The same thing applies to positive experiences. The first time I saw the Grand Tetons, possibly the most beautiful mountain range in North America, my jaw dropped open, and all I could do was stare with absolute wonderment. Forty minutes later, I was schmoozing with friends, my back to all the glory and wonder. The first bite into a perfectly cooked steak is a small window into the Garden of Eden, you experience sensory overload in your mouth, and the deliciousness of the steak is all you can think of for a moment. Twelve bites later, your conversation takes center stage, and the steak is just protein being shoved into your mouth.
All of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, become common after extended exposure. In science, this is referred to as sensory adaptation. When you stand next to dumpster, the smell is overwhelming at first but your senses adapt to it as the new norm, and soon the smell seems to recede. Conversely, if you put a rose right next to your nose, the smell will be rich and sharp for the first few minutes, but it will fade over time. Your senses adapt, and what used to be an overwhelming aroma becomes a mere background olfactory tickle.
It was this concept that caused me to be very reluctant to go back to Poland for a second time. Poland is the burial grounds of our people. Of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, over 4 million of them were killed in Poland. Not only were three million Polish Jews killed there, but Jews were put in cattle cars all over the continent and sent to Poland to their deaths. Going to Poland to see what happened to our brothers and sisters is something I believe every single Jew should do in their lifetime. We can’t appreciate the greatness of our people without understanding the suffering that we endured on the torturous road of our history. We can’t value what we have until we see the lengths evil people went to, to take it away from us.
Going to Poland is not a vacation, and it is definitely not tourism, rather it is a wrenching and soul contorting look into the eye of evil. It is an experience that makes you question everything, it changes all your preconfigured notions of life and humanity, and you find yourself struggling to process it for months after the trip.
Going back to Poland is an entirely different ball of wax. Are you going to be able to maintain the same sense of horror, raw pain, and overwhelming sadness that you did the first time? Or will you experience some level of sensory adaptation? Are you ethically allowed to go back, if you will not have those same raw emotions the second time? Is it an affront to the millions of people who died there, if you go back and don’t experience the same pain and anguish that you did the first time? You can turn your back to the Grand Tetons once you’ve finished staring at it in awe, but can you ever turn your back to a gas chamber?
My first trip to Poland was in March of 2015, and I just got back from my second trip. I was torn about going, but ultimately chose to go because Partners Detroit had an amazing cohort of young men and women who were going, and I wanted to be there with them to experience this powerful journey. I’m glad that I went, but sensory adaptation was something I struggled with the entire time.
There are other areas in my life where I struggle with sensory adaptation. My wife just gave birth to our child. She just gave our family the greatest possible gift, and it came with great pain and suffering. My appreciation to her after giving birth was incredibly high, but how do I hold onto that? How can it be that in six months from now, I can look at her, and not immediately see the pain and suffering she went through to give us this son, and indeed all of our children? How can I not be filled with gratitude toward her at all times? How do we lose sight of the incredible gift of seeing? How can we not thank G-d fifteen times a day for the ability to see?
The constant battle with sensory adaptation is something at the core of who we are as Jews. The very first mitzvah G-d gave the Jewish people was to stop using the solar calendar like the people all around them and start using the lunar calendar. This was because, unlike the sun which is the same every day, the moon waxes and wanes, the moon is ever changing, never allowing sensory adaptation to creep in. The Torah exhorts us to see the Torah every day as if it was given that day (Rashi on Deut. 26:16, and Exodus 13:10), to experience our Judaism every day as if G-d gave it to us that day, with no sensory adaptation!
How do we do that? If we as humans are conditioned to get used to things, how do we experience them fully each time?
There are a few tricks. The first is verbalization. When you verbalize something, it creates neural pathways in your brains, etching things further into your psyche. When we verbalize our thanks to G-d before biting into a Honeycrisp apple, we are more cognizant of just how good that gift from G-d is despite the fact that we’ve had many Honeycrisp apples before. (As I say to my kids, “Ha-shem makes the best apples!”) When I reiterate to my wife how much I appreciate that she brought all our kids into this world, I re-experience at least some of the gratitude I had when it first happened. When I talk out the horror of what happened at Belzec, Birkenau, or Maidanek, I can re-experience the horror I felt the first time I was there. But that will only get you so far.
You need to learn new things about the subjects. If I want to experience the greatness of the Torah, the most perfect document for how to live human life on this chaotic planet, I need to learn something new that I never learned before, and experience something that can’t be touched by sensory adaptation because I’ve never learned it before. Hearing a novel approach to understanding the Golden Calf, learning the laws of Shabbat in an area I’m not proficient in, or learning new things about the miraculous manna that the Jews ate in the desert makes me filled with a renewed appreciation for the experience of my people’s history and the depth of Torah law. Finding something new to compliment my wife about, makes me filled with a new appreciation for who she is. Reading accounts of the Holocaust that I’ve never read before, listening to a Holocaust survivor tell over his personal experiences in darkest moments of our people’s time, took the edge off of the sensory adaptations, and allowed me to feel yet again the raw emotion I knew I should be feeling.
After Moses teaches Aaron about the mitzvah of lighting the Menorah, the Torah tells us, (Numbers 8:3), “Aaron did so,” which seems extraneous. We would expect Aaron to do the commandment of G-d. And Rashi make it even more perplexing by referencing a Midrash that says that the statement “Aaron did so” was there to, “Tell you the praise of Aaron that he did not deviate.” Did we really think that Aaron would deviate from the commandment of G-d, and light the menorah in a different way than he was commanded?
But the Sages explain that the praise of Aaron was not that he didn’t deviate from the commandment, but that he did not deviate from the emotion and enthusiasm he felt the first day. As can be imagined, the first time Aaron lit the menorah, he must have been filled with joy and trepidation, the light of the Menorah represents G-dly wisdom, and lighting it represents bringing G-dly wisdom into our world! Of course Aaron would have felt awash in emotion the first time he lit the menorah! But the praise of Aaron was that he did not deviate, every single day, he beat back sensory adaptation and felt the same rush of enthusiasm, joy, and awe that he felt the first day! That requires a giant.
Everyone is filled with love and gratitude to their spouse the morning after the wedding, the challenge is not to deviate. The challenge is to feel that same emotion or more of it on the 2,429th day of your marriage! The work of the Jewish people is to follow the moon, to wax and wane, but to never stay static. It’s to always inject our life with new inspiration. It’s to find new commentaries, new things to learn, new angles to appreciate our Torah, our families, and our relationship to G-d.
The trick to getting the most out of life, is never getting used to it.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha we read about Bilaam, the gentile prophet who embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. As his donkey is meandering along the road, it notices an angel blocking the path with a drawn sword. Immediately, the donkey reprograms his GPS and tries to take a detour through the fields. Bilaam, who can’t see the angel, beats his donkey, berating him for leaving the road. After similar events occur two more times, the donkey miraculously talks back to Bilaam and rebukes him sharply. G-d then opens Bilaam’s eyes and lets him see the angel. He then finally understands what has been causing the donkey to deviate from normal traveling procedures.
Let us study the sequence that led up to this whole showdown with the angel. After clearly seeing that G-d did not want him to curse the Jews, Bilaam persisted in asking again, and finally G-d gave him permission. As he set out on his journey, the Torah tells us, “G-d showed anger because he [Bilaam] went, and an angel of G-d placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants.” (Numbers 22:22) Rashi (1040-1105 CE, France), the primary commentator on the Chumash, tells us a bit about this angel. On the words “to thwart him” Rashi comments, “He was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning, so that he would not sin and perish.”
The Oznaim Latorah (written by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, 1881-1966, Lithuania/Israel) points out something interesting. This angel was brandishing a sword and threatening to kill Bilaam. Most people would see him as a frightening, angry, and disciplinarian angel. But Rashi is telling us that he was actually an angel of mercy trying to save Bilaam. Not everything is what it seems to be. Sometimes the person feeding you honey can be poisoning you, while the person forcing vile tasting medicine down your throat can be saving your life. It is a matter of pulling back and looking at the big picture.
This angel of mercy teaches us that sometimes (and only sometimes) the most merciful thing we can do is to be a strict disciplinarian. In dealing with our children it will give them structure, and will help them learn to build stable patterns that will last them their entire lives. In dealing with ourselves it can help us stick to a diet, finish projects we really need to finish, or push ourselves to constantly grow and strive for more.
Ultimately, we can let the donkey keep plodding down Dangerous Lane, but we would be much better off recognizing the caring of the AWBS (Angel Who Brandishes a Sword), and heeding his kind message before we end up having to take rebuke from a donkey!
This week’s parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.
Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people.
Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake.
While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth.
Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!)
Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.)
Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin through promiscuity, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.
This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: With every rising of the sun, think of your life as just begun– S. Relfank
Random Fact of the Week: Sixty percent of American men say they normally eat a hot dog in five bites or less.
Funny Line of the Week: The only reason people get lost in thought is that it is such unfamiliar territory.
Have a Sublime Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham