For the past five years, I’ve wanted to write a book. I am not alone. Writing a book is a bucket-list item for hundreds of millions of people; according to one study, 81% of people polled responded that they feel they “have a book in them.” If I got a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “My life is so crazy, I should write a book,” I could probably buy a new refrigerator.
The thing about me, is that I don’t have a book in me, I have a book in my laptop! I’ve written over four hundred essays, and I have them all stored in one file on my laptop. Some are below grade material,I would be embarrassed to ever present to the public again. But I’m happy with many of them, they were well received the first time around, and I could easily package the best 65 of them into an anthology, and publish my first book. But I haven’t. Why not? I could give you 10 reasons why I couldn’t, but instead, I’d like to tell you about Trish Vickers.
Trish Vickers of Dorset, England was one of the millions of people with a book in her, but Vickers was not like those millions of people in the sense that Trish was blind, she had lost her sight to diabetes in 2006. She didn’t know how to type, and couldn’t use a Braille typewriter because as is often the case with people who lose their sight later in life, she was unable to learn Braille. But in 2011 she managed to devise a system that enabled her to write her book anyway.
Trish would take a blank unlined notepad, and create lines by putting rubber bands around the notepad spaced apart from each other by roughly an inch. She would write using a regular pen, and the rubber bands would keep her writing neat, properly spaced, and on the page. Every month, her son would come and pick up the pages she’d written that month, and he would have them typed up for her.
That worked fine until the day her son came to pick up her writing, and found twenty-six blank pages. The pen Trish was using ran out of ink, and Trish had no idea. Losing twenty-six pages in the middle of a book is not something you can easily recover from. The plotline is messed up, Trish had no backup record of exactly what was missing, and if you continue writing you never know if people will have any idea of what you are talking about, the character may have been introduced in the Lost Pages. But Trish kept on writing.
Her book, Grannifer’s Legacy, is the story of Jennifer, a young woman who moves back from London to her small childhood village after losing her big-city job. There she discovers a book written by her great-grandmother, and finds it surprisingly relevant to her 21st century life. As she lets her grandmother’s wisdom guide her, their lives become intertwined, and their joint effort becomes Grannifer’s Legacy. You probably wouldn’t be mistaken in thinking that Trish hopes that one day, the wisdom and grit in her book becomes the seed that plants another legacy.
A few years later, Trish was given another diagnosis; terminal cancer. But Trish kept on writing, in all writing a 110,000 word book. All that was missing was the 26 pages. The Dorset Police were contacted, and after hearing about Trish’s plight, the officers on the forensic team volunteered to use their off duty hours to decipher what had been written on those 26 pages using the indentations from the pen. After five months of painstaking work, the Dorset Police produced the entire content of the missing twenty six pages.
In late 2016, Trish’s cancer got angrier and more violent, and the search for a publisher intensified. An English publishing company, Magic Oxygen, took on the project and her editor, Simon West worked around the clock to get the book out. What would normally be a six month project was completed in a remarkable two weeks. On the morning of March 9, 2017 Trish’s daughter brought the book to her hospital bed, where she put her hand on the book, feeling her dream come true. That day, Trish Vickers returned her soul to her maker. Her goal achieved, her legacy planted, Trish could move on to bigger and better things.
After telling you about Trish, there is no space for me to tell you the ten reason why I can’t get my book out. After telling you about her story, there are a lot of other “can’ts” I can’t use. The word “can’t” is such a great limiter of human potential. I can’t get my house in order because the kids trash it as soon as it’s clean. I can’t work on papers until the day before their due. I can’t start power walking because I don’t have the right shoes. I can’t make up with my brother because we haven’t spoken in five years and he has no interest in resetting the clock. It kills me to see the violence in the Middle East, but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. The whole “I Can’t” movement is a lie.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, OBM (1906-1980) cites a Medrash talking about the creation story. When G-d completed each task in the Days of Creation, G-d would look back at His work, and describe it as tov, good. However on the sixth day of creation, the verse tells us (Genesis 1:31), “And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was tov meod, very good.” The Medrash asks, what exactly was very good about the sixth day of creation when in the other days of creation it suffices to call it good, not very good. The Medrash answers that on the sixth day, G-d created mankind, and that was very good.
The simple explanation of this is that the letters for mankind, אדם Adam, are the same letters as מאד indicating that it was man that was very good. But Rabbi Hutner takes it one step further. He wonders why is it that man was specifically given the added word very, in very good. Very, explains Rabbi Hutner is a limitless word. When you say someone is very rich, what does that mean? Is he a millionaire? Does he have $50MM? $500MM? A billion? Fifty billion? Any of those could be described as very rich. The word very is limitless.
Mankind was described as very good, because mankind is limitless. We can become giants! How great can we become? Very great! How much can we accomplish? Very much! Limitless we are… We can build towers that scrape the skies, we can build computers that make quadrillions of calculations per second, and we can push tubes that weigh as much as 1,000 elephants into the sky, and have them fly across massive oceans. We are the species of Very.
Yet, we often talk about ourselves with the most limiting of language. We use the “I can’t” language to describe a particular obstacle, “I can’t write because I’m blind,” and then we move on! But that is denying our essence as human beings. That is denying the image of G-d that G-d created us in. That is denying the neshama that G-d put into us, that is almost as limitless as it’s source.
The people who do great things don’t use can’t as part of their lexicon. Sure, they may describe obstacles that prevent them from doing what they want to do, but it is only in the context of “how do I get around this?”
Let’s purge the “I can’t” movement from our midst. Let’s not describe things we can’t do, but rather the way we can get around the various obstacles. Let’s feel the power of the neshama inside of us, using it to fuel us to accomplishments far beyond our challenges. Let’s become very big.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, we find a mitzvah that seems very difficult to understand.
“When you will enter the land and you will plant any food-bearing tree, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23)
With this mitzvah known as orlah, G-d commands us to desist from using the fruit of any tree for the first three years after its planting. This mitzvah, which is not limited to a geographic location such as Israel or to a particular time period such as the Temple era, is still in force today, and is meticulously observed by religiously observant farmers worldwide.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), of blessed memory, notes that this mitzvah seems inconsistent with the Torah’s prohibition of wastefulness. That principle, derived from two verses in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) that warn against wantonly cutting down fruit trees in time of war, is expanded to include a host of laws aimed at preventing wastefulness. It is surprising therefore that the Torah tells us to dispose of all fruit of the tree’s first three years!
Rabbi Feinstein explains this curiosity with the well-established principle that we will not incur a loss by following the mitzvot. He says that this is especially true with the mitzvah of orlah and with the additional mitzvah of netah revai (the law that fruit of the fourth year, from trees grown in Israel, be brought to and eaten in Jerusalem). With regard to these two mitzvot, the Torah assures us that, “On the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, so that it will increase its produce for you, I am Hashem, your G-d” (Leviticus 19:25).
Rashi quotes the famed Rabbi Akiva who says that this verse addresses any reservations a farmer might have about keeping this mitzvah due to financial considerations. Not only will he not incur a loss, but also he will in fact gain from keeping these mitzvot. G-d will actually cause his trees to become even more bountiful, to the benefit of all mankind! What initially appears to be wasteful is actually the source of tremendous blessing!
This conflict between a mitzvah and conventional wisdom can be seen with other agricultural mitzvot as well. Shmittah, for example, demands that we put down our tools and let our land lie fallow every seventh year with no agricultural input or personal investment. Once again, G-d guarantees that this display of self-discipline will result in an exceptionally bountiful harvest, proving that neither toil nor improved seeds nor enhanced fertilizer are responsible for man’s financial success.
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom was once in the office of an organization that helps farmers observe shmittah when a phone call came in from a farmer shouting about a miracle that had occurred with his crop. Rabbi Bloom decided to take a trip to northern Israel to get a first-hand glimpse.
When he arrived, the farmer, a secular Jew who first committed to observing the shmittah laws that year, explained that a devastating frost had lingered in the area for a number of weeks, totally destroying the many local banana plantations that cannot withstand temperatures below the freezing point. When he came to inspect his fields, he found that his was the only plantation in the region unscathed by the frost! Rabbi Bloom personally inspected the neighboring plantations and was overwhelmed by the stark contrast. (See story and pictures here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/2545.)
Like shmittah, the laws of orlah reinforce the message that G-d is the source of all success. Forgoing three years worth of produce may not seem logical, but it’s an investment in the tree’s future bounty and productivity.
While the Torah demands that we put in a good day’s work, there are times when we are told to put down our work tools (or shut down the computer) and take the time to reflect on the idea that there’s much more to the end-product than our inadequate efforts. This message is vital, even for those who don’t have plans to plant a fruit tree in the near future. Mistakenly believing that their success is exclusively dependent on their own efforts, many people add hours upon hours to their workday – almost always at the expense of their family and their spiritual growth. Stepping back and realizing that G-d’s manual for life is the ultimate plan for true prosperity will likely not only result in even greater success, but also in a happier and more meaningful life.
The first of the two Parshiot that we read this week, Achrei Mos starts of with Ha-shem telling Moses the proper way for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to enter the Holy of Holies which is only done on Yom Kippur. This commandment was given after Aaron’s two eldest sons died after entering the Holy at an improper time. The lesson is that Holiness requires preparation and cannot be jumped into off the cuff, and the Holier the place, the more groundwork required. Everyone understands that it would be foolish to buy a house without checking it out properly first, or sign a contract without going over the details, all the more so in the spiritual world whose effects are more far-reaching do we have to prepare properly before rushing in.
The Torah describes the Yom Kippur service in detail but one interesting item to note is that the Kohen Gadol first brings a sacrifice to atone for his personal and his families sins, then a sacrifice to atone for all the Kohanim (his tribe), and only after that does he bring an offering to a atone for the entire Jewish community. This is very much in synch with the concept of preparation mentioned above, in that one before trying to change the world must first change himself and then work outward in concentric circles personal-family-tribe-community at large.
The Torah then discusses the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple or eating their parts out of their boundaries. (Yep, in case you didn’t pick up on it, this is also about showing respect for the act of sacrifice and understanding that you can’t just sacrifice it anywhere or anytime that you feel like it, there is a system that you must follow. So if you have that Tyco altar in your backyard, its time to fold it up, and wait for the Messiah when we will have a real Temple again!)
Then the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood. The blood is considered to be the seat of the soul of the animal hence we offer it on the altar, as a sign that we want one soul to be offered to atone for another, and therefore it would be profane to eat it in any other medium. (I know this week is a tough one, you have to fold up the Tyco altar, and stop your membership with the Vampires R Us club.)
In fact the Talmud learns a great lesson from this. If we get reward for not eating blood or other forbidden insects that one naturally loathes, how much greater is our reward for holding ourselves back from doing things that we are attracted to! This is why the forbidden relationships juxtaposed to this topic in this same Parsha to help us realize this lesson.
Here the Torah also commands us to cover the blood of non-domesticated animals or birds that we slaughter. The reason for this is that if the blood contains the soul of the animal it would be improper to eat the animal while its lifeblood and soul are lying exposed on the ground. This shows two things. One, that even animals have some sort of soul, as do even plants and rocks each to a lesser extent, as everything is an emanation from G-d and to exist must have some sort of soul or life to it. This is evidenced by Psalms talking about how different inanimate objects sing the praises of G-d, which is not just a metaphor. (Now we begin to understand the crazy Pet Rock fad of the 70’s!) Another lesson is the incredible sensitivity the Torah displays even toward animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to people’s feelings.
After this the Torah enumerates many of the forbidden sexual relationships including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Right after this the Torah write a warning not to commit certain forms of idol worship. The juxtaposition is explained as follows; both the idol worshipper and the person committing adultery are being treacherous to one who deserves their loyalty, whether it be G-d or one’s spouse.
At the end of the parsha the Torah enjoins us not to commit these immoral acts, as they were the cause that the dwellers of Canaan (Israel) to be expelled from it. If we contaminate ourselves with them, we will also be banished from our land as the Holy Land itself has holiness and it can’t contain impurity. This concludes the Parsha, and now we have come full circle because the same concept of preparation and respect we see applying to the Holy Land as it does to the Holy of Holies that the Kohen Gadol enters on Yom Kippur.
The second parsha we read is Kedoshim, which starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell the Jews “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Ha-shem your G-d.” I could write volumes on this statement alone but then you would all put me on the “Block- Spam” list so I’ll keep it simple. This is G-d’s way of telling us to stay away from excess even in things that are allowed. Even though there is plenty of kosher wine, and good USDA Grade A Angus steaks, that doesn’t mean that we should sit all day drinking wine and eating steaks. Even within that which is permitted to us, we must learn not to overindulge, not to constantly focus on fulfilling our physical desires as that takes us away from pursuing spiritual growth.
The Torah then enumerates so many fundamental laws that Rashi says that “most of the essentials of the Torah depend on it (this Parsha).” Included in them are keeping Shabbos, honoring your parents, not serving idols, being honest in your dealings with others, paying your workers on time, not giving bad advice, leaving certain parts of your harvest in the field for the poor, not perverting justice in favor of the rich or poor. (O.K. lets take a deep breath and we’ll dive right back in!) The commandment to love your fellow like yourself, the requirement to save your friend from physical harm, and to give him reproach in a way that will save him from spiritual calamity. The prohibition against gossiping, taking revenge, bearing a grudge, and hating your brother in your heart. This portion concludes with the words “I am Ha-shem!” because many of these things cannot be discerned from the outside, such as hating someone in your heart, or giving someone bad advice, so Ha-shem says I am G-d and I know what you’re thinking!
Immediately after the above laws, many of which seem to be moral laws that we as a thinking society would probably institute anyway for the preservation, the Torah brings the laws of Kelaim. Basically, you can’t wear clothes made of wool and linen, you can’t mate two different animal species together, nor plant mixed seeds in your field. These mitzvos seem to have no apparent rationale. The reason the Torah juxtaposes these two types of commandments is to show us that just like we keep the laws of Kelaim solely because G-d commanded it, so to we should keep the laws that we think are moral solely because G-d commanded it.
Human morality is flippant. The “great” Greeks and Romans on whose civilizations our Western world is modeled, killed children on childbirth for the crime of being female and justified it. Some cultures sent elders out into the wilderness to die when they became too old, and justified it. In order for us to be able to really say something is right or wrong, in order to have an absolute morality, it has to come from G-d, who would be the only One who could classify things as right or wrong and everyone would be bound by it. By definition, some parts of it we will understand and some parts we won’t as He is divine and we are human. This is the message of the unfathomable laws of Kelaim coming right after such simple laws as don’t cheat, steal, and take revenge.
The Torah continues with more mitzvos including not eating from the fruit of a tree for the first three years, then consecrating its fruit on year four, and only on year five is it yours to enjoy as you please. The prohibition against indulging in sorcery, believing in lucky times, getting tattooed, cutting yourself to show sadness over someone’s death, or totally shaving your head (hence the mitzvah for men to have peyot, or side locks), or of shaving your beard with a razor are also found here. There are some more laws still in this incredible Parsha, but alas, the candle is beginning to dim, and the hour is late, so I’m going to have to sign off here. Let’s try to take one or two of the many lessons in our two Parshiot and integrate it into our lives, and we will surely find our lives enriched, enlivened, enthused, and energized!
Quote of the Week: What isn’t tried won’t work. ~ Claude McDonald
Random Fact of the Week: There are more than 10 million bricks in the Empire State Building.
Funny Line of the Week: Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham