Printed from

For Your Shabbat Table


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 twenty years already 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 their 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 Siberias 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 makes a man a leader?
Man in the human sense.
Is it the standing out up front?
Leading the parade?
Like a dog on a leash leads his master:
The leash gives guidance from behind.
Such leadership is deceptive.
Sometimes even deceptive to the one in front.
Most pitifully to the one up front.

The baby rules the house, say the British.
Power and ambition conjure up the image of tyranny more than the image of influence.
But real power is the ability to influence, not impose.
And worthy ambition is the desire to bring out the best in people.
The reign of the martyr began with it, the tyrant never had it.

Behind every man in his palace is the power behind the throne, yes?
Then who has the power?
Him?  The pitiful declarant insisting that he wears the pants?
Her?  Is the power from behind an influence, or is it a nagging that won't let itself be ignored?

Leadership is of, by and for the lead.
Not because an honest Abraham said so, because that is the nature of leadership.
Leadership is cyclical, not linear.

Leadership is no great honor.
That is why we must honor it.
It takes us to great places --
But only if we let it.
So we honor leadership hoping to influence ourselves to let us be led.

Denying leadership is trying to break a cycle, which doesn't work.
Campaigning for leadership is trying to impose on a cycle, which doesn't work.
The man who looks not to lead, the type who runs from burning bushes, is trying to deny the cycle.  Honor him.

We not only deserve our leaders.
We decide them.

Beyond The Fringe

by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Our sedra ends with one of the great commands of Judaism—tzitzit, the fringes we wear on the corners of our garments as a perennial reminder of our identity as Jews and our obligation to keep the Torah’s commands:

G‑d spoke to Moses, telling him to speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments for all generations. Let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe: look at it and recall all the commandments of the L‑rd and observe them, so that you do not stray after your heart and eyes which in the past have led you to immorality. You will thus remember and keep all My commandments, and be holy to your G‑d.

So central is this command that it became the third paragraph of the Shema, the supreme declaration of Jewish faith. I once heard the following commentary from my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinovitch.

He began by pointing out some of the strange features of the command. On the one hand, the sages said that the command of tzitzit is equal to all the other commands together, as it is said: “Look at it and recall all the commandments of the L‑rd and observe them.” It is thus of fundamental significance.

On the other hand, it is not absolutely obligatory. It is possible to avoid the command of fringes altogether by never wearing a garment of four or more corners. Maimonides rules: “Even though one is not obligated to acquire a [four-cornered] robe and wrap oneself in it in order to [fulfil the command of] tzitzit, it is not fitting for a pious individual to exempt himself from this command.”1 It is important and praiseworthy, but not categorical. It is conditional: if you have such a garment, then you must put fringes on it. Why so? Surely it should be obligatory, in the way that tefillin (phylacteries) are.

There is another unusual phenomenon. In the course of time, the custom has evolved to fulfil the command in two quite different ways: the first, in the form of a tallit (robe, shawl) which is worn over our other clothes, specifically while we pray; the second in the form of an undergarment, worn beneath our outer clothing throughout the day.

Not only do we keep the one command in two different ways, we also make different blessings over the two forms. Over the tallit, we say: “Blessed are You . . . who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us towrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” Over the undergarment, we say, “. . . who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment.” Why is one command split into two in this way?

He gave this answer: there are two kinds of clothing. There are the clothes we wear to project an image. A king, a judge, a soldier, all wear clothing that conceals the individual and instead proclaims a role, an office, a rank. As such, clothes, especially uniforms, can be misleading. A king dressed as a beggar will not (or would not, before television) be recognized as royalty. A beggar dressed as a king may find himself honored. A policeman dressed as a policeman carries with him a certain authority, an aura of power, even though he may feel nervous and insecure. Clothes disguise. They are like a mask. They hide the person beneath. Such are the clothes we wear in public when we want to create a certain impression.

But there are other clothes we wear when we are alone, that may convey more powerfully than anything else the kind of person we really are: the artist in his studio, the writer at his desk, the gardener tending the roses. They do not dress to create an impression. To the contrary: they dress as they do because of what they are, not because of what they wish to seem.

The two kinds of tzitzit represent these different forms of dress. When we engage in prayer, we sense in our heart how unworthy we may be of the high demands G‑d has made of us. We feel the need to come before G‑d as something more than just ourselves. We wrap ourselves in the robe, the tallit, the great symbol of the Jewish people at prayer. We conceal our individuality: in the language of the blessing over the tallit, we “wrap ourselves in a fringed garment.” It is as if we were saying to G‑d: I may only be a beggar, but I am wearing a royal robe, the robe of your people Israel who prayed to You throughout the centuries, to whom You showed a special love and took as Your own. The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask G‑d to judge us not for what we are, but for what we wish to be.

The deeper symbolism of tzitzit, however, is that it represents the commandments as a whole (“look at it and recall all the commandments of the L‑rd”)—and these becomes part of what and who we are only when we accept them without coercion, of our own free will. That is why the command of tzitzit is not categorical. We do not have to keep it. We are not obligated to buy a four-cornered garment. When we do so, it is because we chose to do so. We obligate ourselves. That is why opting to wear tzitzit symbolises the free acceptance of all the duties of Jewish life.

This is the most inward, intimate, intensely personal aspect of faith, whereby in our innermost soul we dedicate ourselves to G‑d and His commands. There is nothing public about this. It is not for outer show. It is who we are when we are alone, not trying to impress anyone, not wishing to seem what we are not. This is the command of tzitzit as undergarment, beneath, not on top of, our clothing. Over this, we make a different blessing. We do not talk about “wrapping ourselves in a fringed garment”—because this form of fringes is not for outward show. We are not trying to hide ourselves beneath a uniform. Instead, we are expressing our innermost commitment to G‑d’s word and call to us. Over this we say the blessing, “who has commanded us concerning the precept of tzitzit,” because what matters is not the mask but the reality, not what we wish to seem but what we really are.

In this striking way, tzitzit represent the dual nature of Judaism. On the one hand, it is a way of life that is public, communal, shared with others across the world and through the ages. We keep Shabbat, celebrate the festivals, observe the dietary laws and the laws of family purity in a way that has hardly varied for many centuries. That is the public face of Judaism—the tallit we wear, the cloak woven out of the 613 threads, each a command.

But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to G‑d that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens. That internal conversation—the opening of our heart to Him who brought us into existence in love—is not for public show. Like the fringed undergarment, it stays hidden. But it is no less real an aspect of Jewish spirituality. The two types of fringed garment represent the two dimensions of the life of faith—the outer persona and the inner person, the image we present to the world and the face we show only to G‑d.


How To Make Great Kids

Have you ever met someone truly great?  A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in?  If you haven't yet, you have something to look forward to. 

Some thirty-five years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times.  He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered.  Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: "What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?" 

The student, Jonathan Sacks, is the former chief rabbi of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great).  When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him.  They asked what made him become a rabbi.  He responded that the Rebbe's question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge - started him on that road.

Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness.  In the Rebbe's room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness.  

He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers.  Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.

"And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles" begins the parsha.  "Kindle those flames," encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver.  Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.

I am now raising my grandchildren's parents.  Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins.  I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness.

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.