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For Your Shabbat Table

You Should Be Holy, For I Am Holy

It was in the depths of inhumanity, wrote survivor Gerta Klein, that she glimpsed humanity. A friend in Bergen Belsen presented her with a green-leaf-garnished raspberry. Other survivors tell of Jews with nothing to offer would huddle others close to them to shield them from winter winds. 

It was the gulag that threatened Russian Jewry. It was the gulag that sparked a nearly mystical inspiration in American Jews a world away.

Kedoshim tehiyu - you shall be holy --  ki Kodosh Ani - for I am holy -- begins the Parsha, and sinks from this mystical high to the abyss of descriptive, decidedly unholy and proscribed alliances. 

Holiness there cannot be, while engaged in depravity. But depravity's potential is what makes us holy. In other words, you can't become anything in a tissue box. To be cool, calm and collected when nothing aggravates is no big trick. To be cool, calm and collected in the heat of rage is a big holiness. 

Me ma'amakim - from the depths I cry out to You, O God, cried David. Shuls were once built sloping downwards towards the front.  The chazzan lead from below.  From there can you cry out and that cry can lead.

A holy raspberry in Bergen Belsen moves us: is it far from suburban life?  Reb Mendel, upon release from the gulag, came to America.  Riding along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway he took in Manhattan's skyline.  "Here," he laughed seriously (as only Reb Mendel could) it is really hard to be a good Jew." 

Do what comes naturally! exult the free-spirited.  Sing barefoot along the seashore!  Barefoot singing is natural, and benign.  But as someone who regrets their lost temper knows, natural can be malignant.  To never know from temper is inhuman.  To let loose your temper - hence lose - is human failure.  To control the temper is holy. 

To control the urges too, states the parsha, is holy.  Not every nature was meant to be expressed; subjugation is its purpose, its positive force, its holiness. 

"Indulge the senses" sounds better than "a pig wallowing in the mud" only because we are partial to ourselves and to our mud.  We don't become freer or truer when we indulge; we become muddied.  And the more muddied we become, the more difficult to discern malignant mud from benign mud. 

Kedoshim tehihyu, you were not meant to be muddied.  We have to trek thought the stuff or we could never get to shul.  Without the mud we could never know the raspberry.


Something real.  I can touch it, see it, feel it. It exists. 

Unless you start getting into quantum physics kind of stuff. 

Which I don’t need to: I have enough real things around me. 

Especially toys: big toys because I’m a big kid. 


And lots of toys, because “the one who dies with most toys wins” and I want to win.

As long as I have enough toys nothing else really matters.  People call me lucky. 

As long as I’m sleeping a sweet dream nothing else matters.  People call me lucky.


As long as I’m drunk, high, spaced nothing else matters.  Unless I wake up.

And because I might wake up, those who aren’t drunk and high feel sorry for me. 

Are they right, or am I?

“Reality is an illusion brought about by the lack of drugs” a student of mine (a jazz player) quoted to me.


So then, if I stop feeling good because of all my toys, I am. . . lucky?  Well yes, maybe.

Because there is something other than toys. 

Whether they are dangerous, bad toys, (drugs, self-mutilation, gang-violence):

Harmless toys (sitcoms and now, some insist, body-piercing)

Or even vaguely worthwhile toys, whose main job is to keep me happy.


If I break through my toy-induced contentedness, I am lucky.

Now I wake up to a whole new world. 

Whole: I have seen beyond a fractured, dimensional room to a seamless, timeless life. 

New: even if this life was here the whole time, if I just noticed it, then it is new. 

Not “new to me”: new.  My perception counts. Not for a little, but for everything. 

He created this whole galaxy-filled, continent-filled, anxiety-filled, strife-filled existence only that I should be able to see through it all and see something different. 

Something new.

(Torah speaks of the “new moon”, not because the-ancients-believed-that-the-moon-actually-disappeared-on-a-monthly-basis-and-came-back, -but-now-we-know-better-thanks-to-the-telescope-in-my-backyard, but because if people, particularly Jews, specifically the Sanhedrin, say something, pronounce something, determine something, then from a Divine point of view that pronouncement, that determination, becomes reality.)


Sometimes I wake up to this whole new world by thinking deeply into it – something stirring inside of me.  Often because one of my toys broke, forcing me to look elsewhere.

This week’s entire parsha speaks of tumah tahara, and mikvah.  If you translate them as impure, pure and ritual bath then you are sticking them into a toy world.  They only resonate in a land beyond toys.  And languages other than Hebrew and Yiddish don’t operate as well in this other world.  In this super-rational view from above.

But I don’t have to wait for a world transformation before getting to know taharah and mikvah; just rubbing shoulders with these concepts helps rub off the murky film that shrouds from view everything but toys. 

Because, as the Kabbalah insists, we aren’t superficial or dimensional.  We only think toys are us.  Just shake yourself a little and the real you wakes up.  To the real world.


“And (the sons of Aaron) died, and Aaron remained silent,” the Parsha.

It was a Reader’s Digest article I read years ago about a lady who had just lost her mother, her husband was on his way home from a trip; she alone had to break the news to her little children.  People were calling offering condolences: ending with the expected (awkward?) “don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything”.  Then the doorbell rang.  Her husband’s friend was standing there, a rolled newspaper under his arm.  “I’ve come to shine your shoes,” he announced.

“What?”  She said.
            “I‘ve come to shine your shoes,” he repeated.  “I remember that at my mother’s funeral, the family was so busy, and with the shock and all, we forgot to shine our shoes.  We didn’t even realize it until we got to the funeral home.”

He spread the newspaper over the floor, asked for everyone’s dress shoes, and began scraping the soles and polishing the uppers.  The woman’s pent up sorrow and shock gratefully gave way to torrents of tears.

When tragedy happens, friends worry ‘what do I say’.  That we have to say something is a given: that we have to say something is a mistake.

Silence is eloquent and heartfelt.  Silent presence is a gift that needs no explanation: gold that need not be gilded, a message with no distracting words.  The space formed by silence can be filled with simple acts: shoe shining (in a kup-in-galoshin environ) that pave a way from one heart to another, from a Jew to her Torah, from a man to his Creator.

For mourners too: if you can’t express your feelings, if you feel cheated all over again -- this time because of the emotional nightmare -- if this all makes no sense, you don’t need to say a thing.  Silence lends credence to everything going on inside of you.  Silence allows a rebuilding inside of you, a renewal.  And that renewal, that rebuilding is the best consolation we have until Moshiach intervenes.

Our Children, Ourselves

The youngest child at the table clears his throat and begins, “Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Mikol Haleilot.”   It’s been repeated in homes across the country, in homes across the sea and in homes across time.



Four sons.  We consider the Wise Son the one who turned out right: the nachas.  The Wicked One?  Well. . .enough said.  The Simple One?  Alright, not every hamentaschen turns out the way you want.  The One Who Doesn’t Know to Ask?  Oy, nebach!      Let’s revisit them.  We judged the family too early, too harshly and too simplistically.

Chacham -- the Wise Son.  What is wisdom?  The ability to differentiate.  A wise scientist knows his different chemicals and their different natures.  Our Wise Son in the Haggadah asks “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments?”  He pinpoints the details of each mitzvah; he grasps the distinct attributes of each.

The Tam, the Simple Son’s question is “What is this?”  This: he doesn’t specify, he doesn’t differentiate. If someone misses a complexity, he is simplistic.  But this is not necessarily the Tam.  Yakov, our forefather Jacob, was called Ish Tam, a simple man. The opposite of simple is not difficult - it is complex.   A wise man grasps complexities, a Tam seeks the unifying factor.   “I know the differentiations of the mitzvot,” asks the Tam, “but ‘What’s this?’  How does this all tie together?”



The Simple Son has gone far beyond the Wise Son.  But  a journey of the mind can take you just so far -- as far as the mind goes.  True, the human mind is the greatest tool ever created.  It can build cities, cure disease, and possibly send women to Mars. And all this is done, say the experts, using only 5 percent of our brain juices!  Still, even if we put the whole load to work, we would never understand that which is beyond reason.  Our entire intellect fits into a Size 7 Stetson.  How can that begin to fathom an Infinite Creator?

And so the Last Son, who has long graduated from Wise to Simple, now embarks on a new journey in Yiddishkeit.  He no longer questions, for he is -- on this certain level -- beyond  both the questions and the answers.  He is awestruck by the magnitude of  What he sees.  In the face of This, one cannot question or comment, the only response is silence.  Silence that allows him to take it all in.       




And then there is another son.  No, not the Rasha.  One we haven’t mentioned because he is not here.  So many Jews, quite possibly a majority of Jews, were not at a Seder at all last year!  They don’t come, they don’t leave, they don’t ask.  The Haggadah tells us how to speak to each kid.  But what if they don’t come?  What if we have no effective communication at all?   The answer is in the beginning.  


All who are hungry come and eat.  All who need, come and make Pesach.  They were never really invited, they don’t know there is a place waiting for them at the table, that without them, our table --your table -- is lacking and empty.   They need an invitation from the heart; we must feel the emptiness from their not being there.  And surely, one at a time -- just like the Haggadah addresses every child individually -- they will respond in kind.

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