Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bamidbar: Take a Census--but be careful not to count too closely. It's an Evil Eye, God forbid.


I turn to this week’s Torah portion, the first in the Book of Numbers, Sefer BaMidbar, literally, “In the Wilderness.” It is a relief, after the dry, priestly-purity legislation of Vayikra/Leviticus, to find some narrative leavening the endless Torah laws. God commands Moses to number the people, and here, my hackles rise: census-counting is never a good sign in our Jewish Bible:
Rule One: don’t ever know exactly how much you have of anything; it’s a major kinnehurra (evil eye).

“Dad, how much money do you earn?” I remember asking my father.
“David,” my father would reply, solemnly, “I make enough.”
And leave it at that: Sha! Shtill!
Never question. No answer is also an answer.

My father, who grew into manhood during the Great Depression, was not alone in this attitude of Not Discussing One’s Finances in Public. In traditional congregations even today, when worshipers count to see if they have enough Jews to make a minyan, the prayer quorum, they count, “Nisht ein, nisht tzvei, nisht drei—Not One, Not Two, Not Three….”
The taboo against numbering continues. Some old-country Jews will not clip their nails in order, from thumb to pinky; they must follow an abstruse digital dance to fend off the demons; otherwise, a simple nail-clipping may resemble and symbolize the Chevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, preparing a corpse for its final rest (there is a measure of Counting in the Jewish Last Rites; I have attended, and I know), and may, God forbid, lead to one’s death, God forbid.
 There is a noble irony in belonging to a people who are at once so worldly and over-educated, including doctors, lawyers, and captains of industry, and who yet cherish their superstitions. These pre-Scientific beliefs evolved from an age when Death was always at one’s elbow, and, in the words of Philosopher Mel Brooks, “A splinter could kill ya.”
As for the census, Moses calls upon people-counters from each tribe, and I love the archaic, long-forgotten names of his assistants in this undertaking, names like Shelumiel ben Tsurishadai—“Complete Peace of God, son of the Almighty is my Rock,” and Nachshone ben Aminadav—“Big Snake, son of My People are Generous”—the midrash-legends tell us that this latter worthy was the first to plunge into the Reed Sea at Moses’s command, and that it was for his merit and daring that the waters split, allowing the doubting people to cross, dry-shod, to the other side.
The names sound quaint and curious to us moderns, but the Bible-era listeners must have nudged one another as they heard the Torah-reading centuries ago, smiling, “That was my father’s father’s uncle!” and, “You’re wrong, he married the lady next tent over, I can see her face before me, now,” and other reminiscences.
How sad that no little Jewish boys in temple preschools today bear the names of large snakes or generous people. Instead, we are Jacob’d and Ethan’d to distraction. O for one Tsurishadai Levine, shooting spitballs at the head of Aminadav Negnewitsky, while the Rabbi’s back is turned!
The results of the census are swift and sure, if exaggerated and symbolic: 603,550 males over the age of 21, every man-jack of them capable of wielding sword or spear in defense of the Israelite nation—which is still a Wandering Jewish rabble at this point: Bronze Age herdsmen, albeit monotheistic (if not entirely ethical), and expected to conquer Iron-Age Canaanite farmers living in walled cities surrounded by stone battlements, three-feet-thick—not unlike bringing a popgun to a fortress.
Yes, it was hard then to be a Jew, terribly hard, even when you were being led by the thunderous, cloud-commanding Desert God, El-Shaddai Himself. Assailed by doubts and fears of the future, the dubious congregation marched on, following their mysterious, invisible Deity, working hard to merely survive in a hostile Wilderness, let alone believe in and follow His Torah. Some things don’t change: the Wilderness may have metamorphosed into the space between your cellphone and your laptop, your hard-taxed Brain and your fingertips (with your Heart and Soul somewhere in between) but it’s just as tough to navigate as it was in those long-remembered Desert Days.
What Jewish, what Spiritual, Deeds have you accomplished today, Fellow Jew, Fellow Human? Are you satisfied with the results? Don’t be: the World, the Universe, remains broken, very broken. You mustn’t ever let yourself become complacent, when there remains Holy Work to be done. You must try harder, just a little bit harder. You will always have another chance, for the rest of your life. Amen!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai: A Slave to the Cellphone, or, Overcoming Technology: The Gift of Shabbat

We Jews have every reason to be proud, since we gifted Shabbat, the Holy Sabbath, to the world. Originally, Shabbatum was a gloomy day the Babylonians invented, sort of a Friday-the-Thirteenth, a bad-luck-day coming each week, during which superstitious pagans would stay at home, scared to go outside, lest something evil befall them. We took that miserable concept, cleaned and polished it up, added a soupcon of sanctity, and invented (with God’s help) the Holy Sabbath, the one day of the week on which all of humankind is commanded to rest.
But observing Shabbat doesn’t mean spending the entire day in bed or lying in a hammock, concentrating on moving as little as possible. No: it means refraining from creating, from causing anything to happen—a formidable challenge in our age, where we live surrounded by more machines than ever.
To what extent do those machines serve us, or we them? How often do you reach for that amazing marvel, your cellphone, that either hangs on your belt-loop like an albatross, or reposes noisily in your pocketbook? I am a member of that formerly-fortunate Baby Boomer Generation who can recall telling our mothers, “Ma, I’ll call you when I get there,” and then, conveniently forgetting to do so.
My poor Nana z’l, who passed away over three decades ago, is still waiting for me to call her up when I get home from visiting her. She lived on the seventeenth floor of our Co-op Apartment Building on Grand St., the Lower East Side of NYC; my family, on the seventh, a short elevator ride away. I would visit her in the evening, once a week. Together, we would enjoy one of her only-slightly-burnt homemade baked apples, lovingly lapped in a sauce of No-Cal Ginger Ale mixed with raisins, topped with a generous dollop of Breakstone’s Tangy-Style Cottage Cheese. This was her diet dessert of choice (she was always on a diet, though she did not have a weight problem), and one of the few things she was able to cook. We would watch “Chiller Theatre” together, on WOR-NYC, Channel 9, holding sofa pillows to hide behind during the scary parts of the movie. I never called. Sorry, Nana (I think that she has forgiven me, up there in Heaven. Grandmas will do that.).
How long has humanity been a slave to technology, or a servant to Work? It actually predates the Creation of Man and Woman: the Midrash, the legends which grew up around the Torah, tells us that, following God’s Creation of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, all the planets were racing about madly; the stars twinkled and flared in their courses; the sun and moon rose and set with punctual regularity. On Planet Earth, all of nature grew, flourished, and died with enormous speed, until the Sovereign of the Universe called out, in Yiddish, of course, “Shoin genik—Enough! Let there be menucha, rest, and oneg, enjoyment—let there be Shabbat!”
In this parsha/Torah reading, we find the concept of the Shabbat raised to an even loftier eminence: the shemita, or Sabbatical year, during which the land was to lie fallow. Laying aside the technical difficulties of observing this mitzvah—it continues to be a challenge for Israeli agriculture—we can admire its original intent: that of allowing even the land to rest on a regular basis. Everything on earth is subject to the mitzvot of God, and enjoys that benefit.
God pledges to shower the Israelites with prosperity, as long as they follow Torah Law and practice justice and mercy with one another. Should they become corrupt and fall away, God will send enemies to attack them, and in the end exile them from their land. And yet, God will not forsake them completely: even in exile, God will never end His sacred covenant with the people of Israel. This is the promise which sustained us through the long centuries of wandering and persecution; it is a holy bond which has lasted until the present day. We pray that it will continue until the Messianic Age, may it come speedily, and soon. Amen!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"The Yeshiva Bais Midrash," or Study Hall, In the Style of Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain (1998)

We was studyin the Masechta, the Tractate about Gittin, Divorce, that is, when the door of the Beis Medrash opened up, and the Rebbe came in. You knew it was the Rebbe from the way he walked. Goddam. He wore his Rebbe hat and his Rebbe coat and his Rebbe shoes that went squeak squeak squeak when they hit that ole linoleum tile floor. He walked in, straight in, past Shimmy and Moishey and me, and we was just studyin.
“It’s the Rebbe,” said Shimmy, and we all stiffened, nervous-like, like a cockroach that gets its tail caught on Rabbi Schappes’s Buick LeSabre, and then you drive into a gas station, and that cockroach is there too, caught in the grillework, dead as your Polish Bubby, and everyone gawkin, and Rabbi Schappes sayin,
“What is it? What’s wrong? I just stopped the car on the East River Drive to fetch me that ole rusty needlenose pliers that I saw on the divider; nobody else wanted it. I didn’t see that air cockroach. He couldn’t help himself. I couldn’t help it. And now, he’s dead. Well, better a cockroach than a Jew.”
That was just like him. I remembered that.  Yes. Two, maybe three years ago, with me in the front seat, Shimmy in the back, and Rabbi Schappes barrelin that LeSabre along, peelin hisself a Hershey Bar with Almonds with just two fingers, and workin that air steerin wheel with his pointer finger and thumb. Wheels squealin and the taxis flyin by, on the Drive. Goin downtown, past Con Ed on 14th Street. Yes.
We was just lookin at that Rashi about how when a man brings a Get from a country afar off the sea, he should say, “This here Get was written and signed before me.” That is what he should say. And the Rabbis in the Mishnah all agree with that. Yessir.
And Shimmy, he likes to argue, and he says, “Well, what all does that there Tosefose say?”
And Moishe says, “Well, why don’t we wait for the Shiur, the class, and wait to hear what the Rebbe thinks?”
There was a mist blowin through the air, like a mold smell, and off to the side, Little Berel was unwrappin one a them Drake’s Cakes Raisin Cakes, the kind where there’s a cellophane outside, and no matter how you unwrap it, it just goes crinkle crinkle crinkle, botherin the Ammunition Hill out of everybody, until Big Shmuley turned to him, he turned to him just as Berel was putting that there Raisin Cake in his mouth, and Big Shmuley said,
“Did you make Boray Meenay Mezonos on that there Raisin Cake, or She’hakol?”
And Berel he said, “Well, what in the name of Judea and Samaria does that all matter?” and he said it right firm and cross, because Berel is a man likes his Drakes, and he figured that Shmuley could care less about what bracha he makes, he could only care that Berel is eatin more than the size of a k’zayiss, that is, equal to or larger than, an olive in Israel. And he backs Likud, the Right Wing, or would, but he is in no hurry to move to Israel.
“I intend to first learn the entire Shas, Mutty,” he says to me, “and then find me a modest and devout Yiddishe maidel with strong loins to bear a large race of right-wing haredi Talmud scholars, and then I will board the Holy Eagle to move to Israel.”
Still, I know that Berel is blowing natural gas, since he does not date any sort of Jewish woman at all, being modest himself, and shyer than a Sinai gazelle on Mount Seir. But Berel has an inordinate fear of Heaven, and is therefore careful too, and so is quick to pray, not only just one or the other prayer, but both. And he eats that Drake’s Raisin Cake, real fast-like, because he is concerned, greatly concerned, that Shmuley will ask him for a piece. And so he eats it. Very speedily, he gulps it down, and then says the Ahl Ha-Michya, the Prayer for After Eating Foods of Grain, slowly and with great devotion, while Big Berel looks on with hunger and not a little jealousy, not having any Drake’s.
But then, the Rebbe gets to the pulpit, the reading-desk, the shtender, and he shtends there, and he clears his throat, as if he is fixin to talk, to use them right smart fancy words, and all.
And the Rebbe clops on the shtender, I say, he clops, and so we all look up from our Gemaras, and give him our attention. He is standing there, the Rebbe, a man not given to long speeches, except he must give one now, being that he is a man, and a Jew, and a rebbe.
“Talmidim,” he begins, “Students, we must prepare to take the schoolwide Chumash Exam, which will be held, Please G-d, on Thursday in three weeks.”
And Moishey closes his Gemara, right gently, because he does not wish to show that he is not paying attention, since bitul z’man, that is, wasting time, is a large sin, and he kisses the Gemara Gittin right on the space between the two letters Gimmel, where it says that the book contains a selection of both Rishonim and Achronim, that is, both early and later Commentators.
And Moishey says to me, low voice, like sotto voce,
“Why is that owlheaded rebbe of ours setting us up for certain failure, by consenting to a schoolwise Chumash exam, when it is well-known that the bulk of the school’s efforts are to make us Talmud scholars? How am I to face my father and mother, and apprise them of this news?”
And I say, “Define your terms, you long-thumbed son-of-an-accountant. What is the meaning of ‘apprise’?”
And Moishey rolls his Juicy Fruit Gum around gently in his mouth, and takes it out, holding it gently between thumb and forefinger of his left, not his right, hand, and looks at it, studying-like, and puts it carefully under the reading desk. And he says the Beracha Achrona, which is the blessing following the Eating of Food, although I disagree, since I doubt whether gum counts as food, and was not known in the days of the Talmud, and certainly not to Moshe Rabeinu.
And Shimmey puts in his two shekels, and he says to Moishey, by way of supporting my argumentative statement, which I offer in the Spirit of Torah,
“Can you honestly say that Juicy Fruit gives you the same sugar rush that Doublemint supplies, you Talmud-pondering, Wall-davening, Jerusalem-visiting Yeshiva Bochur?”
And the Rebbe says, “Would the Boys at that table care to give out the Siddurim? It’s time for us to daven. I wish for all to clear their desks, and we will straighten our yarmulkehs, and take some of our given time, while we are breathing in and out here amid the books and dust and chaff of this well-appointed and heavily-endowed and be-memorial-plaqued room of study, and offer up extensive supplications to the G-d Who made heaven and earth.”
And I say to my Chavruta, with whom I have sneaked many a schnapps on several Shabbosim,
“It is going to be a long davening. It is Thursday, which will include a Torah Reading. And I am to straighten my boots, rise in my place, and offer the chanting of the Sacred Scrolls.”
“Why, you head-covered son-of-the-Yeshiva,” says Moishe, popping a new piece of gum into his mouth, pulling at his top lip and not offering us any, while the echoes of “Amen” ring and reverberate off the muddy-painted walls of the Bais Medrash, and the davening begins.
I reach for my tefillin, and keep a shaded eye on the boys at the next table. They are sitting in peace and tranquility, while I stealthily grope for the cucumber in my lunchbag, hoping to sneak a bit of vegetable refreshment before the davening commences, in this room with six windows and two squeaking doors, swinging on their hinges like the Judgment of a Questioning and Judgmental God.
“Baruch atah Adon-i….” begins Berel on the Birchos HaShachar, the Blessings of the Morning.
We rise up, shake ourselves like sapient sutlers of the Lord, and respond, Amen v’amen….

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Group Session: Down the Rabbit Hole; or, Go Analyze, Alice

The Group Session: Down the Rabbit Hole

By David Hartley Mark

The White Rabbit leaned back, blinked his enormous pink eyes—
They really are very large, and red-rimmed; he doesn’t get much sleep, thought Alice—
reached into his waistcoat, which was hound’s-tooth plaid, black-and-white-patterned, with side-flapped pockets from which the buttons had, long ago, gone missing—and pulled out an enormous pocket-watch, bright-and-shiny—
Possibly the only thing about him that’s not gone to seed, thought Alice,
and caught herself up short:
Now, Alice my Girl, there’s no point in your thinking the worst about your clients—
At which point, to break herself of the habit of too much inner thought, she leaned forward, took hold of her ceramic table-lighter, the one she had gotten as a gift from Disraeli, and flicked it open; she touched the tip of it to her Players cigarette—
“I’m always late,” moaned the Rabbit, softly.
“Come again?” asked Alice, waving away the clouds of pungent smoke that billowed out the corners of her mouth.
“Late,” repeated the Rabbit, “always. Can’t help it. Can’t be helped.”
“Unless you want to help it,” said Alice, taking another pungent puff, “that is, really want to want to change.”
The Rabbit said nothing; he began to rock back-and-forth, back-and-forth, staring at the white-bright-face of the watch—it had big gold hands, too—moaning softly,
Late Late Late I’m always late—why? O woe woe woe….
“O be quiet, can’t you?” came another voice.
Alice fanned away the smoke—it was not only from her cigarette—
I really should quit, but there is always so much much tension in here; it does relax me, and Mr. de Quincey told me it was better than that Other Stuff, that Stuff that he smokes—
She realized that it was the Caterpillar and his hookah; he had set up his mushroom—that is, his traveling mushroom, the one he took on afternoons visits, where he would crawl around Wonderland, armed with his hookah and a small pocketful of cartes des visites; he would tap on whatsoever house he found himself near, and, when the door was opened, whether by flower, fish, fauna, or fellow creature, he would open with his tag line:
“You. Who are You?”
“I am Dr. Alice Liddell, Psy.D., student of both Drs. Freud and Jung,” said Alice, slowly but firmly, “I have my undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Oxford, from the Rev. Dodgson, and my doctorate from Dr. Freud, at the University of Berlin.”
The Caterpillar took the hookah-stem from his mouth, the corners of which were turned down, decisively, firmly, conclusively, inarguably. He shook his leonine head—that is, if a Gigantic Bug could be said to look Leonine. Puff, Puff, Puff. The air was growing opaque. It was becoming hard to breathe. Alice, doing her part (We all do Our Part; we’re British), stubbed out her cigarette; it was almost out, anyway.
“You,” he repeated, slowly, sonorously, “Who. Are. You?”
From the corner of her eye, Alice could see the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse taking their seats, to the left (never the Right) of the White Queen. Out in the corridor, she heard the Duchess sneezing, and the Baby—a pig, really—oinking. Alice groped in her reticule for another cigarette.
The air was grey-brown-black and impenetrable, like a London Fog on an overcast day, although the sunlight was brightly-lit in the room, and warm, and uncomfortably close.
“You. Who are you?” asked the Caterpillar, again.
“What time is it, Rabbit?” asked Alice of the White Rabbit, who appeared to have settled—he wasn’t mumbling quite so loudly, anymore.
“Time? What time?” murmured the Rabbit, subdued, “It’s—oh—it’s—I have it!—fourteen-forty o’clock.”
It was going to be a long session.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tazria-Metzora--Drs. King & Heschel z'l Discuss Brotherhood in Heaven


            Call me Veekoochee-el—that is a mouthful, for you Mortals, but it is just a whisper in Heaven, where I dwell. I am the Angel of Gossip, the one who gathers all manner of Slander, Loose Talk, Dust-of-Gossip, Vile Backbiting, and other Misuse of the Divine Power of Speech among you Humans—I pack it into my Sack of Thorns (no one can lift it, except me), and haul it before the Throne of Judgment. It is always very Heavy—Gossip is, apparently, the most popular of Sins, heavily indulged in by All—from Princes and Potentates, to the most miserable of Paupers.
            “What’s wrong with a little Gossip?” you ask, and I say, Plenty. There is Gossip enow in the World today; Deadly Gossip. Gossip about Color, and Race, and Religion; Vile Talk about Nationality, Who’s Right, Who’s Wrong. People die for Gossip. You call it Idle Talk; I, and the Most-Holy-One, call it Racism.
            “What shall we do about it?” called out God, the Most High, to His Coming-of-Angels, and I, being the Archangel-in-Charge of Gossip, was empowered to Summon a Council. Not of Angels; no. That would never do; we are Pure, formed of Heavenly Aether, not given to Slandering or Backbiting One Another—what would that serve, since we own nothing, and all that we endeavor, is to serve God with all our Being?
I therefore called upon two of the Mightiest Beings who, during their all-too-brief Sojourn upon the Earth, worked mightily to fight, overcome, and diminish that most-vile Sin, that of Racism: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of Memories Blessed; one Christian, one Jew. Two Friends, Writers, Poets, Teachers, and Saints.
Here is the Report of their Meeting. Read it well, and from it, may you learn, as did we Angels. Oh, and May God love you all:

MLK: I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word. …People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other.
AJH: We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. … The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. …There is immense silent agony in the world, and the task of man is to be a voice for the plundered poor, to prevent the desecration of the soul and the violation of our dream of honesty.The more deeply immersed I become in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it becomes clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
MLK: We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

AJH: The sense of meaning is not born in ease and sloth. It comes after bitter trials and disappointments…. It is the marrow from the bone. There is no manna in our wilderness.Thought is not bred apart from experience or from inner surroundings. Thinking is living, and no thought is bred in an isolated cell in the brain. No thought is an island.Ultimately, there is no power to narcissistic, self-indulgent thinking. Authentic thinking originates with an encounter with the world. Human being is both being in the world and living in the world. Living involves responsible understanding of one's role in relation to all other beings.

MLK: I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream—a dream yet unfulfilled. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away, and that in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

--And I, the Angel of Debate, Disagreement, and Ultimate Reconciliation among you Human Beings, was happy to sit between these two Spiritual Immortals, listening and nodding as they gave their Impassioned and Well-Tempered Counsel to Humanity’s Long-Erring Children, in the Departing Eve of Holocaust Memorial Day.
I beheld there coming another good Counselor, Kohelet the Preacher, he of the eponymous Book, and let him deliver the Closing Words on Brotherhood among Humanity:

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,

    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

How to Remember the Holocaust

How to Remember the Holocaust

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

(Summary of Remarks Delivered at the Holocaust Memorial Service at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach, FL, 4/19/15)

Honorable Mayor, Bishop, Board Members of Temple Sholom, Congregants, and Honored Guests,
Thank you for attending our Holocaust Memorial Service. Our principal speaker, Mr. Morris Dan, is himself a Holocaust Survivor of Auschwitz, and will share with us his experiences. We are also grateful for the participation of the Holocaust Survivors Band, which will play for us later in the program.
We Jews of America, indeed the world, ask ourselves today, “How shall we remember the Holocaust?” Many of us are very concerned that, as the generation of survivors pass away, their descendants and other Americans, indeed people of all nations, will forget this horrific atrocity waged by beasts in human form against innocent human beings. They constantly ask the question, “How shall we remember the Holocaust?”
As a rabbi, as a teacher, I constantly ask myself this question. I teach Judaism on Shabbat and in the evenings, here at Temple Sholom, and I teach college English during the week. I am greatly concerned about it.
I am concerned, because we live in a world where my Black students live in danger, where a person of color in this country is twenty-one times more likely to be shot to death while still in his teenage years, than a white teenager. And I remember the Holocaust by working for the safety of my young students who happen to be Black.
I am concerned, and I remember the Holocaust, by remembering that there are countries in this world where it is easier to buy a rifle in the marketplace than a loaf of bread. And I remember the Holocaust by teaching that this country, this great nation of America that we all love so much, is the Number One Arms Dealer to the World, the #1 Merchant of Death, and that we should stop this manufacturing of Death.
And what about us Jewish people? How should we remember the Holocaust? We read the names, and we say the Memorial Prayers. But we do something else, in this congregation, and in all congregations.
Just yesterday, on Shabbat, we celebrated the 64th Anniversary of two longtime members of this congregation, who were choosing to celebrate their long marriage, their long love affair with one another, with us. We called them and their relatives and friends up to the Torah. We celebrate Jewish Life.That is how we choose to remember the Holocaust.
And there were two little boys here in the congregation, just yesterday. Two little boys, cousins of the family, eight and ten years old. I did not know them, but I learned that they are attending Hebrew School in their own congregation, as Jewish Children ought to do, and have done, for years. And I went up to those two little boys during the Kiddush celebration, with everyone sitting down and eating the delicious kosher deli that the family had provided. And I asked those two little boys,
“What holiday did we just finish celebrating?”
And those boys, without hesitation, answered, “Pesach.”
And I asked them, “And what holiday is coming up next?”
And they told me, sure as could be, “Shavuot.”
That’s how we remember the Holocaust.
And just this past week, sitting there in my office, I listened to a beautiful young girl sitting and singing her haftorah, a young girl I am tutoring for her bat mitzvah. And I tell you, when a Jewish child sings her haftorah in a clear and pure voice, the Lord God Himself, ‘way up there in Heaven, smiles, and an angel is born from that smile.
And when a Jewish child sings in Hebrew, straight out of the Book of the Prophet Zechariah, the Prophet of Remembering, as it happened, “Sing and Rejoice, O’ Daughter of Zion,” that’s how we remember the Holocaust.
And I think about another girl, halfway around the world, in a country called Pakistan, a young girl who was born there, named Malala. And she’s just about the same age, maybe a little bit older, as Anne Frank was when she died. And Malala had a dream—she had the dream that girls should be allowed to go to school, and learn to read. There were evil men in her town, and they didn’t agree, and they tried to kill her; they shot her. But she lived, and she is still working for that dream.
And I support Malala. That is also how we remember the Holocaust.
And as I speak to you from this pulpit, here in God’s Holy House, somewhere on this earth, a Jewish baby is being born. And more than that: other babies are being born.
If you have hope—if you work for the Good, and the Light, and what is right and just and correct and proper in this world—then, you, too, are remembering the Holocaust.
Thank you, and God bless you all.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Shemini: The Testimony of Tsilya, Wife of Aaron: "Why Did G-d Kill My Boys?"

I am Tsilya, daughter of Yitzhar, wife of Aaron, the High Priest, mother of my Lost Boys, Nadav and Avihu. You will not read my name in the Great Scroll of the Teaching; no; my name has been lost in darkness, for I spent my days mourning for my boys, my sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died blamelessly, for their mistake before the Most High.
That day, the Great Day of Coronation and Dedication of the Altar through Sacrifice, had begun so favorably, so full of promise for the future—I was exhausted, as usual, but running all about, as I had to, caring for our children; we had many—not just the four boys, but our three daughters; you will not read of them. Girls do not count; why should they? They cannot learn the Laws of the Hidden One, He Who Dwells in Smoke and Thunder. We women-folk are more quietly learned; we know the ways of the Earth, the Old Goddess of Grains, and Fruits, and the Cycles of Seasons. We are the ones who cook, and bake, and sew; we bring Life to Being. We are kept from the Learning of the Scrolls, but we have our own ways of Learning.
As I said… it began in triumph. My boys, my boys—they were anxious, willing to serve G-d; they were nervous. Their father Aaron had instructed them; Moses, their uncle, had instructed them; so many details! So many ingredients! This, to the Holy Incense; That, to the Holy Oil; this way, how to examine the carcass of a Beast to judge it fit for a sacrifice….
They were overwhelmed. I had laid out all of their garments, so carefully, so lovingly, the night before; I, their mother; who should know better than I, who had raised them? But, so quick-and-hurried are the Ways of Men, and of Priests, and of Levites, that they yanked at their robes, and pulled at their holy shirts (which might have torn, had I not thought beforehand, and used the extra-strong Thread)—
And were out the door, before I could organize my three, beautiful Daughters, and bring them along, too—
In hopes that, perhaps they, too, might gain a fraction, just a small, tiny portion of the Glory thereunto Pertaining to their Famous Brothers—I hurried them along, but they were hard to hurry—I heard the silver horns sounding a sennet, and the more earthy tones of the shofarote, the rams’ horns, summoning the People, in the distance, and the assembled multitudes of the Israelite Tribes cheering—but, as I (finally) snatched up my youngest, my sweet Arela, who was laughing, and turning her head away from her Mother’s kisses, I rushed for the door of the tent—
But there, there he stood: my Husband. Where was his Splendor? His Golden Headband, with its Golden Words, “Holiness to the Lord”? Instead, he stood there, his royal, priestly robes bedraggled, torn, and trembling. He did not—look at me. I gave Arella to her sister and approached him, slowly; he looked—strange.
“How is it with you, My Husband, My Lord?” I asked him.
He stood, stock-still. I took him by his priestly shoulders and shook him:
“Aaron! It is I, Tsilya, your Wife and Helpmeet-Partner, who speaks to you!”
He blinked, and looked down at me—and rasped; a throaty noise came from his lips, as if he had been drained of all juice in his body; as if he had become a piece of wood himself, like those piney chips he burns atop the Altar-Flame. He wiped a sooty hand across his lips, opened his mouth, and—
“Dead,” he croaked.
“Dead cows? Dead goats?” I asked.
“No. Dead—“ he rasped.
I realized. Slowly. But did not wish to.
“Aaron,” I said, and the words stuck in my throat, “Aaron. Where are my boys? Where are Nadav and Avihu? And Elazar and Itamar, my younger sons?”
“Nadav and Avihu,” he muttered, more to himself than to me, “are struck down—by the Hand of the Invisible One. They—“
Each word of his echoed in my ears, and tore a hole into my Mother’s heart. Nadav? Avihu? Dead? But I just saw them leave; they were going—were going—
“How? Why?” I said.
“They made a mistake,” he said, “Strange fire. I cannot tell.”
“I saw it happen,” came a voice, a strong, deep one. I looked, and saw Moses—my brother-in-law, the Spokesman for our G-d—his G-d, at least. No more mine.
“It was harsh, but justified,” he said to me—Moses, that is—“Your boys were wrong. They did not follow my—that is, G-d’s—instructions. All must be done, correctly, or G-d knows what might happen.”
“G-d knows,” I said, and felt the strength leave my legs, so that I slumped to the floor of the tent, there in the dust before my husband my lord and his brother the Spokesman, “G-d may know, but I—but I….” I lay there, and wept. The men left, as men do.
…And that is why I left the Camp, and stay in this tent, this Black Goatskin Tent, outside the Camp Boundaries. I mourn; I pile dust upon my head; no one comes to visit me, but—Bless Her! Miriam. She is my solace. My brother Korach has also been by.
“There is no Justice, and no Judge,” he whispers, through the closed tent door, and, “You will be avenged, my Shadow, my Sister, my Tsilya.”
Miriam does not agree. She weeps without; I weep within. We mourn my Boys together.
I still do not know exactly what they did wrong.
They were so young. Why must the Young die on the Instructions of the Old?
O G-d! Help me to return to my People; help me to believe, again….