Printed from ChabadRM.com

For Your Shabbat Table

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Two Rabbis, One Shul

Sound like double trouble? Over-employment? The latest synagogue sitcom? Probably; but Jewish history is never probable. 

We started that way. Moses could not, would not, lead alone; Aaron had to be there. Moses’ older brother never was quite his associate rabbi. Aaron was vastly more popular. He was the nice guy: arbitrator in congregants’ business disputes, mediator in spousal clashes, peacemaker in sisterly spats, and conciliator for anyone with a teenager at home. Mr. Nice.

Moshe was more the patrician than the paternal. The teacher, not the counselor; the lawgiver, not the therapist.    Mr. (sorry relativists and wannabe brides) Right.

Moshe embodied truth; Aaron embraced peace. Truth demands integrity; peace requires compromise. Torah insists on both, hence a team was needed for the making of a people – not an individual.

Moshe rarely enjoyed public support; his method, leadership qualifications, and integrity were regularly challenged, and accusations of nepotism drained him. Aaron was rarely taken to task, and then only because of his association with you-know-who. 

The brothers’ dichotomy did not abate with their deaths; the turnout at Aaron’s funeral nearly doubled Moshe’s. Not surprisingly, it was only upon Moshe’s passing that despair threatened the people. But while Aaron’s popularity earned him a larger funeral, Moshe’s instruction earned him the role of leader. Aaron’s passing evoked mourning; Moshe’s passing created a terrifying void. Like money, you appreciate leadership when you don’t have it. 

We need our Aarons and we need our Moshes (including our intra-personal, internal ones). One without the other is unbalanced. If we favor the peace over truth because peace doesn’t demand of us and truth does, we’ll get neither. It might not play well in the sitcoms, but Jewish legacy is not a sitcom.

What is Your Name?

Where have you been? The question says it all, whether it’s Mom, the boss, wife-hubby, grown children; they are not really asking, they are rhetorically accusing. I have been here where I was supposed to be. Why weren’t you here where you were supposed to be?

The answers are usually excuses, either valid ones or less so. Rarely is the answer ‘I’ve been here the whole time’.

A shepherd sees a little lamb run off and he chases after it, making sure the wolves don’t tear it apart, making sure the lamb has enough water and enough tender green grass.

He sees a bush on fire that isn’t burning. And he knows it ‘s not just another day at the office.

He takes off his shoes in deference. He is told by he-knows-who to go free the people from Pharaoh. 

But they will ask me your name, what do I say? Asks the shepherd. A strange enough question that is matched with an equally perplexing answer: tell them my name is I Will Be As I Will Be. It is the first conversation recorded in the Torah between the world’s greatest teacher and the world’s foremost student.

What is your name? A name is how we relate; it defines who is speaking to whom. If you say Dad, Mr. Smith, Dr. Smith or Sonny or Bubba you’re not talking about you or them; you are articulating a relationship. 

What is your name? How have you related to these people as Pharaoh threw their sons into the Nile, kidnapped their daughters, bathed in newborns’ blood? Used their children’s bodies to fill the quotas of unmade bricks? Where have you been?

And He answers: Tell them I will be as I will be. I was with them the whole time. When Pharaoh bathed in their babies’ blood, it was my blood that was spilled. When he shoved their tiny limbs into spaces meant for bricks, it was me who was shoved in there. Everything they endured I endured with them. Everyone who touched them touched me. Imo Anochi betzora I am with them in their suffering.

A bush is on fire but it does not burn. A nation is threatened with death and killed time and time again but it does not die. They make “phoenix-like” a weak metaphor. 

But how this burning without being burnt? For it is I in the fire: and just as these people will live forever I will live with them. Just as I live forever they will live with me. We’ll both be burning on the way. We will both suffer. But we will suffer together. 

Why though is all this suffering and retelling and reliving of this suffering not melancholy to those who live it and tell it and live it again? Because it reminds them of the second phase of the words spoken to the barefooted shepherd. That together we will live, we will leave. With tangible treasure and unmitigated spirit. Alone. Together.

Live With Death; Die With Life

 Live With Death; Die With Life

If you want to know what a bureaucracy does, suggests PJ O’Rourke, watch it when it does nothing. If you want to know what people think about life, watch them when death sticks out his calling card.

Many act like it ain’t happening. They dress the dead in tuxes and ballroom dresses and do the dead’s hair and apply them with make-up. We’re here to celebrate a life, they chirp, while the elephant in the room swishes his large head. 

They exchange stories of (I’m not making this up) the deceased’s delicious flanken and chicken soup (we called them Godzilla balls!) and they solemnly vow to keep the condo in Boca “because Dad loved the water”. But this ignoring of death is not simply ignorance; this ignoring speaks of a deep, silent fear: a fear of the unknown. 

Death does us apart -- and brings us together -- like nothing else can: when else does everyone drop everything to get ‘there’ in time or at least get there for the funeral? 

And if we get there in time, into a room often crowded with illness and always with sorrow, if we are lucky, there are also words, glances: exchanges. They remain a lifetime with the sons and daughters. Jacob on his deathbed blessed his children: Rembrandt, captivated by the scene, rendered it on canvas.  

Do not bury me in Egypt, Jacob pleads. And they listen. Bury me with my parents. And they listen. I will tell you the end of days. They listen but no words come. I will bless you. They listen and we echo their hearing. 

The Baal Shem Tov was five when his father and mother died in quick succession. Be afraid of nothing but the Almighty, his father told him, leaving him a legacy of love and sustenance which his son fed to many.

An old woman I knew was diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live. She was neither alarmed nor distressed. I’ve lived a good life, said she, and I am old. And I’m happy; my grandchildren didn’t speak Yiddish, but my great-grandchildren do. She was no Sholom Aleichem enthusiast: as a girl she read Emile Zola. She spoke a more than serviceable English: communication was never a problem. Nor was there a generation gap: she knew her grandchildren shared her world. But you taste the world with your mother tongue and choosing a language (langue means tongue) for your newborn’s first taste, shows your love for the culture that bore that language.

It was an intimacy with a particular world that she wanted for her progeny. That her world, destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, should be the girsa deyankesa, the primal view, of her grandchildren. Everything we want, we want for our kids. More than a man’s vacations, more than a man’s portfolio, if you want to know a man’s dreams, if you want to know where he lives, look at what he seeks for his children.

Such is the legacy of the Parsha which speaks of Jacob’s death and then Joseph’s: incongruously it is called Vayechi- the parsha of life. Actually, not so incongruously. 

Death is a window to a world that the survivors cannot look through. It is a window to the soul of the dying that blinds us with veracity: why else do we affirm the deathbed confession and honor the dying wish?  In the face of finality the charades of life stop.

Death is the moment of truth that only the starkness of separation can elicit. And this moment of truth connects people and worlds. Death is the ultimate divide -- leaving us abandoned from those crossing over -- that brings us together. At death, people are their most truthful, their most alive, both the dying and the ones they are leaving. Suddenly, (often painfully but ultimately comfortingly) everyone stands exposed. The father dies and (suddenly!) the sixty year old left behind is no longer a child, just an orphan, confused by sudden adulthood. And in this void, this most living moment, a link in the chain is forged. 

The process exhausts us. Not for nothing does the Parsha end with chazak chazak venitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and be strengthened

Hugs

 Hugs

The Communists rose to power when Naphtali, Tolchik to his friends, was young. His father didn’t like the smell of it all and told Tolchik to become a shochet: to master the intricate, exacting practice of kosher butchering – the training takes years and the pay is lousy. “Become a shochet,” said Tolchik’s father, “if you’ll be a shochet, you’ll stay a Jew.”

Tolchik the shochet and his wife raised their children under the Soviets. By the early 1950’s all had escaped, most of them with false passports. Except for their grown son Meir and his growing family.

Their other son Berel had escaped with Chana Shneerson, posing as her son. Upon arrival to New York, Berel became a masterful diamond cutter, and (the grey Soviet’s silver-lining) maintained his filial status with Chana (he had the keys to her apartment) and developed a warm relationship with her son, the Rebbe of Lubavitch. Tolchik and his wife, together with their daughter, settled in Montreal, his son Dovid was in Antwerp and Tolchik was happy, but for Meir’s being held by the Soviets.

There is a custom to receive matzah from one’s Rebbe before Passover. Naturally, Berel would be doing so.

“When you receive matzah from the Rebbe,” Tolchik told his son Berel, “mention to him your brother Meir.”

“But do not ask for a bracha, a blessing,” continued Tolchik, “ask for a havtacha -- ask for the Rebbe’s assurance -- that my Meir will make it out alive.”

Berel never pushed anyone into doing something they did not want to do. And a chassid does not demand of his Rebbe. But Berel never refused his father.

The Rebbe handed matzah to Berel. Berel mentioned his brother Meir and the Rebbe gave his bracha. “My father requests your assurance that Meir will come out."

The Rebbe’s face grew dark and his hand shook. “Shlep mir nisht beim tzung!” (Don’t wrench words out of me that I cannot say) the Rebbe answered with rare sting, and added, “My father-in-law accomplished greater things than this.” 

Berel saw tears in the Rebbe’s eyes begin to fall.  The Rebbe gave Berel another piece of matzah. “You will give this to your brother.”

“My brother Dovid in Belgium?” Berel asked. 

“No. Meir. Not necessarily in America but somewhere close by.”

A few years later the family got word that Meir had plans to spirit his family across the border with forged passports. He failed. More years passed. Berel held the matzah for his brother. Eighteen years he held onto that matzah: matzah, the Kabala calls it the bread of faith. 

 Then they heard.  Meir is free! With his wife! With his sons! With his daughter! They received visas to Canada (not necessarily America, but close by) and Berel got himself to Montreal just as fast as he could. Berel hadn’t seen his brother in over twenty years. He ran towards his brother. His brother ran towards him. He gave his brother the piece of matza. And then they fell into each other’s arms.

Berel’s story explains Jacob of our parsha. Jacob mourned his lost son Joseph as dead for over twenty years. He finally saw him -- a miracle! – but Jacob did not kiss him; he was saying the Shema. . .a jaw-dropping breach of human emotion.  Berel demonstrates that a moment of faith does not separate between long-lost loves. It holds them together.

 

 

Did the Maccabees win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 

Were they fighting the bad guys? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens! The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece. Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates, sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body. I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute. Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.

The Maccabean revolt began – in large measure – when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body. We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why do Jews who insist they are “secular”, who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays – would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense. The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. 

They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists. Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.

It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,

the body and mind are at peace. Like animals in pasture.

But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,

He wouldn’t need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. 

Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount. Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

But the Maccabees were not either. And that  is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s ‘too Jewish’, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 

Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.

 A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waiver.

Did the Maccabees Win?

Did the Maccabees win? Would we have rooted for them? 

Were they fighting the bad guys? They were fighting the Greeks: Athens! The best of Western culture has its roots in Greece. Form graceful columns to Homer to Hippocrates,

sound-in-mind-sound-in-body still rings beautiful and still entices two-thousand-plus years later. Think of something more pleasant than a sound mind and body. I defy you.

Even the the Maccabees have morphed into a warped Athenian tribute. Maccabiah, the sports competition that draws Jewish athletes from around the globe, is utterly Greek.

The Maccabean revolt began – in large measure – when a gymnasium went up in Jerusalem. Irony of ironies, perhaps. Overlooked, no doubt; but facts are stubborn things.

We identify with sound-mind-sound-body. We long for it.  Then why are we celebrating Chanukah? Why do Jews who insist they are “secular”, who have no qualms about eating latkes together with the animal the Greeks demanded the Jews sacrifice in their Temple, why do such Jews celebrate Chanukah?  Why then, in homes no Seder is kept, no Yom Kippur fasted, no shofar blown, is the menorah lit?

I know the pat Americanized-Jew-needed-a-civil-religion-equivalent for-end-December. But centuries before retail found December, the Good Books told of how Chanukah -- alone among the holidays – would never be forgotten.

Chanukah makes no sense. The Talmud concedes that the Jews could have used other oil to burn eight days, according to the letter of the law. But the Jews then were not being legalistic; they weren’t looking for loopholes. 

They were in a fight for Jewish identity itself. They recognized the threat of malicious Greeks, they recognized the threat of theoretically benign Hellenists. Their devotion to a cruse of oil was a devotion to a link to Sinai. 

Sound-body-sound-mind connects body and mind.

It offers no ladder to the soul. 

The Macabees knew that without a conscience to bug you,

the body and mind are at peace. Like animals in pasture.

But if G-d wanted us to be nothing more than content,

He wouldn’t need anything more than cows.

Did the Maccabees vanquish their enemies? Not at all. 

Not then; while the menorah shone for eight days, battles waged within earshot of the Temple Mount. Not now, Greece still lives well thank you, even in Jerusalem. Is there a Jew alive today that is not intrigued or entranced by the theater or gymnasium? However they react to its allure: acceptance, resistance or repugnance they are all dialectically related to it. No, the Greeks are not vanquished.

 

But the Maccabees were not either. And that  is a miracle. That in the shadows of gas chambers, in the cockpits of spacecraft and on the foremost boulevards of the greatest cities, the candle still burns. 

 

That in heimish neighborhoods of lakes, dreidels and Chanukah oy Chanukah, and also in homes that wouldn’t have a Chagall or a little wooden camel from Israel because it’s ‘too Jewish’, in these homes too, Chanukah has not been forgotten. There is that pure flame that shines, unconquered and unwavering, and that is a miracle that is a victory. 

 

There is a future, foreseeable or not, when the glitz of Greece will not diminish the flame -- only add luster to it. 

Then Moshiach himself will be lighting the candle. A flame.

 A witness of a people who – at the end of the very long day – did not waiver.

Old Age. Old Wine

Old Age. Old Wine

Antique sells. Even faux antique sells. “Antiqued” furniture is scuffed and dinged at the end of the assembly line.

Brand-new pewter pitchers are being coated with green stuff called patina. Multi-million dollar homes are built to “have character”. If you have no antique, buy some. The more old and worn-looking, the better: the elegance of aged has come of age. Old is good.

Except for old people. No one boasts of having their own senior citizen. Or of being one.

And no one is guiltier of this than the old people themselves. They dress to look twentysomething. They (try to) carry a conversation like Generation X. They even operate on themselves to erase the signs of life they have lived. When it comes to people, the Fountain of Youth reigns: and – we add for good measure – can you make that fountain spring from an ancient-looking, rustic grotto?

For good reason, for good reason is youth pursued. 

Youth is beautiful. Young means glamorous, vibrant, fun, exciting. Youth dissipates with age.

The appeal of maturity is its subtlety: understated, dependable, grounded. Maturity, and a taste for maturity, must be acquired.

Put wine in a jar and it turns to vinegar. Left in the casks, wine develops full flavor. In the cask it is still alive; it breathes, it grows. It acquires something it did not have the day before.

Old people can, if they so choose, turn to grouches. 

A grouch is the result of someone who stops growing, acquiring, developing. It can happen in a young person too:

we call them brats.

“Ba bayamim” the parsha several weeks ago describes Abraham.  Come of his days.  Each day was full, was lived to its fullest.  He took on the next day with new vigor. “Old, and with full days”, this parsha describes his son, when he too was no longer young. 

Some people wait to die; some live a life that ends with death: they determine their day by their food, golf, shopping and social climbing. The Talmud calls them dead: “even in their lifetimes, call them dead”. 

How sad to hear a son eulogize his mother for her brisket. How sad the daughter who holds onto her father’s memory by holding onto the condo in Boca Raton because “he loved the water”. This is what they have left? Recipes and beach balls? 

Is this what our grandchildren can know about their grandparents? Is this legacy?

You cannot live towards legacy any more than you can live towards happiness: they will evade you. 

You can live with a today that is giving, building: ensuring something precious is made in this world. A girl with leukemia is cured. A boy with Hodgkin’s is comforted. You baby-sit for his mother so she can go out for a few hours. You learn some Torah. You teach some Torah. 

You help others learn and live and celebrate and have something to give to their children. You sweep the floor of the shul, you straighten up the chairs, you order more books, you update the shul website. 

By themselves, none of these things are worth writing home about; together, accumulated over a lifetime, they leave a legacy. 

The soul breathes much as wine does:

The body turns to vinegar if the soul does not breathe. Capturing youth is canning wine, at best. 

Living life, letting the soul breathe, is creating a precious antique the grandchildren will showcase. 

 

A Link in The Chain

My son the doctor had a son:

he is now a neurosurgeon.

His son is a forest-ranger in Yosemite:

the girl he is not yet married to is not Jewish.

My son the lawyer had a daughter:

she is a senior analyst with Morgan Stanley:

she's forty-three and just met Mr. Right.

A survey of Jewish America was unveiled two years ago:

containing little we didn't already know anecdotally.

Still, some of the numbers were shocking.

Three hundred thousand less Jews

than there were only ten years ago?

Forget Zero Population Growth:

we're eating away at our capital. And for what?

 Because, as the survey reported, we earn $8,000 per year more than the average American family!

We're not having kids

so we can go out and earn an extra minimum wage.

My kingdom for a horse;

My birthright for $8,000 worth of lentils.

The problem is not that Jewish women don't want to be Jewish mothers:

it's that Jewish men don't want to be Jewish fathers.

Manis Freidman sees feminism as a cry,

piercing through the upshot of the Industrial Revolution:

“Give us back the husbands that you stole from us!”

Until that revolt, men grew into fathers:

fathers needed to provide, so men worked.

Gradually men stopped working to provide,

they went off to pursue a career,

self- fulfillment, a more meaningful life(style).

Who would want to be the mother of their children?

Perhaps more than any parsha, ours is laden with domesticity: it is painful to hear, from our perspective,

women pining for children and for their husband's attention

that childbearing would earn them.

More easily overlooked is the husband

who watched sheep all day in order to raise a family.

Bucolic as it may sound, this was not a sign of the times;

his twin brother led a high-pressured, adventurous, corporate-mogul lifestyle.

'Will our children say kaddish for us?'

was the worry of a generation gone by.

‘We have no children.’

is the silent scream of the most comfort-conscious generation. Worry and concern of a Jewish future is misused,

overplayed and gauche.

Charged-up activism is annoying. Neither work.

Go get a job! Become successful! is the cry.

And the kids listen, in droves.

One of the positive aspects of the Sixties-Seventies is idealism: a greasy-haired, pot-induced, thoroughly-off-base idealism, but idealism. When the surviving hippies (the ones who didn't OD in Marrakech) took a bath and trimmed their hair they were also cleansed of selflessness and had their strife of the spirit cut short. The lucky ones had someone to help them channel their idealism.

Parents want to provide children with whatever the parents grew up missing. A greater accomplishment is to provide children with whatever the parent grew up taking for granted.

It is not enough to want grandchildren.

You must want sons who are fathers more than you want sons who are doctors, want daughters who are mothers more than daughters who are market analysts.

You must want sons-in-law who are fathers

more than sons-in-law who are neurosurgeons.

My mother taught me

that you can never choose to have a child:

you can only choose not to have a child.


”For these are the children of Jacob” conveys a faith that the chain is worth more than what a link lacks. We have nachas that our children are part of this chain, and we say a little prayer that they earn (for how else will they pay day-school tuition?) a whole lot more than $8,000 a year.

Torah of Flesh & Blood

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.

When to Walk and When to Talk

“We’re getting divorced. But we’re doing it amicably, with mutual respect.”When ex-spouses (or ex-es) describing their divorce sound like “we’re withdrawing our offer on the house we looked at Thursday”, you can get the idea that they never invested enough to be hurt by the loss. 

But listen again: you’ll hear emptiness in the voice:
Pain in the heart.  
Yes, the stigma is lost. 
Yes, some koffee-klatch and water-cooler conversations
have an “everybody’s-doing–it” attitude. 
No. No one who went through divorce thinks it’s painless.

But if pain-free divorce is a myth (in the shattering),
divorce is a reality, an option more than it ever was.  
To be sure, since this parsha was first delivered,
the option was always there.  
But as my father puts it, so was a tourniquet.  
When the body is facing death you use the tourniquet, otherwise it can do more damage than good.  
(Many first aid courses no longer teach tourniquet application because of its overuse.)  
Complimenting the legalization of the parsha,
was the frustration of the Talmud:
“When husband and wife divorce, the Holy Alter sheds tears”.

Husbands and wives are not the only things getting divorced.
Divorce is not just a legal proceeding; it’s a way of life:
A mindset.
You get in a fight with a friend; send them a letter telling them why you’re not going to have anything to do with them anymore. Your family gives more sting than honey? don’t feel bound or stifled by them.
And divorce, disengagement isn’t always such a bad idea.
But when to walk and when to talk
Is not a question that gets a lot of attention. 
It can’t. It‘s too easy to walk:
Why bother with gut-wrenching screaming matches
When you can just stroll away?
 
There is no pat answer as to when to hang up the phone or when to give back the ring.
But the tourniquet overuse is worth reflection.
For marriage to work,
divorce cannot be considered a possibility.
Call it the D-word.
The ineffable, unthinkable.
Forget that it exists.
Relationships can’t work
when breaking-up is knocking on the door.
Not with spouses, friends, cousins, brothers, in-laws,
grocers or gardeners.  
(Tip: Treat everyone as your most important client.)
 
And a fight does not necessarily mean
a break-up is on the way;
It can just as soon (if not just as easily)
be a stepping-stone to a balanced, strong,
fulfilling and happy relationship.
Better an acrimonious relationship
than a non-combative drifting.  
Not always, but when in doubt throw out the tourniquet;
And remember tears are being shed.

Witches, Black Cats, Bulls and Planes

Black cats don’t bother me any more than white or brown ones do. The thirteenth floor is fine as long as the elevator is working. Horoscopes remain unread -regardless of whether we Tauruses need to think bull market or bear.

So I read this parsha’s admonitions with a detachment of sorts: more them-there, than me-now. Thou shalt not go to witches who communicate with the dead through a chicken bone held in their throat. Thou shalt not pass your children through fire. 
Thou shalt not seek diviners who ask sticks if they should take trips. 
Thou shalt not read omens.
 
Wait, it’s starting to sound vaguely, eerily relevant. I don’t read horoscopes largely because I think they’re bunk; some syndicated whoever swaps Tuesday’s Gemini for Thursday’s Capricorn. But what if I was shown reams of data showing their validity? -- Then I would have to rely on the thou-shalt-nots. Or else be rolling balls down airline aisles.
 
But after all the (well, seemingly) far-out admonitions that the parsha throws at us, comes a simple tomim tehiye im Hashem elockecha be simple with Hashem your G-d.
 
What is the common wrong of all these hocus-pocus trips? They are all trying to control the future, read perhaps, but reading with the hope of control. And hocus-pocus are not the only diviners and omen readers.
At the turn of the century, (oops, make that turn of the 1800's to 1900's) progressive Jewish writers and thinkers spoke of the Talmudic tradition being now detached academic study since it is no longer alive. “Our sole purpose,” exclaimed one Yiddish novelist, “is to give Judaism a decent burial.” He wasn’t being a pessimist either; he was being realist, simply reading all the data available. Since modernity there had been a constant draw towards the diminishing role of religion, particularism, ethnicity and every other defining tenant of Yiddishkeit.
 
These novelists and philosophers were, to put it simply, right. They were dead wrong – in hindsight. Their error was not because their data was faulty, but because data cannot determine the future. 
 
Tomim tehiye -- you shall be simple, wholesome, assured. You do what you have to; you leave the rest in Whose hands it ultimately is. You have done what Hashem told you to do; you are with Him; He is good; whatever happens is Him; whatever happens is good. In mame loshon:Bashert
 
Statistics, (was it Disraeli that said?) lie. Perhaps in more avenues that one. Statistics at mid-century spoke about The Disappearing Jew. The Rebbe spoke about tomim tehiye. Not coincidentally, the phrase following tomim tehiye speaks of following Moshe’s successors.
 
Not that you’re relieved of the decision making, just the nail biting. Nor can you be careless because the future is not in your hands; you may get onto your flight to Chicago and end up in Boston but you are still the one who has to check the departure monitors. But if you checked the monitors, don’t roll balls or whatever down the aisle. Enjoy your flight. To wherever. It’s all bashert. All good. All the time.

Cure for the Body and Soul

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco. It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards. A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind. Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman. Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you. In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me. I asked her where she was from.
 
"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment. I gave up and she answered ‘Vienna’ in a voice kids use when you ask them what’s their favorite ice cream.
 
Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered. 
 
"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish." 
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. 
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked. 
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.
 
This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country. I wasn't sure what was getting to me.
 
She now had her audience, she told her story:
 
Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried. 
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!” 
 
Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison. I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike!
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
 
That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
 
Think us for a minute, think America, think 2019. Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group. Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks.
 
Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food. We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating. (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.)
 
How much is spent on the consequence of digging in? 
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough.” 
 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides. 
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
 
This parsha alludes to more. When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you.
 
Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us.
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak. 
A cow’s head is near the ground, in the trough. Where is ours? 
 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism. Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health. But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul. And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul. 
 
Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right. Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.
 
Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom. For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.
 

Loving Your Fellow Jew

Not since Sunday School, Miss Judy’s class, do I remember paying any attention to the story. 

       Two mothers who shared a room came before Solomon (in Sunday School we were not told that they were fallen women). One baby was found dead in the morning and each claimed the surviving baby as her own. This wisest of men rendered judgment: since we cannot prove to whom the baby belongs, we shall split him and give each woman half. One woman spoke thus: Please your majesty, I surrender my part. Just don’t cut my baby.

This woman, pointed Solomon, is the true mother.
 
What was the Wisdom of Solomon here, couldn’t any Fredrick Forsyth protagonist come up with such a solution?
 
Perhaps (perhaps): A mother is naturally protective and sees her baby as an extension of herself. Her intuitive reaction to Solomon’s solution would be to grab the baby. Scream. Pull out her hair, attack the other woman, attack the judge. 
 
Solomon’s test was counterintuitive; a mother’s love is that she is ready to give up her everything -- even her instinct to hold onto the child -- for the child -- and no one can fake that.
 
Gush Katif has been emptied “ahead of schedule” and “with less violence than anyone predicted”. The enduring part of the story may well be beyond the headlines.
 
Consider: practically since their inception, the current Jews of Gush Katif have never been sympathetically portrayed. They know it and it eats at them.   They’ve been called Nazis and Jewish terrorists at worst and the Jewish equivalent of the Michigan Militia at best. 
 
They sustained 4,200 mortar shells attacks. (Imagine how many homeowners would still be in Rancho Mirage after three.) In addition to 12,000 shooting incidents. Their children have been murdered and the lucky ones survived missing fingers, legs or motor control. They feel they have been sold out, cheated by their once-biggest supporter, raped by the army they were a part of and still are, and their hard work awarded to the murderers of their children. They seem to have been emotionally unprepared.
 
If ever a human being had a breaking point, this must be it.   
If ever a people had the ability and the rage to revolt (they are arguably the best-trained and best-armed civilian population on planet earth) this was the time.
If ever a moment is too poignant to be dressed up for the cameras, this must be it.
 
Instead of attacking and revolting, they mourned and wept. They asked the soldiers “how could you? Do you know who you look like? Look me in the eye!”   They locked arms; occasionally, some had to be pried apart and carried, but they never raised a hand. In a very few instances teenagers threw sand (heck! Arab kids did that to me for holding a camera inside a bus!) and paintballs. There was no revolt, no violence; no hand was raised to a soldier and considering the circumstance, barely a harsh word. 
 
These people have a lot of love. More than that, love must be their core. Love of the land certainly, they declared so constantly. But more than love for the Land of Israel, they love the Children of Israel. In this Solomonic moment, they showed that they were on that land foremostly in defense of their people. Argue the wisdom of their position, but the veracity of the love of their people is the most stunning – and least expected – outcome of their last two weeks. And possibly the most enduring, too.
 
The. . .what shall we call them?. . .refugees?. .. former residents of Gush Katif? . ..whatever. They want very much to live together as a group. As I understand it, those who see them as a nuisance do not eagerly pursue the idea, ostensibly believing that spreading them out will deflect further agitation. 
 
They might both be wrong. Wherever they live, these people will influence their neighbors. They’ve been to hell and back in a nightmare they never dreamed. Being stranded in hotel lobbies and stranded in bus stations is not likely to break them.  
 
They have lost everything; we have found something in them they may not have realized they possess. 
 
They love their people more than they love their land. More than they love their most cherished dreams. Even more than their political egos. 
 
We don’t need the wisdom of Solomon to perceive this love. 
We need his wisdom not to squander it.
 

Birth of Moshiach

Five-hundred thirteen years ago this week, Ferdinand and Isabel ensured their country's homogenous character by disengaging the Jews of Spain -- in an emotionally draining, historic move facing stiff resistance and at considerable political and economic cost. 

That same week, Cristobel Colon, having acquired royal financing, set out in search of spice.  From that cinnamon hunt, the world got America.

On the Ninth of Av Mashiach was born, the Midrash claims.  An astounding declaration: the Ninth of Av is the most miserable day of the Jewish calendar, the birth (the emergence, the initial, barely-perceptible manifestation) of the messiah heralds joy.  But such is the cyclical, redemptive, biblical view of evil and calamity.  While "in every Simcha is a tear", in every calamity there is joy.

It was not easy to watch on the internet as a Jewish woman screamed, "Doesn't anyone in the world have pity on us?"   Her grown son sat by stoically with his ten-year-old boy.  Then he stood up, recited a prayer, and ripped his t-shirt: as Jewish tradition proscribes for mourning the loss of a loved one.  He cried like only a man who knows strength and frustration can cry. And then his hands tenderly caressed the head of his son.

The enemies of the Jews rejoice: as their predecessors can attest, they rejoice prematurely.  In that father's caress was manifest redemption.

Mourning a tragedy brings home a lesson we kick ourselves for not learning earlier.  Now is the time to neither defend nor refute the wisdom of surrendering land because others are doubling their population every 25 years.  Now is the time to admit that having Jewish babies is a great Jewish need. 

On a trip to Israel, a woman soldier was assigned to defend us.  Her oversized machine gun sat on her lap most of that week.  At the end of the trip we blessed her that she should have children on her lap.  And children on her bed, and on the couch.  Toys everywhere you step.  Children crawling in the kitchen, pulling books off the bookcase, stuffing the toilet with tissues.  So many kids that she should be screaming for a bigger apartment.  "Amen!" she smiled, her eyes moist and clutched closed as her grin spread.  "Amen, amen".

Raising children is a greater honor and accomplishment than planting trees, building medical facilities and pioneering technology.  Your grandmother and your rabbi have been saying that for ages.  Now politicians and the security forces are joining in - notwithstanding that some of them do not even realize it.  It is no longer a philosophical issue; it is a glaring reality.  Without children a society shrivels. You can build a nation's infrastructure without children; building a nation without enough children to sustain it, is self-contradictory.

Childrearing is not a 'woman's issue'.  See yourself as a father, mister, and the child will have a mother.  Describing men by their careers or referring to them as breadwinners is as misleadingly inconsequential as defining them by their hair color. 

Have children and all our problems will solve themselves.   Without them, the solutions, however dramatic and laudatory, aren't worth a hill of beans.

The Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, is named after its haftorah:
Nachamu, Be comforted, be comforted, my people. 

There is a downfall; there is pain.  Neither are permanent. 
There is joy; there is redemption.  Find them and work them.

Em habanim semaicha!, exults King David;
He turns the barren woman into a joyful mother of children!
The father looks on and blesses them. 
A people unconquered.

Cookbooks

If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then the spyglass of a nation’s soul is their cookbooks. 

Jewish cookbooks have changed. Cholent is no longer “a slow-cooking stew of potatoes, beans and meat”. Cholent has “deep emotional significance, a Sabbath favorite, evocative of childhood memories and communities.” The meat of recently published Jewish cookbooks is neither technique nor presentation. There is a dearth of color pictures in most. Instead, they tell the history of the foods, and the story of the people who developed them. In Alsace Lorraine, where Jews were allowed to farm, their geese produced foie gras and confit d’oie. In Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, the Halachic prohibition of boning fish on Shabbat and the availability of cheaper fillers, onion and matzo meal, converged to produce gefilte fish. In Morocco, the Arab mailmen until today plan their deliveries to Jewish homes to coincide with the Shabbat family meal of sechina: “Ah, Mustapha! Azhi hanna! Come on in.”
 
Through our food, we seek to connect to our past, to our grandparents -- and to what connected them. A few years ago, a friend’s daughter emailed us; she had enrolled in a Manhattan culinary school and needed a challah recipe, “but not one from Barnes and Noble”. You can’t cook in a bookstore. 
 
Through food, we connect with each other. Cooking does not take place in a vacuum and as we seek our culinary past, we reach out to each other for community. It feeds upon itself. In one delightful cookbook, the author tells of coming from a Jewish home with two grandmothers who kept kosher but whose family had lost it after they died. She realized, suddenly, twenty years later, that from all her cousins, none kept kosher. “I have to do something,” she decided. Her mother-in-law is a survivor, and in Poland her family had a Jewish restaurant. Standing in Miriam’s kitchen, observing technique, she absorbed a world of loss and a galaxy of continuity.
 
It is the Nine Days. A period of mourning for the destroyed Bet Hamikdash, the Almighty’s address in Jerusalem. We eat no meat during this time. Except Shabbat, when mourning is not appropriate. Except in Morocco, in the village of Debdou, the Italian Jewish refugees (they arrived over two-hundred years ago) maintain a custom of not eating meat during the Nine Days, even on Shabbat. The Jews left Debdou decades ago, for Casablanca, France and Israel. But in the Chabad overnight camp in Mogador-Essouirra, the cook made two dafinas that Shabbat, one with meat and one parve. You are what you eat. What you refrain from eating defines you.
 
And so this Shabbat of the Nine Days, this Shabbat preceding Tisha B’av, the saddest, most miserable day of our calendar, is called Shabbat Chazon – The Sabbath of Vision. For the visionary – the prophets – are able to see rebuilding when others see destruction. In desolation, they see a bustling metropolis. Thrice yearly have you come up to Jerusalem, the prophet’s voice rings, and thrice yearly will you do so again. Thrice yearly families gathered to eat the Yom Tov meal, each family alone, together in Jerusalem. 
 
This time, maintain the visionaries, will be different.  This time in Jerusalem, families will gather for Yom Tov and the customs and the nuances (you can see why the word ‘recipe’ won’t do) of two thousand years will fill the cooking fires with flavor: robust, and piquant, tart and sweet. For in the pots of a people will be written in food a glorious tale of those who never surrendered their identity and never parted with their mission. That spread through centuries as they were, in host countries that spilled their blood like water and sought to deaden their souls, they came through. And they brought those experiences with them. For the Almighty to forever savor in his home. 
 
The aroma, maintain the visionaries, will be intoxicating.
 
 
Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.