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For Your Shabbat Table

The Bargain and the Jew

The story you are about to read is true.   Some names have been changed to protect the guilty.  Some names have been omitted to protect us from the grumpy.  The story first started thousands of years ago, when the world was young. . . 
"Fixed!  Fixed! The whole thing is fixed!  You wanted the Jews to get it and never gave anyone else a chance!"  The prosecutor stormed furiously around the chamber.   After a few moments he stopped pacing and turned to face the Judge.  "There is a statutory posting of notice!  Without it this process could well be called a farce."  He had everyone's attention now and _ for affect really – he paced a bit more and then resumed. 
"Have we asked anyone, anyone else if they would accept it?" he bellowed with a flourish.  "Have we talked terms?  Made offers?" 
"What is your proposal?" challenged the Jews' advocate.  He spoke softly and deliberately, knowing his adversary had a point that would ultimately have to be acknowledged. 
"I propose that we go around with an offer and see who accepts!" he answered defiantly.  "Let us offer, in good faith to every nation.  Give them an honest chance.   And one more thing: the Jews get asked last!"  
"Agreed." interjected the One True Judge into the heavenly proceedings. "And you," he said pointing to the arch-prosecutor, "you shall be the one who brings the offer around to the world." 
"Thank you," said the arch-prosecutor.
"You're welcome, my angel." replied G-d.
So the angel descended heaven to sell the Torah to the world and his first drop was high in the Tibetan mountains. 
"It's a Torah," he told the Master as the llamas looked on.
"We appreciate new teachings," intoned Master.  "Tell us your wisdom."
"I am Hashem Your G-d. Have none before me." 
The master smiled sympathetically; the llamas rolled their eyes.
"All is One. Truth has many forms.  Form changes." the master recited solemnly, taking the angels hand in his own.  "Love your knowledge.   Live your knowledge.  Do not allow one knowledge to negate a world of expression." 
For I am a jealous G-d, remembered the angel aloud, more to himself than to the master.  No, this won't work.  They shook hands and the master bowed in deference. 
The angel came to Khyber Pass.  A band of blond, chiseled men galloped furiously, their women following in tow.   The angel started telling them about his wares.  "I tried the master, but he rejected me." Said the angel, feeling a bit down. 
"Master?  What master?  We are the master of all races, not those blabbering, dark people.  What does your Torah say in it?" 
"You shall not murder."
"Humph!" answered the loudest mouth among them.  Curiously, he was not blond and evidently he had nipped himself above his lip while shaving.  "So why didn't that idiot in the mountain take your book?  Isn't that the gibberish he goes for?" The loudmouth's voice and passion were growing.   "Isn't it clear that only by the survival of the fittest do we go forward?"   He climbed on a sack of soap roots so all could hear and continued drawing in the people with his charisma and passion.  "Is it not the destiny of the strong to live and conquer and not to be conquered by the weak, ugly, feeble-minded and miserable?" he crescendoed.   
"Yawol! Seig!" thundered the handsome crowd.  The angel was ready to leave, but he had one question: How come all of you are so handsome? Don't you have any ugly people? 
"Oh no, we have no ugly people," said one resolutely.  
"We did before," answered the man's wife, "but we tied them to the trees before we left the forest.  My brother Heinrich and sister Helga were there." 
"This way we have more food." she added cheerfully. 
Came the angel further west, along the Seine did he rest.  
How romantic is this view, how divine is this nest.  
"Merci monsieur!" the locals sparkled when the angel announced he had a most intriguing gift.  "Mais, quest-qu'il ya dedans?  Can we have a peek inside?"   
You shall not commit adultery.
"Oh no, we never would!  To be unfaithful to one we love?  To break a vow?  Non, jamais, mon cheri! You must love life and live to love. To see someone living without love or loving without life, now that is unforgivable!   That is greatest breach of faith, the ultimate rebellion against raison d'etre!  A man must always be happy.  Joie de vivres!  Taste these snails and you will see!" 
"Vay iz mir," mumbled the angel.
He came to a bustling bazaar where everyone was selling something. Anything.  Now I'll make a sale. 
"Ya Habibi!" cried a stubbly-cheeked vendor with a checkered headdress,  "but first let us have tea." 
After three cup, two of which were noticeably laced, the conversation ever so subtly eased towards the merchandise at hand.
You shall not steal.
"Ah waja waja!" the vendor gesticulated wildly.  "Never, ever take what belongs to another man.  Especially land!  For then he will come back with a bigger stick and get back at you.  People are sneaky like that." 
"What I do," the vendor added in whisper, "I kill him.  I kill his wife.  I kill his children.  Then, no problem of revenge!   Then build a big house on the land.  If anyone challenges you, look weepy and keep saying my-land-my-land!"  The vendor laughed heartily and insisted on another round of hospitality drinks before the stranger left. 
The angel flew due north and was able to get into a mahogany-paneled boardroom where (he was told) issues of import are negotiated.  
The chief peered through his pince-nez down the table.  "So tell us young chap, why have you requested my time today?  A Torah, you say?   My subordinates have reviewed the documentation that you were good enough to supply." 
The chief pushed the scroll back to the angel.  A red-markered circle encompassed the words 'you shall not be duplicitous'.  
"We are in agreement that treachery has no sanction, nor does deceit have virtue." The chief executive officer took off his specs and wiped his brow from impeccably concealed exasperation.   "You're obviously new to the world of finance and will undoubtedly prosper once you master financial protocol."  The meeting was winding down and chief allowed himself to end on a fatherly note.   "While it is true that money makes the world go round, one must be cognizant of the lubrication applied."  He laughed. 
The angel flew away.  "So loaded with pomp it's a wonder their bridges don't collapse under them."
He flew to a place that called itself united.  He met up with a time management wizard who insisted that the honor-father-mother obligation be compartmentalized to two days per annum and delegated to the office assistant if possible. 
Then the angel came to the Moshe's people.  For once they didn't bargain.  They said if it comes from G-d we accept it, all of it, at face value, unconditionally, immediately and perpetually.   When asked, they said that when you are in love you accept.  You have no business bargaining.

Kobe, Brooklyn, and Egypt

"My grandson made a seder in Kobe!"  "150 people!"  "In Kobe Japan!"  "My grandson!"   On a trip back to Brooklyn a number of years ago, I had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community.  A butcher by trade.  Polish born.  He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson's Pesach, some three months before.  

I didn't get the excitement.  I understand a Zaide's nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them.   But. . .Chabad has been doing that for decades.  This man's son is one of South Africa 's most popular rabbis.  I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice

He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket.  "Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!"  I was there.   During the war.  The Shangchaier The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas.   They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east.  They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai.

In Reb Shimon's living room wall are dozens of family pictures.  Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids.   Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America.  There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building.   They both have on bands with the Jewish star.  "It's my sister on her wedding day,' he had told me years before, "In the Warsaw Ghetto.  This picture is all I have of my family."


I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.


Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody."  Now my einikle is making sedorim .   In Kobe!"  You see," he settled into a conversation. "Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) 'Show me your face.' and he was answered "I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.'   The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won't see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along.    Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . ."


Life doesn't always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant.  You have to just do it and figure it out later.   Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah.


The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon's Kobe.  The Jews, coming form G-d's deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea.  Should they fight? Surrender?  Pray?  The response was none of the above.   "Move on."  Just follow what I say and it will all work out.


Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why.  He still doesn't.  Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe.  For 150 people!


Lechayim to Chutzpah!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he's in the miracle business.  Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that's hard.  And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in.  They pretty much did.  

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. .  . the sheep (no, I don't know why and let's not go there).  It was the portent of, oh, I don't know, the television?  Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window!  Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you.  We call it chutzpah. 

That's why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach.  Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind: a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been.  

The chutzpah they kept.  The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right.  The Jews who survived Europe sixty plus years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah.  The Jews in America, who were bombarded with "The Disappearing Jew" series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing.  Their own thing. 

The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim - the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt).  The Jews are defined by he who defines them.  (Mitzvhas are often called signs - definitions).  

So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don't get annoyed.  Think chutzpah (it's also recommended  for the blood pressure). 

All those sheep and TV's are not our reality.  Turn it off.  Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long.  And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind.

Two Rabbis, One Shul


Sound like double trouble?   Over-employment?  The latest synagogue sitcom?  Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 


We started that way.  Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there.  Moses' older brother never was quite his associate rabbi.   Aaron was vastly more popular.  He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants' business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home.   Mr. Nice.


Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal.  The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right.


Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace.  Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise.  Torah insists on both, hence a team was needed for the making of a people – not an individual.


Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, leadership qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged, and accusations of nepotism drained him.   Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 


The brothers' dichotomy did not abate with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron's funeral nearly doubled Moshe's.  Not surprisingly, it was only upon Moshe's passing that despair threatened the people.   But while Aaron's popularity earned him a larger funeral, Moshe's instruction earned him the role of leader.  Aaron's passing evoked mourning; Moshe's passing created a terrifying void.  Like money, you appreciate leadership when you don't have it. 



Where Were You?

"Where were you?"  Whether the question is from Mom, the boss, the wife, the husband or the grown children; they are not asking, they are accusing: Why weren't you where you were supposed to be?

Your answer is an excuse.  Unless you answer "I've been here the whole time."

A shepherd sees a little lamb run off.  The shepherd runs after the lamb: to save it from wolves, to ensure the lamb has enough water and enough tender green grass.

While chasing the lamb, he sees a bush on fire, but it isn't burning.  He takes off his shoes in deference.  He is told by he-knows-who to go free the people from Pharaoh.  

But they will ask me Your name, what do I say? asks the shepherd.  A bizarre question matched by an equally perplexing answer: tell them my name is I Will Be As I Will Be.   (It is the first recorded conversation between the world's greatest teacher and the world's foremost student.)

What is your name?  A name is how we relate; it defines who is speaking to whom.  If you say Dad, Mr. Smith, Dr. Smith or Sonny or Bubba you're not talking about you or them; you are articulating a relationship.  

What is your name?  How have you related to these people as Pharaoh threw their sons into the Nile, kidnapped their daughters, bathed in their newborns' blood? Used their children's bodies to fill quotas of unmade bricks?   Where were you?

And He answers: Tell them I Will Be As I Will Be.  Where was I?  I was with them the whole time.  When Pharaoh bathed in their babies' blood, it was my blood that was spilled.   When he shoved their tiny limbs into spaces meant for bricks, it was me who was shoved in there.  Everything they endured, I endured.  Everyone who tortured them tortured me.   Imo Anochi betzora I am with them in their suffering.

A bush is on fire but it is not consumed.  A nation is threatened with death -- killed time and time again -- but it does not die. 

But how does the bush burn without being consumed?  For it is I in the fire.  Just as I live forever, they live with me.  Just as these people live forever, I live with them.    We will get burnt on the way.  We will suffer.  But we will suffer together.  And we will not be consumed.   Alone.  Together.


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