For those who don’t pay their credit card bills on time, credit cards are one of the most destructive forces in the US economy. In a report released on January 30, 2019, the average Annual Percentage Rate (APR) for a credit card in the US stands at an all time high of 17.52%. But people who don’t pay off their credit cards on time usually can’t get such a low rate, and instead face rates from 24-29%. That money is compounded daily, which adds a few percentage points to the total.
That means that by using your credit card, every time you buy something, you could end up paying at least a third more than its cost. There are many quotes attributed to Albert Einstein and compound interest. Some say he called it the most powerful force in the world, some claim he said it is “the eight wonder of the world, he who understands it, earns it, he who doesn’t, pays it.” While he likely never said any of those statement, no one makes that claim about Albert Einstein and broccoli.
For those who pay their credit cards on time, credit cards are one of the greatest gifts in the US economy. You pay exactly the price on the price tag, you get up to a month of an interest free loan to pay it, and you get points, perks, and rewards for doing what you needed to do anyway. Credit card companies make money on every dollar you spend even if you pay your bill on time (they charge the merchants processing fees), so they want to incentivize you to swipe that card as much as possible and their best strategy is points, perks, and rewards. They usually give you a big bonus when you sign up for a card, and then you earn between 1-2 points on each dollar of purchase.
A savvy consumer of credit cards, who opens credit cards when they are favorable, closes them when they are not, and only uses his credit card when he knows he can pay it on time can get lots of free gifts. (There are a wealth of websites helping people do just that, try www.dansdeals.com, or www.thepointsguy.com.) I know this because, I’ve been blessed to fly my family down to Florida for mid-winter break for many years in a row, only using credit card miles that I’ve gotten for free. Detroit can get pretty cold in the winter, and the Detroit winter lasts from October to April, so getting a sunny break is not a bad idea. The children reverse their Vitamin-D deficiencies, we remember what it feels like to walk around without seven layers, and then we head back into the freezer for a few more months. But this year, it simply wasn’t in the cards, pun intended.
Instead, this year we were going to go visit my brother-in-law in Minneapolis, which is one of the few US metropolises colder than Detroit. As the vacation date crept closer, the US was hit with an icy polar vortex that brought temperatures down to historic lows all over the country. Minneapolis was going to see Real Feel temperatures of -51. How do you explain to your children who are used to sunny Florida vacations that this year we are driving straight into the middle of an ice cube and spending seven days there? For starters, you make up a word…
We started hyping up the ICECATION about a week in advance, talking about how excited we were to go on an ICECATION and as the weather reports started showing double digit negative weathers, we would read out the weather reports followed by an enthusiastic “ICECATION! We can’t get frozen fast enough!” As we traveled by car from Detroit to Minneapolis and found the weather colder and nastier each time we stopped for gas, we would let out a whoop, and say “ICECATION, here we come!” or “Is this the coldest you can get? We need more ICECATION!!”
The apex of ICECATION came on the first morning of our trip. We had stopped in Wisconsin Dells, WI for the night. We arrived about 1AM, and the few seconds walking from our car to the hotel was bracingly cold, shnozz freezing in your nose cold, tears freezing in your eyes cold. The younger children were sleeping in the minivan, and while a transfer from minivan to hotel room can often be accomplished without waking the young’uns, no one was asleep by the time we got to the hotel room. One breath of twenty below air, one gust of negative forty degree wind chill, and anyone would be yanked from sleepy stupor into roaring wakefulness. We got into the hotel room and exclaimed, “This is what I call an ICECATION! Can we get some more of this!?” We joked about how sorry we felt for all the people who went to bland vanilla Florida for vacation, and soon after went to bed.
We asked for more, we got more. The next morning, the weather crept deeper into negative territory. There was nothing too exciting going on in Wisconsin Dells in late January, but the winds must have found something to be excited about because they were screeching and whistling all over the place, leaving a wind chill reading of negative fifty-one. When I came outside to warm up the minivan, it simply said no. No matter how long I sat outside waiting for the car to warm up, the temperature needle stayed glued to the bottom. It would only heat up with some strong highway driving, so we bundled the kids into the subzero car and set out to cries of “ICECATION! This is what I’m talking about! Now we can feel it! Yeah!!! Who’s having a great time now?”
Our entire vacation did not consist of standing outside and mimicking icicles. We did spend a few days hanging out in Mall of America, the largest mall in the US, and enjoying the aquarium, and amusement park found in it. And yes, there was ziplining across the amusement park, and lots of roller coasters, including the first for my five-year-old son (loved it!) and my seven-year-old daughter (not so much). We got a chance to visit Uncle Yaakov and Aunt Bracha for the first time in their Minneapolis home, and spent time with cousins where great fun was had by all. We got to stand on a frozen lake, but by Sunday the weather had warmed up and there were puddles all over the frozen lake, which did not make it any less fun, except for those that fell in the puddles.
Whenever we were in the middle of having a great time, we went through the Burnham Vacation Rule List, which sounds like this
“Hey guys, this is amazing! What’s Rule #1?”
“Always thank Hashem!”
“What? I can’t hear you?!”
“ALWAYS THANK HASHEM!!!”
“Great, and what’s Rule #2?!”
“Always thank your parents!”
“Amazing, and what’s rule #3?!”
“And what’s Rule #4?!”
“Those who complain miss out!”
“Exactly right! And what’s rule #7?!”
“No eating peoples!!”
Rules reiterated, we could go back to having an amazing time. Overall, ICECATION 2019 was a smash success, and while I can’t say that we’ll go back next year, the memories of ICECATION will be fond ones for all of us, for as long as we can remember.
Which brings us to the final thought. Why did we have an amazing vacation, despite heading into the frozen tundra instead of going to sunny Florida? Because we said so.
In our morning services, we have a prayer called Baruch She’amar, where we say ten blessings to G-d corresponding to the ten utterances He used to create our world, as in “And Hashem said, let there be light…” “And Hashem said, let the earth sprout forth vegetation…” “And Hashem said, let there be luminaries in the heavens…”
The first blessing is “Barush She’amar vihaya ha’olam, Blessed is He who spoke, and the world came into being.” It is easy to understand why we thank Hashem for creating the world, it’s a pretty cool place, and it’s where we call home, but why do we specifically thank Hashem for speaking the world into being? Wouldn’t it be the same world if Hashem thought it into being? And while we’re at it, why did Hashem speak it into being? Who was He speaking to? No one was around yet, even angels were only created on the second day of creation (or according to one opinion on the fifth day), so why was Hashem talking?
When we look at the creation story, the one clear thing is that Hashem was modeling behavior for us. He didn’t need seven days to create the world, He could have created the entire universe in one millisecond. The reason Hashem created the world in stages is to teach us that we too need to create our world in stages, we can’t normally go from zero to hero in one leap. The reason Hashem stopped at the end of every stage and proclaimed it to be good, is that we need to stop after reaching a major milestone and celebrate our achievement so that we fill up our tank with the fuel needed to keep forging on.
Hashem created the world using speech to model for us that we will create and destroy our worlds through speech. As King Solomon tells us (Proverbs 18:21) “Hachaim v’hamaves biyad halashon, life and death is in the hands of the tongue.” We can lift people up with our words, and we can shatter them with our words. With one stirring speech, a Rabbi can move a hundred congregants to improve their lives, but as the Path of the Just (Chapter 5) teaches us, “For with one cynical remark or small witticism a person repels from him enormous amounts of inspiration and motivation.” With our words, we can turn the humdrum into the exciting, or we can turn the exciting into the humdrum. We can all decide if our life is great, or our vacation is great, or if our life is boring and pathetic and our vacations are cold and miserable, it’s all in the wording.
We thank Hashem for giving us such power over our minds and psyches simply by the use of our tongue when we say, Blessed is He who spoke and the world came into being! Do you want an amazing life? When people ask you how it’s going, tell them it’s going amazingly well, thank G-d! Do you want to have the best vacation while chilled to freeze pop temperatures? Frequently say that you are having the BEST ICECATION EVER!!
Here’s a few not-regular responses you can try using when people ask you “How are you doing?” that will allow you to create a different reality;
Hey Bob, how are you? Thank G-d, happy and content, thanks for asking!
Hey Bob, how are you doing? Thank G-d, way better than I deserve, thanks for asking!
Hey Bob, how are you? I’m a man on a mission! Thanks for asking!
Hey Bob, how are you? Thank G-d, I’m struggling! (This one will often open up a larger conversation and should only be used appropriately, the lady behind the counter in Walgreens doesn’t need to know about your struggles, but this is an effective way to start a conversation with a friend when the time is appropriate.)
Hey Bob, how are you? Thank G-d, somewhere between better and best! Thanks for asking!
We can all have amazing lives. Why? Because we say so.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Pasha, Ki Tisa, tells of one of the darkest moments in the Jewish people’s history, the serving of the Golden Calf. Many questions abound, with the most pressing: how could they fall to such a low point a mere 40 days after seeing G-d reveal Himself? Let us focus on another question, and through that we can bring some clarity to this dismal event in Jewish history.
When Moshe saw the people serving the Golden Calf, he took the tablets he was holding and dashed them to the ground. Why? Granted, the Jews weren’t ready or deserving of them, but why take tablets with G-d’s writing on them and destroy them? Wouldn’t that be analogous to a rabbi whose congregation is going astray, taking the Sefer Torah out of the ark and burning it?
The third of Maimonides Principles of Faith states, “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatsoever to Him.” This is one of the hardest principles for human beings to relate to, because everything we see, feel, and relate to is physical. The idea of G-d being totally divorced from physicality is something we struggle to comprehend.
This challenge is what drove the Jews to worship the Golden Calf. They weren’t trying to serve another G-d, a different G-d, but rather were trying to find a way to capture some of G-d’s essence in a physical being. That is why after creating the golden calf, they proclaimed, “This is your G-d, Israel!” They weren’t refering to a new god, rather they saw this as the G-d of Israel, the one who took them out of Egypt, but in a tangible physical package. They wanted a concrete, corporeal edifice that would rule the physical world. But, of course, this defeats the reality of G-d, and the purpose of man. This was an attempt to bring G-d down into the physical lower world, rather than trying to climb from the physical world to the loftier spiritual world.
When Moshe came down the mountain, he immediately ascertained the people’s mistake. To prove it to them in the strongest terms, he took the tablets and dashed them to the ground. This was his way of showing the people that real holiness, all of which emanates from G-d, is not physical, and can’t be bound by the physical. Even the tablets with G-d’s own writing can be destroyed because they have no inherent spirituality. The only spirituality they have is when it is infused with G-dliness, but in and of themselves, they have nothing.
Furthermore, Moshe was afraid that if he were to destroy the calf but leave the tablets intact, the people would transfer their mistaken ideology, and try to put G-dly powers and holiness into the tablets. Thus, it was imperative that Moshe destroy the tablets for the dual purpose of not leaving the Jews a stumbling block and teaching them that nothing physical has inherent spirituality. To this day, that message still resonates, reminding us not to give powers to anything physical, not money, good looks, or physical strength. On Wall Street, money is worshipped, in a gym, muscles are venerated, and in Hollywood good looks are divine, but in the Jewish home, we serve G-d and G-d alone!
This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, begins with G-d commanding the Jews to take a census by having each Jew donate a half-shekel, and then counting all the coins. This teaches us that we are never whole until we join with other Jews. Then we are instructed to make a laver (a receptacle that holds water and has faucets used for washing) for the temple, so that the Kohanim can wash themselves before going in to serve in the Temple. We can relate to this by remembering that service of G-d is sacred, and there should be both a mental and physical sanctification before beginning services. This translates into not rushing into prayers with our minds still on our business or our hands greasy from that pastrami sandwich we just had for lunch!
Next, we are commanded to make a special anointing oil used to consecrate vessels and Kohanim for temple service. We are also told to make a uniqueincense that was burned in the Tabernacle twice daily on its own dedicated golden altar. Both the oil and incense were not allowed to be made for laymen’s purposes.
Now the Torah focuses on the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Ha-shem commands Moshe to take Bezalel and Oholiav as assistants to aid him in building the Mishkan and in making the priestly vestments. After that, the Torah repeats the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbos. The Sages learn from the juxtaposition of these two ideas that one cannot desecrate Shabbos even for the purposes of building the Mishkan. They also learn that the actions we are not allowed to do on Shabbos are related to the types of labor involved in building the Tabernalce, which the Sages delineated as the 39 Categories of Work.
Finally, the Parsha turns to one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, and tells the Jews he will be back in forty days. The Jews miscalculate when the forty days ended and, when Moshe did not return, they assume him dead. In a state of panic, confusion, chaos, and fear, the Jews build the golden calf and worship it. Moshe comes down from the mountain, sees the wanton sinning of the people (which had degenerated from idolatry to other sins, such as immorality) and dashes the tablets to the ground.
He then forces the Jews to drink from water containing the ground up golden calf, which causes those who served the calf to die. There is a lengthy dialogue between Ha-shem and Moshe in which Moshe pleads on behalf of the Jewish people that Ha-shem should forgive them, which in the end He does. Moshe moves his tent away from the camp, and proclaims that those who want the word of G-d should come to him.
Soon after, Moses ascends the mountain once again and this time G-d tells him to carve the second set of tablets. G-d also teaches Moshe a special prayer called the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which will never return empty from before G-d, and tells him to teach it to the people (it is the focal part of our prayers on fast days, and especially the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur).
G-d renews His covenant with the Jews and, finally, on the first Yom Kippur ever, G-d gives His full forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and Moshe descends with the second set of tablets. After having spent 120 days on Sinai (40 getting the first tablets, 40 in dialogue to get level one forgiveness, and 40 to get the second tablets and full forgiveness), Moshe came down with such a bright radiance that people couldn’t look at him. He had to make himself a special mask to wear when he was not teaching the Jews. That’s all Folks!!!
Quote of the Week: Wear a smile and have friends, wear a scowl and have wrinkles. – George Eliot
Random Fact of the Week: India has fifteen official languages.
Funny Line of the Week: If “con” is the opposite of “pro,” then what is the opposite of progress?
Have a Wondrous Shabbos!
R’ Leiby Burnham