Printed from

For Your Shabbat Table

Children As Problem Solvers

Five-hundred fourteen years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice. From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims. An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy. But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity. While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy. 

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?" Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy. Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one. He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son. 

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely. In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier. Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years. Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us. Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week. At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap. And children on her bed, and on the couch. Toys everywhere you step. Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues. So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment. "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread. "Amen, amen". 

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology. Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages. Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it. It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality. Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory. 

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'. See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother. Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves. Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah: 
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain. Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption. Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David; 
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children! 
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.


If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation's soul is their cookbooks.

Jewish cookbooks have changed.  Cholent is no longer "a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat".  Cholent has "deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities." The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation.  There is a dearth of color pictures in most.  Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them.  In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d'oie.  In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish.  In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: "Ah, Mustapha!  Azhi hanna! Come on in." 

Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them.  A few years ago, a friend's daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, "but not one from Barnes and Noble".  You can't cook in a bookstore.  

Through food, we connect with each other.  Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community.  It feeds upon itself.  In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died.  She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher.  "I have to do something," she decided.  Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant.  Standing in Miriam's kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity. 

It is the Nine Days.  A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty's address in Jerusalem.  We eat no meat during this time.  Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate.  Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat.  The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel.  But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve .  You are what you eat.  What you refrain from eating defines you. 

And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding the fast of Tisha B'av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon - The Sabbath of Vision.  For the visionary - the prophets - are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction.  In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis.  Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet's voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again.  Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem.  

This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.   This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word 'recipe' won't do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet.  For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission.  That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through.  And they brought those experiences with them.  For the Almighty to forever savor in his home.  

The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.

He who plants in tears, with joy he shall harvest

I was at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. It tells the horror and it tells it well.  I've seen Schindler's List; in a sense, it portrays the horror more effectively than any documentary has.  Both are missing a crucial element - the magnitude of Jewish response. 

For this I look to two books in particular: "Responsa of the Holocaust" and "Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust".  

"Responsa" records halachic questions Jews posed at the time: May one save his child for a selection if it is certain another child will replace him? May one deny her Jewishness to escape? If the forced labor begins before dawn and ends after nightfall when does one put on teffilin?  There was one Jew in the Kovno Ghetto who could answer these questions.  He had been pressed into the service as chronicler of the Nazi's library: the Germans amaseed books, community and family documents and Jewish articles for their planned "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race" - Hitler's own Holocaust Museum.  

The second book tells of one Bronia Koczicki who in the Bochnia Ghetto brought her two small sons to be blessed by the saintly Reb Aaron of Belz who was there at the time.  He blessed them that "G-d will help".  But Bronia would not leave.  She asked that her little boys be blessed with "fine generations".  He placed his hands on their heads and blessed them. 

"The woman's lost her mind," people sighed.  "Children are being killed in the streets every day and she's worried what type of grandchildren she will have?" Bronia didn't pay them any mind.  "We will live through this war," she kept repeating to her children. 

The first book tells of people who lived with G-d regardless of whether they saw G-d living with them.  The second tells of a woman who saw that the future determines the present.

"He who plants in tears, with joy he shall harvest," declared the psalmist David.  Not only as a reward, note the commentaries, but as a consequence.  And move your comma, they add; He who plants in tears with joy, he shall harvest.  Tears because the world is cold, dark and cruel.  Joy because everything is His plan and He has made me a part of it. Bronia's faith is awesome.  

The third Temple is built and only waiting for us to allow it to descend, maintains our tradition.  For the tzadikim, the rare righteous, the destruction and exile never took place.  Bronia, either through learning or instinct, lived with this. 

And so did those who questioned in the first book.  So did those who davened Yom Kippur in the forests of Poland. And when we study and fulfill Torah then we do too - even if we don't know it yet.  Somewhere, deep inside of us resonates a tzadik.  

The saddest days of The Three Weeks, the period we find ourselves in now, preceding Tisha B'Av, will become the most joyous.  Not that the sadness will be obliterated: it will be the cause of the joy. Had we not mourned for two thousand years what would there have been to rejoice?  Who from the ancient people would be left to rejoice?  Paradoxiacally, our joy and sadness kept us us from becoming an ancient people: it ensured we would remain a timeless people.  This joy and sadness were not opposites - they were extensions of G-d, of His eternity. 

Children of the Holocaust indeed, a befitting memorial to the holy martyrs.  May the All Merciful resurrect his Temple and us in time for this year's Tisha B'Av.

Moses Our Leader

"Money," a holocaust survivor declared at one lunch-n-learn, "is only appreciated when you lose it."  

Parting, then, is a sorrow.  And whatever sweetness might be present is only an accentuated memory, now made tender because it is lost. 

So goodbyes are touching and memories are by nature evocative, but loss, just plain loss is, well, loss. An absence of something you want.  And because you once had it, you now know what you are missing.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov and a barren couple.  He blesses them that they will have a child, a little boy, within the year.  The child is born and dies before his third birthday. 

"Rebbe," they beseech him, "if it was not meant to be that we have a baby then we should not have had a baby.  But that the Almighty should give him to us only to take him away?"

Loss has no redeeming qualities, and when suggestions are made of what good comes from being robbed, they ring as unappreciative.  Unappreciative that the one suggesting G-d's reason for the loss doesn't appreciate what has been lost. 

For forty years he led his flock through the desert.  That is how the Bible stories tell it. 

Some flock!  They challenged him every bit of the way.  He had to literally fight with them, with swords and spears.  They accused him of nepotism, taking financial impropriety, illegitimate marriage, double standards and when none of these stuck they said they would rather be slaves in Egypt. . .where they could eat cucumbers.  (These are direct quotes.) 

Nor did they all even go to his funeral.  Aaron his brother's funeral was nearly twice as well attended.  So neither in life nor in death was he adored or even accepted.  Still he is forever more our teacher, our leader.  Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rebbe.  Being a leader and being popular do not mean the same thing.  

Now in this parsha he is told that he will not be leading his people further.  He asks the One who sent him: whoever is replacing me, don't give him such a hard time.  I never asked for this job, but you insisted.  I took it.  And then when I was ready to lead the people into the land, you took the job away form me.  Don't do this to my protégé. 

My successor is going to have to deal with all sorts of characters.  Make him of character that he will be able to relate to each of them according to their character.

And make him a leader.  Those who seek leadership don't lead: they stand out front and take consensus of which way the winds of fashion want them to blow that day and they walk there ahead of everyone and call that leadership. Like a dog on a leash that runs ahead of its master but is controlled from behind.  

Make him a leader, Oh G-d, make him a leader. 

Leadership is felt in its absence.  Moses pleads, "Don't give them a reason to miss me." 

A Nation Which Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data. 

No matter, you've seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth's land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations' condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel. 

I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried. 

That was the thought then, we would finally "take our rightful place amongst the family of nations". What happened?

America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade. 

"We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored. 

Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: "Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists" …There was an unspoken comfort in that - not alone were we singled out. 
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don't make us comfortable.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned. 

A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week's parsha, emerged as a power of goodness. 

The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam - nearly three billion people - a numerical absurdity when you think of it.

But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family's particularism. 

Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. "Alone we feel very ordinary" said one after the '67 war, "just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us." 

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can't always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.