Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Rabbi's Thoughts About the Holocaust, April, 2017

Thoughts About the Holocaust, 2017

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark, M.A., M.Phil.

            I first became aware of the Holocaust at the age of eleven, when I read Leon Uris’s “Exodus.” His descriptions both enticed me and gave me nightmares. (I have since found out that some were apocryphal.) Although two survivors—Clara and Anatole—lived down the hall of our building from our apartment, and I played with their son Paul, I knew nothing about this massive blot on human history. Clara had spent the war going deeper and deeper into Russia, ahead of the Nazi Killing Squads (See “Ordinary People,” about how cops become murderers), and Anatole had fought in the Red Army.

            When my mother said, “They met in the camps,” I thought she was talking about summer camp.

            With a bookworm’s diligence, I searched for anything I could find on the subject. Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” was extremely frightening; I have not re-read it in years. In 1969, I found the late Arthur Morse’s “While Six Million Died,” which began the great discussion-controversy over whether American Jews did enough. I have since read Michael Beschloss’s “The Conquerors,” wherein FDR tells Henry Morgenthau not to press him any more about bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz. (This account is, again, controversial, but I believe its essence contains truth.)

            From the time I was very young, my Hebrew Day School rabbis told us that we all needed to support Israel, because if Hitler ever came to the US, we American Jews would need Israel to rescue us. I taught the same to my Temple Hebrew School students in my three pulpits, for years and years. Finally, one of my little girls (she is all grown up now) went home and told her mother what I said. Her mother told her father, who was a WWII veteran. The grandfather asked,

            “If Hitler comes to America, why can’t we fight him here?”

Ironically, this question has gained more significance over the past number of months.

            When I taught the Holocaust, I always used a video about it, produced by the Wiesenthal Center, featuring the voices of Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles. The last number of years, I also included “Hotel Rwanda,” to show the students that there were, and continue to be, multiple holocausts worldwide. King Leopold and Hitler should share the same hell, I believe.

            Some Jews may disagree, but I continue to believe that our experience throughout history must make us more sensitive to fighting, not only for our own right to survive and thrive, but for that of others. We live on a very small planet. I do not agree with those Jews who shout, “Never Again!” as though it were the only slogan our faith requires. Jewish Survival is not sufficient; all humanity must survive. Even where and when Jews are concerned, we must survive creatively. Even if you are not religious, do something with your Judaism. Read. Study music, theatre, poetry, gastronomy, psychology, history, culture. Make your Judaism many-faceted.

            I grew up in a neighborhood where, if you left your own area, you had a good chance of getting beaten up by members of a different race or ethnic group. I don’t want that to happen anymore.

            Every race, every ethnic group, has had its own holocaust. Because I teach English to students who are mainly African-American and Hispanic, I am truly fortunate. I can “do teshuvah”—make penance—for the way I had to live in my old neighborhood. I want my students to succeed. I will fight for their right to enjoy a share of the American Dream. And I want this country, this world, to truly become a place of freedom and equality for all.


            For me, that is the lesson of the Holocaust. 

Tazria-Metzora: Kevudah, 16-year-old Wife of Eleazar ben Aaron: "You will bear me a Son"

Tazria-Metzora

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I am Kevudah, the “honored one,” wife of Eleazar, Aaron’s third son—but his eldest, now that Nadav and Avihu are dead, killed by the hand of God—the flames of God, I mean. They offered “strange fire”—some mistake in preparing the incense, we believe, as well as guilty of taking a drop of mead prior to the service—we will never know for sure, since the two young men—boys, really—were totally immolated by God’s fire. Just as they were about to wave their incense-pans, too. Horrible, horrible way to die, at the hands of the God we are commanded to love. And Who loves us. I wonder.
           
It is impossible to describe the effect their deaths have had on our family: their mother, my mother-in-law, Elisheva—you will not find her or even her name mentioned in your Holy Torah, Stranger (she is a woman, and therefore unworthy)—has gone into complete isolation in the Black Tent of Isolation, wearing black, totally given up to her mourning, for her first- and second-born sons. Her faith is gone. Her brother-in-law Moses visits her daily to offer her prayer and comfort through the door of the Tent, but she will not see him.
           
Aaron, our High Priest, the dead boys’ father and my father-in-law, goes about his business in silence. He offers sacrifices to the God who slew his sons like cattle. He visits the Israelites who quarrel, and makes peace, or tries to, between them. But the light of happiness is gone from his eyes; it vanished on the day that God took his boys.
           
And what of Eleazar and Itamar, my husband and brother-in-law, the surviving sons and brothers of the Dead Priests Nadav and Avihu? Aaron will not speak to me—why should he talk to a mere woman, and his daughter-in-law, at that?—but Aaron has spoken to Eleazar, and Eleazar passed the message along to me:

            “Father wants us to have a baby. A boy baby. To replace Nadav and Avihu.”

            “How does he know we are able to have a baby?”

            “God has told him. Father Aaron is a prophet. And Uncle Moses has verified it, as well.”

            “What if it’s a girl? I would love a girl….”

            “Kevudah, do you hearken to the voice of me, Eleazar, your husband and master? It will be a boy. A boy, for the Lord God of Hosts has spoken it.”

            And so I was made pregnant. At first, I did not like the feeling: the morning sickness, needing to leave the tent so often, the changes in my body…. But the wise women and the doulas of the tribe came to see me, knowing I was only fifteen, and that this was my first child,  grandchild of the great Aaron, and grand-nephew of Rabbi Moses. For the elders and the rest of the men, I was less a person than a treasure-vessel, but the women handled me tenderly, keeping the men away. Which was fine: men are such idiots where babies are concerned, anyway.

            It was only in the late evenings, when it was hard for me to sleep, and Eleazar would pound and pound at me with questions: “Are you eating enough, Kevvy? What did Sarah-Bracha the Doula say? Did the baby move at all? Can I feel? Do you need another pillow? This son of mine must be prepared to lift enormous cows, sheep, goats! Kevvy, why do you turn away? I am your husband and master! Kevvy, please…!”

            One would have thought he was having the baby, and not me. I began to grow nervous: what if I lost the baby? Would I be banished from the tribe? Would they examine my background, and find that I had an Edomite great-grandmother? O God….

            Which is why I awoke one morning, and, feeling a pimple on my upper lip, and wishing to cover it with face-powder before the midwives arrived—I still had enough self-respect to wish to do that—I saw my face in the polished bronze mirror. And sat, staring.

            My face was covered—and, after ripping open my blouse, I saw my chest and entire body—with white scales. They itched.

            I could only remember the verses that Aaron himself had read to us Israelites in assembly, just the previous week:

            “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the infection…if hair in the infected patch has turned white and the infection appears to be deeper than the skin…it is a leprous infection; when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce [the victim] impure” (Lev. 13:2-3).

            I was in shock: how could this happen to me? How could the same God who killed Nadav and Avihu afflict me, innocent me, as well? Was I guilty for wishing my husband Eleazar to be quiet and let me sleep, last night? Was I stricken for wishing secretly to bear a girl-child? Was I jealous of my mother-in-law Elisheva for shutting herself away from this Man’s World? Was I….

Suddenly, I felt faint; I rose from my sleeping mat, staggered a couple of steps, felt a wetness between my legs…. I stumbled to the door-flap of my tent, and collapsed. I reached down; my hand came away bloody. A teenage boy was passing by, whistling. I waved my bloody hand at him: he startled back, but came over quickly.

“Help you, Missus?” he said, looking worried.

“Yes,” I said, through dry lips, “Go to—to—the Tent of Meeting. Fetch me Aaron—Eleazar—Itamar. Or any of the Levites. Go—go quickly!”

My head was spinning; I passed out.



Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Schnorrer (Beggar), the Rich Man, and the Picket Fence: A Tale

A rich man looked out the window of his house, and saw a schnorrer, a beggar, rubbing his back against his picket fence. The rich man went outside and called to him, "Why are you rubbing your back against my fence? You'll break it!"

The schnorrer said mournfully to him, "Oy-- I'm so itchy! My clothing is filthy. I haven't eaten in a week. I've been sleeping in the streets, and I haven't had a decent bath in a month!"

"Oy-- such a pity-- nebich!" said the rich man, "Come inside, and I will give you a bath, and a good, hot meal."

"Thank you, thank you!" said the schnorrer.

The rich man was as good as his word. He showed the schnorrer the bath, gave him bubble bath and a luxurious towel, and afterwards had his cooks make him a delicious, festive meal. The rich man dressed the schnorrer in old, but still decent, clothing from his own closet. Finally, he gave the schnorrer ten gold coins, and sent him on his way.

As the schnorrer left the rich man's house, two other schnorrers were standing outside on the pavement. Seeing their comrade wearing better clothing and looking clean and cheerful, they asked him what had happened.

Upon hearing his good news, the two schnorrers decided to imitate him. They immediately started to scratch their backs on the picket fence, as he had done.

No sooner had they begun scratching against the fence, than the door of the house opened, and the rich man came running out. But he was angry, this time.

"Go away, you dirty schnorrers!" he cried. "Go and stop rubbing your filthy backs against my picket fence!"

The two schnorrers were surprised.

"Why is it that, when you saw our friend, the first schnorrer, you were so kind to him, but now that you see the two of us, you are driving us away?" they asked.

"Why? Why?" asked the rich man, "it is because I saw that he was only one, and therefore had no one to scratch his back. But you-- you blackguards, there are two of you. Go ahead--scratch each other's backs!"

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu, Sons of Aaron the High Priest

Shemini: The Deaths of Nadav & Avihu, Sons of Aaron

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

“Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them… and he stepped down after offering the burnt offering[s]. Fire came forth from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering. …And all the peole saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces. Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan…and laid incense in it…and offered before the LORD strange fire…and fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; [and they died by the hand of the LORD]” –Lev. 9:22-10:2

I am Avihu, the second son of Aaron, the High Priest; my elder brother is Nadav. This is our Big Day. Aaron—that is, Dad—is to dedicate the Mishkan, the Holy Sanctuary of the Wilderness, the Place where the One True God is to dwell. We will participate in the Ceremony of Dedication, too.

We are very nervous. Dad is—Dad is—can I speak plainly? Dad is not helping. Let me explain. The world knows Dad as the “Lover of Peace and Pursuer of Peace,” as Aaron, the younger brother of Moses, our uncle, the Prophet of God. Together, they freed the slaves from Egypt. Since that time, Moses spends his days speaking to God, while Aaron—that is, Dad—serves God in this Sanctuary, making sacrifices and receiving offerings from the Israelites. He also makes peace among them; he is a judge, as is Moses.

Everyone loves Aaron; how could they not? He is the most patient man on earth—that is, except with us. He has always expected us to be perfect, my brother Nadav and me. It has been especially hard on Nadav, who would rather have been a hunter in the fields. He has trouble paying attention, and often relies on me to explain the complicated laws and practices of sacrificial offerings to him. He himself is very strong, and so we make a good team—except when Dad is around.

Dad is very impatient with us: he yells and stamps his foot, all the time. We wish he would be even half as patient with us, as he is with those who come to him for advice. Then, you should see how he acts! He listens thoughtfully, strokes his beard, nods, and even cries to hear their sad story. He will put a comforting arm around the shoulders of a man, or pat a grieving widow on her hand. He will walk along with them, listening. And then, finally, he will give them his advice. Everyone loves him.

Not so with us.

And now, it is the Dedication Ceremony. After waking us at dawn, Dad goes over and over the million steps of the sacrificial service, until I, even I, who usually can memorize these things without book, am nearly lost in their profundity. I have written notes on dozens of papyrus slips, and hidden them in my priestly robes.

I look at Nadav: he is dead on his feet, and keeps nodding off, despite the strong black tea that the Levite servers keep pressing on us.

I see Dad staring at Nadav. Suddenly, he reaches out, and slaps him full on the face. The clay cup of black tea goes spinning off through the air, skittering into a corner.

            “What is the MATTER with you, Nadav?” he asks, his voice rising to a shout, almost a scream, “don’t you see what this day means to me, to the family? You have to get out there and impress everyone; you have to show the World that you’re the Sons of Aaron.”

            Nadav nods, rubbing his cheek. His tears are starting to flow. “Yes, Dad,” he says, in a small, choked voice.

            “Don’t blubber,” says Dad, “I hate crybabies.”

            “No, Dad,” he says.

“Make the family proud,” says Dad. He snorts at me, turns and stomps out.

“Are you all right, Nadav?” I ask my brother, reaching out to touch his cheek, which is flaming red, but he draws back.

“I’m OK,” he says.

“Make him proud, he means,” I say bitterly, “Why has he always been so tough on us, ever since we were little kids? Remember when Mom made those little ephods and robes for us, and we were playing at being kohanim? She thought we looked adorable, and wanted Shimon the artist to paint our picture, but Dad came along, told her that we looked a mockery of the Holy One’s Sacred Service, and made us take them off.”

“Take them off?” says Nadav, “He almost ripped them off our backs!”

“He made you cry,” I say, “Then, he took them away, and we never saw them again.”

“Well, forget about all that, Avihu. We have to get out there, and—and—and—“

“You see, Nadav? Your stammer is back! I thought you had lost it. This is all Dad’s fault.”

“N-n-no, the stammer’s g-g-gone. Th-th-there, I’ve b-b-beaten it. Wait (taking a bottle from a bookcase in the tent) this will help.”

“What is that?” I ask.

“Just a little hair of the dog, as th-th-they say. A little honey m-m-mead (Taking a drink) to calm my nerves.W-w-want some?”

“Oh, why not?” I take the bottle; my heart is beating like an Egyptian water-clock. I keep seeing Dad in my mind, telling me what a screwup I am. “Here’s to you, Brother Nadav,” I say, and take a small, experimental drink. It makes me feel better, calmer. I believe I feel the Spirit of God entering into me—not the spirit of hatred I bore for my father, before….

Then, we hear a trumpet-blast from outside.

“That’s our cue, Brother,” I say, “but, wait—“

“What, Brother?” asks Nadav. I hear that his stammer is almost completely gone.

“You know we’re not supposed to do the service drunk,” I say.

“But, we’re not drunk!” cries Nadav, “I needed the liquor for my stammer, and you needed it because—because—“

“What? Are you the expert in Jewish Sac—Sacri—Sacrificial Law, now?” I manage to stumble over my words, and we both laugh. “I love you, O My Brother, O My Nadav,” I say, tears springing to my eyes, and we hug.

“No!” shouts Nadav, and the Levites working behind us look up, startled, “We need it, because our father is a—is a—you know.”

“Yes. I do.”

“Well, we should go.”

“Yes.”

“Oh, did you fix the incense the way he told you?” I ask Nadav.

“Sure!” he grins, “Two measures myrrh, three measures cinnamon—“

“No, NO, Nadav—it was the other way round!” I am panicking, now, “Two measures cinnamon, three measures myrrh!”

“Oh, God. Now, we’ve done it. Again. Dad will be angry.”

“Well, it’s his fault, for yelling,” says Nadav, “What shall we do?”

“Nothing to do, but re-mix the bloody stuff,” I say, grimly, “Where are the bottles?”

Frantically, we fumble at the bookcase for the ingredients. Another trumpet-blast.

The People outside the Tent cheer: “Sacrifice to the LORD! Where are the priests? Bring the Offerings!”

A self-important young Levite enters, sees us scrabbling on the floor of the outer tent amid the incense-bottles, and states, “My masters, all respects and honor to you, but why do you tarry? The People demand your presence!”

“Oh, God—we must go,” I say to Nadav, who nods solemnly. We both rise, and dust off the knees of our robes. “Let us pray that God will have mercy upon our first sacrifice, and accept our shortcomings.”

We look at one another, and clasp hands. The Levites hand us our incense fire-pans. The brass shines in our hands, reflecting the morning sun that wafts into the Tent.

“Good luck, Baby Brother,” says Nadav, “See you on the other side.”

“You too, Brother,” I say, “Peace.”

As we leave through the tent-flap that the Levites hold open for us, the People’s voices rise from a shout to a roar: HALLELUYAH! HALLELUHU! KOL HANESHAMA TEHALLEL YAH….


Day 7, The First Passover: Walking Thro' Sinai, 1446(?), 1250(?) BCE

Day 7, The First Passover: Walking Through Sinai, 1446 BCE(?), 1250 BCE(?)

By David Hartley Mark

Scene: Somewhere in the Wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth of the second month after the departure of the Israelites from the Land of Egypt. A hot, sunny day. I mean, really hot and sunny.

Moses (at the head of the line of march): And I led you, at the LORD’s command, out of Egypt, with many signs and wonders, into this great and awesome desert, to live through His miracles and mercies….

Israelite One: Doesn’t he ever shut up? I’m tired.

Israelite Two: Yeah, and I’m hungry. And chafed. Have you got any of that cornstarch powder?

Israelite One: Sorry, Man. It’s chametz.

Two: Oh. Shoot. Chara. I forgot.

One: Yeah. I had to toss it, back around Elim. You know, the twelve springs of water.

Two: And the seventy palm trees. Yeah, that was nice.

One: You counted the palm trees? Who counts palm trees?

Two (defensive): Whaddayou want? I was bored. And Efrem, the Scribe who’s taking all this stuff down, asked me and Tsurbanipal to count the palm trees. Plus, he gave us extra, matza.

One: Oh, okay. Sorry. I get it. Count the palm trees. Sure. And for extra matza? You rock, Man.

Two: That’s OK.

(They walk along a bit longer in silence.)

Moses: For the LORD has heard your grumblings, and by evening, you shall know that it is the LORD who free us from Egypt, the LORD alone, and lo, not an Angel, nor a Cherub, nor a Ceraph, nor an Ophan, nor….

Two: Hey, do I look fat in this robe?

One: Hold still a minute and let me look. Turn sideways. Pull the robe in a little. Hmm—maybe a little bit.

Two: You know, by the Seventh Day of Pesach, that Matza starts to build up on you.




One: Hey, I know what you mean….

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Passover Seder-Meal of Mottke the Coachman by David Hartley Mark

The Passover Seder of Mottke the Coachman

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            In 1797, the richest and most ornate of Chasidic rebbes was born: Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin, known as the Rizhiner. Unlike other rebbes, who lived in outright poverty, he loved wealth and to be surrounded by beautiful objects. His Chasidim, who were mostly poor, did their best to satisfy his wants, since the Rizhiner claimed direct descent from King David, and believed that he ought to imitate the lifestyle of his notable ancestor—not in personal behavior, but in his surroundings.

            The Rizhiner lived in a palace complete with servants, musicians, and stables of horses. His synagogue could hold three thousand worshipers. He never traveled without an entourage of aides, cooks, coachmen, musicians, and intimates. Every Shabbat attempted to imagine the lost glories of David’s life in Jerusalem in 1,000 BCE. The musicians played and sang as the Levite orchestra and chorus had done.

And because the Rizhiner was not only extravagant but also learned and charitable, making a point of meeting with his Chasidim round-the-clock, no one ever accused him of malpractice or wrongdoing. He himself was charming and modest in his mannerisms, and counted all other rebbeim among his colleagues and close friends.

            There truly had never been a Chasidic rebbe like the Rizhiner, before or since. He was generous to all, giving of both his time and his wealth. In particular, his banquets were famous, being reminiscent of the High Priest’s sacrificial feasts in the days when the Holy Temple yet stood. It followed, therefore, that Passover was his favorite holiday, when his cooks gave forth their best efforts, and his banqueting table in the royal hall groaned beneath the bounty of meat, fish, kugels, vegetable stews, soups delicately seasoned, and, of course, all manner of matzo-based concoctions, sweet and savory, and tempting to both eye and palate. Chasidim and townspeople alike, as well as travelers from all over Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe would journey thousands of miles to tap humbly at the door of the Rizhiner’s palace, and be invited to partake.

            Now, it happened that, in those days, one of the Rizhiner’s balagoolahs, his coachmen, was a humble, fellow named Mottke. This Mottke was neither learned nor clever. He was not the chief of the coachmen; indeed, he was always the last of the entourage, and on more than one occasion missed driving his coach altogether, for he was a drinker, and something of a ne’er-do-well, besides. Still, although the chief coachman, Avrum, had approached the Rizhiner more than once about firing Mottke, the Rizhiner refused.

            When Avrum pressed the Rebbe, saying, “But Rebbe, he is useless to us!”

            The Rizhiner smiled, and replied, “He may have the spark. We shall see.”

            And Avrum would say nothing more.

On the first night of Pesach, when the Royal Hall gleamed with the light of a thousand candles, and brass mirrors placed behind them doubled their light to a thousand more, the Rizhiner sat on a golden throne before his Chasidim. He looked out upon the assembled multitude and smiled, for he loved to see people happy, there amid the holiness of the holiday. But then, he frowned, and asked:

            “Where is Mottke?”

No one could answer. In the crowd, Avrum shook his head, sadly….

            Well, Rebbe, he thought, you may believe that rascal has the spark. I do not.

            The Seder went on, and all was perfect, it seemed: the children recited the Four Questions; the Rebbe and his Chasidim debated the finer points of the Haggadah, including its Kabbalistic undertones; the people sang the old songs. The wine was delicious, and there were silver goblets for all. All the dipping and sprinkling and making of matzo sandwiches went off as it had in years past.

            In the Great Hall of the Palace, the Rebbe’s Grandfather Clock ticked away, and tolled the nighttime hours: BOOM-BOOM-BOOM….

            Morning dawned. As the earliest rays of the sun touched the table and its leavings, one by one, the Chasidim dropped off to sleep. They had fulfilled the mitzvah, the commandment of the Seder: to celebrate, eat, and sing “from twilight to dawn.”

            But the Rebbe did not sleep. He sipped from a pewter cup of water, and looked at the palace doors, there, great and forbidding, built of mahogany, with brass handles and locks. He saw the doors open, and he smiled. For there entered, shabby and humble, and more than a little embarrassed at having missed his Rebbe’s Seder, Mottke the Balagoolah, the  Coachman.

            The Rebbe gestured to him: “Mottke, come here,” and he indicated the seat right next to him. Mottke came, and sat down. “Eat something—you have eaten almost nothing, all night.” Mottke nodded, and nibbled at some matzo and leftover chicken. He drank no wine.

            When Mottke was done, the Rebbe asked, “Now, Mottke. We missed you last night. What kind of Seder did you have?”

            “Oy, Rebbe,” said Mottke, “I got home very late—I was helping my friend Chaim load some wood onto his wagon, and I didn’t notice that the sun had gone down. And, of course, I had no food for Pesach. Nor did I remember what kind of food we’re supposed to eat, anyway. But I remembered that, in shul last Shabbos, you spoke for a long time about chametz, and that we are not supposed to eat chametz. I had turned to Chaim, and asked, ‘Chaim, what is chametz?’ And he said to me, a bit crossly, because he was trying to listen to you, ‘Chametz? Chametz? For you, Mottke—that is brandy! You drink a lot of brandy, don’t you? Chametz is brandy.’

            “Now, it happens that I had a half-bottle of cherry brandy in my house, along with a couple of hard-boiled eggs. And it was dark, and I was hungry. And I did not know how to make a Seder. But I knew I should get rid of the chametz, so I drank the brandy. And I ate the eggs. And then, the brandy made me fall asleep.

            “When I woke up, it was midnight—at least, I think so. And I was alone, in the dark, and afraid. I knew that all Jews everywhere were doing their seders, but I was alone. So I spoke to God:

            “Sovereign of the Universe! I am Mottke, the Coachman. I am not very important, or wise, or rich. I do not know Your Torah; I never learned in a Hebrew School. But this I can remember. I know that the Jews were in the Land of the Egyptians, and that You and Rebbe Moishe rescued them.

            “And I tell You this, God. If You do not come now, or soon—to rescue us Jews from the Czar, who hates us and taxes us, and who puts our young boys into his army and tries to kill them there—and more! If You do not make peace in the world, and make people to stop hating each other, then why call this Your Passover, Your holiday of rescue? God! Do You hear me? It is Mottke, the Coachman, who asks this of you.”


            And the Rizhiner, who was listening, along with most of his Chasidim, said, “Oy, Mottke! Your Seder was so much, much better than ours! God bless you, Mottke! God bless you!”

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Vayikra: The Tempter, Humans Behaving Badly, and the Need for Sacrifice

“And God called to Moses…. ‘A man who shall bring near of you an offering to God from the beast….’”

—Lev. 1:2 (Adapted from a Chasidic Teaching of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the First Lubavitcher Rebbe)

            Call me the Tempter. Most Jews know me as the Yetzer Ha-Ra, the Evil Inclination. Who am I? I am the Voice of Evil whispering in your ear; I am the soft urge which bids you to look where you know you should not. I push you to steal, to lie, to gossip, backbite, change a number in an accounting book. I inspire bored people to commit adultery. I am, perhaps, the single cause of more evil in the world since Time began; I am a perpetual troubler. I am the hair in your soup, the driver who steals your parking spot, the false friend who proposes to the Girl of Your Dreams, a second before you get up your nerve.
           
Let me also say what I am not: I am not Satan; there is no metaphysical Devil in the Jewish universe or theological worldview. In Judaism, Satan is not an independent spirit, operating independently of God, working for Evil as God works for Good. To say or believe so would be Dualism, such as the ancient Persians believed in their Zoroastrian religion—and don’t forget that the Jews lived and flourished in Persia for centuries, beginning in 722 BCE. No: Satan is the Prosecuting Attorney in the Heavenly Court, or, at best, the Cosmic Troublemaker in that Morality Play called the Book of Job, where he must beg God’s permission before tormenting the eponymous heroic victim.  
           
Within and among nations, I cause race hatred. I am Jealousy personified, Negative Stereotypes embodied. I shy away from taking people as individuals; why bother, when it’s so easy to generalize, to use differences to incite rancor? It’s always tempting for you Mortals to hide behind a Stereotype (“Why bother? She’s just a--“) rather than extend yourselves to meet a stranger. Build walls; yes, that is always the solution.
           
I span every time, place, country, and era. I rode with King Richard Lionheart when he crusaded against Saladin the Muslim King in 1191 in the name of the Christian God; I thrust the Jews out of Spain before the Inquisition's wrath, the Irish out of Ireland for lack of either food or English sympathy (in time to escape to America and see signs in shop-windows reading, "No Irish Need Apply"), the Armenians into the Turkish Killing-Grounds; I aimed the rifles when American boys massacred Filipino women and children in 1902 in the name of colonial imperialism (water-boarding was an American invention. I dwell deep in the furrows of your brain as you read this. I am a hatred and suspicion as old as Time.
           
Can you prevent my ravages, O Mortal, you who claim to be made in the Image of the God you adore so much? There is but one cure: to make an Offering—not of yourself; enough of your kind have died for my Cause and in my Name. No: there is but one cure—to make an Offering, a Sacrifice—of your Animal-Self, the part of you which demands, requires, insists upon More: more lives, more land, more power.

My Nemesis is the Yetser Ha-Tov, the Good Inclination. It is content to Live with Less, to Divide and Share; to look into the eyes of a stranger and see, therein, the Image of God in whose spirit we are all awfully, wonderfully made. One warning, though: do so quickly. This World is drawing closer to spiritual and racial destruction, day by day.

            Hold back your Evil, and embrace your Good. Kill off your Animal Self, your Greed and Selfishness, by sacrificing it as an Offering to your God, who forgives us our limitations. Work for your souls’ sakes, so that all the clay in you, all the faults in you, may yield to your Inner Light—let the Fire on High-Priest Aaron’s Altar be nothing but Light!

Nothing but Light!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Amulets--Segulote: The Importance of What One Wears Around One's Neck

Amulets--Segulote

By David Hartley Mark

                                                Around my neck
                                                I wear
                                                A gold Aseret HaDibrote
                                                Ten Commandments
                                                My parents gave me
                                                When I became Bar Mitzvah:

                                                It was Parshat Beshalach
                                                The Exodus Torah Portion

                                                The Israelites departed Egypt
                                                “With a mighty hand
                                                And an outstretched arm,”
                                                Following their Mysterious, Invisible Tribal God
                                               
(Not yet Universal)

                                                Whom we are still following
                                                With better or lesser Results
                                                But a great deal of Hope
                                                To see us through

                                                Whether Splitting Seas,
                                                Fighting Amalek,
                                                Finding Water in the Desert

                                                Or encouraging us
                                                To just keep moving on….

                                                I also wear
                                                A pewter rectangle
                                                Inscribed, “Courage,”
                                                A gift from a late, dear
                                                Woman Friend
                                                Who escaped the Holocaust
                                                On the Kindertransport

                                                She and her sister—
                                                Thirteen and Eleven,
                                                My friend Lisl, thirteen,
                                                Was the oldest child
                                                In the railroad car at the Vienna Station

                                                The big, black train was
                                                Huffing and puffing
                                                In Vienna Station,
                                                While Nazis in leather raincoats
                                                Black uniforms
                                                And tall shiny boots
                                                And Death’s-Head caps
                                                Strode about
                                               
                                                There were also
                                                Two Mommies in each railroad car,
                                                Whom the Nazis allowed
                                                To escort the children
                                                To the Border of Belgium
                                                But warned them:
                                               
“You Jew women must get off the train there,
                                                Or we will kill your families
                                                Who remain in Austria.”
                                   
                                                So the mommies had to get off
                                                In Neutral Belgium
                                                Where they were not wanted
                                                Being Jewish Refugees,

                                                And leave the carful
                                                Of children
                                                They could no longer see
                                                For tears

                                                But at the last minute
                                                Before the train left the station in Vienna,
                                                A young mother, late,
                                                Came running onto the platform,
                                                Crying, breathing hard,
                                                And thrust a great wicker basket
                                                Through the train’s open window,
                                                Calling to Lisl,

“Here, here!
                                                Please take it!”
                                               
                                                It was spring
                                                Flowers blooming
                                                Birds chirping
                                                Fearing no evil
                                                A bird can always find
                                                Refuge

                                                So Lisl took it:
                                                She turned back the blanket,
                                                And two pairs of bright-blue eyes
                                                Looked at her with astonishment:
                                    Two tiny baby girls,
                                    Dressed in their best white clothes
                                    As for a trip

                                    All the Kindertransport survived the war
                                    Many had survivor guilt
                                    But all had Courage
                                    And led productive lives

                                    In spite of those who hated the Jews

                                    My third amulet is a Hamsa:
                                    It is a Hand of Fatima,
                                    My Islamic Mother;
                                    A Hand of Lilith,
                                    My Jewish Mother:

                                    They protect me from
                                    Mystical Evil
                                    In the Universe
                                   
                                    And help me to
                                    Scoop up the Sparks of Light
                                    By doing Mitzvote
                                    Good deeds

                                    In a World beset
                                    By Husks of Darkness

                                    That is Our Job:

                                    Only to gather the light
                                   
Nothing but Light!
                                   

No thing but Light!                 

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Vayakhel-Pekuday: Why does this Torah Portion do little more than repeat the dimensions of the Mishkan/Sanctuary already given earlier? What is so important about the Mishkan?

Vayakhel-Pekuday

            Could there possibly be an unnecessary parsha/Torah portion? All Vayakhel seems to do is repeat the extensive instructions how to construct the Mishkan, God’s sacred dwelling-place in the wilderness, all of whose details were given earlier, in Parshat Terumah. Why, therefore, repeat? It is because God wanted the Israelites to familiarize themselves with all the accoutrements of the Mishkan, because both God and His people were to rejoice in His having a place to dwell on earth, among His chosen people.
           
Further, this parsha reiterates God’s mitzvah/commandment to observe Shabbat, stating that “whoever works on it shall be put to death” (Ex. 35:2). How could this priceless gift, that of Shabbat rest, possibly be connected to death? Accordingly, the Talmudic rabbis were quick to soften this harsh decree by explaining that, Shabbat-observant Jews receive a mystical neshama y’tayrah, or second, spiritual soul, which allows them to enjoy Shabbat twice as much. then those who violated it would lose this extra soul, and suffer a spiritual, not actual, death.      

Moving into the listing of the construction of the Mishkan coverings, we note the “Ten strips of cloth…made of fine twisted linen, blue, purple, and crimson yarns; [into which the weavers] worked a design of cherubim” (Ex. 36:8). Why those particular colors, and what purpose did the cherubim-pattern serve? Blue was the color of the Sinai Wilderness sky, reminding us of God’s protection of His people. Purple is the traditional color of royalty, referring to God as king. Crimson reminds us that we should serve God with every fibre of our being, every drop of blood.

As for the cherubim, sphinx-like mythological creatures who carried prayers to God, they reminded our ancestors that, although they sprang from a pagan background, they were to pray to God alone, not to His messengers.
           
The wonder of the Mishkan is that it represents a prototype of the Holy Ark in the synagogue, a place so charged with holy energy that we rise when it is opened. I have seen pious Jews reach out to the open Ark with spread palms and touch their faces, “gathering” the God-force that emanates from the sacred cabinet’s interior. The Ark poses a challenge to all of us: how to “capture” the ineffable spirit of God and make our bodies vehicles for it.

What part of your physiology carries God, Reader? Is it your heart, your brain, your soul—or some other part of you?