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For Your Shabbat Table

Reality

Leather seats, user-friendly ticketing, signature blue chips and 16 channel satellite tv makes Jetblue. Before takeoff, their tv screens flash a "Thank you for flying with us. Without you, we'd just be flying a bunch of tvs around the sky."

From day one to day six the One in the sky was, as it were, feeling low about the earth (and the sky) He was creating. Everything was working in perfect symmetry; it was all faultlessly first class. But. . . .

It took Adam and Eve to take it all in and recognize 'there is symmetry here, and with symmetry comes purpose. A purpose encompassing everything but encompassed by nothing. Behind a purpose is a Planner -- and that planner is all that is important. And we will call him. Let's call him G-d.'

That was the first Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year, the first day of creation, which was - if you're counting days - the sixth day of creation. But the first day of anything that really counts - recognition of purpose.

Okay, so they (we) messed up as soon as the party got going and were kicked out into a new reality, a new world order where chaos seems to have the upper hand and purpose can only be seen by the help of a guide. A guidebook. A mentor. Study. And focus.

In this newer reality, we must inculcate ourselves to recognize purpose. To see chaos as temporary (from the word temporal) and illusionary. As you probably noticed, that takes hard work. Nothing is harder than changing an outlook.

Unless, you get lucky. Sometimes you can be startled into a new perception:

As when you run into the street to catch a Frisbee and you hear an eighteen-wheeler screeching. You're Frisbee reality is disrupted.

As when you get to the office by 8:30 for another high-pressured day of appointments and at 8:46 a jetliner crashes into your building.

As when you hear the shofar.

These all bypass your mind and are absorbed straight through your kishkes.

Their effect is sudden, stark and powerful. And after the shock they pass quickly, too.

But even in a startled moment, your head can kick in too. Call it a resolution; grasp the wild, elusive energy and channel it into something manageable and enduring. It will slow the energy down a bit, but you will be able to keep it.

And with resolution, the chaos in life focuses into the purpose in life.

We become grateful that an Almighty Creator has imbued tiny, miserable us with purpose and we thank Him for it. And somewhere up above the skies, He too wishes a sweet year with high resolution. He says something like, "Thank you. Without you, I'd just be flying a bunch of monitors above the skies."

The Other Rock

“ . . . Come to the land which I have given you. . .a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Parsha.

Friends of mine who are older than me want to go to Israel.  But not now; maybe some other time.  It’s too dangerous with all that craziness going on there. 

Is going to Israel dangerous?  Perhaps it is.  But perhaps not as dangerous as not going.

The danger of going is that something might happen.  Likely? No.  Possible? Like anything else in life.

The danger of not going is that nothing will happen.  Nothing noticeable, nothing remarkable, nothing tangible will happen.  Only a subtle, nearly imperceptible shift will happen. 

And subtle can be profound.  

Abraham Twerski tells of the Manhattanite who finished a night of partying and came home to his twentieth-storey apartment. He flopped into bed and kicked off a shoe.  As he was about to kick off his other shoe, he remembered that someone was sleeping on the nineteenth floor below him; he carefully took off his other shoe and placed it on the floor.  Ten minutes later there was furious knocking on the door.  It was the downstairs neighbor, shrieking, “Would you throw down the other shoe already!”

Waiting for the other shoe to fall is nerve racking. Once the chips fall though, you know where they are; they fell, they hit, they broke and now they sit quietly.  

Much has been said about the “ghetto” Jew, most of it is pejorative, and undeservedly so.  Ghettoes had walls, outside of which Jews could neither live nor be found after nightfall.  Edicts barred Jews from most jobs, landed them with Jew-taxes and branded them with yellow stars and hats.  Death was not the exception.

Ghetto Jews knew the price the outside exacted from them for being Jewish. Ghetto Jews paid the price and got on with being Jewish.  For them, being Jewish meant spiritual grandeur, intellectual profundity, timeless legacy, optimistic future: how lucky to be a Jew.  As Jonathan Sacks says, while much for the ghetto Jew was problematic, Jewish identity was not.

Not so for the Marrano Jew, the less-spoken-of side of the medieval coin. He, afraid of being rendered a penniless wanderer on a leaky boat, allowed the village priest to sprinkle him with water.  He attended church; he adopted as best he could all the manners the outside demanded of his faithless conversion.  

But the outside was now in him, and the Marrano Jew lived his life looking over his shoulder.  When will they find him out? When will the shoe drop? What will be the ultimate price of being a Jew?  While much for the Marrano Jew was not problematic (above all finance and bodily safety) Jewish identity was.  

In the end, the Marrano could not remain as a Jew.  While a celebrated few died a martyr’s death, most melted into Catholicism.  That was his price.  Not being a Jew.  The Jew who chose the ghetto paid his price, too: but his Jewish grandchildren tell his story.

Whether one should at this time go to Israel or not has a personal component, possibly what is appropriate for one is not for another.  But there is a component that must be addressed. Going has a price.  Not going has a price.

In the 1980’s ten of us yeshiva guys spent two years with the Jewish community of Morocco.  We learned how to walk the streets.  And how not to walk the streets: 

Don't walk on sidewalks; you can get too close to someone looking for trouble. 

Walk in the middle of the street: like you own it. 

Walk near parked cars: cars are a status symbol and Arabs hesitate to throw rocks if they might hit a car. 

Don't walk the streets when the bars let out (11:00 PM); a drunk coward is a stupid danger.

And if you’re ever hit, hit back twice as hard, fast, and because within moments you’ll be outnumbered 300 to 1, get lost quickly.

But don’t ever, ever run.

With all the caution, one of us was hit with a rock in the eye. A well-meaning American, a visiting representative of a Jewish fund-raising organization happened to come to Casablanca then.  He had heard of our friend who was hit. Why don’t you guys cover you yarmulkes with caps, he suggested.  We answered him with polite, non-committal noises.  

If he’s still listening, here is the best I can offer – some twenty years later:

If you want to run, you can -- but you can’t just run a mile.  You must run a hundred miles.  

If you hide who you are, then you’ll never be yourself.  Your kids will never know who you once were -- or who they now are.  

If you hide your yarmulke, then you’ll hide your mezuzah necklace, and even hide your name.   

If you hide you may be safe.  If you’re safe you’ll be all the more scared to not be safe.  You’ll be scared to be you.

If you don’t hide, you may be hit; if you're hit, you may be hurt. You may die: many Jews have died for no other reason than who they were. 

Is it worth it, to die for who you are?  That’s not even the question.  The question is: is it worth it to live for who you are. If who you are is worth living for, then there is nothing to fear.

Once the other shoe has dropped, safety and danger don’t mean the same thing.  You can enjoy the trip.

Call it the D-word

“We’re getting divorced. But we’re doing it amicably, with mutual respect.”

When ex-spouses (or ex-es) describing their divorce sound like “we’re withdrawing our offer on the house we looked at Thursday”, you can get the idea that they never invested enough to be hurt by the loss. 

But listen again: you’ll hear emptiness in the voice:
Pain in the heart.  
Yes, the stigma is lost. 
Yes, some koffee-klatch and water-cooler conversations have an “everybody’s-doing–it” attitude. 

No. No one who went through divorce thinks it’s painless. But if pain-free divorce is a myth (in the shattering), divorce is a reality, an option more than it ever was.  To be sure, since this parsha was first delivered, the option was always there. But as my father puts it, so was a tourniquet.  When the body is facing death you use the tourniquet, otherwise it can do more damage than good. (Many first aid courses no longer teach tourniquet application because of its overuse.) Complimenting the legalization of the parsha, was the frustration of the Talmud: “When husband and wife divorce, the Holy Alter sheds tears”.

Husbands and wives are not the only things getting divorced. Divorce is not just a legal proceeding; it’s a way of life: A mindset.

You get in a fight with a friend; send them a letter telling them why you’re not going to have anything to do with them anymore.  Your family gives more sting than honey? don’t feel bound or stifled by them. And divorce, disengagement isn’t always such a bad idea. But when to walk and when to talk is not a question that gets a lot of attention. It can’t. It‘s too easy to walk: Why bother with gut-wrenching screaming matches when you can just stroll away?

There is no pat answer as to when to hang up the phone or when to give back the ring. But the tourniquet overuse is worth reflection.

For marriage to work, divorce cannot be considered a possibility.
Call it the D-word.
The ineffable, unthinkable.
Forget that it exists.
Relationships can’t work when breaking-up is knocking on the door. Not with spouses, friends, cousins, brothers, in-laws, grocers or gardeners.  
(Tip: Treat everyone as your most important client.)

And a fight does not necessarily mean a break-up is on the way; It can just as soon (if not just as easily) be a stepping-stone to a balanced, strong, fulfilling and happy relationship.

Better an acrimonious relationship than a non-combative drifting. Not always, but when in doubt throw out the tourniquet; and remember tears are being shed.

 

Witches, Black Cats, Bulls and Planes

 

Black cats don’t bother me any more than white or brown ones do.  The thirteenth floor is fine as long as the elevator is working.  Horoscopes remain unread -regardless of whether we Tauruses need to think bull market or bear.

So I read this parsha’s admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now.  Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 

Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 

Thou shalt not read omens.

Wait, it’s starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant.  I don’t read horoscopes largely because I think they’re bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday’s Gemini for Thursday’s Capricorn.  But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles.

But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.

What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips?  They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control.  And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers.

At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive.  “Our sole purpose,” exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, “is to give Judaism a decent burial.”  He wasn’t being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available.  Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit.

These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right.  They were dead wrong – in hindsight.  Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 

Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured.  You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is.  You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon: Bashert

Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie.  Perhaps in more avenues that one.  Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew.  The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye.  Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe’s successors.

Not that you’re relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting.  Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors.  But if you checked the monitors, don’t roll balls or whatever down the aisle.  Enjoy your flight.  To wherever.  It’s all bashert.  All good.  All the time.

 

For Hashem your G-d will bless you

One of the places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco.  It didn’t smell pleasant, not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards..  Some of the residents were neither senile nor blind, and were able to acknowledge our presence when we came to light the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady came over and introduced herself in English as Madame Leiberman.  I was shocked.  She had a hard to place accent.  I asked her where she was from.  

“Guess!” she answered mischievously, happy to be a schoolgirl for a moment.  I gave up and she said Vienna. Ah so you speak Yiddish I offered, imagining a comeback in a German-accented Yiddish. 

“Zicher, alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish.”  All Polish Jews spoke Yiddish.  So, you’re a Polish Jew I asked.  I’m neither Polish nor a Jew. Ich bin a krist: I’m a Christian, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.

This all in a sparse room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country.  I wasn’t sure what was getting to me.

She had her audience now she told her story.

Her husband was a Jew, Vienna was a very liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and shared each other’s cultures and many young people intermarried.  “Ah but I see you’re not impressed, du hust dach a bord!  She was delighted with herself.

Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison.  I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me, bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hinger strike --our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike! 

She went on with some remarkable insights, but my meeting her and that last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 

Forget now concentration camp standards.  Think us, think America, think 2016.  Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scale, food scale, fridge magnets with warning-contents-may-be dangerous-to your-health, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group.  Think diets: Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. Think conditions: heart disease, gout - the rest I don’t want to mention. 

Measures we have taken to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food.  We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating.  Yes, yes you can’t leave something on your plate without thinking of the starving children in India, but... isn’t much (if not most) of that politically induced?

I feel queasy bringing this up on the tail of a tale retelling an unspeakable time.    But she was on the periphery of it all, her story even more so.

How much is spent on (not waste, not this or that being thrown out, but how much is spent on) safeguarding us from not digging in?  When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say “Thanks: it’s good to be provided for.” 

For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you’ll be full and satisfied, you should thank He who provides.  Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 

But in this parsha he alludes quite strongly to more.  When the place (and the place in Torah refers always to Temple Mount, ((which really isn’t a Jewish place according to, oh, I apologize and digress)) when ascending to Jerusalem) is far from you, and difficult to carry your homage, because Hashem has blessed you.

Now we’re talking something heavier; not only does having too much make you sick, it makes you identify more with the body than with the soul.  Notice how cows’ heads are so close to the ground? 

The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; diet and fitness can indicate narcissism.  Nor does sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table lead unswervingly to good health.  But excess leads to poor health of body and soul.  And declining a second helping and helping a second can converge for good health of body and soul.

Some other time we’ll get to Madame Leibermann’s other wisdom.  For now I’ll bask in the land of plenty, the land of opportunity, plenty of opportunity to choose what I won’t eat.

 

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