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Very Wild Things: a Shavuos Dvar Torah for 5779 / 2019

Just in time for Shavuos, I want to tell you a very serious, very important story about the Jewish people and yetzias Mitzrayim and our history and Matan Torah. I had a little help with some of the writing.

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind

and another

his mother called him “WILD THING!”

and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”

so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

image11Now, I guess I should mention that the help with the writing came from the author Maurice Sendak, a giant of a writer in the children’s literature world. But this is not unrelated, because as a Jewish child, growing up in the U.S. in the shadow of the Shoah, there were some very real monsters in Maurice Sendak’s world… and some very Jewish ideas.

Like this idea of the WILD THING. In Yiddish, we’d say “vilde chaya.” A wild animal. Max is being wild – but more importantly, he’s being immature, just as Yosef was, we’re told, before he was taken off and sold to Mitzrayim. Okay, Yosef didn’t wear a wolf suit – but you know who did? His father Yaakov. Okay, maybe not a wolf suit. But it does sound more than a little Jewish, if you think about it, putting on this hairy suit, acting more wild than you actually are.

And look what happened to Yosef – I mean, Max:

That very night in Max’s room a forest grew

and grew-

and grew until his ceiling hung with vines

and the walls became the world all around

and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max

and he sailed off through night and day

and in and out of weeks

and almost over a year

to where the wild things are.

Now, the Torah says it was a passing caravan of Arabs, but hey, there’s a bit of a resemblance here nonetheless. Max is smiling at first, but he doesn’t get into the boat voluntarily and he’s not exactly in control of his journey. He’s been wild, so he’s being taken to where wild things belong.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

till Max said “BE STILL!”

and tamed them with the magic trick

of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once

Now – magic. That’s something Yosef knew very well.

Not where he came from, of course – a place where Hashem ruled. But down in Mitzrayim, oh, yes, there was so much magic. And of course, Pharaoh was considered the most magical person of all – you might even say the king of all wild things, at least until Yosef came along. Stared into all their yellow eyes without blinking… waited, silent, trapped in their prison, knowing Hashem would take him out.

and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all

and made him king of all wild things.

“And now,” cried Max, “let the wild rumpus start!”

This is the part where, when I read this story to my children, we sing the three-page “wild rumpus” song. Ready?

Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus rump! Rumpus, rumpus, rump! Rump!

Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus! Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rump!

Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rumpus! Rumpus, rumpus, rumpus, rump!

“Now stop!” Max said and sent the wild things off to bed without their supper.

Why without their supper? Well, in this case it’s true in a literal way. Because there’s plenty of grain in Mitzrayim, but Yosef now owns it all. He has everything he’s ever wanted. Problem is – he’s a little too far from home.

And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where

someone loved him best of all.

Now, in this metaphor, Yosef has his entire family—the entire Jewish people. Yaakov, everybody, they all came down to Mitzrayim. But Yosef knows this isn’t where they’re supposed to be. They’re not in the right place, the place where someone—let’s put a capital S on it to make it Someone – loved him best of all.

So he plants the seeds of redemption. He knows he won’t survive this exile, but his bones can miraculously come out when his family does. He reveals the hiding place of his coffin, the mystical secret code—alei shor—to raise it up. Knowing the geulah would come.

Then all around from far away across the world

he smelled good things to eat

And you know. I hope you don’t think I’m being silly when I say that we use all kinds of metaphors for Hashem—light and sound and texture and everything in the world—except two metaphors we in our society are not entirely comfortable with when we talk about Hashem and about spirituality: smell and taste.

Smell, especially, is worth thinking about, because the Torah is full of words about smell to describe facets of our relationship with Hashem, but it all seems to go the other way. So many korbanot are described, for example, as a reyach nichoach to Hashem, which—however you want to translate it—works out to some kind of smell. And Hashem deals with us with His nose, too: sometimes he is angry and we see His charon af, His wrathful nose, but other times, He is erech apayim, “long-nosed,” meaning patient.

image3Now this may seem like a cute coincidence, but as Lauren Winner explains in her book Wearing God (written from a Christian perspective, and sharing lots of other ways we interact with, experience, and describe Hashem, including clothing), the cognitive neuroscientist Rachel Herz explains, “The neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate. The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions of the brain could possibly be.”

In other words, smell is a direct pathway to our hearts and souls. So if Hashem can and does smell us and our korbanos, why can’t this intimacy go both ways?

Smell is also notoriously hard to describe. If I say, “He smelled good things to eat,” what do you picture? Probably you are not picturing the same thing I am. I might be thinking of cheesecake, lasagna, a hamburger. And you might be thinking of a tofu stir-fry or the buttery birthday cake icing your mother’s best friend used to make when you were little. There is no single definition of “smelling good things to eat,” because for all of us, that’s going to be something different. Just as, the midrash tells us, there are 70 faces of Torah—one for each and every Jewish soul. (Maybe they weren’t good at math, or maybe 70 just means “some really big number, it doesn’t really matter.”)

Whatever comes to mind when I say he smelled good things to eat, one thing is almost certain—the good things to eat were very likely made by a woman.

I should mention – I had more help writing this dvar Torah. I was actually more than a little lazy, letting all these men write a dvar Torah for me to give over to this group of lovely ladies. And in this case, it’s a poem in praise of women’s spirituality by Yehuda Amichai.

לָמַדְתִּי אַהֲבָה בְּיַלְדוּתִי בְּבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת שֶׁל יַלְדוּתִי

בְּעֶזְרַת הַנָּשִׁים בְּעֶזְרַת הַנָּשִׁים שֶׁמֵאֲחוֹרֵי הַמְחִצָה

שֶׁכָּלְאָה אֶת אִמִּי עִם כָּל הַנָּשִׁים וְהַנְעָרוֹת.

אֲבָל הַמְחִצָה שֶׁכָּלְאָה אוֹתָן, כָּלְאָה אוֹתִי מִן הַצַד הַשֵׁנִי,

הֵן הָיוּ חָפְשִׁיוֹת בְּאַהֲבָתָן וַאֲנִי נִשְׁאַרְתִּי

כָּלוּא עִם כָּל הַגְּבָרִים וְכָל הַנְעָרִים בְּאַהֲבָתִי וּבְכְמִיהָתִי,

וְרָצִיתִי לִהְיוֹת אִתָּן שָׁם וְלָדַעַת אֶת סוֹדוֹתֵיהֶן

וּלְבָרֵךְ "בָּרוּךְ שֶׁעָשָׂנִי כִּרְצוֹנוֹ" אִמָּן. וְהַמְחִצָה,

וִילוֹן מַלְמָלָה לָבָן וְרַךְ כְּשִׂמְלוֹת קַיִץ וְהַוִילוֹן

זָז הָלוֹךְ וָשׁוֹב בְּטַבָּעוֹת וּבְלוּלָאוֹת,

לוּ לוּ לוּ לוּלָאוֹת, לוּ לוּ, קוֹלוֹת אַהֲבָה בַּחֶדֶר הַסָגוּר.

וּפְנֵי הַנָּשִׁים כִּפְנֵי הַלְבָנָה שֶׁמַּאֲחוֹרַי הָעֲנָנִים

אוֹ הַמְּלֵאָה בְּהִפָּתַח הָוִילוֹן כְּמוֹ בְּמַעֲרֶכֶת

קוֹסְמִית קְסוּמָה. וּבָלַיְלָה בֵּרַכְנוּ בִּרְכַּת

הַלְבָנָה בַּחוּץ וַאֲנִי חָשַׁבְתִּי עַל הַנָּשִׁים.

image7I studied love in my childhood in my childhood synagogue

in the women’s section with the help of the women behind the partition

that locked up my mother with all the other women and girls.

But the partition that locked them up locked me up

on the other side. They were free in their love while I remained

locked up with all the men and boys in my love, my longing.

I wanted to be over there with them and to know their secrets

and say with them, “Blessed be He who has made me

according to his will.” And the partition

a lace curtain white and soft as summer dresses, and that curtain

swaying to and fro with its rings and its loops,

lu-lu-lu loops, Lulu, lullings of love in the locked room.

And the faces of women like the face of the moon behind the clouds

or the full moon when the curtain parts: an enchanted

cosmic order. At night we said the blessing

over the moon outside, and I

thought about the women. (Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, from Open Closed Open: Poems)

It is said that we merited to be redeemed from the land of the Wild Things, from Mitzrayim, only thanks to the righteous Jewish women, cooking their good things to eat, Lu-lu-lu, whispering their secret tefillos that we “smelled” from afar.

Scents that led us to Har Sinai, because if it had been up to the men, it probably would have all ended terribly in the desert, with one rebellion after another, but we held on and kept things sane all the way to Har Sinai. We are the ones who gave the nation its strength for the journey.

so he gave up being king of where the wild things are.

But the wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go-

we’ll eat you up-we love you so!”

And Max said, “No!”

The wild things roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

but Max stepped into his private boat and waved good-bye

This one isn’t even much of a stretch. The Mitzriyim pretty much loved us to death. They roared and gnashed and rolled and clawed, but by this point, Hashem was leading us and we knew we were free. Or at least, the brave ones among us knew we were free: Moshe, Miriam, Elisheva, Aharon—and Nachshon ben Aminadav, who stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye. Well, stepped into the water. Which is kind of the same thing, if you play along with me for a minute.

and sailed back over a year

and in and out of weeks

and through a day

And by the way, it wasn’t only Nachshon, and it wasn’t only Moshe and Miriam and Aharon and Elisheva, and all the rest of them, because it was also Yosef, or at least his bones, making the return journey back to eretz Yisrael. But they had a very important stop to make on the way—Har Sinai.

We have also just finished making that journey, by the way. A journey in and out of weeks, in and out of Mitzrayim. A journey through darkness, guided not by the moon, as Max was—and hey, let’s think about Amichai and those Jewish women again for a second when we see that big glowing moon—but by pillars of smoke by day and of fire by night. We were led all the way to Har Sinai, before we could return home to Israel.

What is Har Sinai, by the way? If you know me, you may have heard this before. It’s straight from Rabbi Manis Friedman, because I’ve never heard anyone say it more magnificently.

Three thousand, three hundred and twenty-six years ago, G‑d asked us if we would marry Him. We had an extraordinary wedding ceremony, with great special effects—we were wowed. After the wedding He said, “I have a few things I’d like you to take care of for Me, so, please . . . I’ll be right back.” He hasn’t been heard from since. For more than three thousand, three hundred years. He has sent messengers, messages, postcards—you know, writing on the walls . . . but we haven’t heard a word from Him in all this time.

Should I flip back to the beginning of Where the Wild Things Are again? Because this story, resonant with love and loneliness, actually sounds very familiar.

In Sendak’s book, Max is out in the world, on his journey once again. And this is also the story of the Jewish people, repeated over and over again, a story of exile and return, one golus after another, through all the ages.

In the Yiddish lullaby “Oyfn Pripitchik” (“On the Hearth”), songwriter Mark Warshawsky wrote,

When you, children, will bear the Exile,

And will be exhausted,

May you derive strength from these letters,

Look in at them!

See, children, remember, dear ones,

What you learn here;

Repeat and repeat yet again,

"Komets-alef: o!"

Az ir vet, kinder, dem goles shlepn,

Oysgemutshet zayn,

Zolt ir fun di oysyes koyekh shepn,

Kukt in zey arayn!

Zet zhe kinderlekh, gedenkt zhe, tayere,

Vos ir lernt do;

Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:

Komets-alef: o!

What has kept us going through these exiles? Those alef-bet letters are what keep us going through the long, dark, metaphorical night of galus -- and all the way…

(and) into the night of his very own room

where he found his supper waiting for him

This is where the good food he smelled, that we smelled, was coming from. The 70 faces of Torah, different for each one of us but calling out to us nevertheless. This rich land, overflowing with goodness, with milk and honey, with everything we need for our survival, physical and spiritual.

And it will always be here for us, just like the Torah is always here for us, even during periods when we cannot live here, for whatever reason.

As we read in last week’s parsha, Bechukosai, “You will become lost among the nations, and the land of your enemies will consume you.” The wild things will eat us up, they love us so. Which is interesting, if you think about how much North American society claims to love diversity—and yet how devastating that acceptance has been in terms of Jewish identity. It really has eaten us up.

Now, Rabbi Manis Friedman’s mashal doesn’t end where I left it, so I really want to let him continue just a little longer. Remember, he was talking about the Jewish people marrying Hashem at Har Sinai in thunder and lightning, miracles and incredibly, some very good smells, just before he stepped out of lives, thousands and thousands of years ago. And here, Rabbi Manis Friedman presents us with a mashal within the mashal:

Imagine a couple gets married, and the man says to his new wife, “Would you make me something to eat, please? I’ll be right back.” She begins preparing. The guy comes back 3300 years later, walks into the house, up to the table, straight to his favorite chair, sits down and tastes the soup that is on the table. The soup is cold.

What will his reaction be? If he’s a wise man, he won’t complain. Rather, he’ll think it’s a miracle that the house is still there, that his table and favorite chair are still there. He’ll be delighted to see a bowl of soup at his place. The soup is cold? Well, yes, over 3300 years, soup can get cold.

Today, Rabbi Friedman says, the soup is not just cold.

We suffer from separation anxiety. We suffer from a loss of connection to our ancestors. We suffer a loss of connection even to our immediate family. The soup is cold. The soup is very cold.

But in Bechukosai, the Torah tells us another amazing thing that I feel I must share, because for whatever reason, I never saw it before this year, when it jumped out at me:

וְזָֽכַרְתִּ֥י לָהֶ֖ם בְּרִ֣ית רִֽאשֹׁנִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר הוֹצֵֽאתִי־אֹתָם֩ מֵאֶ֨רֶץ מִצְרַ֜יִם לְעֵינֵ֣י הַגּוֹיִ֗ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת לָהֶ֛ם לֵֽא-לֹקִ֖ים אֲנִ֥י ה:

I will remember for them the covenant [made with] the ancestors, whom I took out from the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be a G-d to them. I am the L-rd.

Look what this is. When we are so far away, so scattered, so lost among the nations, basically not caring less about our neshamot, our Jewish lives. We forget the whole thing. And what does Hashem say? Don’t worry. Vezacharti lahem. “If they forget, I will remember for them.” Even when we’re that far apart, chas v’sholom, making mischief of one kind and another, there is still hope. This is a chassan and a kallah, and to Hashem, thousands of years is still the shanah rishonah and we are still newlyweds and someday we will be close together again.

Look at us here now, sitting around, sharing words of Torah, staying up late for Shavuos. Will Hashem get angry that the soup is cold, very cold? Ice cold in some cases, whole families, whole generations, totally cut off from the sharsheres hadoros binding them back to Har Sinai?

Or will we get credit for the fact that there is soup at all? That we, as Jews, are still—as I have heard Rabbi Friedman say—arguing over how He likes His soup?

And we do. We argue among ourselves: Does he want us to wear white shirts or blue ones? Ties or no ties? White tablecloths or floral ones? Or, because we’re Israeli, vote for Bennett or Bibi or Shas?

Hashem, here we are. Take us or leave us, but Where the Wild Things Are gives me hope that You’ll always take us back, no matter what.

Here we are.  We’ve travelled in and out of weeks, seven to be exact, but also back over a year to last Shavuos, when we were sitting here before, talking about what it means to honour Your Torah, to become its legs and walk around in the world doing its bidding, giving it life.

Help us understand Your will and live within it. Help us be strong and keep our families strong so we can keep the soup on the table for generations to come.

and it was still hot.

Amen… And Chag sameach / Gut yom tov!!!

(Wild Things photo credit (c) Nick Mustoe via Flickr)

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה


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