There are three kinds of people in the world. The first are the people who only go places with friends; these are often people who are afraid to be alone, lest they have to meet themselves and get to know themselves. They will do anything to avoid this plight, even paying people to go places with them, because they are so scared of the person they might meet if they have to spend more than 10 minutes with themselves.
Even when alone for mere minutes, these people will often bury themselves in any possible distraction, a phone, retying their shoelaces, hitting the button repeatedly in the elevator, just to keep the action going and to prevent a few moments of self-reflection. If you’ve been around people that seem to have a greater need to talk than a need to bring value to their conversation, you’ve probably met these people. If you’ve never noticed these people… they might be you.
The second group is totally comfortable being alone, often finding contemplative solace in solitute. They meditate, take walks by themselves with no headphones, and engage in hobbies that take up the hands but not the mind (gardening, cooking, fixing cars etc). It’s not that they mind the company of people, it’s just that they don’t need people around to feel comfortable. They don’t demand conversation to cover the quiet.
The third kind of people wants to be like the first but frequently ends up alone despite trying to surround themselves with others. Finding being alone troublesome, they seek out the company of others, but others find them troublesome, so they remain alone.
Michael Cole belonged in the third category, which explains his predicament in October of 1984. It was opening night for the Chicago Bulls, and he wanted to go watch the game, especially considering that it was the debut night for their rookie, a gentleman from the University of North Carolina named Michael Jordan. He bought two tickets for $8.50 apiece, and then tried to recruit a friend to come watch the game with him, but no one would come. He called around, he offered it to friends for free, but no one was interested in going to the game with him, so he went by himself. The game was a good one, the Bulls did win, but Michael Jordan didn’t play spectacularly well, and Michael Cole went home that night, took the unused ticket, stuck it in a folder and promptly forgot about it.
What he didn’t forget about was Michael Jordan, nor did anyone else for that matter. Jordan went on to become the undisputed GOAT of basketball (Greatest Of All Time), winning six championships with the Bulls and becoming possibly the most famous person in the world at the height of his fame. To this day, the Air Jordan brand brings in over $5 Billion a year in revenue despite the fact that Jordan retired as a basketball player in (for the third time) about 20 years ago.
Recently, Michael Cole stumbled upon the unused ticket, and decided to put it up for auction. On February 27, 2022, Heritage Auctions put it up for sale as the only known intact ticket from Michael Jordan’s debut game in the world. It sold for $486,000. Sometimes it’s not so bad to be alone.
The Jewish people have three ways of interacting with the world. Sometimes we desperately want to be like everyone around us. We imitate their culture, their fashion, their hobbies, their religion or their lack of religion. We just want to be accepted and appreciated and push ourselves to be more American than the Americans, more European than the Europeans, and more forward thinking than the most progressive people. We are not content to simply be part of movements, we need to lead them, from Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud over a century ago, to Randi Weingarten, Janet Yellen, Rochelle Walensky, and Jared Kushner today, Jews are constantly pushing to be publicly enmeshed in our countries direction.
A second approach that Jews have to the world, is to be more focused on our jobs and roles as Jewish and less involved in the culture around us. This approach leads to a significantly lowered visibility on the national plane. It involves more involvement in our micro-communities, often anchored by a synagogue or yeshiva, and more internal support for the needs of our community, a greater focus on who we are than on how we can be like everyone else. It’s not isolationist, we exist in the context of the greater world and interact with it for commercial, academic, and medical purposes, trying to add value to the system that provides value to us, it’s just that we don’t look to it for ethical or moral direction, we don’t consider assimilation to be a beneficial force.
The third situation is when the Jews try to be like the first, try to assimilate fully into a society, but get rejected anyway, and find ourselves truly alone. Prior to the Holocaust, and for that matter prior the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, or the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were deeply assimilated, involved in every endeavor of science, finance, philosophy and culture, yet the world found us troublesome, and violently ejected us, leaving us isolated, attacked, vulnerable and alone, and at a total loss to understand where the enmity to us was coming from. “But we were just like you!!!” we cried out. And they responded, “And that is why.”
The story of Megillat Esther is a playing out of this exact phenomenon. We were exiled in Persia and Babylonia, and seventy years removed from living on our homeland. We desperately wanted to be accepted by Persian society, to the point where we attended a party at the palace celebrating the downfall of the Jews, and enjoyed it with gusto. We wanted everyone to know that we more Persians than the Persian, more enthusiastic about our assimilation than anyone could imagine, and when Mordechai, clearly a Jew of the second approach, tried to warn us and deter us from our assimilative practices, we scorned him and his Rabbinical naivete.
But the third turn came, as it always does. Despite the widespread assimilation and intermarriage (indeed a few years later when Ezra lead the Jewish people back up to Israel, one of his first jobs was to stop the assimilation and intermarriage), Haman and Achashverosh came up with a plot to kill us all. As Haman describes it in his pitch to Achashverosh (Esther 3:8), “There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of your realm…” They are deeply assimilated and have planted themselves all over the 127 provinces, yet they are still one nation.
As the Alshich (Rabbi Moshe Alshich, 1508-1593, Turkey-Safed) explains, one of Achashverosh’s concerns was that the Jews were assimilated and had married into families of all the provinces in which they lived and if he put out a decree against the Jews, it would anger the other nations, and they would come to the defense of the Jew. But Haman explained to the king how the Jews work, even when they are fully assimilated, they are still one nation. People see them as separate. No one will stand up for them, no matter how deeply assimilated they are, from Hodu to Cush, from Romania, Hungary, Poland, or Ukraine, when the ax comes for the Jews, everyone around will grab onto it gleefully. They are one nation, isolated and alone, wanting desperately to be accepted, but always rejected.
What is the solution to this terrifying reality? In reversing the decree, Esther says (Ibid. 4:16), Lech Kinoss es Kol Hayehudim, go gather all the Jews, and come to shul to pray and fast. Let’s get the Jews to stop trying to be like them, but rather focus inward on the beauty we have, on our rich spiritual treasures, on the power of our prayer and community. Esther was begging the Jews to recognize the value of the Second Approach Jews.
Yes, we are in exile and we need to have positive and valuable relationships with the nations around us, but let’s not let them be our moral arbiters, let’s not let them decide what is on the “right side of history” for us! When we are proud of who we are, when we understand that our morality stems from a Higher Source and act according to it, we exude confidence and the world respects us, when we cravenly try to assimilate, throwing away all of our heritage to gain a few more tokens of acceptance, it never works out for us.
In Moses’ final blessing of the Jewish people, he concludes with the following (Deut. 33:28), “And Israel dwelled safely and alone…” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 104A) interprets this blessings as telling us that we can be alone and successful when we choose our solitude or alone and impoverished like the opening verse of Lamentations (1:1) “How she sits alone the city that once teemed with people..” when we try to assimilate.
The celebration of Purim is the celebration of a people learning that our greatness comes from within, that our success comes from disengaging from the moral plumbing of the outside world, and using our own moral code, the Torah and its divine precepts. It is only when we gather together in our houses of worship, when we choose our culture over the culture of the nations, when we turn to one another and to Hashem for help, support and guidance, that we have the victorious, (Esther 8:16), “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor.” Sometimes it’s not bad to be alone, we’re glad to be alone.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, Pekudei, we continue reading about the building of the Tabernacle, and finally see it completed. In all, there are four parshiot that deal almost exclusively with the building of the Tabernacle, and the vessels and vestments used inside it. The Torah goes into enormous detail describing every facet of the construction. It even repeats everything twice – once when it was commanded and once when it was built. This is uncharacteristic of the Torah which normally is very brief. Why did the Torah go into such detail specifically here?
The Tabernacle was the place in which G-d dwelled amongst the Jews. It was also a model around which we can learn to build our homes, and through which we can learn to build a temple inside ourselves for G-d. If we want to have a good relationship with our spouses in our homes, and a good relationship with G-d we need to understand that the majority of a relationship is built through the details.
People often wonder why Judaism stresses all sorts of intricate laws. Shabbat, kashrut, Passover, and tefillin are just some examples of mitzvot that are governed by dozens of technical laws. Why can’t we just love G-d? Why isn’t it enough for me to talk to Him a few times a day, give Him thanks, and tell Him that I love him?
Let’s answer that with this question. Would it be enough for you to simply tell your wife you love her? How about if you told her five times a day? Of course not! The way you show her you love her is by doing all the little things she wants you to do for her. By taking out the garbage, by putting down the seat in the washroom, by writing little love note, by doing the dishes, and by packing a lunch for her to take to work. Not only does doing those things show her you love her, but they also build your love for her, because you’re sacrificing for her, you’re putting her needs above your own. Taking care of the little details is what builds the big love.
We find a focus on detail by even the greatest of Sages. The Talmud recounts the chores that various great Rabbis would do to prepare for Shabbos. Rava would salt the fish, Rav Chisda would cut up beets, Rav Yosef would chop wood, and Rav Nachman would shlepp things that were needed for Shabbos on his shoulder. All of these Sages could have easily exempted themselves from these seemingly trivial tasks, claiming that they should save their time and energy for bigger and better tasks. But they loved Shabbos, and they wanted to be involved in every little detail of creating the perfect Shabbos. The love was in the details.
Rav Leib Chassid, one of the close disciples of the Vilna Gaon, settled in Telshe, Lithuania after the passing of his great teacher. He quickly developed a reputation for his great piety and spent his days studying torah, praying with heartfelt emotion, and helping others. Rarely did he leave his holy work.
One time, he told his wife and children that he needed to go on a journey, and after packing properly he was off. He was gone for weeks and people wondered where he was. He came back aglow with joy. He explained to his family that he wasn’t sure where the proper place to say Amen for the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon. So he traveled for weeks to consult with a great sage, and now he knew! When the love is there, even the smallest details are worth going to the ends of the world for.
The Tabernacle was the place G-d would live with His people. The only way it could be built was if we covered all the details, as details are the basis of a real loving relationship. Since this was the foundation of our relationship with G-d, the Torah spent four parshiot on it. Similarly, all the details contained in the mitzvot are the building blocks for the temple we can create within ourselves for G-d. By meticulously following the details He asks of us, we are putting Him above ourselves, and in that way we can build a big temple with little bricks!
Pekudei begins with an enumeration the exact amounts of gold, silver, and copper that were donated. (Quick lesson: no matter how great you are, if you are using public funds there should be a level of accountability. Listen up Department of Defense!!!) It then describes in detail the making of the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol (the priests and the High Priest). They were discussed already in detail in Parshat Tzav, three weeks ago, please feel free to see that email for more details (yes, I’m sure you save my emails, don’t you?).
The Parsha ends with the commandment to actually set up the Mishkan, and describes its being erected. The Parsha, and indeed the Book of Exodus, closes with the climactic moment when G-d’s glory comes down from on High and rests in the Mishkan that was built for him!
This Shabbos, being the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar II, is Shabbos Shekalim. We will take an additional Torah scroll from the ark, and read about the commandment to the Jews to give the Half-shekel. In Temple times, every Jew would give a half-shekel annually to the Temple, and the combined money was used for all the communal sacrificed, which gave everyone the opportunity to be a part supporter of all the communal sacrifices. They would begin collecting the half-shekels in the month of Adar, and that is why we read this special parsha the Shabbos before Adar begins!
Quote of the Week: Writing is one of the easiest things, erasing is one of the hardest. ~ Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
Random Fact of the Week: A lump of pure gold the size of a matchbook can be flattened into a sheet the size of a tennis court.
Funny Line of the Week: A bargain is something you don’t need at a price you can’t resist!
Have a Dandy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham