Hello Everybody,

Above Average; n., adj., The state of being better than usual, something that is functioning at a higher rate of performance than similar things at a similar time, an unexpected level of success, Harvard students, NBA players, hedge fund manager’s salaries, and prices of soda at a ballgame. These are all possible definitions for the term above average. Billions of people on this planet are striving to be above average, and today, I’m going to tell you three ways to get yourself on the fast track to that revered plane of human existence!  (I don’t charge for my services, but if my solution works for you, I request that you make an above average donation to my children’s college tuition fund.)

The easiest way to be above average is to simply legally change your name to Above Average. You can introduce yourself at dinner parties or job interviews by saying, “Hi, I’m Above Average.” (Disclaimer: This will get you invited to a below average number of dinner parties.)

The next best way to become Above Average is to join the National Above Average Club, an organization I founded about a decade ago. For the small annual membership fee of $299 you get a certificate of authenticity confirming that you are Above Average. It comes on a nice plaque and is usually prominently displayed in people’s offices and other places of business. You are also invited to come to quarterly meetings at my house where we serve Above Average Faygo Cola, salsa, chips, and my wife’s Way Above Average Potato Kugel. 

But for those of you who want to climb to the Above Average plane all by yourselves, I have one piece of advice that works well, costs nothing, and can improve your life and happiness by an average of 2 points on a scale from 1-10. (By now you should be thinking that if you’re successful at becoming above average you surely will improve your life by more than 2 points because 2 points is the average and you will become above average!)

Here is the secret sauce: Whenever someone asks you how you are doing, smile, and say “above average!” I still remember the first time I heard that response. I had just met someone for the first time, and I asked him how things were going. He gave me a big smile and said “Above average!” I couldn’t help but smile myself, just from hearing it! Immediately, I processed that it was an original way to answer, and that perhaps I should try to use it myself. In the next few weeks, I had the opportunity to use that response many times and each time I did, I really felt better for a short while. The words actually put me in a good mood almost every time I said it!

Our Sages tell us that the things we say or do have a significant effect on how we feel in the long term. Maimonides discusses whether it is better to give $1,000 to one charity where it can have a great impact or $1 to 1,000 people where it won’t have much of an effect on the receivers. He concludes that one should give $1 to 1,000 people because the repetitive motion of extending a hand and giving something to another person will have a deep effect on the giver’s psyche and make them into a giver.

The Rabbis also instituted that we verbalize all our blessings and prayers as opposed to just thinking thankful thoughts because when we verbalize things they become realities. So when we say we are above average with a big smile, we actually feel better, and internally become a more positive person. A recent study by Duke University Medical Center shows a correlation between positive outlooks and longevity. Feeling above average actually increases your life expectancy, which means that you can even live to an above average age by your regular repeated response declaring that you are above average!

Talk good and it will be good. Even if you are feeling below average, smiling and saying that you are feeling above average WILL lift your spirits. And if you are concerned about saying something dishonest, don’t be too concerned. If you have a solid roof over your head, a stable supply of food, a few sets of clothing in your closet, clean running water and electricity in your home, and a car, you are far above average for people on this planet, many billions of people would actually consider you to be overflowing with blessings!

I am sure there are a number of skeptics reading this, so I would like to issue the Above Average Challenge! During the next week, every time someone asks you how you are doing, answer them with a smile and a resounding Above Average! Please email me with your results, and I will share them in upcoming emails.

In the meantime, have an Above Average Shabbos!

Parsha Dvar Torah

Since we spoke about the concept of talking in a positive way to influence a positive feeling, let’s look at a similar idea which we see in the Parsha which can have a big affect on our service of G-d. This weeks Parsha tells the story of the meraglim, the spies that the Jews sent forth to reconnoiter the land of Israel before they would enter. The meraglim came back and gave a negative report, causing the Jews to lose spirit, and even suggest that they should return to Egypt (talk bad and it will be bad).

When we look at a verse describing the spys’ encounter with the giants living in Israel we learn a powerful lesson. “There we saw the giants, the sons of the giants, of the Nephilim, and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we appeared in their eyes.” (Numbers 11:33) Rashi tells us that the meraglim knew that they were like grasshoppers in the eyes of the giants because, while they were hiding in the vines, they heard the giants exclaiming to each other “Look, there are grasshoppers in our vineyards that look like humans.” (The kind of thing I would answer with, yes, those genes came from my wife’s side of the family). That helps us understand the words “and we were like grasshoppers in their eyes” but what is the verse teaching us when it says “and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes?”

My Rebbe for many years, R’ Shmuel Brazil, explained that the way we view ourselves is the way others will view us. A clear example of this is the way children in elementary school interact with their teachers. There are teachers who get eaten up alive in the classroom, while others seem to maintain decorum with very little effort. The key difference is usually the way the teacher perceives him/herself. This is then communicated to the students by way of carriage, body language, tone of speech and other non-verbal forms of communication.

If the teacher is afraid of the class, and is not confident that he/she can control it, the students pick up on it, like sharks smelling blood, and the frenzy begins. However, if the teacher is confident and feels empowered, the students will sense this as well and, after a few minutes of testing the teacher to make sure they weren’t wrong in their assessment, they will settle down.

This concept is important for us in almost all our relationships – marital, parental, occupational or other. If we see ourselves as capable of doing a good job, then we can accomplish much, because others will give us the respect and esteem needed to be successful. But if we don’t believe in ourselves, chances are no one else will believe in us either, and we won’t be able to properly navigate the obstacle course of life. This is one of the meanings of the statements of Hillel in the Mishna, “Im ani li, mi li” – “If I am not for me, who will be for me?” (Avot 1:14)

Now, the verse becomes crystal clear: “There we saw the giants, the sons of the giants, of the Nephilim, and we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we appeared in their eyes.” Because the meraglim saw themselves as grasshoppers, therefore the giants saw them as such. May we always remember to have faith in our G-d given talents and skills, and take on the tasks that face us with the assurance that G-d has given us tasks we can accomplish, and then we will truly be successful (and we won’t look like grasshoppers!)

Parsha Summary

As mentioned above, this Parsha speaks about the spies the Jews sent into Israel. When the people came to Moshe with a request to send spies, Moshe asked G-d. G-d replied, if you want to send spies, go ahead, but I see no reason for it, as I told you the land would be good. From here we see that right from the get-go, this spy idea wasn’t too hot. We also learn that G-d will not prevent you from doing something bad. He gave us free will, and if we desire a wicked path, He will not bar us from walking down it.

Next, Moshe picked the leaders of the tribes, amongst them his best disciple Hoshea. Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which is an acronym for “G-d should save you (from the counsel of the meraglim).” He gave the spies instructions as to where to go exactly and what to look for. Moshe told the spies to study at the cities they would encounter. If they were heavily fortified with many defenses, it would be a sign that the people are weak.  However, if the cities were open, it would show that the inhabitants are strong and have nothing to fear. This is often also true in human psychology. Sometimes we see people who, due to unfortunate events in their past, put up strong walls of defense, almost never allowing their true emotions to show. Although some might view this as a strength, in reality, it is a sign of emotional weakness. The person who has emotional strength learns to overcome difficult events, and to slowly open themselves up to the entire range of emotions, even though at times it will be painful. (Thanks Wurzweiller School of Social Work, I am using you for the first time this year!)

The spies went, and came back bearing the fruit of the land. They described the land to the Jews as the ultimate Super Sized country; the fruit was huge (eight people were needed to carry one cluster of grapes), the people were gigantic, and inhabitants were dying all over the place (As a favor to the spies, G-d arranged that a lot of people should die so that, due to their grief, no one would notice the spies. However, when someone is looking for bad, they will find it even in the good being done for them). The Jews began to fear going to Israel, and started talking about going back to Egypt, ignoring the protests of Yehoshua and Caleb, the two righteous spies, who tried to tell the people how good the land was. The Jews became so hysterical that the entire nation wept all night long.

G-d was so angry that He threatened to destroy the entire nation and rebuild it from Moshe alone, but Moshe prayed very hard, saying that all the nations would say that G-d could only beat one king (Pharaoh) but not the 31 kings living in Israel so He killed His people before they got to Israel. Moshe also used the 13 Attributes of Mercy, a special formula for praying which G-d had told Moshe never returns without results.

In the end, G-d acquiesced and said that He would not wipe out the Jewish nation for their grievous sin of not believing in Him and His promises about the Holy Land. However, G-d swore that all the adults who did not believe Him, would never see the land – they would die out slowly over forty years of wandering in the desert. (The forty years paralleled the forty days the spies spent in the Holy Land gathering evil information to tell the Jews.)

Additionally, the night that the Jews cried for no reason was the night of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), and G-d declared that in the future it would be the night on which Jews would cry forever. Sure enough, on Tisha B’Av we lost both our first and second Temples, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, World War I began — a war whose outcome triggered World War II and its Holocaust, The Final Solution was decreed and signed by Goring YS’V the day before Tisha B’Av 1941, and the cattle cars left Warsaw, the largest ghetto with 400,000 Jews, on Tisha B’Av 1942. Although this seems like an awful lot of punishment for one sin, we need to understand that the underlying mistake of the Jews’ tears, was their lack of complete faith that G-d can deliver on His promises. This lack of faith in G-d’s ability continues to be the cause of all of our pain and suffering. When we have faith in G-d and act in accordance with that faith, we enjoy the good life G-d promises those who do so.

 After G-d spelled out the decree, a number of Jews suddenly felt remorse, and decided to go up and conquer Israel. Moshe told them not to go, as G-d had just decreed forty years of wandering. They went anyway, but G-d was not with them, and they were easily defeated by an army of Canaanites that they encountered immediately.

The Torah next describes the libations (offerings of wine and flour) which were brought along with the different sacrifices offered in the Temple. O.K. I was a teacher for eight years in NYC, and old habits die hard, so for homework I’m asking you to email me an answer as to what is the significance of the juxtaposition of the story of the spies and the libations. They seem to be totally unrelated, so why are they right next to each other in the Torah?

The Torah then describes the mitzvah of challah, which is the commandment to take a bit of dough off any dough we make and give it to the Kohen. Today we don’t give it to the Kohen, because they don’t have the level of ritual purity necessary to eat it, but we do take off a piece from our dough, (and if the dough is 5 lbs or more, we even make a blessing on doing this special mitzvah!) Today, being that we don’t give the Challah to a Cohen, and we can’t eat, we instead simply burn it. The Torah then discusses the atonement process for different forms of idol worship including intentional individual, unintentional individual, and unintentional public (when the High Court makes an erroneous ruling that allows a practice which is actually idol worship.) The last story in the Parsha is about a person who went out and desecrated Shabbos publicly, even though he was warned not to do so, and the punishment he received.

The Parsha concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzis, the fringes we wear on four cornered garments. They are there to serve as a constant reminder of our obligations to G-d. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this, which happened to a close friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Eisemann, of Oak Park, MI. Once, when he was on a campus out in the West Coast doing outreach, he saw a big commotion. After going out to see what was going on, he sees a number of PETA activists (who advocate for animal rights and veganism) with a huge sign reading, “Stop the Holocaust on your plate, become a vegetarian!” Understandably, there was a large group of people standing around demanding that they take down this offensive sign which so minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust.

Fist were about to fly, when, suddenly, the leader of the PETAniks shows up. Sure enough, he is this little timid looking Jewish guy, and he averts the danger by telling his troop to take down the sign. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to reach out to another Jew, Rabbi E went to talk to him. He noticed that the fellow had a massive tattoo on his arm with some kind of message saying “Never Forget the Other Animals of this World” which the boy told Rabbi E he had drilled into him to ensure that he never forgets his responsibilities to the other animals of the planet. (I assume getting that tattoo should probably be considered cruelty to humans, getting tattoos hurts!) Rabbi E then told him that all Jews have a similar thing to remind them constantly of their responsibility to G-d and he showed him his tzitzit. The boy actually became interested in learning more about Judaism but, unfortunately, every time they were supposed to get together to learn, this boy was in jail for some illegal demonstration or other. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one often comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.  -Henry Ward Beecher

Random Fact of the Week: If you’re an average blinker, your eyes will be blinked closed for about 30 minutes today.

Funny Line of the Week: Why do ants and caterpillars have to be enemies? One eats leaves, and the other eats caterpillars… Oh, I see now.

Have a Splendid Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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