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For Your Shabbat Table

Ideas and Stories

At twelve, I left Nashville for Pittsburgh’s yeshiva.  I lived in my grandparents’ home; my grandfather was also my teacher. 

He once called my class together at the foot of the stairway and started in his Yiddish-accent sing-song: “You know boys, when you are going down steps, you don’t have to put a foot onto every step.  Jump from the tenth step. Skip nine steps.  I used to jump down steps. But you know, old people, they getting noivis when boys jump steps.  So be nice to old people. When you go down steps, look first if there are old people around.  If they are not there, jump!  If they are there, then this time, walk down the steps.”

Another time he walked into class and caught us beating up . . . I’ll leave his name out -- but he deserved it.  Nothing vicious or horrifically cruel, just boys doing whatever what’s-his-name had coming. “You know boys, I don’t expect you to learn when I leave the class.  When I was in yeshiva, and the teacher walked out, we made teams.  Each team grabbed one end of the bench and pulled it in their way.  One of us watched the door.  When he yelled ‘Chatche! Chatche!’ we put down the bench and quickly sat down before Chatche walked in.  But to hurt each other?  To make fun of someone?  This isn’t play. . .”

I remember some things that I learned in school.  Some of the things.  Some of the time.  I remember the people who taught me.  At times they are right in front of me, even if they passed on years ago.  

My father writes in Think Jewish, “There is a Torah of ink and parchment; there is a Torah of flesh and blood.”  To paraphrase Yanky Tauber’s story of Reb Yisrael Rizhinner, “Ideas are accomplishments in man’s quest for G-d; stories of tzaddikkim are accomplishments of G-d in man’s world.”

The Torah begins with stories of tzaddikim:  Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Miriam. Not until about a quarter through the Book are laws enumerated.  Jews do not call Moses a lawgiver; he is Moshe our Rebbe.

Rashi remarks that a conversation of Abraham’s servant can teach more than a law: the conversation of someone who spent time in Abraham’s daily, mundane presence, affords insight into attaining the Divine.

“Look into the eyes of someone who has gazed upon the Rebbe,” Chassidim of old would say when a traveler who had seen the Rebbe arrived at their shtetls.  

Ideals are abstract: hard to perceive, easy to loose, inviting to ignore. Ideals do not inspire. But reflected in the right eyes, ideals solidify into something clear, immediate and tangible. They become alive, before your eyes. They inspire. And once they have ignited your fire, they live within you. And those who lit the fires are now the fire, alive within you. Consuming, but never consumed.

Hebrews Not Welcome

"No Hebrews Allowed."  It’s the first reference that comes to my mind when I hear us called Hebrews.  Okay, I know YMHA means the Jewish YMCA, and HIAS a Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, but still, Hebrew -- when talking about people, not our language – smacks of long-hand for Hebes.   

In Biblical times the name Hebrew was a put down often enough. Ivri: the one who crossed over. The one from on yonder, the foreigner. And no, Ramses University didn’t credit diversity appreciation courses.  But if Ivri was a put down, it also contained a measure, sometimes substantial measure, of respect.

Abraham is mentioned nine times in the Torah until he is referred to as Avram Ha’Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew.  Why the description all of a sudden?  Avraham had crossed over from the Euphrates, had left his home, life, wealth and security to cross over to wherever G-d would tell him to go.  Every immigrant has a measure of courage, of pioneership, showing a willingness to leave all familiar and safe and go to a far off goal. Avraham did it before there was a name for it: the pioneer of pioneering.

Now he was faced with fighting the strongest forces in the world.  Would he shrink?  No, hints the Torah: he is a Hebrew, one who crosses over his comfort zone and never returned to it.  He does what is right, not comfortable.  He is a Hebrew.

Everyone creates his own world.  Circle of friends, obligations, pets, pet peeves, and lives there.  This is their worlds. Then there are those outside their worlds, who don’t take their comfort zone with utmost sincerity and don’t revere their moods.  They’re ready to bend on just about anything and pretty much mind their own business. They look like pushovers.  

Don’t be fooled. When their values are challenged they are fearless.  They have no fear of fear itself. They have no fear of self; they have no self; they have only what they stand for.   

Me?  I’d rather be a comfortable coward.  But what Abraham achieved with sacrifice, we attain without asking for it.  Together with Grandmother’s brown eyes and Grandfather’s black hair.  And if it is unearned it may well be unwanted on some level.  “I know we’re the Chosen People but isn’t it time you chose someone else?”

But in all honesty that is only a part of me.  The other part wants to be an Avraham, wants to have character instead of being one.  And all I need to do is do what Avraham did: walk in the footsteps of his trailblazing.  Because I give Avraham the same (sometimes begrudging) respect that the world gave that Hebrew then and gives these Hebrews now.   

I need only to just plod along until the energy kicks in and I feel the Avraham Ohavi, the love Hashem feels for this astonishing person.  I do what he did and I become what he was.  I live towards him and he lives through me. The Father of the Jewish People. The Hebrews.

Teddy Bear or Eagle: America, What Are You?

This country was founded, settled, defined and furthered by people who left their homes for the unknown. Whether or not they were religious (in the conventional sense) is (and will be) debated by those with agendas. It is unarguable however, that the founders of this country were risk-takers -- and inherent in risk is belief. They were, in other words, believers. 

Appropriately, the fledgling country chose for their symbol the eagle, the Biblical metaphor for mercy, majesty and redemption.  One of the presidents who personified the country’s ethos -- so well they etched his face on a big rock -- was Teddy Roosevelt. Incongruously, his legacy is cuddly, harmless, lovably ineffectual: the teddy bear. 
Not only Teddy, but the One to whom this nation pledges that it is under, has softened into someone cuddly to whom we intone pledges and sing that he bless us. He occupies a sacred place along with honor, flag and, well, apple pie.
He is not to make us uncomfortable. He is not to demand how we dress, what we eat, the content of our entertainment, what we teach our children. He is not to stick out awkwardly: at odds with what we deem appropriate. He is created in our image. We love him. He is our Teddy Bear.
The first word from G-d to Abraham is “Go from your land, your father’s home, your birthplace to the land which I will show you”. No comfort zones allowed. Leave them and only then can you achieve everything I have in store for you, everything of which you are capable. Only by stepping outside of yourself can you grow -- and can I be your God. From childhood on, for over seventy years, Abraham defied the mores of his society and a despotic tyrant who declared himself god. The tyrant threatened Abraham with death if he did not repudiate his belief; Abraham did not waver. Still, after all this, G-d told him: leave the familiar and comfortable.
Their gods are of silver and stone, they have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, mocked the psalmist. Not exclusively did he refer to idols from Sunday-school coloring books. A god who makes me feel warm and protected is nothing more than abstract materialism: a warm place to go, home and hearth. For that matter a god who tells you to go is nothing more than an adventurer, if it is only adventure and change of scenery you are after. But when G-d tells us to leave our laurels of yesterday’s accomplishment and take on the new he is really telling us to be alive today. 
And (paradoxically) he adds that this will be good for you, you will become wealthy, prosperous and numerous. Not comfortable: good. 
Teddy bears are good; for kids; at the boys’ third birthday we throw candy at him and give him honey in the shape of the Aleph-Bet because the words of Torah are sweet. But then we move him on to meat and potatoes: study of these words “for they are our lives and the length of our days”. What is sweet at three, if allowed to linger will turn sacchariny at twenty-three -- and have fostered cavities of decay in the soul.
Feeling warm and comfortable is not inherently bad; it becomes debilitating when it is pursued as a goal. 
Avinu Shebashamayim - Our God in Heaven.
The majesty of the eternal calls to and resonates in a soul,
a spark of that majesty sent to unfurl the majesty inherent in life on earth.
To bring the majesty of heaven down to earth. 
Heaven: something greater than the comfortable and familiar. The eagle soars there. 
The symbol of America: a nation under.

Don't be Consumed by Crisis

The fires are not yet out,
the juries are not yet in. 
But the shock is over,
the counting and rebuilding has begun. 
Ironic that it happens in the parsha of the flood? 

What difference a destruction
from a wall of water or wall of fire? 
They both begin, run their course and die. 
They are both powerful and weak:
depending on circumstance and timing. 
But not when you’re in the path of a wildfire. 
If foxholes don’t tolerate atheists
do forest fires allow homage to the gods of water?
We’re always in the middle of a crisis:
flood, fire, no money, bad health. 
And crisis means we don’t see a way out. 
The fire is going to be here in ten minutes. RUN!! 
And it was in the middle of crises that a little boy stood
and thought that every crisis passes and every power wanes. 
Except the power that puts all powers into motion and controls them all. 
He had no name for this power and no books or people spoke of him. 
But he loved this power and revered it
and couldn’t stand seeing people consumed by crisis
deifying and editorializing powers
that will be out of the headlines in a week. 
This power didn’t acknowledge the little boy. 
The little boy grew and grew. 
He never stopped ridiculing people who get all excited by power,
their own or someone else’s. 
Powerful people didn’t like this young man and tried to silence him. 
He kept on ridiculing them and the editorials that glorified power.
He kept on with his abstract power that gives power to everything
– The All-Powerful -- and therefore is the only power. 

He became an old man. 
A powerful man sentenced him to die by fire
but the fire refused to consume him. 
Then the power spoke to him. 
It told him to leave everything familiar. 
Told him to leave a comfort zone. 
The man in his seventies, who had been defying family and society since he was three years old, was told to leave his comfort zone. 
That is how the All-Powerful, now known as the Almighty, sees things.
With that begins next week’s parsha and the story of Abraham,
father of a people and tradition that recognizes no power in the face of fire,
be they fires of the Inquisition or pirates of the high sea. 
And this tradition fed a world of billions:
starving and scared in the face of powers and the powerful:
this tradition fed them the knowledge
that there is no power but Him
and no thing to fear but Him Himself. 
So what if they don’t always get the words right!

Two Beginnings

A lady who comes to shul stopped me after Simchas Torah.  She had noticed her son was crying, tears in his eyes.  What's wrong honey, she asked.  Oh, when I see Daddy holding the Torah in his arms I cry.   

I couldn't think of better Simchas Torah nachas. Kids do well to come to shul. They kiss the Torah, sing the Shema, play games, learn a little, lead the service, have their spats (learning to work those out is crucial to becoming community members) and run around outside. Kids that like shul (and that shul likes them) will always be there. Always. 

We begin the Torah this week, again.  Bereishit: in the beginning. Actually, two beginnings: the Jewish people and the Torah.  The world was created for the two beginnings: as a stage for the two to realize their relationship.  We're one year more developed than we were this time last year.  So are our kids.   

A message that the Torah sent us last year may have missed us: we weren't ready for it until now.  Dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah is beautiful: even more so when the Torah has been part of the week all year long.

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