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For Your Shabbat Table

Live With Death; Die With Life

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O’Rourke, watch it when it does nothing.  If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card.

Many act like it ain’t happening.  They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead’s hair and apply them with make-up.  We’re here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head. 
 
They exchange stories of (I’m not making this up) the deceased’s delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!)  and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca “because Dad loved the water”.  But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown. 
 
Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get ‘there’ in time or at least get there for the funeral? 
 
And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges.  They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters.  Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.  
 
Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads.  And they listen.  Bury me with my parents.  And they listen.  I will tell you the end of days.  They listen but no words come.  I will bless you.  They listen and we echo their hearing. 
 
The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession.  Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many.
 
An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live.  She was neither alarmed nor distressed.  I’ve lived a good life, said she, and I am old.  And I’m happy; my grandchildren didn’t speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do.  She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola.  She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem.  Nor was there a generation gap:  she knew her grandchildren shared her world.  But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn’s first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language.
 
It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny.  That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren.  Everything we want, we want for our kids.  More than a man’s vacations, more than a man’s portfolio, if you want to know a man’s dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children.
 
Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob’s death and then Joseph’s: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life.  Actually, not so incongruously. 
 
Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?   In the face of finality the charades of life stop.
 
Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds.  Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together.  At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving.  Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed.  The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood.  And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged. 
 
The process exhausts us.  Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened.

Cows, Dreams, Galus, Redemption

"...And, behold, seven other cows come up after them out of the River, ugly

and lean of flesh; and they stood by the other [fat] cows upon the brink of
the River." [Genesis 41:3]
 
An important but much-overlooked detail of Pharaoh's famous dream is the
fact that the seven lean cows stood side by side with the seven fat cows on
the bank of the river. In other words, all fourteen cows existed
simultaneously in Pharaoh's dream--unlike in reality, in which the seven
years of famine came after the seven years of plenty were over.
 
This is why Pharaoh's wise men, who thought up all kinds of exotic
interpretations to his dream (e.g., "seven daughters will be born to you,
and seven daughters will die"), did not accept the solution staring them in
the face. When are cows fat? When there's been a plentiful harvest! And when
are they lean? When there's famine. Ditto with the fat and lean ears of
corn. What could be more obvious?
 
But Pharaoh saw the fat and lean cows grazing together. You don't have years
of plenty and years of famine at the same time, said the wise men. The
dreams must mean something else--something less obvious, more metaphorical.
 
Joseph's genius was that he understood that Pharaoh's dreams not only
foretold events to come, but also instructed how to deal with them: they
were telling Pharaoh to make the seven years of plenty coexist with the
seven years of famine. When Joseph proceeded to tell Pharaoh how to prepare
for the coming famine, he wasn't offering unasked-for advice; that advice
was part of the dreams' interpretation. If you store the surplus grain from
the plentiful years, Joseph was saying, then the seven fat cows will still
be around when the seven lean cows emerge from the river--and the lean cows
will have what to eat.
 
The Chassidic masters note that the first galut ("exile") of the Jewish
people came about in a haze of dreams. Joseph's dreams, the baker and the
butler's dreams and Pharaoh's dreams brought Joseph, and then his entire
family, to Egypt, where they were to suffer exile, enslavement and
persecution until their liberation by Moses more than two centuries later.
Jacob's own earlier exile to Charan likewise began and ended with dreams.
 
For galut is a dream: a state of existence rife with muddled metaphors,
horrific exaggerations and logical  impossibilities. A state in which fat
and lean cows exist simultaneously--in which a cow can even be
simultaneously fat and lean.
 
Galut is a place where a thriving economy is both a blessing and a curse,
where the rising tide of freedom unleashes the best and the worst in man,
where a globe-griding Web conveys wisdom and filth, where we're saturated in
spirituality and spiritually impoverished at the same time.
 
But there's a way to deal with this cosmic mess. Listen to Joseph speak
(even Pharaoh recognizes good advice when he sees it). Don't run away from
the dream, says Joseph, don't look for some other meaning. Use it. If galut
presents you with the paradox of the fat cow and the lean cow grazing
together on the brink of the river, use the fat cow to nourish the lean cow.

Make the dream the solution.

Keeping it Real

Get real.  There is a world out there.  Get real, you gotta make a living.  Get real.  98% of America isn’t Jewish.  Get real: neither is 99.999% of the world.  Get real.  Since 1940 Jews have been disappearing faster than just about anyone.  Get real rabbi, these plans are gonna cost money.

Get real.  The Hellenes haven’t just conquered Israel they’ve conquered everything worth conquering.  Get real; everybody loves the theatre and stadiums, including your own Jews. Especially your own Jews: they’re more Greek than the Greeks.  Get real: the High Priest is more Greek than the Greeks. It’s just you and a couple of mountain goats who don’t want to go Greek. 

Get real: the Nile has raised the lushest, funnest, safest place.  Get real: nobody makes better linen, majestic homes, titillating parties.  Get real, 80% of your Hebrews are more Egyptian than the Egyptians and wouldn’t leave if the Good Lord himself knocked on the door.

You don’t get it, do you?

Thou shalt not bow down to idols. Fine, I don’t like bowing and I’ve never seen an idol so I shouldn’t.  I mean those little stone ivory and marble pieces why did those ancients bow down to them.  Anyways who cares, I’m not an anthropologist, I never even use words like anthropologist.  My subscription to National Geographic ran out, (whither Nambia?) and I haven’t heard talk about idols since Hebrew school. 

I celebrate Chanukah I celbrate Passover.  I mark our redemption form the ancient greeks and ancient Egyptians.  I don't worship idols.  I don’t daven in the morning, sometimes I’ll say a short prayer, thanking G-d for this new day, may it be glorious.  I go on-line to check my stocks, I hold my breath.  My morning devotion. 

Did the Maccabees win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 
Were they fighting the bad guys?  They were fighting the Greeks: Athens!  The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece.  Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates,
sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later.  Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body.  I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute.  Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.
The Maccabean revolt began - in large measure - when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem.  Irony of ironies, perhaps.  Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body.  We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah?  Why do Jews who insist they are "secular", who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December.  But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah
-- alone among the holidays - would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense.  The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law.  But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren't looking for loopholes. 
They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself.  They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists.  Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.
It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,
the body and mind are at peace.  Like animals in pasture.
But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,
He wouldn't need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies?  Not at all. 
Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount.  Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem.  Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium?  However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it.  No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

But the Maccabees were not either.  And that  is a miracle.  That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn't have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it's 'too Jewish', in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten.  There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 
Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.
A witness of a people who - at the end of the very long day - did not waiver. 

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