It is said that you have to die to go to heaven, but I must disagree. I enjoyed a little bit of heaven right here on the Lower East Side.
We spent the weekend in New York City. Naomi and I headed north to spend some time with one of her daughters and to get our NY Fix. We had a great time taking in a wonderful play, All the Way, found a couple of restaurants heretofore untested by the three of us as well as enjoying one of our romantic favorites. Eating is a nexus of Jewish and New York experiences. And speaking of eating, our ride out of the city was done in style by stopping on Houston Street.
We strategically parked the car at the corner of Eldridge and Houston and put the blinkers on. Then we headed or Yonah Schimmels. Think Knish, those plump pockets of potato perfection. Fortuitously we met a couple of New York’s Finest who were to be our guardian angels as we waited for the knishim (?) to come up fresh from the oven. Box tied with string in hand, we moved forward.
Then we traipsed through snow to the next destination, a bit further east on Houston was Russ and Daughters. The best cream cheese in the world as best as I can tell and so too the best Salmon, kippered salmon, lox, gravlax, whitefish, herring, etc., etc. etc. The line was long, so we schmoozed. The people behind the counter seemed to feed off of our enthusiasm to be at this mecca of appetizing. The bags were getting heavier.
And the third in our trifecta was Katz’s. How can we be so close and not stop in for some amazing stuff there? Tickets in had we moved toward the meat cutters. Naomi and I shared a frank and a sausage, both of course dripping in mustard and sauerkraut (I will have to return another day for some pastrami). Katz’s tag line says, “Send a Salami to your boy in the army.” But the hanging salami was irresistibly calling my name. I do not know what Rob Reiner’s mom had, but I was totally taken by the dried salami, a remnant of which now sits in my fridge at home. Our reinforced shopping bags were sagging.
Interestingly, we hit all three food groups as we moved across Houston: milchik, fleishik and pareve. According to my belt, my waistline seems to be about an inch larger than when I stared out a few days ago, and I seem unquenchably thirsty. But wow, what a road trip!
Experience forever changes who we are, what we are, particularly when it is an encounter with another. Each of us can think of a person who has had a profound impact on our lives, and usually impact is based on one select memory we have of our experiences with them. The experiences of this week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tisa illustrates the indelible impact of the encounter with God.
We struggle with God and the Divine presence. God chastises us for abandoning God by demanding and worshipping the Golden Calf. But doesn’t God deserve it? As we retell the story every Pesach, God “remembered” us and “with a strong hand and outstretched arm” redeemed us out from the land of Egypt. But just one question, “Where was God for past 400 years, while we suffered in slavery?” From our historical perspective it is a great story from which we make all kinds of meaning. But if you were the “average Yehuda,” living in Egypt before the redemption, you suffered as a slave, plain and simple.
So possibly, we remained a bit skeptical of God and this freedom stuff and we needed constant reassurances that it really was not merely smoke and mirrors, or in this case pillars of smoke and fire. And when Moses, our leader left us and did not return when he promised, we panicked. We reverted to the familiar stuff that comforted for generations. We went for the Golden Calf! Forgive us our weakness, but recent miracles not withstanding, we were not getting the “warm and fuzzies” standing in the desert at the foot of a mountain with both our God and our Moses nowhere to be found. We were scared and felt abandoned.
And of course, God sees this and is deeply offended by our fickle actions; for the Divine Presence is actively sharing Torah with Moses so that Moses can bring it back to the people. They are engaged in a deep communion. The people however don’t know that and react badly. God does know that, and arguably He reacts badly too.
God wants to wipe out the ingrates and start anew. He tells Moses that He will make a whole new people from Moses and these will be the new loyal and chosen people. It is Moses who stops God and persuades the Almighty that the existing people are indeed those with whom He is in Covenant, a sacred bond that cannot be irrevocably broken because of the bad actions in a moment. God is persuaded by Moses’ argument, but God’s relationship to the people is changed. God suggests that He will dispatch an Angel to lead them forward from Sinai. God is no longer interested in personally leading these people. Moses must use his powers of persuasion yet again to get God to amend this attitude.
As Moses helps God in God’s time of need, so too God helps Moses. For when Moses sees for himself the betrayal of the people and the great sin of the Golden Calf, Moses, to use common parlance, “loses it.” He smashes the two sacred tables given to him by God, and heads back up the mountain to suggest that God’s original suggestion was not so bad after all. Let’s start over! This time it is God who must talk Moses off the ledge. But Moses is also forever changed by this encounter. Torah speaks of Moses descending with light radiating from his face, so much so that Moses wears a veil whenever he appears before the people. The only time we are told Moses removes his veil is when he talks to God. This Midrash confirms the relationship is irrevocable altered. Moses still loves the people and remains their committed leader throughout the wandering in the desert. But the relationship is now different from what it was before.
The relationship between God and Moses is one from which we can learn and draw great meaning.
God and Moses play off each other. Both God and Moses need a partner, a sounding board to help them through. Each keeps the other in check so that one does not to fly off the handle acting rashly or precipitously in the moment in a way that would irrevocably damage another. How important is this lesson for us. To ask for help in getting perspective, not letting ego or hurt or pain cause an outburst or reaction. To consider and cogitate, dispassionately considering what really is the best course of action given the circumstances we confront.
Who gives you this kind of non-judgmental, unconditional support that you need? Do you have the security of a relationship where you can expose your true self and your true feelings without fear of harsh judgment or repercussions? Is there someone, or might you find that in your relationship with God. It can be your love, your friend, your rabbi or possibly a colleague such as my rabbi. How much better off would we be if were to think before we were to act, to measure what we do by the standard of what is best for all those involved, rather than to let ego dictate a reaction that gives us satisfaction in the moment but leaves a path of hurt or destruction in its wake?
Cain yehi ratzon May this be God’s will.
A few months ago, I said I would boycott watching the Olympic Games in Sochi. I will miss the extraordinary competition and the pomp and circumstance of this gathering of athletes from around the world. But I cannot in good conscience support a spectacle hosted by a dictator thug who has declared homosexuality illegal and who has among his many infamous and dubious distinctions such as suppressing human rights and making a mockery out of the rule of law, has abetted and enabled the atrocious slaughter of innocents in the Syrian Civil War.
I recall history and remember with admiration Jesse Owens. He won the Gold Medal in front of Adolf Hitler flouting and shattering the myth of Aryan supremacy. It certainly would be wonderful irony and affront to the Russian regime for individuals who are homosexual to win Gold and stand atop the podium time and again. I root for it, hoping it will happen, but I will not be watching when it does. I will not support the commercial enterprise; I will not support the corrupt and disgusting regime no matter what lovely face Vladimir Putin attempts to show the world. We know it is all merely show and it is contemptible.