Real Men Wear Aprons. That’s right, real men wear aprons because real men grill lots of meat, and no one want to get grease stains all over their clean shirt, which is what real men wear! This explains why for two days of Chol Hamoed Pesach, I put on an apron and got to work preparing loadsof meat for some serious grilling.
This year, my family spent Pesach with the greater Skolnick clan. Every other year, my in-laws sponsor a massive family Pesach at the home of my brother and sister in law in Chesterfield, MO, a charming Jewish community in the St Louis suburbs.. It’s a pretty big undertaking, as my wife is one of seven, and thank G-d, all of them are married with children. But my in-laws do it happily, and a good time is had by all.
Feeding the entire clan, which numbers close to forty souls of all ages, is not easy. Cartons of meat are shipped frozen from NYC, as are boxes and boxes of other staples. Produce is bought directly from the farmers market by the case, and we probably had the milk production of a small herd of cows in the many refrigerators and freezers spread throughout the house and garage. My sister in law started cooking well in advance of our arrival, and by the time we arrived, the freezers were filled with pans of delicious food!
Everyone in the family helps out at these family gatherings, from cooking to cleaning, setting the tables, clearing them, doing the dishes, and entertaining the children. While I’m happy to do whatever needs to be done, my specialty is grilling Chol Hamoed dinner for the whole family. At home, I don’t cook often. I happen to enjoy cooking, but I simply don’t have the time for it, especially because I’m the slow and methodical kind of cook. In the time it takes me to prepare a roast, my wonderful wife can prepare a whole Shabbos meal! So on Chol Hamoed, when I’m not working and have plenty of time, I love to cook dinner for the whole clan.
Each day I prepared a small mountain of meat and chicken, consisting of London Broil, steak, chicken cutlet, and the chicken steaks made of deboned dark meat. With music playing in the background, I methodically trimmed all the excess fat from every piece of meat, prepared marinades and dry rubs, massaged the dry rub into the meats, and put everything in pans in the refrigerator to soak up flavors while waiting for everyone to come home. It probably took me three to four hours of prep time and an hour of grilling time each day, but the meat and chicken did come out exceptionally well if I may say so myself. I might also be backed up by the fact that on the first night that I grilled, twenty nine pounds of meat and chicken disappeared from the serving dish in about an hour! For the next night we prepared more…
So what did I want out of all this work? What were my hopes and aspirations, while I was sitting there for hours on end, cutting little slippery strips of fat off of meat that did not want to let go? What was the return on investment that I was looking for while standing over a grill heated to 450 degrees for an hour straight and placing the meat on the grill, flipping it over, then taking it off and putting it into pans and bringing it inside to deliver it to the table?
All I wanted is that everyone should really enjoy the food I prepared for them! That’s it! Oh, and one more thing, I also hoped that people would come over and say thanks. Nothing too elaborate, no 2-4-6-8 needed, just a simple, “Thanks Leiby, I know you worked really hard on dinner, and I totally enjoyed it!”
Which of course brings me to a revelation I had during the whole process. I thought to myself that in some tiny minute way, this is what G-d feels like. He creates an entire world, with myriad complex details, and all He really wants is that a) we should enjoy it thoroughly, and b) that we should recognize that He did it for us, and be thankful to Him for it! In reality b) is a corollary of a) because when we recognize that someone (or Something) went out of their way to create something just for us, we actually enjoy it more!
In the classical eighteenth century masterpiece of Jewish thought, Derech Ha-shem, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato tells us that the reason that G-d created the world is that “it is of the nature of the good to do good.” G-d is good, and He wanted to do good, so he created a world in which He could bestow goodness on his creation.As Rabbi Luzzato says in Chapter 8, “And behold we know that in truth, the desire of G-d is only to do good…”
What does G-d want to get out of this world, what is the return on investment that He wants? For us to really bask in His goodness in the worlds that He created for us, this world and the world to come. (Of course, it’s wasn’t physically difficult for G-d to create this infinitely complex and wondrous world, but on a spiritual level it required of Him to perform tzimtzum, a pulling back of self, but that is not in our scope today!) And of course, He wants us to properly appreciate His beneficence and be filled with gratitude for every little bit of amazingness that He sends our way every day!
But it didn’t end there. I have to be honest with you, Grilling Day 1, did not fully work out the way I hoped it would. Being that we are a large family, when we go on trips, it is in a phalanx of minivans and cars. Some families get organized and depart sooner, some later, which means that the return home on Grilling Day 1 was staggered. One family arrived, ten minutes later another family arrived, and fifteen minutes later yet another one, you get the picture. Everyone who came home was pretty hungry, as were their children, so when each family came home, they immediately began to tuck into the food, feeding their children and eating at the same time.
The problem was that I felt people weren’t enjoying the food I worked so hard to prepare to its maximum. Sure, the food tasted good in their mouths, but while people are busy cutting up pieces of chicken for one child, trying to stop another one from putting mayonnaise in their hair, while calling for their third child to stop playing in the basement and come upstairs for dinner, it’s hard to fully enjoy the intricacies of the sweet and savory dry rubbed steak. Additionally, if everyone eats as soon as they get home, we end up missing out on all the adults sitting together and eating as a family. So on the first night, I made an impassioned plea to the family, and it went something like this, “I really want to cook for you, and serve you an amazing dinner, but if I’m going to put in five hours, I want it to be enjoyed to the max. So tomorrow, can we please feed all the kids from five to six. And at six, we’ll send the little ones out to play in the backyard or basement, and we’ll all sit down around the table, break out some matzah and a few bottles of good wine, and I will try to serve you guys an amazing meal!”
Sure they enjoyed the meal the first night, but I wanted them to enjoy it at the greatest level possible, and therefore I practically begged them to set it up for an even better experience the next night. It would take some restraint on the part of the hungry adults holding off for an hour after getting home, but I thought it would bring about a greater overall experience. Thank G-d, Grilling Day 2 worked out even better. We followed the plan, fed the children, dispatched them, and sat down as one big happy family and really enjoyed the next thirty pounds of grilled deliciousness!
Which of course brings me back to G-d. Sure G-d created the world for us to enjoy, sure all G-d wants is to do good for his creations, but He also wants to make sure we maximize our pleasure in this world! For that he gives us a book, the Torah, that basically lays out how to best enjoy His world. G-d asks us to put away all distractions each Shabbos so that we can fully enjoy our families, community, and blessing of the amazing creation that He made for us. He asks us to give of our hard earned funds to charity, he asks us to eat certain things, and not to eat certain things. It definitely requires restraint and sacrifice, but the Creator of this world certainly knows His world, and He tells us that this is the best way to enjoy it.
In fact, G-d practically begs us to enjoy His world to the greatest degree! In Deuteronomy (30:15-19), G-d tells us that He is placing life and good and death and evil in front of us, and commands us, “Choose life!” Choose please, to live the good life! Choose to follow the words in this great book, and you will have the best good! Yes it will require you to challenge yourself, to make choices that are difficult or seem counterintuitive, but I promise you that if you do, you, your children and grandchildren will live amazing lives, lives filled with deep satisfaction and meaning, serenity and contentment. I want to give to you, and give more, but please work with Me so that I can give you the greatest good!
All in, it was an amazing Pesach, but the revelation that I had while spending 10+ hours working on those proteins, telling me what G-d wants, and why He gave us the Torah, might have been the deepest insight I walked away with. Real Men don’t just wear aprons, they also ponder the mundane to find the G-dliness in it. I’ve got the apron part down, I’m working on the next part, but when a little ray of inspiration comes through, it beats even a 36-hour marinated London Broil grilled to perfection and served in thin medium rare slices. Bon Apetit to the meal of life!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, we find a mitzvah that seems very difficult to understand.
“When you will enter the land and you will plant any food-bearing tree, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. For three years they shall be forbidden to you, they shall not be eaten.” (Leviticus 19:23)
With this mitzvah known as orlah, G-d commands us to desist from using the fruit of any tree for the first three years after its planting. This mitzvah, which is not limited to a geographic location such as Israel or to a particular time period such as the Temple era, is still in force today, and is meticulously observed by religiously observant farmers worldwide.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986), of blessed memory, notes that this mitzvah seems inconsistent with the Torah’s prohibition of wastefulness. That principle, derived from two verses in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) that warn against wantonly cutting down fruit trees in time of war, is expanded to include a host of laws aimed at preventing wastefulness. It is surprising therefore that the Torah tells us to dispose of all fruit of the tree’s first three years!
Rabbi Feinstein explains this curiosity with the well-established principle that we will not incur a loss by following the mitzvot. He says that this is especially true with the mitzvah of orlah and with the additional mitzvah of netah revai (the law that fruit of the fourth year, from trees grown in Israel, be brought to and eaten in Jerusalem). With regard to these two mitzvot, the Torah assures us that, “On the fifth year, you may eat its fruit, so that it will increase its produce for you, I am Hashem, your G-d” (Leviticus 19:25).
Rashi quotes the famed Rabbi Akiva who says that this verse addresses any reservations a farmer might have about keeping this mitzvah due to financial considerations. Not only will he not incur a loss, but also he will in fact gain from keeping these mitzvot. G-d will actually cause his trees to become even more bountiful, to the benefit of all mankind! What initially appears to be wasteful is actually the source of tremendous blessing!
This conflict between a mitzvah and conventional wisdom can be seen with other agricultural mitzvot as well. Shmittah, for example, demands that we put down our tools and let our land lie fallow every seventh year with no agricultural input or personal investment. Once again, G-d guarantees that this display of self-discipline will result in an exceptionally bountiful harvest, proving that neither toil nor improved seeds nor enhanced fertilizer are responsible for man’s financial success.
Rabbi Shmuel Bloom was once in the office of an organization that helps farmers observe shmittah when a phone call came in from a farmer shouting about a miracle that had occurred with his crop. Rabbi Bloom decided to take a trip to northern Israel to get a first-hand glimpse.
When he arrived, the farmer, a secular Jew who first committed to observing the shmittah laws that year, explained that a devastating frost had lingered in the area for a number of weeks, totally destroying the many local banana plantations that cannot withstand temperatures below the freezing point. When he came to inspect his fields, he found that his was the only plantation in the region unscathed by the frost! Rabbi Bloom personally inspected the neighboring plantations and was overwhelmed by the stark contrast. (See story and pictures here: http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Blogs/Message.aspx/2545.)
Like shmittah, the laws of orlah reinforce the message that G-d is the source of all success. Forgoing three years worth of produce may not seem logical, but it’s an investment in the tree’s future bounty and productivity.
While the Torah demands that we put in a good day’s work, there are times when we are told to put down our work tools (or shut down the computer) and take the time to reflect on the idea that there’s much more to the end-product than our inadequate efforts. This message is vital, even for those who don’t have plans to plant a fruit tree in the near future. Mistakenly believing that their success is exclusively dependent on their own efforts, many people add hours upon hours to their workday – almost always at the expense of their family and their spiritual growth. Stepping back and realizing that G-d’s manual for life is the ultimate plan for true prosperity will likely not only result in even greater success, but also in a happier and more meaningful life.
This weeks parsha, Achrei Mos starts of with Ha-shem telling Moses the proper way for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to enter the Holy of Holies which is only done on Yom Kippur. This commandment was given after Aaron’s two eldest sons died after entering the Holy at an improper time. The lesson is that Holiness requires preparation and cannot be jumped into off the cuff, and the Holier the place, the more groundwork required. Everyone understands that it would be foolish to buy a house without checking it out properly first, or sign a contract without going over the details, all the more so in the spiritual world whose effects are more far-reaching do we have to prepare properly before rushing in.
The Torah describes the Yom Kippur service in detail but one interesting item to note is that the Kohen Gadol first brings a sacrifice to atone for his personal and his families sins, then a sacrifice to atone for all the Kohanim (his tribe), and only after that does he bring an offering to a atone for the entire Jewish community. This is very much in synch with the concept of preparation mentioned above, in that one before trying to change the world must first change himself and then work outward in concentric circles personal-family-tribe-community at large.
The Torah then discusses the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple or eating their parts out of their boundaries. (Yep, in case you didn’t pick up on it, this is also about showing respect for the act of sacrifice and understanding that you can’t just sacrifice it anywhere or anytime that you feel like it, there is a system that you must follow. So if you have that Tyco altar in your backyard, its time to fold it up, and wait for the Messiah when we will have a real Temple again!)
Then the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood. The blood is considered to be the seat of the soul of the animal hence we offer it on the altar, as a sign that we want one soul to be offered to atone for another, and therefore it would be profane to eat it in any other medium. (I know this week is a tough one, you have to fold up the Tyco altar, and stop your membership with the Vampires R Us club.)
In fact the Talmud learns a great lesson from this. If we get reward for not eating blood or other forbidden insects that one naturally loathes, how much greater is our reward for holding ourselves back from doing things that we are attracted to! This is why the forbidden relationships juxtaposed to this topic in this same Parsha to help us realize this lesson.
Here the Torah also commands us to cover the blood of non-domesticated animals or birds that we slaughter. The reason for this is that if the blood contains the soul of the animal it would be improper to eat the animal while its lifeblood and soul are lying exposed on the ground. This shows two things. One, that even animals have some sort of soul, as do even plants and rocks each to a lesser extent, as everything is an emanation from G-d and to exist must have some sort of soul or life to it. This is evidenced by Psalms talking about how different inanimate objects sing the praises of G-d, which is not just a metaphor. (Now we begin to understand the crazy Pet Rock fad of the 70’s!) Another lesson is the incredible sensitivity the Torah displays even toward animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to people’s feelings.
After this the Torah enumerates many of the forbidden sexual relationships including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Right after this the Torah write a warning not to commit certain forms of idol worship. The juxtaposition is explained as follows; both the idol worshipper and the person committing adultery are being treacherous to one who deserves their loyalty, whether it be G-d or one’s spouse.
At the end of the parsha the Torah enjoins us not to commit these immoral acts, as they were the cause that the dwellers of Canaan (Israel) to be expelled from it. If we contaminate ourselves with them, we will also be banished from our land as the Holy Land itself has holiness and it can’t contain impurity. This concludes the Parsha, and now we have come full circle because the same concept of preparation and respect we see applying to the Holy Land as it does to the Holy of Holies that the Kohen Gadol enters on Yom Kippur! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Spirituality is like a bird: if you hold it too closely, it chokes. And if you hold it too loosely, it escapes!
Random Fact of the Week: There are more than 10 million bricks in the Empire State Building.
Funny Line of the Week: Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham