Stradivarius. The name alone elicits a hushed response in discriminating circles. Antonio Stradivari, born in Cremona, Italy in 1644, is considered by most experts to be the greatest instrument maker of all time. The few remaining “Strads” (the number hovers around 600) fetch audacious prices. There’s the “da Vinci, ex-Seidel,” a violin that sold for $15,340,000 last month at a Tarisio auction in New York. It had been owned by Toscha Seider, one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, and he had used it to play the soundtrack of the original Wizard of Oz movie in 1939. 

The highest price for a violin ever paid was for Vieuxtemps Guarneri, a Stradivarious which had once been owned by the composer Henri Vieuxtemps in the 19th century, it sold for $16 million to an anonymous buyer in 2013, and then donated for the use of the violinist Anne Akiko Meyers to use for the rest of her life. The most expensive violin in the world is the Messiah, a Stradivarius that is labeled “as new” condition, and valued at a cool $20 million. But if you were getting any ideas, unfortunately it is currently not for sale. However, there is the Heller, one of the rare Stradivari to have a beautiful inlay design, and it is up for auction this month. It is expected to sell for around $11 million, so save your shekels!

What was it that makes Antonio’s instruments, particularly his violins, cellos, and violas, so magical? Hundreds of thousands of replicas have been crafted, some by people of dubious character trying to make a quick buck (or million bucks) by passing it off as a real Stradivarius. But many master craftsmen have attempted to replicate the Strads for their rich sound, their clear notes, and the enchanting music they produce. People took CAT scans of Stradivarius violins, put slivers of them under electron microscopes, even took them apart to precisely measure each detail of construction, but to no avail. Stradivarius instruments retain their rarified plateau despite all the attempts, with the most advanced technology, to create even a comparable instrument. 

There have been hundreds of studies attempting to pinpoint what makes Strads so unique, but we will only discuss some of the more accepted theories. We will take each theory and use its message to try to see how we can tune our souls to become living Strads, living embodiments of instruments playing the most beautiful music possible. 

One of the major theories is that it is the varnish that makes Strads unique. On each violin Antonio used at least three varnishes to protect and strengthen the wood, as well as to give the tone definition. We don’t know the exact ingredients in Antonio’s varnish, but we do know that they included widely varying substances such as silica, potash, egg white, honey, gum arabic, and turpentine. 

In Judaism we have a concept called “asu siyog laTorah,” which means that one should put up  fences around the Torah. In order to ensure that we follow the Torah’s precepts to the T, we must put varnishes on the mitzvot to ensure that we don’t, G-d forbid, transgress them. One example of this is the Halacha that one should not begin a big meal just before prayer time, lest he inadvertently forget to pray. Another example would be the Halacha that states that one shouldn’t eat chicken with milk lest he come to eat meat and milk together, which is a Biblical prohibition. These laws are the varnishes that strengthen the Torah, and give perfect tone to our Mitzvah performance.

Another theory behind the uniqueness of Strads is that bacteria and fungus are responsible for their rich sound. In Antonio’s times, logs were cut down and then floated downriver to Venice, where they might soak in a lagoon for two to three years before being sold. While in the lagoon, different fungi and bacteria ate much of the pectin in the sap, as well as the hemicellulose, the organic material that holds moisture in the wood. As a result, the wood became lighter, drier, and fifty times more permeable to varnish than today’s wood. In the 1840’s, Italian authorities dammed up their major rivers, and many experts credit this as the reason why no excellent violins have been produced in Italy in over a hundred years.

In Judaism we believe that Torah is like water, and if flows to the lowest point i.e. people with humility. People who are full of themselves cannot absorb Torah properly. Stradivarius’s wood was light, and not full of sap, thus making it permeable to the varnish that gave it such richness. If we are light and humble, we will be open to the lessons of the Torah and life,  enabling us to absorb and grow with maximum efficiency.

Lastly, since instrument crafting is an art, we will look at the answer given by the art community. They ascribe each original artist with a quality called the X-factor, with X representing the uniqueness every artist has when simply doing their “thing” without trying to copy anyone else. This X-factor can only belong to the original artist, because everyone else is just copying him, and thereby lose the X-factor. In this vein, Picasso could never paint a Matisse like Matisse could, nor could Rembrandt make a copy of the Mona Lisa that  would have the power of Leonardo’s original.

In Judaism we believe that the first step to achieving personal greatness is by experimenting and finding what form best fit your soul. You don’t need to be a clone of your teachers and rabbis; rather you need to find what works best for your soul. For some it might be concentration on prayer, for others Talmud study, and for others volunteering in a soup kitchen. The unique mix of service that fits you best will give you the ability to bring out your spiritual X-factor, and become all that you can be!

So I guess we’ve learned that all of us can become veritable spiritual Stradivarius, if we focus on protecting the Torah’s precepts with diligence, being humble, and finding our spiritual X-factor and maximizing it. Let the music begin!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha we read about Bilaam, the gentile prophet who embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. As his donkey is meandering along the road, it notices an angel blocking the path with a drawn sword. Immediately, the donkey reprograms his GPS and tries to take a detour through the fields. Bilaam, who can’t see the angel, beats his donkey, berating him for leaving the road. After similar events occur two more times, the donkey miraculously talks back to Bilaam and rebukes him sharply. G-d then opens Bilaam’s eyes and lets him see the angel. He then finally understands what has been causing the donkey to deviate from normal traveling procedures.

Let us study the sequence that led up to this whole showdown with the angel. After clearly seeing that G-d did not want him to curse the Jews, Bilaam persisted in asking again, and finally G-d gave him permission. As he set out on his journey, the Torah tells us, “G-d showed anger because he [Bilaam] went, and an angel of G-d placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants.” (Numbers 22:22) Rashi (1040-1105 CE, France), the primary commentator on the Chumash, tells us a bit about this angel. On the words “to thwart him” Rashi comments, “He was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning, so that he would not sin and perish.”

The Oznaim Latorah (written by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, 1881-1966, Lithuania/Israel) points out something interesting. This angel was brandishing a sword and threatening to kill Bilaam. Most people would see him as a frightening, angry, and disciplinarian angel. But Rashi is telling us that he was actually an angel of mercy trying to save Bilaam. Not everything is what it seems to be. Sometimes the person feeding you honey can be poisoning you, while the person forcing vile tasting medicine down your throat can be saving your life. It is a matter of pulling back and looking at the big picture.

This angel of mercy teaches us that sometimes (and only sometimes) the most merciful thing we can do is to be a strict disciplinarian. In dealing with our children it will give them structure, and will help them learn to build stable patterns that will last them their entire lives. In dealing with ourselves it can help us stick to a diet, finish projects we really need to finish, or push ourselves to constantly grow and strive for more. 

Ultimately, we can let the donkey keep plodding down Dangerous Lane, but we would be much better off recognizing the caring of the AWBS (Angel Who Brandishes a Sword), and heeding his kind message before we end up having to take rebuke from a donkey! 

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.

Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people. 

Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake. 

While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth. 

Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!) 

Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.) 

Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin sexually, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.

This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: If you want a place in the sun, you’ve got to put up with a few blisters. –G. Yelnats

Random Fact of the Week: A neutrino is a particle so small it is capable of passing through a light year (about six trillion miles) of lead without hitting a single atom.

Funny Line of the Week: I am a Nobody. Nobody is Perfect. Therefore I am Perfect.

Have a Sublime Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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