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For Your Shabbat Table

Success is the most coveted of blessings

Just after the Arabs attacked the Jews in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, the Israel Defense Forces held an emergency appeal in Nashville.  My father was speaking, and probably because he couldn't get a babysitter, he brought me along.  

He ended off with the story of Purim, how Mordechai reminds Esther that what needs to happen will happen, the Jews will be saved with or without you, but if you sit complacently in your palace then they will be saved and you will perish.

One lady that I knew stood up and said that for five years they had been setting aside money for a family vacation: three thousand dollars.  She gave the money to defend Jewish lives.

Success is the most coveted of blessings, appreciated because we feel it is earned.  We stepped forward.  We did something.  We didn't just talk about it.  

You can sit on the sidelines, you can talk and criticize and encourage and curse and bless and it doesn't make that much difference. Or you can get your hands dirty, your feet black and your bank account red and sweat and cry and plod and slip and fall and. . .and do something.  Then, and only then, can you ask for, and do you deserve a blessing: success.

Are you needed?  Can someone else do it?  If Esther didn't want to do it, or "couldn't" do it then yes, history would continue its play without her.  But if Esther wants to, then all of creation is waiting for her; this is her moment.  That is a worthy bracha, a Divine gift, the ability to make a difference: you can kill yourself over something worth living for.  

A man came to the Rebbe and asked for a blessing: that he be able to continue learning uninterrupted, with serenity.  The Rebbe was uncharacteristically flabbergasted. "There are thousands of kids who aren't learning Aleph Beis and you're worried about your serenity!!"

Whether we deserve serenity or not is another issue.  But as our parsha testifies, serenity was not the blessing of Moses.  Holiness was, and that comes through accomplishment, not a stress-free environment.

Be careful what you ask for.  Or as American Jewry's beloved creation Tevye says, maybe it's time to choose someone else.  To be holy means to achieve.  We would have it no other way.  May the redeemer come to Zion, heralds the siddur, and may I play a part is the quiet fervor in those words.

Mrs. Sandviches

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930.  She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey.  The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time.  His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers'Paradise.  In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing.

My grandmother came in to his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand.  She saw the Rebbe's face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.

The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted.  It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.

My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion.

She would end each telling with:  But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!

I don't think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm.  I think if she had she would never have been the person she was.   (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher.  They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches.  She told them she works hard to understand them, why don't they work to understand her?  The teasing stopped.)

For two parshas the Torah told us the detailed of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing.  Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled.  The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, 'nediv libo' describing the people who gave for the Mishkan 'that their heart was full of giving'.

The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people's.  How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality?  For that you need passion, a heart full of giving.  A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit.  By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing. 

Maybe, just maybe he was.  Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future.  Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain.  If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe.

This I know.  My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her.  Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her - can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed.  

She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported.  But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.

We will read these parshas for the next two weeks.  We will think they are redundant.  We will remember that moving from heaven to earth - bringing heaven to earth - demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy.  We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

Why did Bubby always say that?  And does it really have to do with the evil eye?  Is this evil eye a cousin of walking under ladders with black cats on the Friday the thirteenth? The answers, in order, are:  Because she loved you.  Yes, but with an explanation.  No.

Kenahora, although everyone thinks is a Yiddish word is actually three words slurred together in Yinglish - the vibrant language of Native Americans of the Lower East Side:  kein, the Yiddish word for no or negating, ayin Hebrew for eye, and hara, Hebrew for Evil.

Now think back to when she used it:  "Such a sheine punim, kenahora."  "You've grown, kenahora."  "He's making money hand over fist, kenahora."  (you should only be so lucky)  

I have a friend in, well, I'm not saying where they're from, because I want to protect myself from what will happen if I don't protect their anonymity.  They make in the seven-digits a year (kenahora).  They drive a five-year-old station wagon.  He once told me why she insisted on it.  Their neighbors don't have as much, and their neighbors' neighbors have even less (and they're still not slumming, mind you).  If she gets a new car then her neighbor will be compelled to keep up -- and her neighbor likewise.  Somewhere down the line someone is going to be hurting from racing too hard.  She doesn't want that frustration to be caused by her.  And not for purely altruistic reasons.

Hashem gives us things.  Hashem does not give others these same things.  This can and does cause jealousy, an unvoiced "Why does she deserve it?" and somewhere on High that energy does not dissipate. It gravitates, and brings into question "Maybe she doesn't deserve it after all?"

Those-who-have-don't-show doesn't have to be grounded in smugness.  We don't want that our good fortune should accentuate what others are missing.  Which is why boasting is unJewish.  And why when something said could be seen as boasting, it is hurriedly whispered and sandwiched between kenahoras and pu-pu-pu's.  

The pu-pu-pu, incidentally, is spitting noises.  Spitting as if in disgust.  It's an appropriate Yiddishism: when you see an exceptionally beautiful child you say "Miyuskeit! Pu!"  ("Disgusting!")   

Asking Jewish grandmothers how many grandchildren they have can risk a faux pas.  While some won't hesitate to blurt out a number, others will fidget and mumble.  Putting a number on a blessing is considered bad taste.

You might also notice when men are counting a Minyan they won't count one-two-three but do something more convoluted.

Think it originated in Eastern Europe?  This parsha begins with the warning not to count people directly.  (There is another reason not to count directly; it negates the quality of Infinite in the person, but that's for another time.)  

See how much your Bubby loved you?

No Jew is Complete Unless all Jews are Complete

This parsha is unique.  Since recording Moshe's birth until the last parsha of the Torah, every sedra mentions Moshe by name.  Except this week.  Except Tetzaveh.

We read (in next week's parsha) the unfortunate story of Jews abandoning their Redeemer for a calf of gold.  G-d is incensed, ready to destroy His People and guard His covenant through Moshe alone.  Moshe concedes that their sin was audacious, "Yet if you forgive their sin, it will be good, if not -- blot me out from Your Book which You have written."  Hashem pardons the people, and, of course, Moshe's name remains throughout the Torah.  So identified is G-d's Torah with this leader that until today it is known as Moshe's Torah -- Torat Moshe.  However, words of a Tzaddik are not treated lightly by G-d, and although Moshe's threat never needed to be carried out, it did to some extent, affect Torah.  One Parsha, it was decreed would remain without Moshe being mentioned.

Yet, the parsha opens "And you shall command the Jewish People,"  you obviously referring to Moshe, for even in the parsha where he remains nameless, we sense his connection.  It could even be said that his presence in this parsha is too profound to be referred to by a  name.  Names denote relationships;  an individual can be called Dad, Bernie, Dr. Weissberg, Doc, Son, Bernard F. Weissberg MD or Zaidie.  All these names reflect the relationship between the individual and those who call him.  You  is a different class of names.  It refers to a person without defining him.  It can reflect on how the individual stands outside the dynamics of superficial relationships.   It is the quintessential person, all by himself.   Absolute Moshe.

"And you shall command the Jewish People."  Command -- or the Hebrew original, mitzvah, reflects a connection between the one issuing the command and the one fulfilling it;  (in English the word "enjoin" means both to connect and to command).  Mitzvot, aside from being good deeds or commandments are our connection to the Creator. 

"And you shall command the Jewish People" can be understood as "And you -- in your truest essence -- shall connect the Jewish People."  Even stronger than a Tzaddik's connection to G-d's Torah is his connection to His people.

Who were these people that Moshe staked his reputation, no, his very being, on their inclusion?  They were the sinners of the worst kind.  Without them, though,  he could not survive.  He could not be Moshe, he could not be.

As a teacher, the lesson he gave us is that no Jew is complete unless all Jews are complete.  Staking everything we have on that somebody else's inclusion, is our responsibility.

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