Bigger is not always better. Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever on record, would surely tell you that. He was born on Feb. 22nd, 1918 to Addie and Harold Wadlow of Alton, Illinois at a normal weight of eight pounds, six ounces. It was shortly thereafter that normal ground to a halt, and gigantum took over. By the time Robert was six months old he weighed thirty pounds, at eighteen months he tipped the scales at 62 pounds. At this point his parents, and even his doctors, didn’t think there was anything wrong with him – he was just a regular kid who was growing early but would slow down soon. (With all the foot high stacks of butter-topped pancakes you always see in vintage photos, I’m surprised there weren’t more 62 pound toddlers!)
But when he was taller than his teacher in kindergarten, and outstripped his father’s height before his eighth birthday, his parents knew something was wrong. The doctors of the time were able to trace the source of his disorder. Ironically it came from one of the tiniest organs in the human body, the pituitary gland, an organ the size of a pea. Robert’s pituitary gland was overproducing growth hormones, and as a result, Robert was overgrowing. Today, a quick surgery or some hormone therapy would solve the problem, but back in Bobby’s day this wasn’t an option. The doctors told his parents that surgery would likely result in death, and it would be much better to just let him grow.
Grow he did, and by the time he was in third grade he was 6”2 and his picture was put in the local paper. From there it got released to the Associated Press, and faster than you could dance the hora on a hot frying pan, every paper in the nation was carrying the story of the boy-man. People began traveling to Alton from all over the country to see the spectacle. They would often wait in their parked cars outside his school, and slowly follow him as he walked home.
Soon he began to outgrow his world. He couldn’t play the guitar, or fiddle around with a camera’s dials like he used to, for they would slip around in his big, clumsy hand. He couldn’t fit into any clothing and had to have his clothes custom made. Even so, he would order outfits a few sizes bigger than he needed so that when they arrived he would still fit into them. His shoes were also an issue, as his feet never stopped growing and his eventual shoe size was 37!
By the time he entered college at the age of 18, he was 8”3. Unfortunately, he couldn’t even play basketball, since his feet were starting to numb, as his body struggled to circulate blood and nutrients to his extremities. He needed braces, and usually walked with a cane. He quit college after a year. He couldn’t fit into the desks, couldn’t write with the pencils, and besides, he rapidly found that he didn’t really fit in with the whole college scene (no pun intended).
Robert decided that he wanted to open a shoe store, but needed to raise capital. He convinced his father to quit his job, and go on a cross country tour to promote the International Shoe Company which would pay him for his work. They bought a car made to seat seven, ripped out the middle row so that Robert could fit in the back, and began their tour.
During the summer they would tour northern states, and during the winter, the southern states. They would stop in an average of two towns a day, and eventually visited over 800 cities in 41 different states! At each store Robert would patiently shake people’s hands, smile as he heard the same corny jokes for the thousandth time, and sign autographs. If he got a dollar every time someone asked him, “What’s the weather like up there?” he would’ve been able to buy a chain of shoe stores! Some people would even pinch him or kick him in the shins to make sure he wasn’t walking on stilts. His trademark response would be to laughingly take off the person’s hat and put it somewhere really high where the person would have difficulty retrieving it. Despite being a giant, he was always gentle and kind, and displayed extraordinary sensitivity to other’s feelings.
When he was 22, while at a July 4th parade in Michigan, he developed a fever due to an infection from an ill-fitting ankle brace. Penicillin wasn’t yet invented, so any infection could be fatal. Unfortunately, that was the case for Robert who had already been suffering from joint pains, numbness, and frequent falls. Over 40,000 people came to his funeral to show their respect, and the 8”11, 490-pound giant came to rest.
Robert Ludlow, “The Gentle Giant,” inspired many through his tender character and ability to take everything with good humor. But there is another message which we can take from his story that is enlightening and instructive. What caused Robert’s abnormal growth, the growth that haunted him his whole life, caused him so much difficulty, and eventually led to his death? A pea-sized gland. It may have been tiny, but it steadily produced a hormone that, in excess, caused dangerous growth.
Many of us have a character flaw or a negative habit that we choose to ignore. We tell ourselves that it is only a small problem, and not worth our attention or effort. What we don’t realize is that a tiny negative trait, when left unchecked, when allowed to continue to produce without restraint, can create a giant of a problem for us later in life. The person who used to show up five minutes late for everything ten years ago, now can’t make a single meeting on time, and often arrives half an hour late muttering pathetic excuses. The person who used to eat just one more brownie in H.S. suddenly finds himself saddled with a real weight problem, and the person who used to talk a bit during services, now uses them his personal social hour.
“Rav Assi said; The Evil Inclination, initially resembles a spider’s thread, but ultimately resembles a rope used to pull wagons” (Babylonian Talmud, Succah 52A)
Rashi explains that the first time one is tempted to engage in a negative behavior it is easy to overcome the temptation, but the more one gives in to his desires, the more they becomes part of him, and the harder it is for him to give them up. In the beginning, the string pulling him down was as insubstantial as a spider’s thread, but as a person becomes more and more accustomed to negative behavior, that string thickens and becomes a hardy rope that drags him down despite his struggle to get out. So many people look back at a negative habit and can’t believe how it has grown from a tiny mistake left untended to a soul-draining trait.
On the flip side, a good character that we develop also has the ability to become a giant. The person who started out smiling once a day at someone who looked down, suddenly finds himself walking around cheerfully dispensing sunlight and cheer to all around them. The person who concentrated on making one blessing every day with intent finds his life filled with meaningful prayer. The person who gave a compliment a day to his spouse suddenly begins to see the good in everyone.
In the world of character development, nothing is pea-sized.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha, Behaloscha, starts off with the mitzvah of lighting the menorah in the Temple every day. The Torah uses an interesting phrase to describe the kindling of the lights, “Speak to Aaron and say to him, when you raise up the lights, toward the central branch of the Menorah, shall the seven lights be lit. (Num. 8:2)” Why does the Torah describe the act of lighting the Menorah as when you raise up the lights?
Rashi (1045-1105, France), the primary commentator on the Torah gives two explanations. The first is that when lighting the menorah one was supposed to hold the candle to the wick until the lamp he was lighting would raise up with a flame of its own. He shouldn’t just touch the fire to the wick, and remove it as soon as it caught fire, but rather keep the lighting flame there until the new wick rose up with its own flame. Another explanation posited by Rashi is that in order for the Cohen to light the menorah, he would first have to climb a small three step staircase. In this way, the Cohen would be raising himself toward the Menorah before lighting it.
Is there any connection between these two answers? (When two explanations are given for the same statement in the Torah, we can often find a link between them. This is because they are like two offspring of the same gene, as the Torah is compared to a living and life giving force.) Let us look for a deeper meaning to the answers Rashi provides, and through that we will be able to find an obvious connection.
The menorah is the vessel in the Temple that represents wisdom, and Torah knowledge. It is the vessel that gives off light, opens up clearer fields of vision, just like Torah. (Here is the bonus of the week: The Sages tell us that if you want to gain more wisdom, while you pray facing east, slant a little to the south, as the menorah which represented wisdom was on the southern wall of the temple. Don’t say I never gave you anything!!)
Rashi’s first answer tells us how one should teach wisdom to others, through the metaphor of one candle lighting the other. The torah is telling us that it is not enough to come teach someone some wisdom, introduce new concepts and ideas to them and then walk away. Rather, we have to remain part of the teaching experience until their flame rises on its own, until they are sufficiently burning with their new knowledge that they can stand on their own and even enlighten other people.
But the second explanation of Rashi, explains how one can become a teacher that will light the many other “candles”. Before going to teach, one first has to step up the staircase, one has to elevate himself. If one remains on the ground, on the baseline, without elevating himself, he will be wholly unable to light up and inspire others. That is the message of Rashi with these two explanations. The Torah is teaching us to first elevate ourselves, and then to light up others in a way that they can light up the next generation, thus providing for a continuing chain of light and inspiration that can start right now, from you!
As seen above the Parsha starts off with the owner’s manual for the menorah telling you when to change the oil and how to light it properly. Following that is the Consecration of the Levites. In previous weeks we discussed how the Levites were given some of the holy jobs originally reserved for the firstborns. Here the Torah describes the procedure that the Levites underwent to begin their service. As most Temple procedures went, it included bringing specific sacrifices but it deviated a little in that it included shaving all of one’s hair, and Aaron picking up and waving each and every one of the 22K+ Levites. (No, Aaron, unlike some MLB players, did not use steroids, he was miraculously given the strength to pick them all up.) The Torah then tells us that the Levites would begin their apprenticeship at 25, begin working at 30, and retire at 50. (Where do I sign?)
The next part of the Parsha deals with the Pesach offering brought during the second year that the Jews were in the desert (the only year they brought a Pesach offering in the desert, the next one they would bring would be when they got to the Promised Land, 40 years later). It also talks about the people who couldn’t bring the offering due to ritual impurity who came to Moshe with a complaint “why should we be left out?” to which G-d replied with the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni which is a makeup date a month later for all those who couldn’t make it on the regular date.
Being that the Jews were about to embark on their first journey since encamping at Sinai, the Torah teaches about the Jewish travels in the desert. It talks about the signs of G-d that were omnipresent (cloud by day, pillar of fire at night), the frequency of their travels (totally random, ranging from once in 19 years to a day apart), the trumpets that were used to tell the Jews that they were about to pull out of their current parking spot (also used to call the elders together for meetings with Moshe), and the order of the people while marching. Moshe at this point invites Jethro his father-in-law to stay with the Jews, but he says that he has to go back to try to convert the people of the land from which he came.
I would like to preface the next part of the Parsha with the following explanation. The Jews who were in the desert were on an exceedingly high spiritual level after seeing G-d reveal Himself at Sinai and after witnessing the miracles in Egypt and at the Reed Sea. Therefore, as we read in the coming weeks the mistakes they made and the punishments meted out, we need to understand that when someone is so close to G-d, the judgment is so much more strict, much the way a top official in the government is scrutinized so much more than an average Joe. Additionally, a lot of the mistakes have deeper meaning that explain that they were not the large mistakes they appear to be, rather they were judgment calls which were made in the wrong direction, but with good intentions.
Soon after the Jews first travels, some of the evil people amongst the Jews began to complain about their fate in the desert. G-d responded by sending down a heavenly flame that devoured some of the complainers. Moshe prayed to G-d and the fire stopped. Soon after that the people began to complain about the manna which was a spiritual food that came down from heaven daily. One cannot imagine a better food. It tasted like whatever you wanted it to be (think prime rib for breakfast every day!!), it produced no waste products, it didn’t cause you to gain weight, and was delivered to the ground where you just had to pick it and eat it! (Imagine the cover of the 1312 B.C.E. Readers Digest: New Diet! Eat whatever you want and never gain a pound!)
Most of these complaints were initiated by the mixed multitude a group of people who joined the Jews as they left Egypt, many of whom were insincere converts, and didn’t have the tools to appreciate true spirituality. This bothered Moshe to the point where he asked G-d how he was supposed to deal with such a difficult nation alone. “Did I conceive this entire people, or did I give birth to it, that You say to me, ‘carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucklingto the Land that You swore to its forefathers? (Num. 11:12)” In response to this G-d told Moshe to appoint seventy Elders to be the Great Sanhedrin, a group charged with helping Moshe lead the nation. (I think I need seventy people just to help me with my two daughters!) After this G-d responded to the complainers by sending flocks of quail to the camp, which were lethal to anyone who ate them. Most people didn’t eat them because they were more than happy with G-d’s spiritual food. But those who were unhappy with the miraculous food G-d sent, ate, and suffered the consequence.
The Torah also talks about how when Moshe called together the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, G-d increased the spirit of prophecy of Moshe to extend onto all the others. The Sages compare it to a candle which can light another flame without losing any of its light. (If you are still reading, thank you, and please email me back, I’m trying to get a feel for how many people read this part of the email.)
After this event, Miraim, Moshe’s sister was talking to her brother Aaron, and she discussed the fact that Moshe left his wife (this was done because he spoke to G-d so frequently and with such clarity, that he wasn’t allowed to have any distraction). She talked in a slightly negative way, and she was immediately punished with tzara’as the spiritual affliction of the skin reserved for people who speak lashon hara, negative speech about others. Because of her greatness, the entire Jewish people waited seven day until she was healed before moving. This was a reward for her waiting at the riverbanks when Moshe’s cradle was cast in the water in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. This shows us how every act we do, no matter how natural it seems for us to do it (as a sister guarding her brother in the water), goes unrewarded. Well that’s about all for this week folks.
Quote of the Week: It was a high counsel that I once heard given to a young person, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Random Fact of the Week: A woodchuck, while hibernating breathes 10 times an hour. While it’s awake, it breathes 2,100 times an hour!
Funny Quip of the Week: Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Have a Rad Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham