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Can You Have Too Much Good?

Friday, 2 August, 2013 - 2:58 am

One of the more exotic and less tempting places Chabad brought me was a Jewish old-age home in Morocco.  It didn't smell pleasant: not by old-age-home standards, not by third-world standards.  A few of the residents were neither senile nor blind.  Some even acknowledged us when we lit the Chanukah menorah.  

A tiny old lady introduced herself in flawless, elegantly accented English as Madame Lieberman.  Hearing English anywhere in Casablanca outside of the Hyatt is enough to floor you.  In the old-age home, where few of the residents even speak French, it is enough to think the fumes are getting to me.  I asked her where she was from. 

"Guess!" she answered mischievously, a happy schoolgirl for the moment.  I gave up and she answered 'Vienna' in a voice kids use when you ask them what's their favorite ice cream. 

Ah, so you speak Yiddish, I offered.  

"Zicher! alle poilishe yidden hobben geredt Yiddish."  
Of course, all Polish Jews spoke Yiddish.  
So, you're a Polish Jew, I asked.  
I'm neither Polish nor a Jew, she answered in flawless Mama Loshon. 
Ich bin a krist: I'm a Christian.

This, in a sparse, smelly room inside a whitewashed courtyard, under the turquoise sky of a purely Arabic country.  I wasn't sure what was getting to me.

She now had her audience, she told her story: 

Her husband was a Jew. Vienna was a liberal city where Jew and Christian commingled and many young people intermarried.  
"Ach!  Ich zeh du bisht nispoel! Trogst doch a bord!"  

Her group would protest noisily in front of the Nazi Party headquarters: when Hitler rolled in they were sent to prison.  I lost the historical flow from that point but they were transferred later to prison in Vichy France and from there to the French colony of Morocco, to a concentration camp, but not a real concentration camp, she assured me: Bei unz is geven azoi fill lukses mir hoben afiloo gemacht a hunger strike! 
Our concentration camp was so luxurious we even made a hunger strike!

That last line of hers came back to me as I read the parsha.  

Think us for a minute, think America, think 2013.  Think things that we have in the house: bathroom scales, food scales, fridge magnets with jokes about diets, mugs declaring chocolate the fifth food group.  Think Weight Watchers, diet pills, antacids, laxatives, stomach staples, tummy tucks. 

Think of all the measures we take to combat excess: not excess of bad things, excess of good things, like food.  We have too much good in this world. More people are suffering from overeating than under eating.  (Starving Africa is largely politically induced.) 

How much is spent on the consequence of digging in?  
When do we stop bellying up to the smorgasbord and just say "Thanks, I have enough."  

For Hashem your G-d will bless you. Parsha after parsha the words are kept simple; when you will be satisfied, you shall thank He who provides.  
Thus the tradition that extols grace after meals above grace before meals.  

This parsha alludes to more.  When the place (and THE place in Torah refers to the Temple Mount) is far from you, and difficult to for you to carry your yearly offerings, because Hashem has blessed you. 

Having too much of a good thing can make us forget who gave them to us. 
Having too much makes the body sick, and the spirit weak.  
A cow's head is near the ground, in the trough.  Where is ours?  

The cure for the body does not necessarily cure the soul; most diet and fitness do not indicate gratitude as much as they indicate narcissism.  Sensitivity to matters beyond the Viennese table does not lead unswervingly to good health.  But excess leads to poor health of the body and of the soul.  And declining another helping and helping another can converge for good health of body and soul.  

Maybe Madame Lieberman had it right.  Maybe amidst luxury a little hunger strike would do us all well.

Madame Lieberman had some more wisdom.  For now, bask in the land of plenty, rejoice in the land of opportunity, the land of plenty opportunity to choose what not to eat.

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