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For Your Shabbat Table

How Strong the Vulnerable

If you're looking for nobility, search not among noblemen.  If you're looking for royalty, search not in palaces.  If you're looking for aristocracy, go to a sinking ship.

In good times and good places everyone seems to be of noble and fine character --

they just mirror everything around them.  Only when everything around them is falling apart, can inner light shine.  When bad things happen then good things can happen.  He, in His infinite wisdom, ruled that a grey cloud can produce a rainbow.

Does all this mean that we need to suffer in order that we flourish?  No, says the Sukkah, but we must stop suffering flourishing illusions. 

Egypt was the Garden of Eden, lush, vigorous, sensuous, stable, prosperous.
Decadent.  The Jews wanted to melt, to dissolve and be absorbed into Egypt. 

The triumph of the Exodus, say the masters, was not in His taking the Jews out of Egypt – the triumph was in his taking the Egypt out of the Jews.  He took out the Egypt by demonstrating that everything they considered safe and secure was neither.  Rivers ran bloody. Weather patterns devastated blue-chip commodities.  Death obliterated blue-blood bloodlines.

In WWII, London's slummy East End was bombed and Buckingham Palace was bombed.

Looking at the rubble, people saw that palace and tenement are, ultimately, indistinguishable.  Must you bomb a palace to see it is a slum?  No, you must bomb your illusion of it.  True aristocrats do that. 

On the holiday Sukkos we abandon secure homes for roofless huts which share a name with their holiday: sukkos.  Sukkos falls in autumn, the harvest season.  The crops have come in, the storehouse is full, the bills are paid off, the logs are on the fire.  You're about to slip into your slippers.  That's when you leave your house.  You go into your sukkah.  You remember what happens to slippers in the rain and what happens to palaces in blitzkriegs.

Exodus was followed by Sukkos.  For in Sukkos I housed the Jewish people, says the Torah.  I housed them in Sukkos propound the masters: I housed them in the mindset of Sukkos.  In the mindset that palace and slum lack permanence, that safety and security do not come from commodities, that salvation is not in savings and trust is not in funds.

More than a sinking ship reveals the aristocrat, the aristocrat reveals how sinkable is the ship.  Aristocratic people, free from Egypt, are in the sukka.  As Reb Leivik said, the sukkah is a very strong place to be.

Why Are you Going to Yom Kippur Eve Services?

Kol Nidre

Kol Nidre.  Certainly the most attended Jewish prayer of the year.  Certainly the most awesome.  But why? 

The words are pretty mundane, a basic annulment for

misunderstood, haphazardly applied, ill-advised vows

a person may have taken upon themselves. 

There is a similar prayer recited Erev Rosh Hashanah.

To most Jews it is unknown, or at best obscure. 

Kol Nidre everybody knows.

One of the books I know only from reviews, is a compilation of last letters from soldiers on the front  -- letters to their wives, their mothers, their children, their newborn babies. 

From what I have heard of the book there is little in the way of abstract philosophy; it is all about small moments, washing dishes together, sharing a nighttime ride into town, macaroni and cheese.

This is how connections are made: small, insignificant interfaces, which could have happened dozens of times before and hundreds later, but that moment – just that moment -- became an indelible connection. 

(A mitzvah is a connection – that is the meaning of the word.)

Why did that moment take on a life of its own? 

We rarely know, and almost never care;

we just embrace it for what it gives us. 

Standing on the outside of the relationship it may well seem overblown and corny; not from the inside.

In the collective Jewish experience the Kol Nidre stands out a recurring lighthouse in the tempest of the year, a comfort, and also a challenge that feels right for us.

My father says that the nicest thing about Italian opera is that you don't understand the words.  Comprehension can, in flourishing moments, only diminish. 

That is why comprehension, analysis can only rob a soldier's letter of the very reason we would ever care to read them.  We don't know why or when Kol Nidre came to be Kol Nidre, we just know that it is.

Niggun evokes that quality which defies analysis and breaks the heart and makes it full. 

Kol Nidre Night is a time for niggun;

Not choirs, not chanting, not necessarily understanding the words, or even knowing the tunes. 

That all is preparation of Kol Nidre, to make the Kol Nidre that much fuller.  If this past year we didn't prepare for Kol Nidre – that is why we have a next year. 

So now is not a time to analyze, to dissect the moment.  Don't worry if you don't understand; you'll have a whole year to learn. 

Don't worry if you're not on the right page; every page is the right page. 

Don't worry if you can't follow the tune; the tune will follow you regardless.   

Now is the time to just be there, to just be. 

For now, let us write home our letter from the war front.

Purpose Out Of Chaos Through Resolution

Leather seats, user-friendly ticketing, signature blue chips and 16 channel satellite tv makes Jetblue. Before takeoff, their tv screens flash a "Thank you for flying with us. Without you, we'd just be flying a bunch of tvs around the sky."

From day one to day six the One in the sky was, as it were, feeling low about the earth (and the sky) He was creating. Everything was working in perfect symmetry; it was all faultlessly first class. But. . . .

It took Adam and Eve to take it all in and recognize 'there is symmetry here, and with symmetry comes purpose. A purpose encompassing everything but encompassed by nothing. Behind a purpose is a Planner -- and that planner is all that is important. And we will call him. Let's call him G-d.'

That was the first Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year, the first day of creation, which was - if you're counting days - the sixth day of creation. But the first day of anything that really counts - recognition of purpose.

Okay, so they (we) messed up as soon as the party got going and were kicked out into a new reality, a new world order where chaos seems to have the upper hand and purpose can only be seen by the help of a guide. A guidebook. A mentor. Study. And focus.

In this newer reality, we must inculcate ourselves to recognize purpose. To see chaos as temporary (from the word temporal) and illusionary. As you probably noticed, that takes hard work. Nothing is harder than changing an outlook.

Unless, you get lucky. Sometimes you can be startled into a new perception:

As when you run into the street to catch a Frisbee and you hear an eighteen-wheeler screeching. You're Frisbee reality is disrupted.

As when you get to the office by 8:30 for another high-pressured day of appointments and at 8:46 a jetliner crashes into your building.

As when you hear the shofar.

These all bypass your mind and are absorbed straight through your kishkes.

Their effect is sudden, stark and powerful. And after the shock they pass quickly, too.

But even in a startled moment, your head can kick in too. Call it a resolution; grasp the wild, elusive energy and channel it into something manageable and enduring. It will slow the energy down a bit, but you will be able to keep it.

And with resolution, the chaos in life focuses into the purpose in life.

We become grateful that an Almighty Creator has imbued tiny, miserable us with purpose and we thank Him for it. And somewhere up above the skies, He too wishes a sweet year with high resolution. He says something like, "Thank you. Without you, I'd just be flying a bunch of monitors above the skies."

The Other Rock

" . . . Come to the land which I have given you. . .a land flowing with milk and honey." The Parsha. 

Friends of mine who are older than me want to go to Israel. But not now; maybe some other time. It's too dangerous with all that craziness going on there. Is going to Israel dangerous? Perhaps it is. But perhaps not as dangerous as not going. 

The danger of going is that something might happen. Likely? No. Possible? Like anything else in life. The danger of not going is that nothing will happen. Nothing noticeable, nothing remarkable, nothing tangible will happen. Only a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift will happen. And subtle can be profound. 

Abraham Twerski tells of the Manhattanite who finished a night of partying and came home to his twentieth-storey apartment. He flopped into bed and kicked off a shoe. As he was about to kick off his other shoe, he remembered that someone was sleeping on the nineteenth floor below him; he carefully took off his other shoe and placed it on the floor. Ten minutes later there was furious knocking on the door. It was the downstairs neighbor, shrieking, "Would you throw down the other shoe already!" 

Waiting for the other shoe to fall is nerve racking. Once the chips fall though, you know where they are; they fell, they hit, they broke and now they sit quietly.

Much has been said about the "ghetto" Jew, most of it is pejorative, and undeservedly so. Ghettoes had walls, outside of which Jews could neither live nor be found after nightfall. Edicts barred Jews from most jobs, landed them with Jew-taxes and branded them with yellow stars and hats. Death was not the exception. Ghetto Jews knew the price the outside exacted from them for being Jewish. Ghetto Jews paid the price and got on with being Jewish. For them, being Jewish meant spiritual grandeur, intellectual profundity, timeless legacy, optimistic future: how lucky to be a Jew. As Jonathan Sacks says, while much for the ghetto Jew was problematic, Jewish identity was not. 

Not so for the Marrano Jew, the less-spoken-of side of the medieval coin. He, afraid of being rendered a penniless wanderer on a leaky boat, allowed the village priest to sprinkle him with water. He attended church; he adopted as best he could all the manners the outside demanded of his faithless conversion. But the outside was now in him, and the Marrano Jew lived his life looking over his shoulder. When will they find him out? When will the shoe drop? What will be the ultimate price of being a Jew? While much for the Marrano Jew was not problematic (above all finance and bodily safety) Jewish identity was. 

In the end, the Marrano could not remain as a Jew. While a celebrated few died a martyr's death, most melted into Catholicism. That was his price. Not being a Jew. The Jew who chose the ghetto paid his price, too: but his Jewish grandchildren tell his story. 

Whether one should at this time go to Israel or not has a personal component, possibly what is appropriate for one is not for another. But there is a component that must be addressed. Going has a price. Not going has a price. 

In the 1980's ten of us yeshiva guys spent two years with the Jewish community of Morocco. We learned how to walk the streets. And how not to walk the streets: Don't walk on sidewalks; you can get too close to someone looking for trouble. Walk in the middle of the street: like you own it. Walk near parked cars: cars are a status symbol and Arabs hesitate to throw rocks if they might hit a car. Don't walk the streets when the bars let out (11:00 PM); a drunk coward is a stupid danger. And if you're ever hit, hit back twice as hard, fast, and because within moments you'll be outnumbered 300 to 1, get lost quickly. But don't ever, ever run. 

With all the caution, one of us was hit with a rock in the eye. A well-meaning American, a visiting representative of a Jewish fund-raising organization happened to come to Casablanca then. He had heard of our friend who was hit. Why don't you guys cover your yarmulkes with caps, he suggested. We answered him with polite, non-committal noises. 

If he's still listening, here is the best I can offer – some twenty years later: If you want to run, you can -- but you can't just run a mile. You must run a hundred miles. 

If you hide who you are, then you'll never be yourself. Your kids will never know who you once were -- or who they now are. If you hide your yarmulke, then you'll hide your mezuzah necklace, and even hide your name. If you hide you may be safe. If you're safe you'll be all the more scared to not be safe. You'll be scared to be you. If you don't hide, you may be hit; if you're hit, you may be hurt. You may die: many Jews have died for no other reason than who they were. 

Is it worth it, to die for who you are? That's not even the question. The question is: is it worth it to live for who you are. If who you are is worth living for, then there is nothing to fear. Once the other shoe has dropped, safety and danger don't mean the same thing. You can enjoy the trip.

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