The year 1888 was not an uneventful year. The National Geographic Society was founded, and began telling a hungry public about the wonders of people and places all over the world. De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. was founded in South Africa and they have dominated the diamond industry ever since. Susan B Anthony opened the Congress for Women’s Rights, launching a movement that would play a significant role in American politics for over a century. The first ever recording of classical music was captured, the first drivers license was issued, and the first motorized airship made a 10 kilometer journey (it was a motorized hot air balloon, not an airplane). George Eastman got a patent for the camera. The first motion picture was filmed. The Washington Monument opened its doors in Washington DC, while Katz’s delicatessen opened in the Lower East Side; both are still open. Also, Vincent Van Gogh cut off one ear.

But the most tragic thing about 1888 was the weather. The Great Blizzard of 1888 was the worst blizzard in US history. It swept across the Northeast burying whole towns and villages. In some areas in New York City, the snow was fifty feet high. Over 400 people died. Commerce ground to a standstill. The northeast was crippled for days. It was so bad, that New York City decided to build an underground railway, also known as the subway. But two months before the Great Blizzard was another storm, almost as deadly, and almost all the dead were children.

The “Schoolhouse Blizzard”, also known as “the Children’s Blizzard” descended on the Midwest on January 12, 1888. It was preceded by a rapid warming that caused the day to begin bright and balmy, so warm that most children left their jackets at home and cheerfully came to school in their shirtsleeves. Then the weather dropped precipitously, one weather station recorded an eighteen degree drop in just three minutes, and others recorded changes of over 100 degrees within just 24 hours. Winds picked up to as much as 80 miles per hour, and began uprooting trees and tearing off roofs. Soon thick sheets of fine white snow began to whip around ferociously, causing total whiteout conditions. This happened on the same day all over the Northern Great Plains.

Hundreds of schoolhouses filled with children had to decide whether to hunker down and try to weather the storm in place or to let the children out early, in which case they’d have to navigate back to their homes with zero visibility and improper clothing. There were no good options, and hundreds of children were taken by the blizzard. However, there were a large number of children who survived due to the foresight, courage, and determination of a teenager named Minnie Mae Freeman.

Minnie and her family moved to Nebraska in 1871 and quickly learned the importance of reading the weather. Nebraska consumes a regular diet of tornadoes, blizzards, lighting storms and winters at times as sever as the Arctic. She learned how to read cloud formations, wind patterns, and moon colors. She also learned a lot of the three R’s (Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic) and at the tender age of 19 got a job teaching the children of Midvale, NE, in their one room sod schoolhouse. All seventeen children were in her care, juggling the wide range of ages and grades was the standard in the West at that time, there simply wasn’t money to afford more teachers in most schools.

During recess on January 12, 1888, while the children were playing excitedly in the unseasonably warm yard, Minnie Mae noticed what looked like a thick strip of dark blue clouds low on the horizon, the telltale sign of a dreaded “Blue Norther” a storm that moves massive amounts of frigid from northern Canada into the Great Plains with extreme rapidity due to the lack of natural barriers on the flat plains. A Blue Norther usually striked without warning and can carry the force of a hurricane. Besides the ripping winds and extreme cold, they also almost always cause whiteout conditions which can disorient people trying to find their way out of the storm.

Minnie quickly called everyone back to the schoolhouse and assessed their options. There was coal for the small snow but without suitable clothing it would likely not be enough for the subzero temperatures barreling down on them, and they had no food supplies in the event they were buried in snow. She could try to make it to the closest farmhouse about a mile away, but she wasn’t sure they could make it without proper coats and gloves, let alone the whiteout conditions.

Soon however, the decision was made for her. The ferocious winds tore the door to the schoolhouse right off of its frame, and took a bite out of the roof as well. Now the classroom was being whipped with frigid air. They had to evacuate.

At that moment, Minnie Mae did something that changed the fate of her charges; she tied them all to each other using clothesline, so that none of the children would get lost in the zero visibility whiteout blizzard. She knew the way back to the closest farmhouse because it happened to be where she boarded, and she led the children out into the storm. They climbed out through the south window which would start them in the right direction and began their journey through the temperatures that had already dropped below zero! Slowly, methodically they made their way through the white. Holding the smallest child in her arms, stopping to help children that stumbled and fell, being encouraging but also authoritative, the whole chain of children made it through the storm to safety.

When the storm subsided, it was clear that Minnie Mae’s coolheaded resourcefulness had saved the day, but she was more the exception than the rule. All over Nebraska, the Dakotas, and Missouri tragic stories poured in of teachers who just dismissed their classes leaving children to find their way back home in the storm, teachers who led their children out but got lost with their children, and even some who stayed in but were not able to survive the cold until rescuers arrived.

For a nation reeling from the tragedy, Minnie suddenly became the heroine the people needed. The Omaha Bee called her The Heroine of the Storm, and she developed the nickname, Nebraska’s Fearless Maid. Songs were written about her, and over 80 proposals of marriage arrived in the mail, all from men who had never met her, but wanted to be married to a woman of such steely courage and resolve! Minnie Mae was taken aback by all the publicity, she felt she was just doing her job, but we live in a world where heroes are sought, and often not interviewed first to gauge their interest in their roles. Minnie Mae married a successful entrepreneur who owned a Chemical Company, and stayed involved in Nebraska politics. She died in 1943 at the age of 75, and while she is gone, the lore of Nebraska’s Fearless Maid lives on, and is celebrated at fairs and events across the state.

Jews in 2023 feel like we’re in middle of a Blue Norther. Things were pretty calm and balmy, we had beautiful High Holidays and even a nice mild weathered Succos, when suddenly storm clouds appeared on the horizon and changed a bucolic holiday into a blizzard of tragedy in hours. But the storm isn’t passing, we’re still buried in suffocating pain. Every day, more of our children, brothers and sisters are dying at the front. Every day the antisemitism in the world swirls more loudly around us, tearing off roofs and walls, all the places we felt safe and comfortable now open to the direct and vitriolic hate. How do we get out of this intact? How do we survive this storm?

We tie ourselves tightly to each other. We carry those who can’t walk, and pick up those who fall and stumble. It would be folly to think we can just find our way back to safety by ourselves, we need to connect more with our community, more with brothers and sisters we may have not felt bound to in the past. We need to make more phone calls to check in with one another. We need to attend more communal events, more Torah classes that connect us back to faith in our Father in Heaven, the only place of stability in the storm, we need to be more on the lookout for anyone who appears to be stumbling in the storm, and tie them back in with the rest of us.

Interestingly, I have a daughter in Israel studying in seminary this year. She is Baruch Hashem doing fine, and her seminary has done an exceptional job of keeping the girls feeling safe and cared for, calming the fears that girls living 6,000 miles from home in a country at war would naturally feel. But I noticed that I speak to her more frequently than I spoke to my older daughter who went to the same school two years ago. Not a day goes by where we don’t talk. In a regular year, it wouldn’t be necessary, but in the storm we simply need to be more connected, we need to tie those clotheslines around every person and keep the line taut. We need to be there for one another in ways that wouldn’t be necessary in a regular year.

We can get through this difficult year, and we will get through this difficult year, Hashem promised us that we will be an eternal nation, His beloved children that He never leaves to the ferocious elements that surround us. We just need to do our part in keeping the binds, the connections, and the support tied more tightly around us, and more tightly around anyone who seems to be drifting. The sun will come back out, the storm will melt away, and when it ends, we will find with joy a Jewish people bound ever tighter, closer to one another, and closer to our loving Father in Heaven.

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Vayechi, Yaakov blesses the two children of Yosef, Ephraim and Menasheh, and makes them equal to his children. They are the only grandchildren of Yaakov that merit a place among the Twelve Tribes. More than just that, when blessing them, Yaakov says that all Jews should bless their children that they should grow to become like Ephraim and Menasheh. “He blessed them on that day saying: “Through you shall the People of Israel bless saying; ‘May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menasheh’ “ (Gen. 48:19). What is so unique about Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov would say that for all of eternity Jews should bless their children using them?

One answer I heard is that there was a quality unique to Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov wanted to instill in his progeny. They grew up in a foreign country surrounded by people who didn’t have their faith, yet they remained true to their values and didn’t allow themselves to be swayed by the prevailing winds of their society. Yosef, their father had the advantage of being raised amongst a very close knit family led by the patriarch Yaakov, as did the rest of the Twelve Tribes. But these brothers grew up in Egypt, a land steeped in immorality, and they grew up as children of the viceroy to whom no pleasure or experience would be denied. Yet with all that, they held onto the values of their family and people, and that was what Yaakov saw in them.

Yaakov blessed them on his deathbed. He knew that this would be the beginning of a long and arduous exile, and that it would portend the many subsequent exiles. He therefore wanted to give them role models that they could look to for inspiration in trying times when assimilation would beckon and Jewish identity would wane. That is why we bless our children that they be like Ephraim and Menasheh, people who stood out, stood up, and did what was right for no other reason than that it was right!

Parsha Summary

This parsha begins at the end of the life of Yaakov. It discusses the last things that Yaakov did before passing from this world. First, Yaakov asked Yosef to ensure that he would be buried in Israel. He asked Yosef and not the other brothers because he understood that Yosef was the only one with the power to guarantee it, as Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef readily agreed.

Soon after that encounter, Yosef got a message that his father was ill, so he immediately hurried to his father’s bedside with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. When they arrived, Yaakov gave Yosef’s sons the status of tribes, thus equating them with their uncles, the rest of Yaakov’s children. This meant that they would each have a separate share in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Yaakov’s grandchildren.

After that, Yosef brought his sons forward to be blessed by his father. Yosef purposely put Menasheh on the left which would be Yaakov’s right, because he was the older brother and the right hand is considered the choice hand. However, Yaakov switched his hands and placed his right on the head of Ephraim. When Yosef tried to switch them back, Yaakov told him that he did this purposely, because the younger brother Ephraim would produce greater people, most notably Joshua who would lead the Jews into Israel after Moses’ death.

Yaakov then blessed them with the following blessing, “Through you shall [the People of] Israel bless saying; ‘May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.’” (Gen. 48:20). To this day, when parents bless their children on Friday night, as is the custom in many homes, they say that exact formula: “May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.”

After that, Yaakov called in the rest of his children and blessed all of them, except three, whom he reprimanded. Those chastised were Reuven for moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent without consulting his father, and Shimon and Levi for destroying the entire city of Shechem after their sister had been kidnapped and violated by the city’s prince. After blessing his sons, Yaakov them to bury him in Me’aras Hamachpela, the same place that Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka were buried. After his final request he pulled himself onto the bed and joined his people in heaven.

The entire Egypt mourned the passing of Yaakov, as the famine stopped when he moved there. Pharaoh gave Yosef permission to leave, and the twelve brothers all traveled to Israel to bury their father in the Me’aras Hamachpela. When they came back, the brothers were concerned that now that their father was not there Yosef might try to take revenge on them for the time they sold him. However, he reassured them that he bore them no ill will; rather he understood that G-d sent him down to Egypt to sustain his people through the years of famine.

Yosef was the first of the twelve tribes to die. However, even he lived to the ripe old age of 110 and was able to see three generations of progeny (that means he helped raise his great grandchildren). Before he died he asked the Jewish people that when G-d takes them out of Egypt they bring his bones with them to be buried in Israel. And with that the book of Genesis concludes!!

Quote of the Week: The best way to prepare for life is to begin to live. ~ Elbert Hubbard

Random Fact of the Week: Hibernating, a woodchuck breathes 10 times an hour, awake, 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Line of the Week: I would imagine if you could understand Morse Code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.

Have a Balmy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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