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For Your Shabbat Table

Don’t Psychoanalyze!

On the plane back to America, I was sitting next to a psychologist who mentioned to me how important it is for them to never psychoanalyze family members.  One of the reasons: it’s not fair.  Of course Jews were psychoanalyzing way before Sigmund invited people to lie on his couch, we just had no name for it.

For non-professionals a greater danger is pseudo-analysis.  “Oh, she always does that, she’s so compulsive.”  “There he goes again with his bi-polar.”  Worse:  “The reason she always helps is because she’s eager to please, it’s her low self-esteem.”  “You know why he gives so much Tzedakah, he needs to see his name on a building: typical megalomaniac!”

Says who?  Is it that simple to know everything going on in someone else’s head?  Are you always that accurate with what’s happening in your own head?  Secondly, what difference does it make?  A good act with bad intentions beats a bad act with good intentions -- and the pavement is a lot smoother.

Granted, giving it your best and things not succeeding the way you like is aggravating and unrewarding.  We know that.  And all G-d asks is that you do your best, the results are in His hands, we accept that.  And that no action is ever wasted, good always accumulates, and whether results are immediately recognized or not is immaterial in the long run and from a G-dly, timeless (beyond quantum-physics) perspective redundant.  We believe that.  But that is not what we’re talking about.

Look at it this way:  Guy A helps old lady cross street because, the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, she has a wealthy nephew etc.  Guy B doesn’t help old lady cross street because the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, wealthy nephew and how dare you think he’s so shallow!!  See, bottom line is, the lady needs help; your yin-yang harmony don’t do much.  As the Kabala puts it: Love and awe are what make a mitzvah soar.  A mitzvah without love and awe is a bird without wings.  Love and awe without a mitzvah is wings without a bird. 

Okay, so action is it.  But, can intentions be improved, sublimated, sanctified?  Well, now you’re getting serious.  But if your not just doing it, then you’re seriously not getting it.

The Parsha?  When Pinchas acted decisively he was ridiculed because his grandfather, a pantheistic priest, had done similar: a plus-c’est-change chip off the old block in different circumstance.  No, the Parsha begins, he did good, I alone know the inner workings of man, judge him primarily by what he does and unless you’re in the business, your couch is for people to sit on, and if your blessed with it, for overflow company to sleep on.



We Are Proudly Different


Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you've seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth's land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations' condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.

I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.

That was the thought then, we would finally "take our rightful place amongst the family of nations". What happened?

America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.

"We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.

Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: "Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists" … There was an unspoken comfort in that - not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don't make us comfortable.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.

A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week's parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.

The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam - nearly three billion people - a numerical absurdity when you think of it.

But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family's particularism.

Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. "Alone we feel very ordinary" said one after the '67 war, "just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us."

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can't always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.


The Call of the Hero

Have you ever heard of Reb Mendel?  He smuggled Jews out of the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.  The Communists gave him fifteen years in the Siberian gulags.

Ever heard of Mume Sorah? She did the same, but they never bothered sending her away.  For decades her family never knew her yartzeit; they still don’t know where, if anywhere, the Communists buried her.

Heard of the mother who backed out of the driveway and pinned her toddler under the rear wheel? She lifted the car by herself and saved her son.

When we ask heroes where they got the strength to do incredible things, they give lousy answers.  Inevitably, their answer is “I had to do it,’ or to put it differently, they couldn’t not do it.  It’s not just modesty that makes them squirm when looking for answers, it is the almost-awkward simplicity.  For, regardless of their level of articulation they cannot come up with any good reason for why they did what they did.

Reasons are powerful motives for doing things.  Logic is compelling.  But logic is in the head, not the guts.  So logic compels our minds to move.  A mother’s love is not in the head; therefore all of her moves.  Even parts of her she never knew she has, moves to free her baby in danger.  She can’t put it into words because there are no words in the gut.  There is a place so profound that it cannot be made shallow with talk.

And there, right there where the deepest (no, you can’t really even subjugate them to the word) emotions reside, there the Jew has nothing but a visceral connection to G-d. Not a staid, progressive links-in-a-chain connection, but a reflexive, instinctive metal-to-magnet connection. You can’t feel it and you could live a life without ever knowing it was inside of you.  Because like heroes, it doesn’t look to present itself.  But if the moment calls for it, the response is automatic and Jewish.  (Think of sworn atheists that when it came down to it they gave their lives rather than surrender their identity, Or the Jew-in-name-only who when things were counting on him came through.)  Why? I just couldn’t do anything else.  

We have mitzvahs that we like.  Family Seders with favorite recipes; Chanukah songs and latkes; Purim plays and Sukkah parties.  A melody that lifts you to your feet, a Talmudic insight that dazzles in its elegant simplicity, a Chassidic story that soothes with its empathy.  They each relate to a different aspect of our personality and strengthen it Jewishly. But all these precious experiences, for all the growth they give us, do not touch our kishkes .  Only the aspect of a mitzvah which is beyond our intellectual grasp and not within our emotional embrace can resonate so deeply. These mitzvahs are called chukim, and it is with these mitzvahs that our parsha begins.




Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now twenty two long years since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

When President Dubya visited Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, he spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall.  Perspective you want?  Keep walking.



From Splitting Seas to Entebbe, from Soothsayers to UN Councils

Behold a people!  These are a people unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled.  They will not be spoken of in military academies for years to come; they will confound military academies forever.  So spoke he who hates Jews three millennia ago, so (dares not) speak the one who hates Jews today. 

Six days in June, their air force flew less than fifteen feet above the sea, without radio communication.  Were they a few inches too low they would have sunk.  Were they a few inches too high, the radar would have picked them up.  All the planes made it. They came unto the airfields where the pharaohs once ruled; had they come moments earlier or moments later the sun would not have blinded the watchtower’s eyes.  But the sun was just so, and they destroyed Egypt within minutes.

They analyzed through satellite the desert that bears the name of the mountain that gave them their destiny, and there they found in the Sinai a strip of terrain just firm enough and just wide enough to cross the desert with their heavy tanks.  Now all they needed was a tank battle.  To displace tanks it takes a minimum of three to one ration in favor of the attacker.  But the children of Israel had the ratio of three to one against them.  Mathematicians out there!  what were the odds against the Jews?  But they won.

And less than ten years later again, only this time it is my memory, not only my fascination, that leads my quest to delve into the eye of G-d Himself.  I was twelve that summer and in New York.  Shopping either in the Lower East Side or Boro Park, I do not know. I had just devoured an orange and vanilla ice cream popsicle, my fourth of the day.  They were a quarter or less and I kept on getting change from my father as he sat in the parked car reading while my mother shopped – as he always did. 

It came through on a radio playing by an open shop on that hot day; a plane was hijacked with loads of Israelis.  Air France Flight 139 on route to Paris.  And a day or two later, in my grandparent's Bensonhurst home, a call from Nashville came.  One of the ladies in shul, Elise Rosenberg --my friend Ari’s mother – had a sister on that flight.  I don’t know her sister’s name but as I got older and went to Morocco and returned to share my two-years of memories with Elise, I got a fuller picture of this woman.  Born in Fez, to the prestigious and ancient Assouline family, she like many North African Jews had lived in both Israel and France and had family in both countries and traveled between them. 

Elsie was fasting every day and saying Tehillim for her sister.  By the time my parents hung up the phone with her, I went from being worried the way a boy is worried when he hears disturbing news to being obsessed the way only a boy can be.  We went into Shabbos with the question: will the government of Israel negotiate or not?  There were hot opinions around the table, my father, my grandfather, and everyone else.  And then Motzei Shabbos leaving my grandfather’s Avenue O Jewish Center, where O meets Bay Parkway, we heard the radio again and rushed home to hear the full reports.  They were saved!! And I still remember my mother punching both fists in the air like a boxer who won the championship. I have since devoured every morsel of information I could get on that story.  It was an unprecedented maneuver and in the four-decades since, it remains unparalleled.

The next morning of course was the Bicentennial and I had been waiting for this since we arrived in New York.  We got a good spot under the Verrazano to watch the big ships from across the world pay homage to the Red White and Blue.  A man was hawking commemoration issue booklets for $2.00: “they’ll be worth a lot a hundred years from now!”  The fire-ships let out jets of water in celebration and the Italians (seemingly everyone there except us) roared when the red white and green passed under the bridge.  The next day you could board the ships.  The Israeli ship was packed: old ladies were crying  and young men were reverently fingering the flag and an old lady admonished a strapping young sailor not to stand too close to the edge of the ship: ”you could fall in!”  and he smiled, glad to know his grandmother had sent her sisterhood to look after him. 

And the Rebbe spoke of this miracle: (click here to watch)

Within a week the UN of course was meeting to. . .what else than condemn Israel for invading a sovereign country.. . .

Behold a people, these people are unlike any other and their military victories are unparalleled.  From where do they draw their strength, asked this figure in the Bible?  And those who knew the Rebbe at the time had a surprisingly nuanced answer: he has not military might at all, do not try to defeat him with force for he has none.  He gains his power from his speech (interestingly, he had a speech defect) so you too must vanquish him with speech.  Back then they hired soothsayers; since no one knows where to find a good one, they hire ad agencies and think tanks instead.  And they curse the Jewish people; sometimes for cash, sometimes for accolades -- an oftentimes more effective means of purchase. . .

And this soothsayers curses turn into blessings.  Beautiful, poetic blessings, stirring and heartwarming. 

I see them from the hilltops. .  a nation that dwells alone . . .

. . . who can count the infants of Jacob? .  . .

. . . (The Almighty)  observes no evil in Jacob, no transgression in Israel. . .

. . . a people that arise like an awesome lion and does not lie down till he eats his prey.

So it was and so it is.  As they curse us our blessings flourish, as they hate us we become beloved.

How goodly your tents O Jacob, like gardens by the river, cedars by the water.

And the op-ed page continues speaking of the future: 

. . .a star will shoot forth from Jacob, a staff shall arise from Israel. . .

The people who invented history , invested history, will outlive it. 

We live in trying times – just like our grandparents did – just as our grandparents’ grandparents did – only we thought we wouldn’t have to.  Now they curse the Jew by calling him a Nazi, books are written claiming the Jewish people do not exist. And other books are written claiming that if they do exist they are responsible for all that is horrible.  The spoken word, the written word, the Jews weapon, turned upon him.

Miracles in biblical proportion defy nature, seas split, clefts reform to squash hiding soldiers, and the sun stands still.  The spoken word in that epoch too has a power outside of our frame of reference.  Soothsayers curse.  But now military miracles can be assessed (if not understood) with conventional lexicon, and the power of the pen and the passion of the poet is inherent in every revolution known to man.  Our miracles then, are more earth-bound, they stretch the elasticity of nature without rupturing it.  But when you take in the whole picture of our people’s existence – just within the time span of my life! –you are overwhelmed by the miracle called Jews.  Did I mention the first Gulf War? (Thirty-nine scuds destroyed thousands of homes that were filled with people and no casualties!?!  Had I claimed that would happen one month before it happened, I would have been locked up in the fully farm.)  Jewish toddlers gather at the Kremlin to sing Shma?!?

From curses come our greatest blessings.  We are grateful O L-rd.  But frankly we are also tired.  That thing about a star shooting forth from Jacob? . . . could you speed that up a little bit?  Please?  And until then, those boys we have to send out to make those logic-defying military victories possible, can you please make sure they come home to their mothers? 

I meant to pay homage to the land I was born in, the land that gives bigotry no sanction, the land with an ethos unprecedented in history, the land that I love with a love born in gratitude. But I realize now I can only take care of this country by taking care of the Jews.

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