Printed from

For Your Shabbat Table

The Other Rock

“ . . . 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.

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

Arabs kick in the shul’s windows. 

They take a sledgehammer to the pillars. 

Hoards overrun the place with bloodthirsty shrieks. 

In the name of G-d. 

In the name of national pride. 

In the name of the future.

You can only steal once, goes the saying. But if you want to rob another more than enrich yourself, once is all you need. No one can rejoice for the Arabs. Nothing has improved for them; history indicates that nothing will. The anti-Semitism, the anti-Israel, the anti-West vitriol and violence they export comes from a will to destroy what another has. Were it the desire to have one’s own, pride of ownership would triumph bloodlust destruction.

Why does the world tolerate it? Why do we allow a philosophical tilt-of-the-head ‘but they too have a claim’? Because on some subliminal, unrealized level, it is preferable to knock someone else’s accomplishments than to create our own. 

In the rare, rare, less than once-in-seventy-years case that a Torah court would find a person punishable by death, the Parsha tells us that they should hang. But not overnight; this would diminish the divine image of the hanged. He created us in His image; we are his reflection, even when we are deserving of death. Diminishing our dignity denies His Divinity.

A bomb goes off and carnage follows. Before the terrified shrieks taper off, before the medics finish evacuating the victims, but after having seen to the wounded, a group of men begins collecting the body parts. Limbs occasionally, more often bloody bits of flesh and cartilage, expertly identified and meticulously scraped from walls tree branches and gutters. The gruesomeness is in the details. So is the dignity.

Many call it the ultimate contrast, if not the ultimate response, to the so-called suicide bombings. 

A man or a woman who believes life must end, their own and someone else’s, fills and slips into a vest holding 15 kg of chlorate, sugar and 3mm steel ball bearings to blow up unsuspecting women and children. 

A man or a woman gathers the bits of flesh which moments ago harbored a soul; because though the soul is gone the body still reflects the image of G-d. 

Understandably, there are those who demand the destruction of mosques in retaliation – and it is not necessarily Jews who make the indignant, though not necessarily unreasonable, demand. 

Perhaps we should abide them.

Then again, perhaps we should leave the mosques standing: leave them enough rope to hang their culture of death on the gallows that not long ago accommodated Nazism and Communism. 

But then, perhaps, there will be no one left to take down the corpse. 

And the image of the Divine would be defaced.

Like it or not, people are influenced by their surroundings. And people influence their surroundings. There are no vacuums. Either they’re with us or we are with them. Either the light unto the nations illuminates all or a shadow darkens every space and every corner.

The curious ask: when Moshiach comes to rebuild the Temple will he first destroy the mosque that now occupies that land? The question shows just how remote Moshiach is. If Moshiach were to blow up or burn down a building then he would just be one more conqueror in a city that has known more conquest than any other. 

Worse yet, he too would be conquerable.

Moshiach intimates that those who most strongly advocate the mosque will be the first to recognize the inappropriateness. 

And they will act appropriately. 

In the name of G-d.

In the name of the future.

These words sound outlandishly, ridiculously remote as I tap them on the keyboard, and I’m sure they don’t come across any more credibly as you read them. Point taken that Moshiach is not yet here.

The image of heartbroken people leaving their dreams, but refusing to kill or maim those who led them away, remains weeks after it happened. They were debased, but the image within them shone. That shining can never dim. 

Such is the mandate of the faith to believe. 

And such is the mandate to believe with perfect faith, that ultimately it will shine to the extent that all existence will only accentuate it. 

And such is the mandate of the faith that it can – and will – happen today. 

Strengthen my faith for me, will you?

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.

For Hashem your G-d will bless you

One of the 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.. Some of the residents were neither senile nor blind, and were able to acknowledge our presence when we came to light the Chanukah menorah. 

A tiny old lady came over and introduced herself in English as Madame Leiberman. I was shocked. She had a hard to place accent. I asked her where she was from.
“Guess!” she answered mischievously, happy to be a schoolgirl for a moment. I gave up and she said Vienna. Ah so you speak Yiddish I offered, imagining a comeback in a German-accented Yiddish. 
“Zicher, alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish.” All Polish Jews spoke Yiddish. So, you’re a Polish Jew I asked. I’m neither Polish nor a Jew. Ich bin a krist: I’m a Christian, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon.
This all in a sparse room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country. I wasn’t sure what was getting to me.
She had her audience now she told her story.
Her husband was a Jew, Vienna was a very liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and shared each other’s cultures and many young people intermarried. “Ah but I see you’re not impressed, du hust dach a bord! She was delighted with herself.
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 hinger strike --our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!
She went on with some remarkable insights, but my meeting her and that last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha. 
Forget now concentration camp standards. Think us, think America, think 2018. Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scale, food scale, fridge magnets with warning-contents-may-be dangerous-to your-health, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group. Think diets: Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. Think conditions: heart disease, gout - the rest I don’t want to mention. 
Measures we have taken 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. Yes, yes you can’t leave something on your plate without thinking of the starving children in India, but. . .isn’t much (if not most) of that politically induced?
I feel queasy bringing this up on the tail of a tale retelling an unspeakable time.    But she was on the periphery of it all, her story even more so.
How much is spent on (not waste, not this or that being thrown out, but how much is spent on) safeguarding us from not digging in? When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say “Thanks: it’s good to be provided for.” 
For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you’ll be full and satisfied, you should thank He who provides. Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals. 
But in this parsha he alludes quite strongly to more. When the place (and the place in Torah refers always to Temple Mount, ((which really isn’t a Jewish place according to, oh, I apologize and digress)) when ascending to Jerusalem) is far from you, and difficult to carry your homage, because Hashem has blessed you.
Now we’re talking something heavier; not only does having too much make you sick, it makes you identify more with the body than with the soul. Notice how cows’ heads are so close to the ground? 
The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; diet and fitness can indicate narcissism. Nor does sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table lead unswervingly to good health. But excess leads to poor health of body and soul. And declining a second helping and helping a second can converge for good health of body and soul.
Some other time we’ll get to Madame Leibermann’s other wisdom. For now I’ll bask in the land of plenty, the land of opportunity, plenty of opportunity to choose what I won’t eat.

Brooklyn and the Diamond Exchange

It was a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the Sixties, challenging the young rabbi chairing the roundtable; how can you believe in G-d when science has proven… why keep kosher in an age of government inspection and refrigeration, isn’t it racist to speak of the chosen people. The rabbi was doing his best. Sitting in the audience was an elderly rabbi, long black coat, elegant white beard. He rose to speak. 

“The questions you are asking are good questions, but for this you don’t need to come to Chabad. Anyone who has learned Torah can tell you these answers. But you came to Chabad; now let me tell you why you came.”
Everyone there was surprised he could speak English; the rabbi with the immaculate black coat and long white beard began his story.
A little boy was walking with his father down a steep hill in the heat of the day. They saw a man coming up the hill towards them, sweating, with a heavy sack on his shoulders weighing him down. When the man reached them the little boy asked what he had in his sack, why he was going up the hill, why he was working so hard.
The man told the little boy that his stove oven had broke and he had to come down to the valley to get more stones to build himself an oven. 
Why not get more stones, asked the little boy, and build a bigger oven that will keep you warmer and you can have more food -- there must be more stones still in the valley?   Oh, you little boy, said the man, you don’t yet know what it means to have to work, how hard it is to schlep. He put his free hand on the little boy’s shoulder. When you’ll be big like me you’ll be happy with a little oven too.
The little boy and his father continued down the hill. They saw another man coming up the hill towards them. Same size man, same size sack, but this man didn’t seem so weighed down.
What have you in the sack, the little boy wanted to know, is it stones, are you going to build yourself a small oven? 
Oh no, the man smiled broadly, no oven building for me! See, I was down in the valley digging for turnips and I hit a treasure. Diamonds! Rubies! Pearls! I have two daughters, two weddings to make, I’m going to open a store and stop peddling from town to town, build myself a house with wooden floors and. . .
Why not get more diamonds, interrupted the boy, there must be more left in the valley? Son, said the old man putting his free hand on the little boys shoulder, believe me, I searched the valley clean. I don’t think there is another diamond down there.
The little boy and his father continued down the hill
You see, said the little boy’s father, when you’re carrying diamonds they’re never too heavy. The first guy may have had diamonds too, but he didn’t know what they were. 
The old rabbi with the long white beard looked at the college kids.
“You see what the father was telling the boy? A mitzvah is a diamond. Every mitzvah that we do is a precious, precious thing. This is why you come to Chabad; not just to learn a mitzvah but to learn that it is a diamond. When you know they are diamonds than most of your questions will be answered.”
I heard this story on a wintry Friday night in Brooklyn. A roomful of Jewish college kids in the early Eighties, challenging the rabbi chairing the roundtable; the questions had shifted with the times: why do we need mitzvahs when we can meditate instead. 
A man got up and told this story that he had heard twenty years earlier on a cold wintry night a few blocks from where they were now. He told the story well and ended with the words, “It’s been twenty years since Rabbi Kazarnovsky stood up that night to tell that story. I could tell you dozens of experiences I’ve had since then, but to you it would be meaningless.”
I jolted. It was just for weeks since my grandfather died. Rabbi Kazarnovsky was my grandfather. 
I type the story with pride and awe. Pride because he was my grandfather; awed because he was my grandfather. 
Passion, demands the parsha. You can’t be Jewish out of a sense of duty. An observant Jew? an unsatisfying label. Like an obedient child, a dutiful husband a law-abiding citizen, an observant Jew accepts obligations – yet keeps on trudging. I know we’re the Chosen People, moans Tevye, but isn’t it time you chose someone else. 
Duty and diligence are not calculated to inspire, they’re heavy rocks. But when duty and diligence are born of passion they are tough as steel and brilliant diamonds. A heavy load? Maybe, on the scales: but not on my back.
“You have to be a rabbi,” a friend told me when I was seventeen, “it’s expected of you, it’s even in your genes”. A duty, he was saying. And I thank a rabbi with an immaculate, long, black coat and an elegant, long, white beard, for showing me it’s a diamond.
Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.