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For Your Shabbat Table

Individual Talents

This week's Parsha tells of twelve sets of gifts brought as offerings by each of the twelve shevatim (tribes). Although the Torah does not waste words, and although each shevet seemingly brought the same gift, the Torah repeats word for word the exact order of their donation - "Reuven gave..., Shimon gave..., etc.", rather than simply saying "Reuven, Shimon,... and Binyamin each gave..."

Each of the items symbolized different things to different shevatim, relating to that shevet's role. In this sense, each shevet brought a different flavor to their gifts.

All of the tribes conform to the same Divine guidelines, all follow the same Torah, yet each one carries out those very same deeds with their own personal approach.

We often see tension between conformity and creativity, between tradition and innovation. People ask why Judaism has to be so rigid and conforming. Where is creativity? On the one hand we need the foundation stones of our Jewish tradition; on the other, we need an outlet for our creativity, to personalize, to nurture our own individual talents.

Our Parsha tells us that this is not a contradiction. The entire nation, including individuals of every conceivable character and calling, can do the very same deed, down to every last detail, yet each person provides a unique flavor. Two people may do exactly the same thing in a very different manner.

In the same manner, we can live in a civilized society, governed by ethical and moral precepts, yet still thrive as individuals. We can follow Torah and carry out its Commandments, yet still remain true to our sense of individuality. No matter how conformist Judaism (or society, for that matter) may seem, there is always room for personal expression. It does not, however, have to involve rebellion or non-conformity. On the contrary, the greatest personal expression comes from different individuals who are following the same framework yet show diversity and individuality within that framework.

We were blessed with the framework of Torah, of Jewish teachings and practices. Let us endeavor to enjoy and celebrate our Judaism, in the traditions of our predecessors, yet with our own individual flavor - to keep it going for the next generation.


A Marriage in the Desert

Why was the Torah given in a desert? The marriage between G-d and His people: when they became "a singular nation in all the land", with the children being the guarantors, the blast of the shofar. Such a wonderful experience should have better taken place amidst lush foliage, brilliant flowers and fair weather. Why in a naked, harsh land without any food or even water? 

On Rosh Hashanah we read the words of Jeremiah: "So says the L-rd, 'I remember the bounty of your youth: Ahavat kallulotaich, the love you had for me when you were a bride, as you followed me into the desert, in an land without life." 

G-d was not choosing on this day a fair-weather nation. Not for him a people who will be loyal if and when He provides them with a vineyard and orchard under whose shade to indulge and delve into His Wisdom. He needed a nation who would not wait for a perfect setting to live the life He desired for them. He needed a people who would take the life given them and do with it what is needed. 

It is easy to find excuses, even easier to push things off. Study Torah? Oh, that's not really for me. You see, I'm a businessman: You know, I work for a living. I give my tzedaka. I do my davening. But I'm busy! I don't have time to study. You wanna see what I have to do yet today? I won't be going home before nine o'clock. And it's been this way for the last two weeks! 

Scholars, those who are involved with Torah a whole day (the professional Jews), don't take a back seat when it comes to excuses. Listen, I need a lunch break! And breakfast break and supper break. I need to have enough sleep to clear my head and enough fresh air to revive me a little. Then when I sit down I can really hit the books. 

It's not unusual to hear yeshiva kids who are studying to become rabbis saying if they find a job with the right pay and conditions, they'll become rabbis. If not: Hey! You gotta support your family. 

Not with such spirit did we survive an exile as long as the golus. This was not the inspiration with which Jews in Russia and Poland, just over fifty years ago, covered their faces with their hands and defied, "You will chop off my hands before your scissors touch my beard!" 

Ahavat kallulotaich, the love that made us follow Him into a barren desert. There He provided us with water -- from a rock, He provided us with food -- from Heaven, shelter --clouds, and clothes that kept themselves clean and adjusted to the bearer's growth. 

There is plenty of logic and statistics to prove the rapid demise of the Jewish people. And there is plenty of spirit to defy it. A kapo, a degenerate Jew, a despised collaborator, when commanded to eat a tempting meal on Yom Kippur, said simply, "Jews don't eat on Yom Kippur," and faced the consequences without flinching. 


Last Line on Curses

Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art.  The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other:  “You should have a court case -- and you should win!”  “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!”

In this week’s reading, The Al-mighty Himself pours forth his wrath with a Writer’s attention to original detail that makes the stomach turn and a Poet’s turn of phrase that makes the head swell.

There is nothing in our history not written and accounted for in these passages, not the cannibalism of the Roman conquest, not the kapos of Poland and Germany.  Perhaps if I were not such a Jewish history addict, the verses wouldn’t have boggled me like that.

Now picture this:  a courtroom.  A judge calls in the defendant and reads off the charges.  The defendant took his victim, drugged him, called in several of his assistants and methodically, with forethought cut the man’s stomach open, removed organs, put in foreign substances, drugged him some more.  The victim luckily made it out of this ordeal alive, and made it safely home. 

Then the judge reads the very last line:  the defendant is a surgeon who did surgery in a hospital with the patient duly under surgery and the operation was successful.

Things change with the last line.  Until the last line we get increasingly dizzy with assaulting details: the last line flips everything into perspective.

Some people instinctively relate to life through the last line: we call them tzaddkim.  There is a story of a young boy of ten, the son of a tzaddik.  His father the tzaddik always read the Torah, including this week’s Tochacha – the vivid curses. 

One year the tzaddik was sick and unable to read the Tochacha: someone else read the Torah in his place.  The little boy heard the Tochacha being read and he fainted.  For months he was bedridden.  Finally, after he recovered they asked him why the Tochacha affected him so deeply – don’t you hear it every year? 

“Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when a my father reads the Tochacha I hear only blessings.”  (Needless to say, the little boy was soon recognized as a tzaddik in his own right.)

I’ve heard that when the Rebbe was a little boy the pogroms (the third wave of the last czars) hit his hometown of Nikolaiyiv.  He spent nights in the basement of his apartment building, comforting children even younger than himself. 

Many years later the Rebbe wrote that since he was a small boy he was drawn, magnet-like to the concept of Moshiach.  He described it as a time that would give meaning to the long and bitter Jewish history.  That it would be a last line. 

The trouble is that when you’re in the middle of the story you cannot fathom that there is a last line, and the very mention of it is aggravating.  “The people would not hear him for their shortness of breath,” the Jews in Egypt could not endure Moshe’s talk of redemption: they were too overcome by the reality around them to fathom there could be a last-line ending.

I go back to the account of the Warsaw Ghetto I was reading. The bombing of Casablanca’s Jewish community. I scroll through the horrific deja-vu afflicting Israel.  Again.  I too, in my Egypt, have shortness of breath.  I am somewhat relieved that there are giants who are high enough to see the last line.  And see it not as a distant vision as rock-solid reality. 

The words ‘speedily in our days’ take on new meaning.  Or maybe I’m just giving them a new attention.


Bow & Arrow


Have you ever shot a bow and arrow?  I haven't.  In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B'omer.  But they never took us.  Archery by proxy. 

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews).  The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields.  If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows.  (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.) 

A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat.  But he doesn't have a long flowing beard; he doesn't have any beard at all.  In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows. 

In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?)  took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.   

One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out.  The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page.  He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night.  And for the next day.  Luckily he was released to his parents.  He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland.  But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out. 


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