About two months into the pandemic I started making herring. The chocolate chip cookies made me do it. I was giving classes all the time, to people who were isolated, and often sad and fearful. On a regular basis I was prescribing kindness therapy, which is one of the most effective therapies for people suffering from low grade depression and melancholy. It is comprised of throwing yourself into doing kind deeds for others with no expectation of return, and most commonly results in positivity while preparing for the act of kindness, during the time of delivery and usually for a few hours afterwards. 

In many classes, I recommended that people bake a few batches of their   favorite chocolate chip cookies, plate them nicely, and drop them at the doorstep of someone else who was also feeling isolated, lonely, fearful or sad, which two months into the pandemic described most people. I got a number of calls from  reporting that they had attempted a few doses of kindness therapy and that it was working really well. They were singing in the kitchen while preparing the cookies, felt great dropping them at people’s door, ringing the bell and stepping back a few feet, and wishing them a great day when they came to the door. I wasn’t performing a rigorous longitudinal study, but the chocolate chip cookie therapy was doing great!

The problem was that whilst I was prescribing the therapy, I myself was not making any chocoloate chip cookies to plate nicely and drop off at other people’s doorsteps. It’s not that I wasn’t feeling the blues, and didn’t need an extra pick me up, it’s just that I’m no good at making chocolate chip cookies. Even my Duncan Hines mix cookies somehow come out wrong, and you have to be special to mess up Duncan Hines cookie mix cookies. If life gives you lemons make lemonade, and if you can’t make chocolate chip cookies, make herring. 

My good friend Ephraim “Uncle Kenny” Rich had just taught me his herring recipe before Purim. He usually gave it out for Mishloach Manos, but since he was about to make Aliyah, he felt he couldn’t leave Detroit without passing on his herring secrets to another Detroiter. Now it was time for me to whip up a few batches of herring, and then drop off herring on Erev Shabbos at random people’s doors. The kindness therapy worked exactly as I had been teaching it for months! Despite the process of making herring taking me about two hours, I found it cathartic and enjoyable, and would often get into that flow state where all is right with the world. Dropping off the herring was a ton of fun too. I would load up an empty Amazon box (of which we had a never ending supply) with containers of herring and then drive all over the neighborhood dropping off containers of homemade herring for Shabbos to surprised but delighted friends and acquaintances. 

It all started with a relatively basic recipe of Dill & Black Pepper, but soon I found myself experimenting with all sorts of new flavors, with some of my favorite ones including:

  • Maple, Bourbon & Brown Sugar
  • Southwest Chipotle
  • Creamy Jalapeno 
  • Za’atar
  • Lemon Herb Pesto
  • Candied Curry                          
  • Creamy Ragin’ Cajun
  • Woodfired Smoked Garlic

And now, almost two years later, I still make herring about once or twice a month. The process is quite simple but a bit time consuming. The base is the herring fillets bought at our local kosher supermarket, (usually Santa Beromar is the company) although with the supply constraints they’ve often been out of stock in which case Russian supermarkets usually have them as well. The herring fillets have been shipped over here from Belarus or Russia, and they’ve been sitting in the same oil for over a months, so I first drain out all the oil into a Ziploc bag (I don’t want that oil going down my sink pipes!!) and then I put another Ziploc bag around it, so if one bursts in my garbage, the other one will hopefully hold! The fillets are then placed in a bath of ice water for about ten minutes to remove residual oils. While the fillets are bathing, I chop up onions using one of those handy kitchen gadgets that dices them into a tray. My eyes are so sensitive to onion tears that I wear my snowboard goggles while doing this! 

After the fillets have been soaked and rinsed, they are cut up into bite size pieces, and put into a pan with a ton of onions. Then comes the spicing, and this is where you can be as traditional or as crazy as you want to be, but it basically involves pouring in lots of spices and often sugar on top of the fillets, and then pouring fresh clean oil on top and putting it into big plastic containers. For cream herrings you need to use a mixture of mayonnaise, sugar, and a light pour of white vinegar. I recommend making the herring no later than Wednesday if you want it to have absorbed all the flavors by Shabbos. It is recommended to vigorously shake the herring a few times a day to enhance the flavor absorption and maintain consistency. Do that, and by Shabbos, you will have yourself some mouthwateringly good herring! Shabbos is geshmak, but Shabbos with fresh delicious herrings is even geshmaker!!!

Nothing about that recipe should have shocked anyone, but there was a conversation I had with a Holocaust survivor I met that made me realize that my herring recipe is quite ridiculous. This man grew up in a small town in Poland. His father died when he was very young, and his mother struggled to support the family on her own. Often dinner was just one cooked potato for the whole family, but when there was not even a potato, the family went hungry, which wasn’t uncommon. I asked him what a treat for him in those days and he answered with sparkling eyes. “Once in a while, the shopkeeper would let my mother take a ladle of the oil that the herring was packed in for free. She would bring it home in a little bowl and she would serve us black bread which we would dip in the oil, and wow, we felt like kings!”

Yes, the same oil that I not only throw away, but put in two Ziploc bags as if it was a biohazard, that’s the oil that made this man feel like king! Our lives in 2022 are literally light years away from the lives of our great grandparents, sometimes just separated from us by one century. We are living lives of such incredible blessing that it is almost impossible to state. Let us count here what might be the top 10 things that if our Zeidys and Bubbys from 300 years ago would see, they would assume that their descendants were living in the Garden of Eden

  1. Unlimited clean and delicious water coming out of our walls
  2. Wardrobes filled with dozens of outfits
  3. All appliances; washers, dryers, ovens, refrigerators, microwaves, etc
  4. Pantries stocked with spices and foods from all over the world
  5. The ability to easily fight off infections with antibiotics
  6. Homes that are heated and cooled to the perfect desired comfort level 
  7. The amount of food we can buy with 1/10th of our weekly wages
  8. Airplanes
  9. Music playing devices of all kinds
  10. The fact that we throw out the packing oil of our herring

This is not to say that we don’t have challenges in this generation, because undoubtedly we do, but we need to stop often and be thankful for the literally unbelievable standard of living that we all have. In the introduction to the second section of the Chovos Halevavos (Duties of the Mind, masterpiece of Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pachuda of eleventh century Spain), the author exhorts us to spend time every single day appreciating all the good in our lives, and even says that it is incumbent on those who recognize it, to pass it on to others: 

Since this is so, it is the duty of people who have wisdom and knowledge to arouse those who are unaware of Hashem’s goodness to them, and to teach them how to intelligently appreciate the advantages. For many benefits fail to be enjoyed altogether or their enjoyment is marred because they are not realized and their degree is not known. But once we rouse people who have been blessed with favors to recognize the great advantages they have and what had been hidden from them is revealed to them, they will offer, in more abundant measure, laudation and thanksgiving to their divine Benefactor, and so will have pleasure and happiness in their life here and receive their good reward in the hereafter.

There is so much to unpack here, but let’s focus on the top 5 lessons you can glean from this one paragraph in the Chovos Halevavos.

  1. People who don’t focus on the good in their life don’t fully enjoy the good in their life.
  2. When people focus on the good in their life, they give thanks to the Benefactor who gave them that good.
  3. Focusing on the good in your life makes you appreciate what you have more. 
  4. Thanking your divine Benefactor for the good in your life makes you appreciate it even more because you recognize that a Divine Being cares so much about you!
  5. Those who recognize the blessings of our lives have an obligation to share that message with those that are missing it, so that we can better their lives as well! 

There are things you can have too much of, like electronic gadgets, herring, bourbon, or clothing. But there are things that you can never have too much of. Gratitude is in the latter category. We may be rich with stuff; herrings, clean water, appliances, food, cars, and so much more. Let’s learn how to be rich with gratitude. Let’s fill our lives with the recognition of the good raining down on us at all times, and give thanks to the Benefactor giving it all to us. When we do that, we will indeed be living in the Garden of Eden!

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!

Parsha Summary

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: The test of enjoyment is the remembrance it leaves behind.  – M. Falsim

Random Fact of the Week: It is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open

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

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