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For Your Shabbat Table

The Call of the Hero

 

Have you ever heard of Reb Mendel? He smuggled Jews out of the Soviet Unionat the end of World War Two. The Communists gave him fifteen years in the Siberian gulags. 

Ever heard of Mume Sorah? She did the same, but they never bothered sending her away. For decades her family never knew her yartzeit; they still don’t know where, if anywhere, the Communists buried her. 

Heard of the mother who backed out of the driveway and pinned her toddler under the rear wheel? She lifted the car by herself and saved her son. 

When we ask heroes where they got the strength to do incredible things, they give lousy answers. Inevitably, their answer is “I had to do it,’ or to put it differently, they couldn’t not do it. It’s not just modesty that makes them squirm when looking for answers, it is the almost-awkward simplicity. For, regardless of their level of articulation they cannot come up with any good reason for why they did what they did. 

Reasons are powerful motives for doing things. Logic is compelling. But logic is in the head, not the guts. So logic compels our minds to move. A mother’s love is not in the head; therefore all of her moves. Even parts of her she never knew she has, moves to free her baby in danger. She can’t put it into words because there are no words in the gut. There is a place so profound that it cannot be made shallow with talk. 

And there, right there where the deepest (no, you can’t really even subjugate them to the word) emotions reside, there the Jew has nothing but a visceral connection to G-d. Not a staid, progressive links-in-a-chain connection, but a reflexive, instinctive metal-to-magnet connection. You can’t feel it and you could live a life without ever knowing it was inside of you. Because like heroes, it doesn’t look to present itself. But if the moment calls for it, the response is automatic and Jewish. (Think of sworn atheists that when it came down to it they gave their lives rather than surrender their identity, Or the Jew-in-name-only who when things were counting on him came through.) Why? I just couldn’t do anything else. 

We have mitzvahs that we like. Family Seders with favorite recipes; Chanukah songs and latkes; Purim plays and Sukkah parties. A melody that lifts you to your feet, a Talmudic insight that dazzles in its elegant simplicity, a Chassidic story that soothes with its empathy. They each relate to a different aspect of our personality and strengthen it Jewishly. But all these precious experiences, for all the growth they give us, do not touch our kishkes . Only the aspect of a mitzvah which is beyond our intellectual grasp and not within our emotional embrace can resonate so deeply. These mitzvahs are called chukim, and it is with these mitzvahs that the parsha begins.  

 

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building. They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall. 

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin. It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane. 

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I'm not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now twenty one years since his passing, and I don't see any perspective. I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they've unpacked their wedding gifts. 

"Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!" the shtetl Jews would declare. Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe. Perspective? 

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents' generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we'll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented. Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting. 

So if I can't give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit? For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective. Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less. I would not have thought it. 

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first. It was their grandparents' generation that was arrested and served in Siberias Jews. In the blank next to the word "crime:" was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist. Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now. The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively. 

President Dubya on a trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit. 

 

Trust

"Never look a gift horse in the mouth"
Good idea generally, gift horses can be liabilities - expensive ones.
But if G-d is giving gifts, trust Him.
He is not a horse thief

If you don't trust G-d, then you trust no one: who can you trust?
And ultimately, you don't trust trust.
How can you get on a plane, if you don't trust pilots' licensing?
How can you cross the street if you trust no one to stop on a red light?
How can you buy food that isn't poisoned?

Still, He allows you to verify his Truth.
But He doesn't advise it:
If you're lucky, you'll confirm what He told you,
If you're not lucky, you won't be wiser, but you will be miserable.

But when you get a gift, He still wants you to check it out.
See how you will use it best: Is this a broodmare or a bloodhorse colt?
The spies in our parsha went to see if they should take the gift or not.
The spies a generation later went to see how best to take the land.

Moshe added the name of G-d to Joshua's name.
Without the name of G-d, Joshua might have gotten more involved in the horse than the race. 

See how you can do the best job, not if you should take the job or not.
Look the gifts G-d gives you in the mouth. Then go win the race.

How To Make Great Kids

 

Have you ever met someone great: not just great but truly great?  A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in?  If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.

Some thirty-five years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times.  Among others, he met the Rebbe; he asked questions and the Rebbe answered.  Towards (what he believed was) the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”

The student, Jonathan Sacks, was past chief rabbi of The British Commonwealth.  When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him.  They asked what made him become a rabbi.  He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge? – started him on that road.

Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met at that time, how he sensed their greatness.  In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 

He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers.  Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.

“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha.  “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver, until they become shining candles in their own right.  Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.

I am now raising my grandchildren’s parents.  Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins.  I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness.  

 

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