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For Your Shabbat Table

A Nation That Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you've seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth's land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations' condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.

I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.

That was the thought then, we would finally "take our rightful place amongst the family of nations". What happened?

America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.

"We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.

Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: "Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists" …There was an unspoken comfort in that - not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don't make us comfortable.

Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.

A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week's parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.

The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam - nearly three billion people - a numerical absurdity when you think of it.

But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam.  The course of history has been played only because of this family's particularism.

Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. "Alone we feel very ordinary" said one after the '67 war, "just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us."

Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can't always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.

The Call of the Hero

 

Have you ever heard of Reb Mendel?  He smuggled Jews out of the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.  The Communists gave him fifteen years in the Siberian gulags.

Ever heard of Mume Sorah? She did the same, but they never bothered sending her away.  For decades her family never knew her yartzeit; they still don’t know where, if anywhere, the Communists buried her.

Heard of the mother who backed out of the driveway and pinned her toddler under the rear wheel? She lifted the car by herself and saved her son.

When we ask heroes where they got the strength to do incredible things, they give lousy answers.  Inevitably, their answer is “I had to do it,’ or to put it differently, they couldn’t not do it.  It’s not just modesty that makes them squirm when looking for answers, it is the almost-awkward simplicity.  For, regardless of their level of articulation they cannot come up with any good reason for why they did what they did.

Reasons are powerful motives for doing things.  Logic is compelling.  But logic is in the head, not the guts.  So logic compels our minds to move.  A mother’s love is not in the head; therefore all of her moves.  Even parts of her she never knew she has, moves to free her baby in danger.  She can’t put it into words because there are no words in the gut.  There is a place so profound that it cannot be made shallow with talk.

And there, right there where the deepest (no, you can’t really even subjugate them to the word) emotions reside, there the Jew has nothing but a visceral connection to G-d. Not a staid, progressive links-in-a-chain connection, but a reflexive, instinctive metal-to-magnet connection. You can’t feel it and you could live a life without ever knowing it was inside of you.  Because like heroes, it doesn’t look to present itself.  But if the moment calls for it, the response is automatic and Jewish.  (Think of sworn atheists that when it came down to it they gave their lives rather than surrender their identity, Or the Jew-in-name-only who when things were counting on him came through.)  Why? I just couldn’t do anything else.  

We have mitzvahs that we like.  Family Seders with favorite recipes; Chanukah songs and latkes; Purim plays and Sukkah parties.  A melody that lifts you to your feet, a Talmudic insight that dazzles in its elegant simplicity, a Chassidic story that soothes with its empathy.  They each relate to a different aspect of our personality and strengthen it Jewishly. But all these precious experiences, for all the growth they give us, do not touch our kishkes .  Only the aspect of a mitzvah which is beyond our intellectual grasp and not within our emotional embrace can resonate so deeply. These mitzvahs are called chukim, and it is with these mitzvahs that our parsha begins.
 

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now twenty four years since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

President Dubya on his trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall.  Perspective you want?  Keep walking.

 

Torah’s Take on Fake News

Torah’s Take on Fake News: 
How to spot Fake News every time.

This week we read the Episode of the Spies (Numbers 13:1) -- everything you need to know to spot Fake News, whatever the source, whatever your politics.

1) Is this news necessary? 
The spies did not need to spy the Land of Israel. There was ample testimonial evidence that it was a good land and the Almighty had developed a solid reputation for delivering. This was less than eighteen months from plagues, splitting seas, etc.

News is a manufactured item with billions of marketing dollars expended to hook you. Nothing nefarious about that, every item in the supermarket has the same story. If you think twice before buying a two-ounce $10.99 bottle of infused basil, Tuscan-herb virgin olive oil, instead of an $8 half-gallon, think if you need this particular headline news. Is it newsworthy? Is it relevant? Do I really care? How come slow news days never lead to a thinner paper or a shorter broadcast? Because like any product, news agencies are fighting for the preservation and relevance. (BTW I wasn’t fair to infused oil.)

2) Do these news-people have a bias? 
The spies had motives in requesting this assignment; to dissuade the Jews from entering the Promised Land. They didn’t advertise that, but it was there.
Claims of objectivity are not dubious, they are lies. I have a subjective interest in everything, including city-council elections in South Myanmar -- in that case I want them out of my way so I can go back to my soap opera. IOW I’m not objective, my subjective position is indifference. Everyone has a worldview and that is nothing to be ashamed of -- if you are up front about it. Don’t listen to the story to find out what happened, listen to the story to find out what the medium wants you to believe happened.

3) Facts are misrepresented with opening lines. 
Opening phrases are misleading. The spies began their reportage with “it is a land flowing with milk and honey, but…” because every lie needs a grain of truth to be palatable for popular consumption.

4) Extraneous, negative comments set the tone. 
The Spies mentioned the Amalekites even though the Amalekites were not in the Promised land. Since the Jews had already had a terrifying encounter with this war-like people, it would cast the whole endeavor in a negative light.

It’s a trick that amateur gossipers also use regularly. Throw in a few titillating crumbs that have nothing to do with the alleged story; it will get tongues wagging – which is good for business.

5) Give the facts, then the story. The Spies brought the huge ripe fruit. Instead of allowing the fruits to speak for themselves of the lusciousness of the land, they turned the story into a negative: the peoples there are equally big and strong and little Jewish guys like us will be clobbered.

Facts are stubborn things, said John Adams. True that, but not to worry: facts are easily massaged into place. 
Joke: An the Israeli soldier was visiting the Washington Zoo when a baby fell into the lion’s den. The elite paratrooper jumped in and saved the baby, to the grateful tears of the mother and the applause of everyone there. The headlines the next morning was “Israeli Soldier Steals African Immigrant’s Lunch”.

6) Reporters project themselves on stories. 
“We felt like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes,” lamented the spies. Precisely. Because you saw yourselves as such, so they saw you.

7) nuff said.

 

Trust

“Never look a gift horse in the mouth”
Good idea generally, gift horses can be liabilities – expensive ones.
But if G-d is giving gifts, trust Him.
He is not a horse thief

If you don’t trust G-d, then you trust no one: who can you trust?
And ultimately, you don’t trust trust.
How could you get on a plane, if you don’t trust pilots’ licensing?
How could you cross the street if you trust no one to stop on a red light?
How can you buy food that isn’t poisoned?
 
Still, He allows you to verify his Truth.
But He doesn’t advise it:
If you’re lucky, you’ll confirm what He told you,
If you’re not you won’t be wiser, but you will be miserable.
 
But when you get a gift, He still wants you to check it out.
See how you will use it best: Is this a broodmare or a bloodhorse colt?
The spies in our parsha went to see if they will take the gift or not.
The spies a generation later went to see how best to take the land.
 
See how you can do the best job, not if you should take the job or not.
Look the gifts G-d gives you in the mouth. Then go win the race.
 
Moshe added the name of G-d to Joshua’s name.
Without the name of G-d, Joshua might have gotten more involved in the horse than the race.

HOW TO MAKE GREAT KIDS

Have you ever met someone truly great? A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in? If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.
 
Some forty years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times. He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered. Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”
 
The student, Jonathan Sacks, is Emeritus Chief Rabbi of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great). When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him. They asked what made him become a rabbi. He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge – started him on that road.
 
Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness. In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 
 
He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers. Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.
 
“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha. “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver. Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.
 
I am now raising my grandchildren’s parents. Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins. I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness. 

 

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