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For Your Shabbat Table

WITCHES, BLACK CATS, BULLS AND PLANES

Black cats don't bother me any more than white or brown ones do. The thirteenth floor is fine as long as the elevator is working. Horoscopes remain unread -regardless of whether we Tauruses need to think bull market or bear. 

So I read this parsha's admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now. Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 
Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 
Thou shalt not read omens.

Wait, it's starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant. I don't read horoscopes largely because I think they're bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday's Gemini for Thursday's Capricorn. But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles. 

But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.

What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips? They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control. And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers. 
At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive. "Our sole purpose," exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, "is to give Judaism a decent burial." He wasn't being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available. Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit. 

These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right. They were dead wrong - in hindsight. Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 

Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured. You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is. You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon:Bashert. 

Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie. Perhaps in more avenues that one. Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew. The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye. Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe's successors. 

Not that you're relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting. Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors. But if you checked the monitors, don't roll balls or whatever down the aisle. Enjoy your flight. To wherever. It's all bashert. All good. All the time.

For Hashem Your G-d Will Bless You

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco.  It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards.  A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind.  Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah.  

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman.  Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you.  In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me.  I asked her where she was from. 

"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment.  I gave up and she answered 'Vienna' in a voice kids use when you ask them what's their favorite ice cream. 

Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered.  

"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish."  
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish.  
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked.  
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon. 
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.

This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country.  I wasn't sure what was getting to me.

She now had her audience, she told her story: 

Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried.  
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!"  

Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison.  I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike! 
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!

That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha.  

Think us for a minute, think America, think 2014.  Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group.  Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. 

Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food.  We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating.  (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.) 

How much is spent on the consequence of digging in?  
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough."  

For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides.  
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals.  

This parsha alludes to more.  When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you. 

Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us. 
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak.  
A cow's head is near the ground, in the trough.  Where is ours?  

The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism.  Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health.  But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul.  And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul.  

Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right.  Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.

Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom.  For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.

A Mitzvah is a Diamond

It was a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the Sixties, challenging the young rabbi chairing the roundtable; how can you believe in G-d when science has proven... why keep kosher in an age of government inspection and refrigeration, isn't it racist to speak of the chosen people. The rabbi was doing his best. 

Sitting in the audience was an elderly rabbi, long black coat, elegant white beard. He rose to speak.
"The questions you are asking are good questions, but for this you don't need to come to Chabad. Anyone who has learned Torah can tell you these answers. But you came to Chabad; now let me tell you why you came." 

Everyone there was surprised he could speak English; the rabbi with the immaculate black coat and long white beard began his story.
A little boy was walking with his father down a steep hill in the heat of the day. They saw a man coming up the hill towards them, sweating, with a heavy sack on his shoulders weighing him down. When the man reached them the little boy asked what he had in his sack, why he was going up the hill, why he was working so hard. 

The man told the little boy that his oven had broken and he had to come down to the valley to get more stones to build himself an oven.
Why not get more stones, asked the little boy, and build a bigger oven that will keep you warmer and you can have more food -- there must be more stones still in the valley? Oh, you little boy, said the man, you don't yet know what it means to have to work, how hard it is to schlep. He put his free hand on the little boy's shoulder. When you'll be big like me you'll be happy with a little oven too. 

The little boy and his father continued down the hill.

They saw another man coming up the hill towards them. Same size man, same size sack, but this man didn't seem so weighed down.
What have you in the sack, the little boy wanted to know, is it stones, are you going to build yourself a small oven? 

Oh no, the man smiled broadly, no oven building for me! See, I was down in the valley digging for turnips and I hit a treasure. Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! I have two daughters, two weddings to make, I'm going to open a store and stop peddling from town to town, build myself a house with wooden floors and... 
Why not get more diamonds, interrupted the boy, there must be more left in the valley? Son, said the old man putting his free hand on the little boy's shoulder, believe me, I searched the valley clean. I don't think there is another diamond down there. 

The little boy and his father continued down the hill.

You see, said the little boy's father, when you're carrying diamonds they're never too heavy. The first guy may have had diamonds too, but he didn't know what they were. 

The old rabbi with the long white beard looked at the college kids.

"You see what the father was telling the boy? A mitzvah is a diamond. Every mitzvah that we do is a precious, precious thing. This is why you come to Chabad; not just to learn a mitzvah but to learn that it is a diamond. When you know they are diamonds then most of your questions will be answered." 

I heard this story on a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the early Eighties, challenging the rabbi chairing the roundtable; the questions had shifted with the times: why do we need mitzvahs when we can meditate instead. 

A man got up and told this story that he had heard twenty years earlier on a cold wintry night a few blocks from where they were now. He told the story well and ended with the words, "It's been twenty years since Rabbi Kazarnovsky stood up that night to tell that story. I could tell you dozens of experiences I've had since then, but to you it would be meaningless." 

I jolted. It was just four weeks since my grandfather died. Rabbi Kazarnovsky was my grandfather.

I type the story with pride and awe. Pride because he was my grandfather; awed because he was my grandfather. 

Passion, demands the parshah. You can't be Jewish out of a sense of duty. An observant Jew? an unsatisfying label. Like an obedient child, a dutiful husband, a law-abiding citizen, an "observant Jew" accepts obligations - yet keeps on trudging. I know we're the Chosen People, moans Tevye, but isn't it time you chose someone else? 

Duty and diligence are not calculated to inspire, they're heavy rocks. But when duty and diligence are born of passion they are tough as steel and as brilliant diamonds. A heavy load? Maybe, on the scales: but not on my back. 

"You have to be a rabbi," a friend told me when I was seventeen, "it's expected of you, it's even in your genes." A duty, he was saying. And I thank a rabbi with an immaculate, long, black coat and an elegant, long, white beard, for showing me it's a diamond

Moshiach, Redemption and the Importance of Children

Five-hundred twenty one years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice. From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims. An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy. But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity. While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy. 

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?" Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy. Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one. He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son. 

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely. In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier. Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years. Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us. Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week. At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap. And children on her bed, and on the couch. Toys everywhere you step. Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues. So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment. "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread. "Amen, amen". 

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology. Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages. Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it. It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality. Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory. 

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'. See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother. Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves. Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah: 
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain. Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption. Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David; 
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children! 
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.

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