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For Your Shabbat Table

You Shall Be Holy, For I'm Holy

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.

Our Children, Ourselves

The youngest child at the table clears his throat and begins, “Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Mikol Haleilot.”   It’s been repeated in homes across the country, in homes across the sea and in homes across time.


Four sons.  We consider the Wise Son the one who turned out right: the nachas.  The Wicked One?  Well. . .enough said.  The Simple One?  Alright, not every hamentaschen turns out the way you want.  The One Who Doesn’t Know to Ask?  Oy, nebach!      Let’s revisit them.  We judged the family too early, too harshly and too simplistically.

Chacham -- the Wise Son.  What is wisdom?  The ability to differentiate.  A wise scientist knows his different chemicals and their different natures.  Our Wise Son in the Haggadah asks “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments?”  He pinpoints the details of each mitzvah; he grasps the distinct attributes of each.

The Tam, the Simple Son’s question is “What is this?”  This: he doesn’t specify, he doesn’t differentiate. If someone misses a complexity, he is simplistic.  But this is not necessarily the Tam.  Yakov, our forefather Jacob, was called Ish Tam, a simple man. The opposite of simple is not difficult - it is complex.   A wise man grasps complexities, a Tam seeks the unifying factor.   “I know the differentiations of the mitzvot,” asks the Tam, “but ‘What’s this?’  How does this all tie together?           

The Simple Son has gone far beyond the Wise Son.  But  a journey of the mind can take you just so far -- as far as the mind goes.  True, the human mind is the greatest tool ever created.  It can build cities, cure disease, and possibly send women to Mars. And all this is done, say the experts, using only 5 percent of our brain juices!  Still, even if we put the whole load to work, we would never understand that which is beyond reason.  Our entire intellect fits into a Size 7 Stetson.  How can that begin to fathom an Infinite Creator?

And so the Last Son, who has long graduated from Wise to Simple, now embarks on a new journey in Yiddishkeit.  He no longer questions, for he is -- on this certain level -- beyond  both the questions and the answers.  He is awestruck by the magnitude of  What he sees.  In the face of This, one cannot question or comment, the only response is silence.  Silence that allows him to take it all in.   



And then there is another son.  No, not the Rasha.  One we haven’t mentioned because he is not here.  So many Jews, quite possibly a majority of Jews, were not at a Seder at all last year!  They don’t come, they don’t leave, they don’t ask.  The Haggadah tells us how to speak to each kid.  But what if they don’t come?  What if we have no effective communication at all?   The answer is in the beginning.  

All who are hungry come and eat.  All who need, come and make Pesach.  They were never really invited, they don’t know there is a place waiting for them at the table, that without them, our table --your table -- is lacking and empty.   They need an invitation from the heart; we must feel the emptiness from their not being there.  And surely, one at a time -- just like the Haggadah addresses every child individually -- they will respond in kind.

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.

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