I grew up as part of a large family during the final days of the PME. The Pre-Minivan Era, known for station wagons the size of eighteen wheelers, was America’s last attempt to fit growing families into cars by simply making them wider and longer. To get a picture of just how big these cars were, just look at their names, Mercury Colony Park, Buick Country Estate and my favorite, the Ford Galaxie. 

Growing up, we made frequent trips from Cleveland to Baltimore in those station wagons, the galleons of the interstate. We had two of them that I remember most vividly. One of them, a light blue Country Estate had enough wood paneling on the sides to build a small log cabin. The other one, a metallic navy monster Ford, could have housed a helicopter landing pad on the hood, while simultaneously billeting an infantry battalion on the roof. One of them had a rear facing bench, while the other had two benches facing each other in the back, and I spent a considerable percentage of my childhood in the back of those station wagons.

My parents would pack us in the back with all the luggage, where they told us we were like astronauts. John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and I, were all packed so tightly in our seats that we could barely move, while seeing the world recede into the distance through a small window, as we rocketed from place to place. The station wagon, that hulking giant of a bygone era, was thankfully replaced by the minivan in the mid-eighties. 

The minivan was the answer to the lumbering barge-station wagon. It was more than two feet shorter, yet significantly taller. This way it could fit more stuff, while driving more like a car and less like a boat. It had very easy access for children, due to its sliding doors and low entry height, and could be configured to hold a family of eight, or a family of six with two Lassie Come Home sized dogs. 

Despite all that minivans have to offer, they have always had a tough go, people see them as repressive family vehicles, signs that “you’ve given up.” Much cooler are muscular SUV’s or sleek crossovers, the kind of vehicles that theoretically are designed for you to tame the great outdoors, while spending 90% of their time on the great parking lot. The reality is that the Sport Utility Vehicle is most true to the third part of its name, it is a vehicle. But as far as sport and utility, not so much. 

Let’s start with sport. How many SUV owners do you know that have used their vehicle to ford through river beds and over boulders while conquering the Rubicon Trail or the Moab desert? Raise your hand if you know anyone who used their Yukon to tame the Yukon! And even as far as utility, minivans have more cargo space, more passenger room, and better passenger access than SUVs! 

I know this from experience. A few years ago, we found a great deal on a SUV rental for our family vacation, and rented a Chevrolet Suburban, one of the largest SUVs out there. We managed to fit our children and luggage into it, but just barely. After having one more child, we now only rent minivans on vacation. They drive like a car, hold luggage like a truck. 

 If you crunch the numbers (or check them out here) you will see that the minivan has far more cargo capacity than the Suburban, as well as more passenger legroom in the second and third rows! It also has better safety ratings, (five stars for the Honda Odyssey vs four stars for the Suburban, based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administratio), and gets much better gas mileage. It also happens to be 60% cheaper. It would seem that minivans not only have far more utility than crossovers, but even more utility than the big box SUVs as well!

Now, this is not meant to get me in trouble with the SUV loving crowd; I’m all about the SUV if it works for you. As a matter of fact, I’m all about the mustard covered ice cream cake if it works for you. Many people like the higher driving position of the SUV, or the available all-wheel-drive (only available in minivans in the Toyota Sienna), I just wanted to put this out there in defense of all the minivan drivers, myself included. We have not given up, we have not resigned ourselves out to soccer mom anonymity, and we actually have personality and individuality. We just know what we need, and we found the best tool for achieving it. 

Life is about know which tool to use for what. Sure you can open a walnut with a jackhammer, but a nutcracker might be easier. You can keep your house warm all winter with twenty strategically placed space heaters, but central heating might make life easier. Using the right tool, gets the job done in the most efficient way possible.

This brings us to Purim, the holiday coming our way this Thursday. Jews have some very interesting tools to achieve inspiration around the year. Flat cracker-like bread, cheesecake, goat horns, and palm branches tied to myrtle and willow are only some of them. But Purim seems to have the strangest tool of them all; intoxication. The rabbis of the Talmud tell us (Tractate Megilla 7B) that a person is required to drink on Purim until they don’t know the difference between Blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman. Now, there are many ways to fulfill this obligation without getting seriously drunk, but we can’t deny that this is one of the laws of Purim. And while we may not get drunk, we will likely encounter drunk people in or around any large Purim celebration. How does this tool accomplish anything for the Jewish people? This tool does not seem to be the minivan of Purim, it seems more like the overheated station wagon careening around the china shop!

If we want to understand Purim, we need to look at the background that led up to the Jewish downfall on Purim, and what led to its salvation. The bad guys are Haman, his nation Amalek, but also to a certain degree the Jews themselves. No nation can dominate us, if we are acting in an upright manner, as the Talmud tells us, (Kesuvos, 66b) “Praiseworthy are you Israel! When you do the will of G-d, no nation or tongue can dominate you!” The Talmud tells us that the Jews were deserving of the terrible decree of annihilation because they went to the party of Achashverosh, a party that was celebrating the perceived weakening of the Jewish G-d and His inability to take His people out of exile 70 years after it started, despite the prophecies that He would. (It was based on a miscalculation made by Achashverosh and his advisors.)

What is the common denominator between Haman, Amalek, and Jews going to the party? They all stem from people thinking they know better than G-d. The Talmud tells us that the root of Haman is in the original sin of Adam and Eve, where we see the word המן in the Torah (long conversation, out of this scope!) G-d told Adam and Even not to eat from the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but they did it anyway, thinking they knew better than G-d. And the root of Haman was born.

The nation of Amalek, the archenemy of G-d, also lives today due to people who thought they knew better than G-d. When the Jews anointed their first king ever, King Saul, G-d immediately commanded him to wipe out Amalek, which would have wiped out the root of all evil in the world, ushering in the Messianic Era, and eternal peace for the world. But King Saul thought he knew better and allowed parts of Amalek to live on, and through that, Amalek survived and Haman was a great grandchild of the Amalekite king that King Saul allowed to live. The Jews of Shushan were told not to go to the party of Achashverosh because it celebrated the weakening of the Jewish G-d, but they went anyway, because they knew better and they thought it was politically prudent to go to the king’s party because they were invited.

The root of the problems that led to our downfall in the Purim story was people who knew what G-d wanted of them, but in their minds came up with alternative ideas. This shouldn’t sound foreign to us, most of the times, our personal failings happen in the same way. We know what G-d wants of us, we know what we should be doing or not doing, but our minds magically come up with dozens of reasons why we should do the opposite.

During the Purim story, the salvation of the Jews happened when they listened to Queen Esther the prophetess and Mordechai the Tzaddik, and did what they thought was foolish, gathering in the synagogues and fasting and praying for three days. They could have come up with many reasons that this was dangerous and foolish, they would make an easy target for their enemies, all gathered together in one place, weakened by fasting. But they listened to what their sages told them and were saved. The tool they needed on Purim was to not follow all the ideas they came up, but to simply listen to the message of G-d and do His will. 

On Purim, we get drunk to remove from ourselves the intellect that always comes up with the excuses and rationalizations to not do what we deeply know to be right. Deep down, we all want to be our most G-dly selves, but our intellect comes up with a host of brilliant reasons why we should do other things, like why we should eat from the fruit of the tree that G-d told us not to eat, why we should spare the king of Amalek, why we should go to the party of Achashverosh, why we should talk negatively about our neighbor, or why we should be less than honest in the workplace. We know we should get the minivan, but there are so many reasons that we need the SUV!

On Purim, we say, we want to remove all those intellectual barriers between us and G-d, and climb to a place of total connection with G-d and the G-dly parts of ourselves with nothing in between! So we drink to the point that our intellect is weakened, and only the deepest feelings of love and devotion remain. It is a holy intoxication, and indeed if you’ve ever seen holy people who are intoxicated on Purim, all that comes out of their mouths is love for others, and love for G-d! 

Even if we don’t get drunk on Purim (which is the recommended course of action for anyone who can’t act in a totally holy manner on Purim!), we still can use the festivity and joy to break through barriers that hold us back from being who we want to be. We can get caught up in the gift giving to mend relationships with our peers that have eroded, we can use the obligation to give extra charity to overcome any lingering selfishness we have and launch into a mindset of total selflessness. We can be inspired by the megilla reading to look for G-d hiding in our lives as he hid behind the scenes throughout the megilla story. We can use the festive meal, to experience indulgence in the physical in a totally spiritual way. 

Purim is a day to break through barriers that normally hold us back. Pick your tool; intoxication, charity, gift giving, feasting with friends, megilla reading, or all of the above. The important thing is to know what the goal is, and to use the best tool that will load us up with inspiration and drive us down the road to personal salvation!

Happy Purim!

Parsha Dvar Torah

Being that humans are such complex creatures, there are many ways to describe us. The Torah uses a number of different words to describe humans, each one describing a distinct aspect of our reality. Today we will focus on two of those names and how they are used in our parsha. 

In this week’s parsha the Torah teaches us about the different offerings brought in the Temple. The loftiest of the offerings was the olah, an offering that was brought when one simply wanted to give a gift to G-d. The entire animal was burnt on the altar. On the other end of the spectrum was the chatas, brought to obtain atonement for committing a grave sin. When the Torah describes the person bringing the olah it uses the term adam (Leviticus 1:2), while when describing the sinner who must bring the chatas it refers to man as nefesh (Ibid. 4:2). What do those two terms mean, and what can they teach us?

The very first word ever used to describe man is adam. We find it in Genesis, where it’s used when discussing the creation of man. There it says, “Let us make adam in our image.” This name refers to man’s earthly nature, as adama is the word for earth in Hebrew. Man was made with earth because just as earth has the power to stimulate growth in a way that sustains the entire world, so too, man has the power to grow and to sustain others. In that sense, man exists in the image of G-d, Who sustains the entire world. (The Sages tell us that another way to read adam would be as a contraction of the word adameh which means to be similar to, as in adameh li’elyon, I will be similar to the Divine One.)

Thus the Torah says about the person who brings the olah, “If an adam among you will bring an offering to G-d,” because it is referring to someone who wants to be better than he currently is. Even though he committed no wrongdoing, he still wants to grow, to develop a closer relationship with his Creator. This is man at his best, ever trying to develop and extend himself. This is adam!

The other verse referred to reads as follows, “If a nefesh (man) will sin…,” using the term nefesh to describe man. Where does this term come from? Strangely, the first five times it is used in the Torah, it is used to describe the life force of animals. Only in its sixth usage does it refer to the life force of man. This teaches us that man has a side of him that is very similar to the life force of an animal – intemperate, and driven by instinct, lust, and desire. The Torah uses this term in reference to a man who sins, as he is in touch with that part of his personality. He responds to the same instincts that animals respond to, without using his G-d given gift of reason to rise above his base desires. 

The message the Torah is sending us is clear. We can be adam, compare ourselves to G-d, growing, sustaining, and benefiting the world. We can also be nefesh, animal-like, base, instinctive, and coarse. Clearly, the best way is to follow G-d’s original plan, which was, “Let us make man, let us make Adam!”

There should be no part of our personality that we hate. Some parts of our personality we love because they are naturally good. Then there are the parts that we should love, because when we iron them out, we not only grow immeasurably, but we tap capabilities we never thought we had! Please pass the salt…

Parsha Summary

This week we read from two Torah Scrolls. From the first one we read Parshat Vayikra, the weekly portion, and from the other one we read Parshat Zachor, a special parsha that is always read the Shabbos before Purim. 

This week’s Parsha, Vayikra, begins with G-d calling Moses from the Tabernacle for the first time since His Presence rested upon it. Since the purpose of the Tabernacle is to enable the Jewish People to serve G-d in a focused manner and place, G-d’s first discussion with Moses is about the Temple service and the sacrifices. 

The Torah describes the laws of the olah, the wholly burnt offering, as they pertain to animals and fowl. (Quick lesson: G-d says both the olah brought from an animal ($$$$) and the olah brought from a bird ($) will bring a satisfying aroma before Him. This teaches us that whether it is an expensive gift or an inexpensive one, they are equally satisfying before G-d as long as the intent is sincere.) The Parsha then elucidates the five types of meal offerings (that is meal as in fine flour, not meal as in bringing a four course dinner with a side of sushi). After describing these basic offerings, the Torah commands us to put salt on everything offered upon the alter (this is one of the reasons we dip our bread in salt after making the Hamotzi blessing – to remind us that our table should be like an altar, and we should eat in an elevated fashion, not out of gluttony). 

The Torah then discusses the laws of the peace offering (called that because everyone gets a piece of the action; some of the meat goes on the Altar, some to the Kohanim, and some to the owners who brought the sacrifice) and the sin offerings. This is followed by a description of an offering brought when a group of the Elders of the Assembly make an erroneous judgment, causing a large group to sin. After that, we are told of special sin offerings brought if the king or the Kohain Gadol commits a sin. The message here is that the more elevated your status, the more you must scrutinize your actions since they have a stronger effect. When a sin is committed by a person of higher stature, the atonement process is more elaborate than the process for a commoner. 

Finally, we learn of the Asham sacrifice, the guilt offering, brought for a variety of sins such as broken oaths, entering into holy areas while in a state of unknown impurity, stealing and then making an oath denying it, and certain cases of uncertainty as to whether one committed a grave sin or not. And that, my friends, pretty much sums the whole Parsha up! 

After the regular Parsha, we read, Parshat Zachor, a special portion read once a year on the Shabbos before Purim as part of a Biblical commandment to remember Amalek. The portion we read reminds us of the battle that the Jews waged with the Amalekei nation when we first came out of Egypt. It tells us to never forget Amalek, and to remember that Ha-shemsthrone will never be complete as long as Amalek survives. The connection to Purim is obvious, as the archenemy Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek.

Quote of the Week: The future belongs to those who live intensely in the present. – Samuel Fremont 

Random Fact of the Week: Coffee is the second most traded product in the world after petroleum.

Funny Line of the Week: I knew I was an unwanted child when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a hair dryer!

Have a Groovadelik Shabbos,

R’Leiby Burnham

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