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For Your Shabbat Table


If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks.

Jewish cookbooks have changed.  Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”.  Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation.  There is a dearth of color pictures in most.  Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them.  In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie.  In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish.  In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha!  Azhi hanna! Come on in.”

Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them.  A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”.  You can’t cook in a bookstore. 

Through food, we connect with each other.  Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community.  It feeds upon itself.  In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died.  She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher.  “I have to do something,” she decided.  Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant.  Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.

It is the Nine Days.  A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem.  We eat no meat during this time.  Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate.  Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat.  The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel.  But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve .  You are what you eat.  What you refrain from eating defines you.

And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision.  For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction.  In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis.  Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again.  Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 

This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.   This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet.  For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission.  That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through.  And they brought those experiences with them.  For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 

The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.


Mourning and Continuance

A dill pickle is good.

Pistachio ice cream is good.

Together, they are not good.

Good cooking means combining food properly.

Egg and onion is good -- two foods that complement each other.

Ginger and dates – aha! now that’s food.

Combining flavors that are not just different but are opposites, has each flavor play on the other, tantalizing each other's strengths and subtleties until a new and dynamic flavor burst forth.

When the Rebbe had a heart attack – it was Simchas Torah, the happiest night of the year with vigorous, near-riotous dancing until late at night – and the heart attack was sudden and severe – the Chassidim in his shul danced.  And cried.  Danced and cried.

Mourning means feeling loss.  And it is a mitzvah to mourn the lost Bet Hamikdash. It is a mitzvah to mourn the loss of the just – this Shabbat is the Yahrtzeit of Aaron, Moses’s brother and this week begins the yearly nine-day mourning for the Bet Hamikdash, Jerusalem’s building where heaven met earth. 

The mitzvah of mourning largely translates into refraining, from weddings, haircuts, swimming, new clothes.  It means feeling loss – not so much doing something as much as not doing anything.

There is also the mitzvah of continuance.  Learning the life and thoughts of Aaron and making them your own.  Iterating that his life was one of spirit and that if we continue his spirit than he lives now as much as he did in his lifetime.  Studying the layout and function of the Bet Hamikdash, that were it to be rebuilt tomorrow, we could become its tour guides.  Both are active defiance of the physical loss, the opposite of mourning.

And both are the enigma of Jewish response.  Remembering and ignoring.  Remembering the loss to such degree that we never accept it.  Ignoring the loss like it never happened because that is the only way to ensure that we survive and that the loss does not endure.

It is a poignant paradox.  Counterintuitively, they play on each other.  In yeder Yiddishe simcha is faran a trer, in every Yiddish joy is a tear.  Not letting go.  Not getting lost in memory.  It pulls and pushes yins and yangs.  And with it, a nation is nourished.

Planting In Tears With Joy

I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, some years ago.  It tells the horror and it tells it well.  I've seen Schindler's List; in a sense, it portrays the horror more effectively than any documentary has.  Both are missing a crucial element - the magnitude of Jewish response.

For this I look to two books in particular: "Responsa of the Holocaust" and "Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust". 

"Responsa" records halachic questions Jews posed at the time: May one save his child for a selection if it is certain another child will replace him? May one deny her Jewishness to escape? If the forced labor begins before dawn and ends after nightfall when does one put on teffilin?  There was one Jew in the Kovno Ghetto who could answer these questions.  He had been pressed into the service as chronicler of the Nazi's library: the Germans amaseed books, community and family documents and Jewish articles for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race" - Hitler's own Holocaust Museum. 

The second book tells of one Bronia Koczicki who in the Bochnia Ghetto brought her two small sons to be blessed by the saintly Reb Aaron of Belz who was there at the time.  He blessed them that "G-d will help".  But Bronia would not leave.  She asked that her little boys be blessed with "fine generations".  He placed his hands on their heads  and blessed them.

"The woman's lost her mind," people sighed.  "Children are being killed in the streets every day and she's worried what type of grandchildren she will have?" Bronia didn't pay them any mind.  "We will live through this war," she kept repeating to her children.

The first book tells of people who lived with G-d regardless of whether they saw G-d living with them.  The second tells of a woman who saw that the future determines the present.

"He who plants in tears, with joy shall he harvest," declared the psalmist David.  Not only as a reward, note the commentaries, but as a consequence.  And move your comma, they add; He who plants in tears with joy: shall harvest.  Tears because the world is cold, dark and cruel.  Joy because everything is His plan and He has made me a part of it. Bronia's faith is awesome. 

The third Temple is built and only waiting for us to allow it to descend, maintains our tradition.  For the tzadikim, the rare righteous, the destruction and exile never took place.  Bronia, either through learning or instinct, lived with this.

And so did those who questioned in the first book.  So did those who davened Yom Kippur in the forests of Poland. And when we study and fulfill Torah then we do too - even if we don't know it yet.  Somewhere, deep inside of us resonates a tzadik. 

The sad days of The Three Weeks, the period we find ourselves in now, preceding Tisha B'Av, will become the most joyous.  Not that the sadness will be obliterated: it will be the cause of the joy. Had we not mourned for two thousand years what would there have been to rejoice?  Who from the ancient people would be left to rejoice?  Paradoxiacally, our joy and sadness kept us us from becoming an ancient people: it ensured we would remain a timeless people.  This joy and sadness were not opposites - they were extensions of G-d, of His eternity.

Children of the Holocaust indeed, a befitting memorial to the holy martyrs.  May the All Merciful resurrect his Temple and us in time for this year's Tisha B'Av.

Moses Our Leader

"Money," a holocaust survivor declared at one lunch-n-learn, "is only appreciated when you lose it."  

Parting, then, is a sorrow.  And whatever sweetness might be present is only an accentuated memory, now made tender because it is lost. 

So goodbyes are touching and memories are by nature evocative, but loss, just plain loss is, well, loss. An absence of something you want.  And because you once had it, you now know what you are missing.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov and a barren couple.  He blesses them that they will have a child, a little boy, within the year.  The child is born and dies before his third birthday. 

"Rebbe," they beseech him, "if it was not meant to be that we have a baby then we should not have had a baby.  But that the Almighty should give him to us only to take him away?"

Loss has no redeeming qualities, and when suggestions are made of what good comes from being robbed, they ring as unappreciative.  Unappreciative that the one suggesting G-d's reason for the loss doesn't appreciate what has been lost. 

For forty years he led his flock through the desert.  That is how the Bible stories tell it. 

Some flock!  They challenged him every bit of the way.  He had to literally fight with them, with swords and spears.  They accused him of nepotism, taking financial impropriety, illegitimate marriage, double standards and when none of these stuck they said they would rather be slaves in Egypt. . .where they could eat cucumbers.  (These are direct quotes.) 

Nor did they all even go to his funeral.  Aaron his brother's funeral was nearly twice as well attended.  So neither in life nor in death was he adored or even accepted.  Still he is forever more our teacher, our leader.  Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rebbe.  Being a leader and being popular do not mean the same thing.  

Now in this parsha he is told that he will not be leading his people further.  He asks the One who sent him: whoever is replacing me, don't give him such a hard time.  I never asked for this job, but you insisted.  I took it.  And then when I was ready to lead the people into the land, you took the job away form me.  Don't do this to my protégé. 

My successor is going to have to deal with all sorts of characters.  Make him of character that he will be able to relate to each of them according to their character.

And make him a leader.  Those who seek leadership don't lead: they stand out front and take consensus of which way the winds of fashion want them to blow that day and they walk there ahead of everyone and call that leadership. Like a dog on a leash that runs ahead of its master but is controlled from behind.  

Make him a leader, Oh G-d, make him a leader. 

Leadership is felt in its absence.  Moses pleads, "Don't give them a reason to miss me." 

A Walk in the Valley of the Shadow

This week was a celebration of the contemporary – with vivid reminders of the past.  This week’s Parsha is an echo of antiquity -- with a distinctly contemporary ring.

I stood in a cemetery in Queens, New York, awaiting my allotted 120 seconds at the Rebbe’s resting place on the yartzeit.  The line stretched down the narrow road between the tombstones as far as the eye could see.  Every thirty feet or so, mounted screens played videos of the Rebbe speaking thirty years earlier: himself evoking Biblical persona.  The men in line – and I saw only men, the women being in a line of their own – prayed and studied silently, contemplatively, either from booklets or iPhones, breaking to text and whatsapp or quietly take a phone call.  One man, pressed to catch his flight out of nearby JFK wordlessly excused himself for jumping the queue by waving his iPhone flashing a boarding pass, as everyone smiled and let him through.

Across the nearby Atlantic three young murdered boys were buried. 

Jonathan Saks says that the Rebbe is the perfect answer to Hitler: just as the Jews were chased down in hate, so the Rebbe chased them down in love.  But it was more than that; the Rebbe was the answer to Modernity.  Not contemporariness: not the “being with it”, “hip”, fun, urbanely fluent in multiple languages and tech-savvy, that people benignly think of when they hear the word modern. But modern: as in the movement that gave rise to National Socialism. 

Modernity questioned: what is a Jew?  If he is neither religion nor nation, never dies and nor is he contained, then he must be a . . .a germ. . .and must be. . .  let’s not go there. . . Modernity did not start out with that threat and many are aghast to consider Nazis as a modern society, but it was, nonetheless.  A disquiet, a discomfort with this, the discomfiting Jew.

What did modernity threaten the Jew?  That the Jew is nothing special.  This was a new threat, for until then the church (and mosque) recognized that the Jews were the People of the Book.  They may have discredited and claimed supersession of people and book, claiming new and improved versions, but they did not see the Jew as inconsequential or accidental. 

Modernity did.  Religion is an opiate, the Bible is man-made and G-d is dead.  Without a Creator there could be no creation and in lieu of Purpose -- the Jewish gift to Mankind – there was now randomness, and chaos, a throwback to the pantheon of pagan worships. Balaam, then, the soothsayer of antiquity, and more so Balak, his patron, was the consummate modern anti-Semite.  And in a twist of fate, instead of curses issuing forth from this Goebbels, the majestic tapestry of Jewish destiny flows poetically, movingly, powerfully from his mouth.

This was the crux of Balak’s ethos and the ethos of his hire.  There is a delightful nuance in Hebrew that is utterly lost in translation.  Vayikra and Vayikar both refer to a calling: Vayikra is a term of endearment, Vayikar is a cold nonchalance, with a good measure of hold-your-nose as well.  And G-d called unto Moses with Vayikra, and He called to Balaam with Vayikar.  His speech reflected their ethos, their way of seeing things their being. As they call to Him so He responds. Happenstance will echo nonchalance; purpose evokes love.

Nowhere in the Torah, to my knowledge, does metaphor serve so public and central a role as this parsha.  Parable is offered and the virtually audible subtext is there as well.  And as Balak brings his soothsayer to the mountaintop to gaze upon the Jews and bid them ill, as Balak provides the setting and perspective with which to see the Jews in a bad light, as the Jew is highlighted for wrongs perceived and real, as these shortcomings are exhibited in the heat of condemnation and the condemned stand to be damned and condemned by the eloquence of the prosecutor. . . . their evil is shifted to good.  The Minister of Propaganda with his guile, gall, technology and rhetoric, as he stands to curse the Jew, his curses turn to blessings.

And Balak is mocked, “You claim the Jews left Egypt?  They didn’t leave Egypt, they were taken out of Egypt!”  And Balak seeks to silence his prophet-of-doom turned prophet-of-hope, but the prophet mocks him.  “You think you can stop the destiny of the Jew from unfolding?!?”

But what of their sins?  Their sins are many, varied and consistent.  Even their prophets say so.  No no no, insists Balaam. That is not how G-d sees them.  He sees them as pure: tainted, sullied, but pure.  Remove the dirt, remove them from ugliness and they, the Jews, will shine.  They might wallow in filth of their own making, but only because the world conspired to make them forget who they are.  Once reminded of who they are, they can do nothing but sparkle.  Like diamonds.

Which brings us back to the Yartzeit.  No one in all of history proved and proclaimed the (begrudged) blessings of Balak like the Rebbe.  He had faith in Jews that they denied in themselves.  And if their denial got heated and personal the Rebbe grew ever more loving and devoted to the diamonds.  His diamonds.  The Rebbe saw the Jew as a spark of the Infinite Himself, on a journey ordained by the Infinite One Himself, towards a destiny above rubies and pearls. 

And yea, though they walk through the valley of the shadow of death:

How the Rebbe wept for Jews in Russia denied a Shabbos.

How the Rebbe wept for a child in the Midwest who does not know an Aleph.

How the Rebbe wept for a soldier in the Mideast who lost his arm.

No matter which valley of the shadow of that which drains the Jew of their life force, the Rebbe did not fear  --

How that weeping galvanized into a cri-du-guerre to bring Shabbos to Russia, teach Aleph Bais to Brandon, Eyal has much to offer you, he is not handicapped, he is exceptional –

For the Rebbe reminded us that Thou art with me, and so our fear (and our shame) became more manageable.

Where the naked eye perceived disinterest, the Rebbe saw deep interest.

Where the soothsayer spoke of the undeniable slope of assimilation, the Rebbe spoke of lighting candles.

Where the critic saw inequity, the Rebbe saw. . . I don’t know.  Diamonds, I guess.

And in an ending that the Rebbe could have written himself: who is the progeny of this hateful, evil, dyed-in-the-wool hater of Jews?  Who issues forth from his loins?  David, King of Israel, descendant of the convert Ruth, progenitor of the righteous Moshiach.  Whaddaya know?

Because, in this magnificent creation in the hands of Omnipotent Creator nothing is by chance and random, and at its core, the greatest evil is only there to call forth the deepest good, so then, in this logic, of course, Balak gives rise to Moshiach.  Of course. 

The evil is not spent.  Three boys.  Three brave and wonderful mothers who echo this all.  I grieve. We grieve.  For them.  For us.  For too long. We see no good in horror, nor should we.  G-d should remove evil from its charade, that a long-suffering people should rejoice in their destiny, nothing but rejoice in their destiny.  That mothers should be allowed to let their diamonds sparkle, and bask in their luminance.

I can’t think of anything that would have made the Rebbe happier.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data. 

No matter, you've seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth's land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations' condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel. 

I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried. 

That was the thought then, we would finally "take our rightful place amongst the family of nations". What happened?

America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade. 

"We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored. 

Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: "Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists" …There was an unspoken comfort in that - not alone were we singled out. 
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don't make us comfortable.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned. 

A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week's parsha, emerged as a power of goodness. 

The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam - nearly three billion people - a numerical absurdity when you think of it.

But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family's particularism. 

Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. "Alone we feel very ordinary" said one after the '67 war, "just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us." 

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can't always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.

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