Torah from around the world #65

by Rabbi Rich Kirschen, Director of


in Israel

Like most people if you just look at the


– the SIMPLE way of looking at the Torah – the Torah portion this week,  B’Chukotai really is not all that inspiring. That is of course why we also have the


, which is the Hinted meaning of the text on a deeper level. And of course the


, which helps us find the extrapolated meaning of the text. Finally there is the


which is the secret meaning of our Torah. At this moment in time I am in more of a


mode …. a Simple mode; so I thought I would try to stay with the simplicity of the text.

But the truth of the matter is that whenever I look at this text, I am forever stuck within a far more complicated context. For me, every time I read this Parsha…. I do not think of the rules and threats that the Lord God makes to the Children of Israel, but rather I think about being stuck in a leisure suit (they were very poplar when the Six Million Dollar man was on TV), a mouth full of braces and a haircut that made me look like one of the younger Hudson brothers. Yes this is my bar mitzvah portion. And it takes me back to the 1970’s and a time when Conservative Judaism ruled the day. Perhaps this is what Freud calls a screen memory, but I also remember there being a sense of certainty about Jewish life – when Jewish kids were sent to Hebrew school to suffer and sat there bored and confused in their Little League Baseball uniforms. I remember my Bar Mitzvah teacher Cantor Lazar Wax (that really was his name and for years I was so confused that his name sounded like a cleaning product). Cantor Wax came from Poland, he survived Auschwitz and probably had little patience for a snot nose suburban kid like myself, who – like the young man in the film, “A Serious Man” (I did not like the movie nor do I like the Coen brothers very much) – I too probably wanted to watch “F Troop” more than practice for my Bar Mitzvah. I remember Cantor Wax’s frustration with my atrocious Hebrew. And how he yelled and rolled his eyes. His greatest line was when he looked at me and said that I was “as dumb as the desk.” This was not the kinder gentler days of Hebrew school… this was “War of the Worlds”… literally two worlds colliding and not understanding each other. Lazar Wax had been a Yeshiva Bucher and Hazan prodigy who lost his entire family and survived WWII and I was Gilligan. Only now do I appreciate the man who taught me my Torah portion and only later did I understand the rich world that he had lost. I don’t think he understood me or the rest of my gang. I was scared of him but I fought him tooth and nail and was incredibly irreverent; it is still mortifying to think about my behavior and the way I spoke to him. And yet I have never forgotten him nor the Torah portion he taught me.

And here I am in the NFTY Office in Israel racing around like mad to build programs that bring young Jewish people not only to Israel but also programs that bring young people to where Cantor Wax came from: Poland. We of course bring young people to Poland to teach them about a Jewish world that was lost – the world of Cantor Lazar Wax. In a strange way Lazar Wax and I were having a Jewish conversation, a Jewish argument, connecting and not connecting- we were generations that simply did not understand each other. I have no idea where he is, but in a strange way my work in Jewish education has been about bridging the gap between Cantor Wax and me. This Parsha is about covenant and remembrance. Cantor Wax turned out to be the person who helped bring me to the covenant through reading Torah and I remember him. Perhaps Nachman of Bratslav put the conversation between Cantor Wax and myself best:

“Two men who live in different places, or even in different generations, may still converse.

For one may raise a question, and the other who is far away in time or in space

may make a comment or ask a question that answers it.

So they converse, but no one knows it save the Lord, who hears and records

and brings together all the words of men, as it is written: They who serve the Lord speak to one another,

and the Lord hears them and records their words in His book (Mal 3:16)”

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