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For Your Shabbat Table

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.
 

Be a Shochet, You'll Stay a Jew

The Communists rose to power when Naphtali, Tolchik to his friends, was young. His father didn't like the smell of it all and told Tolchik to become a shochet: to master the intricate, exacting practice of kosher butchering - the training takes years and the pay is lousy. "Become a shochet," said Tolchik's father, "if you'll be a shochet, you'll stay a Jew." 
 
Tolchik the shochet and his wife raised their children under the Soviets. By the early 1950's all had escaped, most of them with false passports. Except for their grown son Meir and his growing family. 
 
Their other son Berel had escaped with Chana Shneerson, posing as her son. Upon arrival to New York, Berel became a masterful diamond cutter, and (the grey Soviet's silver-lining) maintained his filial status with Chana (he had the keys to her apartment) and developed a warm relationship with her son, the Rebbe of Lubavitch. Tolchik and his wife, together with their daughter, settled in Montreal, his son Dovid was in Antwerp and Tolchik was happy, but for Meir's being held by the Soviets. 
 
There is a custom to receive matzah from one's Rebbe before Passover. Naturally, Berel would be doing so.
"When you receive matzah from the Rebbe," Tolchik told his son Berel, "mention to him your brother Meir." 
"But do not ask for a bracha, a blessing," continued Tolchik, "ask for a havtacha -- ask for the Rebbe's assurance -- that my Meir will make it out alive."
 
Berel never pushed anyone into doing something they did not want to do. And a chassid does not demand of his Rebbe. But Berel never refused his father. 
 
The Rebbe handed matzah to Berel. Berel mentioned his brother Meir and the Rebbe gave his bracha. "My father requests your assurance that Meir will come out."
 
The Rebbe's face grew dark and his hand shook. "Shlep mir nisht beim tzung!" (Don't wrench words out of me that I cannot say) the Rebbe answered with rare sting, and added, "My father-in-law accomplished greater things than this." 
 
Berel saw tears in the Rebbe's eyes begin to fall. The Rebbe gave Berel another piece of matzah. "You will give this to your brother."
 
"My brother Dovid in Belgium?" Berel asked. 
 
"No. Meir. Not necessarily in America but somewhere close by." 
 
A few years later the family got word that Meir had plans to spirit his family across the border with forged passports. He failed. More years passed. Berel held the matzah for his brother. Eighteen years he held onto that matzah: matzah, the Kabala calls it the bread of faith. 
 
Then they heard. Meir is free! With his wife! With his sons! With his daughter! They received visas to Canada (not necessarily America, but close by) and Berel got himself to Montreal just as fast as he could. Berel hadn't seen his brother in over twenty years. He ran towards his brother. His brother ran towards him. He gave his brother the piece of matza. And then they fell into each other's arms. 
 
Berel's story explains Jacob of our parsha. Jacob mourned his lost son Joseph as dead for over twenty years. He finally saw him -- a miracle! - but Jacob did not kiss him; he was saying the Shema. . . a jaw-dropping breach of human emotion. Berel demonstrates that a moment of faith does not separate between long-lost loves. It holds them together.

Oh draydel, draydel, draydel

When Mom and Dad have a really juicy tidbit to share that they don't want the kids to hear, they whisper it quietly.  If the kids come in the room they change the topic to something boring.  Kids pick up the trick.  When they are playing with the sensational and forbidden, they keep something innocuous around.  When an adult or a snitch is coming they quickly hide the contraband and make a big deal of playing with the boring, innocuous decoy.  Lookouts are great. 

Time was, when getting caught meant more than losing allowance, or a trip to the principal's office.  Stalin expropriated minors caught with a Jewish prayer book and threw them into state orphanages.  My father's cousin Hessel was among them.  (He survived.)  "Nadir, nadir, nadir, nisht zogen soidos fun cheder." (Never, Never, never, don't tell the secrets, they were drilled.  Their decoy was often a game of red-light-green-light.  Yellow light signaled caution; red light, full alert. 

In Hellenic Israel accused children were forced to bow before Zeus and swallow bacon.  In one instance seven sons, beginning with the eldest, were each commanded to bow, each refused and each met death.  Except the youngest.  Their mother begged Antiochus Epiphanes to speak privately with the two-year-old.  Do not betray your brothers, she encouraged her baby, be worthy of them, and when you join them, tell Father Abraham that while he prepared one son for sacrifice, I prepared seven.  

The decoy of choice in Hellenic Israel was a simple spinning top, which archeology indicates was common then.  Dray, as in draydel, is Yiddish for spin, hence its popularity continues under this name.    

Whether in ancient Israel or recent Russia, the punishment revealed the bond between child and book in all its remarkable dimensions. In both cases, children's games braced the parents to rebel with the sword when feasible, to endure the gulag when not. 

I once helped a prison deputy warden process Chanukah gifts donated by a Jewish group. 

     What's this? he fingered a purple, plastic draydel.  
     It's part of the holiday celebration, I assured him. 
     It has a treasured significance, I added, but I don't think that is what you were asking.  
     He laughed appreciatively. 

Should I have told him the two-and-a-half -millennia saga of this unpretentious pressed plastic, imbued with the blood of the martyred, the tears of the pious, the endurance of the faithful? 

Oh draydel, draydel, draydel, I made you out of clay, and the Almighty Himself breathed into you a soul of fire and you in turn tempered in His people a will of steel.  And as you do your exuberant spin, your dance of contagious ecstasy, we dance along with you.  

Against your dance iron curtains fall.  So we will spin your dance and spin your tale until the Almighty has you and us land in the land.  And when this spin is over, whatever letter we land on we will know: A great miracle happened there.

Did the Maccabees win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them?  
Were they fighting the bad guys?  They were fighting the Greeks: Athens!  The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece.  Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates, 
sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later.  Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body.  I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute.  Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek. 
The Maccabean revolt began - in large measure - when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem.  Irony of ironies, perhaps.  Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body.  We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah?  Why do Jews who insist they are "secular", who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit? 

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-
civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December.  But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah 
-- alone among the holidays - would never be forgotten. 

Chanukah makes no sense.  The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law.  But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren't looking for loopholes.  
They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself.  They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists.  Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai.  

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.
It offers no ladder to the soul.  

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you, 
the body and mind are at peace.  Like animals in pasture. 
But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content, 
He wouldn't need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies?  Not at all.  
Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount.  Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem.  Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium?  However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it.  No, the Greeks are not vanquished. 

But the Maccabees were not either.  And that  is a miracle.  That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns.  

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn't have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it's 'too Jewish', in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten.  There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory.  

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 
Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame. 
A witness of a people who - at the end of the very long day - did not waiver.

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