Wednesday, December 31, 2008

In Which Chana Hosts A Masquerade Ball!

The past two years, I have held Masquerade Balls to celebrate my birthday on the blogs.

Masquerade 2006
Masquerade 2007

And it's time for Masquerade 2008...because I am turning 20.

Twenty is a peculiar age. I have enjoyed being a teenager. I recall having visions of what a lady was to be at 20- graceful, beautiful and otherwise dazzling. Alas! How I sadly recall my youthful visions now. But even so, I am sure that 20 shall be interesting times, and I shall have anything but a dull year.

The rules are very simple: You must sign in as an Anonymous commentator (but with clever and entertaining names; it's your chance to be a lord or lady), tell me what your costume is, and explain what gift you have brought for me (it can be anything at all, from the glittering of the sunlight on the lake to the words of an angel). I, of course, have provided a beautifully decorated ballroom, a dining hall filled with the finest delicacies, and spectacular music performed by the most brilliant orchestra in the nation. Tomorrow, you should return and unmask yourselves...although there are always those people who leave the party, never to return.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Burnt Roses

A story

Ash on an old man's sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.

~T.S. Eliot

His hair is silvered and his eyes are green. As he walks through the city, the water slick on the cement, the leavings of a torrential downpour that had taken place slightly earlier, causing many New Yorkers to unfurl their umbrellas and pull out their colorful rain boots, his eyes roam across the stores. He spots Crumbs and licks his lips, remembering the sinful taste of a chocolate cupcake, how he had tongued the whipped cream and lapped it up as though he were a cat, then brushed the back of his hand across his mouth, allowing a few scattered crumbs to fall to the ground. As he trod over them with his shoe, he had felt perfectly content.

He is stately and he walks in a stately manner. Slow, measured steps reveal a man of distinction; he wears a black greatcoat and a grey fedora, a small green and yellow feather tucked into the band. He is distinctive and handsome; men and women pause to look at him as he stands outside Papyrus, musing over the tinseled decorations, there just in time for Christmas. He notes the emphasis on red and green, thinks of the gold and white that he prefers, and passes on, but not before giving the friendly black man at the register a nod of recognition through the window.

His walk through the city is a ritual, a deep, cleansing practice he has begun in order to achieve serenity. He likes the feeling of walking through people, hoping as he does that one of them will know him, perhaps recognize him. What a meeting that would be! He has imagined it many times, the man on the street who would pause as he looked upon him and inquire, doubtfully, “Are you Mr. A—?” at which point he would nod gratefully, with a large, foolish smile pasted on his face. The smile would indicate the relief he would feel, the relief that he matters when it happens that someone at last, at last, knows him. Such recognition would mean that he has not, after all, lost everything, separated himself from everyone who ought to love him.

He lives in a walk-up in Washington Heights, a lone aging gentleman in the midst of Spanish Harlem and Yeshiva University students. He watches them as they go about their days, their beanies stuck closely to their heads with bobby-pins and clips, their ritual fringes flapping in the wind. He has begun to feel a close affection for them, one which was born from afar. He only ever sees them from his window, as he does not dare to actually speak to them. As for the local color, he becomes tired of the loud music which disturbs his sleep, but he does not want to leave. This is the last place for him, the place of all the memories. It is here that he must remain.

Every so often, however, he makes this expedition, coming into the city so that he can roam about, dressed stylishly. He often muses to himself that perhaps today will be an exception to his rule; he will meet somebody, whether it is an interesting young lady with laughing eyes and long brown hair, or a fellow senior citizen, and he will strike up a conversation, perhaps take them to tea- and how companionable that would be! As he pauses outside of a Barnes and Noble, wondering whether he should go inside, he thinks about the way in which he is perceived. He is rarely noticed, rarely seen.

A Salvation’s Army worker jangles outside of the Barnes and Noble, his bell ringing steadily. “Merry Christmas, sir!” the worker cries and he turns, surprised. He offers a rare smile in return, and feels his mood lift; someone has noticed him, even if it is only to ask him to spare a dollar, someone has realized that he exists.

He continues down the sparkling block, noting the chips of mica in the sidewalk, smiling at New York’s excesses. As he wanders he knows how he will conclude his journey; he has done it many times before. At last, having seen his fill, he ducks into a half-hidden nail shop, walking up the three steps and smiling at Kim before saying “Buff and polish, please.”

There is something so intimate in having someone touch your hand, knead the skin, apply lotion, cut your nails…this ritual is one he has created in his loneliness; it comes of his need to connect. He and Trisha have soundlessly connected for the past two years; he comes, requests his buff and polish, has her touch his hand, turn it over, knead it, clean it and otherwise minister to it, and in return for this intimate contact, he need pay her only $7. To him, it seems like a bargain.

He closes his eyes, opening to her touch, which is professional and gentle. The fact that someone alive touches him deliberately makes him glow with pleasure, and a blonde-haired girl who is getting a pedicure and reading Glamour looks up at him, smiling. She must find the sight of him amusing, an aging gentleman extending his hands to have them cleaned and prepared for his next encounter with the world. He smiles at her as well, retaining his dignity; there is no need for her to know what he does, that this is his last connection to a world that abandoned him long ago, that his age has betrayed him, and that he has come here to escape his loneliness by paying for this gentle touch.

Do manicurists know that they are also angels? he wonders. If he had to choose a figure to appear as his angel, it would be Trisha, simple and clean with her dyed brown hair and loose, striped apron, her Vietnamese background and her smile. The kindness she shows him is shocking. While he does not deserve it, he revels in it nonetheless. Each touch of her finger, the firm pressure against his palm, suggest in a way that has meaning that he still has purpose, that there is someone alive who can bear to interact with him.

He closes his eyes as she dabs oil onto his cuticles, then takes clear polish and applies it. It has a strange, biting smell, somewhat acerbic and yet cloying. He inhales it, breathing deeply, then stands up, placing his hands underneath the heater so that his nails dry. He seems composed, ever the gentleman. No one knows of the private sorrows that lie within.

He observes the others carefully, noting the blonde girl, looking at the various scandalous headlines on magazine covers. He smiles in amusement as he recalls one time when the magazines were delivered here; the lady in charge of the establishment, Kim, had taken off the rubber band binding them together, then thrown them here, atop this desk. She had not even bothered to read them. That distaste for the American culture and its shallow vapidity remained with him.

After ensuring that his nails were completely dry, he stood up, wishing everyone a courteous good day. As he left, he heard the blonde girl speaking to Kim, “That man reminds me of my Grandpa.”

A smile lights his face for a moment; if only he were that girl’s grandfather! If only he were anyone who had the right to interact with anyone like her. He shuffles slowly, his shoulders bent under some unimaginable burden, and makes his way to the 1 train, wandering off to his life in the solitary apartment within the graffitied walls of Washington Heights.


Tea and toast and pastrami, an invention he has created in his old age. Now that Maria is dead, he has no one to care for him, so he lives on odds and ends, every so often attempting a recipe, but more often than not, creating peculiar sandwiches which satisfy him. He looks through his newspapers, more out of force of habit than because he actually cares about the world around him. He stands up, carefully combs his hair, and changes into pajamas, a matching set in dark green with stripes and lines. He pulls on his thick white socks and places his feet into his orthopedic slippers, walking to the den, where he turns on the news. He has found that the voices lull him to sleep; the quiet bothers him. He sits down on the couch and waits until it is time to drift off.

Memories assail him. He remembers his past. More than that, he remembers his sons, and the lone daughter. Three strapping sons and the one golden girl, with her dark hair and wide, vivid eyes. He remembers Maria, of course, his loyal, faithful wife. But all his memories are overcast with regret. Regret has seeped into the color of the pictures that flash through his mind, turning them to sepia, burnt brown. His son has told him he is past all forgiveness. And at the same time, crying, those traitor tears flowing from his eyes, his son has told him that he still loves him. He loves him but won’t allow him to hurt their family anymore, which is why he is going to cut himself off from him. Those were the words his son used in his anger, in his youthful fury. He had thought those words would wear away. Well, they have not.

The others simply hate him. They remember the fights, they remember the times that Maria would lock herself in the bathroom and cry, silent tears that would escalate into real ones, after she had begged him not to discipline the boys. He never had the strength to tell her, or the words, of what his father had done to him. He was teaching his sons for their own good, and he was teaching them gently by any standard. He did not make them bleed, which ought to make them grateful. He had bled.

He would break them, force them to understand the value of attaining a superior education, of ensuring that they were the best at everything. His sons were slated to be the best athletes, the top scholars, the ones who would succeed at everything. It did not matter if they did not have enough money; when the Abraham clan went for a walk, it should be clear to all that they were the most handsome, successful, educated and scholarly people around. He would burn that into their flesh if they dared to disobey him, would discipline his wife for being weak. She was too merciful; she was too interested in her boys growing up to be kind. It was not kindness that he was after; it was productivity, hard, well-earned productivity, and simultaneously, success.

He was a man who had had nothing and had to earn everything. He had worked his way up, and he had given his children everything they could possibly desire. He would go without a new suit, without a new pair of clothes, for years in order to ensure that his sons and his girl were dressed presentably. His family mattered to him; he was a family man. He put food on the table, paid for their education, and made sure they had a roof over their heads. What more was there for them to demand?

He was a firm man, but to his mind, a fair one. He disciplined only when his rules had been broken. He expected his sons to be the best, and if they did not live up to their side of the bargain, it was their failing and it must be recognized. A dark love, stony and firm, lived inside him. His blood ran in their veins, and he’d be damned before anyone else in the world walked over him. It was only he who had the power to lead, the power to make them follow. He was the breadwinner in the house; it was governed by his rules.

He forbade Maria to work. What kind of a household was it where the woman worked? A man needs to be able to provide for his wife and for his children. If she worked, she would be taking something away from him, something deep and needed, something that made him who he was. She would be undermining him, emasculating him. She only asked once, and after that, she never asked again. He had made quite clear to her what his expectations were.

He ran his house and kept it in tip-top shape; he was a man of honor, a man of his word. He was a man of steel, or perhaps of iron. He believed in numbers, mathematics, in everything that was sensible or logical. He had no respect for pipe dreams, for foolishness, for everything that was not authentic. Authenticity and hard work were the two things that he respected, that, and his very essence: honesty. Anyone who told a lie was immediately banned from his circle of acquaintances. Lies were the devil, the very bane of existence. A liar was not a man.

His sons adapted and they adapted fast. Sam received top grades and was valedictorian in high school, making it into an advanced college program which would allow him to start medical school early. Jonathan followed suit. It was the last one, Rob, who made everything difficult. Rob was a dreamer, with his deep dark eyes and his thoughtful questions about the stars and the sky and the existence of God. Rob and his sister Rose were the difficult ones, and by God if he would not make them strong enough to survive this weak world.

He began that by destroying their fantasies and illusions. Rob had a strange quality about him, a girlish quality, even, this desire to believe in the goodness of people. Well, his father was an accountant and would teach him better. He showed him the lies people told, well-respected people, priests and pastors and rabbis, religious officials from across the spectrum. He taught his boy to know the meaning of honesty and to respect it in people, to realize that it was a rare gift and given only to a few. He taught his boy to recognize what it meant to be a man.

As for Rose, he let her entertain her silly thoughts a while longer, but then he taught her, too, telling her to set out and get a job as a typist, because at least that would keep her from spending too much time with all those foolish friends of hers. She was hurt when he told her that, hurt also when he didn’t care for the frippery and gewgaws she adorned herself with. He told her she looked mighty nice and she told him he hadn’t even stood up to glance at her. He’d stood up then, all right, stood up to tell her that her neckline was too low and there was no way his daughter was going to fraternize with boys in that dress; that would happen over his dead body. And he sent her upstairs to change her clothes, and didn’t notice if she was crying while he did it.

He didn’t notice Rob sneaking out of the house with his backpack, didn’t realize that Rob had taken Rose’s dress and given it back to her, that she had changed in the bathroom before attending the school prom. He found out later, though, when a picture of Rose was published in the school yearbook, and he beat Rob for that, took off his belt and whipped him with the strap, because disobedience was the same thing as a sin in his book.

He had raised his children the only way he knew how, with his love transmitted as a gruff, strong thing, present in the clothes he bought them, the school he sent them to, his expectations for them. They knew he loved them but they hated him, silently, secretly, in ways he could not see. Fear and hatred lived together in Rob’s innocent eyes, in addition to an overwhelming guilt. What was there for him to do? He could hear his mother sobbing in the bathroom and he wanted to keep his father away from her, even though he never laid a hand on her. Maria was the one woman in the world for his father; he would never hurt her. It was his voice that was a killing thing, that angry, harsh voice that managed to shout with a fury that took the flames of hell and gave them shape.

Rob lived within himself, a secret world that he shared with Rose. There was a strong age difference between Rob and Sam and Jonathan, and while they had been close as children, they had grown apart, especially as Rob became interested in religion and pursuing religious studies strongly. While his brothers had attended Hebrew school, they did not have the same natural curiosity that flared within Rob, that made him seek a different kind of education. They were hardened and strong, the kind of men who could face the world with impunity, their tempers high, their eyes never allowing tears to be shed. Rob could not live that way but neither could he live as he was; his father thought him too frail, delicate and thoughtful even now; it would be worse if he understood his son’s aspirations. What Rob desired, more than anything else, was to become a Rabbi, a man in touch with his people, leading them and loving them and guiding them, easing their pain and comforting them when tragedy struck. His soul was bound up with people, and they with him. Fresh and sensitive like the newborn dawn, he remembered the slights that had hurt him, and willed himself to pay attention to others so as to save them from that pain. He began with Rose.

Rose was a delicate child, graced with the beautiful aspects of a flower. Thin and dark in her beauty, her mother ever endeavored to fatten her, feeding her on chicken soup and meat and bread and watching as her daughter did not gain a pound. Rose lived in a fanciful world that provided her with an escape from the violence she saw practiced in her house; she withdrew as well, but farther than Rob had. She lived in a world completely of her own imagination, an while her beauty, simplicity and kindness brought her friends, she would not invite them home, or would make sure to do so only when her father was not around. She was secretly embarrassed of her father’s treatment of her mother, did not want anyone else to bear witness to it. And while her mother had made herself a member of the Women’s Aid Society, and was involved in planning projects to help the poor and otherwise benefit others, it was clear that she too felt a secret sadness, which she hid from her husband.

Rob sensed her secret existence and it worried him, so he made sure to make himself a part of her world, listening to her ideas and thoughts as they presented themselves to her. “I think there is a world beyond this one,” she would often say dreamily, “and I dream of it, and I think there Father will be whipped just like he whips you, and the marks will stay on his back…and you’ll hear him cry, the way that you cry…and you’ll take joy in it!” She was fierce in her hatred, unrelenting in her anger. Her father to her represented the most vile, the most cruel of all men. Her brother was more sympathetic; he had seen his father’s back and the scars; he knew there was a history he did not fully understand. But he listened to his sister nonetheless, and did not interfere; if her words gave her pleasure, than so be it.

Rose took to writing, hiding her thoughts in a notebook, black poems full of references to herself and her family in symbolic form. Rob was the Prince; she was the Burnt Rose, crumbling at the edges, withered and blackened from the fire. She was secretive, but sometimes, crying, would creep into Rob’s room and share her poems with him, after which he would hold her tightly to him and try to comfort her. He did not know why their family life affected her so; after all, their father was a good man even in his cruelty. What he did, he did to help them; he did it to make them stronger. Rob had made peace in his heart, although sometimes even he felt himself flare up angrily, the burning hatred ignited. Yet he had struggled to understand his father, to comprehend the man behind the actions that threatened to destroy his whole family, but most of all Rose and Rob, and he had forced himself to acknowledge the good, the strength the man possessed, his iron will and determination. He was the son of a good man, a misguided, angry man, but a good man nonetheless. That was how he struggled to think of it, in his effort to stop himself from killing the man.

It was his mother’s tears that killed him. He would see her after she had fought with their father, usually in order to try to allow her children some harmless form of entertainment, and the tears would flow alongside the sharp intakes of breath, where she would try to calm herself. Rob would see her then and he would feel useless, as though he was standing by and watching her hurt. And yet, she didn’t leave his father; she wouldn’t; there was something in her that refused to let her. Did she love him? Rob had often wondered. He believed that somewhere inside herself she did, not his mastery of her or the way he used her, but the strength that emanated from him, his protective powers, the fact that in the end, he did provide them with enough money for all their needs, and he was a hard-working, persevering man.

Rose could not bear to watch her mother cry. At those times she locked herself in her room and buried herself under the covers in order to muffle the sound, doing her utmost to block it out, to save herself from hearing it. Rob would come in to comfort her; he would stroke her hand, her hair, make soothing noises and try to take away her pain. Rose had a way of taking all the world’s pain and holding it within herself, in a vast, torturous repository of unhappiness. She was sensitive to everything, to everyone, to the plight of the sparrow and the disappearance of someone’s world. She shed tears, not for herself, but for the tragedy of a world at war, and she felt herself incapable of fixing it.

By this time Rob had set himself up to attend college; he had requested to go for a year in Israel, to a yeshiva, but under no condition would his father permit it. His farher felt he had gone far enough in allowing the boy to attend Yeshiva University as opposed to a prestigious medical school the way his other brothers had done, and he warned Rob that he must major in something practical and find himself a job. Glad to have even this much granted him, Rob set off for the wild world of New York, while Rose entered Northwestern, beginning school a year early.

Rose was majoring in English but told her father she planned to become a nurse, a profession he could approve of even while he looked down on her slightly, seeing as women ought not to work in his view. She found herself within the lyrical verses, reborn amidst the poetry that danced within her. She found herself thrilling to the words, responding to them more than she had to any boy’s touch. What comparison could be made between a boy’s tentative fumbling in the dark and these grand, glorious words which filled her an fulfilled her? She set herself up to become whole, luxuriating in the beauty of a world that consisted entirely of the beautiful thoughts of others.

But the sickness of the world still touched her, infecting her newfound Paradise. Rose was curious about her brother’s life and would write to him often, fascinated by the Talmud he was learning, unwilling to believe him when he stated that he was one of the less advanced students in the grade. He had always excelled at everything he had chosen to do; who could believe her Rob was struggling? She laughed off his troubles with a smile, choosing to believe in his modesty instead. But then she became aware of a troubling undercurrent that ran between Rob and their father; he had been granted a fifth-year scholarship, absolutely free, and he wanted to pursue it, after which he would go onward to rabbinical school. Their father had absolutely vetoed this move, stating that Rob had already spent enough time on his foolish Jewish studies, and that now it was time to move on, to settle down and get himself some sort of job, although of course no job would be as good in his eyes as the one his other sons had achieved- that of doctor.

Rob fought with their father about this decision, trying to use his mother to argue his case, the Rabbis at his school, and finally, Rose. This was ill-thought out on his part, but he had told her his heart and she decided to come home of her own initiative to plead his case, begging her father to have mercy. Her father looked at her and told her he would be damned if his son would grow up to be a preacher who stole money from people in order to finance his expenses, and Rose felt the chill in his eyes. She stood up, took her pocketbook and walked out of the house, back to her dorm. There was a high bridge that had to be crossed to reach her dorm, charming and picturesque, with trees all around, overlooking a stone pathway. Nobody knew what had happened and nobody could ever tell for certain whether she had jumped or been pushed (the thought was that perhaps she had been mugged), but three days later she was found, fallen upon the concrete, and she was dead.

When Rob found out, he went wild with grief. Crazed, he called his father vile names, and his brothers had to restrain him from physically attacking the man. To make everything worse, he heard whispers about the death in his college classes, with people arguing over whether someone who commits suicide can be buried in sanctified ground. When he returned home for the burial, he would not even look at his father; so angry was he. It was not the fact that his father had forbidden him to apply for the rabbinate; he did not believe Rose had killed herself over that one fact. It was all the pain and grief in the world that had gotten to his little sister, that and the fact that it was too much to bear. Her quicksilver poems no longer illuminated her universe; she saw it as a dark, ugly place. He could remember a phone call, a few days earlier, which he saw as being her goodbye to him; she had told him several times that she loved him very much, and he should always know that. Accustomed as he was to her poetic flights of fancy and expansive choices of phrase, he had seen nothing untoward in that call, but now, under the weight of this crushing grief, he felt like he should have known, and that her death was his fault.

He had failed at protecting her, just like he had failed at protecting his mother from the darkness that lay within his father. He had failed and it had cost him the ultimate price, so that his beloved sister, beautiful and wise and sad, had died for it. This undid him more than anything else, so that he cried, and hated his father for not shedding a tear. His father’s grief was a stony thing, just like his love, and it found expression in managing the details more than it did in any public form of expression. Rob hated him more for that than he thought he ever could; it was the darkness in his father that terrified him, because he did not want to be like that in any way.

People had a peculiar way of stating that Rob was like his father, even though he knew himself to be the most distinct from him. They seemed to see in him some of the same perseverance, determination and intelligence; they felt like his entire body betrayed him, in his physical resemblance to the man. Rob hated that, a feeling of terror rushed through him whenever he was told of a different way in which he was like his father, the man he worshipped and despised, the man who had made him who he was and had destroyed him forever. And beneath the feelings of hatred there was a love he could not root out, strong and thorny as it grew, because there was much he did owe his father even as there was much he could not forgive.

Sick and bruised as he was, Rob told his father he wanted nothing more to do with him. His father took that statement with perfect equanimity, but questioned him: Where would he get the money to support himself? He had no job and no way to continue living without his father’s help. In that one comment Rob understood his dependency, and he hated it. Abandoning his dream of pursuing the rabbinate, he threw himself into a search for jobs, looking for anything that would set himself up as separate from this man, so that he would no longer need to rely upon him or turn to him for anything ever again.

And then he met Bella.


Bella was like a light in the darkness, throwing off sparks and glittering elusively within his field of vision. Beautiful, accomplished, talented and strong, Bella had come to study at Stern College from Italy, a country that she loved. She was fluent in Italian, the words tripping lightly off her tongue, and her accent was a delicate thing, fascinating Rob, who struggled for a way to capture the essence of her joyful existence and bring it home to him.

It was not that he had never known joy. There had been times where, as a family, he and his siblings and parents had gone to the beach, and when he stood before the ocean he felt a joy and a fury that filed him, something ageless and timeless that granted him strength. He loved the waves lapping at his feet, thought that he would give almost anything to ensure that this feeling never met him. In the shadow of the ocean, he felt like he was invincible, like there was nothing that could vanquish him, nothing in the world. It was with joy that he wrestled with his brothers there, that he raced Rose as they swam in the water, that he covered his siblings with sand. It was his joy made real, even sacred.

But it was not the same as the way Bella knew joy, in her lighthearted, golden fashion. Her hair was rich and auburn, glinting red in the sun; her eyes were flecked with gold and reflected the light that seemed to fill her soul. She was young but she seemed ageless, filled with a wisdom that seemed unquestionable. She knew what the most important things in life were and it was these she strove to accomplish. She wanted to build a loving family; she wanted to bring more beauty to the world. The way in which these things were accomplished meant little to her, so long as it was practical; her desire was to introduce others to the unearned pleasure which had filled her life.

When she first introduced Rob to her family, he was stunned. Stunned because he had never before experienced the easy camaraderie the siblings shared, throwing towels at one another and joking with one another without fear of repercussions or a censoring voice booming out above them all to censor their fun. They were cooking together in the kitchen and he marveled at the girls, all of them older than Bella, who was the youngest, and their skill and expertise. He smiled when he saw the men, handsome and tall and heartbreakers, clearly Italian with their expression and killer eyes. How this house of Italian Jews came to relocate in Queens, he did not know, but he knew that the entire atmosphere was one that was filled with joy and love, and he responded to it and the healing which it caused him.

Rob met Bella while she was in her last year of Stern; he had succeeded in getting a job as a computer programmer at a company in New York. He visited her often and the two of them went wandering through the city, Rob constantly delighting in Bella’s wit and charm. She would make comments about the beauty of the sky, the way that the clouds appeared at that moment, or would graciously stop to converse with a beggar desiring a sweetroll. It was the constant delight of Bella’s unexpected actions that appealed to Rob, that and the fact that her love for life healed him and gave him renewed faith in a world that might be good despite its causing the death of his sister, a world that might exist for him without the gates he had formerly envisioned.

She did not take away his sadness completely; she would not even if she could, as it was clear that it was important to him to mourn his sister and appreciate her, to love her even after death. But she brought him kindness and playfulness and joy, and in these he reveled, taking in the light that was her natural adornment and fashioning a charm of it, one which he hung about his heart. She offered him her magical eyes, and seeing the world through her point of view, he found himself feeling lighter, no longer weighed down by the darkness that had so consumed him.

Rob knew that he wanted to marry her, but she was not yet sure of him. She led him a merry dance, not intentionally, but not thoughtlessly either, covering him over with her golden light while determining whether she belonged with someone so bruised. But there was a good and a kindness within Rob as well, and she was attracted to it, the gentleness of a man who has made himself gentle, who has tried to tame his wild temper and succeeded for the most part. And so it was that after a time, they got engaged, and the question became to what extent Rob’s father would be involved in their lives.

Bella was more than willing to meet him, but Rob could not stand the sight of him. Bella insisted that this was a courtesy they owed his parents, and with great reluctance, they both went to meet both Maria and his father. The man appeared in his best suit, his silvered hair styled becomingly, and it seemed as though he were truly interested in making amends. Rob looked on him with cold hatred; Bella acted like a butterfly, humming around him and finding cautious areas of laughter that acted as peaceable spots of dialogue. Rob watched, awed, as his father warmed to Bella, smiling up at her with something that looked almost like gratitude. At the last, before they took their leave, his father took her aside for a moment.

“I know he will not want me involved in your life,” he told Bella softly. “But I see that you are good for him and I- thank you.”

He said it with dignity, but the admission must have cost him, and Bella knew how grievously he regretted the way in which he had raised his son when he told her. She answered with her eyes, and as she and Rob walked out the door, she knew this man was not bad, only stubborn, and that it was his stubborn inability to change his mind that had so hurt his son.

Bella and Rob were married, and his parents were in attendance, although Rob spent much of his time with his father-in-law instead. The wedding was beautiful, and Bella made sure that it would be a time Rob remembered happily. In time, Bella gave birth to a beautiful daughter, whom they named Rose. Rob had tears in his eyes when he held her, a miracle given him by a God who had not yet abandoned him. However, he forbade Bella to allow his father any contact with the grandchild. “I will not have him ruining her, too,” he said angrily, and so Rose grew up knowing very little of her father’s family.

While Bella acceded to Rob’s wishes, as Rose grew older she told her more of her grandfather, emphasizing the fact that he was a strong, straight and honest man and that he had tried to live in the best way he knew how. Rose remained under the impression that this man lived somewhere far away, on the other side of the world, for all she knew. Rose’s birth was followed by Benjamin’s and then Nathaniel’s, so that she grew up in a family that loved her, and who followed her orders as though they had been issued by a goddess. The princess of the family, she paraded about happily, even as she excelled at her studies and grew older.

During this time, Bella would come to visit Rob’s father, making stops at his apartment in Washington Heights, where he and Maria had moved in their old age, to bring pictures of the children and share stories of them. She pleaded with Rob to allow her to bring the children themselves, but Rob remained adamant in his inability to forgive, and his desire to cut his children off from the man who had almost orchestrated his own destruction. Maria was a frequent guest at her son’s house, and often babysat for her grandchildren, but Rob would as soon have his father there as a monster. He returned the birthday cards and cheques his father sent, and would take no money from him.

When Maria died, all the grandchildren felt themselves bereft. With their grandmother gone, they took solace in Bella’s parents, the Italian family who loved them dearly. Little known as their other grandfather was, they did not visit him or comfort him; Rob did not want them to have any contact with him. He had not forgiven the man and never would, and so it was that Rose graduated high school and began college without knowing that her grandfather lived close by, and she could easily visit him.

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Rose attended Stern, just as Bella had. After she had adjusted to college life, Bella came to visit her one day, looking at her dorm room and taking her out to dinner. Over dinner, Bella told Rose of her grandfather, and the fact that he lived uptown, in Washington Heights.

“Why have I never seen him?!” Rose exclaimed in horror, feeling herself to be a terrible granddaughter. “He must think I hate him!”

“He does not think that,” Bella stated, looking at her sixteen-year-old daughter. Rose was a lighter version of the first version; while she was not thin with the same dark beauty, her eyes were blue and her hair was light brown. But their features were the same, to the point that sometimes her husband would look at his daughter and tears would creep into the corners of his eyes, for he felt like he saw his sister again.

And it was then that Bella told the tale, of the darkness and the magic that was Rose’s grandfather, of the strength, perseverance and iron love that flooded through him, even as he had effectively almost destroyed her father’s life. Rose was troubled, Bella could see, and as she took in the story she had to adjust it, fit it to her image of the loving grandfather she had always imagined existed somewhere in the world- just not so close by.

“Can I go to him?” she asked, and tears sprang to Bella’s eyes.

“Of course you can,” she answered. “I have come to give you the address.”


He awakens in front of the television. Shuffling, he heads to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, then takes out his electric shaver and carefully shaves himself. He takes off his pajamas and steps into the shower, feeling the hot water pound against his withered body, toweling himself off and after putting on pants and an undershirt, then donning a robe, he sets off to make breakfast.

How he misses Maria’s hot cereal! She would always give him oatmeal with cinnamon and sugar and a little milk, but now he contents himself with Fiber One, which he eats with milk. Spooning the cereal into his mouth, he hears a knock at the door. Confused, he wonders who it could be, then shrugs, thinking it must be a neighbor coming by to borrow an egg, or perhaps to ask for the daily paper.

“Coming,” he calls, pulling his robe tighter, then opening the door. A girl stands there, a fresh, breathing, beautiful girl, and she holds three roses in her hand.

He staggers as the color leaves his face. She looks so like his Rose, and yet that Rose is dead. “Who?” he questions, as he struggles to stand his ground.

“Hello, Grandpa,” she says, leaning forward to kiss him on the cheek. “I’ve brought these for you,” she hands him the flowers, and he takes them numbly, barely glancing at their lush red color, his gaze fastened on her.

“I’m sorry I didn’t come before,” she says amiably, cheerfully, “but you see, I didn’t know where you lived, and I didn’t know it was so close by- why, all I had to do was take the shuttle uptown,” and she pauses, then laughs. “Oh, how silly of me, I didn’t introduce myself! I’m Rose, Grandpa; I’m your granddaughter Rose! May I come in?”

Such a silly question. He reaches for her and gathers her into a bear hug, holding her as though he will never let go. “My Rose,” he breathes, and the words are disbelieving, incredulous. “Come in,” he says, and finally he is crying, the tears flowing from his eyes, trickling down his cheeks and onto her hair, her head, which is pillowed against his shoulder.

“Don’t cry, Grandpa,” she says innocently, sweetly, a sixteen-year-old-voice filled with all the love in the world. “I’ve come to stay; I’ll be back again. I want to know you, you see, and all about you, everything I don’t currently understand.”

His tears trickle, salty-sweet down to his lips and he can taste them. He kisses her on the cheek and motions her inside, places the roses in his hand inside a vase and fills the container up with water. He keeps on staring at her as though he can barely believe she is real; he looks at her as though he’ll never let her go.

“Really, Grandpa,” she assures him, “I’ve come to stay.”

“Your father?” he questions, and his voice is filled with pain. More tears come to his eyes as she shakes her head slowly, signaling that the answer is no.

“But I have you,” he says, and the warmth and gladness that fills his voice is immeasurable, impossible.


He keeps the roses she offered him on that first, impossible, golden morning, the roses that have become the symbol of her love and by default, the love of her siblings. They each come to visit and eventually Rob learns of it. While he is not happy about it, he understands enough to let them be. His father hopes, secretly, that he will have a chance at reconciliation with Rob one day. Now that he has met his grandchildren, nothing seems impossible.

The roses she offered him that first morning have withered and died, so that even to touch one of them causes them to crumble. He intends to press them between the pages of a book, keeping them there forever, when one of them crumbles between his thumb and forefinger, leaving the ash upon his sleeve.

He licks his finger, touches it to the brittle ash, then places it within his mouth. He is tasting love, he believes. He is tasting a kinder love than he himself possesses, one which surpasses and transcends the stony, thorny devotion that he always believed to be the most pure expression of emotion. In his old age, he has mellowed. In his old age, he has learned how to enter the world of dreams which always belonged to Rose and Rob.

In his old age, he has learned how to regret, and to feel the aching, impossible sorrow that comes of knowing that nothing can be changed.

Perhaps there are more victories to come, more joys that may cause his heart to melt. But he is content in the love of Rose, and the forgiveness of his grandchildren; he feels like a man pardoned, a man given back his soul. He longs to undo his crimes, well-intentioned as they were, and to reunite with his son, whom he still loves. But in the meantime, the ash of rose contents him, the ash of rose, and all that it means.


Credits:Meggie’s Theme” from The Thorn Birds, Pat Conroy’s novels

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Credo of Uncle Akiva in the Irgun

This is an awesome quote from the film version of Exodus (which stars a highly uncompelling Kitty, sadly.)


May I tell you something?
...justice itself is an abstraction...
...completely devoid of reality.
Second, to speak of justice and Jews in the same breath... a logical uncertainty.
Thirdly... can argue the justice of Arab claims on Palestine...
...just as one can argue the justice of Jewish claims.
Fourthly... one can say the Jews have not had...
...more than their share of injustice these past years.
I therefore say, fifthly...
...Let the next injustice work against somebody else for a change.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Psychological Brilliance of Joseph by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Rabbi Ari Kahn wrote up a brilliant Dvar Torah which will leave all who read it completely floored. I have republished it below.


Parshat Miketz 5769
Of Spies and Thieves

© 2008 Rabbi Ari Kahn

The Trap

After a series of strange negotiations and reversals of fortunes, the brothers of Yosef have procured food, and are finally united and on their way home to their father. The performance of what they had first thought to be a simple task - buying food - turned out to be impossibly difficult. It resulted in threats, arrests, incarceration and what seemed at the outset as unimaginable horror. But this is all behind them – they are free, mission accomplished. Shimon is with them, Binyamin is with them, once again they are united; they are whole. At least they think they are united. There is one more brother who is still unaccounted for. He is apparently not on their minds, and soon the illusion of a peaceful trip home, with all their trials and tribulations behind them, will be shattered -- with a vengeance.

Yosef sends off a messenger with the following instructions:
    (א) וַיְצַו אֶת אֲשֶׁר עַל בֵּיתוֹ לֵאמֹר מַלֵּא אֶת אַמְתְּחֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֹכֶל כַּאֲשֶׁר יוּכְלוּן שְׂאֵת וְשִׂים כֶּסֶף אִישׁ בְּפִי אַמְתַּחְתּוֹ:(ב) וְאֶת גְּבִיעִי גְּבִיעַ הַכֶּסֶף תָּשִׂים בְּפִי אַמְתַּחַת הַקָּטֹן וְאֵת כֶּסֶף שִׁבְרוֹ וַיַּעַשׂ כִּדְבַר יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר:(ג) הַבֹּקֶר אוֹר וְהָאֲנָשִׁים שֻׁלְּחוּ הֵמָּה וַחֲמֹרֵיהֶם:(ד) הֵם יָצְאוּ אֶת הָעִיר לֹא הִרְחִיקוּ וְיוֹסֵף אָמַר לַאֲשֶׁר עַל בֵּיתוֹ קוּם רְדֹף אַחֲרֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהִשַּׂגְתָּם וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לָמָּה שִׁלַּמְתֶּם רָעָה תַּחַת טוֹבָה:(ה) הֲלוֹא זֶה אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁתֶּה אֲדֹנִי בּוֹ וְהוּא נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ בּוֹ הֲרֵעֹתֶם אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם:(ו) וַיַּשִּׂגֵם וַיְדַבֵּר אֲלֵהֶם אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:

    1. And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth.2. And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his grain money. And he did as Yosef had spoken.3. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away, they and their asses.4. And when they were gone out of the city, and not yet far off, Yosef said to his steward, Arise, follow after the men; and when you do overtake them, say to them, Why have you repaid evil for good?5. Is not this the cup from which my lord drinks, and whereby indeed he divines? You have done evil in so doing.6. And he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words.

    ~Genesis 44: 1-5
No Crime; Why Punishment?

The brothers reply with self-righteous indignation: they are innocent and can prove it from their previous behavior.

    (ז) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו לָמָּה יְדַבֵּר אֲדֹנִי כַּדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה חָלִילָה לַעֲבָדֶיךָ מֵעֲשׂוֹת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה:
    (ח) הֵן כֶּסֶף אֲשֶׁר מָצָאנוּ בְּפִי אַמְתְּחֹתֵינוּ הֱשִׁיבֹנוּ אֵלֶיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וְאֵיךְ נִגְנֹב מִבֵּית אֲדֹנֶיךָ כֶּסֶף אוֹ זָהָב:

    7. And they said to him, Why did my lord say these words? God forbid that your servants should do such a thing; 8. Behold, the money, which we found in our sacks’ mouths, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan; how then should we steal from your lord’s house silver or gold?

    ~Genesis 44: 7-8
Their strategy is strange. Why, in an attempt to prove their innocence, would they dredge up a previous charge of larceny against them? They run the risk of actually reinforcing the suspicions against them: In light of this latest episode, the previous charge could now be re-opened and reinterpreted, and their guilt established. They note that they had returned the money that was found in their grain-sacks when they returned home, yet this proves nothing: The fact that they returned the money may have been an act of pragmatism, enabling them to purchase more food despite having earlier left their account in arrears.

The brothers continue to defend themselves, but the next line of reasoning, while noble and dramatic, might easily bear dire consequences.

    (ט) אֲשֶׁר יִמָּצֵא אִתּוֹ מֵעֲבָדֶיךָ וָמֵת וְגַם אֲנַחְנוּ נִהְיֶה לַאדֹנִי לַעֲבָדִים:
    9. If any of your servants is found to have it, let him die, and we also will be my lord’s slaves.

    ~Genesis 44: 9
Quite remarkably, they make the most bizarre offer: Death to the perpetrator, enslavement for the rest - extreme punishment for the guilty and the innocent alike. The counter-offer is equally strange: While the emissary appears to accept their offer, he actually downgrades the punishments. The death sentence is removed from the table, the innocent will go free, and only the guilty party will be enslaved:

    (י) וַיֹּאמֶר גַּם עַתָּה כְדִבְרֵיכֶם כֶּן הוּא אֲשֶׁר יִמָּצֵא אִתּוֹ יִהְיֶה לִּי עָבֶד וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ נְקִיִּם:(יא) וַיְמַהֲרוּ וַיּוֹרִדוּ אִישׁ אֶת אַמְתַּחְתּוֹ אָרְצָה וַיִּפְתְּחוּ אִישׁ אַמְתַּחְתּוֹ:(יב) וַיְחַפֵּשׂ בַּגָּדוֹל הֵחֵל וּבַקָּטֹן כִּלָּה וַיִּמָּצֵא הַגָּבִיעַ בְּאַמְתַּחַת בִּנְיָמִן:(יג) וַיִּקְרְעוּ שִׂמְלֹתָם וַיַּעֲמֹס אִישׁ עַל חֲמֹרוֹ וַיָּשֻׁבוּ הָעִירָה:(יד) וַיָּבֹא יְהוּדָה וְאֶחָיו בֵּיתָה יוֹסֵף וְהוּא עוֹדֶנּוּ שָׁם וַיִּפְּלוּ לְפָנָיו אָרְצָה:(טו) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יוֹסֵף מָה הַמַּעֲשֶׂה הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם הֲלוֹא יְדַעְתֶּם כִּי נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כָּמֹנִי:(טז) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה מַה נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה נִּצְטַדָּק הָאֱלֹהִים מָצָא אֶת עֲוֹן עֲבָדֶיךָ הִנֶּנּוּ עֲבָדִים לַאדֹנִי גַּם אֲנַחְנוּ גַּם אֲשֶׁר נִמְצָא הַגָּבִיעַ בְּיָדוֹ:

    10. And he said, Now also let it be according to your words; he with whom it is found shall be my servant; and you shall be blameless.11. Then each of them quickly took down his sack to the ground, and each of them opened his sack.12. And he searched, and began at the eldest, and ended at the youngest; and the cup was found in Binyamin’s sack.13. Then they tore their clothes, and each of them loaded his ass, and returned to the city.14. And Yehuda and his brothers came to Yosef’s house; for he was yet there; and they fell before him on the ground.15. And Yosef said to them, What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that such a man as I can certainly divine?16. And Yehuda said, What shall we say to my lord, what shall we speak, or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found.

    ~Genesis 44: 10-15
When the cup is found in the sack of Binyamin, again the brothers increase the punishment. Rather than punishment for the “guilty party” alone, as the steward had suggested, the brothers now increase the punishment and suggest that all of them become slaves. They are rebuffed: Yosef gives them a lesson in morality, explaining that only the guilty should suffer. In words that echo his great-grandfather Avraham, he says it is unjust for the innocent to be punished with the wicked.

    (יז) וַיֹּאמֶר חָלִילָה לִּי מֵעֲשׂוֹת זֹאת הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נִמְצָא הַגָּבִיעַ בְּיָדוֹ הוּא יִהְיֶה לִּי עָבֶד וְאַתֶּם עֲלוּ לְשָׁלוֹם אֶל אֲבִיכֶם:
    17. And he said, God forbid that I should do so; but the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my servant; and as for you, go up in peace to your father.

    ~Genesis 44:17
Yehuda then delivers a soliloquy, recounting history and finally offering his own imprisonment, instead of Binyamin. It would seem that Yehuda could have arrived at this result with much less fuss had he actually wanted it: he could have taken the blame for stealing the goblet from the moment it was discovered, thereby exonerating Binyamin. Yehuda was surely a more likely culprit, having been present at both episodes, while Binyamin was only present at the second meeting.

    (יח) וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה:


    (לב) כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת הַנַּעַר מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר אִם לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל הַיָּמִים:(לג) וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם אֶחָיו:

    18. Then Yehuda came near to him, and said, Oh my lord, let your servant, I beg you, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant; for you are as Pharaoh


    33. Now therefore, I beg you, let your servant remain, instead of the lad, a slave to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brothers.34. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that shall come on my father.

    ~Genesis 44: 18, then 33- 34

The entire episode seems like a wonderful lesson in how not to negotiate. We might better understand the brothers’ conduct in this scene if we are sensitive to their spiritual or religious needs: They are not negotiating, they are seeking punishment. They are consumed with feelings of guilt for a crime they committed many years ago – the sale of Yosef. It is this guilt they express. Ironically, the one brother not involved in any way with that earlier crime is Binyamin, which makes his entanglement in this episode confusing. Be that as it may, the brothers have perpetrated a crime and are now seeking punishment. They are prepared to be enslaved.

Yehuda’s words lead Yosef to reveal his identity, bringing the story to its bittersweet conclusion. The family is reunited, but in Egypt, where slavery will soon begin. Moreover, their guilt in the sale of Yosef hovers over the brothers for the rest of their days.


This interaction is not the first strange, nearly-incomprehensible dialogue between Yosef and his brothers. When they meet after many years of separation, Yosef recognizes them immediately, but they see only an aristocratic Egyptian. The conversation is obscure:

    (ז) וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר אֹכֶל: וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ:(ט) וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם:(י) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו לֹא אֲדֹנִי וַעֲבָדֶיךָ בָּאוּ לִשְׁבָּר אֹכֶל:(יא) כֻּלָּנוּ בְּנֵי אִישׁ אֶחָד נָחְנוּ כֵּנִים אֲנַחְנוּ לֹא הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מְרַגְּלִים:(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם לֹא כִּי עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם לִרְאוֹת:

    7. And Yosef saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them; and he said to them, From where do you come? They said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.8. And Yosef knew his brothers, but they did not know him.9. And Yosef remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come.10. And they said to him, No, my lord, your servants came to buy food.11. We are all one man’s sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies.12. And he said to them, No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come.

    ~Genesis 42: 7-12
We gather that Yosef was less than overjoyed to see the people who had so mistreated him. He feigns ignorance of their identity and, remembering his dreams, accuses them of being spies. Of course, they deny the charge, yet he repeats it. He insists that in fact the brothers are spies. They interject with what seems like irrelevant information and explain that they are all brothers.

    (יג) וַיֹּאמְרוּ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר עֲבָדֶיךָ אַחִים אֲנַחְנוּ בְּנֵי אִישׁ אֶחָד בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וְהִנֵּה הַקָּטֹן אֶת אָבִינוּ הַיּוֹם וְהָאֶחָד אֵינֶנּוּ:(יד) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵכֶם לֵאמֹר מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם:

    13. And they said, Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is absent.14. And Yosef said to them, That is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies.

    ~Genesis 42: 13-14
Yosef counters that this is exactly what he meant. The give and take is strange: What is the proper response to charges of this nature? The exchange is unclear. If we succeed in deciphering this passage, we may then gain insight into Yosef’s thoughts, his motivation, his plan.

The Missing Brother

The easiest explanation is that in fact none of the dialogue makes sense: Yosef has decided to take revenge, and their attempts to defend or explain themselves are futile. Whatever they would say would be useless in the face of Yosef’s power to entrap them. As readers, then, we should not look for deeper meaning in the dialogue.

Yet everything we know from the preceding narrative, everything we have learned about Yosef’s personality, indicates that he is neither impetuous nor whimsical. He is a visionary; he considers long-term consequences and implications. When he resists the seductive advances of his master’s wife, conquering momentary passion, he displays self-restraint that we might expect to see again in this new scenario. And when he meets Pharoh, he does not merely explain the monarch’s dreams, he proceeds to formulate a fourteen-year economic plan, which will rescue the Egyptian economy from drought and recession.

Here, too, when he confronts his brothers, Yosef has a plan. Like a master chess player, he has already thought through all of his moves, their counter moves and his end-game.[1]

Accusing the brothers of espionage may have been a preventive strike: Yosef is aware that his rags-to-riches story is well known in Egypt, and he has thought of the only way of preventing his brothers from hearing the details of his miraculous ascent to power. Once he has accused them of being spies, Yosef effectively prevents his brothers from asking the Egyptians, “Who is this Zafnat Paneach? Where did he come from?” Once they have been charged with spying, such inquiries would effectively prove them guilty, resulting in imprisonment or death. Outflanked, the brothers must now proceed in silence; they cannot ask probing questions about their inquisitioner.

There may be another reason Yosef chooses this particular charge with which to accuse the brothers, and the answer is almost too obvious. When he accuses them of being spies, he inwardly wants them to admit that they are in fact looking for something – or more precisely, for someone: their brother Yosef. Perhaps what Yosef wants more than anything is to hear these words from his brothers: They are searching for him, just as, so many years earlier, when Yosef met an anonymous man in the field who asked him what he was looking for, Yosef responded, “I seek my brothers”. The words echo and haunt us. Despite all the enmity, jealousy and hatred, ultimately Yosef is only seeking out his brothers. He hopes that his brothers will ask the anonymous, unfamiliar man who stands before them, “Have you seen our brother?”

How would the story have ended if the brothers had confided in Zafnat Paneach: “Yes, long ago we had a twelfth brother, who was last seen when he was taken down to Egypt as a slave. Our elderly father thinks that he is dead. We were young and impetuous, and didn’t consider the long term implications of our actions. We didn’t realize that we would break our father’s heart. We didn’t consider the moral and ethical considerations. Now we are indeed searching – not spying. We are looking for something precious, someone whose value we failed to appreciate when he was in our midst. It is our brother we seek.”

Had the brothers admitted to being “spies”, would the charade have continued?

Yosef seems to lead them precisely to this point when he says:

    … וְהָאֶחָד אֵינֶנּוּ:(יד) וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵכֶם לֵאמֹר מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם:

    …and one is absent.14. And Yosef said to them, That (of He) is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies;
The accusation of being spies is specifically in regard to the one missing brother! He is telling them, perhaps inwardly pleading with them; “You are looking for your lost brother.” We can image Yosef, his heart racing, hoping, praying, that it is true that the brothers are looking for him. But they shatter that sweet illusion and deny any spying. Therefore, Yosef sets an alternative plan in motion: He seeks to jar their memories. He will force them to remember what they have buried away deep in their collective memories. He will remind them that there was once a twelfth brother, that his name was Yosef – and that Yosef is still looking for his brothers.

So, the alternative plan begins: They are all arrested and thrown into prison. Yosef forces them to relive his own experience, in an attempt to jolt them into recognition. Interestingly, various words are used to describe the imprisonment of Yosef and now the brothers. All of these are connected to the “original sin” of the sale of Yosef, who is cast into a pit by his brothers before he is sold. Later, when Yosef tells his life story to a fellow prisoner, he describes his imprisonment “in the pit”, referring either to the Egyptian prison in which they are languishing, or perhaps the pit into which his brothers cast him – or both (Bereishit 40, 15). When he is released from prison and brought before Pharoh, the narrative describes his release “from the pit” (Bereishit 41:14). Linguistically, thematically, and apparently emotionally, Yosef’s prison experience is linked with his initial indignity - when he was thrown into the pit by his brothers. The brothers’ prison experience, though engineered by Yosef to hark back to his own trauma, is described in different terms. They are placed under guard, but not in the pit.

A few days in prison brings the brothers to a very raw emotional place. Their guilt rises from the subconscious to the forefront of their consciousness, and the conversation finally turns to Yosef:

    (כא) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל אָחִיו אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ עַל כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת:(כב) וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָ:

    21. And they said one to another, We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.22. And Reuven answered them, saying, Did I not speak to you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and you would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required.

    ~Genesis 42: 21-22
They remember, and they acknowledge that punishment is due. They accept their guilt and believe they should be punished. Yet they take no action to rectify the situation. They do not make any inquiries regarding Yosef’s fate or whereabouts. They do not admit their wrongdoing to Yaakov.

When all but Shimon are released and their money is returned to their bags, they have no inkling that an additional encounter is being engineered.


Eventually, the brothers return to Egypt. The money which they discover in their sacks is returned, and more provisions are purchased. A joyous reunion takes place with their brother who has been absent because he was thrown into prison – Shimon. Yosef watches the brothers rejoice in their regained unity, as they celebrate their family being “whole” again. Of course, there is still one brother missing, one brother unaccounted for, one brother who does not even seem to be missed: Yosef.

They are invited to eat. The last time Yosef saw, or to be more precise, heard his brothers eating was when he was in the pit: They had callously dined while Yosef, stripped of his coat, cried out to them from the pit. Now they eat together, all twelve brothers. Yosef yearns for their companionship, yet they acknowledge neither his absence - nor his presence. Can they still hear his cries? Does it haunt them? Late at night when they try to sleep do they still hear Yosef screaming? Does the image of his being carried away still fill their minds – or is Yosef forgotten?

As far as the brothers are concerned, they are dining with Egyptian royalty, and apparently they get carried away, and allow themselves to eat and drink, and they become inebriated.[2] They have much to celebrate: Their family is whole once again. They are about to go home. They looked forward to putting this entire episode behind them, forgetting all the unpleasantness - just as they forgot Yosef.

Their bags are packed and their money is returned, and Yosef’s goblet surreptitiously placed in the bag of Binyamin. Yosef’s master plan requires that one more episode be relived.

They are on their way, when they are accosted on the road. Their bags are searched, and they are made to feel vulnerable and humiliated. This happened once before, years earlier, when they were young, when they were still one family:

    (כב) וַיֻּגַּד לְלָבָן בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי כִּי בָרַח יַעֲקֹב:(כג) וַיִּקַּח אֶת אֶחָיו עִמּוֹ וַיִּרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו דֶּרֶךְ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וַיַּדְבֵּק אֹתוֹ בְּהַר הַגִּלְעָד:


    …(לג) וַיָּבֹא לָבָן בְּאֹהֶל יַעֲקֹב וּבְאֹהֶל לֵאָה וּבְאֹהֶל שְׁתֵּי הָאֲמָהֹת וְלֹא מָצָא וַיֵּצֵא מֵאֹהֶל לֵאָה וַיָּבֹא בְּאֹהֶל רָחֵל:(לד) וְרָחֵל לָקְחָה אֶת הַתְּרָפִים וַתְּשִׂמֵם בְּכַר הַגָּמָל וַתֵּשֶׁב עֲלֵיהֶם וַיְמַשֵּׁשׁ לָבָן אֶת כָּל הָאֹהֶל וְלֹא מָצָא:

    22. And it was told to Lavan on the third day that Yaakov had fled. 23. And he took his brothers with him, and pursued him seven days’ journey; and they overtook him at Mount Gilead


    33. And Lavan went into Yaakov’s tent, and into Leah’s tent, and into the two maidservants’ tents; but he did not find them. Then he went out from Leah’s tent, and entered into Rachel’s tent. 34. Now Rachel had taken the teraphim, and put them in the camel’s saddle, and sat upon them. And Lavan searched all the tent, but did not find them.

    ~Genesis 31: 22-23, 33-34
When Lavan catches up with Yaakov, he has a long litany of complaints, including: And now that you are surely gone, because you so long for your father’s house, why have you stolen my gods?

Accused of a crime of which he knows of he is innocent, Yaakov makes an unfortunate pronouncement: Death to the culprit!

    (לב) עִם אֲשֶׁר תִּמְצָא אֶת אֱלֹהֶיךָ לֹא יִחְיֶה נֶגֶד אַחֵינוּ הַכֶּר לְךָ מָה עִמָּדִי וְקַח לָךְ וְלֹא יָדַע יַעֲקֹב כִּי רָחֵל גְּנָבָתַם:
    32. With whom you will find your gods, let him not live. Before our brothers point out what I have of yours, and take it with you. For Yaakov did not know that Rachel had stolen them.

Years later, when the brothers recommend a death sentence for the culprit, they are mimicking their father’s response to a similar situation: Yaakov had responded to the theft of Lavan’s idols[3], and the cup which they have been accused of stealing, is reported to be used for “divination”.[4]

The brothers are not negotiating. They are under extreme pressure, and they revert back to a time when they were frightened and vulnerable. They recall their father’s reaction, and respond likewise.

Later, when Yehuda speaks up, he, too, imitates his father’s response to that earlier scene:

    (לו) וַיִּחַר לְיַעֲקֹב וַיָּרֶב בְּלָבָן וַיַּעַן יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר לְלָבָן מַה פִּשְׁעִי מַה חַטָּאתִי כִּי דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי:

    36. And Yaakov was angry, and chided Lavan; and Yaakov answered and said to Lavan, What is my trespass? What is my sin, that you have so hotly pursued me?

    ~Genesis 31: 36
Yosef is trying to jar their memories, and he takes them back to the most traumatic episode of their childhood: They are hastily removed from their grandfather’s home, the only home they know. They will soon face the threat of Esav and his henchman. Between these two pressure points, they are chased down on the road, stopped and searched. And they respond exactly as their father did: “Let the thief be put to death”

Yosef throws it back in their faces. His response seems to shout: “If you identify with your father so completely, so automatically, that you mimic his words, why do you treat him as you do? Why have you let him mourn all these years? If you want to be like your father, why don’t you reach out to your estranged brother as he reached out to Esav? Why, in your minds, is Yosef dead and forgotten?”

Time after time, bit by bit, in one subtle act after another, Yosef works on their memory. He replicates harsh experiences in order to achieve catharsis. As a therapist working with a patient, Yosef forces them to revisit some of the most horrific episodes of their lives, with one goal: to remind them, to wake them up – “Haven’t you forgotten something? Aren’t you looking for someone? Aren’t you really spies?”

Only when Yehuda presses on and finally speaks of his father’s pain and loneliness, does Yosef relent.

    (כז) וַיֹּאמֶר עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי אֵלֵינוּ אַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם כִּי שְׁנַיִם יָלְדָה לִּי אִשְׁתִּי:(כח) וַיֵּצֵא הָאֶחָד מֵאִתִּי וָאֹמַר אַךְ טָרֹף טֹרָף וְלֹא רְאִיתִיו עַד הֵנָּה:(כט) וּלְקַחְתֶּם גַּם אֶת זֶה מֵעִם פָּנַי וְקָרָהוּ אָסוֹן וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֶת שֵׂיבָתִי בְּרָעָה שְׁאֹלָה:(ל) וְעַתָּה כְּבֹאִי אֶל עַבְדְּךָ אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתָּנוּ וְנַפְשׁוֹ קְשׁוּרָה בְנַפְשׁוֹ:(לא) וְהָיָה כִּרְאוֹתוֹ כִּי אֵין הַנַּעַר וָמֵת וְהוֹרִידוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ אֶת שֵׂיבַת עַבְדְּךָ אָבִינוּ בְּיָגוֹן שְׁאֹלָה:(לב) כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת הַנַּעַר מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר אִם לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל הַיָּמִים:(לג) וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם אֶחָיו:(לד) כִּי אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת אָבִי:

    27. And your servant my father said to us, You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28. And the one went out from me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I have not seen him since;29. And if you take this (son) from me as well, and harm befall him, you shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.30. Now therefore when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad’s life;31. It shall come to pass, when he sees that the lad is not with us, that he will die; and your servants shall bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.32. For I, your servant, am collateral for the lad to my father, saying, If I bring him not to you, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever.33. Now therefore, I beg you, let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brothers.34. For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest perhaps I see the evil that shall come on my father.

    ~Genesis 44: 27-34
His father’s pain was never Yosef’s desire; quite the opposite. It was his father’s misery which tormented him. Yosef relents at this juncture, for Yehuda has shown heroism. It would have been easy for Yehuda to reason that Rachel and her sons were all tainted by the same evil: Rachel had stolen the terphim years ago, Yosef her son was no better, and now the younger son Binyamin has proved his own moral turpitude – by stealing like his mother and being selfish and self-centered like his brother. In fact, this was the direction in which Yosef was leading him, and would have been the easy way for Yehuda to resolve his own dilemma. But Yehudah displays leadership and responsibility. He is willing to be enslaved so Binyamin can go free. Yehuda is unwilling to cause or endure his father’s pain.

To Yehudah’s heart-wrenching plea – Yosef has the ultimate response.

    (ג) וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו:

    3. And Yosef said to his brothers, I am Yosef; does my father still live? And his brothers could not answer him; for they were shocked by him.

    ~Genesis 45: 3
Yehuda explains that Yaakov’s life is intertwined with Binyamin’s; he tells this “stranger” that Yaakov had a wife whom he loved and that if this last remaining son were to be wrested from him Yaakov will die. Yosef asks: “I am Yosef – is my father still alive? Are you really so concerned about Yaakov’s well-being that you claim he will die if his beloved son is taken from him?” He challenges and chastises: “I am Yosef. Could my father be alive? Can he have survived what you have already done?”[5]

To this there is no answer. To this there can not be an answer. All of their neat explanations are gone. No justifications will work. The stark truth of Yosef’s existence stares them into silence. They have no words, only guilt.

The Rabbis compared this experience of silence to the Day of Judgment, when God, the All-knowing, judges man. No finesse, no legalese, no justifications: on that day, only the humiliation of facing the truth remains.[6]

Apparently, what Yosef seeks is not revenge; that could have been easily achieved, given his position of power. Instead, he takes his brothers on a tour – an emotional guilt trip. He does not seek their humiliation; that was never his objective. He wants to remind them of the past, to remind them that there is someone they have forgotten.

    וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶת-אַחַי אָנֹכִי מְבַקֵּשׁ
    And he said, It is my brothers that I seek

    ~Genesis 37:16
He wants his brothers to be looking for him; all he ever wanted was his brothers.


[1] It unclear if Yosef did succeed in arriving at the end, when Yosef reveals himself, the text attests that “Yosef could not contain himself any longer” it sounds that he did wish to contain himself at least bit longer. See Bereishit 45:1

[2] Bereishit 43:34 …And they drank, and were merry with him.

[3] According to the Midrash Tanchuma Vayetze (Warsaw Edition) section 12, Rachel takes the teraphim to prevent Lavan from divining the location of her family as they escape.

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת ויצא סימן יב
(יב) ויבא אלהים אל לבן הארמי בחלום הלילה זה אחד משני מקומות שטמא הטהור כבודו בשביל הצדיקים, כאן, ובמקום אחר ויבא אלהים אל אבימלך בחלום הלילה (בראשית כ) בשביל שרה, התחיל לבן אומר ליעקב ועתה הלך הלכת וגו' למה גנבת את אלהי, השיבו עם אשר תמצא את אלהיך לא יחיה, באותה שעה נגזר על רחל מיתה, ומשש לבן את כל האהל ולא מצא, ורחל לקחה את התרפים, למה גנבה אותם כדי שלא יהו אומרים ללבן שיעקב בורח עם נשיו ובניו וצאנו, וכי התרפים מדברים הם, כן דכתיב (זכריה י) כי התרפים דברו און,

[4] See Bereishit 44,5: Is not this it in which my lord drinks, and whereby indeed he divines?

ספר בראשית פרק מד
(ה) הֲלוֹא זֶה אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁתֶּה אֲדֹנִי בּוֹ וְהוּא נַחֵשׁ יְנַחֵשׁ בּוֹ הֲרֵעֹתֶם אֲשֶׁר עֲשִׂיתֶם:

[5] See the commentary of the Seforno, 45:3

ספורנו עה"ת ספר בראשית פרק מה פסוק ג
(ג) העוד אבי חי. אי אפשר שלא מת מדאגתו עלי:

[6] Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash Warsaw edition siman 5, also see Kli Yakar, and Rabbenu Bachya

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת ויגש סימן ה
אמר להן יוסף לא כך אמרתם שאחיו של זה מת אני קניתיו אקראנו ויבא אצלכ', התחיל קורא יוסף ב"י =בן יעקב= בא אצלי יוסף ב"י בא אצלי ודבר עם אחיך שמכרוך והיו נושאין עיניהם בארבע פינות הבית א"ל יוסף למה אתם מסתכלין לכאן ולכאן אני יוסף אחיכם, מיד פרחה נשמתן ולא יכלו לענו' אותו אר"י ווי לנו מיו' הדין ווי לנו מיום תוכחה ומה יוסף כשאמר לאחיו אני יוסף פרחה נשמתן כשעומד הקב"ה לדין דכתיב ביה (מלאכי ג) ומי מכלכל את יום בואו ומי העומד בהראותו שכתוב בו כי לא יראני האדם וחי (שמות לג) עאכ"ו,

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Thorn Birds

There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree, and does not rest until it has found one. Then, singing among the savage branches, it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale. One superlative song, existence the price. But the whole world stills to listen and God in his heaven smiles. For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…Or so says the legend.

~The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough


Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Servants & Donkeys

Saul meets Samuel and becomes king due to seeking lost donkeys:
    ב וְלוֹ-הָיָה בֵן וּשְׁמוֹ שָׁאוּל, בָּחוּר וָטוֹב, וְאֵין אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, טוֹב מִמֶּנּוּ; מִשִּׁכְמוֹ וָמַעְלָה, גָּבֹהַּ מִכָּל-הָעָם.

    2 And he had a son, whose name was Saul, young and goodly, and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.

    ג וַתֹּאבַדְנָה, הָאֲתֹנוֹת, לְקִישׁ, אֲבִי שָׁאוּל; וַיֹּאמֶר קִישׁ אֶל-שָׁאוּל בְּנוֹ, קַח-נָא אִתְּךָ אֶת-אַחַד מֵהַנְּעָרִים, וְקוּם לֵךְ, בַּקֵּשׁ אֶת-הָאֲתֹנֹת.

    3 Now the asses of Kish Saul's father were lost. And Kish said to Saul his son: 'Take now one of the servants with thee, and arise, go seek the asses.'

    ~Samuel I 9:2-3
In contrast, Shimi ben Gerah dies due to his seeking lost servants:
    לט וַיְהִי, מִקֵּץ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים, וַיִּבְרְחוּ שְׁנֵי-עֲבָדִים לְשִׁמְעִי, אֶל-אָכִישׁ בֶּן-מַעֲכָה מֶלֶךְ גַּת; וַיַּגִּידוּ לְשִׁמְעִי לֵאמֹר, הִנֵּה עֲבָדֶיךָ בְּגַת.

    39 And it came to pass at the end of three years, that two of the servants of Shimei ran away unto Achish, son of Maacah, king of Gath. And they told Shimei, saying: 'Behold, thy servants are in Gath.'

    מ וַיָּקָם שִׁמְעִי, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, וַיֵּלֶךְ גַּתָה אֶל-אָכִישׁ, לְבַקֵּשׁ אֶת-עֲבָדָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ שִׁמְעִי, וַיָּבֵא אֶת-עֲבָדָיו מִגַּת. {ס}

    40 And Shimei arose, and saddled his ass, and went to Gath to Achish, to seek his servants; and Shimei went, and brought his servants from Gath.

    ~Kings I 2:39-40
This is particularly interesting in light of the pasuk where Abraham bids the young men (possibly servants) to wait alongside the donkeys:
    ה וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר, וַאֲנִי וְהַנַּעַר, נֵלְכָה עַד-כֹּה; וְנִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, וְנָשׁוּבָה אֲלֵיכֶם.

    5 And Abraham said unto his young men: 'Abide ye here with the ass, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship, and come back to you.'

    ~Genesis 22:5
Various commentaries observe that the servants there are equated with the donkeys in that, just as the donkeys could not see God's spirit resting on the mountain, neither could these servants.

But I was thinking how interesting it might be to take that out of context and apply it to these two situations- when it comes to lost donkeys or lost servants, one does not necessarily see "God's spirit resting on the mountain," and yet, whatever is meant to happen, happens. Either one becomes King or one loses his head, in accordance to the will of God.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Flames of Faith: An Introduction to Chassidic Thought

Rabbi Zev Reichman's fantastic introduction to Chassidic thought, Flames of Faith, has the wonderful effect of raising one's spirits, reinspiring one's commitment to God and otherwise revitalizing one's entire attitude. It is an excellent book to lend to someone who would like to understand the premise or basics behind the Chassidic movement. It is also fantastic for someone who desires to rejuvenate their spirits and reconnect to God. While the book contains various typos or grammatical mistakes, that has to do with editing as opposed to the content, which is fantastic.

The work opens with a brilliant mashal that explains the creation of Chassidus:

    There was once a king whose only son was a source of enormous pride and joy. Then disaster struck. The young man contracted a mysterious illness, collapsed into a deathly coma, and no royal doctor could revive him.

    In desperation, a professor of herbal medicine was summoned to the palace. The specialist examined the boy and prescribed an unconventional remedy.

    "Grind a twenty eight karat ruby gemstone to a pulp, and then mix it with several common herbs and mineral water and feed it to the boy."

    Many of the king's attendants heard the professor's words as quackery. The rare and precious stone he had requested was the centerpiece of the setting on the king's crown. These skeptics felt that the king's crown should not be destroyed on the directives of a shaman. Other officials contended that their king certainly wanted his court to attempt every possible cure, regardless of cost or plausibility. The professor did not wait for the two groups to resolve their fight. He seized the crown, tore out the jewel that was its heart, and crushed the stone into granules. After feeding the potion to the prince, the boy immediately opened his eyes and eventually recovered fully.

While in Crown Heights this past Shabbat, I learned the rest of the story. This parable was one told over by R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi to explain why the Baal Shem Tov had started Chassidus- the King in the parable is God, the Jewish nation is the crown prince and the Baal Shem Tov was the one who ground down the jewel, extracting the wisdom of Sod, or Jewish mysticism, Torah's most precious part and God's crown jewel, and making it accessible even to the common people. When R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi was in prison, he had a vision of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, who appeared to him and informed him there was a kitrug in shamayim against him for his spreading of Chassidus. He inquired as to what he was to do, and whether he should perhaps stop teaching Chassidus, and they explained that since he had already started, he should finish what he started. There was a distinction between the Chassidus the Besht had practiced and the author of the Tanya's Chassidus. The Besht's Chassidus had ground down the crown jewel, but had only introduced several of these concepts to man; R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi's had simplified these concepts further. Yud-Tes Kislev, today, R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi was released from prison and it is considered the New Year of Chassidus, because the Chassidus he taught after having been released was entirely different from that which he had taught before.

Another parable enclosed in this book which speaks to me is from Sidduro Shel Shabbos, shoresh 5, anaf alef, aleh 15:

    A king once sought to display the broad reaches of his empire. He issued an edict that called on his subjects to provide him with precious stones from the different parts of his kingdom for he desired to fashion a crown that would demonstrate to all the breadth of his rule. The loyal subjects scaled mountains and dug deep mines to find the many different types of gems in the king's territories. A simple peasant decided that he would provide evidence that the king's rule reached the depths of the ocean. He set out in a small boat to the middle of the sea, then he dove into the frothing waters, to try and procure a pearl from the ocean floor. It was a dangerous dive, undercurrents swept him away from his goal, sharks lurked beneath the waves, and his lungs quickly felt as if they would burst from exhaustion. He had to rise to the surface and gulp air many times, yet he persevered and kept diving below. Eventually, he found a tiny pearl. Exhausted, he brought the pearl to the king. The king, touched by the peasant's dedication, took the small and simple stone and made it the centerpiece of his crown.

    ~Flames of Faith, 23

Writes Rabbi Reichman: "Each of us can be the simple peasant in the story. We were sent to this sphere of existence to display the breadth of God's rule. When we obey His commands, while in a lustful, physical body and in a tempting material environment, we demonstrate that God is King even in the depths of the physical realm."

I don't know about you, but I find that immensely comforting. It makes me glad that my small efforts, given how much I don't understand, could still be pleasing to God. Sometimes I feel very overwhelmed by how much there is to learn and how little I know. I become very sad then. What I have to remember is that God wants even whatever it is that I do or can discover, the one solitary pearl I found...

Rabbi Reichman also explains something else I always wondered about:

    Why do some ideas become part of your very personality, fostering feelings and behaviors? Because those ideas resonated with your unique soul. Your soul has a particular character: it might be a very loving soul, because the most powerful part of you is Chessed, or you might have a very poetic soul since Tiferes is the primary force of your personality. Certain presentations correspond to your core. For the giving individual, Talmudic legends (Aggadah) will resonate. His essence is Love (Chessed), the Talmudic stories contain moral ideas that stem from the same source and they are compared to water, another manifestation of Chessed. The poet might find that Jewish poetry such as the heartfelt songs of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi enter him in an intrinsic manner. Daas is a manifestation of your very essence. Daas is the awareness of what is truly relevant, for what is meaningful and relevant to my essence is what I will internalize.

    ~Flames of Faith, 228

I think this does an excellent job of explaining why different approaches will resonate with different people. Some people need a very rational, halakha-based approach to connect to their Judaism, while others need a more emotional approach. It depends on what kind of soul you have and where it emanates from.

He explains further:

    Both approaches, Chabad and Chagat Nehim, are necessary. Different Jews are drawn to varied approaches of serving God. Each Jewish soul is rooted in a unique point in Heaven. The path of service a Jew will find most appealing is the one that corresponds to his root in Heaven. Some souls are rooted in Mochin. These individuals are great intellectuals who can comprehend abstract concepts and Chabad is the approach they should follow. Other souls are rooted in the emotional areas of Heaven and they will find that the approaches of Chassidic groups that emphasize Chagat Nehim are best for them.

    ~Flames of Faith, 258

In a footnote, Rabbi Reichman makes mention of an interesting idea connected to this one:
    This idea is sometimes presented as the lesson of the structure of the first man. Adam was the first human and as a result, all the future souls of mankind were incorporated in his soul and its parts. Some individuals are very generous and they attain a sense of Divine experience through giving charity. These souls were in the hands and fingers of Adam; that is why their innate nature is generosity, and they reach God through charity. Other souls were in the heart of Adam; these are the singers of Israel, those who pray with extra devotion and reach God through the Service of the Heart, Prayer. (Rav Wolfson)

    ~Flames of Faith, 195

So in that way, depending on the soul, one may be attracted to a different type of service. But what is clear is that no matter who we are, we have the ability to please God and to bring ourselves close to Him, and that is the most special feeling in the world.