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For Your Shabbat Table


Have you ever met someone truly great?  A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in?  If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.

Some forty odd years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times.  He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered.  Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”

The student, Jonathan Sacks, is the former chief rabbi of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great).  When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him.  They asked what made him become a rabbi.  He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge – started him on that road.

Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness.  In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 

He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers.  Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.

“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha.  “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver.  Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.

In raising my grandchildren’s parents and watching many of my students who have become rabbis and rebbetzins, I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness. 


The Desert Bride

When you first come to the Desert,
You know it by what it doesn’t have:
“Wow there are no trees!”
“No grass!”
“All you have here is rocks and sands!”

Often people feel it so bare and foreign:
They quickly cover the desert with green like the Amazon.


Later, sometimes, they see
That the vastness of the desert has its own stark beauty.
They see that this nothingness of the desert
Is really a lack of noise and distraction.
And with all the distraction gone
You can sense something that you never knew was there.
And then you have fallen in love with the desert.


G-d too fell in love with the desert.
The vastness and emptiness
Where nothing calls attention away from Him.
No water, no plants, no agriculture
No accomplishment and really no endeavor.
Just Him.


He likes it when people appreciate the desert.
In themselves.
Notwithstanding accomplishment and gumption,
Simply realizing that in the face of Him
There is no accomplishment, no endeavor large enough
To be worthy of taking away from Him.

He loved the desert so much
That he wanted to get married there. 
And he wanted his kalla-maiden to have that desert quality. “That you followed after me into the desert,
A land where nothing grows”.

So the Jewish people got married in the desert of Sinai
And have a 6000,000-word document to prove it.
And this document they cherish. 
We got this at Sinai, they say,
Because they treasure where they got it too.  

Now the Jewish people are again in the desert:
Part of the Jewish people.
The Coachella, in my case.

We see something more about the desert.
We see that it is full of water, but the water is down below
And we have to bring it up.
The desert too now has room even for our accomplishment.  And it still is vast and beautiful
with a stark and awesome beauty.

Last Line on Curses


Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art.  The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other:  “You should have a court case -- and you should win!”  “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!”

In this week’s reading, The Al-mighty Himself pours forth his wrath with a Writer’s attention to original detail that makes the stomach turn and a Poet’s turn of phrase that makes the head swell.

There is nothing in our history not written and accounted for in these passages, not the cannibalism of the Roman conquest, not the kapos of Poland and Germany.  Perhaps if I were not such a Jewish history addict, the verses wouldn’t have boggled me like that.

Now picture this:  a courtroom.  A judge calls in the defendant and reads off the charges.  The defendant took his victim, drugged him, called in several of his assistants and methodically, with forethought cut the man’s stomach open, removed organs, put in foreign substances, drugged him some more.  The victim luckily made it out of this ordeal alive, and made it safely home. 

Then the judge reads the very last line:  the defendant is a surgeon who did surgery in a hospital with the patient duly under surgery and the operation was successful.

Things change with the last line.  Until the last line we get increasingly dizzy with assaulting details: the last line flips everything into perspective.

Some people instinctively relate to life through the last line: we call them tzaddkim.  There is a story of a young boy of ten, the son of a tzaddik.  His father the tzaddik always read the Torah, including this week’s Tochacha – the vivid curses. 

One year the tzaddik was sick and unable to read the Tochacha: someone else read the Torah in his place.  The little boy heard the Tochacha being read and he fainted.  For months he was bedridden.  Finally, after he recovered they asked him why the Tochacha affected him so deeply – don’t you hear it every year?

“Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when a my father reads the Tochacha I hear only blessings.”  (Needless to say, the little boy was soon recognized as a tzaddik in his own right.)

I’ve heard that when the Rebbe was a little boy the pogroms (the third wave of the last czars) hit his hometown of Nikolaiyiv.  He spent nights in the basement of his apartment building, comforting children even younger than himself. 

Many years later the Rebbe wrote that since he was a small boy he was drawn, magnet-like to the concept of Moshiach.  He described it as a time that would give meaning to the long and bitter Jewish history.  That it would be a last line.

The trouble is that when you’re in the middle of the story you cannot fathom that there is a last line, and the very mention of it is aggravating.  “The people would not hear him for their shortness of breath,” the Jews in Egypt could not endure Moshe’s talk of redemption: they were too overcome by the reality around them to fathom there could be a last-line ending.

I go back to the account of the Warsaw Ghetto I was reading.  I Google search the bombing of Jewish communities, of Judaism.  I scroll through the horrific deja-vu afflicting Israel.  Again.  I too, in my Egypt, have shortness of breath.  I am somewhat relieved that there are giants who are high enough to see the last line.  And see it not as a distant vision as rock-solid reality. 

The words ‘speedily in our days’ take on new meaning.  Or maybe I’m just giving them a new attention.

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