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For Your Shabbat Table

Consuming, but never consumed

At twelve, I left Nashville for Pittsburgh’s yeshiva.  I lived in my grandparents’ home; my grandfather was also my teacher. 

He once called my class together at the foot of the stairway and started in his Yiddish-accent sing-song: “You know boys, when you are going down steps, you don’t have to put a foot onto every step.  Jump from the tenth step.  Skip nine steps.  I used to jump down steps.  But you know, old people, they getting noivis when boys jump steps.  So be nice to old people.  When you go down steps, look first if there are old people around.  If they are not there, jump!  If they are there, then this time, walk down the steps.”

Another time he walked into class and caught us beating up . . . I’ll leave his name out -- but he deserved it.  Nothing vicious or horrifically cruel, just boys doing whatever what’s-his-name had coming. “You know boys, I don’t expect you to learn when I leave the class.  When I was in yeshiva, and the teacher walked out, we made teams.  Each team grabbed one end of the bench and pulled it in their way.  One of us watched the door.  When he yelled ‘Chatche! Chatche!’ we put down the bench and quickly sat down before Chatche walked in.  But to hurt each other?  To make fun of someone?  This isn’t play. . .”

I remember some things that I learned in school.  Some of the things.  Some of the time.  I remember the people who taught me.  At times they are right in front of me, even if they passed on years ago.  

My father writes in Think Jewish, “There is a Torah of ink and parchment; there is a Torah of flesh and blood.”  To paraphrase Yanky Tauber’s story of Reb Yisrael Rizhinner, “Ideas are accomplishments in man’s quest for G-d; stories of tzaddikkim are accomplishments of G-d in man’s world.”

The Torah begins with stories of tzaddikim:  Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Miriam. Not until about a quarter through the Book are laws enumerated.  Jews do not call Moses a lawgiver; he is Moshe our Rebbe.

Rashi remarks that a conversation of Abraham’s servant can teach more than a law: the conversation of someone who spent time in Abraham’s daily, mundane presence, affords insight into attaining the Divine.

“Look into the eyes of someone who has gazed upon the Rebbe,” Chassidim of old would say when a traveler who had seen the Rebbe arrived at their shtetls.  

Ideals are abstract: hard to perceive, easy to lose, inviting to ignore.  Ideals do not inspire. But reflected in the right eyes, ideals solidify into something clear, immediate and tangible.  They become alive, before your eyes.  They inspire.  And once they have ignited your fire, they live within you.  And those who lit the fires are now the fire, alive within you. Consuming, but never consumed.

WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

When bad things happen to good people.  It’s the title of a book that everyone knows and that no one has ever told me that they read (save a guy who needed to quote it in an article).  It is the title, the question, that resonates all over the place.   

Admittedly, some of the resonance of when bad things happen is a dressed-up, horn-rimmed-polite kvetch of  why me?   (A friend of mine wonders if perhaps people aren’t more bothered by the reverse: when good things happen to bad people!)

But the question – when heartfelt and selfless -- is a powerful one and an ancient one.  Powerful, because everyone relates to it, personally.  Ancient, because it has never been answered, sufficiently.

The answer that I know a little is, in short, that when the good people having bad things happen to them are somebody else, then we have to relieve them of their suffering and scream to G-d How can you!   When the good people are us, then we have to do what we can to relieve the suffering, pray to G-d for strength that we act appropriately  . . .and then go on.

The broken pot is never tested, says the Midrash, only a good pot is tested to see if it can hold up.  That holding up, that becoming greater, is what G-d wants to see.  For understandable reasons: people only grow through adversity, a kid only appreciates the value of money if it is earned, not given.  Etc.  

But. . . well, as Tevye put it: would it ruin a vast and mighty plan if I were a wealthy man?  Couldn’t You, Oh G-d, in Your infinite wisdom, Your infinite power and Your infinite compassion have tested us and made us grow without all this suffering?   

Well, yes and no.  Yes, because he is All Capable. No, because, well, because if He could have, He would have.  It gets philosophical, and it’s important to have that philosophical wealth before the horror strikes.  Abraham searched for G-d for years and had developed a strength, a reservoir of faith, to withstand tragedy.  Like a jogger who is in shape when a heart attack strikes.   

This week I had the dubious honor of hearing someone claim that the L-rd had revealed himself to him and blah blah blah. I frankly am not sure that anyone revealed themselves to him; and I am quite sure that if anyone did it was a god he created in his own image.   

When G-d revealed himself to Abraham it wasn’t pretty.  He revealed the unreasonable: leave everything, see My promises broken, your wife kidnapped.  And then came the jaw-dropping ‘slice your son’s neck’.

This then is the comfort that gives us strength: we can take anything if we know that it isn’t random.  That its purpose is divine.  That in every sorrow and gut wrench that we have, He is sad,  His guts are being wrenched: “Son, this whuppin’ is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”  

What parent wouldn’t take all the pain on themselves if they could keep it from their kids?  And the unthinkable agony of the parent whose kid, writhing on a hospital bed, cries out to the parent,“Tell them to stop already!”

But kids don’t see the parent’s agony; kids just feel their pain.  Not until they grow up do they see the it hurts me more than it hurt you. We don’t see Isaiah’s ‘in all their pain he has pain’; we just feel the pain that He is not stopping.  Not until Moshiach picks us up and gives us a view from on high: then we can see how it all made sense, that it was all worth it.  That only good things happen, and that there are only good people.  May it come soon.  Until then, (in preparation?) may we kids thrive in a happy, safe and secure childhood. And (because nothing can make Dad happier) may we play nicely together.

Teddy Bear or Eagle: America, What Are You?

This country was founded, settled, defined and furthered by people who left their homes for the unknown.  Whether or not they were religious (in the conventional sense) is (and will be) debated by those with agendas.  It is unarguable however, that the founders of this country were risk-takers -- and inherent in risk is belief.  They were, in other words, believers.

Appropriately, the fledgling country chose for their symbol the eagle, the Biblical metaphor for mercy, majesty and redemption.   One of the presidents who personified the country’s ethos -- so well they etched his face on a big rock -- was Teddy Roosevelt.  Incongruously, his legacy is cuddly, harmless, lovably ineffectual: the teddy bear. 

Not only Teddy, but the One to whom this nation pledges that it is under, has softened into someone cuddly to whom we intone pledges and sing that he bless us.  He occupies a sacred place along with honor, flag and, well, apple pie.

He is not to make us uncomfortable.  He is not to demand how we dress, what we eat, the content of our entertainment, what we teach our children.  He is not to stick out awkwardly: at odds with what we deem appropriate.  He is created in our image.  We love him.  He is our Teddy Bear.

The first word from G-d to Abraham is “Go from your land, your father’s home, your birthplace to the land which I will show you”.  No comfort zones allowed.  Leave them and only then can you achieve everything I have in store for you, everything of which you are capable.  Only by stepping outside of yourself can you grow -- and can I be your God.  From childhood on, for over seventy years, Abraham defied the mores of his society and a despotic tyrant who declared himself god.  The tyrant threatened Abraham with death if he did not repudiate his belief; Abraham did not waver.  Still, after all this, G-d told him: leave the familiar and comfortable.

Their gods are of silver and stone, they have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, mocked the psalmist.  Not exclusively did he refer to idols from Sunday-school coloring books.  A god who makes me feel warm and protected is nothing more than abstract materialism:  a warm place to go, home and hearth.  For that matter a god who tells you to go is nothing more than an adventurer, if it is only adventure and change of scenery you are after.  But when G-d tells us to leave our laurels of yesterday’s accomplishment and take on the new he is really telling us to be alive today. 

And (paradoxically) he adds that this will be good for you, you will become wealthy, prosperous and numerous. Not comfortable: good. 

Teddy bears are good; for kids; at the boys’ third birthday we throw candy at him and give him honey in the shape of the Aleph-Bet because the words of Torah are sweet.  But then we move him on to meat and potatoes: study of these words “for they are our lives and the length of our days”.  What is sweet at three, if allowed to linger will turn sacchariny at twenty-three -- and have fostered cavities of decay in the soul.

Feeling warm and comfortable is not inherently bad; it becomes debilitating when it is pursued as a goal. 

Avinu Shebashamayim - Our God in Heaven.

The majesty of the eternal calls to and resonates in a soul, a spark of that majesty sent to unfurl the majesty inherent in life on earth.

To bring the majesty of heaven down to earth. 

Heaven: something greater than the comfortable and familiar.  The eagle soars there. 

The symbol of America: a nation under. 

Children’s Math

How long since you had to look inside a math book?  Because here’s a question that might have got by you:
A down payment on a home costs $5,000.
Housing one brain-damaged man for a year costs $20,000.
How many families lose homes to mental retardation?

This extra-credit teaser comes from a Nazi-endorsed schoolbook (currency adjusted).  It was the first steps in curing society of the unneeded. Shortly after, with the country now ready, beautiful killings (euthanasia in Latin) began.   

It is comforting to think that Nazis were demons rather than humans.  But following their defeat you couldn’t find an anti-Semite west of the Elbe.   When questioned by Allied troops the mayors around Dachau professed no hard feelings to the Jews. They were not demons; they were people who legalized euthanasia.  
Euthanasia makes sense.  The animal kingdom, Greek culture and Darwinism all lend their credence.   The only one withholding credence is a pesky verse in our Parsha; forbidding murder and suicide, “for in the image of G-d I have created you.” An absurd abstraction in the face of home ownership.  

What is this ‘image’ of an allegedly formless being?

Who are you to tell me how to spend my money?

How to run our affairs?

You’re nothing but a stranger amongst us.

Do you know the suffering of caring for this person?

Must we fit your bill?  Who asked you anyway?

Many if not most Jews of Germany did not see themselves as bearers of any message: Regardless, the messenger of a bad message must be liquidated.

It seems so foreign: jackboots and German shepherds, J’s on Jewish stores, marches in the night. 

It is so foreign, so unreal, so out of our context, so un-American.

True, it is also the very opposite of what this country was built upon.   But. . .

Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.  

Always an abstract, vague undercurrent feeds into, and later evolves into, bold statements and policies. Just after this verse about the murder-image thing, follows the verse to be fruitful and multiply.   The verse is repetitive and the juxtaposition so stark that the Talmud equates the lack of procreation with murder and spilling blood. Both at some level deny the G-dliness, the holiness, the sacredness of the human soul and form.   

Logic it makes.  If human image is divine then it must be furthered and multiplied.  If it is not multiplied, then the sanctity is diminished  -- and on some level -- questioned.

The highest birthrate in the world, I am told, was in the Jewish Displaced Persons Camps of Europe following the war – a courageous and bold revocation and retort to the Final Solution.

My father was once challenged by a woman,” But I want my girls to have the good things in life, dance classes and party dresses.   You can’t give them these things when you have too many kids.”

 “Would your kids prefer,” asked my father, “to have one sister and four party dresses or two sisters and two party dresses?”

I have heard it said that having children could tie up free money.   

To not have a child because of financial consideration?  

Should we do the math?

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