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For Your Shabbat Table

LONG LIVE THE GRACIOUS QUEEN

The immediate images of her that come to mind, that saturate newspapers, magazines, television and what have you, is marching bands, swirling horses, jewels galore, huge palaces: a pomp and pageantry that boggles the mind more than it connects to Richard the Lion-Hearted or whoever.

But the immediate image is not the whole story; we have nearly the pomp and a lot more glitz with movie stars, athlete stars, moguls and politicians. With them it disgusts us, with them it leaves us; with her it intrigues us, with her it endures.  With her it is regal.

There is the image of her that emerges less immediately, a reserve, a pensiveness, a quiet pride that may sometimes look arrogant: she doesn’t need us for her to shine, adoring crowds may even diminish her stature.

Deeper yet we sense her sense of duty, a quiet determination to carry on whatever it is that she represents and never to be vulnerable to the whims and windfall of public opinion or fashion.  Enduring. Permanent.

A jubilee is a lifetime’s biggest segment to help us measure, and that can afford us some perspective.  And even though you can’t really get perspective when you are still in the middle of a story, still, no celebs can even think in terms of jubilees.  

There is a shtetl story of when the Czar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks.  Enough Jews rejoiced then; the Jew-hater was dead, now Jew-hatred would die.  (We now like to think we know just how naïve they were.)  But there was one Jew in the shtetl, Yankel, who when he heard of the Czar’s murder he wept.  Yankel, why are you crying, his shtetl wondered.  Not for the Romanovs, he assured them, but for my grandchildren’s davening.  How, when I am teaching them “L-rd our G-d King of the Universe”, will I be able to describe to them what a king is?

If her grandfather’s cousin once served as an example of monarchy, Her Majesty serves as an example of aristocracy.  I cringe when I hear the Jewish Princess thing.  Princess does not mean pampered, does not mean protected, and certainly does not mean pomp or fashion (petit-bourgeois pomp?). Princess, as in the Talmud’s “the honor for a princess is seen in her reserve” is aristocracy.

So for giving the world this example, I thank her. Thanks to her, unlike Yankel we need not weep for our daughters, we need only teach them – and learn ourselves.  Long live . . . well, their Gracious Queen.

 

HOW TO MAKE GREAT KIDS

Have you ever met someone truly great? A giant? Have you felt the awe of their presence that is only enhanced when they extend themselves to you, when they draw you in? If you haven’t yet, you have something to look forward to.

Some thirty-five years ago, a promising philosophy student at Cambridge set out to meet the great Jewish thinkers (and doers) of the times. He met the Rebbe, he asked questions and the Rebbe answered. Towards what he believed was the end of the interview, the Rebbe said that he too would like to ask a question, namely: “What are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge?”
 
The student, Jonathan Sacks, is now chief rabbi Emeritus of The British Commonwealth (and regardless of imposing titles, he truly, actually is great). When he assumed the chief rabbinate BBC interviewed him. They asked what made him become a rabbi. He responded that the Rebbe’s question -- what are you doing for Jewish life in Cambridge – started him on that road.
 
Sacks speaks of the great personalities he met, how he sensed their greatness. In the Rebbe’s room he sensed something else: he sensed his own greatness. 
 
He maintains there is a common misconception about the Rebbe; that the Rebbe created followers. Sacks insists that he did not; he maintains that the Rebbe created leaders.
 
“And you shall raise the (flames of) the candles” begins the parsha. “Kindle those flames,” encourages the Talmud, until they burn steady and strong, until they neither flicker nor waver. Then and only then are they ready for you to remove the fire with which you kindled them and you can move on to your next candle.
 
I am now raising my grandchildren’s parents. Many of my students are now rabbis and rebbetzins. I pray that like Jonathan Sacks, they sense their own greatness. 
 

Desert

I was sitting at the dining room table when a movement outside the window caught my eye: I looked up to see a roadrunner. For those of you not in the Desert, a roadrunner is a bird: a cross between a woodpecker and an eagle that hasn't eaten for a week. From this roadrunner's mouth hung a white lizard, which looked like a Mattel dinosaur that hadn't been painted yet.

I ran to grab my new camera, a birthday present, a digital AK-47PX or something. My kids have been too busy to show me how it works and I've been too slow to learn.

I snapped away as the roadrunner repeatedly flung the lizard to the ground until the lizard's neck became covered with blood. The pictures, of course didn't come out, so no, National Geographic hasn't come calling.

To the right of our place forty homes are going up; to the left, hundreds already have. The desert vistas are giving way to tract homes. Those who haven't been to the desert are surprised when they get here; they expected endless sand dunes meandering around. Those who live here, think of it as hotter than Los Angeles, with better air than the Valley and less traffic than Orange County. With homes, golf courses, pools and malls the desert part of it is easily forgotten. Or ignored.

The desert is desolate, bare; where survival is chancy and death is a given. Where without irrigation and air-conditioning you would never go, never mind go for a honeymoon. But this is where the good L-rd took us as soon as we left Egypt.

There was no food, no water, and enough sun and scorpions to kill us all many times over. And we went. Blindly. Trustingly.

He led, we followed. Years later the marriage went sour; He remembered our blind love and so He turned a blind eye. Then we got sour with Him and so we too, turned a blind eye. And we settle into being an old married couple, aware of each other's shortcomings and not looking to rock the boat. And before we have a chance to get grumpy there comes along a Rebbe that brings a zest and a zing and everything back into the marriage. And we're back on a honeymoon.

For a honeymoon there is no place better than the Desert. Not because of the golf courses. The desert has its own beauty. The vastness, the emptiness the stark majesty calls to the fore something big, majestic and unchanging. Trees and grass, for all their beauty and usefulness, block that. Houses and fences, for all that we need them, call to mind our accomplishment. In the face of accomplishment, stark majesty is lost.

We go back to the desert, that state of blind love and that state of breathtaking majesty. Our love, His majesty. His love, that majesty that pulsates somewhere inside of us. Underneath all the accomplishments. Another anniversary draws close; we hold His hand and are grateful that our marriage feels young.

Torah in the Desert

Why was the Torah given in a desert?  The marriage between G-d and His people: when they became “a singular nation in all the land”, with the children being the guarantors, the blast of the shofar.  Such a wonderful experience should have better taken place amidst lush foliage, brilliant flowers and fair weather.  Why in a naked, harsh land without any food or even water?              

On Rosh Hashanah we read the words of Jeremiah:  “So says the L-rd, ‘I remember the bounty of your youth: Ahavat kallulotaich, the love you had for me when you were a bride, as you followed me into the desert, in a land without life.”            

G-d was not choosing on this day a fair-weather nation.  Not for him a people who will be loyal if and when He provides them with a vineyard and orchard under whose shade to indulge and delve into His Wisdom.  He needed a nation who would not wait for a perfect setting to live the life He desired for them.
He needed a people who would take the life given them and do with it what is needed.            

It is easy to find excuses, even easier to push things off.  Study Torah? Oh, that’s not really for me.  You see, I’m a businessman: You know, I work for a living.  I give my tzedaka.  I do my davening.  But I’m busy! I don’t have time to study.  You wanna see what I have to do yet today?  I won’t be going home before nine o’clock.  And it’s been this way for the last two weeks!            

Scholars, those who are involved with Torah a whole day (the professional Jews), don’t take a back seat when it comes to excuses.  Listen, I need a lunch break! And breakfast break and supper break.  I need to have enough sleep to clear my head and enough fresh air to revive me a little.  Then when I sit down I can really hit the books.               

It’s not unusual to hear yeshiva kids who are studying to become rabbis saying if they find a job with the right pay and conditions, they’ll become rabbis. If not: Hey! You gotta support your family.            
Not with such spirit did we survive an exile as long as the golus.  This was not the inspiration with which Jews in Russia and Poland, just over fifty years ago, covered their faces with their hands and defied, “You will chop off my hands before your scissors touch my beard!”

Ahavat kallulotaich, the love that made us follow Him into a barren desert.  There He provided us with water -- from a rock, He provided us with food -- from Heaven, shelter --clouds, and clothes that kept themselves clean and adjusted to the bearer’s growth.              

There is plenty of logic and statistics to prove the rapid demise of the Jewish people.  And there is plenty of spirit to defy it.  A kapo, a degenerate Jew, a despised collaborator, when commanded to eat a tempting meal on Yom Kippur, said simply, “Jews don’t eat on Yom Kippur,” and faced the consequences without flinching.              

This is Shavuos.  A marriage. A union that extends beyond logic and fills each partner with a love that exceeds the limits of devotion. “Don’t say when I have the time I’ll do it: You may never have the time.”  Or the money, the opportunity, the ability, the wherewithal.  Take the first step, towards Sinai, that is all I’m asking of you, and I will come down off the mountain and lead you to the Chuppa.

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