CHUTZPAH

Back in the late ‘70’s, President Carter extended an invitation to dozens of American rabbis to join him at the White House. Part of the visit included being personally introduced to the President. A handshake followed. Upon being announced, one prominent New York area Rabbi decided to air his feelings. “Mr. President,” he said. “I voted for you in November 1976. Given your shameful attitude toward Israel, my having supported you is something I have regretted ever since.”

I recall discussing the comment with Jacob Sodden, a rabbi in the neighborhood. Rabbi Sodden was outraged at the sheer chutzpah of his outspoken fellow clergy. “If you are upset with the President, you write a letter. You refuse the invitation to the White House and explain why. You stand across the way from the other Rabbis lined up to meet with the President and you hold a placard expressing your feelings. But how dare you show up as a guest and spit in the face of your host!” exclaimed Rabbi Sodden.

Rabbi Sodden has long since been taken from this world, but his words to me rang loud and clear, as I read an article about Birthright Israel participants who make it a point to walk off the program to meet with “poor” Palestinians as a form to protest the “one-sidedness” of Birthright  Israel. “Sheer Chutzpah! ” I exclaimed. If twenty- something- year-old American Jews wish to visit with “poor Palestinians” to hear their side of the story, that is their prerogative. I wish them the very best and instinctively, I lapse into Yiddish and say “gay gezunterhayt”(go visit them in good health.) But do so at your own expense and not as a participant of Birthright Israel.”

Walking off a Birthright trip to Israel to visit “poor Palestinians” is no different than accepting an invitation for a Shabbat dinner and then in the middle of the meal abruptly getting up from the table and walking out of your host’s home, so that you can resume your Shabbat meal elsewhere. To make matters worse, you show up again for dessert at the home of the host  who originally invited you and then proceed to act as though nothing happened.

If that weren’t sufficient chutzpah, the one who walked off is reported in the article as having explained  “Judaism is about love and kindness.”  Indeed, it is! Judaism is also about respect. And that’s one area where those who walked off from Birthright fall woefully short. Judaism is also about being proper guests. The same Judaism that teaches love and kindness, also teaches : “Whatever your hosts tell you, do,” (Talmud, Pesachim 86b. A variant reading adds “except walk off.”) In the words of a mentor of mine who purposely misquoted a popular, but totally incorrect proverb: “You don’t take your cake and mash it in your host’s face.” And that’s precisely what those who walk off  Birthright Israel are doing. As one who has arranged for a goodly number of Jewish young adults to participate in the program, I know for a fact, that Zionism is the agenda of Birthright Israel, not Middle East politics.

And that brings me to the epitome of chutzpah. According to that same article, those who walk off Birthright Israel and visit with “poor” Palestinians, do so at the urging and encouragement of a network of Jewish activists whose goal is to end Jewish American support for the occupation of Palestinians. Groups such as “J Street” and “If Not Now” that do have a political agenda, have every right to exist and promote their agenda. They also have every right to compete with Birthright and promote all-expense paid trips to Israel for American Jewish youth. I would however expect these groups to have the integrity and veracity to be upfront about their agenda. To interfere with the agenda of Birthright Israel, to approach participants and lure them away with their agenda – even if it’s for a few hours – borders on “gneivat da’at”  (stealing of one’s mind.)  After all, those who sign up with Birthright Israel, do so with the expectation of experiencing Israel. There ought to be no expectation of becoming involved with politics.

Let Birthright Israel continue to do what it does so well. Let those who are concerned with the “poor” Palestinians go over to the West Bank, as well as other Palestinian enclaves, and lend a helping hand at improving the lives of those Palestinians. Perhaps if they are truly occupied with helping others, they won’t have any time for chutzpah toward their own.

A SMILE ON HASHEM’S FACE

Unknowingly, those of us in Dallas County are responsible for a one of a kind Father’s Day gift, that is both memorable and priceless. Last Sunday’s microburst afforded us the opportunity to present our heavenly father with a Father’s Day gift that will surely bring a smile to His heart.

For those of us living in Dallas, it took hours of a massive power outage for us to realize how dependent our lives on electricity. Food started going bad because our refrigerators and freezers were cut off from electricity, our homes began to take on heat and humidity, now that they were no longer thermostatically controlled, because our air conditioners ceased to function, our cell phones could no longer receive their daily electrical charge and fuel for our vehicles remained trapped in the underground storage tanks at gas stations, because electrically controlled pumps had gone dead. Imagine if you will, that instead of being painfully reminded of how dependent we have become on electricity, we suddenly realized how very dependent we are on HaShem. Plug in the digestive system instead of refrigerators and freezers, replace air conditioning with a properly functioning heart, substitute kidneys for cell phones and hearts for gas pumps, and one hopefully realizes that how totally dependent we are on HaShem. If we take our life style for granted, only to be reminded how very grateful  and beholden we ought to be to our electric provider, then how much more so ought we, who take the daily functioning of our bodies for granted, be grateful and beholden to HaShem, provider of life! Give the next utility truck you see  a thumbs up and put a smile on the face of those inside; offer up a prayer of gratitude to HaShem and put a smile on His face as well.

The early part of this week, reinforced my faith in the human race, at least those living in western culture.  When confronted by crisis, humans go out of their way to help humans, even total strangers. A little over four decades ago, New York City was paralyzed by a blizzard of epic proportions. A pregnant woman living in a neighborhood in Queens was dangerously close to going into labor. Knowing that they could not count on snowplows to respond some two-dozen able bodied men showed up with snow shovel in hand and began to clear a path for the family car to make it to a major roadway that led to the hospital. A few days ago, I witnessed similar outpouring of care and concern, as strangers were there with chain saws to help others out of harm’s way, when fallen trees were leaning on power lines leading into homes, when trees fell onto cars parked in driveways and when fallen trees completely blocked entrances to homes. What I was unable to witness, but knew in my heart, were any number of situations, where those with electricity offered freezer and refrigerator space and even lodging to others who were left without electricity. As one who firmly maintains that nothing escapes HaShem’s notice, I have every reason to believe that these many acts of kindness, care and concern put a smile on HaShem’s face as well.

It is said that there is a silver lining for every cloud. Here at Tiferet, last Monday morning, the lining was platinum. Shavuot festival services were held in the parking lot, rather than in the darkened chapel, because sunlight afforded those in attendance the ability to read from the siddur. Conservatively speaking, there were at least fifty in attendance, as we raised our voices in prayer. Given the comfortable temperatures, along with a most pleasant breeze, many in attendance were able to experience being closer to HaShem, not unlike our ancestors who stood at Mount Sinai. There were even those who suggested that we consider holding services outside again sometime, independent of any power outage.

Personally speaking, Yizkor services took on special meaning. Typically, the term “Yizkor” is a request that HaShem remember the souls of the departed, whom we have come to memorialize. But “Yizkor” can also mean: “He will remember.”  I cannot help but feel that HaShem will long remember the three-fold Father’s Day gift of our realizing how dependent we are upon Him, of kindness, concern and kindness shown toward others and the most beautiful sight of us davening in Tiferet’s parking lot. And each time HaShem remembers this three-fold Father’s Day gift, it will bring a smile to His face.

THE ORIGINAL ROCKY MOUNTAIN

There is a not so well-known midrash that tells us when Moses was preparing to ascend Mount Sinai to receive the two stone tablets upon which were engraved the Ten Commandments, various pathways leading to the summit began to quarrel with one another. Each pathway vied for the honor of providing Moses a conduit up the mountain; each pathway offered features that the other pathways could not. One touted being the most direct, while another claimed it was the smoothest path to take. Yet a third, claimed that it offered the least steep climb.

There was the one pathway, however, that did not join in the fray. It felt that it had nothing to offer Moses, in that along the entire way up the mountain, it was strewn with rocks. Predictably, it was the rocky path rather than the other better suited paths that was chosen by Moses. Had Moses known that in time to come there would arise a language called English, his choice of pathways leading up the mountain would have been chosen with even more alacrity.

It would have been phenomenal had Moses been able to say that his climb up Mt. Sinai would be the beginning of a wonderful relationship. Moses’ experience with the Children of Israel, however, told him otherwise. Even though the odyssey from Egypt, along with liberation from enslavement, was barely in its seventh week Moses already understood only too well the attitude and temperament of the Children of Israel. To label those who followed Moses out of Egypt as ingrates would not even begin to do justice to the masses, who were incapable of returning gratitude and loyalty for a new lease on life. Even if Moses was not the greatest prophet in Israel, as we find in the song of praise “Yigdal,” he was nevertheless right on target for following a rocky path all the up Mt. Sinai. For Moses instinctively knew that the relationship HaShem would have to endure over time with His chosen people would be a rocky one.

It’s been close to half a century since the term “Rocky Mountain High” was first introduced to American culture. Truth be told, given Moses’ choice of pathways,  the first Rocky Mountain high was experienced over three millennia earlier: “And they (the Children of Israel) encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). What made the scenario all the more breathtaking was that this was the first, and unfortunately perhaps the last time as well, that the Children of Israel would be united in commitment and spirit. Given that as a people the Children of Israel have historically been known for their acrimony, rather than their harmony, it is safe to say that both HaShem and Moses, His servant, experienced a “Rocky Mountain High,” as they looked down at the masses at the foot of the mountain.

George and Ira Gershwin May have been on to something, despite employing the wrong possessive pronoun, in their joint effort classic. (George composed the music and Ira wrote the lyrics  to “Our Love is Here to Stay,” as a tribute to his brother who had just died). The Rockies have yet to tumble, neither has Mount Sinai with its rocky pathway to the top. But it is “My love,” says HaShem, “that is here to stay.” And that love has been here to stay from the time Moses ascended that rocky pathway leading to the top until this very moment.

Mount Sinai has been known by a number of names over the years:  Har HaElokim,  Har Bashan,  Har Givnunim and Har Horev. Perhaps there is room for yet another name for this earth-shaking, historic mountain. Taking into account HaShem’s immutable love for us, bearing in mind the “Rocky Mountain High” that HaShem and Moses experienced seeing a united people, and considering the rocky relationship that has existed since Moses first received the Torah, perhaps  Mount Sinai that has every right to call itself the original Rocky Mountain.

UNFORGIVABLE

What’s worse, refusing to offer an apology or misdirecting an apology? Most of us, I would think have been involved in the former – either being the “refuser” or continuing to hope against hope for that apology that is long overdue us – while all too few of us have given thought about the latter.

Earlier this month, the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego State University, sent out a newsletter with a poster of Leila Khaled, who as a teenager gained notoriety for the role she played in the PFLP or Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Back then, Palestinian terrorists were in the airline hijacking business. Ms. Khaled was part of a group of thugs who hijacked a TWA flight in the fall of 1969 and unsuccessfully attempted to hijack an El Al flight months later in 1970. Although San Diego State President, Adela de la Torre has remained silent, the following apology was promptly issued in a campus-wide email: “The image and its implied framing are harmful and hateful towards members of our Jewish community and counter to our values of encouraging a safe, supportive and inclusive environment.”

Excuse me! The image of a criminal and its implied framing are in no way harmful and hateful towards members of our Jewish community. The image of a criminal and its implied framing are harmful and hateful to civilized society. Members of the Jewish community are not due any apology. Air travelers are due an apology. Copies of that apology, along with the repulsive poster, should be displayed at security checkpoints at airports throughout the world. Thanks to thugs like Leila Khaled who saw a noble cause in endangering the lives of passengers who meant her people no harm, millions of Americans have been treated like criminals for decades prior to heading to their designated departure gate, as they are made to remove their shoes and belts and empty their pockets and are x-rayed in order to travel the “friendly skies.”

An apology is due Leila Khaled for giving an abominable, dangerous miscreant the impression that she is a heroine. If there were any justice in this world, Leila Khaled would be languishing in a British prison. Instead, Leila was liberated along with other Palestinian thugs who made this world a much more dangerous place as part of a Palestinian ploy; where Leila’s cohorts took hostages and threatened to murder those hostages if Leila and other Palestinian “freedom fighters” were not released from incarceration. By publicizing such a poster, the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego did a terrible injustice by according admiration to an unrepentant criminal deserving condemnation. In doing so, the Women’s Resource Center may be creating an identity crisis for Leila Khaled.

An apology is due HaShem for distorting the ageless, decent values of right and wrong, praiseworthy and repugnant, that were handed down to us humans. It was the great sage Rabbi Elazar who said, “One who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.”  Yet, that’s precisely what the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego University has done. It has shown compassion to an unrepentant  terrorist who placed innocent lives in harm’s way, and transformed her into a woman of valor who is to serve as a role model. It has shown cruelty to innocents who mean no harm to others.

It would be interesting to see if the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego ever sent out a poster of Josefa Rodriguez, who was accused of robbing and murdering a trader named John Savage with an axe, only to be exonerated by the Texas legislature 122 years later.  It would be interesting to see if the Women’s Resource Center at San Diego University ever sent out a poster of Lizzie Adler or Sonia Wisotsky or scores of other young women who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. But it appears that the Women’s Resource Center had no qualms whatsoever in sending out a poster of Leila Khaled, who ought to be regarded as an embarrassment to humanity. And then to add insult to injury, an apology is offered clearly showing that the Woman’s Resource Center is completely unaware of the travesty it committed. Pathetic, doesn’t even begin to describe the lack of judgement and understanding. Until those at the Women’s Resource Center realize the perversity of their actions followed by their absurd apology, what they did remains unforgivable.

THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE

A  little over a month ago we spilled the wine, as we recounted the plagues visited upon the obstinate Pharaoh who refused to liberate the Children of Israel. There is yet one other plague however, that is far more abhorrent than those recounted at the Pesach Seder. That is the plague that broke out close to fifteen hundred years later in ancient Israel, among the students of Rabbi Akiva. We learn from the Talmud, that among Rabbi Akiva’s 12,0000 pairs of students, there were those who perished daily, beginning on Pesach, until the thirty-third day of the counting of Omer. The Talmud further relates that the cause of this plague, was the lack of respect that the students of Rabbi Akiva accorded one another.

For close to two thousand years, rabbinic scholars have been totally incredulous at the very notion that the students of Rabbi Akiva could behave toward one another in such fashion. Although I never have considered myself a rabbinic scholar by any stretch of the imagination, I cannot help but feel, that three salient points have not been taken into account:

For us as a people, discussion, dispute and divergent opinion have served as our life blood. What makes us Jews so unique, is our ability to hold  contradictory views and opinions. As such, it was our ancestors who were the true promulgators of democracy! Yet, there are times, such as a state of emergency, when democracy must be put on hold  and take a back seat. Such a time was during Rabbi Akiva’s leadership. The tension that existed between the Roman rulers and the Jewish people it governed, was at an all-time high.  With the destruction of the holy Temple having taken place a mere six and a half decades earlier, the lesson that the destruction left in its wake had yet to be absorbed. And that was, that internal dissension can prove to be lethal, when living under the rule of a foreign government. After all, wasn’t “sinat chinam” or baseless hatred that flared up among our people that ultimately served as the root cause for the Roman victory?  Yet, thirty-five years later, the great sage Rabbi Akiva not only defied the Romans from a religious aspect, by continuing to teach Torah publicly, thereby ignoring a recently handed down edict, but he defied the Romans from a military aspect as well! After all, Rabbi Akiva was one of the supporters of Bar Kochba, the Jewish General believed to be able to overthrow the Romans, thereby casting off the yoke that the Romans imposed upon the Jews of ancient Israel! Surely, there must have been strongly held opinions regarding Rabbi Akiva’s political involvement! Disagreement about the understanding of a religious text is one thing; disagreement where students simply fail to understand why a religious leader would get himself so entrenched in the overthrow of a government is quite something else. However useful the exhortation to “never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” one would do well to bear in mind that of the two, discussing politics is far more dangerous to the well-being of relationships  and at times even far more lethal.

Story has it that a renowned rabbi, together with his Shamash  traveled to visit another renowned Rabbi to discuss a pressing religious  matter. Although the host rabbi was informed of the arrival of a revered religious leader, the host rabbi had the visiting rabbi wait in line together with the commoners for hours until he was received. Sometime later, the proverbial shoe was now on the other foot. The host rabbi together with his Shamash were visiting the very same rabbi who had earlier paid them a visit. As soon as the rabbi who had been made to stand in line and wait, learned of the presence of his visitor, he gave instruction that a red carpet be rolled out and carte blanche be given to the important visitor. The Shamash was incredulous. “this is how you pay back one who treated you with such disrespect,” he asked his revered leader incredulously.
“Better he and his Shamash  should learn to accord respect from us, than we should learn to accord disrespect from them,” answered the venerated Rabbi.

Once Jews treat one another with respect, a perilous plague will have been eradicated from our nation.

YOU STUPID JEW

There is an old anecdote in the poorest of taste, telling about an American Jew walking into a Chinese restaurant and asking the waiter if the specialty dish “Sum Dum Goy” was on the menu.

The anecdote came to mind a few days ago, when I learned of a (visibly Jewish) driver making an illegal right turn in mid-town Manhattan, during rush hour, right in front of a traffic policeman. “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” exclaimed  the policeman, who then immediately apologized for his uncalled for and rude remark. The driver was stunned. He immediately pulled over, got out of the car, turned on his camcorder, went up to the police officer who called him a “stupid Jew” and demanded to see his badge number. The officer refused and explained that he had already offered his apology (which he had.)

Unlike others who weighed in on the incident, (I scrolled down to the various comments) I have an entirely different take on what took place. Clearly, I come from another era, where Jews were afraid of causing any ruckus. The very fact that the driver  – albeit guilty of making an illegal right turn –  did not hesitate to confront the police officer, made me realize we Jews are no longer in the shtetl. As such, our mentality must no longer be shtetl mentality, a mentality that restrained us from speaking up and speaking out. A Jew demanding to see the badge number of a police officer? Unheard of! And the officer immediately apologizing for his unacceptable remark? Officers never apologized in the world in which I was raised. In the world in which I was raised, the officer would have yelled at the driver to get back in his car,otherwise he would risk receiving not one, but two citations: one for failing to follow posted traffic signs; one for leaving his car illegally parked. I was also amazed at how the policeman reacted to being recorded. “Takkeh a neieh velt” (truly a new world) as they say in Yiddish. I would have expected the officer to have demanded that the camcorder be shut off; I would have expected the officer to have confiscated the camcorder, when the driver refused to follow that order. Instead, after protesting that he had already apologized, the officer turned his back and walked off.

I shudder to think how I would have reacted, had I been the driver who made an illegal turn only to have a police officer call out to me: “Can’t you see that there is no right turn? You stupid Jew!” In all likelihood, I would have written a letter to either the mid-town precinct or the New York Times, or both, excoriating such an unacceptable as well as uncalled for comment. In my fantasy however, I would have borrowed from the following anecdote:  Those with knowledge of post-World War II American history are in all likelihood aware of the acrimony that existed between Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union and Senator Bobby Kennedy. Story has it, that Senator Kennedy received word that Jimmy Hoffa had just referred to him, as a “ruthless little bas*ard.”

Upon hearing Hoffa’s remark, Senator Kennedy smiled and immediately retorted: “I’m not that little.” In my fantasy, I would have gone up to the offensive police officer, looked him in the eye and told him: “I’m not that stupid!”

 

LET FREEDOM RING, LET THE WHITE DOVE SING

Although not intended as such, the chorus of the song “Independence Day” recorded by Martina McBride, rings just as true today, as the first time I heard it on WABC radio, a quarter of a century ago: “Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing. Let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning.” With Israel celebrating seventy-one years of independence on the 9th of this month, perhaps a perusal of the above lyrics, which are admittedly taken entirely out of context, would tastefully set the tone for Israel’s upcoming celebration.

One of the most popular parks in Jerusalem, bears a decidedly American name. Although, referred to as Gan HaPa’amon or the Garden of the Bell by its residents, Liberty Bell Park serves as a reminder of the unshakable relationship that exists between these United States and Israel. Dedicated in 1976, the year of our bi-centennial, Gan HaPa’amon boasts a replica of the Liberty Bell proudly displayed in downtown Philadelphia. But Gan HaPa’amon boasts so much more. It boasts the shared ideal of liberty. Both Israel and the United States deal with minority populations in a far better fashion than most other countries in this world. And even though Israel’s democracy is based on a parliamentary system as opposed to the American presidential system, both countries are intent on letting freedom ring – not just for the rest of the world to hear, but also to  remind its citizens and leaders, that freedom is our most precious commodity, as well as our most sacred creed.

The first time the white dove was introduced to us, it was speechless. And with good reason. It had an olive branch in its mouth. Yet, even without any olive branch, I cannot help but feel that the white dove would have been speechless. After all, the white dove, had little, if anything to say. For the white dove, it was a “wait and see” situation. The white dove couldn’t possibly have presumed to know what would come forth from Noah’s ark, especially on a figurative basis. And even though it may not have been a pretty sight to behold, the white dove kept its eyes open. Many a tear may have had to fall, as the white dove witnessed both disappointment  and disaster over the centuries,  but the white dove refused to look away. And then, seventy-one years ago, this month, the white dove blinked hard. It couldn’t believe its eyes. After two thousand years of uncertainty and wandering, a Jewish homeland rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. It was then that the white dove began to sing. The white dove has been singing ever since.

“It is a nation that dwells in solitude and is not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9), said Balaam. However prescient Balaam may have been, he was not speaking from a political point of view. He couldn’t have been speaking about nations of that time, because in Balaam’s Israel, Israel did not exist as a political entity. It was seventy-one years ago, that the State of Israel emerged as a political entity. May 14th, 1948, therefore, was a day of reckoning among nations. Military analysts at the Pentagon reckoned that Israel wouldn’t last more than a month, before having to surrender to the surrounding countries with better equipped and better trained armies. Military analyst reckoned wrong. As a teenager, I asked the principal at the Jewish Day School – he had arrived from Israel a year earlier to take the position – what he reckoned Israel would do with all the land that was now theirs, after the Six Day War. He reckoned that Israel had no need for that land. He too reckoned wrong. American Presidents over the last half century have felt it their duty to come up with “peace plans.” When it came to Israel, they, along with their Secretaries of State, also reckoned. Yet, none realized, that Balaam, under HaShem’s direction, provided us with the immemorial words that Israel “is not to be reckoned among the nations.”

As freedom continues to ring, and the white dove continues to sing, let the whole world know that when it comes to Israel, there is  no reckoning. And let us join together in wishing our Jewish Homeland, continued bracha (blessing) and ongoing hatzlacha (success)!

UNLIKE THE HOLOCAUST

“It was like images out of the Holocaust,” exclaimed Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein last weekend in Poway, California  as he found himself a victim of another atrocity aimed at Jews. Far be it from me to take issue with Rabbi Goldstein’s comments, but for the vast majority of us, it is most proper, especially this very week when we observe Yom HaShoah and remember the Holocaust, to realize that to make such a comparison does a great disservice to the six million.

Unlike the Holocaust, no attack on a synagogue, church, or mosque in this country is government executed and government sanctioned. The Chancellor of Germany did not come out and say “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded, and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated,”  much less place a phone call to any wounded rabbi. The Third Reich was far too busy rounding up rabbis – the Nazis were very democratic, refusing to distinguish one Jew from another – and  shipping them to concentration camps where most would meet their deaths either quickly or slowly.

Unlike the Holocaust, the New York Times did not bury the story of last week’s synagogue shooting at Chabad of Poway, or the shooting at Etz Chaim Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October, on page 23 of its newspaper. Both incidents were front page news. What takes place at a synagogue – good or bad – is treated no differently than what takes place at a church or mosque. It’s of major concern to Americans and therefore it garners front page news in newspapers throughout the nation. Whereas the Third Reich maintained the attitude of “we do not distinguish between Jews, we treat them all the same viz. like vermin,” the media in this country maintains the attitude  “we do not distinguish between religions, we treat them all the same viz. with dignity and respect.”

Unlike the Holocaust, non-Jews in this country show solidarity. At Shabbat services one week after the Pittsburgh catastrophe, we at Tiferet had visitors. Unlike other non-Jews who attend our services, either out of curiosity or out of an interest to embrace Judaism, those who joined us at Shabbat services on November 3rd of last year, did so purely out of solidarity. It was their way of saying “we feel terrible about what took place. We lack the necessary words to provide comfort and consolation. We would therefore like to visit with you, so that we can pray together.” Eight decades ago, non-Jews showed  no such solidarity. True to its designation, the silent majority said nothing. Hitler’s war was against the Jews, not the Lutherans. To quote a saying I learned after arriving in Dallas, “the Christian world did not have a dog in that fight.” The precious few who were abhorred by what was taking place, were afraid to speak out, lest they endanger their own lives. Today, days after the catastrophe at Chabad, the silent majority continues to remain silent. The ones who are afraid to speak out however, are not the precious few. They are the repugnant few, who regret that the assailant was not more successful in his vendetta against Jews. They know that American society will not tolerate individuals who harbor such views and cling to such feelings.

I have no idea what Jewish leaders – both religious, as well as lay – will be saying to those who come together to commemorate the Holocaust, this Thursday evening. Personally, I’ll be offering up a prayer. I will be thanking HaShem that I live in a country where the elected political leadership expresses solidarity when a crime is committed against Jews, where the media gives what took place full coverage and where non-Jews stand together with Jews, attesting to the fact that we are one nation under G-d.

REBUILD

For those of us who had the appetite to continue on with the Seder after the crumbs of the Afikomen were brushed away last Friday and Saturday night, one of the latter passages of the Haggadah – the third last passage, just prior to “Who Knows One” – ought to have taken on greater significance and meaning this year. “Adir Hu”, an eight-stanza acrostic with each stanza focusing on HaShem rebuilding His house, the holy Temple in Jerusalem, might well have rung a bell with so many of us, with the fire of Notre Dame in Paris still so very fresh in our minds. If there is any one non-Catholic group that can identify with what took place in France last week, in all likelihood, it is we Jews. Our collective memory is still haunted by the flames bringing down the Beit HaMikdash or Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, when the land of Israel was under Roman rule.  Stark differences however, remain with what took place with our Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Despite its splendor and grandeur, aside from it being in a league of its own, there are any number of basilicas and cathedrals throughout Europe, with architecture to behold and histories to treasure, even if those architectures and histories  fail to rival the architecture and history of Notre Dame. As one who once visited Israel for less than a day and who was adamant that a visit to the Kotel in Jerusalem was non-negotiable, otherwise I would refuse to head back to the airport, I cannot help but wonder whether or not Catholics and non-Catholics  alike, be it in Europe or elsewhere, shouldn’t be finding solace in the fact, that unlike Jews, they are in no way bereft of their one and only spiritual edifice.

To be sure, many Catholics and non-Catholics will be turning to their Father in heaven, as they should, to ask for divine guidance and assistance in rebuilding Notre Dame. To be sure, the Catholic community will be able to rely upon the largesse of the wealthy as they step in, as well as the generosity of the common folk, as they pitch in. In no way, would I be with surprised, if more monies than needed, are amassed for the rebuilding of Notre Dame. In no way, would I be shocked, if many of us live to see a rebuilt Notre Dame of a resplendence, that few, if any, could ever have envisioned  or imagined. And therein lies the difference between the Beit HaMikdash in Jerusalem and Notre Dame, l’havdil in Paris. Whereas it is HaShem, who will ultimately rebuild the Beit HaMikdash with the arrival of Moshiach, it is mere mortals who will rebuild the cathedral in Paris. Stated differently, when it comes to the Temple in Jerusalem, we Jews pray; when it comes to Notre Dame in Paris, Catholics and others pay.

As a concerned outsider who reaches out to the world-wide Catholic community in general, along with the Catholic community in France in particular,  I cannot help but turn to the Catholic community in my capacity as rabbi. I wish you Godspeed in dealing with your recent calamity. Remember however, that a fire has been raging over the cathedrals, basilicas, and churches throughout Europe these last few decades and it is Christianity that has been going up in smoke.

However formidable a task lies ahead with the rebuilding of Notre Dame, there is a far more daunting a task that confronts Christianity. As a consequence of the clutches of secularism spiriting away those who were born to the faithful and baptized in their respective churches as infants, Notre Dame and other places of worship, run the risk of remaining little more than icons. By all means ought Notre Dame be rebuilt to its former glory. At the same time, however Christians must seek to rebuild their following.

We Jews have long since come to terms that our Beit HaMikdash lies in in ruins. For centuries, the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash has been part of our daily prays; for centuries the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash has been part of our annual Seder. The Beit HaMikdash remains an integral part of our religion just as HaShem remains an integral part of its rebuilding.  In the meantime, we have focused on keeping Judaism strong and vibrant. My wish for my Catholic brethren is that the building materials used to reconstruct Notre Dame be infused with Christian holiness of the highest and purest   order.

 

 

THE SKULENER REBBE

Our rabbinic sages thought that they covered all bases, when they zeroed in on the conclusion of  Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbat, otherwise known as the 92nd psalm. Interpreting the double simile that the “tzaddik (righteous person) will flourish like the palm tree, like a cedar in Lebanon, he will grow tall”, our sages delineated between two different types of tzaddikim. The former produces others like himself,  while the other does not. The former actively influences others through suggesting, prompting and even cajoling, while the latter serves as a role model, placing no demands whatsoever upon others.

Had our sages known about the Skulener Rebbe, they would have realized that there is yet a third type of tzaddik. Unknown to the vast majority of Jews, the Skulener Rebbe shunned notoriety and would not entertain the notion of spiriting Jews away from other synagogues or rabbis. Unlike other Chassidic Rebbeim, the Skulener Rebbe insisted that the spotlight shine upon the individual Jew, rather than the leader. The Skulener Rebbe had a name – Yisroel Avrohom Portugal and he was taken from this world towards the beginning of this month, at the ripe old age of 95.

Yet, in his own self-effacing unassuming way, it is the Skulener Rebbe in my opinion,  and not the leaders of other worldwide Chassidic sects, who embodied the tripart essence of the Pesach Seder, in which Jews in all parts of the world will be participating, later this week.

It was the great sage Rabban Gamliel, who reminded us, that whoever does not use the Seder to expound upon Pesach, Matzah and Maror does not fulfill his duty. When all is said and done, it was the Skulener Rebbe who in his everyday life, exemplified Pesach, Matzah and Maror.

Unlike Matzah and Maror, there is no blessing over Pesach. Pesach, represented by the shank bone, is reminiscent of the Passover sacrifice. A tzaddik – one, who is of the caliber of the Skulener Rebbe – is himself a sacrifice. He role as Rebbe is not to make a name for himself, but to give up his time and to devote his days to serving others. Photogenic, he wasn’t; charismatic, he didn’t yearn to be. And yet, the still small voice (I Kings 19:12) that we make mention of each Rosh Hashana, was in essence the still small voice of the Skulener Rebbe that could be heard loud and clear.

If Matzah is tantamount to simplicity, then the Skulener Rebbe came as close to exemplifying  matzah, as any religious leader. The Skulener Rebbe took but one meal a day and got by on little sleep. Predictably, his lifestyle was one of humbleness. And yet, despite the fact that his picture was not splashed all over, although there are no Skulener sites on the internet to supply us with countless stories and endless religious instruction, on any given day, long lines of Jews formed outside his home in the hope of benefiting from sagacious counsel or simply to receive a blessing.

When other Rebbes are called to their makers, they continue to be venerated in their death, just as they were venerated in their life. Accordingly, their burial plot becomes set apart from other burial plots earning it the title Ohel. I may be wrong, but I cannot help but feel that the resting place of the Skulener Rebbe will not be set apart from others in that cemetery in Rockland County, New York.  What distinguished the Skulener Rebbe, was not any edifices he built in life, but the learning, the mitzvot and the countless deeds of kindness that defined his life.

“A tzaddik must feel the hurt and pain of his people,” said the fictional Reb Saunders to his son’s friend Reuven Malter in Chaim Potok’s novel “The Chosen.” There was nothing fictional about the Skulener Rebbe. Whenever one came to unburden himself/herself to the Rebbe, he would literally cry. It’s not that tears came easily to him, it’s that his heart and neshomeh (soul) were directly linked to his tear ducts. The tsorres (problems) of those who unburdened themselves to the Skulener Rebbe, were his tsorres, their bitterness was his bitterness, their maror was his maror.

As well-known, meaningful and appropriate terms such as Alav HaShalom (peace be upon him), Zechrono l’Vracha (may his memory be a blessing) are, there is a third term that we ought to add to our vocabulary. It applies to Rabbi Yisroel Avrohim Portugal, the Skulener Rebbe. Z’chuyoto yagein aleinu (may his merit protect us). As we participate in fulfilling the teaching of Rabban Gamliel this Friday and Saturday evening, as we explain Pesach, Matzah and Maror, let us also bring to mind the Skulener Rebbe, whose many merits will surely protect us.

* I am indebted to Joseph Berger whose recent article in the New York Times was the impetus for this week’s column.