May 28th is a special day. Exactly two decades ago, that day found me standing under a chuppah; watching my soon-to-be wife walk down the aisle flanked by her parents, and praying intensely that G-d should make our home into one that radiated with love, kindness, joy, sanctity, and light. But May 28th is not only my anniversary, it’s also the anniversary of Nathan’s Famous, the most iconic hot dog fast food chain in the world. With over 1,400 locations in all fifty states and 17 countries, Nathan’s has clearly grown from it’s humble beginning on May 28th, 1916. But at that time, Nathan’s wasn’t yet famous, it wasn’t attempting to fill the world with love, kindness, joy, sanctity, and light, it was just trying to sell hot dogs. 

Nathan Handwerker, was a Jewish immigrant from Galicia[1] who came over in 1912 at the age of 20 seeking fame and forture in the “Goldene Medina.” But first he set about finding a job where he could werk his hands, and make some shekels. For about four years he had the glorious job of slicing bread rolls for Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood that specialized in German sausages. But he did work hard, and he even managed to meet that someone special, Ida Greenwald, who became his wife in 1916. 

Nathan and Ida took all their life savings, $300 (about $7000 in today’s dollars), and set up a hot dog stand off the beach not far from his former employer. They would use his wife’s family recipe, which used all beef and a special blend of spices. The meat wasn’t kosher, but unlike most hot dogs of the time they didn’t use pork, so he coined the phrase Kosher Style, which since then has meant Not Kosher, But Might Make You Feel Better About It.  His strategy was to beat Feltman’s on price. They charged ten cents per hot dog, he would charge five. And what he lost in price he would make up in volume. 

Eventually, Nathan’s did become Famous, and became an American icon, so much so that FDR served his hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939. When FDR met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference to discuss what a post-war Europe would look like, he brought them some of Nathan’s Famous as well. Years later, Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York, stated that, “No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.” Jackie Kennedy served them at the Kennedy White House, and Barbara Striesand would have them brought with her when she performed abroad. 

But in the beginning, it didn’t go well at all. Nathan set up his brand new stand, bought with their life savings, and starting hawking his five cent hot dogs but people just weren’t buying. He could still see people streaming in to Feltman’s and buying the ten cent dogs, but they only a smattering of people were coming to him. His whole business model was to capture volume not maximum profit per hot dog, but the volume was not there. Every day he went out, opened early and worked late until the last people strolling down the boardwalk finally left, but it just wasn’t taking. 

Finally, it was time to do some market research. He started asking people why they weren’t coming to his stand, especially the people who had just left Feltman’s, and soon he discovered that he was just too cheap. People were afraid of the five-cent dog. If everyone else was charging ten, and he was charging five, there must be a catch. What was Nathan putting in those super cheap hot dogs people wondered? If the ten cent dogs already had the lips, intestines, heads and tails, what could be in the five cent dogs?

Nathan couldn’t simply raise the price, for the pricier dogs people wanted a more respected establishment, not some stand on the beach! Here is where Nathan got creative. He hired a bunch of men to come order by his stand regularly, but they had to wear the white coats generally worn by surgeons and doctors. People on the beach would see what appeared to be doctors eating Nathan’s Famous hot dogs on their lunch breaks and after work. If it was good enough for the doctors, surely it was good enough for everyone else!

The gimmick worked, and soon people began flocking to Nathan’s Famous. What started as a beachside stand became a store on the boardwalk[2], and eventually morphed into a chain that that covers the nation and the globe. Last year, over 360 million Nathan’s Famous hot dogs were sold, in over 20,000 food service outlets. Nathan Handwerk’s hard werk paid off, and truly earned its name;  Nathan’s Famous. 

Interestingly, the story of Nathan’s hot dogs is quite instructive in how we live our Jewish lives. When people saw the hot dogs being sold for so cheap they didn’t necessarily find it attractive, they found it off-putting. Humans understand on a deep level that quality doesn’t come easy, so when you’re selling something for too cheap, it is often a red flag. 

What is Judaism, and what does it mean to be a Jew? If it’s something we wrestle with and work on all the time, we’re probably on the right path. If it’s something that only requires a few cultural and familial events a year, we’re probably not seeing the whole picture. Judaism, G-d’s pathway for His children as prescribed in the Torah is not cheap and not easy. The Jewish people are named Yisrael, which was the name given to Jacob when he “wrestled with the Divine and with man and you have overcome.” 

Judaism is a relationship, and good relationships require constant work, and constant striving. The minute we stop working on our relationship with our wives or children, and decide that we’re just not going to put in any more effort, we’re neglecting our relationships with our wives and children. Much in the same way, if we decide that we just don’t want to put effort into our relationship with G-d, we may be able to find people and places that will tell us that we are fine the way we are, but we will be missing out on something. 

Another important lesson we can learn from Nathan’s Famous was the way he did convince people to try his hot dogs. He had people that looked like doctors eating his products. And while they were fake decoys, he was onto something. We often need to look at what the experts in the field are saying or doing to see how we feel about it. If you want to know whether it’s OK to buy generic drugs, look at the fact that doctors are the people most likely to use generics. If you want to know how much social media you should allow your children to consume, look at how the tech moguls ban their children from using it altogether! If you want to understand what is the best pathway to choose from a Jewish perspective, look to the leaders that you have met with and interacted with, and determine where you see the most Godliness, holiness, joy and sanctity. If it’s working for them it should work for you on a lower scale! Who are the people you admire? Who are the people who seem to be most joyous in their Judaism? Who are the people it’s working for? 

When we find the mentors and messages we’re looking for, we can begin the process. We buy in. It takes almost all of our life’s savings, it takes so much work and effort in the beginning, but as we incorporate it, it starts to nurture us back, adding so much to our life, eventually going from a stand on the side of the beach, to a solid storefront, to a dynasty that spreads love, kindness, joy, sanctity, and light all over the world!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha we find a mitzvah which helps keep the integrity of the Torah through the ages. “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it, to observe the commandments of Ha-shem your G-d, that I command you today” (Deut. 4:2). This verse teaches us to leave the mitzvos exactly as we got them, without adding nor taking away anything from them.

It is clear why G-d would tell us not to take away from the mitzvos. Once one would start doing that, it would open a Pandora’s Box, which could result in more and more mitzvos being taken away, until our entire rich tradition would be whittled away to next to nothing. But why does G-d not allow anyone to add to the mitzvos? If someone wants to be more pious and do more, why would G-d forbid it?

The Dubner Maggid (1740-1804), answers with the following parable. Sam asked his neighbor Frank if he could borrow a silver spoon. Frank gave it to him, and was surprised to see him return the next day with two spoons, one bigger than the other.

“What is this for?” he asked.

“Well, after you gave me the spoon, it got pregnant and gave birth!” Frank was not the type to turn away a free spoon, so he called a happy Mazal Tov, and wished Sam well. 

A few days later Sam came to borrow a big copper pot. Frank gave it to him and, much to his joy, Sam came back a few days later with the big copper pot, and a little “baby” pot. Once again Sam explained that the pot had gotten pregnant and gave birth to the small pot. (Can someone please teach these cooking utensils a planned parenting class!?)

When the next week Sam came by and asked Frank to borrow his large silver menorah, Frank was only too quick to give it over, in anticipation of a baby menorah. Two months went by and Frank didn’t see either Sam or his menorah. Finally, a few days later, he spots Sam at the train station and asks why didn’t he come to return the menorah yet.

“Oh” replies Sam, “the menorah. Yes, a terrible thing happened! A few minutes after I got home, the menorah suddenly fell ill. It wasted away for a few hours, and then it simply died! I am so sorry about your loss!” Sam quickly got enraged. “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, MY MENORAH DIED!!! WHOEVER HEARD OF A MENORAH DYING?!” To which Sam replied, “Well whoever heard of a pot or a silver spoon giving birth? But that didn’t seem to bother you so much, so I don’t know why this is bothering you!”

When G-d gave us the Torah, he gave us a precise prescription for a perfect, peaceful, and pleasant life (it’s a good thing easy doesn’t start with a P!). Once we think we can take control of the wheel and start turning, even in the direction of more mitzvos, there is a fundamental perspective shift. No longer is it G-d’s Torah, but rather it’s our personal Torah, to do with it as we please! Then, just as we can add, we can subtract, we can giver “birth” to new mitzvos we would like to see on the list, and we can have the ones that are a bit too difficult simply “die.” For that reason G-d commands us “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it.” If we do that, surely the latter part of the verse will come true as well and we will “observe the commandments of Ha-shem your G-d, that I command you toady!” 

Parsha Summary

This week’s portion begins with Moshe begging G-d to allow him into the land Israel. The Talmud asks, “Why did Moshe want to enter the land? Did he need to eat of its fruit or satiate himself with its bounty? Rather, this is what Moshe said to himself, ‘There are many mitzvos that one can only performed in Israel . I will enter the land so that all those mitzvos will be performed through me!’” (Sotah 14a)  Moshe’s yearning was for the intense spirituality locked up in Israel. After many prayers from Moshe (515 to be exact, the numerical equivalence of Ve’eschanan), G-d tells Moshe to stop asking, so that there shouldn’t be a situation in which the student is begging so much and it looks as if the Master is being mean. (This is an important lesson in marriage. If there is an issue that keeps coming up where one spouse is constantly being forced to deny the other’s request, it is a good idea to sit down and talk it out. If they agree that the denier’s actions are valid, it is important for the other spouse to stop asking. It is very unfair to cause one spouse to always be the “bad guy.”)

Moshe then continues to teach the Jews some very important precepts, including, “You shall not add to the word of G-d, nor shall you detract from it,” (Deut. 4:2) which tells us that we can’t add or detract from the mitzvos, for example by having three tzitzit instead of four, or two days of Shabbos. The idea here is that we should never think “G-d knew what was good, but I can make it even better.” Such a mindset has two fundamental flaws. Firstly, it presumes that G-d doesn’t have it all perfectly set already and, even worse, it shows incredible arrogance in thinking you can do a better job than Him.

Then Moshe reminds the Jews of the respect they gain from the world when the nations see the Jews fulfilling the Torah, as they are amazed at the Torah and its wisdom. This does more for world opinion than our accomplishments in any other sector.

Next, Moshe recounted some of the details of the revelation at Mt. Sinai, such as seeing the mountain engulfed in flames leaping into the heavens, being able to see the words of G-d (a big miracle, as normally humans can’t see sounds unless they are on LSD), and how G-d commanded us to never serve anything but Him.

At this point, Moshe digresses from the story of the revelation to tell the Jews that if they or their progeny do serve other gods, G-d will force them into exile. Moshe uses the heavens and earth as his witnesses, as they are eternal. Interestingly, this is the portion we read on Tisha B’av, because it talks of the Jew’s actions being the cause of their exile, but also talks of our return to G-d. This return will bring about the ingathering of the exiles, an event which, especially on Tisha B’Av, must have paramount importance in our consciousness.

Moshe then points out the love G-d has for the Jews, as He revealed Himself to the entire nation, men, women, and children, an event which has never happened in all of history before or after! Here, Moshe repeats the Decalogue to the Jews.  (We don’t call them the Ten Commandments, because there are actually much more than ten Mitzvot mentioned here. Rather we call the Aseret Hadibrot or the Ten Statements, hence the Greek term Decalogue- deca = ten, logos = words.) The Torah here inserts the most famous of all Jewish statement, Shema Yisrael Ha-shem Elokeinu Ha-shem Echad. After that, the Torah writes the first chapter of the Shema i.e. Ve’ahavta.

The Torah then enjoins us not to forget G-d in times of prosperity. It is all too easy, when things are good, to get lulled into a sense of self-accomplishment and to forget that G-d is the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. History has tragically taught us that when this happens we are given a rude awakening, and suddenly it is clear that there is a G-d running this world.

At the close of the parsha, the Torah makes two demands that may seem unrelated, but are actually strongly connected. The Torah commands us to pass our tradition on to our children, and to ensure that they receive a proper Jewish education so they know who we are as a people, where we came from, and what are our goals. Immediately following is the commandment not to intermarry, as that will not only decimate our numbers, but also cause us to lose our religion.

Although these two ideas don’t necessarily seem related, upon further reflection there is a clear reason for the juxtaposition. The Torah is telling us that if we educate our children properly, and give them a sense of who we are as a people, truly “one nation under G-d,” then we won’t have the problem of intermarriage. This is a message that rings true today more than ever, with the Jewish people facing an over 50% intermarriage rate, and with all the studies showing that a solid Jewish education as the biggest deterrent to intermarriage available. So, head on down to the closest pharmacy and pick up some prescription strength Torah education, give your children two tablets each, and invite me to the nice Yiddishe wedding in the morning. That’s all Folks!!

Quote of the Week: Your past is always going to be what it was, stop trying to change it. ~ Shmuel Fremont

Random Fact of the Week: The US has more bagpipe bands than Scotland!

Funny Line of the Week: Fettucini alfredo is macaroni and cheese for adults.

Have a Luminous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnha

[1] In case you’ve heard the word Galicia all your life and aren’t exactly sure where it was, don’t worry you’re not alone. Even the people living in Galicia weren’t sure where they were because this territory in what is today Southeast Poland and Southwest Ukraine was constantly changing hands as various kingdoms and countries fought over it. When Nathan left it, it was part of the Austria-Hungary Empire

[2] The original Nathan’s Famous store, is still open today at Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn. It was open every single day from the day it opened it’s doors all the way until it was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012, almost one hundred years of uninterrupted service. 

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