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For Your Shabbat Table

Nourishing a Nation

A dill pickle is good.
Pistachio ice cream is good.
Together, they are not good.
Good cooking means combining food properly.
Egg and onion is good -- two foods that complement each other.
Ginger and dates – aha! now that’s food.
Combining flavors that are not just different but are opposites, has each flavor play on the other, tantalizing each other's strengths and subtleties until a new and dynamic flavor burst forth.

When the Rebbe had a heart attack – it was Simchas Torah, the happiest night of the year with vigorous, near-riotous dancing until late at night – and the heart attack was sudden and severe – the Chassidim in his shul danced. And cried. Danced and cried.
 
Mourning means feeling loss. And it is a mitzvah to mourn the lost Bet Hamikdash. It is a mitzvah to mourn the loss of the just – this Shabbat is the Yahrtzeit of Aaron, Moses’s brother and this Shabbos begins the yearly nine-day mourning for the Bet Hamikdash, Jerusalem’s building where heaven met earth. 
 
The mitzvah of mourning largely translates into refraining, from weddings, haircuts, swimming, new clothes. It means feeling loss – not so much doing something as much as not doing anything.
 
There is also the mitzvah of continuance. Learning the life and thoughts of Aaron and making them your own. Iterating that his life was one of spirit and that if we continue his spirit than he lives now as much as he did in his lifetime. Studying the layout and function of the Bet Hamikdash, that were it to be rebuilt tomorrow, we could become its tour guides. Both are active defiance of the physical loss, the opposite of mourning.
 
And both are the enigma of Jewish response. Remembering and ignoring. Remembering the loss to such degree that we never accept it. Ignoring the loss like it never happened because that is the only way to ensure that we survive and that the loss does not endure.
 
It is a poignant paradox. Counterintuitively, they play on each other.  In yeder Yiddishe simcha is faran a trer, in every Yiddish joy is a tear. Not letting go. Not getting lost in memory. It pulls and pushes yins and yangs. And with it, a nation is nourished.

Don’t Psychoanalyze!

On the plane back to America, I was sitting next to a psychologist who mentioned to me how important it is for them to never psychoanalyze family members. One of the reasons: it’s not fair. Of course Jews were psychoanalyzing way before Sigmund invited people to lie on his couch, we just had no name for it.

For non-professional a greater danger is pseudo-analysis. “Oh, she always does that, she’s so compulsive.” “There he goes again with his bi-polar.” Worse: “The reason she always helps is because she’s eager to please, it’s her low self-esteem.” “You know why he gives so much Tzedakah, he needs to see his name on a building: typical megalomaniac!”
 
Says who? Is it that simple to know everything going on in someone else’s head? Are you always that accurate with what’s happening in your own head? Secondly, what difference does it make? A good act with bad intentions beats a bad act with good intentions -- and the pavement is a lot smoother.
 
Granted, giving it your best and things not succeeding the way you like is aggravating and unrewarding. We know that. And all G-d asks is that you do your best, the results are in His hands, we accept that. And that no action is ever wasted, good always accumulates, and whether results are immediately recognized or not is immaterial in the long run and from a G-dly, timeless (beyond quantum-physics) perspective redundant. We believe that. But that is not what we’re talking about.
 
Look at it this way: Guy A helps old lady cross street because, the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, she has a wealthy nephew etc. Guy B doesn’t help old lady cross street because the TV crew is filming, she has a big will, wealthy nephew and how dare you think he’s so shallow!! See, bottom line is, the lady needs help; your yin-yang harmony don’t do much. As the Kabala puts it: Love and awe are what make a mitzvah soar. A mitzvah without love and awe is a bird without wings. Love and awe without a mitzvah is wings without a bird. 
 
Okay, so action is it. But, can intentions be improved, sublimated, sanctified? Well, now you’re getting serious. But if your not just doing it, then you’re seriously not getting it.
 
The Parsha? When Pinchas acted decisively he was ridiculed because his grandfather, a pantheistic priest, had done similar: a plus-c’est-change chip off the old block in different circumstance. No, the Parsha begins, he did good, I alone know the inner workings of man, judge him primarily by what he does and unless you’re in the business, your couch is for people to sit on, and if your blessed with it, for overflow company to sleep on.
 
 
 

A Nation Dwells Alone

Are you a statistics person? Do you remember the numbers you read; can you retain and when necessary retrieve them? Or are you more the graphics type that relates to visuals of pies and colored blocks and zigzaggy lines to make a point? I like anecdotes, little stories that (as someone once put memorably) when you add them up, you have data.

No matter, you’ve seen or heard something like this before: Israel is .000001% of the earth’s land mass. Israel (Jews) amount to point oh-oh-oh oy-vey of the world population. 45% of the United Nations’ condemnations in the last century have been directed to Israel.
 
I know a woman who was raised in an activist Zionist home in the thirties and forties. She tells of how weekly, sometimes nightly, there were meetings for the cause that lasted well into the night. She tells me of how her father stood there the day the Israeli flag was raised for the first time at the UN, and how he cried.
 
That was the thought then, we would finally “take our rightful place amongst the family of nations”. What happened?
 
America has changed somewhat, and with it the world. Homogeny is no longer the ideal; particularism is no longer the pariah. So it is hard for us to put ourselves in their place, in that time, after the events of that decade.
 
“We are different, but we are proud of that difference too. I just paraphrased a young teenage girl writing in her diary. In between writing of her fights with her big sister and her discovery of the boy next door she charmingly meanders into what it means to her to be a Jew. She was later murdered for being a Jew, but the words Anne Frank penned in hiding illuminate a clarity that was painful then and wanted to be ignored.
 
Holocaust history (often two paragraphs of a school textbook) read: “Six million Jews were killed, as were Gypsies, artists, Poles, Communists” …There was an unspoken comfort in that – not alone were we singled out.
But of course we are singled out, even after the ovens of Osweicim are cold. Those UN numbers don’t make us comfortable.
 
Am levadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone,
uvagoyim lo yetchasav, and in the nations they are not reckoned.
 
A soothsayer (ancient word meaning lead editorialist) was hired to curse the Jews (cursed being an archaic word for denounce) but instead his words, recounted in this week’s parsha, emerged as a power of goodness.
 
The nation dwelleth alone and this tiny nation (more a family in world proportions) bore the civilizations of Christianity and Islam – nearly three billion people – a numerical absurdity when you think of it.
 
But think about it; had the family ceased to be a people apart in their first millennia of existence, there would have been neither Christianity nor Islam. The course of history has been played only because of this family’s particularism.
 
Destiny is history without hindsight. From a timeless perspective, destiny is as compelling as history. And what is eminently clear from the UN: the world is looking at us. Historically, that is the logical thing for them to do. But it perplexes the Jew. “Alone we feel very ordinary” said one after the ’67 war, “just a mess of mortgage payments, bills and errands, but together great things seem to happen through us and around us.”
 
Am levadad yishkon, a nation dwells alone. In ways we can’t always appreciate that dwelling is a benefit to us and to the world. History attests to that, even as it does not explain it. May destiny do that for us, and until then may we do our jobs.
   
 

The Call of the Hero

Have you ever heard of Reb Mendel?  He smuggled Jews out of the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two.  The Communists gave him fifteen years in the Siberian gulags. 

Ever heard of Mume Sorah? She did the same, but they never bothered sending her away.  For decades her family never knew her yartzeit; they still don’t know where, if anywhere, the Communists buried her.

Heard of the mother who backed out of the driveway and pinned her toddler under the rear wheel? She lifted the car by herself and saved her son.

When we ask heroes where they got the strength to do incredible things, they give lousy answers.  Inevitably, their answer is “I had to do it,’ or to put it differently, they couldn’t not do it.  It’s not just modesty that makes them squirm when looking for answers, it is the almost-awkward simplicity.  For, regardless of their level of articulation they cannot come up with any good reason for why they did what they did.

Reasons are powerful motives for doing things.  Logic is compelling. But logic is in the head, not the guts.  So logic compels our minds to move.  A mother’s love is not in the head; therefore all of her moves. Even parts of her she never knew she has, moves to free her baby in danger.  She can’t put it into words because there are no words in the gut.  There is a place so profound that it cannot be made shallow with talk.

And there, right there where the deepest (no, you can’t really even subjugate them to the word) emotions reside, there the Jew has nothing but a visceral connection to G-d. Not a staid, progressive links-in-a-chain connection, but a reflexive, instinctive metal-to-magnet connection. You can’t feel it and you could live a life without ever knowing it was inside of you.  Because like heroes, it doesn’t look to present itself.  But if the moment calls for it, the response is automatic and Jewish.  (Think of sworn atheists that when it came down to it they gave their lives rather than surrender their identity, Or the Jew-in-name-only who when things were counting on him came through.)  Why? I just couldn’t do anything else.  

We have mitzvahs that we like.  Family Seders with favorite recipes; Chanukah songs and latkes; Purim plays and Sukkah parties.  A melody that lifts you to your feet, a Talmudic insight that dazzles in its elegant simplicity, a Chassidic story that soothes with its empathy. They each relate to a different aspect of our personality and strengthen it Jewishly. But all these precious experiences, for all the growth they give us, do not touch our kishkes .  Only the aspect of a mitzvah which is beyond our intellectual grasp and not within our emotional embrace can resonate so deeply. These mitzvahs are called chukim, and it is with these mitzvahs that our parsha begins.

 

34th ST. BETWEEN FIFTH AND SEVENTH

Walking down Thirty-Fourth Street you see the camera-clad map-wielding tourists heading towards the entranceway of the Empire State Building.   They stop and look up, they lean back, lean all the way back until just before they loose balance, and they start clicking pictures – of a wide, wide wall.

The more self-conscious, the more sophisticated blush when the passing New Yorkers suppress a sly grin.   It is only once the tourist gets to Seventh Avenue that they gain any perspective of this magnificent, elegant landmark soaring above an already impressive skyline -- and how it is head and shoulders above Spokane.

Was the Rebbe a rabbi? Well yes, but no. Forget it, I’m not going to be able to explain what the Rebbe was, what the Rebbe is. It is now what, twenty five years already since his passing, and I don’t see any perspective.   I see legacy; newlyweds who never even spoke with the Rebbe that are chopping at the bit to do his work even before they’ve unpacked the wedding gifts.   

“Look into the eyes of the one who has gazed upon the Rebbe!” the shtetl Jews would declare.   Look at the lucky one who had made the trip-- by foot usually, by horse and buggy if they possessed what was considered wealth – to spend a Rosh Hashanah, a Succos, with the Rebbe.  Perspective?

I see that his idea -- which raised more eyebrows than interest fifty years ago -- is now considered normative Jewish experience; Jewish children will be more inspired than their parents’ generation: tradition for a generation without memory. When I came to Rancho Mirage a kind soul suggested that we’ll be getting lots of calls for people who want to say kaddish in a traditional shul: like the one their parents frequented.   Once in a long while we get such a call. Regularly, just ten minutes ago in fact, we get a call for help with getting kosher food: their grandchildren are visiting.

So if I can’t give any perspective on the Rebbe why do I write of him on his yartzeit?  For the exercise: the mere exercise will allow a place for the perspective to develop -- and will show the void of having no perspective.  Lots of people who take their given expertise very seriously predicted what would happen to Chabad once the Rebbe would pass on, especially the youth. None that I know of spoke of a legacy which becomes more dynamic, not less.  I would not have thought it.    

Many of these couples are not fully aware of it, but they are not the first.   It was their grandparents’ generation that was arrested and served in Siberia as Jews. In the blank next to the word “crime:” was written the word that sentenced them: Schneersonist.  Most of these Schneersonists had never seen the Rebbe then; those who did not survive, never met the Rebbe now.  The Bolsheviks meant Schneersonist pejoratively.   

President Dubya on his trip to Russia-former Soviet Union-CIS-or whatever, spent forty minutes longer than planned in a shul where Shneersonists were arrested, where one of those newlyweds had come back to -- can I say it without sounding hackneyed? -- breathe Jewish life into the embers of the Jewish spirit.

No, no this is not perspective, this is just a wide, wide wall. Perspective you want?  Keep walking.

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