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From Splitting Seas to Entebbe, from Soothsayers to UN Councils

From Splitting Seas to Entebbe, from Soothsayers to UN Councils

Behold a people! These are a people unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled. They will not be spoken of in military academies for years to come; they will confound military academies forever. So spoke he who hates Jews three millennia ago, so (dares not) speak the one who hates Jews today. 

Six days in June, their air force flew less than fifteen feet above the sea, without radio communication. Were they a few inches too low they would have sunk. Were they a few inches too high, the radar would have picked them up. All the planes made it. They came unto the airfields where the pharaohs once ruled; had they come moments earlier or moments later the sun would not have blinded the watchtower’s eyes.  But the sun was just so, and they destroyed Egypt within minutes.

They analyzed through satellite the desert that bears the name of the mountain that gave them their destiny, and there they found in the Sinai a strip of terrain just firm enough and just wide enough to cross the desert with their heavy tanks.   Now all they needed was a tank battle. To displace tanks it takes a minimum of three to one ration in favor of the attacker. But the children of Israel had the ratio of three to one against them. Mathematicians out there! what were the odds against the Jews? But they won.

And less than ten years later again, only this time it is my memory, not only my fascination, that leads my quest to delve into the eye of G-d Himself. I was twelve that summer and in New York. Shopping either in the Lower East Side or Boro Park, I do not know. I had just devoured an orange and vanilla ice cream popsicle, my fourth of the day. They were a quarter or less and I kept on getting change from my father as he sat in the parked car reading while my mother shopped – as he always did. 

It came through on a radio playing by an open shop on that hot day; a plane was hijacked with loads of Israelis. Air France Flight 139 on route to Paris. And a day or two later, in my grandparents Besonhurst home, a call from Nashville came. One of the ladies in shul, Elise Rosenberg --my friend Ari’s mother – had a sister on that flight. I don’t know her sister’s name but as I got older and went to Morocco and returned to share my two-years of memories with Elise, I got a fuller picture of this woman. Born in Fez, to the prestigious and ancient Assouline family, she like many North African Jews had lived in both Israel and France and had family in both countries and traveled between them. 

Elsie was fasting every day and saying Tehillim for her sister. By the time my parents hung up the phone with her, I went from being worried the way a boy is worried when he hears disturbing news to being obsessed the way only a boy can be. We went into Shabbos with the question: will the government of Israel negotiate or not? There were hot opinions around the table, my father, my grandfather, and everyone else. And then Motzei Shabbos leaving my grandfather’s Avenue O Jewish Center, where O meets Bay Parkway, we heard the radio again and rushed home to hear the full reports. They were saved!! And I still remember my mother punching both fists in the air like a boxer who won the championship. I have since devoured every morsel of information I could get on that story. It was an unprecedented maneuver and in the three-decades plus since, it remains unparalleled.

The next morning of course was the Bicentennial and I had been waiting for this since we arrived in New York. We got a good spot under the Verrazano to watch the big ships from across the world pay homage to the Red White and Blue. A man was hawking commemoration issue booklets for $2.00: “they’ll be worth a lot a hundred years from now!” The fire-ships let out jets of water in celebration and the Italians (seemingly everyone there except us) roared when the red white and green passed under the bridge. The next day you could board the ships. The Israeli ship was packed: old ladies were crying and young men were reverently fingering the flag and an old lady admonished a strapping young sailor not to stand too close to the edge of the ship: ”you could fall in!” and he smiled, glad to know his grandmother had sent her sisterhood to look after him. 

And the Rebbe spoke of this miracle:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=De4tV29IzHs.

Within a week the UN of course was meeting to. . .what else than condemn Israel for invading a sovereign country.. . .

Behold a people, these people are unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled. From where do they draw their strength, asked this figure in the Bible? And those who knew the Rebbe at the time had a surprisingly nuanced answer: he has not military might at all, do not try to defeat him with force for he has none. He gains his power from his speech (interestingly, he had a speech defect) so you too must vanquish him with speech. Back then they hired soothsayers; since no one knows where to find a good one, they hire ad agencies and think tanks instead. And they curse the Jewish people; sometimes for cash, sometimes for accolades -- an oftentimes more effective means of purchase. . .

And this soothsayers curses turn into blessings. Beautiful, poetic blessings, stirring and heartwarming. 

I see them from the hilltops. . a nation that dwells alone . . .

. . . who can count the infants of Jacob? . . .

. . . (The Almighty)  observes no evil in Jacob, no transgression in Israel. . .

. . . a people that arise like an awesome lion and does not lie down til he eats his prey.

So it was and so it is. As they curse us our blessings flourish, as they hate us we become beloved.

How goodly your tents O Jacob, like gardens by the river, cedars by the water.

And the op-ed page continues speaking of the future: 

. . .a star will shoot forth from Jacob, a staff shall arise from Israel. . .

The people who invented history , invested history, will outlive it. 

We live in trying times – just like our grandparents did – just as our grandparents’ grandparents did – only we thought we wouldn’t have to. Now they curse the Jew by calling him a Nazi, books are written claiming the Jewish people do not exist. And other books are written claiming that if they do exist they are responsible for all that is horrible. The spoken word, the written word, the Jews weapon, turned upon him.

Miracles in biblical proportion defy nature, seas split, clefts reform to squash hiding soldiers, and the sun stands still. The spoken word in that epoch too has a power outside of our frame of reference. Soothsayers curse. But now military miracles can be assessed (if not understood) with conventional lexicon, and the power of the pen and the passion of the poet is inherent in every revolution known to man. Our miracles then, are more earth-bound, they stretch the elasticity of nature without rupturing it. But when you take in the whole picture of our people’s existence – just within the time span of my life! –you are overwhelmed by the miracle called Jews. Did I mention the first Gulf War? (Thirty-nine scuds destroyed thousands of homes that were filled with people and no casualties!?! Had I claimed that would happen one month before it happened, I would have been locked up in the fully farm.) Jewish toddlers gather at the Kremlin to sing Shma?!?

From curses come our greatest blessings. We are grateful O L-rd.  But frankly we are also tired. That thing about a star shooting forth from Jacob? . . . could you speed that up a little bit? Please? And until then, those boys we have to send out to make those logic-defying military victories possible, can you please make sure they come home to their mothers? 

I meant to pay homage to the land I was born in, the land that gives bigotry no sanction, the land with an ethos unprecedented in history, the land that I love with a love born in gratitude. But I realize now I can only take care of this country by taking care of the Jews.

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH


Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now more than twenty five years since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly, we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

President Dubya on a trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall.  Perspective you want?  Keep walking.

 

What's With The Bow & Arrow?

Have you ever shot a bow and arrow? I haven’t. In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’omer. But they never took us. Archery by proxy.

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews). The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields. If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows. (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.)

A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat. But he doesn’t have a long flowing beard; he doesn’t have any beard at all. In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows.

In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?) took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.  

One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out. The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page. He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night. And for the next day. Luckily he was released to his parents. He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland. But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out.

So I have been told. I never asked the lookout to verify the story. I’m glad my kids can learn outside of basements and take scheduled breaks to play red light green light. And on balance, even though I’d rather have shot bows and arrows, I’ll even forgive those teachers who took us on archery-deprived picnics.

Humanity in the Depths of Inhumanity

It was in the depths of inhumanity, wrote survivor Gerta Klein, that she glimpsed humanity. A friend in Bergen Belsen presented her with a green-leaf-garnished raspberry. Other survivors tell of Jews with nothing to offer would huddle others close to them to shield them from winter winds.

It was the gulag that threatened Russian Jewry. It was the gulag that sparked a nearly mystical inspiration in American Jews a world away.

Kedoshim tehiyu – you shall be holy --  ki Kodosh Ani – for I am holy -- begins the Parsha, and sinks from this mystical high to the abyss of descriptive, decidedly unholy and proscribed alliances.

Holiness there cannot be, while engaged in depravity. But depravity’s potential is what makes us holy. In other words, you can’t become anything in a tissue box. To be cool, calm and collected when nothing aggravates is no big trick. To be cool, calm and collected in the heat of rage is a big holiness.

Me ma’amakim – from the depths I cry out to You, O God, cried David. Shuls were once built sloping downwards towards the front. The chazzan lead from below. From there can you cry out and that cry can lead.

A holy raspberry in Bergen Belsen moves us: is it far from suburban life? Reb Mendel, upon release from the gulag, came to America. Riding along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway he took in Manhattan’s skyline. “Here,” he laughed seriously (as only Reb Mendel could) it is really hard to be a good Jew.”

Do what comes naturally! exult the free-spirited. Sing barefoot along the seashore! Barefoot singing is natural, and benign. But as someone who regrets their lost temper knows, natural can be malignant. To never know from temper is inhuman. To let loose your temper – hence lose – is human failure. To control the temper is holy.

To control the urges too, states the parsha, is holy. Not every nature was meant to be expressed; subjugation is its purpose, its positive force, its holiness.

“Indulge the senses” sounds better than “a pig wallowing in the mud” only because we are partial to ourselves and to our mud. We don’t become freer or truer when we indulge; we become muddied. And the more muddied we become, the more difficult to discern malignant mud from benign mud.

Kedoshim tehihyu, you were not meant to be muddied. We have to trek thought the stuff or we could never get to shul. Without the mud we could never know the raspberry.

Reality

 

Reality:

Something real. I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists. 
Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff. 
Which I don’t need to: I have enough real things around me. 
Especially toys: big toys because I’m a big kid. 
And lots of toys, because “the one who dies with most toys wins” and I want to win.

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters. People call me lucky. 
As long as I’m sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters. People call me lucky.As long as I’m drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters. Unless I wake up.

And because I might wake up, those who aren’t drunk and high feel sorry for me. 

Are they right, or am I?
“Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs” a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.
So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, I am. . . lucky? Well yes, maybe.

Because there is something other than toys. 
Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence):
Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing)
Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy.
If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.

Now I wake up to a whole new world. 
Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life. 
New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new. 
Not “new to me”: new. My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything. 

He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different. 
Something new. 
(Torah speaks of the “new moon”, not because the-ancients-believed-that-the-moon-actually-disappeared-on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back, -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, particularly Jews, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)

Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it – something stirring inside of me. Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.
This week’s entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah. If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world. They only resonate in a land beyond toys. And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don’t operate as well in this other world. In this super-rational view from above.  

But I don’t have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with these concepts helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys. 

Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren’t superficial or dimensional. We only think toys are us. Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up. To the real world.

Chametz vs. Matzah

Chametz vs. Matzah

Matzah. Thin, flat bread: either identical, square-shaped crackers if they are machine-made, or round, varying personalities if they are baked in the original fashion. 

Bread. Soft, light, fluffy sponge-like substance that almost melts when you put it in your mouth. White on the inside and perfectly crusted on the outside.   

What is the difference between them? Their ingredients are identical (as long as the bakery eschews additives, colorants, preservatives).   The difference is air. Little puffs of this intangible element are trapped in the bread’s dough. They try forcing themselves out, upwards, and force the dough to expand. Remove the air, and matzah and bread -- chametz -- become indistinguishable.

“Why is this night different form all other nights?” The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is one of the most stringent decrees in all of Torah. Pork, shrimp, stolen goods, none of these forbidden foods must be eradicated from one’s home the way chametz must be. Only idols and their accessories are judged so severely. If the only difference between matzah crackers and Wonder bread is . . . air, then what is the big deal with air? And why particularly on Pesach is it an issue?

Two individuals. Both are equally gifted: equally bright, charming, wealthy and healthy. One is modest and one is a megalomaniac. What is the difference between them? Nothing. Air. Luft, as we call it in Yiddish. A overbearing sense of self which puffs up one’s self-image. It distorts reality. Ego has no relation to actual self-worth or awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses. Ego is a condition where self becomes all-consuming. Like a fireplace without a chimney, such a person has no escape valve for bloated subjectivity. It fumes inside, doing irreparable harm. 

Look at the letters comprising the words chametz and matzah. The mem and tzadi they both share. It is the heh and chet that separates them. Chet and heh themselves are virtually identical, only the heh, matzah’s letter, has an opening at the top. A chimney to allow some of the Me Generation out and afford room for a more realistic vision. It may be just a small hole on top: that is all that is necessary for Teshuva to begin its work.

Yet self can have its advantages too. It can build a strong character, something which has come in handy in two thousand years of exile. But self-worth must be founded on something real and enduring. Something purposeful, not a flimsy mood-swinging ego. Self worth means knowing that each of us was created for a certain reason, a purpose to be accomplished solely by you. Once we destroy ego, in a process we call Pesach, we are capable of self worth. On Shavuot, fifty days later, it is already a mitzvah to have chametz. 

A healthy self-image is one based on purpose and devoid of ego. It is not as easy as it sounds to separate the two and destroy one of them. It is understandable that when Pesach comes around we’re tired. But we are also gratified. We’ve removed all chametz; all that remains is a clean slate and a simple, flat cracker: the bread of Faith

Terms of Endearment

This last week you’ve been together with people whom you certainly  love very deeply, but whom you are rarely together with for so long or so consistently.  Many a meme-worthy moment that makes.  You’ve also been separated from people whose company you may or may not appreciate but whom you need to make contact with if your business enterprise is to stay afloat and weather this storm.                                                                                                                                                  

Inevitably, both aspects of isolation make one consider communication, or as Oxford experts put it: “the imparting or exchanging of information or news”.  Oxford would do well to consider the Latin original communicare, to share.

There is the utilitarian function of communication of getting information from Point A to Point B but this is not the heart of communication.  At all.

Our Parsha, our weekly Torah rhythm, is referred to as Vayikra, which means And He called.  He, meaning G-d, called to Moses.  And certain that we’d miss the nuance, the classical Rashi offers that Vayikra is a term of endearment.  Endearment: the way angels call to each other.  Which begs the question:  I don’t know much about angels (I’m far from one) but I know they are not winged, caped, haloed fairies.  Rather they are beings not defined by time, space or much of what constitutes the human condition.  So, why do they need to “call’ each other? “Hey Raphael, can you send over some healing potion?  You were late on last month’s order!”

The heart of communication- its purpose really - is to foster love.  This is why angels call to each other.  This is how G-d called to Moses and this is fundamentally how He wants us to call to whomever we call.  While in isolation, use Effective Communication Methods and other self-help books (note whom these books are designed to benefit) as doorstops.  Take out Vayikra.   

Rabbi Pam, to whom many turned with their marital issues, reflected that if husbands and wives would stop calling each other from one room to another and instead walk to the room where their spouse is before calling them, half the cases that come before him would disappear.

In isolation distractions are lessened.  With focus, our terms of endearment can be heightened. And our blood pressure lowered.

Isolation - We're All in this Together!

Everyone must be in isolation. Everyone.  Isolated.  Do you catch that counter-intuitive dual dynamic?  Isolation does not work unless everyone is unified in separating.  Nor does isolation work if an individual decides to "do his own thing".  So we can only operate as individuals if we join common cause to do so.  We can only be alone if we are together and we can only be together if we are alone.  

Those who follow the weekly Parsha rhythm are amused, or amazed, that this dynamic is accentuated in this week's double-Parsha, the last two Parsha of exodus.  Vayakhel, as the penultimate parsha is called, means to assemble, that Moses must gather the people together before addressing them, not simply for the practical aspect of 'hear ye! hear ye!' but because when we gather as one we are more sensitive to the message.  And the last Parsha (the ultimate one) Pequdei, speaks of the detail, the individual.  

We are viable individuals only if we are of the same purpose, in our totality.  We are only together if we maintain our individuality.  And with this message, the Rebbe reminds us, we conclude the Exodus -- from Egypt certainly, but the ultimate Exodus too, when all mankind will be of one mind and heart.  He will gather us in.  One by one.  Together.

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

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?

The Night The King Couldn't Sleep

Sleep is not a delicate or romantic. We slobber. We belch. We mess up freshly-pressed linen. We mutter senseless, groggy drivel. And all those contour pillows, satin duvets, imported headboards and lacy skirting -- try as they might -- can’t hide the fact that we, thinking, sensitive, provocative, insightful, caring individuals, have by way of sleep morphed into embarrassing slobs.

And yet, we need sleep. Deprived of it, our bodies simply demand it: the eyes refuse to see, or even stay open; the ears cease to transmit data. As does the nose, as does the tongue as do millions of the body’s sensors. The body shuts them down because important work has to be done: every cell discards its waste and simultaneously rejuvenates. Think of it as your neighborhood supermarket: they close the doors to customers for a time to wash the floors, restock the shelves and count the money you’ve given them. Without this down time the store cannot function at optimal level, if it functions at all. Without consistent, adequate sleep we fall apart, slowly but surely: degeneratively.

Still, sleep feels like a waste of time. It is the least dignified part of our day. Our bodies are all that is working, our minds, our sensitive side, our spiritual quests are all but dead.  Or so it seems.

Life for us is asleep. We primarily feel the immediate need of our digestive systems, not our spiritual system. Our stomachs, our businesses occupy the vast majority of our time and thought; our spiritual journeys are inside books or for the books. The word reality conjures physical need, not religious endeavor. That is the way it is.

Because, well, we are asleep. That is how the Psalmist and the Talmudist see our state of life: exile. We are asleep.   And so is the Almighty, as it were. We don’t see his connection with us other than in a groggy haze – and primarily as Facilitator-of-All-My-Needs Deity. 

It is evident that we are asleep. But we are also sleepers. We will be awakened one day to a different reality. It all sounds a bit, well, dreamy. But then reality usually sounds dreamy when I am asleep.

“On that night the kings slumber was shaken,” cites the story of Esther. The obvious reference is to the wicked king who decreed death to the Jews. He couldn’t sleep at all that night until he remembered that he owed his life to a Jew. That was the beginning of the happy end, or, perhaps, the end to a scary beginning. 

But the king who couldn’t sleep at all that night is reference too, to a King on high. Whose connection to his people below resembled the soul’s connection to the body when the body sleeps. Disconnected. Not present. Or present but only in a limited, paradoxical way: the lack of spirit highlights the function of body -- and its connection to something beyond the body.

Sweet dreams. And wake up to something even sweeter. 

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 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.

Lose Weight Now!!

Lose Weight Now!!

To lose weight the most effective exercise is push-aways — but they are extremely difficult to do. You need to stand near a full smorg n Viennese table and push AWAY!!

You can’t just walk away or move away but you’ve got to PUSH away!  Because, let’s be truthful, you’re vulnerable. Forget about “just one little nibble”, one little WHIFF will have you gorging yourself sick in minutes. 

You’re vulnerable but you are not weak… as long as you can remember your weakness and you push-away. Pharaoh’s Egypt was arguably the most decadent regime in history. And for all of their undeniable spiritual underpinnings, the Jews knew they were drawn to his fleshpots and to be blunt, his orgies. So they fled. So quickly that their bread did not have time to rise. Recognizing our vulnerability is our greatest strength.  Pushaways not only develop endurance, enhance well-being, promote sound body/sound mind, but fleeing the gorge allows our spirit to soar.  It’s a discipline Kabbalists call isquaphia. Eat happy. 

Good Shabbos 

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

“My grandson mad e 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 five 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!

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