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For Your Shabbat Table

Chametz vs. Matzah

Matzah.  Thin, flat bread: either identical, square-shaped crackers if they are machine-made, or round, varying personalities if they are baked in the original fashion.  

Bread.  Soft, light, fluffy sponge-like substance that almost melts when you put it in your mouth.  White on the inside and perfectly crusted on the outside.    

What is the difference between them?  Their ingredients are identical (as long as the bakery eschews additives, colorants, preservatives).   The difference is air.  Little puffs of this intangible element are trapped in the bread's dough.  They try forcing themselves out, upwards, and force the dough to expand.  Remove the air, and matzah and bread -- chametz -- become indistinguishable. 

"Why is this night different form all other nights?"  The prohibition of chametz on Pesach is one of the most stringent decrees in all of Torah.  Pork, shrimp, stolen goods, none of these forbidden foods must be eradicated from one's home the way chametz must be.  Only idols and their accessories are judged so severely.  If the only difference between matzah crackers and Wonder bread is . . . air, then what is the big deal with air?  And why particularly on Pesach is it an issue? 

Two individuals.  Both are equally gifted: equally bright, charming, wealthy and healthy.  One is modest and one is a megalomaniac.  What is the difference between them? Nothing.  Air.  Luft, as we call it in Yiddish.  A overbearing sense of self  which puffs up one's self-image.  It distorts reality.  Ego has no relation to actual self-worth or awareness of one's strengths and weaknesses.  Ego is a condition where self becomes all-consuming.  Like a fireplace without a chimney, such a person has no escape valve for bloated subjectivity.  It fumes inside, doing irreparable harm.  
Look at the letters comprising the words chametz and matzah.  The mem and tzadi they both share.  It is the heh and chet that separates them.  Chet and heh themselves are virtually identical, only the heh, matzah's letter, has an opening at the top.  A chimney to allow some of the Me Generation out and afford room for a more realistic vision.  It may be just a small hole on top: that is all that is necessary for Teshuva to begin its work. 

Yet  self can have its advantages too.  It can build a strong character, something which has come in handy in two thousand years of exile.  But self-worth must be founded on something real and enduring.  Something purposeful, not a flimsy mood-swinging ego.  Self worth means knowing that each of us was created for a certain reason, a purpose to be accomplished solely by you.  Once we destroy ego, in a process we call Pesach, we are capable of self worth.  On Shavuot, fifty days later, it is already a mitzvah to have chametz.  

A healthy self-image is one based on purpose and devoid of ego.  It is not as easy as it sounds to separate the two and destroy one of them.  It is understandable that when Pesach comes around we're tired.  But we are also gratified.  We've removed all chametz;  all that remains is a clean slate and a simple, flat cracker: the bread of Faith.


If you want to gage an American Jewish community, Ben Gurion is purported to have said, don’t bother checking out their synagogues and centers.  See if they have a kosher restaurant.  He could have been talking about Pesach.  Forget about what’s going on in shul or who is going to shul.  Forget about the dining rooms. You want to see Pesach?  Look in the kitchen.

Growing up, the mark for me between the haves and the have-nots of who has a real Pesach and who does not was all wrapped up in aluminum foil.  If the countertops, refrigerators, sinks and even the faucets – especially the faucets – having been exposed to non-Pesach cooking the year long, now for Pesach were plastered and enveloped in layers of protective aluminum foil, creating a virtual, new, above–level surface to create and celebrate a Pesach,  then this home had a full Pesach. 

A Pesach complete with sleepless nights (she was up ‘til four in the morning!).  Of cleaning underneath the mattresses, emptying every closet, oversized grocery lists (the check-out girl took one look at my three carts and you know what she said?) family from out-of-town and visitors or friends all getting around a long, extended table, probably with  a folding table or two added to the end with rented chairs and. . . all of this was visible in the folds of the aluminum foil around the faucets and the edges of the countertops.

My sister from Brazil once showed me an advertisement that caught her eye – that caught her imagination.  A picture of a home library with leather-bound classics, museum-quality art and a single, well-place antique.  The caption read, “You don’t have to look in the kitchen to know they own a Cuisinart.”

Pesach cannot be known from the prayers recited in shul(even though I love the tune for Pesach morning davening and feel cheated that it is squeezed between two seder nights).  Pesach cannot be known from four questions or sweet wine or even from Maxwell House haggadahs.  Pesach can’t even be known from Pesach.

Pesach in a child’s mind, the place where memories are made, where memories are solidified, jelled, preserved, slow-roasted and developed into full-bodied palates – that Pesach is made in the preparations.

It was once, I couldn’t have been more than ten, when a new family from Persia had moved to Nashville and discovered us just before Pesach.  They came to my parents’ home to get shmurah matzah.  Like everyone they instinctively came to the kitchen door (few people even know where our front door was).  They walked in to the kitchen, saw the foil and, ”Ahhhh! Just like in Iran!”  I was surprised only because I couldn’t imagine Iran having anything so advanced as our aluminum foil.  But I knew that this family knew, really knew what Pesach is.  I knew also that they felt at home.

Nothing grows outside of its environment.  And when that environment must be created, nurtured for a specific life to spring forth therefrom, then the preparations become that much more necessary.  You can go out and order in soup and roasted chicken.  You cannot go out and order in a family focus that brings all these forces together and from them creates a something out of relative nothing.  Like prayer, davening, you can’t put nothing in and expect to take something out.  If you don’t sweat for it than how can it ever get into your blood?

Close your eyes and see the rows of tables with men, women and children finding place around the dining room.  Hear the singing that you love and inhale the distinctively Pesach smells.  You will be awed by the sanctity of the simple acts we do: washing, reciting, eating, drinking.  What binds this all together is wrapped up in silver foil.

Mrs. Sandviches.

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930. She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey. The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads. 

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time. His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers'Paradise. In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing. 

My grandmother came in to his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand. She saw the Rebbe's face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.

The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted. It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.

My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion. 

She would end each telling with: But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!

I don't think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm. I think if she had she would never have been the person she was. (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher. They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches. She told them she works hard to understand them, why don't they work to understand her? The teasing stopped.) 

For two parshas the Torah told us the detailed of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing. Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled. The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, 'nediv libo' describing the people who gave for the Mishkan 'that their heart was full of giving'. 

The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people's. How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality? For that you need passion, a heart full of giving. A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit. By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing. 

Maybe, just maybe he was. Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future. Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain. If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe. 

This I know. My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her. Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her - can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed. 

She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported. But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.

We will read these parshas this week. We will think they are redundant. We will remember that moving from heaven to earth - bringing heaven to earth - demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy. We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

Kenahora Pu-Pu-Pu!

Why did Bubby always say that? And does it really have to do with the evil eye? Is this evil eye a cousin of walking under ladders with black cats on the Friday the thirteenth? The answers, in order, are: Because she loved you. Yes, but with an explanation. No. 

Kenahora, although everyone thinks is a Yiddish word is actually three words slurred together in Yinglish - the vibrant language of Native Americans of the Lower East Side: kein, the Yiddish word for no or negating, ayin Hebrew for eye, and hara, Hebrew for Evil. 

Now think back to when she used it: "Such a sheine punim, kenahora." "You've grown, kenahora." "He's making money hand over fist, kenahora." (you should only be so lucky) 

I have a friend in, well, I'm not saying where they're from, because I want to protect myself from what will happen if I don't protect their anonymity. They make in the seven-digits a year (kenahora). They drive a five-year-old station wagon. He once told me why she insisted on it. Their neighbors don't have as much, and their neighbors' neighbors have even less (and they're still not slumming, mind you). If she gets a new car then her neighbor will be compelled to keep up -- and her neighbor likewise. Somewhere down the line someone is going to be hurting from racing too hard. She doesn't want that frustration to be caused by her. And not for purely altruistic reasons. 

Hashem gives us things. Hashem does not give others these same things. This can and does cause jealousy, an unvoiced "Why does she deserve it?" and somewhere on High that energy does not dissipate. It gravitates, and brings into question "Maybe she doesn't deserve it after all?" 

Those-who-have-don't-show doesn't have to be grounded in smugness. We don't want that our good fortune should accentuate what others are missing. Which is why boasting is unJewish. And why when something said could be seen as boasting, it is hurriedly whispered and sandwiched between kenahoras and pu-pu-pu's. 

The pu-pu-pu, incidentally, is spitting noises. Spitting as if in disgust. It's an appropriate Yiddishism: when you see an exceptionally beautiful child you say "Miyuskeit! Pu!" ("Disgusting!") 

Asking Jewish grandmothers how many grandchildren they have can risk a faux pas. While some won't hesitate to blurt out a number, others will fidget and mumble. Putting a number on a blessing is considered bad taste. 

You might also notice when men are counting a Minyan they won't count one-two-three but do something more convoluted.

Think it originated in Eastern Europe? This parsha begins with the warning not to count people directly. (There is another reason not to count directly; it negates the quality of Infinite in the person, but that's for another time.) 

See how much your Bubby loved you?

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