We crossed into Egypt at the Taba Border Crossing around midnight. I was exhausted, dirty, and bone weary after two utterly crazy days in Jordan, but I trudged up to passport control with resigned indifference. If it were up to me, I would have been in one of the many five star hotels in Eilat, taking a well deserved shower and then going to bed on 600 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets. But my handlers had decided that we were going to Egypt and I had long known that I didn’t have a vote or a veto. (More on these handlers, traveling partners- but not by choice, and my insane Jordan trip soon to come – stay tuned!)
In the dulled haze that hovers over the super sleep deprived, I gave 78 shekels to the Israeli soldier who checked us out of Israel with a strict warning not to stray from the popular tourist spots. We then walked across a few hundred meters of no man’s land into the Egyptian arrival hall, where all the border guards sported big mustaches and stiffly starched bright white uniforms. We gave them some US dollars, endured another long lecture about the dangers of leaving the popular tourist spots, got our passports stamped, and were sent out into the cool desert night.
The lectures about not leaving the popular tourist sites seemed wasted on me for two reasons. For starters, anytime I’m in a country that boasted to the world that they would wipe Israel off the map, and then proceeded to attack it with massive military might multiple times, I feel incredibly uncomfortable and nervous. Even in crowded areas, I’m always scanning the area for terrorists or jihadis who are looking for glory and figured out my Jewishness despite my Yankees baseball cap and my “I Deoxyribonucleic acid” T-shirt. I definitely didn’t have plans to stray off on my own, as I had no desire to become the Chad Gadya.
On top of that, the Sinai Peninsula is 60,000 km2 of harsh desert. If you strayed from the popular tourist destinations, you would probably die of thirst and exposure. There are four things to do in the Sinai Peninsula; drill for oil, gamble, snorkel, or visit Mt. Sinai- the only place in recorded history where G-d spoke to an entire nation, and I planned on doing the last of those options. I also planned on getting back to Israel as quickly as I could, both out of my unease in Egypt, and my longing for a shower and 600 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets.
Leaving the Egyptian arrival hall, we walked a few hundred more meters to a sandy parking lot. There were shuttles to the various hotels in the beach cities of Taba and Dahab, and there were big modern tour buses to Mt. Sinai. Tourists and pilgrims from around the world flock to Mt. Sinai both for its own significance and because it happens to have the world’s oldest working monastery, St. Catherine’s Monastery at its base.
My handlers, cut of a different cloth, decided that they wanted to take a cab for the 3 hour journey through the desert from the Taba Border Crossing. That would have been fine with me if they wanted to take any cab that was built after the invention of shocks and dampers. But they elected to go with the 1950’s Mercedes boats lined up on the side.
With three doors on each side, these “limos” must have been the pinnacle of luxury at some point in distant history. But like the lion that was once King of the Beast, and now is a ragged, arthritic, half blind cripple, these Mercedes limos were rusted, loud, lurching shadows of their former selves. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do is put a king out to pasture while he still has a semblance of grace. The Egyptian cabbies had no compassion.
My handlers haggled with the cabbies for five minutes while I stared out into the black desert, not knowing that they were again selling me up the river. They had worked out a way to get the price down by agreeing to be part of a cab ride-circus show hybrid. Into the three bench seats of the half century old limo, fourteen Israeli tourists were crammed. I would spend most of the three hour trip with a stranger’s heel in my armpit, and another stranger’s elbow in my eye. I wished we could have been crammed like sardines, they always look so neat and composed in their tins. Eventually, we sputtered out of Taba and headed into the desert.
Somehow, despite the bumpy pitted roads, the intense odors wafting around a car full of sweaty travelers, and the racket of an engine abused far beyond its breaking point, I slept. It was a restless sleep, frequently disturbed by a jab in the abdomen or a stabbing pain shooting up my back as we passed over a crater in the road, but it was sleep all the same. I woke up groggily when the cab lurched to a complete stop in middle of nowhere, and the cabbie began yelling at us in his thick Arabic accent car to get out of the car immediately.
So this was where I was going to die. In the desert, on the side of a deserted dirt road a hundred miles from the nearest town. The shifting sands would cover our bodies by morning, and the UN would regretfully tell my parents that they did everything to find me, but the desert was just too vast. Did the cabbie have a gun? Were other “cabbies” waiting to finish us off? Everyone in the cab began arguing with the adamant cabbie, but nonetheless people started folding themselves out of the cab. It was only when we were all out of the cab, that the driver smiled at us and said, “look up!” I looked up and saw a sight unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The sky was filled with billions of stars. Literally billions. Not the hundreds of stars I see from my backyard, and not even the thousands of stars I see when on camping trips deep in the wild. No, here I could see billions of stars. Here, I could even see clouds of galactic dust swirling in the heavens. The entire sky was covered in a blanket of light. It was beautiful beyond description, and we just stood and stared, awed into silence by the heavens in its full glory…
The truth is that the heavens are always filled with grandeur, the stars are always radiantly resplendent, but the more ambient light that surrounds us, the less we can see the brilliance of the heavens. In the daytime, the powerful light of the sun stops us from seeing the stars at all, and even at night the ambient light from millions of homes, businesses and street lights puts up a veil that blocks out all but the biggest and brightest stars. But here in the heart of the Sinai desert, there was no ambient light. The closest city was over a hundred miles away, and all the veils had fallen away, allowing us to see heavens for what they truly are, an infinite blaze of magnificence.
I was reminded of this incident earlier this week as I lay on a trampoline with my daughters, looking up at the sky and only seeing about fifty stars. The memory helped me think of the following idea: The Jewish People are compared to the stars multiple times throughout the Torah. G-d told Abraham, “I will surely bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens,” (Genesis, 17:22) and again, “And I will multiply your seed like the stars of the heavens.” (Genesis, 26:4) Moshe reminds the Jewish People of their greatness by bringing up their comparison to the stars, “The Lord, your G-d, has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as the stars of the heavens in abundance.” (Deut., 1:10) and again, “With seventy souls, Your forefathers descended to Egypt, and now the Lord, your God, has made you as the stars of heaven in abundance.” (Deut., 10:22). This theme is ubiquitous throughout the Scripture, but what exactly is the correlation? Why are the Jews compared more frequently to the stars than to any other infinite item?
Perhaps it is to teach us what I learned in the Sinai Desert. The magnificence of the stars is recognizable in inverse proportion to the amount of ambient human light you see around you. In the same way, the magnificence of the Jewish people is recognizable in inverse proportion to the amount of human light you see around yourself. The brighter you shine in your own mind, the less you are able to see the brightness and light of your brethren. There are some people who see themselves as so great, they project so much ambient light onto the horizon, that they can barely see any other stars, only a few of the brightest other stars. Then there are the truly great people, the humble people, who barely project any ambient light onto the horizon. They look at the Jewish people and see millions of brilliant stars. They see everyone else’s light because they don’t have the blinding veil of self getting in the way.
Back to our story. Ten minutes later the cabbie shepherded us all back into our circus positions and continued the journey. At the bottom of Mt. Sinai, I hired a camel driver and his faithful plodding animal to give me a two and a half hour ride up the mountain. It was pitch black outside, but a stream of bobbing flashlights snaked its way up the mountain, thousands of pilgrims climbing a mountain that for a short time had been the most sacred ground in the world. My camel driver laid his crop into the poor camel twice a minute, and asked me “You have Marlboro, you have Camel for me?” once a minute. (No, Achmed, you have camel for me!). The final few hundred feet of the mountain are only climbed by way of hundreds of steps, and soon I was at the top of Har Sinai! I was at the place where G-d became one with our people, and we with Him when we shouted joyfully, “Na’aseh V’nishma! We will do, and we will hear!”
The sun rose majestically over the mountainous desert, and I prayed the morning service with the rising sun, a feeling of peace and serenity permeating my whole being. And as I looked at all the mountains towering around Mr Sinai, I understood the Medrash (Megilla 29A) that says that G-d abandoned all the larger mountains and gave the Torah on top of the smallest and most humble of them.
The only place the Torah could be given and received, the only place that G-d could become one with His people, was a place you could look up and see every single star for what it is, a radiant blaze of light, but also see the all the stars for what they create together, a heavenly crown of Divine grandeur.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks parsha, Ki Saitzei, the Torah tells us the following commandment: “Do not observe your brother’s donkey or ox collapsing on the road and ignore them. You must surely lift it up with him.” (Deut. 22:4) The modern day equivalent of this commandment would be the Torah commanding us to help someone whose car breaks down. (As a matter of fact, on the East Coast, many cities with a large Jewish population have an organization called Chaverim, Friends. These organizations have a 24 hour hotline that is made specifically for anyone whose car breaks down or has any other car related trouble. They dispatch someone who helps the person for no charge.)
Now, as we have mentioned in previous emails, there are many mitzvos that are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that are repeated in Deuteronomy. (Hence the prefix Deut which means second, as many mitzvos are repeated here). This mitzvah is one of them. The first time we see this commandment in the Torah is in Exodus, 23:5, “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort to help him.” Five points for you if you notice the difference between the two verses. OK, I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is as follows: in the earlier verse in Exodus the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your enemy, whereas in our verse in Deuteronomy, the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your brother. Why does the Torah transition from enemy to brother?
Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda (early 11th century rabbi and philosopher from Spain) gives us the following explanation. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava. The root of that word is the word hav, which means to give. This teaches us that, contrary to popular notions, we don’t love the person who gives, and sacrifices so much for us. Rather, we love the person we give so much to, and sacrifice so much for. (This explains why parents generally love their children more than the children reciprocate. The parents give so much more to the children than the children give to the parents.)
That being said, if someone feels that there is some love lost between them and their spouse, a child, or a friend, one way to help rekindle the feeling is to find something he can do for that person (if he can do it without the other person knowing that is sometimes even better!) Now that we got the Therapy Tip of the Week out of the way, we can get back to our question about why the Torah transitions from calling the donkey owner your enemy to calling him your brother. Based on this concept, if the first time one sees his enemy’s donkey fallen on the side of the road he goes and helps him despite his inner dislike, then he will build love for that person, and that person will no longer be his enemy, but change to being his brother! The Torah here is hinting to us the powerful recipe for turning enemies into friends. Do something for that person, water, place in sunlight, and watch the friendship blossom!!!
This week’s Parsha is made up almost entirely of laws, dozens of them. As a matter of fact, this Parsha contains more mitzvos than any other Parsha in the Torah – 74 to be exact. I won’t be able to go into detail for all of them, and I may skip some, but I challenge you to find out which ones I skipped and email me back with the list.
The first law is quite a intriguing one. It deals with a soldier falling for the beauty of women captured in battle, and desiring her as a wife. The Torah knew that if it flat-out forbade the relationship, soldiers overcome by the fatigue and the challenges of war would disregard the law. Instead, the Torah allows one to take the captive lady as a wife, but only after a number of conditions are met. These conditions are designed to help disenchant the soldier. The captive woman must sit by the door of his house dressed in clothes of a mourner, with no makeup, and mourn the family that she lost in the war. (This is a great insight into marital relationships: no one wants a spouse who sits moping and mourning all the time!) If, as the Torah hopes, he decides that he doesn’t want her as a wife after all, he must set her free; he can’t make her a captive servant after putting her through that ordeal.
The next law discusses someone who has two wives – one he favors and one he hates. The Torah estate law dictates that a man’s firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance. If this person’s firstborn is from the less favored wife, he cannot elect to give the double portion to his oldest son from the beloved wife, but has to leave it to the rightful heir, the firstborn. The reason this law is found immediately after the previous law is to teach us that those who marry people based on their looks, as did the soldier in the previous law, are bound to end up hating each other and trying to find ways to spite each other.
The next portion discusses the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the rebellious son, the kind of person who makes us tell our children, “Just give him the lunch money; I can’t afford to buy new glasses every day!” This follows the previous law to teach us that if one hates their wife and there is no shalom in the house, they are setting the stage for rebellious children. While I was living in NYC I spent many years working with delinquent children, and I saw this to be so true. Ninety percent of the children we worked with came from homes lacking shalom.
The Torah warns us about the law of Hashavas Aveida, returning a lost item. Not only does the Torah command us to not ignore any lost items we see, it even tells us that we have a responsibility to actively seek out the rightful owner, so that we can return the object to them. We are then told that if we wish to take eggs or young birds from a nest, we must first shoo away the mother. This mitzvah is rewarded with long life, a fact which prompts Rashi to point out that if we get long life for such a simple mitzvah, imagine the reward for a difficult mitzvah, one that demands strong self-control! The Torah next prohibits cross dressing, commands us to put up a fence on our roofs to prevent any accidents, and reiterates the mitzvah of tzitzit.
One of the laws in this week’s Parsha shows a great deal about the sensitivity of the Torah. Before the banking industry was what it is today, personal loans were the most common form of loan. In order to guarantee that a lender would get his money back, he would often take an object belonging to the debtor as collateral. The Torah teaches that we may not take an object that will impede the debtor’s ability to earn a livelihood, such as a millstone (the part of a mill used to grind grain, which would earn the debtor money). The creditor is not allowed to come into the debtor’s house to demand the collateral. Rather, he must wait outside while the debtor brings the collateral out to him. This way, the debtor is able to retain a certain level of dignity – he is the sole ruler of his house, and his debts and inadequacies need not follow him into his home and sanctuary.
In this week’s Parsha there is also the prohibition against usury or taking interest for a loan. The Torah both commands us to lend money to help the destitute get back on their feet, and forbids us from taking interest. This is to help us become more giving. The Torah understands that the only way we will become better people is by doing acts of kindness, not by simply having all the right feelings in our heart.
It is no wonder that the Jewish people are the most philanthropic race on this planet, with a higher percentage of their wealth being given to charity than any other race (According to one study the Mormons give more. The problem is that the Mormons are a very small group, and the researchers only count the religious ones as real Mormons, and the non-religious ones, who would likely give less, are not included in their calculations). In the Jerusalem phonebook, there are 96 pages listing free loan societies which lend or give away everything from medicine to power tools to chairs and tables for events to free medical referrals to mother’s milk! As we say, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael- who is like your nation, oh Israel”
Quote of the Week: We will not know unless we begin. ~ Howard Zinn
Random Fact of the Week: In Ancient Egypt pillows were made of stone.
Funny Line of the Week: If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why isn’t it #1?
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham