shochet and his wife raised their children under the Soviets. By the early 1950's all had escaped, most of them with false passports. Except for their grown son Meir and his growing family. 
Their other son Berel had escaped with Chana Shneerson, posing as her son. Upon arrival to New York, Berel became a masterful diamond cutter, and (the grey Soviet's silver-lining) maintained his filial status with Chana (he had the keys to her apartment) and developed a warm relationship with her son, the Rebbe of Lubavitch. Tolchik and his wife, together with their daughter, settled in Montreal, his son Dovid was in Antwerp and Tolchik was happy, but for Meir's being held by the Soviets. 
There is a custom to receive matzah from one's Rebbe before Passover. Naturally, Berel would be doing so.
"When you receive matzah from the Rebbe," Tolchik told his son Berel, "mention to him your brother Meir." 
"But do not ask for a bracha, a blessing," continued Tolchik, "ask for a havtacha -- ask for the Rebbe's assurance -- that my Meir will make it out alive."
Berel never pushed anyone into doing something they did not want to do. And a chassid does not demand of his Rebbe. But Berel never refused his father. 
The Rebbe handed matzah to Berel. Berel mentioned his brother Meir and the Rebbe gave his bracha. "My father requests your assurance that Meir will come out."
The Rebbe's face grew dark and his hand shook. "Shlep mir nisht beim tzung!" (Don't wrench words out of me that I cannot say) the Rebbe answered with rare sting, and added, "My father-in-law accomplished greater things than this." 
Berel saw tears in the Rebbe's eyes begin to fall. The Rebbe gave Berel another piece of matzah. "You will give this to your brother."
"My brother Dovid in Belgium?" Berel asked. 
"No. Meir. Not necessarily in America but somewhere close by." 
A few years later the family got word that Meir had plans to spirit his family across the border with forged passports. He failed. More years passed. Berel held the matzah for his brother. Eighteen years he held onto that matzah: matzah, the Kabala calls it the bread of faith. 
Then they heard. Meir is free! With his wife! With his sons! With his daughter! They received visas to Canada (not necessarily America, but close by) and Berel got himself to Montreal just as fast as he could. Berel hadn't seen his brother in over twenty years. He ran towards his brother. His brother ran towards him. He gave his brother the piece of matza. And then they fell into each other's arms. 
Berel's story explains Jacob of our parsha. Jacob mourned his lost son Joseph as dead for over twenty years. He finally saw him -- a miracle! - but Jacob did not kiss him; he was saying the Shema. . . a jaw-dropping breach of human emotion. Berel demonstrates that a moment of faith does not separate between long-lost loves. It holds them together.

The Human Dreidel

When Mom and Dad have a really juicy tidbit to share that they don't want the kids to hear, they whisper it quietly. If the kids come in the room they change the topic to something boring. Kids pick up the trick. When they are playing with the sensational and forbidden, they keep something innocuous around. When an adult or a snitch is coming they quickly hide the contraband and make a big deal of playing with the boring, innocuous decoy. Lookouts are great. 

Time was, when getting caught meant more than losing allowance, or a trip to the principal's office. Stalin expropriated minors caught with a Jewish prayer book and threw them into state orphanages. My father's cousin Hessel was among them. (He survived.) "Nadir, nadir, nadir, nisht zogen soidos fun cheder, " Never, Never, never, don't tell the secrets, they were drilled. Their decoy was often a game of red-light-green-light. Yellow light signaled caution; red light, full alert. 

In Hellenic Israel accused children were forced to bow before Zeus and swallow bacon. In one instance seven sons, beginning with the eldest, were each commanded to bow, each refused and each met death. Except the youngest. Their mother begged Antiochus Epiphanes to speak privately with the two-year-old. Do not betray your brothers, she encouraged her baby, be worthy of them, and when you join them, tell Father Abraham that while he prepared one son for sacrifice, I prepared seven. The decoy of choice in Hellenic Israel was a simple spinning top, which archeology indicates was common then. Dray, as in Dreidel, is Yiddish for spin, hence its popularity continues under this name. 

Whether in ancient Israel or recent Russia, the punishment revealed the bond between child and book in all its remarkable dimensions. In both cases, children's games braced the parents to rebel with the sword when feasible, to endure the gulag when not. I once helped a prison deputy warden process Chanukah gifts donated by a Jewish group. 
What's this? He fingered a purple, plastic Dreidel.
It's part of the holiday celebration, I assured him.
It has a treasured significance, I added, but I don't think that is what you were asking. 
He laughed appreciatively.
Should I have told him the two-and-a-half -millennia saga of this unpretentious pressed plastic, imbued with the blood of the martyred, the tears of the pious, the endurance of the faithful?

Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made you out of clay, and the Almighty Himself breathed into you a soul of fire and you in turn tempered in His people a will of steel. And as you do your exuberant spin, your dance of contagious ecstasy, we dance along with you. Against your dance iron curtains fall. So we will spin your dance and spin your tale until the Almighty has you and us land in the land. And when this spin is over, whatever letter we land on we will know: A great miracle happened there.

Rosh Hashanah of Chassidus

Prisons are hopeless places.  With colored TVs, weight piles and Congressional Fair Acts and such, prisons are hopeless places.  Go back in time, then they were cellars, one small, barred window.  Rats.  Other prisoners: who fit in there fine.  Who belonged there.   People weren't expected to survive prisons then.

A saintly figure, a Rebbe, gets thrown in to prison.  For treason.  He's been sending money to Jews in the Holy Land, a colony of Turkey. The enemy of Imperialist Russia.  The Czar threw the Rebbe in prison.  The Peter-Paul Fortress.  Trumped up charges are all it took.  The Rebbe was expected to never come out.  His movement was expected to never survive.  

The Rebbe came out and with his freedom came a new respect for his teachings, from the Jews and from the Russians alike.  Teachings that the Almighty watches over every person, all the time.  He was awarded honor from the Czar.  For six generations his successors were jailed though, and then the Czar was imprisoned, too.  

Now the Bolsheviks are gone.  The Peter-Paul Fortress remains intact.  A tourist site.  Jews go there too, hoping to see where the Old Rebbe was held.  Where history was made.

This past Thursday and Friday we celebrated his release from prison.  For two-hundred years Chassidim have dressed their Shabbos best on this day and called it a Rosh Hashanah.  The Old Rebbe's book, the Tanya, is being written up in newspapers as if it's just hitting the market.  For those who've never seen it, it is.  And Chassidim are jealous of these people who have never seen the Tanya - they see it as something new.

Chassidim tell of the Alter Rebbe's doubts before he was thrown in the slammer.  Doubts, would he get out?  Self-doubts even, did he deserve too?  Hindsight is a very good thing for people who have been good.  For people who have done good.  

One day I'll get to Leningrad, (whoops!, it's S. Petersburg again) and see the Peter-Paul.  I want to see where the Alter Rebbe faced his interrogators.  Where he faced his doubts.  I'd like to do it on the day of his release, 19 Kislev.  Or maybe on his yahrzeit.  Or maybe his birthday.  

But I want to do it when the local Jewish school is there.  When those hundreds of kids have an outing to the Peter-Paul.  I want to hear their teachers tell them the story of the Alter Rebbe in Russian, even though I don't speak a word of Russian. And I want to hear the kids saying altogether now, word for word, the way kids in school and camp all the over do: Shema Yisrael.

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells. "Antiqued" furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line. 
Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina. Multi-million dollar homes are built to "have character". If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age. Old is good. 

Except for old people. No one boasts of having their own senior citizen. Or of being one.

And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves. They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X. They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived. When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and - we add for good measure - can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto? 

For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 
Youth is beautiful. Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age. 

The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired. 

Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor. In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.

Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 
A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing. It can happen in a young person too: 
we call them brats.

"Ba bayamim" the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham. Come of his days. Each day was full, was lived to its fullest. He took on the next day with new vigor. "Old, and with full days", this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 

Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing. The Talmud calls them dead: "even in their lifetimes, call them dead". 

How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket. How sad the daughter who holds onto her father's memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because "he loved the water". This is what they have left? Recipes and beach balls? 
Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents? Is this legacy?

You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 

You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured. A boy with Hodgkin's is comforted. You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours. You learn some Torah. You teach some Torah. 

You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children. You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 

By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 

The soul breathes much as wine does: 
The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe. Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 
Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase.

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