Trade between countries is a good thing. It enables people in Canada to have freshly squeezed orange juice at their breakfast table, and people in Brazil to have maple syrup at theirs. It has created tens of thousands of jobs in Israel, as Intel Israel produces billions of computer chips for export, and it has also given you the option to talk to your friend “Sammy” in Bombay when you have a problem with your Dell computer (OK, maybe that’s not such a good thing!). The discovery of the Americas happened during an attempt to expand international trade, and to this day the US makes $1,600,000,000,000 from items it sells to other countries. International trade is definitely a good thing.
This all takes us back to 1847. There was a strong interest in expanding trade between the US and Canada, and a Canadian politician named William Hamilton Merritt was charged with determining the best way to facilitate it. After many studies, meetings, focus groups, meditational affirmations, feasibility applications and environmental impact reports, it was discovered that the best way to foster more trade between the US and Canada would be a suspension bridge over the Niagara River at its narrowest point.
The suspension bridge they were looking to create was to be one of the most ambitious bridges ever built at the time, with the ability to carry a train over it, seamlessly connecting the US and Canadian industrial hubs. Many people doubted that a suspension bridge could carry the weight of a train, but Charles Ellet, Jr., a Canadian civil engineer argued vociferously that he could do it, and he was eventually awarded a contract. But he had a bit of a challenge on his hand…
A suspension bridge is basically a road that is held up by cabled, with those cables being held up by towers. But in order for it to work, you need to get massive heavy cables from one side of the river to the other. (The four cables that hold up the Verrazano Bridge in NYC weigh a total of 9,798 tons!), and it’s not like you can just throw them from one side to the other! Today, they are carried by helicopter from side to side, and in the 1800’s they were usually towed by boat. However the Niagara bridge had a unique challenge; at its narrowest point the Niagara River was 800 feet wide, and ran through a gorge with two hundred foot cliffs on each side. The river at that point was impassable by boat because it was just a few hundred feet away from the Niagara Falls!
Charles Ellet Jr., considered many options, including attaching a cable to a cannonball and shooting it across, or using rudimentary rockets, but not of those were deemed practical. His eventual solution was novel, unproven, and involved a contest with the local children, but it worked. Ellet hung up signs all over the local towns offering $5 to the first child who could fly a kite from one side of the Niagara River. Five dollars may not sound like much, but back in the mid 1800’s five dollars bought you as much candy as you could eat in a month!
Hundreds of boys tried, but one Holman Walsh, a teenager kicked it up a notch. He took a ferry across from the US side to Canada, walked a few miles upstream to the narrowest point, and began his kiting quest. On his first day, he almost succeeded after holding his kite aloft well into the night, but just before it landed on the US side, the wire got caught on some rocks and snapped. To make matters worse, he was now stranded on the Canadian side, because ice and bad weather caused the suspension of ferry service from Canada to the US! Eight days later, he finally crossed to the American side, retrieved his kite, crossed back to Canada, and took another stab at the kite challenge. This time, it worked! The kite cord in his hand extended more than eight hundred feet, from the Canadian side of the Niagara to the US side, and he got his five dollars!
Charles Ellet and his men tied a slightly thicker cord to the kite cord, and pulled it across on the river. To that they tied a small rope, then a medium sized rope, then a metal cable, eventually pulling the massive cable needed to build the entire bridge across the river. The Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge opened for business in July of 1848. For the next fifty years, the bridge that started with a kite string was an important artery in the international trade between the US and Canada!
Yesterday was Lag Ba’Omer, one of the minor festivals on the Jewish calendar. It is a day celebrated with bonfires, archery, and BBQ’s, singing, dancing, and a half-million person twenty five hour party in the small city of Meron! What exactly is being celebrated?
The Jewish Code of Law (O.C. 493:2) explains that on Lag Ba’Omer, Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest sages of the Mishnaic period had 24,000 students, and they all died in a tragic plague during this time of year. They stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer, and that is one of the reasons we celebrate on Lag Ba’Omer. The other reason is that it is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. On his deathbed, Rabbi Shimon, told his students some of the deepest mystical secrets of Torah, filling the house with ethereal light, and Torah wisdom that still shapes how we live today. Lag Ba’Omer is a celebration of that Torah that was revealed to the world on that day. But we are going to focus on the first reason.
Why are we celebrating that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying? The reason that they stopped dying was because they were all dead! Imagine if you had a failing business that kept losing money every day. Finally, one day it loses nothing because there is nothing left! Would that be a cause for celebration? Of course not? So why do we celebrate the day that Rabbi Akiva’s students stopped dying if that is when they were all dead?
The Pri Chadash, a seventeenth century commentator who was born in Tuscany, moved to Amsterdam, and eventually settled in Jerusalem, offers the following explanation. What we are celebrating is not so much the simple cessation of the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, but rather what Rabbi Akiva did next. Instead of simply give up, which is what most people would do after seeing their entire student body die in a few weeks, Rabbi Akiva started over the very day after the dying stopped. This time he took a different approach, and he only taught five disciples. But those five disciples, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua carried the torch of Torah forward, and the majority of the Torah we learn today come from those five student’s teachings. Sometimes the big cable can’t make its way across the raging river, but the small string can make it, and eventually pull bigger and bigger ropes, until the big cable makes its way across, bridging the gap from one generation to the next!
The lesson that we learn from Rabbi Akiva, and indeed one the important lessons of Lag Ba’Omer, is how much we need to value the little string, the little tiny step we take trying to get from where we are to where we want to be. We can’t get a huge cable across the divide, drastic life changes don’t work, but we can take one small step. To that step we tie another slightly bigger step, and then another, until eventually we build a strong bridge, and get to an altogether better place. We can’t get discouraged when our attempts snap on the sharp rocks, and we can’t give up because the task seems too big, rather we achieve greatness by building on the small.
So in honor of Lag Ba’Omer let’s think about what our next kite string looks like. It may buck and twist in the winds, it may turn around and head backwards for a while, but if we hold that kite up long enough, it will get to the other side, and we can begin building our bridge to greatness! Happy Flying!
Parsha Dvar Torah
G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for G-d.” (Vayirkra 25:1-2)
Every seven years, the Jewish people are commanded to observe a Sabbatical year (Shemittah), during which all agricultural activity in the Land of Israel comes to a halt. Many commentators ask why the Torah introduces this commandment by pointing out that G-d told it to Moses “on Mount Sinai?” All the commandments were taught at Mount Sinai. What special connection exists between the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai?
Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai, better known as the Chida, explains that Shemittah served to remind people that any wealth or success they attain in this world comes from a Divine Source. A farmer who toils on his land can easily see the fruits of his labor and think, “My strength and the might of my hand have accumulated this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17).
Requiring the Jewish people to cease their labors for a year compels them to rely on G-d’s benevolence, which brings home the larger point that, regardless of their hard work, it is actually G-d who provides for them. Indeed, G-d promises that if the Jewish people keep this commandment, He will bless them with extraordinary crops that will keep them satiated throughout the Shemittah year and beyond.
Once a person recognizes that success and failure are in the hands of G-d, he will begin to realize that just as G-d provided for his needs for an entire year without his work, so too, G-d can provide him with his needs at all times – even if he works a bit less and spends more time devoting himself to more spiritual pursuits. Thus, when observed properly, Shemittah can be a catalyst for the farmer to increase his Torah study. This is the connection between Shemittah and Mount Sinai. Through Shemittah, one develops a deeper connection to all of the commandments that were taught at Mount Sinai.
Today in Israel, increasing numbers of farmers are observing the Shemittah laws. As this trend grows, so do the number of stories describing Shemittah-related agricultural miracles. I personally verified the following story with Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, former vice president of Agudath Israel:
A young farmer decided to keep Shemittah for the first time. He was assisted by an organization that agreed to provide him with information, guidance and subsidies, on the condition that he spend the year studying Torah in Jerusalem. While Rabbi Bloom was in the offices of that organization, the farmer called the office, ecstatic with joy. An entire valley filled with banana plantations had been devastated by a prolonged frost. Only one plantation remained in pristine condition – his! He was the only farmer in that area who kept Shemittah. (Rabbi Bloom traveled to northern Israel to personally verify what happened.)
Of course, the vast majority of the Jewish people are not farmers, but what plays out on a national scale every seven years is available to us as individuals and families every week. In any economy, making a living is a challenge; all the more so when times are tough. We feel as though we are the “masters of our own economy” and can get so caught up working to make sure that economy is doing well, that all else falls by the wayside.
That is why Shabbos has such rejuvenating power. Rather than simply a “day of rest,” Shabbos is a “mini-Shemittah” in the middle of our busy lives. It is a time when we can hand over the controls to Someone with infinite power to take care of all of our needs. Experiencing that sense of calm – and sharing it with others – is certain to bring many extraordinary blessings in its wake.
This week’s parsha, Behar, begins with the laws of shmita. The mitzvah of shmita commands us to leave the land fallow every seventh year. One may not work the land at all, and anything that grows on its own in the field is left to be taken by anyone who needs it. (If you had to be poor for a year, this would be a good one to pick.) After seven shmita cycles, the 50th year was a Jubilee year, and the land lay fallow once again. In addition, many fields and homes reverted back to their original owners. Jewish servants who requested to stay with their masters past the normal limits are now sent home. Thus, when buying a field one had to always take into account how many years remained until the Jubilee because that is the amount of time he would own the field. (As Jews, we sometimes have strings attached to our deals, but at least it was known to everyone, not some fine print clause written in Azerbijanian!)Today, we have lost track of the proper counting and can no longer keep the laws of the Jubilee.
The next part of the Parsha deals with redeeming the land. The idea is as follows: G-d gave each person a portion of the Holy Land, which they bequeathed to their families. There could be no greater family treasure than the family’s share in G-d’s land! (Timeshare salesmen try to get you to feel this way about their, “week in paradise for your family every year forever!”) Therefore, if someone sold his land, it was probably out of great necessity, and the Torah gives the person a chance to buy it back if they, or a relative, can come up with the money. Depending on what type of property it was, and where it was situated, the times at which one can redeem it are different. For more details see Leviticus 25:23-34.
The last part of the Parsha deals with Jewish servants. I know that we who live in a post- Emancipation Proclamation world look unfavorably on labor provided by servants or slaves (although who do you think made your shirt?), so I will try to show you that a Jewish servant was the farthest thing from the Atlantic slave trade of the 1500-1700’s.
The sages say, “He who buys himself a servant, has acquired a master for himself.” A Jewish master was responsible for supporting his servant’s entire family, he couldn’t force him to do demeaning labor, if there was only one pillow or blanket in the house it had to be given to the servant, and when the servant would leave, the master was required to give him a hefty severance package. (All these benefits and no union dues to pay??? Sounds impossible, but with Torah it’s all possible!). A Jewish servant would sell himself if he needed funds and couldn’t find any other job, or if he simply wanted the security of servitude (a job in which his whole family was supported and he couldn’t get fired, downsized, discharged, restructured, laid off, terminated or forced to resign!)
The Parsha concludes with a reiteration of the mitzvos of keeping Shabbos and not serving idols. This was to remind any Jew who sold himself to a non-Jew, that he still had to keep his Jewish practice and couldn’t start desecrating Shabbos or serving his new master’s idols.
Quote of the Week: Life is a succession of moments – to live each one is to succeed. – Corita Kent
Random Fact of the Week: Galapagos tortoises may reach a length of over 4 ft and weigh over 500 lb!
Funny Line of the Week: I would like to thank my parents- especially my mother and father. – Greg Norman in his winning speech at the 1484 World Championship
Have a Fantastic Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham