It doesn’t look like we’ll be having snow angels this Chanukah in our area, but instead we got a different kind of angel, the layaway angel.

Like so many good things, layaway angels got their start in the great state of Michigan. But now they are sweeping the nation, with layaway angel reports coming in from Indiana, Iowa, New Jersey, Nebraska, Montana, California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and even New York City.

So what are these layaway angels, how did they start in Michigan, and is there still time for me to get some layaway angels for my kids as Chanukah gifts?

The layaway angel phenomenon began on December 6th, in Grand Rapids MI. An anonymous woman walked up to a local Walmart’s layaway section, and asked if she could pay off the layaway accounts of three families that were in desperate financial situations. She paid each one off in full, leaving a balance of just two cents, so that the layaway account wouldn’t be closed out. Without any fanfare, she walked out of Walmart, disappeared, and to this day has not been identified despite many attempts to locate the first layaway angel ever.

The Walmart in Grand Rapids called the three families, told them that their layaway accounts had been reduced to two cents, and then called every news station they could. The media was out in full strength to catch the tears, the joy, and the “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it” moments. The news spread like wildfire, as good news is wont to do in tough times, and faster than a dreidel spins, layaway angels started popping up all over the country.

In Missoula, Mont., a man paid off the accounts of six customers whose layaway orders were about to be returned to a Walmart store’s inventory because of late payments. An anonymous Silicon Valley donor paid off 63 layaway accounts totaling a whopping $9,800 at a Walmart store in Hayward, Calif., last week after hearing about the Good Samaritan in Grand Rapids. In an email, he told the San Jose Mercury News, “I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about it, and wanted to help. I do not want publicity, only to encourage others to pay it forward.”

Customers at a Super Walmart in Indianapolis were able to meet their angel face to face. Angie Torres walked up to the layaway section with about $200 in holiday gifts. She asked the clerk what was the minimum amount she needed to pay in order to hold onto the gifts when a woman she never met before came up and said, “Don’t worry about that, you can put away your purse, I’m going to take care of that for you!” After a tearful hug from Angie, she paid for her layaway, paid for 50 other shocked people’s layaway accounts, and them strolled the aisles handing out fifties. When people asked how they could thank her, she simply asked them to pass the kindness on. She finished her kindness spree by paying off someone’s $400 bill, and then walked out and disappeared.

By now, thousands of layaway angels have taken the country by a storm, donating millions of dollars to strangers who need the money. But even more then the money, these people need the miracle to give them the wherewithal to keep on trukkin’ in times so tough. In a world where the word spree is usually preceded by the word killing or shopping, being able to replace it with the word kindness is gratifying, uplifting, and inspiring.

This could not happen at a more apropos time. Two of Chanukah’s most significant messages are highlighted by the layaway angel phenomenon. The first is the power of the few to impact the many. Before the Maccabbee revolt, the vast majority of Jews had given up. Some willingly, some under the crushing laws enacted against practicing Judaism, but the vast majority of Jews had given up on Judaism altogether. But a few people filled with love and passion were able to ignite the masses, and “Mi LaHa-shem ailay, Whoever is for G-d come to me!” the rallying cry in the small city of Modi’in inflamed the Jewish people and gave them back their fighting spirit.

The woman who paid for three layaway accounts in Grand Rapids, MI had no idea that she would start a tsunami of goodness, but a little bit of light, when lit with pure intentions manages to push away a lot of the darkness.

We too can be Maccabees, we too can be the agents of change for people all around us. Whether we do it by putting together a Shabbat meal and inviting people who don’t have one to join us for ours, or by getting a few friends together and starting a Torah study class in our home, we can be the one who re-ignites neshamas in people around us, neshamas that may have lied dormant for decades. By committing ourselves to smiling to everyone we pass at work and wishing them a “Good Morning!” or “Have a Great Day!” we can be the ones who transform our workplace into a friendlier and warmer place.

The second parallel between the Chanukah story and the layaway angels is the idea that some events may not solve all our problems but still they can provide the fuel we need to make it through them. I doubt that any of the families helped by the layaway angels have seen all their problems melt away, but I do believe that the layaway angels may have given them enough boost to keep on fighting whatever tribulations they are facing.

This is the story of Chanukah. The miracle of the lights did not end the challenges of the Maccabees, they would have to fight off the Greeks for seventeen more years, but it let them know that G-d was on their side, and that fueled their spirits through seventeen years of war, death, and destruction. Man can endure almost anything when he knows that G-d is by his side.

We too can find the Chanukah moments in our lives. We may be facing daunting challenges, with all the odds stacked against us, but if we can find those moments when G-d is winking at us, we can fight through anything. It can be a string of green lights that is totally out of the norm, finding a hundred dollar bill crumpled up in pocket we don’t remember leaving it in, or even a gloriously mild December. But the key is to find those Chanukah moments, and celebrate what they mean, that G-d is winking at us and saying, “I’m still with you! It may be dark outside, it may be hard inside, but I’m here with you.” And that’s all we need to fuel us through our toughest moments.

It’s unclear how long the layaway angel phenomenon will continue, but the real question is how long will the layaway angel phenomenon live on in us. Because it is in our power to take this light and make it glow brightly long after it first shined. The light glowed “Bayamim Haheim, In those days,” it’s our job to make it glow “Bazman Hazeh, In these times.”


Parsha Dvar Torah

This week I saw a Dvar Torah from my friend Rabbi David Zuderer that impressed me so much, that I had to share it with you! Please enjoy,

You remember the famous Irving Berlin song – “I’m Dreamin’ of a White Chanukah”? Well, this week’s Torah portion tells a story about Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and what he was dreamin’ about. And it’s a very strange story indeed.

Pharaoh has this seemingly silly dream about seven fat cows being swallowed up by seven skinny ones, and another dream about seven healthy, full ears of grain being consumed by seven thin ears. And if that’s not ridiculous enough, Pharaoh then calls together his entire cabinet and all the wisest men of the land to discuss the possible meaning of these dreams! Don’t you think he would be a little embarrassed to relate to them such insignificant and childish dreams that are obviously the product of a very fertile imagination?

My late grandfather, Rabbi Joseph Baumol zt”l, once explained as follows: To gain some insight into the dreams of Pharaoh, it might help to examine other great Biblical personalities and the dreams that they had. The first great person to dream in the Torah was Jacob – and he had two of them. His first dream was about the ladder that was set earthward and its top reached heaven ward, and angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it. This dream was of a spiritual nature, reflecting Jacob’s connection to G-d and the Higher Worlds. His second dream was more rooted in the physical world. He said, “I raised my eyes and saw in a dream – Behold! The he-goats that mounted the flock were ringed, speckled, and checkered ….” (Genesis 31:10). In this dream, Jacob saw how G-d was watching over his sheep, enabling him to gain material wealth.

Joseph also had two dreams – one dream in which eleven sheaves were bowing down to his sheaf, and another in which the sun, the moon, and eleven starts were bowing down to him. The first dream symbolized Joseph’s acquisition of great material wealth, so much so that his own brothers would bow to him because of their need for grain, while the second talks of Joseph’s more spiritual aspirations for greatness.

So there seems to emerge a pattern among the great personalities of ancient times in which they would dream of both material and spiritual pursuits simultaneously. It was only natural, therefore, for Pharaoh to assume when he had two dreams, that one dream would be of a material nature while the other represented spiritual greatness. So Pharaoh took these dreams very seriously, and even convened a meeting of his wisest counselors to see if they could interpret the exact messages of these two dreams.

When their interpretive efforts failed to satisfy Pharaoh, Joseph was brought in to give it a shot. So the first thing Joseph tells him is – “Pharaoh, you are making a big mistake in thinking that you are in the company of other great Biblical personalities who dreamed of both material and spiritual greatness – ‘Chalom Paraoh echad hu’ (see Genesis 41:25) – your two dreams in reality are only one dream repeated twice. Your dreams are purely materialistic in nature, representing the years of plenty and the years of famine that are to come. You have no connection to spirituality; hence your dreams are limited to material wealth and nothing more.”

Each and every one of us has dreams – dreams of great and promising careers, big houses, exotic vacations, dreams for ourselves, dreams for our children (“my son, the doctor”) – and it is imperative to the human condition that we have these dreams and aspirations. The greatest of our people had such dreams as well. But let’s not forget that, at the same time, these great people also dreamed of ladders to the heavens and of becoming more refined and G-dlike.

These two dreams don’t have to conflict with each other. As we climb the corporate ladder of material success, we should remember not to neglect our spiritual goals as well. We can take some time off during our busy work schedule to climb a different ladder – the kind of ladder that Jacob dreamed about, which connects us with our more spiritual side and with G-d. Maybe we can join a Torah class, or just take some time during the day to read a book of Jewish content (like the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash, for example. It is extremely readable and you can gain so much knowledge of the Torah by just reading a page of it a day!).

As we help our children realize their (and our) dreams of success in life, we can simultaneously give them the opportunity to dream about spiritual greatness. Maybe we can read to them stories of great Jewish men and women who did special things and lived their lives for others – which is the essence of spirituality. And we can teach them to appreciate the wisdom and insight of the Torah by appreciating it ourselves and involving ourselves in more study. Let our children dream about being great and special as they dream about being successful and prominent.

We should never sell ourselves and our kids short. What we dream about reflects greatly on who we are. Maybe Pharaoh just didn’t “get the spiritual thing”. But we are the descendants of that “dream team” Jacob and Joseph, and their legacy of greatness in both the material and spiritual realms is for all of us to emulate and aspire to.


Parsha Sumary

This Parsha begins with Pharaoh having two very strange, yet similar, dreams. In the first one, he sees seven fat cows grazing in the marshes. Suddenly, seven thin, sickly cows consume the seven fat cows, but they don’t gain any weight. In the second dream, the same episode occurs with fat and thin stalks of grain. Pharaoh brings in all the wise people to help him interpret the dream but no one can do so.

Suddenly, the king’s butler remembers that there had been a Jewish boy in prison with him who properly interpreted his dream. He tells Pharaoh about Yosef, and Yosef is taken out of prison, bathed, barbered, and brought before the king (how did you like that alliteration?).

Yosef tells the king that with the help of G-d he will interpret the dreams. He explains that the dreams portend of seven years whence the land will experience great abundance (the 7 fat cows/ stalks), which will be succeeded by seven years of such hunger (the 7 thin cows/ stalks) that no one will be able to tell that there had once been an abundance (the thin cows/ grains not gaining weight). The fact that there were two dreams indicates that what they reveal will begin immediately.

Yosef then continues to advise Pharaoh to store up all the extra grain during the seven years of abundance so that there would be enough food to keep everyone alive during the famine. Pharaoh likes the idea and gives Yosef the job. He grants Yosef the title vice-king (Viceroy = Vice Roi, roi meaning king in French), and declares that Yosef shall run the entire Egypt, and that the only person with more power than Yosef will be Pharaoh himself.

Sure enough, things go as foretold. There are 7 years of plenty, Yosef gathers massive stores of food essentials, and then the famine begins. Oh, I forgot, in the middle Yosef gets married and had two children, Ephraim and Menasheh.

Soon, the famine reaches Israel and Yaakov sends 10 of his children down to Egypt to procure provisions for his progeny. He keeps Binyamin with him as he can’t bear to lose both of Rachel’s children, and he already lost Yosef (or so he thought). Now, it is important to remember that the string of events which follow were all devised by Yosef to help his siblings see the mistake they made in selling him, so that they could properly repent.

When the brothers come into Egypt they are rounded up and brought before Yosef who begins to interrogate them. They explain that they are from a family of 11 brothers and that they had another brother who is no longer with them. Yosef accuses them of being liars and spies and tells them that the only way they can prove that they are saying the truth is by bring down their remaining brother so that Yosef can see him.

Yosef instructs his servants to load up their donkeys and send them back home. However, he keeps one brother (Shimon) as a hostage and tells them that they cannot get any more food unless they bring Binyamin down with them. He then instructs his son Menashe to put each brother’s moneybag back into their sacks. When the brothers find their money, they become even more nervous, as now it looks like they stole!

The brothers go back to their father, Yaakov, and relate to him the events that transpired. He refuses to allow Binyamin to go down. Finally, the food runs out again, and Yehuda, the brother with inherent leadership capabilities, tells his father that he will take personal responsibility for bringing Binyamin back, to the point that he is willing to use his share in the World to Come as security. Yaakov relents and the brothers go back to Egypt with Binyamin.

The brothers bring money to the head of Yosef’s home and explain that they found it in their bags, but they are told to keep it. Yosef arranges for them to have a special meal with him. Yosef enters and inquires about his father, then turns to Binyamin and blesses him. Overcome with emotion, Yosef rushes out to weep and then comes back after regaining his composure. He then seats the brothers in order of age, telling them that his magic goblet told him their ages. He gives Binyamin a special portion 5 times larger than the brothers’ portions.

The next morning, when the brothers set out, he again instructs Menashe to put their money back in the bag, but he also tells him to hide his goblet in Binyamin’s sack. Soon after they set out, Menashe chases them down with a small army and asks them why they returned Yosef’s kindness with thievery, stealing the goblet they know is especially dear to Yosef. Yehuda speaks up for them and denies any liability, going as far as to say that if the goblet is found with any of the brothers, they can kill that brother and the rest of the brothers will be slaves.

Of course, they find the goblet with Binyamin, and Menashe tells the brothers that he won’t kill Binyamin, he will just take him as a slave, and the rest are free to go. They all go back to the palace, where Yehuda pleads before Yosef and tells him that all the brothers wish to remain together and that they will all become slaves. However, Yosef refuses, saying that he is not corrupt and he won’t take the others because they did no crime, but that Binyamin has to stay. In that tension-filled palace room, the Parsha ends, and I know you will be back next week to see what goes down!!

Quote of the Week: Ask yourself the secret of your success. Listen to your answer and practice it. – Richard Bach

Random Fact of the Week: A ten-gallon hat actually holds a little less than one gallon of water.

Funny Line of the Week: Funny Line of the Week: About a month ago I got a cactus. A week later, it died. I was really depressed because I was like ‘Gosh! I am less nurturing than a desert.’

Have a Bright Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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