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For Your Shabbat Table

Hug Your Loved Ones Because You Can

By Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz

It is now more than two years since my arms and lips stopped working. I ache to hug and kiss my children. I ache to speak to them, and tell them how much I love them and how proud I am of them.

Now more, than ever, I see the value of these things.

In the portion of Tzav we read, “And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The  kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning.”

The fire on the altar was a G‑dly fire that remained whether wood was added or not.

What was the purpose of adding the wood? What can we learn from this?

Every one of us is a Holy Temple. At our spiritual center, our altar, is a G‑dly fire that can never be extinguished. This is our  neshamah, our soul.

One may mistakenly think, “I am a Jew at heart, isn’t that enough? I will set myself on auto-pilot. My current direction is good enough for me.”

To this, the Torah says, the kohen must kindle wood every morning. You must invest your physical self, your possessions and your time, to develop and grow your fire every day.

We can take a lesson from this in our own personal relationships. One may mistakenly think, “They know how I feel, that should be enough.” You might think, “I give them everything they want, that should be enough.” To this, the Torah says, “The kohen must kindle wood every morning.”

You must constantly rekindle the spark of your relationships.

Please, do not take your loved ones for granted! Grab the opportunity to develop your connections. Keep adding wood to your fires. Don’t wait for the “right moment.”

Do it now.

Rabbi Yitzi writes these weekly thought on his blog with his eyes - a technologically astounding feat, but a painfully slow process. He cannot lift a finger, though nothing suppresses his smile.

Sleep

Sleep is not a delicate or romantic.  We slobber. We belch. We mess up freshly-pressed linen.  We mutter senseless, groggy drivel. And all those contour pillows, satin duvets, imported headboards and lacey skirting -- try as they might -- can't hide the fact that we, thinking, sensitive, provocative, insightful, caring individuals, have by way of sleep morphed into embarrassing slobs.

And yet, we need sleep.  Deprived of it, our bodies simply demand it: the eyes refuse to see, or even stay open; the ears cease to transmit data.  As does the nose, as does the tongue as do millions of the body's sensors.  The body shuts them down because important work has to be done: every cell discards its waste and simultaneously rejuvenates.  Think of it as your neighborhood supermarket: they close the doors to customers for a time to wash the floors, restack the shelves and count the money you've given them.  Without this down time the store cannot function at optimal level, if it functions at all.  Without consistent, adequate sleep we fall apart, slowly but surely: degeneratively.

Still, sleep feels like a waste of time.  It is the least dignified part of our day.  Our bodies are all that is working, our minds, our sensitive side, our spiritual quests are all but dead.  Or so it seems.

Life for us is asleep.  We primarily feel the immediate need of our digestive systems, not our spiritual system.  Our stomachs, our businesses occupy the vast majority of our time and thought; our spiritual journeys are inside books or for the books.  The word reality conjures physical need, not religious endeavor.  That is the way it is.

Because, well, we are asleep.  That is how the Psalmist and the Talmudist see our state of life: exile.  We are asleep.   And so is the Almighty, as it were.  We don't see his connection with us other than in a groggy haze - and primarily as Facilitator-of-All-My-Needs Deity.  

It is evident that we are asleep.  But we are also sleepers.  We will be awakened one day to a different reality.  It all sounds a bit, well, dreamy.  But then reality usually sounds dreamy when I am asleep.

"On that night the kings slumber was shaken," cites the story of Esther.  The obvious reference is to the wicked king who decreed death to the Jews.  He couldn't sleep at all that night until he remembered that he owed his life to a Jew.  That was the beginning of the happy end, or, perhaps, the end to a scary beginning.  

But the king who couldn't sleep at all that night is reference too, to a King on high.  Whose connection to his people below resembled the soul's connection to the body when the body sleeps.  Disconnected.  Not present.  Or present but only in a limited, paradoxical way: the lack of spirit highlights the function of body -- and its connection to something beyond the body.

Sweet dreams.  And wake up to something even sweeter

Serenity and Blessings

Just after the Arabs attacked the Jews in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, the Israel Defense Forces held an emergency appeal in Nashville.  My father was speaking, and probably because he couldn't get a babysitter, he brought me along.  

He ended off with the story of Purim, how Mordechai reminds Esther that what needs to happen will happen, the Jews will be saved with or without you, but if you sit complacently in your palace then they will be saved and you will perish.

One lady that I knew stood up and said that for five years they had been setting aside money for a family vacation: three thousand dollars.  She gave the money to defend Jewish lives.

Success is the most coveted of blessings, appreciated because we feel it is earned.  We stepped forward.  We did something.  We didn't just talk about it.  

You can sit on the sidelines, you can talk and criticize and encourage and curse and bless and it doesn't make that much difference. Or you can get your hands dirty, your feet black and your bank account red and sweat and cry and plod and slip and fall and. . .and do something.  Then, and only then, can you ask for, and do you deserve a blessing: success.

Are you needed?  Can someone else do it?  If Esther didn't want to do it, or "couldn't" do it then yes, history would continue its play without her.  But if Esther wants to, then all of creation is waiting for her; this is her moment.  That is a worthy bracha, a Divine gift, the ability to make a difference: you can kill yourself over something worth living for.  

A man came to the Rebbe and asked for a blessing: that he be able to continue learning uninterrupted, with serenity.  The Rebbe was uncharacteristically flabbergasted. "There are thousands of kids who aren't learning Aleph Beis and you're worried about your serenity!!"

Whether we deserve serenity or not is another issue.  But as our parsha testifies, serenity was not the blessing of Moses.  Holiness was, and that comes through accomplishment, not a stress-free environment.

Be careful what you ask for.  Or as American Jewry's beloved creation Tevye says, maybe it's time to choose someone else.  To be holy means to achieve.  We would have it no other way.  May the redeemer come to Zion, heralds the siddur, and may I play a part is the quiet fervor in those words.

Mrs. Sandviches

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930.  She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey.  The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time.  His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers'Paradise.  In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing.

My grandmother came in to his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand.  She saw the Rebbe's face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.

The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted.  It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.

My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion.

She would end each telling with:  But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!

I don't think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm.  I think if she had she would never have been the person she was.   (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher.  They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches.  She told them she works hard to understand them, why don't they work to understand her?  The teasing stopped.)

For two parshas the Torah told us the detailed of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing.  Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled.  The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, 'nediv libo' describing the people who gave for the Mishkan 'that their heart was full of giving'.

The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people's.  How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality?  For that you need passion, a heart full of giving.  A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit.  By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing. 

Maybe, just maybe he was.  Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future.  Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain.  If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe.

This I know.  My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her.  Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her - can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed.  

She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported.  But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.

We will read these parshas for the next two weeks.  We will think they are redundant.  We will remember that moving from heaven to earth - bringing heaven to earth - demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy.  We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

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