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For Your Shabbat Table

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells.  “Antiqued” furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line.

Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina.  Multi-million dollar homes are built to “have character”.  If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age.  Old is good.
 
Except for old people.  No one boasts of having their own senior citizen.  Or of being one.
 
And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves.  They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X.  They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived.  When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and – we add for good measure – can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto?
 
For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 
Youth is beautiful.  Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age.
 
The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired.
 
Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor.  In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.
 
Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 
A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing.  It can happen in a young person too:
we call them brats.
 
“Ba bayamim” the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham.  Come of his days.  Each day was full, was lived to its fullest.  He took on the next day with new vigor.  “Old, and with full days”, this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 
 
Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing.  The Talmud calls them dead: “even in their lifetimes, call them dead”. 
 
How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket.  How sad the daughter who holds onto her father’s memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because “he loved the water”.  This is what they have left?  Recipes and beach balls? 
Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents?  Is this legacy?
 
You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 
 
You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured.  A boy with Hodgkin’s is comforted.  You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours.  You learn some Torah.  You teach some Torah. 
 
You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children.  You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 
 
By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 
 
The soul breathes much as wine does:
The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe.  Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 
Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase.  

My Son the Doctor

My son the doctor had a son: he is now a neurosurgeon.  His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite: the girl he is not married to is not Jewish.  My son the lawyer had a daughter: she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley:  she’s forty-three and just met Mr. Right. 

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled not so long ago, containing little we didn’t already know anecdotally. Still, some of the numbers were shocking. 
 
Three hundred thousand less Jews than there were only ten years ago?  Forget Zero Population Growth: we’re eating away at our capital. 
 
And for what? Because we earn $8,000 per year more than the average American family!  We’re not having kids so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage.  My kingdom for a horse; my birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.
 
The problem is not simply that Jewish women don’t want to become Jewish mothers: it’s that Jewish men don’t want to become Jewish fathers.  Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution: give us back the husbands that you stole from us!  Until that revolt, men grew into fathers: fathers needed to provide, so men worked. Gradually men stopped merely working and providing, they went off to pursue a career, self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style).  If there are no fathers than who wants to be a mother?
 
Perhaps more than any parsha ours is laden with domesticity:  from our perspective at least, it is painful to hear the women pining after children and the husband’s attention that childbearing would earn them.  More easily overlooked is the husband who watches sheep all day in order to raise a family.  Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times; his twin brother led a high- pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle.   
 
‘Will our children say kaddish for us’ was the worry of a generation gone by.  We have no children, is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation.  Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused, overplayed and gauche.  Charged-up activism is annoying.  Go get a job!  Become successful! is the cry.  And the kids listen, in droves.
 
One of the positive aspects of the Sixties–Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but an idealism nevertheless.  When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn’t OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short.  The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism.
 
Parents want to provide their children with that what the parents grew up without.  That is good thing and a difficult accomplishment.  A perhaps greater accomplishment is to provide their children with that what the parent took for granted.  When that is overlooked, and the children are not given that what the parent had, then the children grow up without.  
 
It is not enough to want grandchildren.  You must want to have children who are parents: want sons who are fathers more than sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts.  And especially, want sons-in-law who are fathers more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons. 
 
My mother taught me that you can never choose to have a child: you can only choose not to have a child.  Never take for granted the blessing of life that you hold: that what made you what you are. 
 
For these are the children of Jacob: an unmitiagated faith that the chain has an inherent worth greater than what the link may empirically lack.  We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (how else to pay for day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.  

Made in America!

Pulling out of the JFK parking lot was an arrow ‘To Manhattan’ with a silhouette graphic of the world’s most recognized skyline: over the two vertical blocks was painted the American flag.  Several hours later having first stopped by the Ohel, (the Rebbe’s resting place) I had my first view of The City in over a year, the unbalanced skyline: the gaping wound of America. 

Jewish Brooklyn was thriving and Governor Pataki wanted their votes, campaign posters there are printed in Yiddish and English “er hut unz geshtitz, mir shtitzen em”; he supports us we support him.  Simple, forceful and blunt.  New York.
 
I was there for a conference of Chabad rabbis, shluchim – which serves a lot of us as part class reunion, part family reunion and part shopping trip.  The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday Night Banquet.  I had brought a friend from Rancho Mirage for the weekend.  “What’s our plan, like what happens?” he asked.  I wasn’t sure.  You eat.  Speeches.  I don’t like over-promising.
 
The roll call began.  The chairman had trouble with Azerbaijan, had an easier time with Congo, Bulgaria, Armenia, and another forty or so exotic names and gave oratorical flourish to England, Australia and Italy.  You really do forget what’s happening outside your niche; you realize that the Rebbe made his niche wherever there were Jews.
 
Then came the time-line roll call:  all the shluchim of the forties and fifties, the sixties, seventies and eighties – there were more in the nineties and 2K’s then all the decades combined!
 
Then came the children.  Nine, ten and eleven year olds who had accompanied their fathers – all rabbis – from the far-off corners of the roll call as well as from a stone’s throw from the Downtown Brooklyn Marriott: Brooklyn Heights, the Financial District (now called Ground Zero) and Park Slope.
 
The kids made a presentation repeating an identical message in the languages of the countries they came from: Swedish (sounds remarkably like Hungarian), German (snooty-nasal Yiddish), Russian (a cute kid, my cousin’s son) and the run-of-the-mill French, Hebrew, Spanish, Farsi and English.  The message of how they were proud of their parents etc. was undeniably rehearsed: hackneyed and stilted -- there wasn’t a dry eye in the room, or at least not on my face. 
 
Chaya, my wife, had just spoken last week to a classmate in Florida; her twelve-year-old son is perfectly capable of running every aspect their shul, and practically does.  My cousin running a Boston university Chabad House claims his kids are the ones who make a difference in anyone’s life: he tries to stand out of the way and let them do it.  Ditto Rancho Mirage.
 
These kids often leave home at painfully tender ages to go to the yeshiva nearest to them, often enough several hundred miles away.  They always hate it and their parents are impossible to talk to the day after they drop their children off at the airport.  They go to a Brooklyn, or a Jerusalem or some other place where everyone in the neighborhood goes to yeshiva and reads Yiddish campaign posters and don’t really relate to where these kids are coming from, what they are going through  -- or where they are headed.
 
They go through the yeshiva system, the first few years they are miserable and homesick, crying into the phone, throwing tantrums on their visits home for Pesach and getting accustomed to this pit in their stomach.  I admit, this is the worst-case scenario (I hope), some kids don’t have it so rough, but I speak from informed experience: I was one of them. 
 
But all through those years when the only ones more miserable than the kids are their parents, these boys and these girls keep in them, somewhere even deeper than that pit in the stomach, this burning . . .something: they are going to be shluchim, just like their parents.  And amazingly they do.
 
So those hackneyed words fed them by whomever “we are so proud of you, dear parents and the wonderful work you do” the bothersomely flowery “our small hearts fill with pride” resonated with a truth they might themselves not realize that they possess. 
 
Seventy years ago the immigrant generation’s traditionally-minded looked with worry at the children born in modernity; how could they ever carry the torch?  They looked with them with pity; how could they appreciate something they never saw?  They looked with despair; who will say Kaddish for American Jewry?  What will become of us?
 
The Rebbe looked with boastful pride: when Moshiach comes we will show off our kids to him, “Look! And they are Made in America!”
 
Are we pressuring our kids too much?  Are they giving up too much?  Will they (don’t even say it) resent an overdose of Yiddishkeit?
 
The parsha begins with comfort and assurance:  not only did Abraham pride himself on Isaac but Isaac prided himself on Abraham.  And they looked alike. 
 
America, you have a gaping wound. We Jews know something about gaping wounds.  We know you must heal and make stronger, even, especially in unbearable pain.  The greatest of the Greatest Generation, the ones who walked out of the ovens of Europe, heroically putting one Jewish foot in front of the other had kids (from where that optimism?) sent them to yeshiva (amidst the applause of virtually no one) and these survivors, now parents, grandparents and great-grandparents pride themselves on generations that looks like them, looks towards them -- even as the survivors themselves look towards their children, their rightfully boastful pride and nachas.  
 
The promise of a generation is written on the chubby faces and missing-tooth grins of the Rebbe’s little tikes.  Keep up the good work kids.  And (I know I don’t say it often enough) thank you.
 

Finding Love

"What type of man do I want to marry?" the young woman repeated the question that had been asked of her.
"Well, I want someone kind. And smart.
But not the too-kind type that lets himself be walked on.
And not the too-smart type that lets it get to his head.
Someone who isn't too into his books: someone sociable.
A leader, the life of a party -- but not someone who aggravates with this presence. I'd like him to be handsome, but not haughty. I'd like. . ."

She looked at the Rebbe, seated behind his desk. His smile was broad and his eyes twinkled.
"It sounds like you want to marry more than one person."

I've told this story -- to myself and to whoever wants to listen -- dozens of times. I don't know who the lady was.

But this next story I know happened to Chana Sharfstein: I read her article in a Chabad women's journal and later asked her about it.

Chana (then Zuber) was a young woman in Boston in the early fifties. Her father had brought the family there from Stockholm. Not long afterwards he was gruesomely murdered while walking home from shul on a Friday night. Back then, such things shocked New England.

Chana will tell you that after she lost her father the Rebbe adopted her. Six months after her father's murder, she too, stood before the Rebbe's desk.

Why haven't you married yet? the Rebbe wanted to know.
I haven't met the right one.
What will the right one look like?
A charismatic Prince Charming stepped out of Chana's imagination and into their conversation.
The Rebbe laughed fully.

"You've read too many novels," the Rebbe said, still laughing but growing more serious. "Novels are not real life: they're fictions. They're full of romance and infatuation. Infatuation is not real. Infatuation is not love."

"Love is life," the Rebbe continued. "It grows through small acts of two people living together. With time they cannot imagine life without each other."

Infatuation you fall into. Love you build. And love - the barometer of a successful marriage - is dependant 20% on the person you marry and 80% on the way you marry them every day.

"And they shall build a home in Israel" the Rebbe said in his blessing he sent Chaya and me for our wedding day. A home and a house is not the same thing. They say nothing stresses a marriage like building a house.

May we all be blessed to build a home - the newlyweds and the jubilee-plus anniversarians. Built with small acts. Bit by bit. With time.

WHEN GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE

When bad things happen to good people.  It’s the title of a book that everyone knows and that no one has ever told me that they read (save a guy who needed to quote it in an article).  It is the title, the question, that resonates all over the place.   

Admittedly, some of the resonance of when bad things happen is a dressed-up, horn-rimmed-polite kvetch of  why me?   (A friend of mine wonders if perhaps people aren’t more bothered by the reverse: when good things happen to bad people!)

But the question – when heartfelt and selfless -- is a powerful one and an ancient one.  Powerful, because everyone relates to it, personally.  Ancient, because it has never been answered, sufficiently.

The answer that I know a little is, in short, that when the good people having bad things happen to them are somebody else, then we have to relieve them of their suffering and scream to G-d How can you!   When the good people are us, then we have to do what we can to relieve the suffering, pray to G-d for strength that we act appropriately  . . .and then go on.

The broken pot is never tested, says the Midrash, only a good pot is tested to see if it can hold up.  That holding up, that becoming greater, is what G-d wants to see.  For understandable reasons: people only grow through adversity, a kid only appreciates the value of money if it is earned, not given.  Etc.  

But. . . well, as Tevye put it: would it ruin a vast and mighty plan if I were a wealthy man?  Couldn’t You, Oh G-d, in Your infinite wisdom, Your infinite power and Your infinite compassion have tested us and made us grow without all this suffering?   

Well, yes and no.  Yes, because he is All Capable. No, because, well, because if He could have, He would have.  It gets philosophical, and it’s important to have that philosophical wealth before the horror strikes.  Abraham searched for G-d for years and had developed a strength, a reservoir of faith, to withstand tragedy.  Like a jogger who is in shape when a heart attack strikes.   

I had the dubious honor of hearing someone claim that the L-rd had revealed himself to him and blah blah blah. I frankly am not sure that anyone revealed themselves to him; and I am quite sure that if anyone did it was a god he created in his own image.   

When G-d revealed himself to Abraham it wasn’t pretty.  He revealed the unreasonable: leave everything, see My promises broken, your wife kidnapped.  And then came the jaw-dropping ‘slice your son’s neck’.

This then is the comfort that gives us strength: we can take anything if we know that it isn’t random.  That its purpose is divine.  That in every sorrow and gut wrench that we have, He is sad,  His guts are being wrenched: “Son, this whuppin’ is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you.”  

What parent wouldn’t take all the pain on themselves if they could keep it from their kids?  And the unthinkable agony of the parent whose kid, writhing on a hospital bed, cries out to the parent,“Tell them to stop already!”

But kids don’t see the parent’s agony; kids just feel their pain.  Not until they grow up do they see the it hurts me more than it hurt you. We don’t see Isaiah’s ‘in all their pain he has pain’; we just feel the pain that He is not stopping.  Not until Moshiach picks us up and gives us a view from on high: then we can see how it all made sense, that it was all worth it.  That only good things happen, and that there are only good people.  May it come soon.  Until then, (in preparation?) may we kids thrive in a happy, safe and secure childhood. And (because nothing can make Dad happier) may we play nicely together. 

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