I’m pretty confident that you’ve never heard of the 9 Nanas; they worked hard to keep it that way. For thirty years, the 9 Nanas, a group of women near Memphis, TN, would get up at 4AM, and sneak out of their houses to do what the 9 Nanas do. No one knew about them; not their friends, not their husbands, not even their children. Their secret work involved a mysterious white powder that can bring people joy and euphoria for short bursts of time, but it’s not what you’re thinking, the white powder was simply baking flour.
The 9 Nanas are a group of women who secretly bake cakes. They gather each morning way before dawn, and divvy up the tasks. One sifts the flour, while another washes the eggs, while another begins setting up the pans (they primarily make loaves of pound cake and Bundt pan cakes). They whip us hundreds of cakes, using only use fresh ingredients and no preservatives. What’s their recipe you ask? For that, we have to go a bit further back, to a person they call MaMaw, the woman who inspired the whole 9 Nanas project.
While the 9 Nanas, aren’t all related, they consider themselves soul sisters. But four of them were actually raised by the same couple, MaMaw and PaPaw (yes, this is the South). M&P were not any of their parents, they were the grandparents of three of the 9 Nanas, and they took in Nana Pearl to live with them when she was just a wee’ lil’ one, because her parents fell on hard times, and couldn’t raise Pearl themselves. MaMaw Ruth was a bit of angel. She would go through the obituaries in the newspaper, and then bake cakes and send them to complete strangers. Southerners have a meal right after the funeral known as the repast (similar to the Jewish Halacha of having a Seudas Havra’a, a consolation meal, right after the funeral), and MaMaw Ruth would send them cakes for their repast meal. She wanted these random strangers to know that people in the community cared about them in their time of pain.
Years after MaMaw Ruth’s passing, the women who would eventually become the 9 Nanas were sitting at a game of bridge, when they began discussing MaMaw and all the nice things she did for others. “What kind of good would we do if we had a million dollars?” they asked themselves, and thus the 9 Nanas were born.
They started by discussing how they could raise funds. They knew it would be unfair to ask their families to sacrifice anything, but they figured that any money they could save their families by changing their habits would be fair game to donate to the cause. The first thing they decided to do was to launder all of their clothing instead of sending it out. Although many of them had no particular desire to launder and iron clothing, they knew it would save them $400 a month, so they voted it in. Then they began to clip coupons, shop at discount stores, and use Green Stamps (the precursor to credit card points), so that they could save even more.
At first they used the money simply to buy ingredients. They would meet secretly each morning to bake, and then would distribute the cakes at various doorsteps on the way home. They didn’t only distribute to mourning families; they gave cakes to homes with a family member who was ill, they would drop off cakes on doorsteps in the lower income sections of town. The packages sometimes included extra food staples, and sometimes just a pound cake made with MaMaw’s secret recipe, but they always included a little note that said simply, “Someone loves you!”
The 9 Nanas soon found out that giving is about as addictive as a good MaMaw Ruth Vanilla Bean cake, and they wanted to expand their operations. Soon they starting cruising lower income neighborhoods looking for signs of a home where the utilities had been shut off, such as a garden hose coming in the window from a neighbor, or no lights on after dark. They would pay off the utility bills for that person, and then follow it up with a nice 9 Nanas care packages. They would also drop off shopping bags full of fresh food as often as they could.
Then they took it to a new level. Wherever they went, to the grocery star, the nail salon, the hairdresser, they would practice soft eavesdropping, where they would listen to people’s conversation when the tone sounded like they were talking about something troubling. They would collect as much data as they could on families in need, and then while baking in the morning, they would decide how they could best help them.
After 30 years of operating in secret, they were discovered. One day, Nana Mary Ellen’s husband sat her down, with bank statements highlighted wherever there were unexplained withdrawals, and there were lots of them. He also pointed out that he noticed she was often gone from the house when he woke up. He was suspicious. She tried to explain to him about the things she did, but he wasn’t buying it. Finally, she called up all the Nanas, and they all came over and verified everything. Mary Ellen’s husband could not believe all the good his wife had been doing secretly for years, and the only thing he could say, was “I want in!”
Soon the other husbands found out, and they joined in. Now the Nana Force was getting larger. It wasn’t long before their children found out, and they got involved too! One of them had a restaurant and he offered his commercial kitchen for the Nana-baking activities. Another child suggested that they begin selling their delicious cakes online, and helped them set up their website. In 2012, they were featured in the Huffington Post and on the AOL homepage, and millions read about them. Now they get orders for hundreds of cakes a day (and they are not cheap!). As of today, their dream has come true, they’ve given out well over a million dollars, and they’re just getting started!
This story needs no lesson at the end. The story tells it all. But I do want to point out a few things. The Gemara says, “Hillel obligates the poor, Rabbi Eliezer Ben Charsom obligates the rich, Yosef obligates the wicked.” Those three giants were tested in unimaginable ways. Hillel was tested with extreme poverty, yet he still managed to make learning Torah the priority in his life. Rabbi Eliezer was tested with extraordinary wealth, (his father left him the landowner of 1,000 cities, as well as the owner of a fleet of 1,000 commercial ships), yet he too made Torah learning and Torah living his priority. Yosef, the son of Jacob, was tested in the area moral purity with an almost unbeatable test, but he did not succumb to his evil inclination. Whenever we try to make excuses for our lacking, either in the area of not making time for Torah study or Torah living, or in the area of moral purity, these greats show us that it is possible.
The 9 Nanas obligate all of us. The rich, the poor, the righteous, and the wicked. Seeing a group of regular people who accomplished so much, without any desire for recognition, obligates us to act in a similar fashion. These extraordinary women sacrificed their free time, their energy (waking up at 4am!!) and their money (even to the point where they had to change their own lifestyles). They started when their ages ranged from 19-35 and continued on to this day when they are 57-75, which means they did this act during all the normal stages of adult life. If they could do that much, we can do something great too!
Whether we decide to bake cakes, hand out cups of cool water at the park when people are hot and sweaty, or raise money for people facing difficulties having children, we cannot sit idly by.
We are now in the beginning of the Nine Days, a period of intense mourning for the Beis Hamikdash, our Holy Temple which was destroyed almost 2,000 years ago due to our people being filled with baseless hatred and pettiness. We want our Temple back, we want our people lifted out of this long and brutal exile, and we want the world to be filled again with divine light, peace, and joy. This will all happen when we overcome the illness that got us here, baseless hatred. This year, during the Nine Days, let’s learn from the Nine Nanas, and figure out how we can spread baseless love, to our family, to our community, to random strangers. And instead of pound cakes, our products will be bricks in the future Beis Hamikdash, which we can bring with our baseless love. Let’s get baking!
Parsha Dvar Torah
Toward the end of Parshat Mattos, two tribes, Gad and Reuven, approached Moshe with a very unusual request. The Torah relates: “The children of Gad and the children of Reuben came and spoke unto Moses, and to Eleazar the priest, and unto the princes of the congregation, saying: Ataroth, and Dibon, and Jazer,… and Nebo, and Beon, the land which the Lord smote before the congregation of Israel, is a land for cattle, and thy servants have cattle.’ And they said: ‘If we have found favor in thy sight, let this land be given unto thy servants for a possession; bring us not over the Jordan.’” (Numbers 32:2-5)
If I didn’t read this directly from the Torah I wouldn’t believe it! Two tribes are asking to be left outside of the Holy Land, on the eastern side of the Jordan, just to have better grazing grounds for their cattle? But, that is exactly what happens. Moshe at first objects, thinking that these tribes weren’t going join in the conquest of Israel, which would be unfair to all the other tribes who would have to battle 31 nations to get their homeland. After the tribes of Reuven and Gad guarantee that they would not only join the conquest, but even position their troops at the front lines, Moshe acquiesces to their request.
Now we fast forward to verse 32: “And Moses gave unto them, to the children of Gad, and to the children of Reuben, and unto the half-tribe of Manasseh the son of Joseph, the kingdom of Sichon king of the Amorites, and the kingdom of Og king of Bashan, the land according to the cities thereof with their borders, even the cities of the land round about.” Right about now, you should have a question of the type that drives you crazy. O.K. you don’t have any questions? Read over carefully everything said above and see if you can recognize the blistering question, because when I say it below, you will definitely be kicking yourself for not seeing the obvious problem.
The question is how did the tribe of Menasseh get stuck in here? If we look back to the original verses, it was only Gan and Reuven that came to Moshe with the request. But when Moshe gives them the land they requested, we see that he also gave it to half of the tribe of Menasseh? Furthermore, if Menasseh was among the tribes that asked to be left to the east of the Holy Land, why did only half stay there, while the other half got portions in Israel?
The answer that I heard from my Rebbi, R’ Yisroel Steinwurtzel, is as follows. Moshe was clearly unhappy with the request of the two tribes. How could they ask to give up on living in the Holy Land with all its spiritual power, in order to live a more materially comfortable life? (This is a question that still reverberates loudly today within many people, including myself.) However, as the consummate leader, Moshe understood that you can’t force changes on someone. They have to want to change themselves. In order to help Gad and Reuben, the most that Moshe could do was to leave a group of people with them which would be a good influence upon them.
What aspect of Menasseh’s personality made Moshe pick him to be the neighbor to Gad and Reuven in the hope that he would influence them to see things for their real values? The first big event that we have recorded in the Torah regarding Menasseh, takes place when his grandfather, Jacob, blesses him and his younger brother Ephraim before he dies. If you recall, Jacob put his right hand (the more important one) on the head of Ephraim, the younger brother, while Menasseh had the left had placed upon him. (P.S. Even if you don’t recall, it still happened, see Genesis 48:14).
Yosef, Jacob’s son and Ephraim and Menasseh’s father, tried to reverse Jacob’s hands, but Jacob told him that he knew what he was doing, and he chose to give Ephraim the more important hand because of the great descendants he would have. Take note: Yosef tried to change the order of the hands, but Menasseh, the one who was seemingly being slighted, said nothing, nada, not a word. This was because Menasseh had the positive trait of recognizing that G-d would give him exactly what was best for him, nothing less or more. For this reason he said nothing even though it may have appeared that he was losing a great honor..
Moshe, father to all of the Jewish people, wanted this exact trait to become embedded in Gad and Reuven, who seemed to be concerned that G-d wouldn’t be able to take care of their cattle’s need in the Holy Land. He therefore left half of the tribe of Menasseh together with them on the eastern side of the Jordan. The trait of Menasseh, the emuna (faith) that G-d knows what is best for us, and will give us exactly that, was what the Tribes of Gad and Reuven needed to learn. It was for this reason that Moshe left part of Menasseh with them to exert positive peer pressure, and bring out the best of them.
This week we read two Parshios, Mattos and Masei. Mattos starts off with the laws of nedarim, strong spiritual vows. While many people may feel that vows are simply words, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in Judaism we believe the opposite to be true. We see the human being’s greatest asset to be that which is shared with no other species, his faculty of speech. The verse in Genesis describing Adam’s creation says “and He blew into his nostrils a soul of life” (Genesis 2:7) Onkelos translates it as “and He blew into his nostrils a talking spirit,” thus indicating that speech is the very essence of the human.
Everything a person utters with this gift of speech should be taken seriously, especially when it is said as a vow. However, there are situation in which one can nullify a vow. These include a person who goes to one expert or a court of 3 people, who can nullify the vow under certain circumstances, a wife who makes a vow which will affect her husband in which case he can waive it, or a young girl who makes a vow and her father annuls it.
The parsha continues with the Jews going to war with Midian to avenge the people who died as a result of the abhorrent trap the Midianites had set for them involving base immorality and idol worship. G-d tells Moshe that after this war he will die, yet Moshe immediately works on gathering the troops. The Jews on the other hand, have to be coerced to raise the troops, as they don’t want to see Moshe depart from the living. The Jews are victorious in battle and the Torah goes into detail on the splitting of the spoils. In summary, of the living spoils (sheep, donkeys etc.) half went to the soldiers with1/500 being given to the Kohanim.
The other half went to the whole nation, and 1/50 was given to the Levites. You might be wondering, why did the rest of the nation got spoils if they hadn’t gone to war? Well, it is important to note that in Judaism we view ourselves as one unified nation. Not only are the people in the front lines fighting, but those back at home praying and learning in their merit are also considered to be fighting the battle. Therefore, it was only fair that they should get a share of the spoils. This is an extremely important lesson right now, as our soldiers in Israel are fighting bravely on two fronts. We don’t need to feel helpless as we watch the news; we can also pitch in and fight from our homes here in the USA! If we take an additional ten minutes a day to say psalms for our soldiers or learn in their merit, we are taking an active and crucial role in the war and in saving our brethren.
The last part of the parsha is the story of Reuven and Gad’s request to remain east of the Holy Land where the land was good for grazing. See the above Dvar Torah for the details.
Parshat Massei, being the last parsha in Numbers, is the wrap up of the Jews’ time in the desert, as the story part of Deuteronomy focuses almost exclusively on the last day of Moshe’s life. Therefore, Massei starts with recounting every station the Jews camped at throughout their 40 years in the desert, and some of the events that happened at these spots. Then, the Parsha focuses on the future – on the conquest of Israel. G-d commands the Jews to destroy all forms of idols when they conquer the land, and to distance themselves from the inhabitants them so they don’t get enticed to sin (as we saw in the Dvar Torah, the three most important things about where we live are neighbors, neighbors, and neighbors!)
The Torah then delineates the borders of Israel, and names the leaders who would lead each tribe when they entered the land. After that, the Torah commands the people to set aside cities in which the Levites would dwell. The Levites weren’t given any specific portion of Israel because their job was to spiritually motivate and to teach the people. Therefore, they were scattered amongst the people so that everyone could have some good neighbors. The Torah also commands the people to set aside cities of refuge to which people can flee if they commit unintentional murder. Although they can’t be held fully responsible, they are somewhat at fault because they could’ve avoided it by being more careful (in American law this is called negligent homicide). Therefore, they must run to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol.
This is clearly not a good thing for the Kohen Gadol, as it meant that many people were eagerly anticipating his death so that they could return to their families. The Talmud teaches us that the Kohen Gadol is given this weighty burden because he should have prayed harder that there be no accidental killers on “his watch,” and he didn’t. This shows us how much the Torah expects Jews to feel responsibility for one another.
The Parsha (and the book of Numbers) concludes with the people of the tribe of Tzelophchad coming to Moshe with a concern. In last week’s parsha, Tzelophchad’s daughters came to Moshe to ask for a portion of the land, since their father had died and left no sons to inherit him, and Moshe agreed that they would get it. Now, the people of that tribe were concerned that if the daughters would marry men of a different tribe, the land would end up being lost from their tribe, since it would go to the husband’s tribe. Moshe then told the women that they should choose mates from their own tribe to alleviate this problem. This law only affected women receiving inheritances who were among the first generation which was apportioned the land of Israel, so that there should at least be one moment where each tribe had exactly the portion they received. Later, people could choose a spouse from any tribe, as long as they loved each other and cared about one another through sickness and health, poverty and wealth etc. etc. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Learn as if you were going to live forever. Live as if you were going to die tomorrow. ~ Gabbai Yelnats
Random Fact of the Week: Maricopa County, Arizona is the golfing capital of America, with 168 golf courses.
Funny Line of the Week: I totally take back all those times I didn’t want to nap when I was younger.
Have a Remarkable Shabbos,
R” Leiby Burnham