It was only 9:15AM and the bickering had already started. Is Teddy Roosevelt good for the Jews, or is he not. Are steamships going to overtake sailing vessels or are they not. Are there too many greener Jews flowing into the Lower East Side from all over Europe and Russia or are there not enough. Should the Yiddish Theater adapt American plays, or stick to its roots. When six people are stuck in a tiny humid room for twelve hours straight, any topic could be passionately argued for an hour or two.
Yaakov Perlmutter tended to be the quietest of the bunch. As the owner of the micro-factory producing women’s gowns out of his tenement apartment on Broome Street in the Lower East Side, he had bigger things to worry about than incessant arguments over things he couldn’t control. He was trying to get Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman to take his dresses, because they paid about twenty percent more than his current clients, R. H. Macy’s & Co. and Siegel-Cooper.
Yaakov sometimes stuffed his ears with wax to drown out the chatter, but he never asked his employees to stop. People needed a diversion when they spent the entire day sitting in one chair sewing lace and trim to a procession of dresses they could never afford. Yaakov knew that he barely paid his workers enough to support their families, and he knew that other factories had gramophones to entertain their workers, so he let the daily bickering run its course. He would sometimes force a change of topic when his children came home from school at five thirty, but his employees respected that.
The Perlmutter family had come to the US from Minsk just six years earlier, in the middle of the brutal winter of 1897. For seven months they lived in a single room generously provided for them by the Henry Street Settlement. Yaakov and his wife Genendel were hard workers, but they lost their jobs almost every Friday when they told their bosses that they could not come in to work on Shabbos. Eventually, Yaakov realized that he needed to open his own business, and using the training given to him by the Henry Street Settlement he did just that.
Just a few years later the Perlmutters were moderately prosperous. Employing five workers, and using the resourceful hands of his wife and two elder daughters, they were able to produce enough dresses each week to pay for their rent, food, and even advanced education for his children so that they could one day be professionals. But their ambitions were still larger.
Yaakov had grand plans. There was only so long that he could live in a 350 square foot tenement apartment that was both the home to his family of seven as well as the place that he and his five workers plied their trade. The trek down four flights to the outhouses every time he had to go to the bathroom was especially difficult on him as his intestinal ailments meant that it was a trip he made at least ten times a day. The soot from the coal furnace aggravated his lungs and he had a chronic cough for the past six years.
He dreamt of moving across the river to Brooklyn where he would buy a house with electricity and indoor plumbing. He would move his factory out of his house, bring on more employees and maybe even open his own storefront on 5th Avenue. He wasn’t sure how he would do it, but America was the goldene medina, the Golden Country, the place where dreams came true every day.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side while on a NY Shabbos Getaway with a group of dads from Detroit. It is the only tenement building preserved as it was at the turn of the century, and it is a must see for any Jew visiting New York. The building at 97 Orchard Street, had 20 apartments, in which close to 7,000 people lived from 1864 to 1935. The building went through many changes over the decades, as many as 22 layers of wallpaper were found in some rooms, and 39 layers of paint in others. The museum offers tours that teach about various families living in the building.
Yaakov Perlmutter, the fictional character I created for your reading pleasure was closely based on a real resident of 97 Orchard Street, Abraham Rogarshevsky, who lived in apartment on the third floor and operated a factory in his house.
As we toured the building and learned about the conditions of the people living in the building, I couldn’t stop thinking about how blessed I am to live in the US in 2015 and not 1915. I don’t know anyone who has a family of seven living in 350 square feet of space that doubles as a factory. I don’t know anyone who has to trek outside in the freezing cold to go to a tiny smelly privy that is shared by another 200 people. I don’t know anyone who only has two or three sets of clothing, and I don’t know any seven year old children who have to work for six to ten hours a day to help feed their family. We live in blessed times.
The funny thing is that the Rogarshevsky family, and the fictional Perlmutter family might have also felt very blessed. They came to the US by boat from a small shtetl in what is now Belarus, where they probably living in a dirt floor hut, and often had to go hungry because there simply was no food. They had been subject to frequent pogroms, and were constantly fearful for their lives and the lives of their children. Living their lives in their modest apartment in the Lower East Side, they may have frequently spoken about how blessed their lives were, having steady work, steady food, warmth in the winter, and a semblance of security from bodily harm.
Of course, the flip side of this is that there are so many people walking around today who feel so miserable about their lives. Despite all our blessings, every time a major sports team loses a championship level series, there is a spike in heart attacks in that city. People feel so accursed because their sports team lost, they don’t have their dream job, their bank account is a bit anemic, or they haven’t yet met the love of their life. In stark contrast to the historical wealth and prosperity of our society, is the prevalence of people who need anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications. This all brings us to a Talmudic statement (Nedarim 41A), “There is no poverty but of the mind,” and to which some of the more recent commentators add: “And there is now wealth but of the mind.”
Every day we make a decision about how we want to view our existence. Are we blessed or cursed? Yes.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah describes the life of Sara, our great matriarch. After saying that she lived 127 years, the Torah repeats (Genesis, 23:1), “these were the years of Sara.” Rashi, the primary commentator on the Torah explains that this seemingly repetitious phrase is there to teach us that all 127 years of Sara’s life were equally good. This seems hard to understand, in light of the fact that Sara was kidnapped twice by sovereigns who had less than noble intentions, spent decades pining for a child that seemed would never come, and endured famines, constant moving, and a revolution within her household…
What the Torah is teaching us is that despite the hardships Sara endured, she lived those years as good years. Whether life is good or life is bad is a decision and she choose to live a life that was good, every one of her 127 years.
May we merit to follow in the footsteps of our great matriarch Sara, and make the choice to always see our lives as good and blessed, as that decision is ours, and only ours.
Dvar Torah
According to a recent TIME Magazine study, Americans spent approximately $370 million dollars on pet costumes for Halloween this year. In a world where pampered pets are de rigeur, this may come as no surprise. But the link between pampered pets and out weekly Torah portion is surprising and instructive.
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the first shadchan (matchmaker) ever. Avraham sends out his trusted aide, Eliezer, to find a suitable woman for his son Yitzchak. Eliezer, recognizing that the task of finding a future matriarch was immense, devises a litmus test to determine the future matriarch of the Jewish nation, and prays to G-d that it work.
Eliezer would ask a number of girls for a drink as they drew water from the well for their families. The one that would say, “not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels,” would be the one to prove herself worthy of marrying into the house of kindness established by Avraham, and continued by his son, Yitzchak. Let’s see what happened…
He had not yet finished speaking [to G-d] and, behold, Rivkah came out… Her pitcher was on her shoulder… She went down to the well, filled her pitcher, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher.” She said, “Drink, my master,” and she quickly lowered her pitcher to her hand, and let him drink.
When she had finished giving him to drink, she said, “I will also draw water for your camels, until they will have finished drinking.” She quickly emptied her pitcher into the trough and she ran to the well again to draw water. And she drew water for all his camels. The man, wondering at her, remained silent, waiting to determine whether G-d had made his mission successful, or not. When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose ring weighing half a shekel and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekel [to give to her]… (Gen. 24: 15-22)
Here’s the question: Eliezer devised a very specific test and he barely finished praying to G-d that it work, when along comes a girl who seems to fit the bill perfectly. She not only gives him water (when many girls would have told him to, “Get some water yourself!”) but she even offers to water his thirsty camels. But even after all that, Eliezer stood there “wondering at her, remained silent, waiting to determine whether G-d had made his mission successful, or not!” It seems that only after she finished watering the camels did he feel comfortable that she was the right one, but what took him so long?
Today, pet obesity has reached almost epidemic proportions. A recent report from the National Academy of Science shows that one in four pets is overweight or obese. This is mostly the result of owners who “pamper” their pets with too much food. Animals, unlike humans, have a very strong inner discipline, and there are no obese animals in the wild. However, once they are put in the homes of “caring and loving” people they suddenly become obese. What this really means is that the owners don’t love the pet, they love themselves and they feel good when they put out another dish of pet food for their “best friend,” and another and another. It may make them feel good, but it is shortening the lifespan of their “best friend” by an average of two years.
When Eliezer saw a girl who was so willing to help that she offered to water his camels, he was concerned that this girl may feel a need to “do good” in order to feel good, even where it is uncalled for. So he waited until the camels finished. Would she try to keep watering them, in order to feed that “do-good” feeling inside her, or would she understand that the camels were full and stop, knowing that any more water would harm them?
This is what Eliezer was waiting to see. Was this girl’s kindness the genuine kind of kindness that would fit perfectly into his master’s house, or was it the self-serving kindness that often turns into cruelty, which needs to be kept far away from a patriarch of the Jewish people? As soon as he saw that when the camels were finished drinking she stopped, he immediately began to give her gifts of jewelry, knowing that she was the proper shidduch.
Kindness doesn’t make the world go round, balanced kindness makes the world go round!
Questions to think about:
1.      What are some other examples where kindness without limitations is hurtful?
2.      Is there a way for us to know when kindness is getting out of control?
3.      What is your favorite form of kindness?
Parsha Summary
This week’s Parsha begins with the passing of Sara, the first of the matriarchs. The Torah tells us about the difficulty that Avraham underwent trying to buy the proper burial place for his family. Avraham dealt with a person that would make a used car salesman look like a saint. The place was called Me’arat Hamachpela, where Adam and Eve were buried.. (Today, Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Jacob and Leah, are all buried there. You can still visit this holy site in Israel, although Arabs control Hebron where the Me’arat Hamachpela is located and you need a military escort.
 Efron the Chiti, the owner of the aforementioned cave, pretends to want to give the field to Avraham for free, knowing that Avraham won’t take it. This prevents Avraham from bargaining when Efron says, “So let’s just get the deal over with. Here, just give me $40,000,000 which is nothing between friends, and you can go bury your deceased.” (The number wasn’t in USD; I’m using a little writer’s license.) Parenthetically, this was another challenge Avraham had to face, paying an exorbitant price for his wife’s burial place when G-d had promised him the entire land! Avraham pays the money without complaint, realizing that the proper burial place for the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish nation is priceless.
After burying Sara, Avraham immediately starts to work on finding a mate for his son. With the Akeida fresh in his mind, Avraham feels the urgency of continuing the line of his progeny and dispatches Eliezer to find a wife for his son. Avraham makes Eliezer swear before he leaves that he will make every attempt to find a wife from Avraham’s family and not from the Canaanites living in the land.
Eliezer asks G-d to help him in finding the proper girl. He even devises a challenge that he asks G-d to use as the litmus test to determine the future matriarch of the Jewish nation.
According to his plan, Eliezer would ask a number of girls for a drink as they drew water from the well for their families. The one that would say, “Not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels,” would be the one to prove herself worthy of marrying Yitzchak
Using this test, he quickly finds Rivkah, a daughter of Besuel, granddaughter of Avraham’s brother Haran . When Eliezer goes to meet the parents, he tells over the whole story of how he got there and the miracle of finding Rivka so quickly. 
Rivka’s father and brother try to kill Eliezer so that they could steal the great wealth that he brought with him to give to the prospective bride. They put poison in Eliezer’s food but an angel miraculously switches the dishes, and Besuel, Rivka’s father, ends up dead instead. Lavan and his mother try to convince Rivka to stay but she declares that she wants to go with Eliezer to meet her future husband.
Rivka catches sight of her husband for the first time as he is returning from praying in the field and she is overwhelmed by his greatness. They soon marry and, as the Torah tells us, “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah. He married Rivkah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. Yitzchok was then consoled for the loss of his mother.” (Gen. 24:67) This shows us that the Torah’s view of love is something that comes after marriage, after one makes the ultimate commitment to a partner, not the infatuation people often feel and describe as “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels in love!”
The Torah then mentions some of the genealogy of Avraham, and Yishmael. It also describes the death of Avraham at the ripe old age of 175. He was buried with his wife in the Me’arat Hamachpela. 
The Torah concludes the Parsha with a description of Yishmael’s genealogy, indicating that Avraham treated him as a true son, despite the fact that he had a child from his primary wife, Sara. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week:  Each virtue in its extreme becomes a vice. – Rabbi Shmuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Coca-Cola used to be green.
Funny Quip of the Week: Despite the rapidly rising cost of living, have you noticed that it remains so popular?
Have an Insouciant Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham

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