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For Your Shabbat Table

Mitzvahs Are Diamonds

It was a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the Sixties, challenging the young rabbi chairing the roundtable; how can you believe in G-d when science has proven otherwise? Why keep kosher in an age of government inspection and refrigeration? Isn't it racist to speak of the chosen people? The rabbi was doing his best. Sitting in the audience was an elderly rabbi, long black coat, elegant white beard. He rose to speak. The questions you are asking are good questions, but for this you don't need to come to Lubavitch. Anyone who has learned Torah can tell you these answers. But you came to Lubavitch; now let me tell you why you came.

Everyone there was surprised he could speak English; the rabbi with the immaculate black coat and long white beard began his story. A little boy was walking with his father down a steep hill in the heat of the day. They saw a man coming up the hill towards them, sweating, with a heavy sack on his shoulders weighing him down. When the man reached them the little boy asked what he had in his sack, why he was going up the hill, why he was working so hard? The man told the little boy that his stove oven had broke and he had to come down to the valley to get more stones to build himself an oven. Why not get more stones, asked the little boy, and build a bigger oven that will keep you warmer and you can have more food -- there must be more stones still in the valley? Oh, you little boy, said the man, you don't yet know what it means to have to work, how hard it is to schlep. He put his free hand on the little boy's shoulder. When you'll be big like me you'll be happy with a little oven too. The little boy and his father continued down the hill. They saw another man coming up the hill towards them. Same size man, same size sack, but this man didn't seem so weighed down. What have you in the sack, the little boy wanted to know, is it stones, are you going to build yourself a small oven? Oh no, the man smiled broadly, no oven building for me! See, I was down in the valley digging for turnips and I hit a treasure. Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! I have two daughters, two weddings to make, I'm going to open a store and stop peddling from town to town, build myself a house with wooden floors and. . . Why not get more diamonds, interrupted the boy, there must be more left in the valley? Son, said the old man putting his free hand on the little boys shoulder, believe me, I searched the valley clean. I don't think there is another diamond down there.

The little boy and his father continued down the hill You see, said the little boy's father, when you're carrying diamonds they're never too heavy. The first guy may have had diamonds too, but he didn't know what they were. The old rabbi with the long white beard looked at the college kids. You see what the father was telling the boy? A mitzvah is a diamond. Every mitzvah that we do is a precious, precious thing. This is why you come to Lubavitch; not just to learn a mitzvah but to learn that it is a diamond. When you know they are diamonds, than most of your questions will be answered.

I heard this story on a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the early Eighties, challenging the rabbi chairing the roundtable; the questions had shifted with the times: why do we need mitzvahs when we can meditate instead?

A man got up and told this story that he had heard twenty years earlier on a cold wintry night a few blocks from where they were now. He told the story well and ended with the words, It's been twenty years since Rabbi Kazarnovsky stood up that night to tell that story. I could tell you dozens of experiences I've had since then, but to you it would be meaningless. I jolted. It was just four weeks since my grandfather died. Rabbi Kazarnovsky was my grandfather.

I type the story with pride and awe. Pride because he was my grandfather; awed because he was my grandfather.

Passion, demands the parsha. You can't be Jewish out of a sense of duty. An observant Jew? an unsatisfying label. Like an obedient child, a dutiful husband a law-abiding citizen, an observant Jew accepts obligations and yet keeps on trudging. I know we're the Chosen People, moans Tevye, but isn't it time you chose someone else? Duty and diligence are not calculated to inspire, they're heavy rocks. But when duty and diligence are born of passion they are tough as steel and brilliant diamonds. A heavy load? Maybe, on the scales: but not on my back.

You have to be a rabbi, a friend told me when I was seventeen, it's expected of you, it's even in your genes. A duty, he was saying. And I thank a rabbi with an immaculate, long, black coat and an elegant, long, white beard, for showing me it's a diamond.

Have Children, Solve Your Problems


Five-hundred thirteen years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost.  

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy.

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?"   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  "Amen, amen".

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah:
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David;
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.



Headline News.
News?  What news?
There is no news under the sun:
(desert or otherwise).
There is at best slight variation.

Amorites fought Jews.
Three thousand years ago.
The Parsha calls the Amorites bees.
They would die in battle:
a bee that buries its stinger and dies.
”I’m happy to die, as long as I sting.”
Suicide bombers?   

Headline news never talks of Amorites.
Suicide bombers don't learn parsha:
They do not know of Amorites.  
They turn bold statements into tired cliches:
"with their blood and with their soul"
And think they’ve come up with something new.
He who does not learn from history. . .
is destined to make someone, somewhere repeat
"he who does not learn from history. . . ".

The pessimist sees only tunnel;
the optimist sees only light;
the realist sees tunnel, light, tunnel, light, tunnel, light.
The Jew sees Moshaich.   

History has proven
Amorites disappear.
History has proven
Jews do not disappear.  
History has proven
the Jew is eternal;
the eternity of the Jew
is G-d’s hand in history,
a sign of His presence.  

In Hebrew miracle and sign are synonymous.

Jewish continuity is unique.
it takes a leap of irrational faith (faithlessness?)
to even think that the Jewish future will be ordinary.

This Shabbos is the saddest in our calendar.
It is the Shabbos of Tisha B'Av (the fast and mourning is postponed until tomorrow),
the day that encapsulates all the bitter, tortuous history of the Jews.
This Shabbos is called Shabbos Chazon:
the Shabbat of Vision.  
The vision of Isaiah.  

Vision as in “I have a vision”
denotes distance, haziness, elusiveness.  
Vision as in eyesight represents clarity and immediacy.
Of all the senses vision encapsulates the entity
and transmits it into the mind.

The Vision of this Shabbos, the masters tell us,
is of the third Bais Hamikdash.
Something elusively beyond history
but in tandem with historical cycles and logic.
The ethereal building, the eternal people --
In history but never of history.

How will we know when Moshaich arrives?  
The masters over two centuries ago said we will know Moshiach is here ---
when we read about it in the newspapers.  
(Again, the ordinary dimension of the mystical)  

In defiance of historical precedent,
on that day the newspapers will carry a story
of something new under the heavens.  
Headline News.
A miracle, indeed.


Enigma of Jewish Response

Pistachio ice cream is good.
Together, they are not good.

Good cooking means combining food properly.

Egg and onion is good -- two foods that complement each other.

Ginger and dates – aha! now that’s food.

Combining flavors that are not just different but are opposites, has each flavor play on the other, tantalizing each other's strengths and subtleties until a new and dynamic flavor burst forth.

When the Rebbe had a heart attack – it was Simchas Torah, the happiest night of the year with vigorous, near-riotous dancing until late at night – and the heart attack was sudden and severe – the Chassidim in his shul danced.  And cried.  Danced and cried.

Mourning means feeling loss.  And it is a mitzvah to mourn the lost Bet Hamikdash. It is a mitzvah to mourn the loss of the just – this Shabbat is the Yahrtzeit of Aaron, Moses’s brother and this Friday begins the yearly nine-day mourning for the Bet Hamikdash, Jerusalem’s building where heaven met earth. 

The mitzvah of mourning largely translates into refraining, from weddings, haircuts, swimming, new clothes.  It means feeling loss – not so much doing something as much as not doing anything.

There is also the mitzvah of continuance.  Learning the life and thoughts of Aaron and making them your own.  Iterating that his life was one of spirit and that if we continue his spirit than he lives now as much as he did in his lifetime.  Studying the layout and function of the Bet Hamikdash, that were it to be rebuilt tomorrow, we could become its tour guides.  Both are active defiance of the physical loss, the opposite of mourning.

And both are the enigma of Jewish response.  Remembering and ignoring.  Remembering the loss to such degree that we never accept it.  Ignoring the loss like it never happened because that is the only way to ensure that we survive and that the loss does not endure.

It is a poignant paradox.  Counterintuitively, they play on each other.  In yeder Yiddishe simcha is faran a trer, in every Yiddish joy is a tear.  Not letting go.  Not getting lost in memory.  It pulls and pushes yins and yangs.  And with it, a nation is nourished.


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