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For Your Shabbat Table

Dance, Dance, Dance!

 Rosh Hashanah you hear the shofar.  Yom Kippur you fast. Sukkos you eat in the sukkah and take the lulav-esrog. Simchas Torah you have no mitzvah. Simchas Torah, the joy of the torah, the joy of this learning that takes a lifetime, Simchas Torah has no learning. At night, we take the Torah but don’t read the Torah; we don’t even unfurl it.  Simchas Torah we dance. 

We dance with abandon, not looking at the clock, not trying to keep pace, not thinking if we’ll be late for davening tomorrow, just dancing.  The dancing of Simchas Torah.   

Elie Weisel wrote of the Jews dancing on the streets of Moscow during the Fifties.  One night in the year they had no fear, they were not Jews of silence they were Jews of Simchas Torah. My uncle was burned by the Nazis, in a shul in Riga.  He died singing the song of Simchas Torah.   

As a kid I remember Simchas Torah had a bigger turnout in my father’s shul than Kol Nidre.  I don’t know if the then gabbai’s statistics bear me out on that, but a kid’s perception counts, regardless. 

Simchas Torah with the Rebbe:  Simchas Torah with the Rebbe there were more people in shul than the shul could possibly have held. It couldn’t have happened but it did.  Special portable air conditioning units blasted in air through huge vents overhead.  The Chassidim held on to their precious six inches each, and stood on whatever would give them a view, benches, chairs, metal milkcases.  "Get off the milkcases", someone whose view was blocked would shout, shouting in Yiddish, English Hebrew, French. 

Together they would chant the Atah Hareisa verses, robust chanting, more football team chanting than religious music chanting.  The Rebbe would make his way slowly down the aisle – a path to the middle of the shul protected on both sides by thick, strong tables to maintain a crowd that would have overwhelmed a World Cup crowd control pro.    

Normally, no chossid would ever stop the Rebbe to talk, much less extend a hand or touch something the Rebbe was holding, but on Simchas Torah, well, it was Simchas Torah.  They kissed the tiny Torah the Rebbe cradled in his arm.  They beseeched his blessing: may we meet again next year: my father should recover quickly and dramatically:  I should be successful in your holy work. 

Slowly the Rebbe came to the middle of the shul, a tiny area fortressed by tables, with crowds on all sides ascending stadium–like on all sides to the far reaches of the long room.  There was a mad rush as everyone ensured their best spot, some impish chutzpanik tried to block the . . . get off the milkbox! guy behind him.  "Okay I’ll crouch, can you see now, yes, but if you pick your head up I’ll send you flying".   

The Rebbe is surrounded by dozens of dozens of excited nine-year-old boys. 

Ahhah aha ha ya aya ya the wordless Simchas Torah niggun, which in music books rises in crescendo.  Tonight it started at a crescendo. All attention is now in the middle of the shul.  The Rebbe dancing, beaming, lifting the Torah as if an offering to the multitudes towering around him.  The singing is boisterous in volume, joyous but reverent, the type that takes all your emotions and stuns them.  Only in hindsight can you feel how all your emotions sing such singing. 

During the height of the dancing I steal a glance around the room to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe in the eyes of the Chassidim. Sometimes you see more when you don’t look straight on.    

Why did I write this piece about Simchas Torah with the Rebbe? Did I whet any appetites?  I doubt it.  Did I capture a mood? a scene? I don’t think so.  But could I have witnessed this, been a part of it, and said nothing? 

Simchas Torah is in just a few nights.  We will dance.  We will dance and we will sing in our shul and on our street.  Our kids will dance.  And they will remember.

Souls in the Rain

If G-d is "perfect," as Judaism says, what prompted Him to create the universe? What void was He seeking to fill?

The answer provided in Jewish Mysticism is that G-d desired marriage.
Marriage necessitates the existence of someone distinct from yourself with whom to share your life, a union of husband and wife. G-d chose humanity as His bride.

What a marriage this has been--a roller coaster of romance, affection, quarrels and estrangement. In every generation, many counselors advocated a divorce while others proclaimed the Groom dead. Yet, the relationship has endured because both partners intrinsically know that they belong together.
When all veils are removed, man manifestly yearns for union with G-d.

According to the Kabbalah, the High Holiday season is the annual experience of the cosmic matrimony between G-d and humanity. The five key spiritual moments of the season parallel the basic phases of a conventional courtship and union. The holidays invite us to journey through this process again and rejuvenate the relationship.

The Courtship
The Hebrew month of Elul precedes the High Holidays. This month is described in Chassidic teachings as a time when "the King goes out to the field to meet with His people, greeting them with kindness and tenderness, displaying a joyous face to all." We, in turn, "open our hearts to G-d."

This time provides us with an opportunity to get to know G-d.

The Groom Proposes
Four weeks later, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, He makes His proposal.

The world goes haywire, says Master Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luriah. "During the night of Rosh Hashanah," he writes, "the consciousness animating the universe becomes frail and weak." The great Jewish mystics would, in fact, feel physically weak during the night of Rosh Hashanah.

All of existence was brought into being for the sake of this proposed marriage. If we refuse Him, then it was all in vain. The entire cosmos awaits our decision.

The Bride Commits
On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, a piercing sound rises from the Earth: the cry of the shofar. It is a simple cry, expressing man's yearning to connect with the Divine.

We have decided. Our answer is yes.

The Wedding
The wedding day arrives: Yom Kippur. A day described in the Kabbalah as "the time of oneness" in which cosmic bride and groom forge a bond for eternity.

In the Jewish tradition, bride and groom fast on their wedding day. On the day we unite with G-d, we abstain from food or drink as well. The Talmud teaches that upon marriage, all the sins of the groom and bride are forgiven.

That's why this day is called Yom Kippur, "the day of atonement."

The marriage ceremony begins with the stirring melody of Kol Nidre, in which we remove the power from vows and addictions that tie us down. During these profound moments, we attempt to free ourselves from compulsive behavior and negative habits and let go of resentment, animosity, anger, fear and envy.

The traditional Jewish marriage ceremony culminates with the bride and groom entering a secluded room (cheder yichud in Hebrew) to spend time alone with each other. Yom Kippur culminates with the Ne'ilah, or closure prayer, so called because as the sun of Yom Kippur sets, the gates of heaven close--with us inside.

During Ne'ilah, every soul is alone with G-d.

The Celebration
When the bride and groom exit their private room, the party begins. From Yom Kippur we leap into the seven-day festival of Sukkot, described in the Torah as "the time of our Joy."

These days are filled with feasting and ecstatic happiness, celebrating the union between G-d and His people.

The wedding feast is over. The guests and relatives have returned home. In a consummation of the relationship, bride and groom experience intimacy for the first time, their lives melded together as a husband and wife.

Hence, following the seven days of Sukkot, we reach the zenith of the High Holiday season: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, described in the Kabbalah as the "time of intimacy with the Divine." During these two charged days the joy reaches its peak, as G-d and His people merge into a seamless whole. A
Divine seed is planted in each of our hearts.

That's why we recite special prayers for rain on the festival of Shemini Atzeret. What is rain? In the midst of intimacy between heaven and earth, procreative drops from heaven are absorbed, fertilized and nurtured by mother-earth, which in time will give birth to its botanical children.

The Ordinary Month
The honeymoon comes to an end and the excitement begins to fade. Now the marriage becomes about caring for each other and demonstrating trust and loyalty as we work through the daily grind of life.

Out of the twelve months in the Jewish calendar, the only one lacking a single festive day immediately follows the High Holiday season. The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is the time to build a genuine relationship with our marriage Partner in our everyday lives. This is the time to discover the joy born out of a continuous relationship with G-d.

Why Are you Going to Yom Kippur Eve Services?

Kol Nidre
Kol Nidre. Certainly the most attended Jewish prayer of the year. Certainly the most awesome. But why? 

The words are pretty mundane, a basic annulment for
misunderstood, haphazardly applied, ill-advised vows
a person may have taken upon themselves. 
There is a similar prayer recited Erev Rosh Hashanah.
To most Jews it is unknown, or at best obscure. 
Kol Nidre everybody knows.
One of the books I know only from reviews, is a compilation of last letters from soldiers on the front -- letters to their wives, their mothers, their children, their newborn babies. 
From what I have heard of the book there is little in the way of abstract philosophy; it is all about small moments, washing dishes together, sharing a nighttime ride into town, macaroni and cheese.
This is how connections are made: small, insignificant interfaces, which could have happened dozens of times before and hundreds later, but that moment – just that moment -- became an indelible connection. 
(A mitzvah is a connection – that is the meaning of the word.)
Why did that moment take on a life of its own? 
We rarely know, and almost never care;
we just embrace it for what it gives us. 
Standing on the outside of the relationship it may well seem overblown and corny; not from the inside.
In the collective Jewish experience the Kol Nidre stands out a recurring lighthouse in the tempest of the year, a comfort, and also a challenge that feels right for us.
My father says that the nicest thing about Italian opera is that you don’t understand the words. Comprehension can, in flourishing moments, only diminish. 
That is why comprehension, analysis can only rob a soldier’s letter of the very reason we would ever care to read them. We don’t know why or when Kol Nidre came to be Kol Nidre, we just know that it is.
Niggun evokes that quality which defies analysis and breaks the heart and makes it full. 
Kol Nidre Night is a time for niggun;
Not choirs, not chanting, not necessarily understanding the words, or even knowing the tunes. 
That all is preparation of Kol Nidre, to make the Kol Nidre that much fuller. If this past year we didn’t prepare for Kol Nidre – that is why we have a next year. 
So now is not a time to analyze, to dissect the moment. Don’t worry if you don’t understand; you’ll have a whole year to learn. 
Don’t worry if you’re not on the right page; every page is the right page. 
Don’t worry if you can’t follow the tune; the tune will follow you regardless. 
Now is the time to just be there, to just be. 
For now, let us write home our letter from the war front.

When You Least Expect It

Kon-Tiki is the story of brave Scandinavian seamen who crossed the Pacific, from Peru to Hawaii, on nothing more than a wooden raft. They believed that the original Hawaiians first arrived from America, and they set out to prove that with the rudimentary provisions of that time, trans-Pacific travel was possible. 

While sailing, the seamen came across marine life that scientists had believed extinct for thousands of years -- and discovered species that scientists had never known existed. The seafarers said they found all this, because instead of rushing through the water, they allowed the water to rush over them.
The machzor has secrets and tales that fill the heart with passion and fill the mind with breathless wonder. Drama: when the Jew Amnon had to be carried to shul for Yom Tov. His body was limbless; the duke had chopped off each knuckle, asking him after each severance if he was ready yet to convert. This wealthy, handsome scholar delivered the Unesane Tokef and died there in shul that Rosh Hashanah. 
A neighbor of ours remembers his shtetl shul in Poland: they met in each other’s homes. Everyone cried such bitter tears at Unesane Tokef. How come, he asks, does his congregation sit in their pews throughout the whole Unesane Tokef so impassively?
Napoleon, unlike the dukes who preceded him, never demanded the Jews convert; he demanded that Judaism convert. He convened a “Sanhedrin” to redefine the faith to his liking. “The people need religion” he professed, “and religion needs to be in the hands of the state”. Napoleon minted a coin of himself holding the Ten Commandments with Moses bowing down to him to accept them. 
Dramatically, Napoleon broke down the walls of the ghetto. Subtly, he broke down the walls of Jewish life. The Jews hailed the emancipation and largely overlooked the threat of government-controlled religion. How distant and abstract it seemed compared to the bloody reality of pogroms, beatings, severed limbs. Except to one person.
The Alter Rebbe, although having been twice jailed by the Czar, threw his support behind anyone-but-Napoleon. He died escaping Napoleon. But before he died he heard La Marche de Napoleone. He remarked, “It is a stirring march, a march of victory. But the victory will be ours.”
After a day of fasting, marathon davening and heart-searching introspection, an emotionally draining Yom Kippur comes to a close. For many years, as a finale to Yom Kippur, in the shul of the Rebbe, our Rebbe, the throngs would sing Napoleon’s March. Beginning at a stately tempo, the tune quickly energized the crowd. The Rebbe, normally reserved, would majestically climb upon his chair to the singing La Marche de Napoleone. Gusto gave way to crescendo as the suddenly very non-fasting thousands, greeted the Rebbe’s energy with all of their own. The victory stolen from the little emperor.
Most of the words in the machzor, the prayer book for the high holidays, are not printed on the pages; they are engraved on the soul. But you only feel the engraving if you listen to the words on the page. You can’t rush through it; you have to ride the tide, letting gallons flow across your deck. When you least expect it you will discover something within you.   Something that everyone thought had left you long ago. Something that you never knew was there.
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