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For Your Shabbat Table

A Marriage in the Desert

Why was the Torah given in a desert?  The marriage between G-d and His people: when they became "a singular nation in all the land", with the children being the guarantors, the blast of the shofar.  Such a wonderful experience should have better taken place amidst lush foliage, brilliant flowers and fair weather.  Why in a naked, harsh land without any food or even water?              

On Rosh Hashanah we read the words of Jeremiah:  "So says the L-rd, 'I remember the bounty of your youth: Ahavat kallulotaich, the love you had for me when you were a bride, as you followed me into the desert, in an land without life."            

G-d was not choosing on this day a fair-weather nation.  Not for him a people who will be loyal if and when He provides them with a vineyard and orchard under whose shade to indulge and delve into His Wisdom.  He needed a nation who would not wait for a perfect setting to live the life He desired for them.  He needed a people who would take the life given them and do with it what is needed.            

It is easy to find excuses, even easier to push things off.  Study Torah? Oh, that's not really for me.  You see, I'm a businessman: You know, I work for a living.  I give my tzedaka.  I do my davening.  But I'm busy! I don't have time to study.  You wanna see what I have to do yet today?  I won't be going home before nine o'clock.  And it's been this way for the last two weeks!            

Scholars, those who are involved with Torah a whole day (the professional Jews), don't take a back seat when it comes to excuses.  Listen, I need a lunch break! And breakfast break and supper break.  I need to have enough sleep to clear my head and enough fresh air to revive me a little.  Then when I sit down I can really hit the books.               

It's not unusual to hear yeshiva kids who are studying to become rabbis saying if they find a job with the right pay and conditions, they'll become rabbis. If not: Hey! You gotta support your family.            

Not with such spirit did we survive an exile as long as the golus.  This was not the inspiration with which Jews in Russia and Poland, just over fifty years ago, covered their faces with their hands and defied, "You will chop off my hands before your scissors touch my beard!"

Ahavat kallulotaich, the love that made us follow Him into a barren desert.  There He provided us with water -- from a rock, He provided us with food -- from Heaven, shelter --clouds, and clothes that kept themselves clean and adjusted to the bearer's growth.              

There is plenty of logic and statistics to prove the rapid demise of the Jewish people.  And there is plenty of spirit to defy it.  A kapo, a degenerate Jew, a despised collaborator, when commanded to eat a tempting meal on Yom Kippur, said simply, "Jews don't eat on Yom Kippur," and faced the consequences without flinching.              

This is Shavuos.  A marriage. A union that extends beyond logic and fills each partner with a love that exceeds the limits of devotion. "Don't say when I have the time I'll do it: You may never have the time."  Or the money, the opportunity, the ability, the wherewithal.  Take the first step, towards Sinai, that is all I'm asking of you, and I will come down off the mountain and lead you to the Chuppa.

The Desert Bride

When you first come to the Desert,
You know it by what it doesn't have:
"Wow there are no trees!"
"No grass!"
"All you have here is rocks and sands!"

Often people feel it so bare and foreign:
They quickly cover the desert with green like the Amazon.

Later, sometimes, they see
That the vastness of the desert has its own stark beauty. 
They see that this nothingness of the desert
Is really a lack of noise and distraction. 
And with all the distraction gone
You can sense something that you never knew was there.
And then you have fallen in love with the desert.

G-d too fell in love with the desert. 
The vastness and emptiness
Where nothing calls attention away from Him. 
No water, no plants, no agriculture,
No accomplishment and really no endeavor.
Just Him.

He likes it when people appreciate the desert.
In themselves. 
Notwithstanding accomplishment and gumption,
Simply realizing that in the face of Him
There is no accomplishment, no endeavor large enough
To be worthy of taking away from Him.

He loved the desert so much
That he wanted to get married there. 
And he wanted his kalla-maiden to have that desert quality.  "That you followed after me into the desert,
A land where nothing grows".

So the Jewish people got married in the desert of Sinai
And have a 600,000-word document to prove it. 
And this document they cherish. 
We got this at Sinai, they say,
Because they treasure where they got it too.

Now the Jewish people are again in the desert:
Part of the Jewish people.
The Coachella, in my case. 

We see something more about the desert.
We see that it is full of water, but the water is down below and we have to bring it up. 
The desert too now has room even for our accomplishment.  And it still is vast and beautiful
with a stark and awesome beauty.

Last Line on Curses

Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art.  The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other:  “You should have a court case -- and you should win!”  “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!”

In this week’s reading, The Al-mighty Himself pours forth his wrath with a Writer’s attention to original detail that makes the stomach turn and a Poet’s turn of phrase that makes the head swell.

There is nothing in our history not written and accounted for in these passages, not the cannibalism of the Roman conquest, not the kapos of Poland and Germany.  Perhaps if I were not such a Jewish history addict, the verses wouldn’t have boggled me like that.


Now picture this:  a courtroom.  A judge calls in the defendant and reads off the charges.  The defendant took his victim, drugged him, called in several of his assistants and methodically, with forethought cut the man’s stomach open, removed organs, put in foreign substances, drugged him some more.  The victim luckily made it out of this ordeal alive, and made it safely home. 


Then the judge reads the very last line:  the defendant is a surgeon who did surgery in a hospital with the patient duly under surgery and the operation was successful.

Things change with the last line.  Until the last line we get increasingly dizzy with assaulting details: the last line flips everything into perspective.


Some people instinctively relate to life through the last line: we call them tzaddkim.  There is a story of a young boy of ten, the son of a tzaddik.  His father the tzaddik always read the Torah, including this week’s Tochacha – the vivid curses. 


One year the tzaddik was sick and unable to read the Tochacha: someone else read the Torah in his place.  The little boy heard the Tochacha being read and he fainted.  For months he was bedridden.  Finally, after he recovered they asked him why the Tochacha affected him so deeply – don’t you hear it every year?

“Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when a my father reads the Tochacha I hear only blessings.”  (Needless to say, the little boy was soon recognized as a tzaddik in his own right.)


I’ve heard that when the Rebbe was a little boy the pogroms (the third wave of the last czars) hit his hometown of Nikolaiyiv.  He spent nights in the basement of his apartment building, comforting children even younger than himself. 


Many years later the Rebbe wrote that since he was a small boy he was drawn, magnet-like to the concept of Moshiach.  He described it as a time that would give meaning to the long and bitter Jewish history.  That it would be a last line.

The trouble is that when you’re in the middle of the story you cannot fathom that there is a last line, and the very mention of it is aggravating.  “The people would not hear him for their shortness of breath,” the Jews in Egypt could not endure Moshe’s talk of redemption: they were too overcome by the reality around them to fathom there could be a last-line ending.


I go back to the account of the Warsaw Ghetto I was reading.  I Google search last weeks bombing of Casablanca’s Jewish community.  I scroll through the horrific deja-vu afflicting Israel.  Again.  I too, in my Egypt, have shortness of breath.  I am somewhat relieved that there are giants who are high enough to see the last line.  And see it not as a distant vision as rock-solid reality. 


The words ‘speedily in our days’ take on new meaning.  Or maybe I’m just giving them a new attention.

On Bows and Arrows

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.

Thank You for Remaining Jews

"He could ask for anything!"
He could have any tyna he wanted!"
He could storm the heavens with the injustices he faces every day!"  

It was the early sixties and the Hassidim sat with the Rebbe in New York as other Hasidim sat in Russia. It was before American Jewry had discovered the Iron Curtain (Let my people go!), before Scoop Jackson presented legislation on their behalf.  It was a Shabbos and the Rebbe was telling of a letter that had been sent to him by a teenager in Leningrad.  

"He could have demanded anything from heaven!  He could have lodged any protest! Instead. . . " the Rebbe's voice choked on tears.  His voice broke. Finally the words came.  "Instead what does he ask?  He complains that in the middle of his davening his mind wanders!  And he is asking what he can do about it!"

I wasn't there that Shabbos.  I would have been a baby if I had been.  The story was told to me by someone who was there and remembered it over thirty five years later like it happened yesterday.  I haven't verified the details. 

But this I know.  No one who was there davened by rote the next day.  And if they did, they felt empty inside -- and were fuller for it.

Golda Meir was born in Russia and came back as Israel's first ambassador.  The Commy mantra then was that Russian Jews saw themselves as communists first and their past superstitions were faded, senseless memories, etc. etc.   Word got out that Golda Meir would be in shul Rosh Hashanah.  

The women in the ladies' section came to touch the collar of her dress.  They crowded around her.  Goldenyu!, an old man shouted on her way out of shul, leben zolst du! -- a wish with a near imperative ring --  you shall live!  Golda didn't know what to say until finally she blurted out in Yiddish, adank aich far bleiben yidden.  Her words spread through the throng like wildfire, and she felt her limp words were a poor mockery of prophetic incantation.  Thank you, she had told them, for remaining Jews.

So it was.  Eastern Europe and America had changed roles, now America was der heim, the home, where Yiddishkeit thrived (relatively) unmitigated by surrounding circumstance.  In the early eighties my mother met a man in Moscow who had been a younger boy in the yeshiva in Lubavitch when her father, my grandfather, was there.  Her father had gone to America and in this old man's eyes, it was my grandfather, not he, who was living the full Jewish life.  They were looking to America for much more than money and mezuzahs , they needed to know that while they were breaking their necks to get a piece of matzah on Pesach, Seders were extravagant family affairs across the sea -- and Yiddishkeit flourished.  Otherwise the Jews of Silence would just have been a few lost souls abstaining from yeast in mid-March.

And so it is.  Israel is in a time that tries big men.  The iron curtain has been beaten into rockets and is falling on them.  (Ceasefires mean a time to reload.)  Israel needs our money.  Because their finances have been interrupted.  But that is only a small, small part of what they need.  They need our political clout, but that is a small, small amount of what they need.  They need our cries of support, but that too is a small, small part of what they need.

They know they are hated like no one else in a region where hate is the biggest cash crop and biggest export.  They know they are hated because they are Jews.  They know too that we are hated because we are Jews but they need to know that we know that too.  That the hate is bearable for us because we know we have something beautiful and in the words of Anne Frank we would never want to give it up.  

We look upon Israel with pride and sorrow, like we did a few decades ago, peering through that iron curtain.  They need to know that we celebrate Yiddishkeit, not bear it.  They need to know we don't hide it and we don't only remember it when somebody hates us.  Any burden is bearable if it is meaningful.  If we have meaning then they can bear it.  If we don't have meaning, then what are they safeguarding?

In the spring of 1967, when the world spoke of an impending second holocaust confronting Israel, the Rebbe spoke of wearing tefillin.  He quoted the Talmud that when we wear tefillin it invokes awe among all who see us and it protects us.  I know there is much kabalistic exegesis developing the theme, but to me it remains esoterica.

This I know.  When Israelis come to America, putting on tefillin often gains meaning for them.  They tell me so.  They tell me so in words and they tell me so in tefillin.  When Americans see soldiers in Lebanon and at the Kotel putting on tefillin, it fills them with something inexplicable.  I don't know why; the why I leave to the Rebbe.  I just know that it does.

On your ramparts oh Jerusalem I have placed watchmen, assure the prophets.  We see them and something shifts inside our chest cavity.  They see us and the prophet's assurance echoes.  In our wonderment something precious is guarded, nurtured and ready to be served when the kids laughing in the courtyard finish their game and come inside.  Free.  Safe.  Home.

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