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For Your Shabbat Table

A Heartfelt Silence

“And (the sons of Aaron) died, and Aaron remained silent,” the Parsha. 

It was a Reader’s Digest article I read years ago. About a lady who had just lost her mother, her husband was on his way home from a trip; she alone had to break the news to her little children. People were calling offering condolences: ending with the expected (awkward?) “don’t hesitate to call me if you need anything”. Then the doorbell rang. Her husband’s friend was standing there, a rolled newspaper under his arm. “I’ve come to shine your shoes,” he announced.
“What?” she said.
“I‘ve come to shine your shoes,” he repeated. “I remember that at my mother’s funeral, the family was so busy, and with the shock and all, we forgot to shine our shoes. We didn’t even realize it until we got to the funeral home.”
He spread the newspaper over the floor, asked for everyone’s dress shoes, and began scraping the soles and polishing the uppers. The woman’s pent up sorrow and shock gratefully gave way to torrents of tears.
When tragedy happens, friends worry ‘what do I say’. That we have to say something is a given: that we have to say something is a mistake.
Silence is eloquent and heartfelt. Silent presence is a gift that needs no explanation: gold that need not be gilded, a message with no distracting words. The space formed by silence can be filled with simple acts: shoe shining (in a kup-in-galoshin environ) that pave a way from one heart to another, from a Jew to her Torah, from a man to his Creator.
For mourners too: if you can’t express your feelings, if you feel cheated all over again -- this time because of the emotional nightmare -- if this all makes no sense, you don’t need to say a thing. Silence lends credence to everything going on inside of you. Silence allows a rebuilding inside of you, a renewal. And that renewal, that rebuilding is the best consolation we have until Moshiach intervenes.

Healthy Self Awareness

In the first word of last week's Parsha, Vayikra, the last letter of the word (an Aleph) is written in a smaller size than the rest of the word.

The verse tells us 'Vayikra el Moshe' - G-d called to Moses...
The small Aleph alludes to Moshe's humility even in the face of such Divine attention.
Conversely, we find in the book of Chronicles that Adam's name is spelt with a large Aleph, symbolizing his greatness - and his awareness of it.
Awareness of one's good qualities is all well and good, but it must not go to the head. With Adam, it did. Moshe rectified this error. He recognized his greatness but more importantly, he recognized where it came from.
Humility does not mean self-delusion, but rather an awareness of one's talents, tempered by acknowledgment of where they come from. Moshe was aware of his qualities but he did not take any credit for it. In fact, he said 'were somebody else to be granted these qualities, they would surely do even better.'

If we find ourselves feeling inadequate, it is time to remember that we are Adams, with a big Aleph. We are formed by G-d, empowered by Him to care for His Creation. However we must draw upon the spark of Moshe within us to avoid over-confidence and self-aggrandizement, but to remember Who everything comes from. 

Life and Soul Offering

When attending a conference, teaches experience, bring along something to read. Thus, seated with my Torah open to the parsha, I was not distraught that the scheduled speaker was predictably late, nor that no one there knew the topic.

An impishly humorous man took the mike, uninvited and unannounced. Most funny people are either depressed or serious; he was serious. He spoke, and I read, both of us relatively content in our roles: he making an occasional joke, me breaking an occasional smile while continuing reading.
Then he began speaking of his father, a man I had never met, but had seen in the streets of Crown Heights. A burly man with a flowing white beard, Russian-style casquet and crutches for his bad foot, the latter a gift awarded in defense of Mother Russia. The family tells of the miracle of the shrapnel that took his leg and spared his life. Funny what people from Russia call a miracle. 
After WWII, the young family wanted to leave Russia; with a convoluted reasoning only possible in a secretive bureaucracy, the hero was honored to stay indefinitely in the Motherland. But for a brief few moments, the family thought they might leave. The mother said she wanted to sell all that they had. ‘All that hey had’, the impish speaker told us, was two broken beds and three broken chairs.
Sell it all, his father conceded to his mother, but not my schach boards.
Sukkot is nice time to visit Israel. From every balcony and in every courtyard, little booths mushroom in this rainy season. Covering these booths, called sukkas, are schach, green foliage: palm branches in Israel and California, evergreens in the Northeast (which sprinkle the matzo ball soup) and in my native Nashville, whatever happened to be growing in the yard. (I still like my Nashville schach best.) We have our meals in the sukkah, under the schach.
In Russia, of course, making a sukkah was an offense, and eating in one punishable with imprisonment. Being caught with illicit tree trimmings this time of year was unheard of. But this then-young Russian war hero was not going to let all that deter him. He got a hold of some wooden boards – which as schach would have raised eyebrows in Jerusalem or New England, but are halachically valid. The speaker told us that his father kept those boards from year to year. During Sukkot he would sneak to an undisclosed, impromptu booth, place the schach-boards overhead, and for a few moments have his Sukkot.
Sell all that we have, said the father to the mother, sell my coat if you have to, he conceded. But not my sukkah-bletlach, not my schach-boards. 
Our speaker moved on to something else, and I turned back to my Chumash. I was up to a particular Rashi comment: why does the Torah, when discussing the offerings of rich men, the middle class, and the poor reserve the word nefesh, meaning life or soul, exclusively for the poor man’s offering, asks Rashi. Because, Rashi quotes from the Talmud, the poor man’s soul is in his humble offering. It is as dear to the Al-mighty as a man who has given his life.
(This war hero died shortly before the parsha of Vaykira. The night after his family finished the week of mourning, the shiva, the family danced at the wedding of his granddaughter.) 


Just after the Arabs attacked the Jews in what became known as the Yom Kippur War, the Israel Defense Forces held an emergency appeal in Nashville. My father was speaking, and probably because he couldn’t get a babysitter, he brought me along.  

He ended off with the story of Purim, how Mordechai reminds Esther that what needs to happen will happen, the Jews will be saved with or without you, but if you sit complacently in your palace then they will be saved and you will perish.
One lady that I knew stood up and said that for five years they had been setting aside money for a family vacation: three thousand dollars. She gave the money to defend Jewish lives.
Success is the most coveted of blessings, appreciated because we feel it is earned. We stepped forward. We did something. We didn’t just talk about it. 
You can sit on the sidelines, you can talk and criticize and encourage and curse and bless and it doesn’t make that much difference. Or you can get your hands dirty, your feet black and your bank account red and sweat and cry and plod and slip and fall and. . .and do something. Then, and only then, can you ask for, and do you deserve a blessing: success.
Are you needed? Can someone else do it? If Esther didn’t want to do it, or “couldn’t” do it then yes, history would continue its play without her. But if Esther wants to, then all of creation is waiting for her; this is her moment. That is a worthy bracha, a Divine gift, the ability to make a difference: you can kill yourself over something worth living for. 
A man came to the Rebbe and asked for a blessing: that he be able to continue learning uninterrupted, with serenity. The Rebbe was uncharacteristically flabbergasted. “There are thousands of kids who aren’t learning Aleph Beis and you’re worried about your serenity!!”
Whether we deserve serenity or not is another issue. But as our parsha testifies, serenity was not the blessing of Moses. Holiness was, and that comes through accomplishment, not a stress-free environment.
Be careful what you ask for. Or as American Jewry’s beloved creation Tevye says, maybe it’s time to choose someone else. To be holy means to achieve. We would have it no other way. May the redeemer come to Zion, heralds the siddur, and may I play a part is the quiet fervor in those words.
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