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For Your Shabbat Table

OUR CHILDREN, OURSELVES

The youngest child at the table clears his throat and begins, “Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Mikol Haleilot.”   It’s been repeated in homes across the country, in homes across the sea and in homes across time.

Four sons. We consider the Wise Son the one who turned out right: the nachas. The Wicked One? Well. . .enough said. The Simple One? Alright, not every hamentaschen turns out the way you want. The One Who Doesn’t Know to Ask? Oy, nebach!      Let’s revisit them. We judged the family too early, too harshly and too simplistically.
 
Chacham -- the Wise Son. What is wisdom? The ability to differentiate. A wise scientist knows his different chemicals and their different natures. Our Wise Son in the Haggadah asks “What are these testimonies, statutes and judgments?” He pinpoints the details of each mitzvah; he grasps the distinct attributes of each.
 
The Tam, the Simple Son’s question is “What is this?” This: he doesn’t specify, he doesn’t differentiate. If someone misses a complexity, he is simplistic. But this is not necessarily the Tam. Yakov, our forefather Jacob, was called Ish Tam, a simple man. The opposite of simple is not difficult - it is complex.   A wise man grasps complexities, a Tam seeks the unifying factor.   “I know the differentiations of the mitzvot,” asks the Tam, “but ‘What’s this?’ How does this all tie together?”
           
The Simple Son has gone far beyond the Wise Son. But a journey of the mind can take you just so far -- as far as the mind goes. True, the human mind is the greatest tool ever created. It can build cities, cure disease, and possibly send women to Mars. And all this is done, say the experts, using only 5 percent of our brain juices! Still, even if we put the whole load to work, we would never understand that which is beyond reason. Our entire intellect fits into a Size 7 Stetson. How can that begin to fathom an Infinite Creator?
 
And so the Last Son, who has long graduated from Wise to Simple, now embarks on a new journey in Yiddishkeit. He no longer questions, for he is -- on this certain level -- beyond both the questions and the answers. He is awestruck by the magnitude of What he sees. In the face of This, one cannot question or comment, the only response is silence. Silence that allows him to take it all in.
             
 

And then there is another son. No, not the Rasha. One we haven’t mentioned because he is not here. So many Jews, quite possibly a majority of Jews, were not at a Seder at all last year! They don’t come, they don’t leave, they don’t ask. The Haggadah tells us how to speak to each kid. But what if they don’t come? What if we have no effective communication at all?   The answer is in the beginning.  
 
All who are hungry come and eat. All who need, come and make Pesach. They were never really invited, they don’t know there is a place waiting for them at the table, that without them, our table --your table -- is lacking and empty.   They need an invitation from the heart; we must feel the emptiness from their not being there. And surely, one at a time -- just like the Haggadah addresses every child individually -- they will respond in kind.

Soul Offering

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 in to 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 both these parshas this week. 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.
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