Smack in middle of the Kremlin stands the largest cannon in the world, the Tsar Cannon. Made entirely of bronze, it weighs in at over 86,000 pounds, and is close to 20 feet long. It has a caliber of 890mm, which means that its mouth is just about 3 feet wide. When loaded it would be filled with more than 1,750 pounds of grapeshot. I would imagine that being on the receiving end of that cannon’s firepower would be less fun than pretty much anything else. It was cast in Moscow in 1586, and was built to protect the eastern approaches to the Kremlin, the side most vulnerable to attack. It may have a Guinness World Record for its size, but it would definitely not get any awards for effectiveness; in its 430 year history it was never fired in war.

Standing not far away from the Tsar Cannon is the Tsar Bell. The Russians clearly had a hankering for beating world records, as the Tsar Bell is the largest bell in the world. It stands at an impressive twenty feet tall, it’s circumference is twenty two feet, and it weighs an impressive 455,166 pounds! It is actually the third Tsar Bell. The first was 40,000 pounds, and required 24 men to ring it’s clapper, but it fell from its tower in a fire and shattered. The second Tsar Bell was cast using the remnants of the first, but had an additional 60,000 pounds of bronze added to it. It too was destroyed by fire.

When Peter the Great’s niece Anna Ivanova became empress she was determined to make the greatest bell ever, and added an additional hundred tons of bronze as well as 1,157 pounds of silver and 159 pounds of gold! But even the third and most massive Tsar Bell was doomed from the start. Before the final ornamentation was added to the bell, another fire broke out in the Kremlin. The wooden supports holding up the bell began to burn, and soldiers who feared that the third bell would be destroyed like the first and second began pouring buckets of cold water on the bell to cool it off. What seemed like a great idea at the time turned out to be a disaster. Rapidly vacillating from hot to cold is not something bronze likes to do, and the bell did what Michigan roads do in winter, it cracked and buckled, and a large 23,000 pound slab slid right off.

Today, the slab rests quietly next to the biggest bell in the world, a bell that never rang. It was used for a time as a chapel, with people entering and exiting through the hole made by the slab, it was almost taken back to France when Napoleon lived in the Kremlin for a few months after conquering Moscow, but not even once did the biggest bell in the world ring.

In my mind, the bell and cannon, sitting a hundred feet from each other in the Kremlin, are perfect symbols for the Kremlin and indeed all of Russia. So much potential, so little delivery. Russia is a vast country, rich in natural resources, filled with bright minds, and hard working people, yet it somehow never seemed to capitalize on all its latent capabilities. Long before the Soviets blanketed the country in grey Soviet bloc buildings, food shortages, and nonfunctioning cars and appliances, great leaders tried valiantly to modernize Russia and bring it up to par with Europe. Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander the Liberator enacted hundreds of edicts trying to force Russia from a peasant country to an enlightened nation state, but their dreams were never fully realized.

Even today, tens of millions of Russians are living much like they used to live two hundred years ago. While the Russian GDP per capita is 53rd in the world (nothing to boast about at the dinner table), the vast majority of its wealth is in the hands of a small group of oligarchs, and vast majority of its people live on a few thousand ruble a month (less than $100).

The contrast between the rich and poor is palpable. While I was recently whisked from St. Petersburg to Moscow on a high speed train traveling over 200 kilometers per hour, I passed dozens of villages made of ramshackle wooden houses, dirt roads, and the occasional horse and buggy. Traveling through Russia is disheartening, as you are constantly forced to reconcile what could have been with what is. It may be that people who had been serfs and peasants for years are waiting for their saviors to lift them out of poverty, it may be that the communist ideal of society as a whole lifting itself up collectively doesn’t foster enough of a sense of individual responsibility needed to produce a nation of personally motivated achievers, but whatever it is, it’s holding Russia back from being all that it could be. Like its cannons and bells, Russia’s moment has not yet come, and may never come.

I was in Russia a few years ago on a Partners Detroit Destinations 4 Dads mission to Russia and Israel. In St. Petersburg we visited the Choral Synagogue, toured the fortress where the first Lubavitch Rebbe was imprisoned, and even visited the Yusopov Palace, the place where Rasputin was assassinated. (Even that barely worked. He didn’t die from the cyanide he was fed, he didn’t die when he was shot by Felix Yusopov in the chest, he finally died when he was shot while escaping in the courtyard!) In Moscow, we visited the impressive Moscow Jewish Community Center, met with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia, toured the Kremlin, and concluded our Moscow tour with a visit to Moscow’s Choral synagogue, where we met Rabbi Pinchas Goldshmidt, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow since 1993, as well as the President of the Conference of European Rabbis.

While only in Russia for 36 hours, we managed to meet some of the most influential people involved in the rebirth of Jewish life in Russia, as well as learn a lot of about Jewish life in Russia over the last millennia. But then it was time to grab an El Al flight from Moscow to Israel, and walk into a whole new reality. If Russia is the country defined by so much potential and so little delivery, Israel is the inverse, so little potential, so much delivery.

One hundred years ago, Israel was almost desolate. Only 83,000 Jews lived there. There was a small yishuv in in Jerusalem, a few thousand Jews living in Safed, some itinerant Bedouin tribes, and not much else. The land was bare and rocky in some places, swampy and malaria infested in others. Besides the Dead Sea area, there are very few natural resources. But the people wanted to see Israel returned to her former glory so they began working tirelessly to change the status quo.

The neighborhood was never great. In 1948, the infant state was invaded by armies from seven of its neighbors. Even since then, Israel has had to fight for its survival, both literally – in frequent wars with Arab countries or terrorist groups, and politically – as the Anti-Semetic world just doesn’t seem to think it is fair for Jews to expect to live in peace after two millennia of being the whipping boy of the world.

Yet, when you walk the streets of Israel, or travel the well paved highway system, you see nothing but a thriving people. Diverse, strong, good natured, hard-working, and spiritual, the people of Israel with G-d’s special Divine Protection, have created an oasis of beauty in a Middle East filled with ugliness. It exports technological advances all over the world, from computer chips, to cell phone design, new medicines and medical devices. It not only learned how to increase its agricultural production sevenfold in the last fifty years, it happily shares what its learned with countries around the globe. It leads the world in cyber-security, as well as defense technology, and trains police forces around the world to better prevent and respond to terrorists.

But the greatest marvel of Israel is the spiritual component, the sense that we have the responsibility to be a Light unto the Nations (Isaiah 42:6), and the responsibility to take care of one another. From the soup kitchen and homeless shelter we visited in Tel Aviv, to the lesson we learned as our group studied one on one with young men from the Jerusalem Kollel, the idea that we are all responsible to better ourselves and the world around us permeates Judaism, and indeed Israel, in a palpable sense. It is this spiritual truth, I believe, that spurs the greatness of the Jewish people, and allows a country like Israel, so low on potential, to deliver such staggering success.

The whole concept of our mission was perfectly aligned with this concept. We were in Israel with a group of men in their forties and fifties who were there to learn more about their Judaism and to grow Jewishly. How much they learned or didn’t learn when they were younger didn’t matter, how involved they were in synagogue life, Jewish ritual, or Jewish study until now didn’t matter. The questions they asked, the teachings they embraced, the prayers and blessings they recited, showed how much they wanted to become better Jews, and motivated me to feel the same. These were men who understood that it is our personal responsibility to grow and develop ourselves daily, regardless of background, challenges, or circumstance, and when there is a nation of individuals working on the same goal, greatness emerges.

Our Sages tell us in Ethics of Our Fathers (2:16), “ It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.” It is not our job to make the biggest splash in the ocean, but we can’t hold ourselves back from jumping in. The Jewish people are not the largest cannon in the world, nor the largest bell, but when each of us fires up whatever we have inside, and rings our bell to inspire our neighbor, the noise we produce is the loudest and most beautiful noise in the world.


Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, we find a mitzvah that seems very difficult to understand.

“When you will enter the land and you will plant any food-bearing tree, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23)

With this mitzvah known as orlah, G-d commands us to desist from using the fruit of any tree for the first three years after its planting. This mitzvah, which is not limited to a geographic location such as Israel or to a particular time period such as the Temple era, is still in force today, and is meticulously observed by religiously observant farmers worldwide.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), of blessed memory, notes that this mitzvah seems inconsistent with the Torah’s prohibition of wastefulness. That principle, derived from two verses in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) that warn against wantonly cutting down fruit trees in time of war, is expanded to include a host of laws aimed at preventing wastefulness. It is surprising therefore that the Torah tells us to dispose of all fruit of the tree’s first three years!

Rabbi Feinstein explains this curiosity with the well-established principle that we will not incur a loss by following the mitzvot. He says that this is especially true with the mitzvah of orlah and with the additional mitzvah of netah revai (the law that fruit of the fourth year, from trees grown in Israel, be brought to and eaten in Jerusalem). With regard to these two mitzvot, the Torah assures us that, “On the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, so that it will increase its produce for you, I am Hashem, your G-d” (Leviticus 19:25).

Rashi quotes the famed Rabbi Akiva who says that this verse addresses any reservations a farmer might have about keeping this mitzvah due to financial considerations. Not only will he not incur a loss, but also he will in fact gain from keeping these mitzvot. G-d will actually cause his trees to become even more bountiful, to the benefit of all mankind! What initially appears to be wasteful is actually the source of tremendous blessing!

This conflict between a mitzvah and conventional wisdom can be seen with other agricultural mitzvot as well. Shmittah, for example, demands that we put down our tools and let our land lie fallow every seventh year with no agricultural input or personal investment. Once again, G-d guarantees that this display of self-discipline will result in an exceptionally bountiful harvest, proving that neither toil nor improved seeds nor enhanced fertilizer are responsible for man’s financial success.

Rabbi Shmuel Bloom was once in the office of an organization that helps farmers observe shmittah when a phone call came in from a farmer shouting about a miracle that had occurred with his crop. Rabbi Bloom decided to take a trip to northern Israel to get a first-hand glimpse.

When he arrived, the farmer, a secular Jew who first committed to observing the shmittah laws that year, explained that a devastating frost had lingered in the area for a number of weeks, totally destroying the many local banana plantations that cannot withstand temperatures below the freezing point. When he came to inspect his fields, he found that his was the only plantation in the region unscathed by the frost! Rabbi Bloom personally inspected the neighboring plantations and was overwhelmed by the stark contrast. (See story and pictures here:

Like shmittah, the laws of orlah reinforce the message that G-d is the source of all success. Forgoing three years worth of produce may not seem logical, but it’s an investment in the tree’s future bounty and productivity.

While the Torah demands that we put in a good day’s work, there are times when we are told to put down our work tools (or shut down the computer) and take the time to reflect on the idea that there’s much more to the end-product than our inadequate efforts. This message is vital, even for those who don’t have plans to plant a fruit tree in the near future. Mistakenly believing that their success is exclusively dependent on their own efforts, many people add hours upon hours to their workday – almost always at the expense of their family and their spiritual growth. Stepping back and realizing that G-d’s manual for life is the ultimate plan for true prosperity will likely not only result in even greater success, but also in a happier and more meaningful life.



Parsha Summary

The first of the two Parshiot that we read this week, Achrei Mos starts of with Ha-shem telling Moses the proper way for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to enter the Holy of Holies which is only done on Yom Kippur. This commandment was given after Aaron’s two eldest sons died after entering the Holy at an improper time. The lesson is that Holiness requires preparation and cannot be jumped into off the cuff, and the Holier the place, the more groundwork required.  Everyone understands that it would be foolish to buy a house without checking it out properly first, or sign a contract without going over the details, all the more so in the spiritual world whose effects are more far-reaching do we have to prepare properly before rushing in.

The Torah describes the Yom Kippur service in detail but one interesting item to note is that the Kohen Gadol first brings a sacrifice to atone for his personal and his families sins, then a sacrifice to atone for all the Kohanim (his tribe), and only after that does he bring an offering to a atone for the entire Jewish community. This is very much in synch with the concept of preparation mentioned above, in that one before trying to change the world must first change himself and then work outward in concentric circles personal-family-tribe-community at large.

The Torah then discusses the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple or eating their parts out of their boundaries. (Yep, in case you didn’t pick up on it, this is also about showing respect for the act of sacrifice and understanding that you can’t just sacrifice it anywhere or anytime that you feel like it, there is a system that you must follow. So if you have that Tyco altar in your backyard, its time to fold it up, and wait for the Messiah when we will have a real Temple again!)

Then the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood. The blood is considered to be the seat of the soul of the animal hence we offer it on the altar, as a sign that we want one soul to be offered to atone for another, and therefore it would be profane to eat it in any other medium. (I know this week is a tough one, you have to fold up the Tyco altar, and stop your membership with the Vampires R Us club.)

In fact the Talmud learns a great lesson from this. If we get reward for not eating blood or other forbidden insects that one naturally loathes, how much greater is our reward for holding ourselves back from doing things that we are attracted to! This is why the forbidden relationships juxtaposed to this topic in this same Parsha to help us realize this lesson.

Here the Torah also commands us to cover the blood of non-domesticated animals or birds that we slaughter. The reason for this is that if the blood contains the soul of the animal it would be improper to eat the animal while its lifeblood and soul are lying exposed on the ground. This shows two things. One, that even animals have some sort of soul, as do even plants and rocks each to a lesser extent, as everything is an emanation from G-d and to exist must have some sort of soul or life to it. This is evidenced by Psalms talking about how different inanimate objects sing the praises of G-d, which is not just a metaphor. (Now we begin to understand the crazy Pet Rock fad of the 70’s!) Another lesson is the incredible sensitivity the Torah displays even toward animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to people’s feelings.

After this the Torah enumerates many of the forbidden sexual relationships including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Right after this the Torah write a warning not to commit certain forms of idol worship. The juxtaposition is explained as follows; both the idol worshipper and the person committing adultery are being treacherous to one who deserves their loyalty, whether it be G-d or one’s spouse.

At the end of the parsha the Torah enjoins us not to commit these immoral acts, as they were the cause that the dwellers of Canaan (Israel) to be expelled from it. If we contaminate ourselves with them, we will also be banished from our land as the Holy Land itself has holiness and it can’t contain impurity. This concludes the Parsha, and now we have come full circle because the same concept of preparation and respect we see applying to the Holy Land as it does to the Holy of Holies that the Kohen Gadol enters on Yom Kippur.

The second parsha we read is Kedoshim, which starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell the Jews “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Ha-shem your G-d.” I could write volumes on this statement alone but then you would all put me on the “Block- Spam” list so I’ll keep it simple. This is G-d’s way of telling us to stay away from excess even in things that are allowed. Even though there is plenty of kosher wine, and good USDA Grade A Angus steaks, that doesn’t mean that we should sit all day drinking wine and eating steaks. Even within that which is permitted to us, we must learn not to overindulge, not to constantly focus on fulfilling our physical desires as that takes us away from pursuing spiritual growth.

The Torah then enumerates so many fundamental laws that Rashi says that “most of the essentials of the Torah depend on it (this Parsha).” Included in them are keeping Shabbos, honoring your parents, not serving idols, being honest in your dealings with others, paying your workers on time, not giving bad advice, leaving certain parts of your harvest in the field for the poor, not perverting justice in favor of the rich or poor. (O.K. lets take a deep breath and we’ll dive right back in!) The commandment to love your fellow like yourself, the requirement to save your friend from physical harm, and to give him reproach in a way that will save him from spiritual calamity. The prohibition against gossiping, taking revenge, bearing a grudge, and hating your brother in your heart. This portion concludes with the words “I am Ha-shem!” because many of these things cannot be discerned from the outside, such as hating someone in your heart, or giving someone bad advice, so Ha-shem says I am G-d and I know what you’re thinking!

Immediately after the above laws, many of which seem to be moral laws that we as a thinking society would probably institute anyway for the preservation, the Torah brings the laws of Kelaim. Basically, you can’t wear clothes made of wool and linen, you can’t mate two different animal species together, nor plant mixed seeds in your field. These mitzvos seem to have no apparent rationale. The reason the Torah juxtaposes these two types of commandments is to show us that just like we keep the laws of Kelaim solely because G-d commanded it, so to we should keep the laws that we think are moral solely because G-d commanded it.

Human morality is flippant. The “great” Greeks and Romans on whose civilizations our Western world is modeled, killed children on childbirth for the crime of being female and justified it. Some cultures sent elders out into the wilderness to die when they became too old, and justified it. In order for us to be able to really say something is right or wrong, in order to have an absolute morality, it has to come from G-d, who would be the only One who could classify things as right or wrong and everyone would be bound by it. By definition, some parts of it we will understand and some parts we won’t as He is divine and we are human. This is the message of the unfathomable laws of Kelaim coming right after such simple laws as don’t cheat, steal, and take revenge.

The Torah continues with more mitzvos including not eating from the fruit of a tree for the first three years, then consecrating its fruit on year four, and only on year five is it yours to enjoy as you please. The prohibition against indulging in sorcery, believing in lucky times, getting tattooed, cutting yourself to show sadness over someone’s death, or totally shaving your head (hence the mitzvah for men to have peyot, or side locks), or of shaving your beard with a razor are also found here. There are some more laws still in this incredible Parsha, but alas, the candle is beginning to dim, and the hour is late, so I’m going to have to sign off here. Let’s try to take one or two of the many lessons in our two Parshiot and integrate it into our lives, and we will surely find our lives enriched, enlivened, enthused, and energized!


Quote of the Week: Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value. ~ Albert Einstein

Random Fact of the Week: There are more than 10 million bricks in the Empire State Building.

Funny Line of the Week: Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.


Have a Stupendous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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