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For Your Shabbat Table

A Humble Offering As Dear As Life

When attending a conference, teaches experience, bring along something to read.  Thus, seated with my Torah open to the parsha, I was not distraught that the scheduled speaker was predictably late, nor that no one there knew the topic.

An impishly humorous man took the mike, uninvited and unannounced.  Most funny people are either depressed or serious; he was serious.  He spoke, and I read, both of us relatively content in our roles: he making an occasional joke, me breaking an occasional smile while continuing reading.

Then he began speaking of his father, a man I had never met, but had seen in the streets of Crown Heights.  A burly man with a flowing white beard, Russian-style casquet and crutches for his bad foot, the latter a gift awarded in defense of Mother Russia.  The family tells of the miracle of the shrapnel that took his leg and spared his life.  Funny what people from Russia call a miracle. 

After WWII, the young family wanted to leave Russia; with a convoluted reasoning only possible in a secretive bureaucracy, the hero was honored to stay indefinitely in the Motherland.  But for a brief few moments, the family thought they might leave.  The mother said she wanted to sell all that they had.  ‘All that hey had’, the impish speaker told us, was two broken beds and three broken chairs.

Sell it all, his father conceded to his mother, but not my schach boards.

Sukkot is nice time to visit Israel.  From every balcony and in every courtyard, little booths mushroom in this rainy season.  Covering these booths, called sukkas, are schach, green foliage: palm branches in Israel and California, evergreens in the Northeast (which sprinkle the matzo ball soup) and in my native Nashville, whatever happened to be growing in the yard.  (I still like my Nashville schach best.)  We have our meals in the sukkah, under the schach.

In Russia, of course, making a sukkah was an offense, and eating in one punishable with imprisonment.  Being caught with illicit tree trimmings this time of year was unheard of.  But this then-young Russian war hero was not going to let all that deter him.  He got a hold of some wooden boards – which as schach would have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem or New England, but are halachically valid.  The speaker told us that his father kept those boards from year to year.  During Sukkot he would sneak to an undisclosed, impromptu booth, place the schach-boards overhead, and for a few moments have his Sukkot.

Sell all that we have, said the father to the mother, sell my coat if you have to, he conceded.  But not my sukkah-bletlach, not my schach-boards. 

Our speaker moved on to something else, and I turned back to my Chumash.  I was up to a particular Rashi comment:  why does the Torah, when discussing the offerings of rich men, the middle class, and the poor reserve the word nefesh, meaning life or soul, exclusively for the poor man’s offering, asks Rashi.  Because, Rashi quotes from the Talmud, the poor man’s soul is in his humble offering.  It is as dear to the Al-mighty as a man who has given his life.

(This war hero died shortly before the parsha of Vaykira.  The night after his family finished the week of mourning, the shiva, the family danced at the wedding of his granddaughter.)

Mrs. Sandviches

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930.  She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey.  The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time.  His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers’ Paradise.  In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing.

My grandmother came into his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand.  She saw the Rebbe’s face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.

The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted.  It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.

My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion.

She would end each telling with:  But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!

I don’t think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm.  I think if she had she would never have been the person she was.   (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher.  They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches.  She told them she works hard to understand them, why don’t they work to understand her?  The teasing stopped.)

For two parshas the Torah told us the details of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing.  Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled.  The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, ‘nediv libo’ describing the people who gave for the Mishkan ‘that their heart was full of giving’.

The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people’s.  How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality?  For that you need passion, a heart full of giving.  A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit.  By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing.

Maybe, just maybe he was.  Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future.  Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain.  If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe.

This I know.  My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her.  Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her – can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed. 

She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported.  But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.

We will read these parshas for the next two weeks.  We will think they are redundant.  We will remember that moving from heaven to earth – bringing heaven to earth – demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy.  We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

Is Sleep A Waste Of Time?

Sleep is not a delicate or romantic.  We slobber. We belch. We mess up freshly-pressed linen.  We mutter senseless, groggy drivel. And all those contour pillows, satin duvets, imported headboards and lacey skirting -- try as they might -- can’t hide the fact that we, thinking, sensitive, provocative, insightful, caring individuals, have by way of sleep morphed into embarrassing slobs.

And yet, we need sleep.  Deprived of it, our bodies simply demand it: the eyes refuse to see, or even stay open; the ears cease to transmit data.  As does the nose, as does the tongue as do millions of the body’s sensors.  The body shuts them down because important work has to be done: every cell discards its waste and simultaneously rejuvenates.  Think of it as your neighborhood supermarket: they close the doors to customers for a time to wash the floors, restack the shelves and count the money you’ve given them.  Without this down time the store cannot function at optimal level, if it functions at all.  Without consistent, adequate sleep we fall apart, slowly but surely: degeneratively.
Still, sleep feels like a waste of time.  It is the least dignified part of our day.  Our bodies are all that is working, our minds, our sensitive side, our spiritual quests are all but dead.  Or so it seems.
Life for us is asleep.  We primarily feel the immediate need of our digestive systems, not our spiritual system.  Our stomachs, our businesses occupy the vast majority of our time and thought; our spiritual journeys are inside books or for the books.  The word reality conjures physical need, not religious endeavor.  That is the way it is.
Because, well, we are asleep.  That is how the Psalmist and the Talmudist see our state of life: exile.  We are asleep.   And so is the Almighty, as it were.  We don’t see his connection with us other than in a groggy haze – and primarily as Facilitator-of-All-My-Needs Deity. 
It is evident that we are asleep.  But we are also sleepers.  We will be awakened one day to a different reality.  It all sounds a bit, well, dreamy.  But then reality usually sounds dreamy when I am asleep.
“On that night the kings slumber was shaken,” cites the story of Esther.  The obvious reference is to the wicked king who decreed death to the Jews.  He couldn’t sleep at all that night until he remembered that he owed his life to a Jew.  That was the beginning of the happy end, or, perhaps, the end to a scary beginning. 
But the king who couldn’t sleep at all that night is reference too, to a King on high.  Whose connection to his people below resembled the soul’s connection to the body when the body sleeps.  Disconnected.  Not present.  Or present but only in a limited, paradoxical way: the lack of spirit highlights the function of body -- and its connection to something beyond the body.
Sweet dreams.  And wake up to something even sweeter.  

Why Jews Like Gold


Granted gold has some practical applications: photography, conducting electricity and other things we remember as vaguely vital.  But that is not gold.  That is not gold’s worth, that is not why people have been gaga over it for as long as we can remember.

It’s not even that it looks nice; bronze has its own look that in some settings surpasses gold -- but it has never caught attention like gold. Gold is simply a way of marking stature, status if you‘re more familiar with that word.  A phenomenon that has no intrinsic, concrete worth.  The story is told that in Stalin’s Siberian gold mines the guards didn’t check the forced laborers after a day in the mines; even if the prisoners stole, what could they do with gold in Siberia?  Against the moldiest bread it held no value.

So if gold does nothing but separate the haves and the have nots, if it does nothing other than feed the ego of the status-climbing, uh, gold digger, than why would a just and caring and perfect Creator create a virtually worthless empty non-commodity?

But there is an important function that gold – together with other of the fine things in life do; they say I care.  Ask a new husband; he’s probably already learned you can’t give appliances for anniversaries.  They’re too functional, they carry too many messages.  “Gee, I hope you’re baking is easier now.”  “You love waffles, don’t you?” “Happy Vacuuming!” 

The useless however carries only one message: you are precious. Precious as . .  yeh, you guessed it.  And this message is the raison d'etre for all of creation.  To tell friends, certainly. Spouses, definitely. And in this parsha, Hashem- like good communicative husbands everywhere - says what He wants: “Build me a mikdash that I may dwell within you.”  It is the act of building that allows for G-d to be there, it’s building it out of gold that says you want Him.

For reasons the Rebbe told us he could not fathom, Hashem is not allowing us the Mikdash yet.  For now, we must build it out of the intangible (but very real) elements of our relationships with each other and with Him.  But it must be done in the best way possible.  Go for the Gold.  He deserves it.  

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