The fifteen passenger van was dented, rusted, and filled with benches covered with industrial strength vinyl. For four years that canary yellow van conveyed me to school, about twenty minutes from my house, and deposited me back home again in the evening. I can still smell the dank vinyl, still see the black rubber floor filled with salty muddy snowmelt all winter long, and still hear the squeaks, groans, and huffing of an engine working far past retirement. But most of all I remember the driver, Harvey.
Harvey was an African American gentleman in his late fifties or early sixties. He was always smiling, his shiny spotted cheeks creased into a permanent picture of serenity. He greeted us all by name, waited patiently for anyone who had to run back and get the schoolbag they were always leaving behind, but most of all, maintained his composure as the twelve to fourteen passengers of his van descended daily into chaos after a long day of school.
I was the recipient of Harvey’s patience on a daily basis. My house was the first stop on the pickup route, and he would always show up a few minutes early, and start honking. His horn was the only alarm clock that would actually wake me up. But as soon as it sounded, I would instantly transform from inert log to flying frenzy. In one smooth motion I would vault over the safety bar of my top bunk, landing on the floor with a jolt. I’d slide open the window, yell out, “I’m coming, I’m coming, hold oooooon!” and wait for Harvey to give me the thumbs up. I now had about seventy five seconds to get out of the house.
My bedroom was not very big, but it usually got even smaller at this point, as my older brother was also in the midst of his flying frenzy, having been woken by the same alarm clock as me. Both of us would pull on whatever shirt and pants combination was closest to us, wrestle on our shoes, and streak out the door, belts, coats and bookbags flying behind us. In the van we could put on our belts, tie our shoes, and make sure our buttons were lined up with their respective buttonholes; that’s what school vans were made for, no? Climbing into the van, and being greeted by Harvey meant that we were safe. Yet again, we’d made it.
Now Harvey, despite being kind, gentle, and beloved by the boys he herded to and from school, seemed not to have the best of life at home. The big discovery was made by a neighbor of mine about two years into Harvey’s employment. One night, he noticed the school van in a parking lot near our home; canary yellow doesn’t camouflage itself well. Curious, he looked into the windows, and was quite shocked to see Harvey sleeping in the back row of the van. The next morning, he confronted Harvey as soon as he climbed into the van. Harvey then said something we ten and eleven year olds had a hard time finding the right brainshelf for, “I got into a fight with the missus and she kicked me out of the house…”
Growing up in homes where thank G-d neither spouse was ever kicking the other out of the house, we just didn’t understand how this worked. What did he do? Why did he listen to her? What kind of devil-woman was he married to? When he was kicked out of the house, what did he do from 5pm when he dropped us off until 7:15am when he picked us up?
All these questions swirled around in our head for days, and eventually we resigned ourselves to the knowledge that these were adult problems, and that we’d never really understand what was going on in Harvey’s house. This was not to say that we did not become much more aware of Harvey’s marital issues. Once the initial discovery was made, we began noticing the van parked overnight in various parking lots around our homes much more frequently. This included winter nights, which in Cleveland, OH were not friendly; I’m talking about ten-below-zero not friendly. It appeared that he would turn on the van, heat up the interior and then turn it off to conserve gas, but if must have been awfully cold whenever he tried to sleep for a few hours straight. We all knew what was going on and felt sorry for Harvey, but we were going to keep it between us, as he had requested of us.
We may have been aware of his troubles, but Harvey never displayed any of his pain on the outside. He was always cheerful, always thankful, and no matter when you asked him how he was doing, he would say, “Just great, thank G-d, thank you for asking!”
Then came the morning I will never forget. It was freezing outside, with about a foot of snow on the ground. As we tumbled into the van, we noticed that Harvey had bought himself a feast for breakfast. It was still in the Roy Roger’s Styrofoam tray, each food nestled in its own section. French toast, scrambled eggs, hash browns, grilled cheese, and some sort of sausage. A large coffee was sitting in the cup holder. It smelled heavenly, and to us kosher boys it probably smelled even better, because it clearly was the forbidden fruit. The tray was propped on the center console which in fifteen passenger vans from the eighties was the size of a small table.
I remember being very happy that Harvey had this feast. He clearly had slept in the van the night before, and the least he could have was a good hearty breakfast to warm him up in the morning. In my mind, it was almost like a mini-revenge Harvey was playing on his wife, “You want to kick me out of the house? Fine, but I’m going to get myself a feast from Roy Roger’s first thing in the morning!” It felt good, at least Harvey had control of one thing in his life.
Harvey was taking bites out of the grilled cheese while he drove the morning route, picking up the Burnhams, then the Gutmans and the Shneiders. He was heading to the Comptons when disaster struck. Turning the corner, the van began slipping on the ice, and Harvey had to slam on the brakes as the van spun around. The van stopped, held in place by the brakes, but that cruel law of inertia kept the untethered breakfast feast moving. In slow motion, the Roy Roger’s tray dislodged from the center console, gracefully turned upside down, and deposited all of its contents on the floor of the van. There would be no five second rule, the whole floor of the van was filled with salty filthy black water that had melted off of our boots. There would be no breakfast feast. Harvey, already down and out, had just lost his saving grace.
Harvey, looked down at the breakfast, and it was the only time I can remember that he looked thoroughly defeated. “Aww, that was sooo good…” was all he could say, “Aww that was soooo good…” The whole van was quiet, that day we all mourned with Harvey.
To this day, whenever I lose something, that is the phrase that pops into my mind. “Aww, that was soooo good…” It seems to be a phrase that we humans are very in touch with. We most acutely feel things immediately after they are gone. But the truth is that what we should try to focus most on is the feeling of “Aww, this is so good!” Focusing on the good times past means we’re living in the past, we’re living our lives in rewind. Focusing on the good in our current life means we’re living in the present, we’re living our lives in real-time.
There are too many people wasting time reminiscing about their college days as the best times of their lives, it robs them of the vitality and joy available to them in the present. Statements like “those were the good old days” takes the good out of these days.
Judaism’s perspective on Thanksgiving is that it is not an annual experience but an hourly one. Every day, we are called upon to enumerate the blessings in our current life dozens of times. From the Modeh Ani prayer we recite immediately upon waking, where we give thanks for another fresh day of life, to the blessings we make on having sight, clothing, strength to stand up, to the thanks we express in the silent devotion for our souls, health, and the miracles of every day life, a Jews day is filled with thanksgiving. Every time we take a bite of a delicious apple or warm brownie, every time we drink a glass of water, we stop to give thanks first.
The measure of goodness we feel in life is closely correlated to the amount of appreciation we express for it. Harvey, had a tough life, yet whenever asked, he always said, “Great, thank G-d, thanks for asking!” and that was probably what made him so kind, serene and gentle, despite the chaos around him, whether it be in a van full of crazy elementary school kids, or when sleeping the night in a cold and lonely van.
Jews are called Yehudim, we are collectively named after one of twelve tribes, the one whose name means to give thanks. Perhaps part of the secret of our survival is our incredible ability to give thanks for the small things even when things around us are chaotic. Perhaps it’s because even when times are tough, we are able to say, “Awww, this is so good….” and not live mired in the past when “Awww… that was sooo good…”
If we want to increase the amount of good in our lives, the secret is to simply ratchet up our expressions of thanks for the good in our lives. We’re familiar with the motto, “Build it and they will come!” For goodness in our life, there is a similar motto, “Express it, and it will be there!”
While the world around us stops for a day of Thanksgiving, let’s resolve to bring the practice of giving thanks into our daily life. Let’s resolve to consciously express thanks at least five times a day. Let’s make sure we live our lives in a perpetual state of “Aww, this is so good!”
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we have a showdown of epic proportions, the ultimate clash of good vs. evil, the fight between Yaakov and the angel that represents Eisav. This angel happens to also wear the hat of the Evil Inclination. They fight all night long. They can only fight at night, as night represents the time when G-d’s light is hidden. During the day, when G-d’s light is revealed, there is no place for the angel of Eisav who represents evil. Only when we don’t see G-d clearly, when it is spiritually dark, do we have to struggle with the Evil Inclination.
Yaakov wins and the evil angel begs to be let free. He says that he needs to go sing before G-d. This can teach us a lot, as angels only go to sing before G-d when they successfully complete the mission on which they were sent. When the evil angel is defeated it is considered a success.
This concept is very different than the Christian belief that incorporates rogue angels like Lucifer who rebel against God. In Judaism we know that it is virtually impossible for an angel to rebel against G-d because they see Him with total clarity. The angel who comes to entice us to do bad is not a bad angel, he is simply fulfilling G-d’s commandment just as much as any other angel. The difference between him and the rest of the hosts of angels is that G-d commanded him to entice us to sin. However, his success is his failure.
An analogy would be the martial arts fighter sent to train the crown prince. If he just goes easy on the crown prince, then the prince will never become a great warrior. Instead he must truly fight with the prince, often giving him a stiff beating. But he yearns for the day that the prince will beat him, because that will be the day that he will have fulfilled his duty – he will have truly trained the prince to be a master.
The same is true for the Evil Inclination. If he does not try to challenge us at every opportunity he gets, then we will never become great. So he goes out each day, challenging us, beating down our spirits and driving us to places we don’t want to be. However, when we humans reject him no matter how hard he tries, his goal has been reached. So, he is the one angel out there that goes to work every day hoping to be rejected, and when he fails he can go sing to G-d because he has accomplished his purpose. Let’s try to get the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Inclination to burst out in a continuous never-ending song of failure – success!
Our Parsha starts with Yaakov returning to his homeland after being on the run from his brother Eisav for thirty four ears. Trying to gauge the reception he should expect, Yaakov sends messengers (some say they were angels) to reconnoiter Eisav’s camp. The messengers come back with a message that Eisav has a loving brother’s reception committee of 400 crack troops chomping at the bit, intending to kill Yaakov. In response, Yaakov sets up the protocol for how Jews deal with conflicts. First he sends a gift, then he prays, and lastly he sets up the battle camps. This included splitting his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape.
The night before the meeting of the brothers Yaakov goes back across a river he crossed with his family to pick up some vessels he left behind. At this moment he is attacked by the angel of Eisav, the angel of evil. They fight all night long, and Yaakov wins. However, the angel manages to dislocate part of Yaakov’s thigh tendon, which is the reason that Jews are not allowed to eat this particular piece of meat. (It is clear that this fight has an infinite amount of depth, and the significance of the thigh tendon dislocation and the subsequent prohibition is much more profound than it appears on the surface.)
The next day Eisav meets Yaakov and, miraculously, he is filled with mercy. Instead of killing Yaakov, he cries with him, forgives him for acquiring the blessings, and blesses him. He even expresses a desire to stay with Yaakov, but Yaakov firmly refuses, and the two brothers part ways. Yaakov realized that living with a loving Eisav would be just as dangerous (if not more) than battling an angry Eisav.
After this meeting Yaakov heads to the city of Shechem where he hopes to stay a bit but, unfortunately, things don’t go so smoothly. Shechem, the son of Chamor the king of the city, is attracted to Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. He grabs her and has forced relations with her. After that, he and his father come to Yaakov to try to work out a way that Shechem can marry her properly.
Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons and Dina’s brothers, are enraged that their sister has been defiled, and come up with a plan to teach everyone a lesson. They tell Chamor that the reason they can’t let Dina marry Shechem is because he comes from an uncircumcised people. If all the males in the city are circumcised, then Shechem can marry Dina. Shechem and his father go back and convince the people of the city to circumcise themselves. On the third day after the circumcision, when the pain is the greatest, Shimon and Levi swoop down on the city and kill all the males. (The commentators explain that they had the right to kill Shechem for his rape, but everyone else defended Chamor, and in the ensuing battle everyone was killed. Nachmonides says that the people of the city were considered accomplices to Shechem’s crime and were therefore also deserving of the death penalty.)
Yaakov is concerned about this move, as he feels it would give his family a bad name amongst all the neighboring people, and they might join forces to attack him. (Later, when he blesses his children before his death, he brings up this event again, and curses the two brother’s anger.) However, G-d puts an unnatural fear on the people of the land and no one moves against Yaakov’s family.
At this point, we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov’s mother. After that, G-d renames Yaakov with the same name given to him by the angel, Yisroel. He also blesses him and promises him that the land he promised to Avraham and Yitzchak will be passed on to his children (not the children of Eisav or Yishmael).
Soon after, Rachel gives birth to the last of the twelve tribes, Binyamin. Immediately after childbirth and the naming of her son, Rachel dies. She is buried right there on the road, so that when the Jews are exiled by the Babylonians hundreds of years later they can pray by her grave and she will be able to intercede on their behalf before G-d.
After Rachel dies, Yaakov establishes his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid before marrying Yaakov. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, sees this as a slight to his mother’s honor, so he moves Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. For a person of Reuven’s stature, this action is considered almost tantamount to adultery, as he is trying to force his father to live with one wife and not the other. Reuven realizes his error and does teshuvah immediately.
Toward the end of the Parsha we find Yaakov reunited with his father after an extended leave of absence and, soon after that, Yitzchak passes away at the ripe old age of 180. Eisav and Yaakov bury him together next to their mother Rivka in the Mearat Hamachpela, the place where Adam, Eve, Avraham and Sara were buried. The Parsha concludes with an in-depth description of Eisav’s genealogy. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow. ~ Frank Hummene
Random fact of the Week: The average annual income in the US at the start of a World War II was $1,070. Funny Line of the Week: People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.
Have a Grateful Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham