Shaarei Shamayim

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Do you believe in curses? Yiddish speaking Jews were renowned for their curses. I found a few colorful ones translated into English. Let me share some of them with you:

May you never be alone in bed: you should always have bedbugs, lice and fleas with you.

May you win the lottery, and spend it all on doctors.

May they find thousands of new cures for you each year.

May you never have to visit such a filthy place as a bathroom.

You should be like a chandelier—you should hang and burn.

May they name a baby after you! Which really means, “You should drop dead!” because, in the Yiddish speaking world, babies are named after dead relatives.

Here’s a interesting one: May your blood turn to alcohol so all the fleas on your body get drunk and dance the mazurka in your belly button!

Your head should be full of lice but your arms should be too short for you to scratch.

May you lose all your teeth, except for one—and that one should hurt!

May you live in a house with 100 rooms, and may each room have its own bed, and may you wander every night from room to room, and from bed to bed,  unable to sleep.

And finally my favorite: May you grow so rich that your widow’s 2nd husband never has to worry about making a living.

The blessing Gd gives to Abraham at the start of his career contains an interesting reference to curses (Gen. 12:3): Va-avarcha m’varchecha, umkalelcha aor, “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you will I curse.” Rabbi Harold Kushner in commenting upon this verse asks, “Why would anyone curse Abraham? After all, he’s such a fine person, a tzadik, in fact!”

But evidently, not everyone during Abraham’s time appreciated being taught about morality and Gd. It implied that the gods they’d been worshipping up to now were fakes. And some people resent the demands that Gd makes, like: Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, show compassion for others.

Rabbi Kushner quotes Oscar Wilde who said, “One of the hardest things in life is to forgive someone who did you a favor.” Listen carefully to Kushner’s comment: So Gd counseled Abraham: “Some people will resent your help. It will call their attention to their ignorance, or their powerlessness, so they will curse you. But when they curse you, don’t curse them back. Umkalelcha aor, I will curse those that curse you—leave them to Me. Your role is: V’heyey b’racha, Be a blessing.”Do what’s good because it is good, not for the applause or for the thanks. After all, those things may or may not come.

Charles Krauthammer published an opinion essay in Time Magazine, around the time of the U.S. Military expedition to Haiti, called, “To the Rescue of Ingrates.” He began by quoting Prince Schwartzenberg of Austria, in the beginning of the 19th century. The prince was asked, in the aftermath of Russia’s help to Austria in keeping Hungary within the Austrian empire, whether he felt indebted. He replied, “Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude.”

Krauthammer writes: A foreign policy carried out in our country’s own national interest will justify itself. Gratitude is nice—we appreciate the appreciation of the Grenadians, Panamanians, and Kuwaitis—but it is a bonus. America fled Somalia after 18 Army Rangers died because the cost of the operation became apparent. But there was a more visceral reaction propelling our retreat: a sense of betrayal. Here we are, doing this for the Somalis, for no benefit to ourselves, and this is how they repay us!

President Barak Obama 2 weeks ago announced that the last American soldier would leave Iraq by the end of this year making good on a promise by President George Bush. However, it was always assumed that a small American force would remain to help train the Iraqi Army to keep peace and prevent the takeover of Iraq by Iran. The complete US withdrawal is a result of Iraq refusing to grant our soldiers immunity from malicious prosecution. After 8 years with over 4,000 of our soldiers sacrificing their lives for Iraqi freedom and after spending hundreds of billions of dollars, this is how they repay us? It seems like such a betrayal after we freed them from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

I remember when there was growing hostility towards Jews by segments of the African American community, emerging as full-blown anti-Semitism in the Nation of Islam and the Reverend Louis Farakhan, and on many university campuses.

Some Jews said: “After all those years of our support for the civil rights movement, the Jewish students who died in voter registration activity in Mississippi, and the Jewish financial support for black organizations—is this how they treat us?” Those Jews would be wise to remember Rabbi Kushner’s reading of Abraham: “Don’t do what’s right for the gratitude or the applause. And if the recipients of your goodness curse you, Umkalelcha aor, leave that to Gd.” And we did. And to prove it, over 70% of Jews supported the candidacy of the America’s 1st African American president.

Let’s push it a bit further with an explanation of a verse that every one of us knows by heart, yet very few of us could explain. It comes from the 23rd Psalm: Taaroch l’fanai shulchan neged tzor’rai, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Most of us have some sort of image of ourselves sitting at a banquet table with all our favorite foods and, off in the distance, the people who don’t like us looking on, and not having any, and maybe we thumb our noses at them. But we’d be hard-pressed to explain the meaning of that mental picture.

The late Prof. Cyrus Gordon, whom I studied with at N.Y.U. in my doctoral program and who was the finest expert in the Hebrew language I had ever encountered, explained it this way. He suggested that the word shulchan, “table,” had come to mean a shield or a defense. Then the verse would more appropriately translate as, “You prepare a shield for me in the presence of my enemies.”

Do you remember those old western movies with a gunfight in the saloon? It starts when they throw over the tables, crouch behind them and shoot at each other. Now you may think that this began in the wild west of America, but Gordon points out that it is present in one of the final scenes of Homers Odyssey: Odysseus returns home, and enters the banquet hall where his enemies are feasting. He and his son lock the doors and the battle begins. And in that scene, the fighters shoot at each other with spears and arrows from behind the overturned tables! So Cyrus Gordon suggests that the word “table” came to have a military meaning as a shield, the way the kitchen implement, “chopper,” came to mean a helicopter, or “pineapple” came to mean a hand grenade.

Now that’s an ingenious explanation, but Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi—more commonly called Reb Zalman—suggests a far more charming approach: “The verse, ‘You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,’ means that Gd gives us the strength to prepare a table in the presence of our enemies.” He suggests that once, every 10 years or so, you should give a dinner party, and invite those people who have hurt you, to thank them!

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Reb Zalman explains by telling a story about himself. At the beginning of his career, he was a young Rabbi in a small congregation in southeastern Massachusetts. One morning, a young man came to the morning minyan. He was saying Kaddish for his father. Reb Zalman went up to him and asked if he wanted to put on tefilin, he refused, saying, “I don’t believe in it.”

Reb Zalman—who has a master’s degree in psychology—thought to himself, “Very often, when someone says he doesn’t believe in putting on tefilin, it’s because he doesn’t know how. What he doesn’t believe in, is making a fool of himself in public!” So he called the young man and offered to teach him privately. The offer was accepted and Reb Zalman went on to teach him how to daven; he learned Torah with him and Jewish customs. Soon he joined the congregation, was elected to the Board and eventually became President of the Synagogue. As President, his 1st act was to fire Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi!

Reb Zalman—as you can imagine—was deeply hurt by this betrayal. If you and I were psychologists, we might speculate that the man felt embarrassed at the presence of the Rabbi who knew him when he had no knowledge about Judaism. He probably didn’t want him around to stir up the memories of being ignorant and insecure.

But Reb Zalman went on to further his graduate studies. He earned a PhD from Hebrew Union College, became a member of the Faculty of Temple University, the grandfather of the Havurah movement and the father of the Jewish Spiritual Renewal movement—the leader of the religious community called P’nai Or, which is on the leading edge of creating a Jewish mystical approach to life for Reform and Conservative Jews. He says, “I owe it all to that man. If it weren’t for him, I’d still be Rabbi of that small shule in southeastern Massachusetts!”

It’s like the classic story of the man who lost his job as a shamus in a shule because when the rabbi needed him as a kosher witness for a wedding, he couldn’t sign his name in Hebrew properly on the Ketuba. “What will I do now?” he cried. Someone suggested that he go into real estate. He did and he became a multi-millionaire!

Many people have told me how their lives were pointed in a new direction by someone who hurt them: “That person who played with my feelings, led me on, laughed at me behind my back and rejected me—I might have wound up married to that horrible person!”

“That boss who made my working life hell, and fired me…I’m indebted to him for my moving on to a better job at another corporation…or otherwise I might never have gone into business on my own, and wound up with my current success.”

So Reb Zalman says, “Throw them a party and thank them.”

I mentioned western movies before—how they turned down the table as a shield. In westerns, who turns out to be the spiritual descendant of Abraham? Today’s kids won’t know who I’m talking about, but it’s the Lone Ranger! After all—for those old enough to remember—how does every episode end? Some asks, “Who was that masked man? He didn’t wait around for us to thank him.” That’s right. He didn’t wait, expecting thanks; he just rode off into the sunset to the next adventure.

At the very beginning of the Jewish people, Gd gave us, through Abraham, some wise advice. V’heyey b’racha—your role is to be a blessing.” Do what’s right because it’s right. If people bless you, great; but if they mistreat you, Umkalelcha aor, leave them to Gd. And you might even owe them an expression of thanks for your life of blessing. Amen!

Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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