Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

Kansas murders reveal an uplifting truth about America

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It is bitterly ironic that the murderer in Overland Park, Kansas unwittingly revealed an excellent truth about America, and the place of Jews and other minorities in these great United States.

Jews came here to flee oppression in several continents. America welcomed them, as it has welcomed every immigrant group.  It asked of the Jews the same thing it asked of every immigrant: Embrace our democratic principles, work hard, and participate in building a decent civic society maintained by the institutions of our democracy.  Like all other immigrant groups, Jews did exactly that.

Like other immigrant groups Jews established many institutions to foster their communal development, to transmit their traditions, and to maintain group identification and solidarity.  These institutions, like the institutions of other national, ethnic, and religious groups in our society contribute to the development of a decent civic order.  Among such institutions are synagogues, Jewish community centers, homes for the elderly and the frail, hospitals, schools, and all manner of places where Jews, like their fellow immigrants, gather. 

It must have enraged the Kansas murderer to learn that he killed non-Jews, that non-Jewish people feel utterly comfortable and normal making use of all kinds of Jewish communal buildings and services, such as Jewish community centers and Jewish old-age homes.  The Kansas murderer could not imagine that Christians would feel so comfortable, at ease, and so normal in Jewish community buildings.  He assumed that whoever is in a Jewish building has got to be Jewish.  In other places in the world, let's say Egypt, or Iraq, or Pakistan, people who want to harm Christians know exactly where to go.  They go to a church.  The only people who go to churches in countries like that are Christians.  In other places in the world, people who want to attack Jews know exactly where to go.  In Istanbul they go to the synagogue.  In Buenos Aires they go to the Jewish community center.  In Paris they go to the synagogue. 

In the United States that's no longer true.  All kinds of people are present in all kinds of places.  So many types of non-Jews make use of so many Jewish institutions.  They are indistinguishable from their Jewish friends, neighbors, and citizens. 

This murderer, may he remain nameless, murdered three Christians because he thought they were Jews.  In committing this terrible crime he proved that America is a place unlike any other in the world. 

Tattoos and Jews

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When I was a kid, tattoos, or the people who bore them, were really different.  I didn't actually know anyone who was inked.  Tattoos were the calling card of the Hell's Angels, sailors, 'greasers' and others on the margins. Those folks didn't live in Jewish neighborhoods. Their cultural and educational preferences were somewhat different.  Despite the romanticizing of 1960's gangs by West Side Story, tattoos were alien in most middle class settings. 

That has changed.  The Pew survey - not the one on the Jews, the one on the millennials - tells us that has changed.  The Pew Research Center's study on millennials shows that the silent generation, that is people 65 and over, have a six percent tattoo rate; 15 percent of the boomer generation, those who are now 46-64, have tattoos; of generation X, who are now 30-45, 32 percent have tattoos; and the millennial generation, those who are now 18-29, 38 percent have tattoos.  

The political breakdown on tattooing is really fascinating.  Thirty-one percent of Republicans report that they have a tattoo, while 44 percent of those who identify as Democrat say they have a tattoo.  Or, to put it another way, here is a tattoo distribution across the political spectrum:  Conservatives - 32 percent; Moderates - 37 percent; Liberals - 43 percent.   

Tattoos have clearly risen from one social strata to another in American society.  I don't quite know why that is.  My daughter-in-law, Dr. Shoshana Poupko, a prominent Jewish educator and wise young woman, thinks that tattoos are one of the ways in which people in our society distinguish or brand themselves in an era in which there is much use of the common identifying consumer products: Apple, Banana Republic, JCrew, and the like. Tattoos are a way of saying, "I am an individual." 

What does the Jewish tradition have to say about tats and inking?  Actually, we have an explicit verse in the Torah.  The Torah prohibits it.  Here's the verse:

You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise (tattoo) any marks on yourselves: I am the LORD. (Vayikra 19:28)


In this verse the Torah presents two prohibitions.  The second one prohibits making any marks on the body.  This is the prohibition against tattooing.  The first instructs the Jewish people not to make "gashes in your flesh for the dead."  Now, the Torah doesn't have any laws that deal with pink elephants, because there aren't any pink elephants.  The Torah deals with reality.  Tattooing the body is older than recorded history.  And every year on the Day of Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet, many Shia Muslims have a practice to flagellate themselves with chains and knives.  The Torah teaches  Jews  not do this.  Why?

This verse is at the heart of a fundamental principle in the Torah and the Jewish tradition.  The body is a sacred trust given to us by God.  We don't own our bodies.  Yes, yes, I know that ever since the Boston Women's Health Book Collective in the 1960's published, "Our Bodies, Ourselves," many people today think they own their  bodies.  That is a feature of modernity.   In contemporary Western culture many believe that the ownership of one's body is the best way to safe guard the integrity and the sanctity of one's body.  Judaism says the opposite.  I don't own my body. 

As the famous prayer reads, "The body is thine and the soul is thine".  And the best way, in classic Jewish thought, to protect everyone's body is for everyone to understand that they don't even own their body.  If you don't own your  own body, and if you can't do what you want with your own body, you surely can't do what you want with someone else's body.  Love and respect for the body begins at home with one's own body.  My body is not mine to do with as I please; surely your body is just as sacred and inviolable.  For Judaism the question is rarely, if ever, what are my rights.  The main question is what are my obligations.  What are my obligations to my body and  my body's obligations to God?  Not what are my rights to my body.  And if I understand my obligations to my body then I respect my obligations to your body.  My obligations to your body are what secures your rights to your body.  So I can't put tattoos on my body.  My body isn't mine.  Yours isn't yours.  They both belong to God.  And when everyone internalizes that then everyone has respect for everyone else's body. 

Sandy Koufax and the Aggies' Jewish Quarterback: A Yom Kippur Tale

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Yom Kippur has come to its annual glorious end in the sound of the shofar and in the deeply rewarding experience that once again, as has been the case year in and year out for thousands and thousands of years, the Lord God of Israel has renewed His relationship with us. We have been forgiven our sins, and we can begin the year with a clean slate. And so in order to get a deeper grasp of this blissful moment, I went to that all-important contemporary Jewish theological text, The Big Lebowski, which reads:

The Dude:  You’re living in the blankety-blank past. 

Walter Sobchak:  Three thousand years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax…  You’re blankety-blank right I’m living in the blankety-blank past!

And in order to demonstrate that he is faithful in deed to his theology:

Donny: How come you don't roll on Saturday, Walter?

Walter Sobchak: I'm shomer Shabbos.

Donny: What's that?

Walter Sobchak: Saturday, Donny, is Shabbos, the Jewish day of rest. That means that I don't work, I don't drive a car, I don't blankety-blank ride in a car, I don't handle money, I don't turn on the oven, and I sure as blankety-blank  don't blankety-blank roll!

Donny: Sheesh.

Walter: Shomer Shabbos!

Walter: Shomer blankety-blank Shabbos.

Breathtaking, this monumental Jewish idea passed down through the ages from Sandy Koufax to Walter Sobchak. Central to the American Jewish experience and the experience of Yom Kippur is that heroic stand for Jewish tradition by Sandy Koufax in front of all America. Sandy – or Sandeleh as his mother would call him – did not play in the World Series, refusing to pitch for the Dodgers against the Twins on October 6, 1965 because it was Yom Kippur.  He refused to play in the baseball stadium, the synagogue to the Great American Pastime, on one of its most sacred days, the World Series, the High Holidays of baseball. He said no because it was the real Yom Kippur. 

And Walter Sobchak is right! Judaism moves between two poles: Moses to Sandy Koufax. And Walter does not roll on Shabbos! As I contemplated the beauty and the depth of meaning of our tradition from Moses to Sandy Koufax, I knew how so very right Walter Sobchak was.  If we really want to appreciate our tradition, especially its most sacred day, we have to appreciate what Sandy Koufax did for us. Moses gave us Yom Kippur at Mt. Sinai, and Sandy Koufax stood at Sinai again and gave Yom Kippur to American Jews.  Moses and Sandy are our two great heroes. 

It was this Sobchakian theology that was in my mind while catching up on the news that I missed on Saturday while I was in Shul. I read the story about the football game between Texas A&M University and the University of Alabama, or as they call it down there, Aggies vs. ‘Bama, a game portrayed as one of Biblical proportion that took place on Yom Kippur.

What did the Jewish students on these two campuses do when their game of Biblical proportions clashed with Yom Kippur? Well, I learned that one campus synagogue ended Yom Kippur services around 1:00 p.m. just in time for the 2:30 p.m. game; I read that a Jewish organization on campus showed the game on a big-screen TV; Some more theologically sophisticated Jewish students on campus decided on the one hand to go to the game, but because they were fasting, they decided to break the Aggie tradition of standing throughout the game and so they reserved about 20 seats in the stadium’s handicapped section.

One Jewish Aggie junior, in exquisite theological  reckoning worthy of Abraham arguing with God for justice, decided to resolve this great theological crisis by fasting on Friday instead of on Shabbat. He is quoted as saying, “We figured we’d make a deal with the Lord and do it a day early.” When asked whether or not the Lord agreed to his terms he said, “I sure hope so.  We’ll find out if we beat Alabama.” 

We are indeed a people blessed with wise children. It is worth noting that there was one Jewish organization in Birmingham, Ala. that did follow the tradition of Sandy Koufax and issued a strict rule: “NO FOOTBALL TALK ON YOM KIPPUR.”

Well, I think it’s fair to say that a football game is hardly a turning point in Western civilization, let alone Jewish history. Sandy Koufax, who sanctified the name of God on Yom Kippur 1965, where are you when we need you? 

And as if to add insult to injury, the quarterback for Texas A&M, one Johnny Manziel – a.k.a. Johnny Football – is Jewish! It is altogether possible that Johnny does not know much about American Jewish sports history. Indeed, someone once quipped that one of the world’s shortest books is, “Great Jewish Sports Figures.” But had little Johnny been read bedtime stories about great Jewish sports heroes he might have heard about Sandy Koufax refusing to play in the World Series on Yom HaKippurim.

His decision to play on Yom Kippur is all the more poignant when we learn that his great-grandfather, who emigrated from the Lebanese Jewish community to the United States, changed his first name from Yeshayahu (in English, Isaiah) to Bobby because, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal, he was concerned that people wouldn’t know how to pronounce his name. Now that’s fine. Millions of immigrants who came to the United States did the same. However, had Johnny remembered his great-grandfather’s Hebrew name, then there’s a possibility that he might have known that the words of the prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah are read in all our synagogues on Yom Kippur. 

Cry with full throat, without restraint; Raise your voice like a ram's horn! Declare to My people their transgression, To the House of Jacob their sin….  3 "Why, when we fasted, did You not see? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?" Because on your fast day You see to your business And oppress all your laborers!...6 No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke. 7 It is to share your bread with the hungry, And to take the wretched poor into your home; When you see the naked, to clothe him, And not to ignore your own kin… 13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, From pursuing your affairs on My holy day; If you call the sabbath "delight," The LORD's holy day "honored"; And if you honor it and go not your ways Nor look to your affairs, nor strike bargains -- 14 Then you can seek the favor of the LORD. I will set you astride the heights of the earth, And let you enjoy the heritage of your father Jacob (Isaiah: 58)

Walter Sobchak, you who taught us not to roll on Shabbos, please find young Johnny Football and teach him your Torah: We don’t roll or pass on Shabbos, especially when it is Yom Kippur, to boot. Though I hasten to add, not to punt!  

 

Early High Holidays: Or how I learned to stop hating and love gefilte fish

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As the days go by and the summer matures, I meet more and more desperate, lost and confused Jews. “Rabbi!” they cry out, “why are the High Holidays so early this year!”

Lots of Jews have had the fundamental coordinates of time, space, and reality thrown into utter chaos. Jews are wandering around, looking for their lost Jewish compass. Nothing makes sense. Rosh Hashanah is just a few days after Labor Day. There is no time to return from the summer weather and Lake Michigan beach volleyball and Door County and the eastern Jewish shore, aka Shoreshalom, of Lake Michigan and Ravinia and before one has to fall into synagogue, into the High Holidays, to hear the shofar followed by the incantation of “Who shall live, and who shall die; who by fire and who by water” enveloping us like so much suntan lotion still redolent in our nostrils. At the very least, the Jewish people usually get two or three weeks of summer decompression to do that. Usually we can also count on a Yom Kippur in which the weather has already cooled a bit as autumn takes over from summer

Fear not, all is not lost; the short summer can be put to good use. The next eight weeks, that’s right, just eight weeks until Rosh Hashanah, can be used for intense preparation and practice. Let’s do something classically Jewish; let’s get to the spiritual through the material; let’s repair the world, Tikkun Olam; let’s repair something that really needs fixing, and that requires weeks of summer time.

It’s time to redeem and repair gefilte fish.

That’s right. It’s time to liberate this noble grand exemplar of Jewish cuisine, which the French, in the Alsace, unsurprisingly stole from us and renamed Quenelle. Did you ever see any purveyor of prepared food stuffs dare to take Quenelle and put it in a jar and put it on a shelf or in a can, and market it that way? No one would dare do that to a Quenelle! But look what all those manufactures of Jewish food have done to noble history-hallowed gefilte fish; they have taken white fish, and pike, and carp and have created standardized, fixed manufactured shapes with a consistency that makes them suitable for mortar between bricks and patches to the heat shield of NASA orbiters.

So here’s how it goes, and consider yourself lucky, because I’m willing to let out in public the secret of my grandmother’s gefilte fish. This is a secret, treasured to such a degree, that the NSA has tried to figure out how to get it—even Snowden failed. Now the Chicago Jewish community has a role to play in taking a stand for the gefilte fish, which can only be divine in origin. Indeed, it is all together possible that the reason the Lord God of Israel brought us to Chicago, to the shores of the splitting waters of the Great Lakes, was to be custodians of the sanctity and integrity of gefilte fish, for there is no better fish in the world for gefilte fish than the white fish that swims in the blessed pure waters of the Great Lakes.

Alright, I know, Lake Michigan doesn’t have a lot of white fish, but there is nothing greater than Lake Superior white fish, and along with it, Pike. That’s right; you don’t have to use Carp anymore. Now, if any of you are thinking of using salmon in the gefilte fish, forget it! Salmon is not Jewish. Did anyone ever see salmon swimming in the rivers of Lithuania, Poland, or Ukraine? They don’t even swim in the rivers of Hungary. Salmon are decidedly non-Jewish. In fact, they’re so non-Jewish that the only way salmon can become Jewish, is if they convert. The salmon must convert my immersing itself in the mikveh of salt water brine, and out it comes—lox! Lox, of course, is thoroughly Jewish.

So here’s how you do the gefilte fish. First of all, you go buy a pot that you dedicate by Jewish oath to be used only for the making of gefilte fish. Trust me, once you make gefilte fish in it, you’ll never again be able to make anything else in it. And this has got to be a really fantastic, strong, deep, pot. A pot fit to hold all the tears of the exiled. Go to the store, and I don’t mean the supermarket, and get some white fish and some pike. You want to know how much? That’s sort of like asking Picasso how many ounces of bluish grey paint he used in Guernica, but alright, I’ll tell you, because you, the reader, do not yet qualify as an artistic creator of gefilte fish.

Go to the store and get precut, gross weight, five pounds of fish, approximately three, three and a half pounds of white fish, approximately one and a half to two pound of pike. Great Northern Pike is the best, and since I don’t expect you at this early point in your gefilte fish career to grind it yourself, and it is utterly forbidden to put it in a Cuisinart, which will reduce it to God knows what, ask the fish man (I have yet to meet a fish woman) to grind it for you and also make sure that he gives you the bones and the heads, and also ask him for some more bones and heads from white fish and pike. Take it home, and here’s how you begin:

Put the heads and the bones in the pot, cover them with water, put in two or three onions, not Vidalia, only authentic Jewish onions, the kind that make you weep for the destruction of the Temple and a few other sufferings throughout Jewish history. Put in some celery, a couple of roots of parsnip and a couple of parsley roots and see if you can get the green leafy top to that parsley, because that’s terrific in this pot. Then, of course, carrots: big, thick, whole carrots. And then you put in some salt and pepper.

Do you want to know what this mixture is called? If you speak Ukrainian, or Polish Yiddish, this so-called soup is called Yukh. If you speak Russian or Lithuanian Yiddish, it’s called Yoikh. The original Slavic word, however, recently surfaced in an utterly fascinating movie called I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, who, in the movie is of Russian origin and gets seduced because the young chef, who is a friend of her son in Milan, prepares great Ukha, the Russian fish soup of her youth. In Russian and Ukrainian, that fish soup is called Ukha, from whence we get the various Yiddish forms.

So you have now prepared this Yoikh. It should boil vigorously like the cauldrons of water in which the Egyptians drowned when the Sea of Reeds was split. It should boil vigorously for about 30 or 40 minutes in this great, sacred pot that you now have. Now, while all that is going on, you have to take the fish that has been ground, and put about four or five eggs into it. Then you have to put in some onions. Alright, for the onions, you can use the Cuisinart, and you should put in two onions, not the biggest onions, not the smallest onions. Put in two onions, do whatever the Cuisinart does, and put that in with the eggs and the fish. Then you have to put in some salt and some pepper. Here I will compromise my principles and give you some measurements. Two heaping tablespoons salt, one heaping teaspoon of pepper.

And now, listen very carefully, especially if you are from Russian and Lithuanian Jewish descent. If you’re from Polish, Hungarian, Romanian, or Ukrainian descent, who dare to put sugar in fish, you can stop reading right now. Take a couple of carrots and throw them in the Cuisinart as well, and mix the pulverized carrots into the fish mixture. This is what authentic Lithuanian and Russian Jews do. Don’t ask why, it’s just the way it is, and be thankful that this secret has been made available to you. Now, mix it all up, preferably with your hands; as Julia Childs said, hands are the most important kitchen implement. Then let it sit, because you’ve got to wait for the cauldron of Yoikh to get ready. When the Yoikh is ready, take out the carrots and save them. Everything else should be strained out, and tossed; all you’re left with is the Yoikh.

Now sometimes it may be necessary before you make the pieces of fish to mix it in a little water. You make that judgment call based on how well the fish hangs together in your hands. Secondly—and this is an absolute necessity—you have to taste the fish. Forget what all the food tyrants out there say about tasting raw fish; you have to taste it to make sure you can taste salt and pepper. And then you should begin to form oddly shaped, roundish, elliptical pieces of gefilte fish, whose geometry is reminiscent of Koepler’s drawing of the planetary orbits, to put into the Yoikh.

As you put the fish in, the Yoikh should be boiling. After all the pieces of fish are in, slice an onion, in fact, a lot of onion, and place it on top. Put the carrots back in, and after you put all the pieces in, wait until it starts boiling again, then turn down the fire to low. The fish should cook for only one hour since the time the first piece went in.

And now it’s time to listen very carefully, to lend me that old capturing Jewish faculty for listening and hearing, for here comes the transmission of a great tradition. This is the tradition of eating warm, hot, fragrant, swimming, bubbling, gefilte fish right out of the pot. This is an experience of such ethereality that in the past, only the most exalted of mystics could partake of it. Alas alack, we live in frightfully egalitarian and democratic times, in which that kind of spiritual stratification is no longer practiced. With thanks  giving to the Lord God of Israel upon your lips, ever so delicately take one piece of fish out along with a piece of carrot, and ladle some Yoikh upon it. Bring it upward, ever so slowly, to your blessed Jewish nostrils into which the Lord God of Israel has breathed the breath of life. And slowly, let it renew your ancient soul. Having done that, without at this point using any khrein (that’s horse radish for those of you who have lost facility with the Yiddish language) and taste it, in all its purity. Be careful, many a holy Jew has experienced an ascent of the soul at this point.

Now, I would very much like to establish a gefilte fish hotline and a gefilte fish test kitchen here at the Jewish Federation, so that each week, for the next eight weeks, you can, on Thursday evenings or Friday morning, prepare gefilte fish for Shabbat. Thus when you arrive at Rosh Hashanah, you will have had the benefit of eight weeks of gefilte fish practice. However, alas alack, in these difficult budgetary times, we were not able to find the funds needed to establish the gefilte fish test kitchens, as well as the gefilte fish hotline.

So now, if you quite literally immerse yourself in the great white fish swimming waters of the Great Lakes, and begin to work on your gefilte fish skills, no matter how early Rosh Hashanah comes, you will be prepared and you will be in sync. And you will have found your Jewish true north to lead you to Rosh Hashanah, calm and sure of fins and scale

Inconveniences: Temporary or enduring?

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Just a week ago I had the privilege to learn with the members of Nachshon, a JUF men's leadership mission, now in its 11th year. This learning took place in Auschwitz, Majdanek, the Warsaw Ghetto, and upon the topography of terror that is Berlin. While there we learned about the sleeping conditions, the available food and drink, the workday, the sanitary facilities, the medical care for the Jewish residents, and the landscape outside the windows of their living quarters. 

I thought about all this over the past few days as the news reports kept growing in intensity and despair about the cruise liner Carnival Triumph. The ship had a fire in the engine room; the ship lost power. The food preparation systems and the sanitary facility systems stopped working. Getting food and drink was not at all easy. It was really inconvenient. It was, in fact, a huge inconvenience. Electronic access to the world at large brought their predicament into our living rooms as the media, with ever increasing coverage, dramatized their plight. As I understand from the papers there were two or three cases of passengers who were thankfully airlifted off of the ship because of health problems. Several days of no showers, no fun vacation, sanitary facilities denied and so on; The Cruise from Hell, it was labeled.

But now let's take a larger view of this. To be sure, from the confined perspective of the passengers adrift at sea this was an unnerving experience. It became for them, and many observers, a microcosm of what can happen when humanity loses its regular supports. However, do we really believe that the significant inconveniences, absent any threat to life or limb, rises to the levels of suffering described in the news media? Have we reached such a point that being deprived of some basic conveniences is really, as one newscaster put it, nightmarish? And now we are going to begin the litigation circus. All sorts of attorneys are going to descend upon this group. And all sorts of passengers are going to see how much they can get out of this cruise ship company for their inconveniences. In our society, must every inconvenience be equated with real human suffering? 

I have a proposal for the passengers of the inconvenience fated cruise ship. One of the fundamental moral principles of Judaism is what was done to you, you should never do to others; what you experienced, you should never allow others to experience:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

So for all of you aboard the good ship 'inconvenience' who are now comfortably back on dry land, having just recently shaken your heads in media covered despair, this is an invitation to join in alleviating the real and enduring suffering in this world. 

Given the well-defined, limited, non-life threatening inconveniences in the areas of food, nutrition, sleeping accommodations, sanitary facilities, and the deprivation of recreational activities, might it not be a good idea for the passengers of the Carnival Triumph to form a society for the relief of inner city hunger and homelessness, for the rescue of those dying of starvation in sub-Saharan Africa, and withering away in the throes of genocide and violence in Darfur and the Congo? For the lack of recreation on board ship in the sunny Caribbean, can this group of passengers commit to building some playgrounds in our inner cities? If in such temporary conditions the passengers reacted the way they did and experienced a short taste of inconvenience, what can they now do for those who live those 'inconveniences' daily? Can they and we move from selfishness to selflessness?

On the death of a child

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As I write, news reporters, television, print, and electronic, are trying to find words for which there is no language. They fill our culture with the easy and the superficial. Words like: 'healing,' 'cope,' 'grieving process,' 'get past this,' 'come out OK,' 'move on,' roll off the tongue. Glibness is everywhere. Judaism teaches that when there is nothing to say we should say nothing.  We moderns get uncomfortable in silence.  We rush to fill it with the sound of our voices. We cannot imagine a world without the noise and words of connectivity. Sometimes only silence gives voice to what has happened.

In the encounter with the death of a child Aaron is our model. When two of his sons died we read "And Aaron was silent". When David lost Absalom, the son who rebelled against him, we read:

The king was shaken. He went up to the upper chamber of the gateway and wept, moaning these words as he went, "My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2Sa 19:1 TNK)

A bereaved parent would substitute their death for the death of the child.  This depth of despair is not often found in the more regular and natural deaths that are part of life.  Many languages have words for people who have lost certain relatives. A young person who loses parents becomes an orphan.  Bereaved spouses become widows and widowers. There are certain deaths that so profoundly alter the very nature of the bereaved that a specialized word is needed to express this new state of being.  Hebrew is a wise language.  It is one of the few languages that has a word to designate the person whose child has died.

That word is 'shakul' and in the feminine, 'shakula.' This Hebrew word appropriately enough means a reversal of the natural order. It is the way of the world that children shall bury old parents. The reverse is chaos. It is the undoing of the natural order for the parent, creator of life to witness the death of the life created. These Hebrew words are so unique that the only way to translate it is with a phrase, 'one who has lost a child'. There is no parallel in English.

Shabbat morning I had a conversation in Shul with a wise and learned pediatrician Dr. Edith Chernoff who treats very sick babies and little children.  Because she knows, and cares for parents who have lost children, I sought wisdom from her.  She said to me, "For the rest of their lives these parents will live in hell.  In the morning they sent a healthy, happy child off to school who came home lifeless."

This is why the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible has a word for such a person.  The fathers of the murdered children of Newtown, Connecticut are forever shakul and the mothers are forever  shakula

There are no words, no ideas, or poetry for the shakul and the shakula. We can offer only what the Halacha in its eternal wisdom provides. We can be with them. 

Sandy and God

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As I write these lines, six of my grandchildren in the New York Metropolitan area are without power.  It is getting cold.  Their day school was flooded by God's Atlantic Ocean. No one knows when it will re-open.  Their capable school staff and parent body are scrambling to find classroom space in local synagogues.  What are we to make of God and Sandy? 

Eight years ago after the Asian Tsunami which killed more than 230,000 people, the Chicago Tribune asked several area clergy a simple question:  What is the response of a believer to cataclysmic natural events?  My response was conditioned by other responses that made headlines around the world.  Some clergy of several faiths declared that the Tsunami was sent by God as punishment for a variety of sins.  At that time, I wrote that no one can know such a thing unless God has appointed him or her a prophet, and then told them the reason for the Tsunami.  We Jews believe that Almighty God spoke with our ancestors, especially Moses at Sinai. We also believe that God  has not spoken with anyone since the prophet Malachai in the sixth century BCE.  After the destruction of the First Temple, prophecy ends.  If we want to know the mind of God we look it up in the Torah and the Talmud and the codes. These tell us what to do in all of life's situations. The Torah and the Talmud do not tell us how to interpret contemporary events in nature or history. This article was, at the time, criticized by both Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. 

The fact is that according to the Jewish tradition no one today can assert that they know the mind of God about any natural event, or any event in history. What God has instructed us is found in the Torah and in the way the Torah is explained to us in the Talmud and other great works.  The response to any natural disaster is two-fold.  We are given the mitzva to help the suffering. We are given the instruction to learn how nature works (that is called science) to the end that we can protect ourselves from the mighty forces of nature.  The question then for a good Jew is not, why is this happening?, but rather, now that something awful and mysterious has happened what are my God given imperatives?  The answer to that is well known.