Shaarei Shamayim

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Moses was truly a beleaguered leader. It started right at the beginning when he 1st asked Pharaoh to let his people go. The people then cried to him that he was only making things worse. They finally get out of Egypt and cross the Red Sea and the people accuse him of bringing them into the desert to starve to death. He brings them to Sinai to here Gd give them His 10 Commandments only to see them desecrating them with the Golden Calf. It seems like there was a constant stream of bickering and complaints—even his brother and sister at one point joined in.


This week’s Torah reading is about yet another challenge to Moses from his own family—his cousin Korach. Korach accuses Moses and Aaron saying (Num. 16:3): “You take too much upon yourselves, for every one of the congregation is holy, and Hashem is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the congregation of Hashem?”


Korach was also from a prominent Levite family. Korach’s resentment most likely began when Aaron was appointed to be the High Priest and not him. And then he felt overlooked as Moses appointed Elitzafon, the son of Uziel to be the head of K’hat family—the leading Levite family. This made Elitzafon Korach’s superior—even though Korach’s father, Yitzhar, was older than Elitzafon’s.


Motivated by envy Korach argues for equality as he says to Moses and Aaron: “You take too much upon yourselves, for we are all holy!” The problem with Korach’s argument is that there is no hierarchy of holiness because—as Rabbi David Aaron exquisitely puts it—“Every life is a divine mission.” Everyone has his special part to play in this world. If you do your part in life with purpose and focus, you will achieve an elevated state of holiness. Korach’s problem was that he focused upon what he didn’t have instead of the blessings he did have. He should have realized the great truth that no one has a better or more important mission than the one Gd has given him/her to do.


As I was reviewing the parsha this week and rereading about Korach’s pursuit of recognition, I read a story about this year’s winning word in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and it got me thinking about the recognition we Jews have now received in America.


Arvind Mahankanli, a 13-year-old son of immigrants from India, won the Spelling Bee by spelling the word: knaidel, which means “matzah ball.” The front page of the New York Times the next day reported that America’s Yiddish authority, known as the YIVO Institute, didn’t agree with the spelling. Their experts would have rendered the winning word as kneydl. Experts at Merriam-Webster—the Spelling Bee’s official dictionary—are standing by their variation. So which spelling is correct for knaidel? It’s the same with Chanukah. How do you spell it? Do you begin with  an “H” or a “Ch?” Is there one “n” or 2, one “k” or 2?


To make matters even worse, when Arvind was pondering the correct spelling he asked the Master of Ceremonies of the event to define knaidel, and he said: “A small mass of leavened dough.” Gd forbid! If that was correct we wouldn’t be able to eat it on Pesach! Then where would we be? Without matzah balls, we might as well go back to Egypt!


All this made me realize how much recognition we Jews now have. Think about it. Knaidel is now the winning word in the American national Spelling Bee. It’s yet another indication of how much Jews—and all things Jewish—have become a part of American mainstream culture. It’s a source of pride for Jews everywhere.


Americans of all stripes have integrated Yiddish into their lives with words like: kosher, oy, meshuga, nudge, bubkis, chutzpa and farklempt, of Saturday Night Live fame. In that New York Times article the author, Joseph Berger, writes: “If nothing else, the dispute is a window into the cultural stews that languages like Yiddish, not to mention English, become as people migrate and assimilate.” Knaidel as a dictionary entry and as the winning word in the Spelling Bee reflects just how normal and accepted Jews have become in American society.


Miriam Wallach, General Manager of the Nachum Segal Network asks: “Remember the Seinfeld episode that explored the unappreciated greatness of cinnamon bobka vs. its more popular sibling, the chocolate bobka?…The bobka debate in primetime on a hit show reflected a certain normalcy with Jewish life as part of the great American melting pot…Because Jewish culture is so deeply integrated into American culture, these references are appreciated by a greater audience.”


Today we have high ranking American Jewish politicians like Jack Lew, Eric Cantor, Chuck Schumer and Joseph Lieberman—2 them are Shomer Shabbos! And last year we were introduced to a cute, young 14-year-old from Chicago who wowed everyone as he sang and played piano on national television on “America’s Got Talent.” Edon Pinchot made it to the semi-finals while he proudly wore a kipa throughout the whole process. 


As I thought about it, I asked myself: What does it mean for the world to see Jews wearing kipot on TV, in a business meeting, in an ER or defending someone in court? It means that for the 1st time in 2,000 years we Jews have achieved—at least here in America—a status of recognition as being accepted and even admired. In the past, anti-Semitism and prejudice were powerful forces for assimilation and for abandoning Jewish life. How many Jews converted to Christianity so that they could get ahead and their children would have an easier life? Now here in America, the only thing stopping a Jew from behaving like a Jew should is him/herself.


Wallach puts it this way: “Historically, the Jewish community has tried to stay somewhat apart in order to maintain our identity and preserve our heritage, yet weirdly we desire acceptance by others.” Then she asks, “So now that it looks like we’ve ‘made it,’ are we happy?”


In the Spelling Bee, the word knaidel was not the only Jewish word that was put to the test. In an earlier round, they asked contestants to spell hesped, which means, “eulogy.” The use of hesped in the Spelling Bee does not, however, point to eulogizing the Jewish experience in America. Quite the contrary! We have so much to be grateful for…knaidels and knishes, knipels and even knockers. Gd Bless America. Amen!


                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis




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