Disclaimer: This email contains depictions of a graphic crime, readers please use caution if reading in front of children.
There are two dominant theories about triathletes. The first is that they are supremely cowardly human beings, and spend their life preparing to run away from danger on any front. You’re relaxing on the beach and someone calls you a name? You’re out of there! A big bully starts walking over to you with a menacing look on his face? You just take off running, there’s no chance he’ll catch you. Zombies overrun your town? Hop on your bike and put some real distance between you and town.
The other theory is that triathletes are incredibly strong people who train themselves to take on any eventuality. When you can swim 2.4 miles, get on a bike and ride 116 miles, and then run a full 26.2 mile marathon, you can face the world without fear. To get to that level of athlete, you’ve had to conquer so much, both external physical challenges and internal psychological challenges, that when you cross the finish line, you know that you are no longer a brave, you are a chief. You are no longer hyena, you are lion. You are no longer Old Navy, you are Balenciaga. You are no longer pawn, you are king.
I subscribe to the latter theory, but only because I merited to see the finish line for the 2019 Louisville Ironman Triathlon. When you see these athletes stream across the finish the line having completed in less than sixteen hours three separate feats of strength of which I could do none, you just know that these people are second level. You know it, they know it, and they know you know it, which is why most of them are really modest and nice about it. They don’t need to say anything, everyone knows that they are just a few rungs below Superman.
The self-confidence and regular mastery of elements that a triathlete is accustomed to, makes it all the more stark when everything is stripped away in a moment and you are left helpless, defenseless, and powerless. This is exactly what happened to Nathalie Birli, a celebrated Austrian triathlete, who woke up to find herself duct-taped to a chair in in a grimy house, facing a crazed angry lunatic. A few hours earlier, she was out for a regular bicycle training ride, when someone deliberately rammed her with his red delivery van, got out and beat her with a wooden stick, threw her in the van and locked her in a closet with a broken arm and fractured skull. She woke up, duct-taped, helpless, defenseless, and powerless.
The man who abducted her, whom we’ll call Bob, forced her to drink schnapps at knifepoint, and then tried to kill her a few times, plunging her head into a bathtub full of water, smothering her face with towels, or trying to cover her mouth and nose, but fortunately Bob was such a failure that he couldn’t even kill a tied victim. Nathalie knew that if she didn’t change the situation quickly, there was not a good ending to this story. She could yell at Bob as much as she wanted, she could hurl insults at him, it would only make him more resolute. She needed to change the narrative to empathy, and mutual understanding. She looked around the house, and amidst all the grime and clutter noticed one thing of beauty; many delicate orchids growing in flowerpots.
Nathalie began complimenting Bob’s orchids, mentioning that she had similar orchids at home, and how difficult it was to coax the orchids to flower just right. It was remarkable, she proclaimed, that he was able to grow such beautiful orchids, far prettier than anything she’d ever grown. Bob visibly warmed to her compliments and for a while they spoke about orchids, with Bob mentioning that he was a gardener, and how he used the water from his aquarium for the orchids because he believed it had beneficial minerals.
From there, Bob began speaking about his difficult childhood, how his father died when he was young, and his mother was an alcoholic. He didn’t get any parental love, and subsequently found it difficult to find any social connection in his adulthood. He had raised a large number of cats, but they were taken away from him. Nathalie empathized with him, and offered to help him find friends. She mentioned that she had a fourteen month old baby at home, and how horrible it would be for that child to grow up without maternal love, the way Bob grew up. Then Bob started asking Nathalie if she could perhaps help him, as she seemed very empathetic and caring. She recommended that he let her go, and she would tell everyone she was hit by a frightened deer, and then she would come back and help him make new friends.
Amazingly, Bob let Nathalie go, even loading her bike in his van and driving her back to her neighborhood. As soon as she got into her home, she locked the doors behind her and collapsed on the floor crying. Her bike had a special GPS device to help her track her workouts and using that information the police were able to find the man’s house. Bob is now in custody, and Nathalie’s fourteen-month-old son has his mommy, all because of a few compliments on someone’s orchids. Words matter.
Human emotion is one of the strongest forces in the world, and world history has often changed more because of words than swords. No one knows this better than the Jewish people. The Talmud tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of insulting words said at a party to a man named Bar Kamtza, who later convinced the Roman government to destroy Jerusalem in retaliation. And while that was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Sages tell us that the overall destruction of the Temple was caused by baseless hatred sinas chinam, the kind that gets amplified and shared as people verbally denigrate one another, using words to spread anger, hurt, shame, and weakness.
We are currently in the middle of the Three Weeks, the period of time that we mourn the destruction of the Temple, and the two-thousand year exile that ensued. It is a time where we think about what we can do to reverse this exile and bring about our redemption, and if it was negative speech that put us into this exile, it is likely going to be positive, empathetic, and empowering speech that brings us out of this exile. If a few compliments can bring a homicidal man back from the precipice, imagine what it can do for our brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends.
Compliments and focusing on the true good in other people are like the mineral rich aquarium water that make flowers bloom. More than triathlons, compliments and supportive statements are what give our children the confidence to know that they matter, that they are loved, and their actions can make a real difference in the world. Compliments and verbally focusing on the good in others are the cement that binds the individual bricks that make up a community, while negative statements and insults make that same cement erode until a community crumbles.
Let’s give ourselves a month, where we commit to randomly complimenting people three times a day, finding the good, unique, and value in people and focusing on it. Unquestionably, at the end of the month, we will feel better about ourselves, and the people around us will feel better as well. If baseless hatred destroyed Jerusalem, baseless love will bring it back. And if the vehicle of baseless hatred was insults, let the vehicle of baseless love be compliments. Not random flattery, but seeing the beauty in people and letting them know that we see it and value it. If we can open up that empathetic world once again, if we can change the narrative of our families and communities, we can talk our way out of this 2,000 year old captivity as well! Words Matter.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Toward the end of Parshat Mattos, two tribes, Gad and Reuven, approached Moshe with a very unusual request. The Torah relates: “The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying: Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer,… and Nebo, and Beon, the land which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle.’ And they said: ‘If we have found favor in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan.’” (Numbers 32:2-5)
If I didn’t read this directly from the Torah I wouldn’t believe it! Two tribes are asking to be left outside of the Holy Land, on the eastern side of the Jordan, just to have better grazing grounds for their cattle? But, that is exactly what happens. Moshe at first objects, thinking that these tribes weren’t going join in the conquest of Israel, which would be unfair to all the other tribes who would have to battle 31 nations to get their homeland. After the tribes of Reuven and Gad guarantee that they would not only join the conquest, but even position their troops at the front lines, Moshe acquiesces to their request.
Now we fast forward to verse 32: “And Moses gave unto them, to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuben, and unto the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sichon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land according to the cities thereof with their borders, even the cities of the land round about.” Right about now, you should have a question of the type that drives you crazy. O.K. you don’t have any questions? Read over carefully everything said above and see if you can recognize the blistering question, because when I say it below, you will definitely be kicking yourself for not seeing the obvious problem.
The question is how did the tribe of Menasseh get stuck in here? If we look back to the original verses, it was only Gan and Reuven that came to Moshe with the request. But when Moshe gives them the land they requested, we see that he also gave it to half of the tribe of Menasseh? Furthermore, if Menasseh was among the tribes that asked to be left to the east of the Holy Land, why did only half stay there, while the other half got portions in Israel?
The answer that I heard from my Rebbi, R’ Yisroel Steinwurtzel, is as follows. Moshe was clearly unhappy with the request of the two tribes. How could they ask to give up on living in the Holy Land with all its spiritual power, in order to live a more materially comfortable life? (This is a question that still reverberates loudly today within many people, including myself.) However, as the consummate leader, Moshe understood that you can’t force changes on someone. They have to want to change themselves. In order to help Gad and Reuben, the most that Moshe could do was to leave a group of people with them which would be a good influence upon them.
What aspect of Menasseh’s personality made Moshe pick him to be the neighbor to Gad and Reuven in the hope that he would influence them to see things for their real values? The first big event that we have recorded in the Torah regarding Menasseh, takes place when his grandfather, Jacob, blesses him and his younger brother Ephraim before he dies. If you recall, Jacob put his right hand (the more important one) on the head of Ephraim, the younger brother, while Menasseh had the left had placed upon him. (P.S. Even if you don’t recall, it still happened, see Genesis 48:14). Yosef, Jacob’s son and Ephraim and Menasseh’s father, tried to reverse Jacob’s hands, but Jacob told him that he knew what he was doing, and he chose to give Ephraim the more important hand because of the great descendants he would have. Take note: Yosef tried to change the order of the hands, but Menasseh, the one who was seemingly being slighted, said nothing, nada, not a word. This was because Menasseh had the positive trait of recognizing that G-d would give him exactly what was best for him, nothing less or more. For this reason he said nothing even though it may have appeared that he was losing a great honor..
Moshe, father to all of the Jewish people, wanted this exact trait to become embedded in Gad and Reuven, who seemed to be concerned that G-d wouldn’t be able to take care of their cattle’s need in the Holy Land. He therefore left half of the tribe of Menasseh together with them on the eastern side of the Jordan. The trait of Menasseh, the emuna (faith) that G-d knows what is best for us, and will give us exactly that, was what the Tribes of Gad and Reuven needed to learn. It was for this reason that Moshe left part of Menasseh with them to exert positive peer pressure, and bring out the best of them.
This week we read two Parshios, Mattos and Masei. Mattos starts off with the laws of nedarim, strong spiritual vows. While many people may feel that vows are simply words, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in Judaism we believe the opposite to be true. We see the human being’s greatest asset to be that which is shared with no other species, his faculty of speech. The verse in Genesis describing Adam’s creation says “and He blew into his nostrils a soul of life” (Genesis 2:7) Onkelos translates it as “and He blew into his nostrils a talking spirit,” thus indicating that speech is the very essence of the human. Everything a person utters with this gift of speech should be taken seriously, especially when it is said as a vow. However, there are situation in which one can nullify a vow. These include a person who goes to one expert or a court of 3 people, who can nullify the vow under certain circumstances, a wife who makes a vow which will affect her husband in which case he can waive it, or a young girl who makes a vow and her father annuls it.
The parsha continues with the Jews going to war with Midian to avenge the people who died as a result of the abhorrent trap the Midianites had set for them involving base immorality and idol worship. G-d tells Moshe that after this war he will die, yet Moshe immediately works on gathering the troops. The Jews on the other hand, have to be coerced to raise the troops, as they don’t want to see Moshe depart from the living. The Jews are victorious in battle and the Torah goes into detail on the splitting of the spoils. In summary, of the living spoils (sheep, donkeys etc.) half went to the soldiers with1/500 being given to the Kohanim. The other half went to the whole nation, and 1/50 was given to the Levites. You might be wondering, why did the rest of the nation got spoils if they hadn’t gone to war? Well, it is important to note that in Judaism we view ourselves as one unified nation. Not only are the people in the front lines fighting, but those back at home praying and learning in their merit are also considered to be fighting the battle. Therefore, it was only fair that they should get a share of the spoils. This is an extremely important lesson right now, as our soldiers in Israel are fighting bravely on two fronts. We don’t need to feel helpless as we watch the news; we can also pitch in and fight from our homes here in the USA! If we take an additional ten minutes a day to say psalms for our soldiers or learn in their merit, we are taking an active and crucial role in the war and in saving our brethren.
The last part of the parsha is the story of Reuven and Gad’s request to remain east of the Holy Land where the land was good for grazing. See the above Dvar Torah for the details.
Parshat Massei, being the last parsha in Numbers, is the wrap up of the Jews’ time in the desert, as the story part of Deuteronomy focuses almost exclusively on the last day of Moshe’s life. Therefore, Massei starts with recounting every station the Jews camped at throughout their 40 years in the desert, and some of the events that happened at these spots. Then, the Parsha focuses on the future – on the conquest of Israel. G-d commands the Jews to destroy all forms of idols when they conquer the land, and to distance themselves from the inhabitants them so they don’t get enticed to sin (as we saw in the Dvar Torah, the three most important things about where we live are neighbors, neighbors, and neighbors!)
The Torah then delineates the borders of Israel, and names the leaders who would lead each tribe when they entered the land. After that, the Torah commands the people to set aside cities in which the Levites would dwell. The Levites weren’t given any specific portion of Israel because their job was to spiritually motivate and to teach the people. Therefore, they were scattered amongst the people so that everyone could have some good neighbors. The Torah also commands the people to set aside cities of refuge to which people can flee if they commit unintentional murder. Although they can’t be held fully responsible, they are somewhat at fault because they could’ve avoided it by being more careful (in American law this is called negligent homicide). Therefore, they must run to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol.
This is clearly not a good thing for the Kohen Gadol, as it meant that many people were eagerly anticipating his death so that they could return to their families. The Talmud teaches us that the Kohen Gadol is given this weighty burden because he should have prayed harder that there be no accidental killers on “his watch,” and he didn’t. This shows us how much the Torah expects Jews to feel responsibility for one another.
The Parsha (and the book of Numbers) concludes with the people of the tribe of Tzelophchad coming to Moshe with a concern. In last week’s parsha, Tzelophchad’s daughters came to Moshe to ask for a portion of the land, since their father had died and left no sons to inherit him, and Moshe agreed that they would get it. Now, the people of that tribe were concerned that if the daughters would marry men of a different tribe, the land would end up being lost from their tribe, since it would go to the husband’s tribe. Moshe then told the women that they should choose mates from their own tribe to alleviate this problem. This law only affected women receiving inheritances who were among the first generation which was apportioned the land of Israel, so that there should at least be one moment where each tribe had exactly the portion they received. Later, people could choose a spouse from any tribe, as long as they loved each other and cared about one another through sickness and health, poverty and wealth etc. etc. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: The wise man does at once what the fool does finally. ~Baltasar Gracian
Random Fact of the Week: Maricopa County, Arizona is the golfing capital of America, with 168 golf courses.
Funny Line of the Week: I totally take back all those times I didn’t want to nap when I was younger.
Have a Remarkable Shabbos,
R” Leiby Burnham