Sunday, May 27, 2007

They shall carry on the shoulder (Bamidbar 7:9)

This week we read Parshat Naso, the longest sidra and the one that hypnotizes the ba'al korei with twelve identical offerings of the tribal princes at the dedication of the mishkan (take it from me - I've been a ba'al korei over 40 years). Earlier in the sidra, we read of how the tribal princes contributed six oxcarts and twelve oxen to carry the disassembled mishkan (portable sanctuary) from one desert encampment to the next. The oxcarts were assigned to the Levitical families of Gershon and Merari to carry the curtains, covers, boards, planks and such. The Kehat family was responsible for transporting the actual klei kodesh - the ark, showbread table, menorah, both altars and associated implements. They were not given any of the carts, as it would be unseemly to transport these items in that manner. The men of Kehat carried the holy vessels on their shoulders.

Some years ago I had occasion to attend an Irish wake when my boss lost his father. The body, dead for several days, lay dressed up in an open casket with a "getchka" looking down on him, while many of those attending laughed and joked. I hope I never have to go to an Irish wake again; our way is so much better - except for one thing. At most Jewish funerals I've been to, the casket is wheeled out of the chapel on a cart, through a back door, by one of the chapel workers, and placed in the hearse. At Gentile funerals the casket is typically carried out of the church through the front door by men. If inanimate objects had to be carried on the shoulders of men, how much more so a human body partaking of the tzelem elokim. Anything else is a bizayon, a denigration of the deceased, as if he was not worth a few suits getting wrinkled or, worse, that we Jews are a bunch of weaklings and we can't find six men strong enough to carry the casket.

I have affirmed Jewish strength all of my adult life and I wish to do so in death. When my time comes, if you can't take me out the front because of kohanim on the street, very well, take me out the back, but don't wheel me on that awful cart. I wish to be carried out on the broad shoulders of strong Jewish men. בכתף ישאו.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Mi-yagon l'simha ume-eivel l'yom tov" - From sadness to rejoicing and from mourning to holiday

The sfira is about to conclude with Shavu'ot this week. It is traditionally a time of semi-mourning when we abstain from haricuts, live musical performances and the like, but it wasn't always that way. Before the hurban, this time was one of intense joy as we celebrated the barley and wheat harvests and prepared to bring bikkurim up to the beit hamikdash. Perhaps in keeping with athalta d'geula, the mourning is giving way to joy as we celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim at this time of year.
I first experienced the joy of Yom Ha'atzmaut in 1967 at Yeshivah of Flatbush. I was a freshman and had worked my butt off all year like I never worked before. Coming into the lunch room festooned with flags and banners I knew that it was all worth it (a feeling that would be reinforced a bit later with a 96 on the biology Regents, an event that would set me on a collision course with "gedolim" 40 years later). The next day, joy gave way to apprehension as Egypt, Jordan and Syria prepared to destroy the medina. Soon the Six Day War broke out and, praise God, ended with victory on all fronts and all of Yerushalayim in our hands for the first time since Bar Kokhba. We were all drunk on joy, and that joy combined with the male hormones flooding my 15-year-old body (barukh shelo asani isha) made for a heady brew. Our neighborhood's streets became full of kippot srugot, even on people who had never been observant but who now wished to identify as Jews. At the time, wearing a kippa on Brooklyn's streets still made one a walking target for rowdy Gentiles, but who cared? Jackie Mason notwithstanding, we didn't walk around with chips on our shoulders, but anybody who would dare knock off our kippot would have been in for a butt whipping. Having been a sickly child, I suddenly stopped getting sick. Was it hashgaha pratit or the normal changes of adolescence? I had begun lifting weights several weeks earlier; what might have been a brief infatuation became a lifelong passion for strength and fitness. I would walk with a confident swagger (and walk fast - nobody could keep up with me) that had people saluting as I passed.
Every year since I would celebrate Yom Ha-atzmaut either with Bnei Akiva or at Yeshivah of Flatbush, until 1991 when I was sitting shiva for my father a"h. It was an experience I wouldn't wish on a dog, made worse by haredi visitors who made no mention of the holiday. I broke into the Yom Tov nigun at shaharit after ha-mahazir sh'khinato l'Tzion, washed for a seuda at lunch time and said shir ha-ma'alot before Birkat Ha-mazon. If I had my druthers Yom Ha-atzmaut would suspend shiva the way Shabbat does. By then I was teaching at Brooklyn's Erasmus Hall H.S., but I promised myself that, work or no work, Yom Ha'atzmaut would never be business as usual. Teaching on that day would be useless anyhow; I'm higher than a kite. I take the day off and return to my alma mater to daven and take part in the festive breakfast with lots of singing and dancing; even now I keep up with dancing high school kids. Being a marathon runner, I do a pirsumei nisa run, donning something that would identify me as Jewish (e.g. a singlet emblazoned with the IDF logo) and running through a neighborhood (Crown Heights this year) where we are not exactly loved. Thank God I came to no harm, but I got bemused looks from hasidim when I'd yell out "hag sameah." Sometime during the day I read Shir Ha-shirim, and I always cry when I get to 5:2, kol dodi dofeq, the tragedy of God knocking and Israel refusing to open the door. Is that not our tragedy since 1967, God knocking and we not opening the door, God putting the pedal to the metal and we timid Jews slamming on the brakes? As the saying goes, you can take the Jew out of the galut but you can't take the galut out of the Jew.

This Wednesday and (in galut) Thursday are Shavu'ot. May we soon celebrate an authentic Shavu'ot with the holiday's special mitzva, bringing bikkurim in heavy baskets on broad Jewish shoulders to the rebuilt Beit Hamikdash.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

V-E Day

Today, May 8, is V-E Day. Victory in Europe. Hitler defeated. Liberation for Jews and others left alive in his hell. Time to reflect on the sacrifices that made victory possible, and to thank God for people like my father a"h who proudly wore the American uniform in World War 2. And time to ask ourselves some disturbing questions. If the war had to be fought with today's press coverage, today's instant-gratification ethic, today's unwillngness to sacrifice, would we have seen it through to victory? Would we have had the stomach to see burning German cities on the six-o'clock news (the mayor of Hamburg called it a "fire typhoon")? Would we have been able to handle the staggering casualty figures - several thousand on D-Day (June 6, 1944) alone? Think of the kind of world it would be - the kind of world we would not be living in - if the answer had been no.
B'khol dor v'dor omdim aleinu l'khaloteinu. In every generation people rise up to destroy us. In our parents' time it was the Nazis ym"sh. When we were growing up it was Communism. Now the enemy is Islamism, and it seeks to replace our way of life with a seventh-century theocratic nightmare. But the existential question is the same. Will we continue to live in freedom? If so, then we must steel ourselves for more sacrifice, because freedom is never free.

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The face of evil - almost triumphant