Life isn’t easy, everyone is going to have to go through some tough stuff. What separates people, is when and how frequently. Some people are front loaders; they start off life with a lot of pain and suffering but climb above it and then seem to move on to a better life, above the noise. Others are back enders; their early life seems to cruise by relatively easily until life whacks them with a 2×4 when they least expect it. Of course there are also the people who all our hearts break for; the people who just don’t seem to be able to catch a break, life is a string of challenges that seem far greater than everyone else around them.
Yes, we all know those people who seem to have just been born under a good mazal, those who float through life without ever getting their feet dirty. You almost wonder if they stole all the good times from the ever-strugglers, and threw their junk on them on the way out. But experience shows that it just ain’t so. Either you don’t know about some enormous pain they carry with them every day from their youth, life is just warming up in the back room and is about to lay into them, or they are currently going through challenges that would bowl you over if you only knew. No one escapes the tough stuff. Adam l’amal yulad, (Job, 5:7) Man was created to toil. We weren’t put on this world to live bright airy clean light-filled lives, we were put here to get dirty and grimy and then struggle to scrub it off.
I think that the same rule applies to cars. Every car is gonna get whacked around, scratched up, fenders torn, frame bent by a high velocity impact. Some cars seem to come off the lot with a bad mazal, car accidents before they get to the thousand mile mark, glass spiderwebbed by a flying pebble coming off a dump truck on the freeway, tires that seem to call out to every rusty nail on the road. Other cars can go for nine years without a scratch. Their owner gets oil changes every 3,000 miles, brings it to the car wash every time they salt the roads, and always parks it in his garage. Then it’s crossing an intersection at 10:37AM on a June morning and a distracted driver runs a red and t-bones it, and in four seconds it’s gone forevermore.
I know about the latter type of car because I use to own him. Some people would call him a 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, but we called him Eugene. He spent the first 15 years of his life in idyllic peace, hanging out with a Bubby in Boro Park. She barely drove him, his 59,000 miles indicated less than 4,000 miles a year. She eventually sold him to a guy in Far Rockaway, and as the Sages indicate (Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbos, 6:9) a change of place often causes a change in mazal. In three weeks, the car got into an accident, was broken into, and had its tires slashed. Unable to find the right color body part, the body shop affixed a maroon front quarter panel to the passenger side of a navy blue car. The owner started fearing the ill-fated car and put it up for sale for $600. This worked out well for me, because I was in the market for a car and that was the exact price point I was looking for, so he gladly sold me the car and hurried off.
When it changed owners, it didn’t revert to the good mazal. On my third day with Eugene, a snowy day in the early winter, I braked hard and Eugene skid right into the back fender of a truck. That took a chunk out of Eugene’s grille. Fixing it would have cost me $750, which meant that Eugene would just have go chinless for the duration of his time with me. The lack of a grille was just part of Eugene’s charm; the cloth on the roof kept falling down, the adhesive meant to keep it connected to the foam had long ago dried out, and the cloth could only be kept up using a small army of thumbtacks. When those failed, the cloth would drift down and settle on my head. I would also have the occasional joy of sitting on a thumbtack that had dislodged itself from the roof and settled on the plush bench seat.
The 1986 Cutlass Ciera was still a carburetor car, and despite owning one, I still don’t quite understand what a carburetor is. I just know that to start the car, I would frequently have to open the hood, unscrew the carburetor, squirt some gas into its mouth and then start the car. I was slightly surprised yet gratified that there was no hand crank involved in the start process. Once he started, Eugene was ready to go where you wanted to take him. He ended up going to Florida, the Carolinas, and he even made it out to Denver. Eugene died when a tow truck driver hooked his cable into the oil pan by mistake and all the oil dripped out. When the car was started without any oil, the engine blew. Such was the long and at times productive life of Eugene.
Eugene was only one of many memorable cars I’ve owned over the years, and the only one that earned a name. There was the 1990 Honda Accord, which also came with a missing grille and a slightly bent out of shape hood due to altercations with cars larger than him. There was the 1988 Honda Civic that refused to go any faster than 55 mph, whose brakes melted off in a cloud of smoke on the FDR Drive on a summer Friday in rush hour traffic, leaving me to cross the George Washington Bridge without any brakes.
There was the 1997 Accord I bought with 160,000 miles from an Israeli couple in upstate NY (they had a goose farm and were the only producers of foie gras in the US). It was a hard working car, having averaged about 30,000 miles a year, but the service records were impeccable and it was in pristine condition. It served me well, climbing quietly to 230,000 miles before doing a spectacular double 360 and slamming into the dividing wall of the I-75 on a rainy morning, and coming to an eternal halt.
As you can tell, I’ve owned many automobiles rich in character and flavor, and nary a new one until much later in life. Which brings us to my current car, a three row 2019 Hyundai Santa Fe. Hyundai was clearing out all older models as they prepared to launch the all-new three row Palisade, so we got it for a scream of a deal. After decades of driving “memorable cars,” it was nice to walk outside in the morning and see a shiny new car at the curb.
That all changed recently. One day, out of the blue, a thick uneven nine-inch scratch showed up on the front passenger door of the car and continued on to the rear passenger door. It was not the kind of scratch one could miss, not a back bumper scratch, not a thin barely noticeable scratch. No, this was a biggie. White scratch on Coastal Blue car paint. I didn’t remember sustaining any scratches and promptly called my seventeen year old daughter (the only other driver of my car) in for some questioning. It wasn’t her either.
It took some serious sleuthing, but it seems like I parked in the driveway and my son was riding his scooter in the tight space between the trash bins and my car, and he got a little too close to the car and his metal scooter handle (which has foam around the handlebars, but the metal protrudes beyond the foam) gave me that long thick scratch. This was confirmed by running multiple rerun tests and realizing that the height of the scratch and handlebars were a perfect fit. No DNA evidence was even necessary.
Now I have the following dilemma. Getting the scratch fixed would cost about $800, because they’d have to repaint two door panels. I’m not going to spend that kind of money to clear out a scratch, especially not while my boys still own scooters. On the other hand, now every morning when I walk out to my nice shiny car, a big fat scratch is greeting me, all its ugliness on full display smack in middle of the car, on the passenger side which is what I see when walking from my house to the car. So here comes the challenge, can I look past the scratch and see the car, or will I let that scratch define the car for me.
It’s so easy to see the scratch, I’m a person who is particularly honed in to detail, and this scratch isn’t even in the detail category, it’s in the headline category. And as long as I see that scratch the appreciation I should have for that car is going to be less. And then I’m robbing myself of the enjoyment I should get out of the blessings that G-d gave me in this car, for a petty little scratch.
I know how this sounds. “Is he for real? Does he know how tone deaf he sounds? The world is burning up, millions of people are unemployed, people lost family and loved ones, businesses are failing, the country is burning up in waves of protests and looting, and this guy is talking about scratches on his car?” And the truth is that I don’t spend the majority of my day thinking about the scratch, only about 30%. But in earnest, this little scratch story is important because it is really an analogy for how we look at life writ large, and how we can let little annoyance distract us from the beauty around us.
How do you look at your spouse, do you see the scratches or the car? How do you look at your children, do you see the scratches or the blessings? How do you look at your employer or employees? How do you look at your children’s school or your synagogue? Are you the kind of person who gets fixated on the scratches that are inevitably going to pop up all over life in an imperfect world, or are you going to be focused in on all the blessings?
We live in such an incredibly blessed generation that it is literally impossible to cover even a tenth of it, but this should help quash any doubts. Shepsel Roberts was an exceptional Jew. He grew up in Europe before the war in crushing poverty. He came to the US, settled in Minneapolis where he co-founded the Jewish day school and performed over 13,000 bris milahs, all while working a regular day job! He related that when he was growing up, his mother could only buy one big loaf of black bread per week. That was their food for the week. And once in a while, the storekeeper would allow his mother to take home a ladleful of the shmaltz, the fishy oil in which the herring was pickled. The family would gather around and dip their black bread into the shmaltz and eat it feeling like kings! Ah! The blessing of having shmaltz with their bread filled them with thanks and joy!
So we can focus on all the incredible joys in our lives; in the refrigerators filled with far more than black bread and shmaltz, the wardrobes filled with clothing, the heat in the winter and A/C in the summer. Or we can look at the scratches. The scratches are real. They are big and you can’t miss them, they’re right in front of you, but how much do we miss when we look at scratches. We miss the greatness in our life, and more importantly the greatness in the people around us.
The Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers (1:6), instructs us to judge every person favorably. But if you look carefully at the words, what it actually says is, “Judge the whole person favorably.” What this means is that if all you look at are the scratches, you are going to find it very hard to judge people favorable. But if you zoom out and look at the whole person, all the complexities, history, and positive attributes, you’re going to end up judging people in a much more favorable way. And if we do that for others, we will begin to do that for ourselves as well. How often do we beat ourselves up because we’re fixated on our scratches and not on greatness?
Life is a challenge, no one gets to escape the tough stuff, but the choice we make daily in deciding whether we view our lives as one long uneven scratch or a beautiful car that occasionally gets dinged and scratched is where our success lies. We have so much more than black bread and shmaltz, let’s feel as blessed as we are!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha the Torah talks about the nazir, a person who swears off wine and all grape products, haircuts, and contact with dead bodies, for a specified period of time. The Torah describes this person with the following accolade: “the crown of his G-d is upon him” (Numbers 6:7) which means that a nazir is given some kind of spiritual crown directly from Heaven. One might claim that refraining from drinking wine, getting haircuts, or coming into contact with dead bodies doesn’t seem to be enough to warrant such a lofty outcome; after all many people do that for a month or more without even noticing!
In order to understand this, let us look at why one would choose to become a nazir. The nazir is one who sees himself slipping in his enthusiasm toward spirituality, and fears that he will begin to falter or fall. He therefore takes added measures, divorcing himself even from permitted actions, in order to guarantee that he stays strong. He insures he doesn’t lose control by not drinking wine or even coming into contact with grape products. He tries to prevent arrogance, a trait which causes one to lose focus, by letting his hair run wild. He distances himself from corpses, which represent the loss of potential (once one is dead they can no longer become better or improve their surroundings), in order to constantly remind himself of the sanctity of life, and the importance of not wasting his limited time here on the 3rd rock from the sun.
One can compare the nazir’s move to a popular military strategy. If a unit has to protect a particular location, such as an armory, and they are afraid that they will be attacked, they don’t just set up guards around the location. Rather, they attack and take ground from the enemy. In this way, even if they are forced to retreat a bit, their primary objective of guarding the armory will be successful. As they say in the military (and in basketball camp) “A good offense is the best defense!” This is what the nazir does. He sees himself being attacked by the Evil Inclination and is afraid of coming to do things he shouldn’t. Instead of waiting for the attack, he goes on the offensive, denying himself permissible things in a way that will ensure that he will continue to safeguard that which he holds so precious, keeping the Torah and its mitzvos.
One who is willing to sacrifice even that which he is allowed in order to ensure that he doesn’t fall, is obviously doing so out of an incredible love of G-d and a sincere desire that his relationship not be hurt by sin, which in essence is a blockage between us and G-d. Someone going such lengths for such reasons, truly deserves, “the crown of his G-d!” We too, should not wait to be pulled down by our lower desires, but rather earn the crown of G-d by going on the offensive, and introducing practices into our lives that will help us climb higher and get closer to G-d.
This week’s Parsha starts off where the the last Parsha finished, namely, the jobs given to different families within the tribe of Levi. Here, the Torah describes the parts of the Tabernacle that the families of Gershon and Merari carried when the Jews moved from place to place in the Desert.
The Torah then commands us to treat our camp with holiness. In order to do so, people with specific levels of ritual impurity are not allowed into different parts of the camp based on the severity of their impurity. (It is interesting to note that the only group that has to leave the entire camp and sit alone is the people who contracted Tzara’as through speaking badly about others and alienating them. What goes around comes around!) After that, the Torah tells us what to do if someone steals, swears falsely to deny it, and then admits. OK, I won’t keep you in suspense; he pays an extra fifth and brings a special sacrifice for atonement. If the victim dies and leaves no heirs, the money goes to the Kohanim.
The next law discussed, is that of the Sotah. This is a wayward woman, who secludes herself with a specific man, despite having been warned not to do so by her husband. In order to determine if she committed a sin while in seclusion, she is brought to the Temple where a procedure is done to determine if she is as innocent as she professes to be. (If, at any point, she admits to being guilty, she goes home without doing the procedure.) The procedure includes a Kohen reading her the passage regarding the Sotah, and dissolving the parchment into water. She then drinks the mixture after bringing a meal offering. If she is guilty, she immediately dies a difficult death, (as does the adulterer wherever he is at the time), but if she is innocent, she is rewarded with an easier birthing in the future, and great children. (Even though she shouldn’t have secluded herself with someone her husband asked her not to, since the procedure was a difficult one she is rewarded for being innocent.)
The parchment which was dissolved contains G-d’s name. If G-d considers marital harmony to be of such import that he allows His name to be erased (for if the wife lives past this procedure, the husband will be placated and no longer think that she betrayed him), how much more should we be willing to go out of our way to keep our marriages peaceful even if it occasionally costs us a bruised ego. After these laws, the Torah discusses the nazir, whom we discussed above. The two are juxtaposed because when one sees the sotah in her degradation, he should be inspired to take measures to insure that he never fall in that way.
After the laws of the nazir, the Torah tells the Kohanim how to bless the people, a practice still done daily in Israel and on the festivals here in the Diaspora. The final art of the Parsha deals with special offerings the leaders of the Twelve Tribes brought to inaugurate the Tabernacle. The first thing they brought was six sturdy wagons and twelve oxen to pull them. These were to be used in the transportation of the Tabernacle, and were divided amongst the tribe of Levi.
The Kehas family didn’t get any wagons, because their job was to carry the holiest vessels and it would be inappropriate for them to relegate such vessels to wagons. In addition to the wagons, the tribal leaders each brought a number of sacrifices during the first twelve days that the Tabernacle was in service. Although the Torah never uses an extra word, in our Parsha, it spends over seventy verses repeating the sacrifices that the leaders brought even thought they were exactly identical. The Torah is telling us that although on the outside the sacrifices were the same, each leader had unique intentions and meaning in his sacrifice, thus making them different. This underscores the idea that even though we may all pray the same prayers, and do the same mitzvoth, each one of us can have an incredibly unique and individual relationship with G-d based on our intentions and thoughts. Let us all continue to develop that relationship, and grow closer with our Father in heaven!
Quote of the Week: Those who make the worst use of their time most complain of its brevity. ~ Jean La Bruyere
Random Fact of the Week: A toaster uses almost half as much energy as a full sized oven.
Funny Line of the Week: Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.
Have a Exuberant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham