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Mrs. Sandviches

Thursday, 23 March, 2017 - 8:50 pm

My grandmother came to America -- from Russia with a four-year stopover in Israel -- around 1930.  She, with her husband and two infant boys, settled in a Jewish neighborhood in New Jersey.  The older boys in the neighborhood welcomed them by snatching their yarmulkes off their heads.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was visiting America around that time.  His death sentence had only recently been commuted to life in internal exile, and shortly thereafter he was released/deported from Workers’ Paradise.  In America Jews lined up to seek his counsel, his blessing.

My grandmother came into his room: her two-year old on her arm, her three-year old holding her other hand.  She saw the Rebbe’s face and burst into tears: how will I raise children in such a hard land.

The Rebbe smiled so wide he began laughing; she thought at her and was insulted.  It is a hard land, he conceded, growing serious, but in this land you will raise gutte yiddisher chassidishe kinder.

My grandmother lived long enough that her mind was no longer encumbered by recent memory: she told this story with its full emotion and ten minutes later she told it again, not missing the slightest detail, not missing the slightest emotion.

She would end each telling with:  But I did not let that blessing sit, I put it to full work!

I don’t think she ever lost her initial enthusiasm.  I think if she had she would never have been the person she was.   (When she joined her Americanized family for picnics she brought along sandwiches to adhere to kosher.  They nicknamed her Mrs. Sandviches.  She told them she works hard to understand them, why don’t they work to understand her?  The teasing stopped.)

For two parshas the Torah told us the details of the Mishkan, the first shul: the sockets of the walls, the decorative cups of the menorah, the seams of the clothing.  Now for two parshas the Torah tells us that it was all fulfilled.  The exhaustive repetition begs explanation until we notice two words, ‘nediv libo’ describing the people who gave for the Mishkan ‘that their heart was full of giving’.

The future is by definition daunting, your personal future and your people’s.  How do you get from divine concept to empirical reality?  For that you need passion, a heart full of giving.  A passion that never wavers and burns bright as the first time it was lit.  By a face smiling so wide it looked like he is laughing.

Maybe, just maybe he was.  Maybe he saw something beyond the daunt of the future.  Maybe it filled him with a satisfaction and vindication that he could not, would not, did not want to contain.  If I knew for certain I would be a Rebbe.

This I know.  My grandmother lived with whatever it was that he gave her.  Without meaning to sound coarse, but realizing I do, I am grateful that her – can I call it a selective memory? -- gave me a glimpse of something burning that was never extinguished, consuming but never consumed. 

She built in America what architects of the land said could not be supported.  But then, looking at blueprints, it can be hard to see passion.

We will read these parshas for the next two weeks.  We will think they are redundant.  We will remember that moving from heaven to earth – bringing heaven to earth – demands a passion of the heart that allows for no redundancy.  We will repeat it with a passion that has not abated.

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