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For Your Shabbat Table

A Marriage in the Desert

Why was the Torah given in a desert?  The marriage between G-d and His people: when they became “a singular nation in all the land”, with the children being the guarantors, the blast of the shofar.  Such a wonderful experience should have better taken place amidst lush foliage, brilliant flowers and fair weather.  Why in a naked, harsh land without any food or even water?              

On Rosh Hashanah we read the words of Jeremiah:  “So says the L-rd, ‘I remember the bounty of your youth: Ahavat kallulotaich, the love you had for me when you were a bride, as you followed me into the desert, in an land without life.”            

G-d was not choosing on this day a fair-weather nation.  Not for him a people who will be loyal if and when He provides them with a vineyard and orchard under whose shade to indulge and delve into His Wisdom.  He needed a nation who would not wait for a perfect setting to live the life He desired for them.  He needed a people who would take the life given them and do with it what is needed.            

It is easy to find excuses, even easier to push things off.  Study Torah? Oh, that’s not really for me.  You see, I’m a businessman: You know, I work for a living.  I give my tzedaka.  I do my davening.  But I’m busy! I don’t have time to study.  You wanna see what I have to do yet today?  I won’t be going home before nine o’clock.  And it’s been this way for the last two weeks!            
Scholars, those who are involved with Torah a whole day (the professional Jews), don’t take a back seat when it comes to excuses.  Listen, I need a lunch break! And breakfast break and supper break.  I need to have enough sleep to clear my head and enough fresh air to revive me a little.  Then when I sit down I can really hit the books.               

It’s not unusual to hear yeshiva kids who are studying to become rabbis saying if they find a job with the right pay and conditions, they’ll become rabbis. If not: Hey! You gotta support your family.            

Not with such spirit did we survive an exile as long as the golus.  This was not the inspiration with which Jews in Russia and Poland, just over fifty years ago, covered their faces with their hands and defied, “You will chop off my hands before your scissors touch my beard!”

Ahavat kallulotaich, the love that made us follow Him into a barren desert.  There He provided us with water -- from a rock, He provided us with food -- from Heaven, shelter --clouds, and clothes that kept themselves clean and adjusted to the bearer’s growth.              

There is plenty of logic and statistics to prove the rapid demise of the Jewish people.  And there is plenty of spirit to defy it.  A kapo, a degenerate Jew, a despised collaborator, when commanded to eat a tempting meal on Yom Kippur, said simply, “Jews don’t eat on Yom Kippur,” and faced the consequences without flinching.              

This is Shavuos.  A marriage. A union that extends beyond logic and fills each partner with a love that exceeds the limits of devotion. “Don’t say when I have the time I’ll do it: You may never have the time.”  Or the money, the opportunity, the ability, the wherewithal.  Take the first step, towards Sinai, that is all I’m asking of you, and I will come down off the mountain and lead you to the Chuppa.

Royalty and Humility

When her Majesty the Queen graced our shores with all the pomp and circumstance, politesse and reverence, it would be hard to imagine that across the pond a whole bunch of her subjects want to give her the pink slip.  Especially when one of her royal family gets into a royal mess.  End the constitutional monarchy!   If they act like the rest of us, let them stand in line like the rest of us! 

The sentiment has value; stirrings of democracy moved that country to a constitutional monarchy from the off-with-your-head variety.

But what is the citizenry reaching for, to turn themselves into royalty or to make royalty more like them?  Undeniably when the royals try to show a common touch they end up being just common -- but why does it disappoint?  Doesn't our disappointment in them testify that we expect better?  When they let us down, does that not show that they are the standard bearers?  And if the standard bearers go, then what happens to the standard?  Does everyone attain the standard or does the standard get shelved in the attic?

Royalty demands bearing a standard that is greater than the individual, personifying an ideal that was bequeathed not for you to do as you like, but to protect for progeny.  Not to live for the moment but make the moment live suspended in a chain of succession of noble forbearers and towards the promise of the future.  It is inherently optimistic.

Royalty, paradoxically enough, is essentially humility; standing in awe of the majesty of your charge and being totally defined by it.  Being so bound to your subjects as to lose all identity other than the subjects'.  Not calling attention to the self - for this deflects attention from the call of duty.  Hence the Kabala defines majesty as essentially feminine.  (We confuse royalty with tyranny only because lousy royals have consistently done so.)

Being the Queen is not easy; it is most likely the most arduous vocation on earth.  Tradition proscribes a blessing recital upon viewing Her Majesty.  Regardless of whether the monarchists or republicans prevail (note the small r) royalty will still garner attention, lots of it.  If introspection follows, then her Majesty will become our own.

Bow & Arrow

Have you ever shot a bow and arrow?  I haven’t.  In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’omer.  But they never took us.  Archery by proxy. 

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews).  The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields.  If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows.  (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.)
 
A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat.  But he doesn’t have a long flowing beard; he doesn’t have any beard at all.  In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows.
 
In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?)  took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.  
 
One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out.  The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page.  He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night.  And for the next day.  Luckily he was released to his parents.  He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland.  But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out.
 
So I have been told.  I never asked the lookout to verify the story.  I’m glad my kids can learn outside of basements and take scheduled breaks to play red light green light.  And on balance, even though I’d rather have shot bows and arrows, I’ll even forgive those teachers who took us on archery-deprived picnics.
 

Two Consenting Adults

This three-word mantra, which condones every four-letter word, has been the avant-garde on every affront to this week’s parsha.  Nor is it a cause without merit: we don’t want government poking its nose into our business any more than necessary.  And we have a bad history with inspired lynch mobs.

But two-consenting-adults is no longer about civil liberties.  Its cause, increasingly more often stated than implied, is to coerce society (us) to accept, then condone, then celebrate, then embrace any and all (have you heard this word lately?)  abomination.

But first, what makes an abomination abominable?  Is it social mores?  Berlin of the thirties shattered forever that once-popular faith.  Is it nature, or instinct?  What would constitute unnatural (and therefore wrong) a heart-transplant?  Ultimately, neither nature nor nurture can  -- nor perhaps should -- decree what is or is not abominable.

Abomination may be considered an old-fashioned word.  It is, if you’re a teenager and forever lasts fifteen minutes.  The ancient Romans and pagans alike celebrated most of what we consider abominable.  It was only with the spread of monotheism via the church and the mosque that Jewish concepts became widespread. 

The concept spread widely, but conduct remained remarkably unchanged, except for going underground.  For while the concept was basically Jewish the understanding – and misunderstanding of it – was fundamentally pagan.

But getting back to the mantra.  In Yiddish, as in Yinglish, we dissect a phrase by playing with word stress.  “Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles,” takes on different lives depending on stress. 

Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?”  = I thought Herbie was going.

“Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?” You mean he didn’t go yet?

“Jeffery’s going to Los Angeles?”  Whatever for? I told him he’s meant to be in New York!

So let’s stress and tease some meaning from the mantra.

Two? and why do you discriminate against three?

Consenting? you know there’s no across-the-board consensus on when and where consent begins and ends.

Adults.  Aha, so you think that every culture throughout the ages has been as repulsed as you are by this loathsome (no issue with the vocabulary, this time) abomination?  In Rome it was accepted.  (Why does that dear town keep coming up?  Athens was quite a cesspool itself.) In Eastern countries it’s reflected in their poetry. 

Some argue that Western society confuses children with victimhood.  They maintain that adults know that there are greater joys to be had than Disneyland and there isn’t a thread of evidence that kids wouldn’t arrive at the same conclusion given all the facts that a loving experience lends.

Twenty years ago abomination was society’s description for what now passes as prideful alternative lifestyle.  Unless you have an adolescent time frame then don’t be too smug that the unthinkable will, for better or for worse, metamorphose into acceptance.  

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