Papa Joe was dead and the people of Plattsville were mad. Papa Joe was the grandfather of the whole town. He was the man who magically produced lollipops from his sleeves every time a kid walked into his hardware store. Papa Joe was the guy who wouldn’t only sell you the hardware, he’d show up after dinner to help you fix whatever needed fixing. He was the guy who would talk your ear off with war stories, tips for fixing leaks you didn’t have yet, and relationship advice from a man who spent fifty two years married to Edith Mirabel Wilcox, a woman tough enough to stare down a grizzly bear. And now he was no more, and all because a couple of reckless teenagers veered off the road and ran straight into him while he was collecting the mail.
Plattsville was a small town, and things usually were taken care of in town hall meetings. Most of them weren’t too exhilarating; a few disgruntled citizens, the city council, and a fresh brewed pot of coffee. But the emergency town hall meeting called after Papa Joe’s death was different. Every seat was taken, people stood around the perimeter of the room, and the crowd spilled out into the hall. At the front of the room sat Bill Bryson, the city council president, flanked by the city councilmen and Sherriff Johnny “Doc” Stewart. The air was thick, the freshly brewed pot of coffee largely ignored.
Bill Bryson had hardly banged on the gavel to start the meeting when Edith Mirabel shot up and started, “Mr. President, we can’t have them teenagers on the road no more, specially not at night. They done killed my husband, and they gonna do it agin if we give them the chance! I’ve been doin some research and teenagers are runnin folks off the road all over the country!” Pandemonium broke out. Moms waving newspaper clippings showing teenage accident fatalities, dads saying they would whup the next teenager they saw on the road after 7PM, elderly women yelling about the devil spirit in teenagers these days. The traumatized boy who was driving on that fateful night, a straight-A student who never had alcohol in his life, was watching it all on the local TV station from his hospital bed, sobbing quietly.
In very short order, the townspeople decided to make a town ordinance mandating that all teenage drivers be off the road by 8PM. President Bryson read out the ordinance, the Sherriff seconded and the motion, the town clerk called out, “All in favor, say aye!” and the room reverberated with a rolling “Aye!”
“All opposed, say nay!” One lone voice was heard from the back of the room, “Nay.” The whole town turned around, looking for the man who wanted the teenage killers prowling the streets after dark. Of course it was Edwin Stanton, the eccentric engineer who lived on the edge of town. Edwin was always seen reading voluminous books on his porch, or building contraptions that no one appreciated. The Red Flyer wagon-turned-car powered by the local Denny’s waste oil, the remote control mini WWI biplane made of crushed soda cans, the street sweeping robot that noisily chugged up and down Main Street at three in the morning; most people would’ve been just fine if Edwin upped and left Plattsville together with all his motley creations.
But Edwin wasn’t done. He stood up, and after a phlegmy clearing of the throat he called out, “Sir, no longitudinal studies have been conducted to date determining the culpability of all teenagers in this town. Verily, most of them are commendable drivers; we haven’t had a fatal accident involving a teenage driver since April of 1984. We must stop heaping obloquy upon the entire age group, and properly investigate the matter!”
Most of the townspeople already didn’t like it when Edwin talked; he used big words, and they felt he was being boastful, “talking like one of them professors from the state u-niversity down the interstate!” But when he defended the killer teens, things got ugly. People started calling him names, yelling, “You’re gonna have blood on your hands!,” and shoving their chairs toward him in a menacing way. Needless to say, the ordinance passed. The teens in Plattsville weren’t happy, but things did quiet down in Plattsville… until two months later.
It was in broad daylight on Main Street on a Tuesday afternoon in June when Bob Stahlberg’s Ford Fusion plowed right across incoming traffic and into the post office. Luckily, the post office was almost empty and he did more damage to the structure than the customers of the post office. But the passengers of his car were not that lucky. Bob had been driving back from a bingo game at the community center with two other senior citizens. Bob was rushed to the hospital with light injuries, his two passengers were driven to the mortuary.
Bob’s daughter Linda rushed to the hospital, where she was soon joined by her husband and their twenty four year old daughter. The family gathered around the bed, where Bob was awake but disoriented. “I was just going straight… I was just going straight…” he kept repeating.
Bob was a much respected man in the community. Before retiring twelve years earlier, he had been the UPS man for forty three years; and he never dropped off a package without a kind word and a warm smile. He probably had more miles under his belt than anyone else in town, but he was seventy seven, and the people were concerned again.
The town hall meeting this time was a bit different. The tone was more subdued, many other seniors were there to defend Bob as a good and careful driver, but the majority of the townspeople pressed for a new ordinance. Drivers over sixty five should have to come in for driving tests every six months, and when they turned seventy five, their licenses should be revoked. It just wasn’t safe. Edwin Stanton got up again and strenuously protested, the town was full of senior citizens and they had a near perfect driving record, but once again he was met with scorn and derision, and the ordinance passed.
Seventeen days later Sam Fulton was driving home from the bar, where he only had two beers over the course of three hours, when his brand new Chevy Silverado jumped the curb and plowed into a tree. A citywide zero-tolerance alcohol law was passed over Edwin’s increasingly frantic objections.
What happened next was different. Molly Harris was driving her minivan on the interstate when for no reason, she drove into a tractor trailer. The trailer fishtailed across the road hitting three cars in the process. Altogether six people ended up in the hospital, four vehicle were totaled, and chaos descended on the town hall meeting.
The yelling started even before the meeting officially commenced. Some of the men were yelling about female drivers, others were holding up studies comparing the driving habits of men and women, every canard about female drivers was dredged up, and magnified. Women were yelling back and holding up signs that said “Don’t tread on my license,” or “Women drive better sleeping than men drive awake.” The loudest voice in the room was Chris Burton’s, and he kept yelling about the time he saw a woman put on lipstick while driving and talking on the phone.
This time however, when Edwin called for more rigorous studies, he has the support of half of the room. It was decided that Edwin the engineer would be given a month to see if he could find an alternative explanation for the rash of accidents that had been plaguing Plattsville.
The next morning, he showed up at the town junkyard with his rusty toolbox and starting methodically taking apart the cars that had been in all the accidents. It didn’t take him a month. Two days later, he discovered the problem. The steering wheels of all the cars were defective. For the last two years, the local dealership had a promotion where they installed a free remote starter in every car they sold. But when they were installing them, they were wrongly plugging the ignition wires into one of the ports designed for the steering wheels. It didn’t cause immediate problems but as the wires got older and more brittle, the wires could cause a short in the driving column pulling it forcefully in one direction.
Some of the hardnosed people in town refused to believe that was the problem, they knew what the problem was, it was teenagers, the elderly, anyone who ever drank alcohol and women. But the rest of the townspeople sided with Edwin for the first time ever. The dealership took back all the cars it had sold in the last two years and readjusted the wires, and the Summer of Horror ended as fast as it started.
The story of Plattsville plays itself out in so many areas of life, but we will focus on one of them; happiness. In the US we believe in the right to happiness, our constitution even guarantees us Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. But we are not as happy as we should be. Most of us spend much more time in the pursuit than in the happiness.
It’s not for lack of trying, we are really good at trying to bring happiness into our lives. The global movie and TV industry takes in about 700 billion dollars each year in pursuit of happiness dollars, while the video game industry this year should pull in over 184 billion pursuit of happiness bucks. The fashion industry Hoovers in 1.7 TRILLION dollars each year, and while plenty of them are for utilitarian purchase, I would venture to say that at least half of them are pursuit of happiness bucks.
Last year, Apple pulled in $383 billion dollars globally. Most of that in the pursuit of happiness. Some go out to eat at expensive restaurants in pursuit of happiness, some watch sports for hundreds of hours a year in pursuit of happiness, but we’re still not happy enough! American are experiencing an unprecedented surge in anxiety and depression. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 8.3% of American have experienced a major depressive episode, and over 31% are struggling with anxiety. All that pursuit of happiness doesn’t seem to be leading to happiness.
Perhaps our steering wheel keeps pulling us in the wrong direction. We’re in the wrong pursuit. We shouldn’t be pursuing happiness, we should be pursuing a virtuous life, a life of kindness, giving, tolerance, sanctity, love, and G-dliness. The happiness is the byproduct that comes along with it!
We can have town meetings in our brain where we angrily cut out this brand or that brand for crashing us into a wall. We can blame our lack of happiness on the fact that our sweaters keep pilling, that our iPhone 22 was just surpassed by the iPhone 23, that the food at the restaurant was too spicy, or that the Lions threw on 4th down instead of kicking a field goal. But there is an Edwin somewhere in our brain saying, “Wait a second, there are millions of people in the world who don’t have iPhones, restaurants, or even sweaters, yet they are happy! Don’t blame the things, take the vehicle apart and see what’s wrong with the vehicle!”
The recipe for the good life is found in the Prophets, (Micha 6:8), “ He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.” Notice that when describing what is good, there is an utter lack of “pursuit happiness,” we don’t need to pursue it, we need to pursue good, and it will come.
Rabbi Chaim Ickovits, (1749-1821, Russia), know famously as Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin use to constantly tell his children, “Mankind was not created for himself, rather only to help others as much as he possibly can!” He recognized that the harder we try to make ourselves happy the more it eludes us, the more that we try to make others happy, the more happiness envelopes us as well.
Look at some of the happiest people you know. Where do they get their happiness from? Is it from the pursuit of happiness, or the pursuit of good?
Happiness is a byproduct not a product. May we all live the types of lives that are so focused on what is good and what is right, that happiness pursues us all of our days!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha is the first Parsha to detail many of the civil and criminal laws that are an integral part of the Torah. Examples of laws found in this week’s parsha are those dealing with stolen items, property damage, murder, integrity of the judicial system, and the responsibility of guardians.
The commentators ask what connection there is between this week’s Parsha and the end of last week’s Parsha, which dealt with the altar in the temple and tabernacle. They explain that the juxtaposition is supposed to teach us that the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Court, should convene in close proximity to the altar. In practice, the Sanhedrin met in a chamber on Temple Mount, called The Chamber of Palhedrin. What is the connection between those two – why did G-d make these two ideas adjacent in the Torah, and why does He hint to us that the Sanhedrin should be near the altar?
One explanation of this juxtaposition is that the Torah is directing us to a fundamental duality of Jewish life, civic responsibility and service of G-d. Although it may seem that one is a religious matter and the other is not, Judaism sees both as primary expressions of what it means to be a Jew. A person who focuses only on service of G-d or on his civic responsibility will not be develop his full Jewish potential. Being very pious in the House of Worship, but then going to the boardroom and committing fraud, tax evasion, or other white collar crimes, is not an acceptable form of Judaism. Neither is being scrupulous in business, paying taxes on time, never stealing a penny from anyone, but then ignoring G-d, or not having any relationship with Him.
A recent colossal financial scandal that rocked the Jewish world underscores this point. While the main perpetrator may have given large sums of charity, and volunteered his time to sit on the boards of many non-profits, his professed piety clearly did not translate into his business practices. He was a person who would have been happy to see the court far from the Temple, so that he could maintain his religious actions without having his conscience assaulted by the paragon of jurisprudence being located next to the altar. But our Sages teach us that the very first question we get asked when we come before the Heavenly Court after passing to the Next World, is “Did you conduct your business affairs faithfully?” There is no split between the altar and the court.
Unfortunately, our world also suffers greatly from a lack of appreciation for the other side of this message. Many people confuse being a good Jew with being a good citizen. They feel that as long as they are honest in business, pay their taxes, keep their lawn mowed and sidewalks shoveled, they are being all they can be as Jews. But in truth, that might make them a good American, but Judaism is a much richer experience than that, one that includes a relationship with the Divine; one that includes prayer, Torah study, mitzvos, and spirituality. Right next to the zenith of civic propriety was the altar – the place where mankind related to Hashem.
There is an analogy often used to understand this concept. Imagine a person who achieves extraordinary success. He becomes a world renowned surgeon saving people’s lives daily, and then turns to research and discovers the cure to a particularly resistant strain of cancer. He flies all over the world presenting his findings and freely dispensing his cures. There is one thing however that separates him from most people. He has no relationship whatsoever with his parents, despite the fact that his parents took good care of him as a child, showered him with love and attention, and worked hard to ensure that he would have numerous avenues to develop his skills and faculties. In Judaism, this person would be the person who does everything right from a civic standpoint yet has no relationship with G-d, no personal altar.
The Holy Temple in Jerusalem was meant to be a model that showed Jews the way to make a temple within themselves. Indeed the wording for the commandment to make a Tabernacle indicates this, “And they shall make for me a Tabernacle and I will dwell within them. (Exodus 25:8)” Just as the Temple had the civic courts of justice and the altar next to each other indicating their equal importance, so to we should make our civic justice and our relationship with G-d into equal components of the temples we build within us!
This Parsha is where we begin to learn about the Jewish system of law. The first verse starts with a fundamental, namely that a Jew cannot take his legal issues to a non-Jewish court even if he knows they will give the same verdict as the Jewish court. We believe that when a Jewish judge sits in trial, he receives Divine assistance, which aids him in adjudicating properly. A non-Jew in a secular court doesn’t have that added benefit, therefore the Torah commands us to bring our issues before a Jewish court.
The first laws dealt with in this portion are those of the Jewish servant, someone who stole and didn’t have the money to return the stolen goods, who the court then sold so he could pay the victim of his thievery. The Sages tell us, “Anyone who buys a servant is acquiring a master for himself.” According to Jewish law, not only does the master need to take care of the servant’s wife and kids (who are not working for him), but if there is only one pillow in the house it must be given to the servant. The goal of the servitude is to rehabilitate the criminal by having him be around his master for a number of years and see how fair and upright he is. (Having once been beaten by a gang of thugs fresh out of prison, I believe that anything would probably be better at rehabilitating miscreants than our current prison system!)
There are so many laws in this week’s Parsha that I will only list some of them. After the laws pertaining to servants, the Torah deals with: murder – intentional and unintentional, kidnapping, striking or cursing of parents, and damages for bodily harm to others caused by a person, his property, or his animal. It teaches us how to deal with the stealing of livestock or other goods, the right to self defense, the different types of legal guardians, and the laws of a seducer, sorcerer, or people who engage in bestiality. G-d warns us to be extra sensitive to widows, orphans, and converts, warns us against charging interest for loans, and reminds us of the importance of upholding the integrity of the judicial system.
Next, we get back to some general mitzvos as G-d commands us here regarding the laws of Shmitah (leaving the land fallow on the 7th year), the laws of Shabbos, and the laws of the three major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Succos. After that G-d promises us that He will watch over us, and get us settled into the Holy Land swiftly and safely, without disease or lost battles.
The last part of the Parsha goes back to the narrative of the Jews at Sinai. We are told that the Jews, upon being asked if they wanted the Torah, replied, “Na’aseh V’Nishma,” meaning we will do and we will listen. This was the Jewish people’s way of showing their complete faith in G-d. They were so certain that G-d would only give them mitzvot which were good for them that they accepted them even before hearing them all. Even today, we can still express the idea behind Na’aseh V’Nishma by doing the mitzvot we don’t yet understand as beneficial or just. When we do them anyway, we show that we do even what we don’t fully “hear” (understand). That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Our costliest expenditure is our time. ~ Theophrastus
Random Fact of the Week: The Library of Congress has 327 miles of bookshelves.
Funny Line of the Week: A burrito is a just sleeping bag for ground beef.
Have a Feisty Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham