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For Your Shabbat Table

Kobe, Brooklyn, and Egypt

"My grandson made a seder in Kobe!" "150 people!" "In Kobe Japan!" "My grandson!" I was on a trip back to Brooklyn several summers ago, and had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community. A butcher by trade. Polish born. He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson's Pesach, some three months before. 
I didn't get the excitement. I understand a Zaide's nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them. But. . .Chabad has been doing that for decades. This man's son is one of South Africa 's most popular rabbis. I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice. 

He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket. "Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!" I was there. During the war. The Shangchaier. The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas. They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east. They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai. 

In Reb Shimon's living room wall are dozens of family pictures. Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids. Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America. There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building. They both have on bands with the Jewish star. "It's my sister on her wedding day,' he had told me years before, "In the Warsaw Ghetto. This picture is all I have of my family." 

I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.

Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody." Now my einikle is making sedorim . In Kobe!" You see," he settled into a conversation. "Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) 'Show me your face.' and he was answered "I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.' The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won't see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along. Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . ." 

Life doesn't always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant. You have to just do it and figure it out later. Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah. 

The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon's Kobe. The Jews, coming form G-d's deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea. Should they fight? Surrender? Pray? The response was none of the above. "Move on." Just follow what I say and it will all work out. 

Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why. He still doesn't. Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe. For 150 people!

L'Chaim to Chutzpah!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he's in the miracle business.  Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that's hard.  And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in.  They pretty much did.  

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. .  . the sheep (no, I don't know why and let's not go there).  It was the portent of, oh, I don't know, the television?  Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window!  Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you.  We call it chutzpah. 

That's why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach.  Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind: a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been.  

The chutzpah they kept.  The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right.  The Jews who survived Europe sixty plus years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah.  The Jews in America, who were bombarded with "The Disappearing Jew" series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing.  Their own thing. 

The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim - the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt).  The Jews are defined by he who defines them.  (Mitzvhas are often called signs - definitions).  

So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don't get annoyed.  Think chutzpah (it's also recommended  for the blood pressure). 

All those sheep and TV's are not our reality.  Turn it off.  Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long.  And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind.

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Sound like double trouble?  Over-employment?  The latest synagogue sitcom?  Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 

We started that way.  Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there.  Moses’ older brother never was quite his associate rabbi.  Aaron was vastly more popular.  He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants’ business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home.  Mr. Nice.

Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal.  The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right.

Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace.  Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise.  Torah insists on both, hence a team was needed for the making of a people – not an individual.

Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, leadership qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged, and accusations of nepotism drained him.  Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 

The brothers’ dichotomy did not abate with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron’s funeral nearly doubled Moshe’s.  Not surprisingly, it was only upon Moshe’s passing that despair threatened the people.  But while Aaron’s popularity earned him a larger funeral, Moshe’s instruction earned him the role of leader.  Aaron’s passing evoked mourning; Moshe’s passing created a terrifying void.  Like money, you appreciate leadership when you don’t have it.

We need our Aarons and we need our Moshes (including our intra-personal, internal ones).  One without the other is unbalanced.  If we favor the peace over truth because peace doesn’t demand of us and truth does, we’ll get neither.  It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is not a sitcom.

I Will Be As I Will Be

"Where were you?"  Whether the question is from Mom, the boss, the wife, the husband or the grown children; they are not asking, they are accusing: Why weren't you where you were supposed to be?
 

Your answer is an excuse.  Unless you answer "I've been here the whole time."

 

A shepherd sees a little lamb run off.  The shepherd runs after the lamb: to save it from wolves, to ensure the lamb has enough water and enough tender green grass.

 

While chasing the lamb, he sees a bush on fire, but it isn't burning.  He takes off his shoes in deference.  He is told by he-knows-who to go free the people from Pharaoh.  

 

But they will ask me Your name, what do I say? asks the shepherd.  A bizarre question matched by an equally perplexing answer: tell them my name is I Will Be As I Will Be.   (It is the first recorded conversation between the world's greatest teacher and the world's foremost student.)

 

What is your name?  A name is how we relate; it defines who is speaking to whom.  If you say Dad, Mr. Smith, Dr. Smith or Sonny or Bubba you're not talking about you or them; you are articulating a relationship.  

 

What is your name?  How have you related to these people as Pharaoh threw their sons into the Nile, kidnapped their daughters, bathed in their newborns' blood? Used their children's bodies to fill quotas of unmade bricks?   Where were you?

 

And He answers: Tell them I Will Be As I Will Be.  Where was I?  I was with them the whole time.  When Pharaoh bathed in their babies' blood, it was my blood that was spilled.   When he shoved their tiny limbs into spaces meant for bricks, it was me who was shoved in there.  Everything they endured, I endured.  Everyone who tortured them tortured me.   Imo Anochi betzora I am with them in their suffering.

 

A bush is on fire but it is not consumed.  A nation is threatened with death -- killed time and time again -- but it does not die. 

 

But how does the bush burn without being consumed?  For it is I in the fire.  Just as I live forever, they live with me.  Just as these people live forever, I live with them.    We will get burnt on the way.  We will suffer.  But we will suffer together.  And we will not be consumed.   Alone.  Together.

 

Why though is all this suffering and retelling and reliving of this suffering not melancholy to those who live it and tell it and live it again?  Because it reminds them of the second phase of the words spoken to the barefooted shepherd.  That together we will live, we will leave.  With tangible treasure and unmitigated spirit.

Live With Death; Die With Life

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O'Rourke, watch it when it does nothing.  If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card. 
 
Many act like it ain't happening.  They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead's hair and apply them with make-up.   We're here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head.  
 
They exchange stories of (I'm not making this up) the deceased's delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!)  and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca "because Dad loved the water".  But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown.  
 
Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get 'there' in time or at least get there for the funeral?   
 
And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges.   They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters.  Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.   
 
Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads.  And they listen.  Bury me with my parents.  And they listen.  I will tell you the end of days.  They listen but no words come.  I will bless you.  They listen and we echo their hearing.  
 
The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession.  Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many. 
 
An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live.  She was neither alarmed nor distressed.  I've lived a good life, said she, and I am old.   And I'm happy; my grandchildren didn't speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do.  She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola.  She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem.   Nor was there a generation gap:  she knew her grandchildren shared her world.  But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn's first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language. 
 
It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny.  That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren.  Everything we want, we want for our kids.  More than a man's vacations, more than a man's portfolio, if you want to know a man's dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children. 
 
Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob's death and then Joseph's: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life.  Actually, not so incongruously.   
 
Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?    In the face of finality the charades of life stop. 
 
Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds.  Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together.   At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving.  Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed.   The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood.  And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged.   
 
The process exhausts us.  Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.

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