I was standing in my house a few days ago, reading something on my phone, when suddenly I noticed some motion to my right. In a graceful fluid motion, a spider was climbing down from my ceiling to the floor. We’ll call him Ubi. Ubi is a very polite guest, he was absolutely silent, not like one of those houseflies that gets into your house in the summer and then buzzes around you for hours, following you from room to room, like someone is paying him annoy you.

I decided to engage with Ubi, so I grabbed his silk thread about a foot over him, and brought him closer to me to inspect him a bit more closely. Ubi didn’t want to engage, so he just dropped himself rapidly 5 feet onto the ground and scampered away. He probably dropped about 70 times his height, which would be the equivalent of me dropping from the top of a forty-story building. If I did that, I doubt I could just scamper away after that.

But then again, Ubi can do a lot of things I can’t do. I can’t produce silk from a liquid that hardens when it meets the air, and is five times stronger than steel while still flexible enough to wave in the wind. My feet aren’t covered in fine hairs that grip any surface and allow me to crawl up walls. I don’t produce venom that can liquefy other creatures. However, I do have the ability to produce verbal venom, and if artfully deployed, it might make someone want to liquefy themselves out of embarrassment. This is why the Sages tell us that if you embarrass someone publicly, it’s sort of like you killed him.

Speaking of liquefying people, I do have some things Ubi doesn’t have, teeth for example. Spiders don’t have teeth, they can only suck up their prey after they liquefy it. They also don’t have muscles that can move in both directions, their muscles can only bring their feet inward, and to stretch them out, they need to fill them with a liquid from their body. That’s why dead spiders always have their legs pulled in tight, once they die, they stop pumping the leg-extender liquid and their feet all curl in.

Ubi and his wife, have a different kind of relationship than me and the missus. Not because his wife eats him, stop it silly, that’s only the Black Widow, the Red Widow and a few other Widow spiders that do that, most spiders would never dream of eating their spouse! And BTW, don’t blame it all on the women. The male mate of the red widow keeps coming back and planting himself in the female’s mandibles, she’ll usually spit him out a few times, but he come back until she finally eats him! She’s probably thinking, “I don’t want to do this to you honey, but you’re just not letting me eat my dinner of liquefied caterpillar, and if you stand between me and my LQC, I’m gonna have to eat you. It’s not me honey, it’s you!

No, the reason me and Ubi and I have such different relationships with our missus, is that Ubi’s wife will give birth to about 3,000 kids at a time, or at least lay 3,000 eggs in one or more silk sacs. If my wife gave birth to 3,000 kids at a time, we’d be having a conversation. But from what I understand Ubi and his wife don’t talk about these things, they don’t plan for school tuition or summer camp, or talk about who will put the first 1500 to bed, while the other bathes the other 1,500.

Some spiders don’t take care of their kids at all, they just lay the eggs, and go on with their merry lives. That would explain the incredible amounts of cannibalism in the spider community when food gets scarce. You simply can’t underestimate the value of hands on parenting for the healthy development of the children. Speaking of hands on parenting, this may not be super helpful when you have 3,000 kids, but at least all spiders have eight hands or legs or appendages, whatever you want to call them. You know what they say, “you can’t hold them all, but at least you can hold eight of them!”

It’s not fair to brush all spiders with one stroke, there are over 45,000 species and they all do their own thing! Some carry their young on their back and share prey with them, we call those the eat-prey-love spiders. Others kill their husbands and lay their eggs in the dead body, so that the kids will have plenty to feast on as soon as they are born. They might not be the best wives, but they certainly are doting mothers!

But it’s not just the child rearing habits of spiders that differ, their methods of procuring food are also quite different. Most spiders work by themselves, weaving beautiful orbs, and when insects get trapped in the orbs, they wrap up the insects in a ball of silk, liquefy them with venom, and the drink them through a straw. But some of them work in groups, at times tens of thousands can work together to create a blanket web over an orchard or field trapping every insect inside.

There are also creative hunting spiders; one specie will shoot out a silk line with a sticky glue spot at the end and catch passing moths, another will make a “net” out of it’s silk and throw it at insects, or dangle it over places that insects commonly travel through.

The most feared of spiders is probably the tarantula, and you really don’t need to worry, tarantulas are as Anti-American as the commie-Antifa-Hamas protestors on campuses these days. But unlike those blood suckers, tarantulas actually stay away from America instead of hating on it while taking advantage of all its largesse. That’s the short way of saying that tarantulas have no natural habitat in these US of A states. But indeed they are some pretty nasty spiders. When attacking other creatures or defending themselves, tarantulas can actually shoot out the hair on their body as venom tipped spears. When aimed at the eye as they usually are, they can be pretty deadly.

Spiders come in all shapes and sizes. The smallest of them, Patu merplesi, is so small that ten of them can fit on the top of a pencil. The largest spider species, the Goliath Birdeater, can be up to 11 inches wide, and guess what they eat? Yup, they eat birds.

In truth, I owe a lot to Ubi and his thousands of cousins. Spiders eat more insects and pests than bats and birds combined. Without them, our food supply would be under much greater attack, and we would be hungrier. And they do it so quietly, you almost never know they’re there. Of the ten most common phobias, the absolute greatest is arachnophobia, and if you are arachnophobic please skip the next sentence. There are so many spiders, that it is estimated that you are never more than 10 feet away from a spider. And thank G-d for that. You’d have a lot more insects crawling all over your home if not for them!

I was committed to writing about spiders from the moment I saw Ubi sliding down his silk thread right next to me. I knew I could find lots of interesting factoids about this most hated of creatures. But could I find some lessons as well? Lucky for me, Rabbi Perl of the Chabad of Mineola, had a similar experience to mine, and he collected a bunch of sources, so the messages coming up are thanks to him!

Unsurprisingly, there is a lot of Jewish literature on the spider. Not only do modern studies show that arachnophobia is the worst of human phobias, but already close to a thousand years ago, a collection of midrashim and Talmudic statements known as the Yalkut Shimoni, (Proverbs, 30:964) states that the spider is the most hated creeping creature. Hundreds of years ago, the commentaries on the Jewish Code of Law (O.C. 259:1 wrote that one should clean out the cobwebs from their house every Friday in honor of the coming Shabbos!

More recently, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ZT”L, arguably the greatest American Halachist, ruled that if a spider appears during a meal, discomfiting some of the diners, it is permitted to kill it, but only in a manner that is not cruel and brings “Honor to the Torah.”  (Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat, volume 2, simon 47, #1).

There is also a famous Midrash that King David couldn’t understand why G-d created the spider, and questioned G-d about this. Later in David’s life, when he was running from King Saul who wanted to kill him, he hid in a cave and G-d sent a spider to quickly spin a thick web so that when King Saul’s soldiers came by, they assumed no one had entered that cobwebbed cave in years. The creature that David couldn’t understand its rationale ended up saving his life!

But the most fascinating lesson we can learn from the spider might be one that was referenced over 2,500 years ago by King Solomon, (son of the man saved by the spider), in his masterpiece of wisdom, Proverbs. In Chapter 30, King Solomon tells us that there are four creatures that despite being very small are exceedingly wise. Of the spider it states, (30:28) “The spider with her hands grasps and she is in the king’s palace.”

This seems quite cryptic, and fortunately the commentator Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769, Prague) in his masterpiece Metzudas David (18th Century) breaks it down for us. He explains that despite being in the king’s palace where there are many delicacies available for any creepy crawly, the spider still spins its webs, and with its own hands grasps its food. This is the wisdom of the spider, it knows that the best way to eat is through your own hard work.

We are living in a world where tens of millions of Americans of working age have disengaged from the work force. They would prefer to eat the “delicacies of the palace,” the large and generous handouts being provided by our government’s dollar printing machine that is saddling our future generations with unmanageable debt. There is even more and more talk of instituting UBI, universal basic income, where the government just gives everyone money. But the wise spider is silently spinning his orbs in the corner, quietly telling us that the wisest thing is to work for your sustenance, even when you could otherwise eat from the palace foods.

G-d gave us hands to grasp, and even though He saw fit to give us six less hands than the spider, we should still use those amazing hands to grasp and build. All we have to do is look at them and we can see that the hands G-d gave us were made for crafting and building, creating and healing. They have opposable thumbs and four separate digits in a row of different sizes, with tough nails at the end of each one for prying and scraping, amazing tools that together can build houses and seven layer cakes, polish silver, and change a tire. If we were supposed to just take, G-d could have given us arms with big cups at the end. But no, He wanted us to grasp and build with our hands. So let’s go out there, take whatever silk Hashem gave us, and build beautiful orbs!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah details the laws of the festivals and the special mitzvos attached to each one of them. However, right in the middle of the festivals, immediately after the laws of Shavuos, the Torah inserts a few laws pertaining to agriculture. The laws, known as “leket” and “peah,” tell us to leave over different parts of our harvest for the poor. How do these laws fit into this particular Torah portion?

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926, Lithuania), author of the Meshech Chochma, explains that we are being taught an important fundament of the Torah that was given on Shavuos. The Torah is not just a set of laws instructing mankind how to interact with G-d, a set of strictures and rules for human communication with the Divine. The Torah is an entire system of moral living, and as such contains the formula that synergizes optimal relationships with our fellow humans and with G-d.

To emphasize this idea, the Torah places moral precepts dealing with kindness and charity right next to the laws discussing Shavuos, when we received the Torah. Today, charity is such an ingrained value that people have a hard time linking it to the Torah, but indeed most of the primitive societies in the pre-Torah world were not charitable ones, and the idea of people tithing their crops or leaving over an entire corner of their fields to a poor person was as foreign to them as the idea of not eating milk and meat together or keeping Shabbat.

In a class on the history of social policy I once took, the professor explained to the class that the first record of a social policy in which people took responsibility for the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. I didn’t want to argue with my professor on the first day in class, but I remember scrolling mentally through the dozens of laws in the Torah (circa. 1312 BCE) that put responsibility for the poor, the widow, and the orphan onto the rest of society.

The message of our parsha is the all encompassing nature of the Torah. It was the same Torah we received on Shavuos that set the foundation for a social welfare, put forth the laws of Kosher, taught us to respect the wise man over the strong man, required us to eat matzah, and taught us to leave the last of our harvest for the widow and orphan. Indeed the marker of the greatest Torah scholars has not only been their brilliant minds, but their great sensitivity to the needs of all people.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892, Belarus) exemplified this. While known for his magnum opus, the Beis Halevi, a work still studied widely today, the stories of his kindness are even more legendary. During the busy pre-Passover season, as dozens of people streamed through his house asking him questions, a local widow came to him with a strange question. She wanted to know if she could use milk (instead of wine) for her Four Cups at the Seder. Although the question had a very clear and simple answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared to give it some serious thought, so as not to embarrass the woman for asking such a simple question, and then answered her that one could not use milk to fulfill the mitzvah of the Four Cups.

After the woman left, Rabbi Soloveitchik immediately called over one of the members of the household, gave him a large sum of money, and instructed him to go to the market and buy all the Passover necessities for the woman. Without further ado, the man bought wine, meat, matzah, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and discreetly placed it outside the woman’s door. When he returned, he asked Rabbi Soloveitchik his reason for this unusual errand. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, “If she is coming to ask me whether she can use milk for the Seder, it is clear that she can’t even afford four cups of wine, let alone all the other needs for Passover!”

This exemplifies the Torah’s perfect blend of spirituality and humanity.

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!)

Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement.  

The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up. 

Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!).

The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings).  We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us. 

The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavout (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!). 

The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would remain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!).

The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, Who gave you everything you have! So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d Who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!

Quote of the Week: He that is not in the war is not out of danger. ~ A. Sulwaki

Random Fact of the Week: During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.

Funny Line of the Week: The scientific theory I like best is that the rings of Saturn are entirely made of lost airline baggage.

Have a Satisfying Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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