Printed from ChabadRM.com

For Your Shabbat Table

Days of Awesome. . .Totally

Kid standing in the synagogue lobby sees a bronze plaque “for the brave soldiers who died in the service”; he wondered if it was the Rosh Hashanah Service or the Yom Kippur one!

For those who go to shul two times a year plus bar mitzvahs, I don’t know how you do it!  I mean, sitting through something you have little idea what’s going on and where it’s all heading. ...yet you keep coming back, and that’s incredible.
 
I like history and I love Jewish history.  When I’m in Jerusalem’s Old City and I see the tour guides leading their charges down the street, a street that’s layered with stories, from the time before the Romans, the Romans, a hundred years ago, the battle in 1948, 1967 – and he just leads them along like it’s a route from the Wall to the pizza shop, I feel like stopping those poor, innocent tourists and telling them “You’re being robbed!”
 
But on Rosh Hashanah I’m as guilty as the tour guides.  Don’t get me wrong, in the services we explain what’s going on, everything is translated in English, the singing is transliterated so everyone can sing along, people always tell me how much they learned, how emotional it was, how spiritual, even if it’s a first time but . . .there’s so much I simply can’t cram in there.
 
A few years ago a dear friend stood up in the Davening and told us of how as a little boy hiding from the Nazis in the forests he wanted to daven on Yom Kippur.  He remembered a tune his Shul would sing, and he sang that song over and over again.  Now sixty years later he sang it again . . .and slowly, slowly we joined in. Forget that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, we sang through our tears. One of the ladies met me the next morning waving a handful of tissues:  try a fast one on me again I’m prepared this time.
 
Days of Awesome, and to give it a California touch, totally.
 

The Landing Of Letters That Would Not Be Burned

The young Hasidic woman took off her shaitel;
and let her long blond hair down.  
Styled in the latest fashion she would pass;
about her baby she wasn’t sure.
Hopefully he wouldn’t cry on the train;
and she wouldn’t have to change his diaper.
The Nazis did a spot-check;
a dark–haired German woman was ordered off,
Bronia was complimented
as the paradigm of German motherhood.  
The SS soldiers were horsing around.
“Pipe down,” Bronia admonished,
“you don’t want to be waking up a future soldier.”

 
Late at night an SS guard sat down next to her.
He was agitated,
and must have judged her a sympathetic woman.
The killings out east were too much he said.
He showed her pictures of the mass shootings.
She was hoping her horror would be taken as sympathy for his shattered nerves.  
“In Zhitomer,” he said, “was the worst.”

I read this story in Yafa Eliach’s book.
It was the most current reference
of that once-vibrant Jewish city that I had heard.
That line ‘in Zhitomer was the worst’
has stuck with me ever since.
 
I was in 770 -- Lubavitch in Brooklyn.
I was finishing davening and I overheard two bochurim, probably about nineteen years old talking about
-- the word caught my attention --Zhitomer.  
They were too lighthearted to be talking about, well, that.
I eavesdropped.  They were talking about a day camp one of them had just finished.  He did or didn’t like the head-counselor, color-war was good, the 200 pair of tzitizis didn’t arrive ‘til the second week of camp, the kids liked “American football” better than baseball;
yeh, you try doing line-up in Russian. . .

Rabbi Chanania was being burned at the stake by the Romans; they had wrapped his body in the Torah scrolls and drenched them in water to prolong his agony.
His students, (how lacking a word!) his Chassidim, displaying a presence of mind I can’t call my own,  
asked him, “Rebbe, what do you see?”  
He, displaying a selflessness I see clearly in my Rebbe, answered “I see the scrolls are burning,
but the letters are floating into the air.”
It’s been many long and painful years
since the scroll of flesh and blood that I loved so much was removed from the ark that was the only frame of reference I ever had.
I could never have imagined spending a Tishrei -- the whole holiday season from before Rosh Hashanah until after Sukkos and Simchas Torah -- without once joining the Rebbe.   
Hundreds came to spend a full month there.  
(When France passed legislation banning vacations abroad for longer than a two-week duration, there was talk of making an exemption for Jews going to New York for Tishrei.  I don’t know how that all ended up.) Thousands more came for parts of Tishrei, a Rosh Hashanah, a Simchas Torah.  
Rabbis and stalwarts of communities in the Tri-state area (New York lingo for anyone who lives where Manhattan is simply ‘the City’) had to be in their places for Yom Tov. You would see them rushing in after havdalah
at the end of Rosh Hashanah, the end of Simchas Torah, to get Kos Shel Bracha, some of the blessed wine from the Rebbe's Havdalah cup.  
They would come to "Bet Lekach", to say the beracha on the lulav and etrog.
 
Those letters -floating into the air-casually drop from the mouths of teenagers
who talk of Zhitomer in terms of Jewish continuity (though they would never use such a term) instead of Jewish burning.
In terms of Jewish day camps instead of concentration camps.  
Oblivious of the revolution they are making they do line-ups and camp cheers.  
In Zhitomer like it was Brooklyn, Tel Aviv or El Paso. Singing Shma Yisrael where once it was screamed. Oblivious to the miracle coursing through them.   
 
I feel a loneliness come Tishrei,
this month of breathtaking awe,
unmitigated joy, exuberance, quietude
all wrapped up in so fleeting a month.  
And this loneliness is what astounds me,
almost puzzles me of the Chassidim of Rabbi Chanania.  
I know it wasn’t callousness for their Rebbe’s suffering that prompted their question ‘what do you see’.
It was their connection beyond body and beyond words. A connection to him, to what he was connected to,
to each other, to themselves.
Maybe if I had what they had
I wouldn’t feel the loneliness that I do.
For now, I think of the most eloquent response
to the unimaginable:
The teenage counselor bochurim in Zhitomer.

The landing of letters that would not be burned.

The Other Shoe

“ . . . 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.
Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.