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For Your Shabbat Table

Kobe, Brooklyn and Egypt

“My grandson made a seder in Kobe!” “150 people!” “In Kobe Japan!” “My grandson!” I was on a trip back to Brooklyn and had met up with one of the elders of the Crown Heights community. A butcher by trade. Polish born. He had stopped me in the middle of 770; after a hurried hello started gushing about his grandson’s Pesach, some three months before. 

I didn’t get the excitement. I understand a Zaide’s nachas. I find it amazing there were 150 Jews in Kobe and am impressed by near teenagers who spend their time off from yeshiva finding them. But. . . Chabad has been doing that for decades. This man’s son is one of South Africa’s most popular rabbis. I smiled as convincingly as I could, a smile that I hoped said very nice
He grabbed me by the lapel of my jacket. “Di farshayst nisht! Ich bin durt gevaizin!” I was there. During the war. The Shangchaier. The Shangchaier in Lubavitch refers to the yeshiva in Poland to whom a Japanese diplomat named Sugihara had given visas. They had escaped Hitler by stealing train rides and running to the east. They had spent time in Kobe before a deportation to Shanghai.
In Reb Shimon’s living room wall are dozens of family pictures. Formal wedding and bar mitzvah portraits of his kids and grandkids. Looking at the pictures you can see the subtle changes in Hassidic fashion over the decades in America. There is one incongruous black-and-white of a young man and woman standing outside a rundown building. They both have on bands with the Jewish star. “It’s my sister on her wedding day,’ he had told me years before, “In the Warsaw Ghetto. This picture is all I have of my family.”
I remembered this, but he was pulling on my lapel again.
Fifty years ago I was in Kobe and I had nothing, nobody.” Now my einikle is making sedorim. In Kobe!” You see,” he settled into a conversation. “Moshe asked the Aibishter (Yiddish for G-d) ‘Show me your face.’ and he was answered “I will show you my back but my face you shall not see.’ The Chasam Sofer explains My-face-you-shall-not-see, if you look forward, in the present, you won’t see Me. But, I-will-show-you-my-back, by looking back you will see that I was there all along.   Fifty years ago I saw nothing, but now . . .”
Life doesn’t always allow for philosophies, no matter how profound, inspiring or poignant. You have to just do it and figure it out later. Between challenge and response is a void, and filling it with faith means filling it with fulfilling the Torah.
The parsha reminded me of Reb Shimon’s Kobe. The Jews, coming form G-d’s deliverance from Egypt and carried upon His promises, were threatened with advancing Egyptian armies promising to drive them into the sea. Should they fight? Surrender? Pray? The response was none of the above. “Move on.” Just follow what I say and it will all work out.
Having lost everyone Reb Shimon came to a foreign country, married and had a family and community. He had no satisfying answers to why. He still doesn’t. Except one. His grandson made a seder in Kobe. For 150 people!

Lechaim to Chutzpah!

Taking the Jews out of Egypt was the easy part for G-d; he’s in the miracle business. Taking the Egypt out of the Jews, now that’s hard. And Egypt was very into the Jews, the Pharaohs had enticing culture and entertainment (abomination in both sleazy and non-sleazy flavors); the Jews desperately wanted to shed immigrant status and blend in. They pretty much did.  

One of the most adored of the Egyptians adorations was. . . the sheep (no, I don’t know why and let’s not go there). It was the portent of, oh, I don’t know, the television? Now imagine your coming home one day, taking the beloved idiot box and throwing it out the window! Now picture doing that when you work for the networks and your boss came over to watch the news with you. We call it chutzpah.
That’s why the Jews had to slaughter the sheep for Pesach. Hours later they were ready to leave Egypt behind: a deflated, emasculated shell of a has-been. 
The chutzpah they kept. The gall to define reality and live by what is right: not comfortable, logical nor even possible, but what is right. The Jews who survived Europe seventy-five years ago and started having families at an unprecedented rate demonstrated an awesome, enviable, breathtaking chutzpah. The Jews in America, who were bombarded with “The Disappearing Jew” series that every magazine was mouthing, but nevertheless opened day schools, filled them with children and at the same time shlepped the parent generation in, were totally ignoring reality and doing their own thing. Their own thing.
The Jews (0.0005% of the population) are not defined by their surroundings and limitations (the Hebrew word for that is Metzarim – the same as the Hebrew word for Egypt). The Jews are defined by he who defines them. (Mitzvhas are often called signs – definitions). 
So yes, the next time you read some cutting-edge report about the demise of Israel, see a documentary or news feature you think is slanted negatively, don’t get annoyed. Think chutzpah (it’s also recommended for the blood pressure).
All those sheep and TV’s are not our reality. Turn it off. Feel free to throw it out.   Then wonder how you could have possibly lived with that thing for so long. And know how it feels to leave Egypt behind.

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.
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