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For Your Shabbat Table

Last Line on Curses

Anyone can curse: like anything else cursing can be sublimate to an art. The alte Poilishe yiddenes, the Jewish women of Poland, when the troubles and aggravations of the marketplace bubbled over they would fume at each other: “You should have a court case -- and you should win!” “You should catch all the horrible diseases – and you should be cured!” 

In this week’s reading, The Al-mighty Himself pours forth his wrath with a Writer’s attention to original detail that makes the stomach turn and a Poet’s turn of phrase that makes the head swell.
 
There is nothing in our history not written and accounted for in these passages, not the cannibalism of the Roman conquest, not the kapos of Poland and Germany. Perhaps if I were not such a Jewish history addict, the verses wouldn’t have boggled me like that.
 
Now picture this: a courtroom. A judge calls in the defendant and reads off the charges. The defendant took his victim, drugged him, called in several of his assistants and methodically, with forethought cut the man’s stomach open, removed organs, put in foreign substances, drugged him some more. The victim luckily made it out of this ordeal alive, and made it safely home. 
 
Then the judge reads the very last line: the defendant is a surgeon who did surgery in a hospital with the patient duly under surgery and the operation was successful.
 
Things change with the last line. Until the last line we get increasingly dizzy with assaulting details: the last line flips everything into perspective.
 
Some people instinctively relate to life through the last line: we call them tzaddkim. There is a story of a young boy of ten, the son of a tzaddik. His father the tzaddik always read the Torah, including this week’s Tochacha – the vivid curses. 
 
One year the tzaddik was sick and unable to read the Tochacha: someone else read the Torah in his place. The little boy heard the Tochacha being read and he fainted. For months he was bedridden. Finally, after he recovered they asked him why the Tochacha affected him so deeply – don’t you hear it every year?
 
“Every year, my father reads the Tochacha, and when a my father reads the Tochacha I hear only blessings.” (Needless to say, the little boy was soon recognized as a tzaddik in his own right.)
 
I’ve heard that when the Rebbe was a little boy the pogroms (the third wave of the last czars) hit his hometown of Nikolaiyiv. He spent nights in the basement of his apartment building, comforting children even younger than himself. 
 
Many years later the Rebbe wrote that since he was a small boy he was drawn, magnet-like to the concept of Moshiach. He described it as a time that would give meaning to the long and bitter Jewish history. That it would be a last line.
 
The trouble is that when you’re in the middle of the story you cannot fathom that there is a last line, and the very mention of it is aggravating. “The people would not hear him for their shortness of breath,” the Jews in Egypt could not endure Moshe’s talk of redemption: they were too overcome by the reality around them to fathom there could be a last-line ending.
 
I go back to the account of the Warsaw Ghetto I was reading. I Google search last weeks bombing of Casablanca’s Jewish community. I scroll through the horrific deja-vu afflicting Israel. Again. I too, in my Egypt, have shortness of breath. I am somewhat relieved that there are giants who are high enough to see the last line. And see it not as a distant vision as rock-solid reality. 
 
The words ‘speedily in our days’ take on new meaning. Or maybe I’m just giving them a new attention.

Thank You For Remaining Jewish

"He could ask for anything!"
He could have any tyna he wanted!"
He could storm the heavens with the injustices he faces every day!"

It was the early sixties and the Hassidim sat with the Rebbe in New York as other Hasidim sat in Russia. It was before American Jewry had discovered the Iron Curtain (Let my people go!), before Scoop Jackson presented legislation on their behalf. It was a Shabbos and the Rebbe was telling of a letter that had been sent to him by a teenager in Leningrad.

"He could have demanded anything from heaven! He could have lodged any protest! Instead. . . " the Rebbe's voice choked on tears. His voice broke. Finally the words came. "Instead what does he ask? He complains that in the middle of his davening his mind wanders! And he is asking what he can do about it!"

I wasn't there that Shabbos. I would have been a baby if I had been. The story was told to me by someone who was there and remembered it over thirty five years later like it happened yesterday. I haven't verified the details.

But this I know. No one who was there davened by rote the next day. And if they did, they felt empty inside -- and were fuller for it.

Golda Meir was born in Russia and came back as Israel's first ambassador. The Commy mantra then was that Russian Jews saw themselves as communists first and their past superstitions were faded, senseless memories, etc. etc. Word got out that Golda Meir would be in shul Rosh Hashanah.

The women in the ladies' section came to touch the collar of her dress. They crowded around her. Goldenyu!, an old man shouted on her way out of shul, leben zolst du! -- a wish with a near imperative ring -- you shall live! Golda didn't know what to say until finally she blurted out in Yiddish, adank aich far bleiben yidden. Her words spread through the throng like wildfire, and she felt her limp words were a poor mockery of prophetic incantation. Thank you, she had told them, for remaining Jews.

So it was. Eastern Europe and America had changed roles, now America was der heim, the home, where Yiddishkeit thrived (relatively) unmitigated by surrounding circumstance. In the early eighties my mother met a man in Moscow who had been a younger boy in the yeshiva in Lubavitch when her father, my grandfather, was there. Her father had gone to America and in this old man's eyes, it was my grandfather, not he, who was living the full Jewish life. They were looking to America for much more than money and mezuzahs , they needed to know that while they were breaking their necks to get a piece of matzah on Pesach, Seders were extravagant family affairs across the sea -- and Yiddishkeit flourished. Otherwise the Jews of Silence would just have been a few lost souls abstaining from yeast in mid-March.

And so it is. Israel is in a time that tries big men. The iron curtain has been beaten into rockets and is falling on them. (Ceasefires mean a time to reload.) Israel needs our money. Because their finances have been interrupted. But that is only a small, small part of what they need. They need our political clout, but that is a small, small amount of what they need. They need our cries of support, but that too is a small, small part of what they need.

They know they are hated like no one else in a region where hate is the biggest cash crop and biggest export. They know they are hated because they are Jews. They know too that we are hated because we are Jews but they need to know that we know that too. That the hate is bearable for us because we know we have something beautiful and in the words of Anne Frank we would never want to give it up.

We look upon Israel with pride and sorrow, like we did a few decades ago, peering through that iron curtain. They need to know that we celebrate Yiddishkeit, not bear it. They need to know we don't hide it and we don't only remember it when somebody hates us. Any burden is bearable if it is meaningful. If we have meaning then they can bear it. If we don't have meaning, then what are they safeguarding?

In the spring of 1967, when the world spoke of an impending second holocaust confronting Israel, the Rebbe spoke of wearing tefillin. He quoted the Talmud that when we wear tefillin it invokes awe among all who see us and it protects us. I know there is much kabalistic exegesis developing the theme, but to me it remains esoterica.

This I know. When Israelis come to America, putting on tefillin often gains meaning for them. They tell me so. They tell me so in words and they tell me so in tefillin. When Americans see soldiers in Lebanon and at the Kotel putting on tefillin, it fills them with something inexplicable. I don't know why; the why I leave to the Rebbe. I just know that it does.

On your ramparts oh Jerusalem I have placed watchmen, assure the prophets. We see them and something shifts inside our chest cavity. They see us and the prophet's assurance echoes. In our wonderment something precious is guarded, nurtured and ready to be served when the kids laughing in the courtyard finish their game and come inside. Free. Safe. Home.

Bow & Arrow

Have you ever shot a bow and arrow? I haven’t. In school, the teachers spoke of the custom of taking kids to the fields to shoot bows and arrows on Lag B’omer. But they never took us. Archery by proxy.

The custom, they told me, dates back to the Roman oppression of Israel (yes, before the Roman imperialists renamed it Palestine and imported foreign people, the land was called Israel and the people who lived there were Jews). The clandestine cheders (Jewish schools) would hold class in the fields. If the Roman soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by (Et tu, shtoonk?) the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their parchments and strung their bows. (Similar to the dreidel story with the Greeks.)
 
A man that I know (not very well) dresses in typical Chassidic garb on Shabbat: black coat, black hat. But he doesn’t have a long flowing beard; he doesn’t have any beard at all. In fact, not a hair grows on his head or face, even eyebrows.
 
In Soviet Russia the Yevsektzia, the Jewish Communists (et tu?) took a fanatical interest in persecuting the clandestine chedorim in the basements. If the Russian soldiers or the treacherous collaborators walked by the aspiring yeshiva bochurim hid their worn books and started playing red light green light.  
 
One boy was lookout, and when he sounded the alarm and the books were shoved away, one page fell out. The lookout was grabbed by the neck and asked to identify the non-Russian script on the page. He was thrown into a dark, damp cell for the night. And for the next day. Luckily he was released to his parents. He grew up married, had children, raised them as true Chassidim and finally was allowed to leave the Motherland. But his beard had never grown in, and after that night at Gulag-for-kids his hair fell out.
 
So I have been told. I never asked the lookout to verify the story. I’m glad my kids can learn outside of basements and take scheduled breaks to play red light green light. And on balance, even though I’d rather have shot bows and arrows, I’ll even forgive those teachers who took us on archery-deprived picnics.
 

Kedoshim Tiheyu

It was in the depths of inhumanity, wrote survivor Gerta Klein, that she glimpsed humanity. A friend in Bergen Belsen presented her with a green-leaf-garnished raspberry. Other survivors tell of Jews with nothing to offer would huddle others close to them to shield them from winter winds.

It was the gulag that threatened Russian Jewry. It was the gulag that sparked a nearly mystical inspiration in American Jews a world away.
 
Kedoshim tehiyu – you shall be holy --  ki Kodosh Ani – for I am holy -- begins the Parsha, and sinks from this mystical high to the abyss of descriptive, decidedly unholy and proscribed alliances.
 
Holiness there cannot be, while engaged in depravity. But depravity’s potential is what makes us holy. In other words, you can’t become anything in a tissue box. To be cool, calm and collected when nothing aggravates is no big trick. To be cool, calm and collected in the heat of rage is a big holiness.
 
Me ma’amakim – from the depths I cry out to You, O God, cried David. Shuls were once built sloping downwards towards the front. The chazzan lead from below. From there can you cry out and that cry can lead.
 
A holy raspberry in Bergen Belsen moves us: is it far from suburban life? Reb Mendel, upon release from the gulag, came to America. Riding along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway he took in Manhattan’s skyline. “Here,” he laughed seriously (as only Reb Mendel could) it is really hard to be a good Jew.”
 
Do what comes naturally! exult the free-spirited. Sing barefoot along the seashore! Barefoot singing is natural, and benign. But as someone who regrets their lost temper knows, natural can be malignant. To never know from temper is inhuman. To let loose your temper – hence lose – is human failure. To control the temper is holy.
 
To control the urges too, states the parsha, is holy. Not every nature was meant to be expressed; subjugation is its purpose, its positive force, its holiness.
 
“Indulge the senses” sounds better than “a pig wallowing in the mud” only because we are partial to ourselves and to our mud. We don’t become freer or truer when we indulge; we become muddied. And the more muddied we become, the more difficult to discern malignant mud from benign mud.
 
Kedoshim tehihyu, you were not meant to be muddied. We have to trek thought the stuff or we could never get to shul. Without the mud we could never know the raspberry.

Odd Comfort

Attending the Funeral of the Holy Martyr Lori Kaye 

Some thoughts I’m having here standing in the lobby where the shooting took place...

Terrorists should not be given airtime, ignore them.   Against my better judgment I googled the shooter in Poway, John Ernest. He’s no KKK stereotype.  A classical pianist, Chopin! this Dean’s List RN looks the part of hospital rounds, not prison yards.  

He consumingly believes that Jews are out to kill Europeans and steal their heritage.  I, a rabbi, the son and grandson of rabbis, know he won’t believe me, but we really, really don’t.  We are baffled: where does it come from? why is he so convinced?    

We know we are not Communists, we know that Jews suffered disproportionately under Communism.  Jews (who denounced all things Jewish) were over-represented in the early years of Marxist leadership – but Jews were over-represented in classical music and medicine as well.

The irrational, vitriol would be called laughably lunatic if it wasn’t so deadly.

Part of me was prepared for this.  when I was six, My babysitter seared into my heart her story from Czarist Russia. A Mendel Beilus was accused of killing a non-Jewish girl to use her blood for matzah on Pesach.    The trial was long and the Jews throughout Russia were terrified.  They fasted every day of the trial from morning to evening, crowded their synagogues and blew the shofar beseeching the Almighty’s mercy.  A guilty verdict would have meant a nationwide pogrom.  Miraculously, Beilus was exonerated.  

The blood libel provided an odd comfort:  if something so patently absurd can be so widely and deeply accepted, then yes, we are good and they are wrong.  
Take a deep breath; this isn’t our first rodeo.  Last week at the Passover Seder we lifted our wineglasses in triumph, “…and this has stood by our fathers and us, for in each and every generation they have risen to destroy us and the Holy One Blessed Be He saved us from their hands...”  Jews have survived for over three millennia, the hatred that ebbed and flowed along the journey has been our foil.  

The brave and kind rabbi of Poway, recounting how his granddaughter witnessed the terror in the synagogue lobby, began to sob; “how can a little girl live with that?”  
Little children have their ancestors’ resilience in their blood.  As they witness terror, they experience love: – she knew her grandfather’s love as he protected the children from the terrorist.  He will put her on his lap.  She will be horrified by his new hands.  She will be enveloped in a sustaining love.

Israel’s Golda Meir famously said she can forgive the Arab enemy for everything except for forcing Israel’s sons kill their sons.  

Against my better judgment I find myself mourning for the terrorist who squandered his life on a phantomic-based hatred which consumed him. I know we will survive, but will he?  I’m surprised that I even care.

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