He cut a dashing figure when he entered any room, a tall regal Englishman dressed in impeccably tailored thousand dollar Chester Barrie suits worn over smart Turnbull & Asser shirts and ties, a slight salt and pepper beard barely hiding his warm smile and brilliant eyes. On most evenings, you could find him seated at New York City’s world class restaurants, dining on the finest food the United States has to offer. Usually, after dinner he would head over to the Pierre, one of New York’s acclaimed five star hotels, where he would go to the bar to listen to live jazz while sipping on fine champagne in crystal flutes.
When it was time to retire for the evening, he would head down to Park Avenue, bid a good evening to Benny the doorman, and ride the elevator to his splendid three bedroom two story apartment overlooking the avenue. Everywhere he went, people knew him, they would smile upon his arrival, and enquire warmly, “Joe, how have you been?” And Joe would give one of his famously upbeat responses, like “Life is a vacation!” or “Every day is a vacation!”
But that is not to say that Joe didn’t work hard, Joe worked harder than most, and worked well into his seventies. Every day, he would get up before dawn to prepare for a day of work, and he would be out walking the streets headed to work while most people were still just gulping down their first coffee. So what did Joe Ades do? Most people assumed he was a banker, hedge fund manager or perhaps white-shoe lawyer, but that he was not. What Joe Ades did, and did quite well, was sell potato peelers.
Six days a week, Joe would wheel a trolley down the streets of New York and look for a street corner that he thought would be a good place to set up shop. His shop was made of a low campstool, and a big plastic box filled with hundreds of Swiss-made potato peelers, upon which he would lay a large Lucite board. He would then take out a few bags of vegetables; potatoes, carrots, and the occasional squash, and set them down near the boxes. By the time he had finished scouting out the right spot, and setting up shop, the streets of NYC would start to swell with commuters on the way to work. And this is where Joe Ades would start to shine.
Using his loud voice and sharp wit, he would gather a crowd quickly around him, often only starting with one or two people. He would then show them the wonder of the potato peeler. With quick motions, he would not only take off the peel with surgical precision, he would transform the potato into French fries or super thin potato chips (uncooked) in a matter of seconds. Carrots would be turned into carrot chips shaped like stars (“That’s how you get your children to eat their veggies!”), or deftly formed into adorable flowers. By the time Joe was finished his three minute nonstop talking demonstration, there would be a crowd of twenty to thirty people eagerly hanging onto his every word.
This is when he would start to really shine. Reaching into his pocket, he would pull out an impossibly large wad of cash and start collecting the money being thrown at him. His price? “One for five, two for ten, four for twenty, but you’ll get one for free! Why would you ever buy five if these peelers will last forever? Because you’ve got four friends, that’s why!” After a three minute pitch he could easily sell twenty peelers in two minutes. Then he would wipe the Lucite cutting board clean, into a bag on the side of the box and start all over again. In one hour Joe Ades could bring in close to a thousand dollars in potato peeler sales. Do that for eight hours a day, six days a week, and the money starts to get wonky. Steak dinner at Peter Luger, champagne and jazz at the Pierre, all on the backs of $5 potato peelers.
Joe Ades started his life in the scrappy industrial town of Manchester, UK the youngest of seven children raised by a widowed mother. He first encountered grafters, the term he used to describe street peddlers, in the war torn streets of Manchester during the German bombing raids of WWII. Running an errand for his mother, he was shocked to see that right next to a still smoking heap of rubble, a number of grafters had set up shop, knowing that people would be coming to look at the devastation. Shoelaces, cough syrups, pencils, and a host of other cheap products were being hawked from tabletops. And the salespeople? They were of a breed he’d never seen before, and from that moment on, Joe was hooked.
Joe didn’t sell potato peelers his whole life, he sold jewelry, second hand comic books, and he even sold Christmas trees in February, but always dressed like an aristocrat, and always worked his crowd with every tactic known to mankind. He made millions selling $5 potato peelers, he was featured in the Daily News, on the Today Show, and in Vanity Fair. He was the best salesman that ever walked the streets of New York City. How do I know? I bought five peelers from him, when I was a student in yeshiva, living in a dorm room with no kitchen!
Click here to see one of Joe’s remarkable sales pitches
In his interview for the Today Show, Joe turns to the camera and tells his secret: “Never underestimate the power of a small amount of money.”
In this week’s Parsha we see another person who recognized the power of a small amount of money. The Torah tells us of how Jacob prepared his camp for war with Esau his brother, who was coming with a massive army to destroy him. He sent gifts, he prayed hard, and he split the family into two camps so that if one camp was annihilated, the other could escape. But then something strange happens the night before the fateful meeting. Jacob goes back across a river to retrieve some small flasks that he left behind.
When he does that, he gets attacked by an angel, and they end up fighting all night long. Jacob is victorious, and the angel gives Jacob a blessing, changing his name from Jacob to Israel, and the history of the Jewish people takes on a brighter glow from that moment on. But what was Jacob doing going back for a few small flasks? He was a very wealthy man, he certainly would have been just fine without them, why take the trouble to go back across a river to retrieve something so small the night before such a momentous battle?
“Never underestimate the power of a small thing…” Jacob understood that every single thing in this world has a goal and purpose, every physical object had an intended use. Much more importantly, every human being had a goal and purpose, and every moment of our lives has an intended use. The flasks may have been small, they may have only been worth the equivalent of $10 today, but those flasks had a purpose, and whatever time Jacob took to earn those flasks, even if it was only five minutes, had a purpose. By leaving them behind, Jacob would not only abandon the purpose of those flasks, he would be taking the five minutes it took for him to earn those flasks, and leaving behind all their value.
This of course is where the angel of Esau, who our Sages link with the Evil Inclination itself, comes to fight Jacob. When this angel sees a person who does not underestimate the spiritual power of the smallest thing, it knows that this person is going to become a spiritual billionaire, and it goes to fight him. Jacob’s will is stronger than the angel’s and the Jewish people are uplifted from the sons of Jacob, which means the heel, to the sons of Israel, the one who struggles with G-dl’y issues and wins!
Our path to greatness lies in following the path of Jacob, our beloved Patriarch. Our greatness lies in never underestimating the power of the smallest thing. People have finished the entire Talmud while waiting in line, people have made tens of thousands of phone calls to uplift others while driving (handsfree of course!!!) or walking, and people have changed their lives by saying just one bracha with full kavana, full intensity, each day. The success snowballs, and small successes strung back to back, built up slowly, make a giant of a human being.
Joe Ades did a lot more than sell me a peeler, he taught me how to remove the peel covering my potential greatness, one deft stroke at a time.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“When [the stranger] saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of [Jacob’s] thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with [the stranger]” (Genesis 32:26).
Jacob fought a momentous battle against the angel of Esau — a battle that would portend many battles and struggles between the descendants of Jacob (the Jewish people) and the descendants of Esau (the Romans, Christians, and Germans). Toward the end of the struggle, the angel saw that things weren’t working out quite as he had envisioned. Since he could not defeat Jacob, he injured him. Since the Torah says that he limped away from the area, we know that this injury stayed with Jacob for quite a while.
Jacob defeated the angel, and this victory imbued in his descendants the ability to overcome their enemies. But didn’t Jacob leave with an injury? We don’t read about any injuries to the angel, so why do we say that the injured combatant was the winner? Who really won?
In a physical battle, the one who emerges less wounded is considered the winner. But this was a spiritual battle, the only type one can wage with an angel. In this type of fight, the fact that one side leaves the playing field and resorts to physically hurting his opponent is a clear sign that he lost the fight.
This unfortunately has been the protocol of Esau’s descendants throughout history. They try to convince the Jews that their religion is superior, that they are the true bearers of the truth. Upon seeing the Jews steadfastness or upon being theologically disproven, they resort to physically lashing out at them.
Understanding this behavior can help us engage in debate in healthier ways. We need to stick to the subject of an argument and avoid going on a personal attack. If a husband and wife are disputing whether a child is too sick to attend school, one shouldn’t allow the disagreement to devolve into recriminations such as, “You never listen to me…” Not only does an argument escalate into a fight; the party who fans the flames usually demonstrates that their point of view is not backed by valid reasoning.
Disagreements inevitably arise; it’s up to us to ensure that our arguments don’t cross the delicate line between discussion and hurtfulness, argument and fighting.
Our Parsha starts with Yaakov returning to his homeland after being on the run from his brother Eisav for thirty four ears. Trying to gauge the reception he should expect, Yaakov sends messengers (some say they were angels) to reconnoiter Eisav’s camp. The messengers come back with a message that Eisav has a loving brother’s reception committee of 400 crack troops chomping at the bit, intending to kill Yaakov. In response, Yaakov sets up the protocol for how Jews deal with conflicts. First he sends a gift, then he prays, and lastly he sets up the battle camps. This included splitting his family into two camps so that if one is attacked the other can escape.
The night before the meeting of the brothers Yaakov goes back across a river he crossed with his family to pick up some vessels he left behind. At this moment he is attacked by the angel of Eisav, the angel of evil. They fight all night long, and Yaakov wins. However, the angel manages to dislocate part of Yaakov’s thigh tendon, which is the reason that Jews are not allowed to eat this particular piece of meat. (It is clear that this fight has an infinite amount of depth, and the significance of the thigh tendon dislocation and the subsequent prohibition is much more profound than it appears on the surface.)
The next day Eisav meets Yaakov and, miraculously, he is filled with mercy. Instead of killing Yaakov, he cries with him, forgives him for acquiring the blessings, and blesses him. He even expresses a desire to stay with Yaakov, but Yaakov firmly refuses, and the two brothers part ways. Yaakov realized that living with a loving Eisav would be just as dangerous (if not more) than battling an angry Eisav.
After this meeting Yaakov heads to the city of Shechem where he hopes to stay a bit but, unfortunately, things don’t go so smoothly. Shechem, the son of Chamor the king of the city, is attracted to Dina, Yaakov’s daughter. He grabs her and has forced relations with her. After that, he and his father come to Yaakov to try to work out a way that Shechem can marry her properly.
Shimon and Levi, two of Yaakov’s sons and Dina’s brothers, are enraged that their sister has been defiled, and come up with a plan to teach everyone a lesson. They tell Chamor that the reason they can’t let Dina marry Shechem is because he comes from an uncircumcised people. If all the males in the city are circumcised, then Shechem can marry Dina. Shechem and his father go back and convince the people of the city to circumcise themselves. On the third day after the circumcision, when the pain is the greatest, Shimon and Levi swoop down on the city and kill all the males. (The commentators explain that they had the right to kill Shechem for his rape, but everyone else defended Chamor, and in the ensuing battle everyone was killed. Nachmonides says that the people of the city were considered accomplices to Shechem’s crime and were therefore also deserving of the death penalty.)
Yaakov is concerned about this move, as he feels it would give his family a bad name amongst all the neighboring people, and they might join forces to attack him. (Later, when he blesses his children before his death, he brings up this event again, and curses the two brother’s anger.) However, G-d puts an unnatural fear on the people of the land and no one moves against Yaakov’s family.
At this point, we learn of the death of Rivka, Yaakov’s mother. After that, G-d renames Yaakov with the same name given to him by the angel, Yisroel. He also blesses him and promises him that the land he promised to Avraham and Yitzchak will be passed on to his children (not the children of Eisav or Yishmael).
Soon after, Rachel gives birth to the last of the twelve tribes, Binyamin. Immediately after childbirth and the naming of her son, Rachel dies. She is buried right there on the road, so that when the Jews are exiled by the Babylonians hundreds of years later they can pray by her grave and she will be able to intercede on their behalf before G-d.
After Rachel dies, Yaakov establishes his primary residence in the tent of Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid before marrying Yaakov. Reuven, Leah’s oldest son, sees this as a slight to his mother’s honor, so he moves Yaakov’s bed into Leah’s tent. For a person of Reuven’s stature, this action is considered almost tantamount to adultery, as he is trying to force his father to live with one wife and not the other. Reuven realizes his error and does teshuvah immediately.
Toward the end of the Parsha we find Yaakov reunited with his father after an extended leave of absence and, soon after that, Yitzchak passes away at the ripe old age of 180. Eisav and Yaakov bury him together next to their mother Rivka in the Mearat Hamachpela, the place where Adam, Eve, Avraham and Sara were buried. The Parsha concluds with an in-depth description of Eisav’s genealogy. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: The secret of happiness is not doing what you like, but liking what you do. ~ Joe Ades
Random fact of the Week: On a clear night in the northern hemisphere, the naked eye can discern
about 5,000 stars.
Funny Line of the Week: If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
Have a Super-Duper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham