The events below are true, as reported by the New York Times. (Some people would find that line an oxymoron.)
What do you do? Uncle Virg is dead. And just one day before his Social Security check is due to come in the mail. Everyone had assumed that he would keep living forever. The gravy train would keep arriving at the station like clockwork. But the old bugger just upped and died.
Uncle Virg had died, and David and James, his apartment mates were left without any income. And with Murphy operating his laws somewhere in the background, he had to do it just one day before the $355 Social Security check came in. What nerve! How was everyone else supposed to live without the check they had been depending on for so long?
But then James came to the rescue, as he always did. He thought of a plan so brilliant, it was blinding in its simplicity. Let’s keep Uncle Virg for a day, and then push him in a wheelchair to the local check cashing store. After cashing that last check, they would call in the death.
Sure enough, David and James left the freezer door open and propped up Uncle Virg’s body near it. They waited until the check came, and then wrapped Uncle Virg in his favorite faded black T-shirt and blue and white shoes, and loaded him up on a wheelchair, strapping him to it with tape. They covered the tape with an old jacket and were now ready for the closing act, the grand finale for good ole Uncle Virg. After all, this was surely the way he would have wanted it.
James P. O’Hare, and his friend, David J. Dalaia, the two apartment mates of Virgilio Cintron, loaded him into the elevator, wheeled him out into the mean streets of Manhattan, and pushed him to his regular check cashing location, the Pay-O-Matic at 763 Ninth Avenue. The only thing that slipped the otherwise astute minds of David and James was the fact that good ole’ Uncle Virg flapped stiffly from side to side and was clearly dead to all onlookers. Police spokesperson Paul Browne would later report, “The witnesses saw the two pushing the chair with Cintron flopping from side to side, and the two individuals propping him up trying to keep him from flopping from side to side.”
Not far from the check cashing store, they happened to catch the attention of an off-duty detective, Travis Rapp, who was having lunch at the nearby Empanada Mama. Although he was deeply engrossed in his second helping of fajitas Gringos mas especial, he could not help but notice the corpse being wheeled by his window. Not wanting to end his leisurely lunch early, he called in the incident to the local precinct, Midtown North.
In the meantime, David and James had reached the Pay-o-Matic and, after parking Uncle Virg outside, waited patiently in line. Upon reaching the front window, they tried to cash the check. The cashier said he needed to see Virgilio before he could cash the check. Only too happy to oblige, David and James dutifully went outside and began to wheel him into the store.
As they were pushing him toward the counter, a horde of policeman converged upon them and arrested them. When the police informed them that their good buddy was dead, David and James exclaimed with perfect surprise, “Oh my gosh, he’s gone?”
Actually, they were gone. They were hauled off to Riker’s Island to spend some time with all the other conspiring geniuses from all over NYC, while they were charged with check cashing fraud. Uncle Virg was taken to the morgue where it was determined that he died of natural causes about 24-hours earlier. So much for the inspired planning of David and James.
We can laugh at hapless David and James, but how often do we wish we could pull off the same stunt, albeit with better results? After all, they tried to do something we all wish we could do, and I’m not talking about cashing Social Security checks of a dead man. I’m talking about accomplishing things after we are dead. The greatest Social Security check we all get is life. Each month we are sent a check with yet one more month of life, one more month in which we can better ourselves, transform ourselves into a different and more elevated person.
The problem is that we keep putting it off. Next month I’ll spend more time with my wife and children, next month I won’t get angry so often, next month I won’t waste so much time. But the months drag on without our changing much and, before we know it, the checks stop coming, and we enter the World of Truth.
As soon as this happens, we have enormous clarity, and realize the extent of the loss of all those misspent checks. We wish someone could just wheel us around the street, prop us up, and allow us to give charity one more time. We wish we could get just one more chance to learn some Torah with our child, to teach them about the rich heritage they inherited. We wish someone would bring us just one more time to the synagogue, so that we could pray with meaning, thinking about what we’re saying, and not just flopping from side to side.
But alas, once that moment comes, we can never again cash a check. We can grow no more, improve ourselves no more. Dead people have no earning power.
Enter Shabbos. One of the beautiful concepts behind Shabbos is that it is a safeguard from this problem. Shabbos is a weekly reminder that a time will come when all we will have with us is that which we have prepared, and that we will no longer have any earning power. While many people think of Shabbos as simply a day of rest, we are actually not prohibited from exertion, we are allowed to take strenuous walks uphill in the heat for hours! Shabbos, is a day of rest from creative labor, anything that brings something new into the world, even something as relaxing as baking a cake, planting hydrangeas, or painting a masterpiece. Because the goal of Shabbat is to remind us that a day will come when we will be unable to create anything new anymore, when we will cease to grow as people, and only have that which we’ve already earned. Shabbos remind us that time here on earth is precious.
When G-d first introduced the concept of Shabbos to the Jewish people, He made it clear that this is what Shabbos is all about. “Tomorrow is a rest day, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. Bake [today] whatever you wish to bake, and cook [today] whatever you wish to cook,” (Exodus 16:23). And as the sages explain, “He who prepares on Friday, will have what to eat on Shabbos. But he who does not prepare on Friday, from what will he eat on Shabbos?”(Avodah Zara, 3B)
The six days of the week are compared to the life of a person, and the seventh, is compared to Olam Haba, the World to Come. (It is interesting to note the similarities between preparations for Shabbos and preparations for a person’s final journey to the World to Come. For both you are supposed to bathe the body, and Kabbalistically on Shabbos we are supposed to wear white clothes…). It is so easy for us to forget about what we are on earth to accomplish, and the “wealth” we need to be storing away while in this world, that once a week, we are given the reminder that a time will come when no more checks can be cashed.
Living life with a Shabbos consciousness, knowing that we only have limited time to prepare provisions for the ultimate journey, makes every moment of time so dear and precious. Shabbos is a celebration of G-d’s ultimate creation and gift; time.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha continues the story of the Ten Plagues that started in last week’s parsha. After we learn about Moshe warning Pharaoh about the last plague, the Death of the Firstborn, there is a peculiar break in the narrative. Suddenly, the story of the redemption from Egypt is broken by 28 verses that bear very little relation to the actual storyline. Instead, these verses contain the first Mitzvos the Jews were commanded to observe as a nation.
We know that the Torah was given by G-d, and is therefore perfect by its very nature. Nothing is superfluous; everything is calculated down to the very vowels of the letters. Why, then, would G-d choose to interrupt one of the most important narratives to speak about a few mitzvot? If anything, the story was just beginning to peak, it was reaching its climax. We spent the last few weeks reading about the rise of Moshe from an infant cast into the Nile to the redeemer of the Jewish people. We learn how G-d sent him back into Egypt with a message of hope for the enslaved Jews. Ha-shem told him to challenge Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Jews. The dialogue continued with Pharaoh’s refusals, which are met with miraculous plagues that bring tremendous punishment onto the Egyptians. And all of these events were for the single cause of freeing the Jews. Now, we are about to reach the last plague, freedom is near, and G-d decides to interrupt this riveting story with a few commandments! Why?
The answer to this question holds a tremendous lesson for us. The Jews were at a pivotal moment in their national history. Until now, they were slaves; physically, they were a oppressed and broken people. As bad as things were from a physical perspective, their spiritual state was even worse. They were totally unaffiliated with their heritage, disconnected from the legacy of their great predecessors. But, now they were about to leave Egypt and venture into the desert to begin a journey of spiritual growth. G-d wanted to give us the first commandments specifically before the journey began.
In doing so, G-d taught us that you don’t have to be far into a spiritual journey to begin observing some of the mitzvos. In fact, you can be at the very beginning of your spiritual enlightenment, and still begin practicing those mitzvos that are within your power to keep. Sometimes we feel like we are not “on the level” to do a particular mitzvah, or that due to a past that was deprived of spirituality that we can’t possibly be worthy of performing a specific mitzvah. The truth is that you don’t have to be worthy to perform a mitzvah; the mitzvah itself gives you worth.
In Egypt, when the Jews were in a deep spiritual slump, G-d gave them a few mitzvos which provided the merit needed to get the Jews out of Egypt. G-d clearly showed us that mitzvos are relevant to everyone, and every single person is worthy and capable of performing a mitzvah. And once we tap into that opportunity, we are on the pathway to our own personal and spiritual redemption.
I once heard a beautiful story that illustrates this point. In the seventies, a young man who grew up without any Jewish identity, somehow stumbled on some Jewish classes, and began to study. He was enthused by what he learned, but soon he was drafted into the army, and was prepared to go fight in Vietnam. On his last leave of absence before being shipped out, he visited his rabbi back home. His rabbi encouraged him to begin doing one mitzvah, but he was reluctant, as he had never really done any before. In the end, they agreed that he would try to do the mitzvah of netilat yadayim, ritually washing ones hands before eating bread.
One day, after a long day of fighting, his platoon settled down for chow. While everyone ravenously attacked their food, this soldier went to a nearby stream to wash his hands. While he was washing his hands, he heard a series of explosion and came running back. Somehow, his platoon had been ambushed, and by the time he got back, he was the only survivor. Like our forefathers in Egypt, this man took upon himself a mitzvah even though he was not sure he was ready for it, and it proved to be his redemption.
In the merit of our increased mitzvah observance, may we all merit the Final Redemption!
This week’s portion starts with the final three plagues. After Moshe warns Pharaoh of the locust that will be the worst Egypt has ever or will ever see, Pharaoh backs down and says he will let the Jews go. But, in typical Pharaoh fashion, he then reneges on the deal and claims that he only meant that the men could go. So G-d sends the locust. Lots of them. They eat everything that is not stored away. Pharaoh, in a panic, calls for Moshe and tells him to pray to G-d to take away the locust, and he will let the Jews go. Moshe prays, a wind comes and removes every last locust from Egypt (even the ones that were pickled and tucked away in Egyptian basements in Mason jars), and Pharaoh reneges.
G-d commands Moshe to stretch his hand out to the sky and, when he does so, darkness falls upon Egypt. After three days, the darkness gets stronger, to the point that it is so thick that people can not move. Meanwhile, the Jews have total reign to do as they please, and they scope out the Egyptians hiding places to find where they keep their treasures.
Finally, Pharaoh calls Moshe and tells him yet again that the people can go. Of course, there is one huge string attached, namely, that they have to leave the livestock behind. Moshe says, “We are going to bring sacrifices and you want us to leave the livestock behind? You will see that by the time we leave, you will be giving us livestock to get us out quicker.” Pharaoh tells Moshe to get away, and warns him that if he comes back, he will have him killed. Before Moshe leaves, he gets a prophecy, and he turns and warns Pharaoh of the death of the firstborns, the final plague. He tells Pharaoh that by the time the plague is over, the Jews will be driven out of Egypt, and with that, he leaves Pharaoh stewing.
G-d tells Moshe to tell the Jews to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians who miraculously are willing to “lend” it to them. (The amount they “borrowed” was still not enough to compensate for all the years of free labor that the Jews had given the Egyptians.)
Then G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jews about the first mitzvah they received as a nation, namely following the lunar months to determine Jewish holiday. G-d calls out the first month, Nissan, and tells Moshe to inform the Jews that on the tenth of the month they should set aside a lamb for a Pascal offering. This was no easy task, as the Egyptians worshipped the lamb, and were certainly less than pleased to see their gods being prepared for slaughter by their former slaves. G-d told Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring the lamb as a Pesach offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. They were to put blood on their doorposts on the night of the 15th and this would ensure that G-d would skip over their houses when He struck all the Egyptian firstborns.
The Jews brought the first Pascal offering, put the blood on the doors, and that night G-d went through Egypt slaying every firstborn. While doing so, He skipped over the Jewish houses, thus giving the holiday the name Pesach, which means skipped over. The entire Egypt was consumed with wailing and mourning, and finally even Pharaoh caved in. He went through the streets calling out for Moshe, telling him to get the Jews out of Egypt.
As morning broke, the Egyptians pushed the Jews to leave so quickly that they didn’t even have enough time to let their breads leaven. They quickly baked the dough as matzah, and left Egypt. About 1.2 million adult Jews left Egypt along with millions more children. Besides for the Jews, a large group of people called the eirev rav, or the great multitude, left Egypt with them. They were so impressed by the miracles G-d had show in Egypt that they decided to stick with the winning team.
As the Jews left Egypt, G-d told Moshe to teach the people the laws of Pesach which would be a holiday for eternity to relive our miraculous exodus from Egypt. G-d also tells Moshe that from now on, the firstborn of both Jews and kosher animals are holy, since G-d saved them by not striking them when He struck the Egyptians firstborn children and animals. This is the source for the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming one’s firstborn from the Kohen. It is also the source for the mitzvah to give most firstborn animals to the Kohen (with the exception of donkeys that get redeemed for sheep). Additionally, G-d tells Moshe about the mitzvah of teffilin which are worn to remind us of G-d’s great miracles. The parsha concludes with G-d’s commandment that the Jewish people transmit the story of our exodus from generation to generation, as it has been transmitted for 3,314 years!
Quote of the Week: Small people talk about people, medium people talk about events, big people talk about ideas!- Nancy Shamie
Random Fact of the Week: Oysters can change their gender based on the temperature of the water they live in.
Funny Line of the Week: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
Have a Chipper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham