One of the many things that I’m thankful to G-d for, it is that He had the kindness to allow me to be born in Generation X, just before the Millennial Generation. It’s not that I have anything against millennials, some of my best friends are millennials, it’s just that they are probably the most maligned generation currently alive.
At the top of the social food chain are those dubbed “The Greatest Generation.” These were the people who were raised weathering the Great Depression and went on to fight WWII, risking life and limb to bring down fascism. Below them are the Baby Boomers, those born between 1946-1965, in the post-war rush to repopulate the world. They are generally seen as the hippie generation that threw off the conservative norms of their straight-laced parents and brought on the Civil Rights Movement, rock and roll, Harley Davidsons, and equality and justice for all, at least in theory. Below them are Generation Xers, the individualistic, financially driven, and relatively successful generation born in the later sixties and seventies.
At the bottom of the barrel in public opinion are the millennials. They are the ones people call, “snowflakes” and “entitled” as well as “coddled, narcissistic, self absorbed, social media addicts,” only looking to work in companies that offer beanbags, ping pong tables, and free locally-sourced organic craft cold brew coffee or avocado toast. That description is a bit heavy, and I’m quite thankful that I’ve dodged that generation by a few years, if for nothing other than not having the stress of getting beyong all that bias every time I meet someone.
Millennials, being the favored punching bag of the roughly 150 million Americans older than them, have also been blamed for the death of many industries and products. Here is a small sampling, all culled from actual news articles. Millennials have killed home ownership, with far more millennials renting instead of buying, or living with their parents. Millennials have killed mayonnaise with their obsession for sriracha, kimchi, and aioli. Millennials are killing the petroleum companies by refusing to work for what they consider a sinful industry. Millennials have killed department stores and malls by shopping online far more than in-store. Millennials are killing cereal because they find it too inconvenient to clean up after cereal.
Millennials are killing golf, napkins, diamonds, gyms, home-improvement stores, yogurt, football, bar soap, motorcycles, Facebook, fabric softener, banks, designer handbags, and J. Crew. These are all industries or products seeing declining sales, and analysts have tied them all to the preferences of millennials, who at 86 Million strong, do make up a significant chunk of American consumer’s buying power.
Truthfully, I don’t mind the death of half the things the Millennials are killing, I never did like golf, diamonds, or yogurt anyway. But there is one thing that the Millennials are reportedly killing that I’m quite happy about, American Cheese. I’ve always believed that it is not American and not cheese. It’s not American because it’s an embarrassment to the American people, and it’s not cheese because it’s an embrassment to cheese, and also because it’s simply not cheese. Cheese is made with milk, rennet, and salt. American cheese does contain those ingredients, but it also contains texture and flavor altering ingredients such as whey, milk protein concentrate, annatto, sorbic acid, milkfat, sodium citrate, calcium phosphate, whey protein concentrate, and many more (the yellow variety of American cheese uses paprika extract for color). The most famous brand of individually wrapped slices of American cheese, Kraft Singles, is so far removed from cheese that it’s illegal to call it cheese! It may be cheap, creamy, and easy to melt, but cheese it is not.
American cheese is on the decline. Sales of Kraft Singles, big blocks of 108 slices, and the big blocks that can be cut into however many slices you want, are all in steep decline, and have been so for the better part of a decade. And that is probably a good thing. American cheese’s greatest claim to fame is that it melts really quickly and uniformly, but so does plastic. There are hundreds of different types of cheese being produced around the globe, with such a fantastic variety of flavors and textures, that we don’t need to choose the most processed of cheeses just because it melts well. So the Millennials finally get a break, they’ve done at least one good thing since being born in 1980!
But what are we to make of the Millennial revolution? Are they truly changing the world in ways that no other generation in recent memory has? Are they being criticized far too sharply for just being who they are, the same way every generation criticizes the youth of their day? Are they possibly not making such a difference, but when we see changing patterns we feel a need to pin it on someone other than ourselves?
There are two conflicting values at play here. The first is the value of newness, upon which Judaism places a high value. The first mitzvah the Jewish people received from G-d was to follow the lunar calendar instead of the solar calendar favored by the Egyptians. That is because the moon is constantly renewing itself, waxing and waning, while the sun remains the same. We celebrate the New Moon each month with a mini-holiday called Rosh Chodesh, which represents an opportunity to renew ourselves.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, ZT”L, (1847-1905) one of the great Gerrer Rebbes colloquially known as the Sfas Emess, in his exposition on the holiday of Shavuos in the year 5660 (1900), says:
“So too on every Shavuos, the “Time of the Giving of the Torah” the Jewish people receive the portion of the Torah that is renewed for that year, and then spend the rest of the year bringing it out from the potential to the actual each according to their place and time. And this renewal is dependent on the level of one’s preparation. And this is what [the Sages] hinted when they said ‘prepare yourself to learn Torah for it is not an inheritance to you.’ This means that each person should prepare himself to receive a portion of the Torah that renews itself for that year, that is not an inheritance, but rather renews itself in each time.”
The Sfas Emess is telling us to prepare ourselves for newness in Torah, that we are not only supposed to see what comes from the past, that which we inherit, but rather we are supposed to seek renewed understanding of the Torah, new Chiddushim, novel approaches that were not known before. Ideas which were given at Mt. Sinai, but sat in suspended animation waiting for the right generation when they were supposed to be revealed to the world. (This of course is not meant that we can make up whatever novel approach we want, it first has to fit with everything that came with our inherited knowledge of Torah, but it is a calling to seek to understand the Torah with a newness, not just the inherited.)
This idea explains what it means when we pray on Shabbos and Yom Tov that Ha-shem should “give us our lot in Your Torah.” Each of us has a piece of the Torah that is waiting to be brought out into the world by us, and we pray to Ha-shem that He should help us discover the gems in the Torah that are waiting for us to bring it out.
On the other hand, we have a healthy skepticism of the new in Judaism as well. There is a straightforward verse saying that there is no new. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the wisest of men, says (Eccl. 1:9), “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” There is no such thing as a revolutionary generation called the Millennials. All new generations are somewhat revolutionary, and they all exert a certain amount of influence on their world, as well as dredge up fear in the generations that come before them.
Today, the revolutionary food is avocado toast, cold brew coffee, and chipotle aioli, in a previous generation the revolutionary food was mayonnaise and American Cheese. Today, the open office design, with room for collaboration and ping pong tables is the new craze, fifty years ago, the cubicle farm was where companies sought to achieve better results.
Banks used to provide grain loans to farmers and traveling merchants four thousand years, money lenders set up stalls in the markets of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Medici family began modern banking by having branches in major cities around the world, and by the times of the Wild West, almost every small town had a bank. Now, banks are slowly moving online. But banks will always be, because people need money and are willing to pay interest, and people need a safe place to deposit their money.
Rebels in the sixties and seventies moved from four wheeled cars to two wheeled motorcycles, rebels of today move from four wheeled SUVs to electrified bicycles and scooters. People used to buy everything from the general store, then people bought everything in specialized retail locations, and now make a growing percentage of their purchases on a general store called the World Wide Web. The Millennials don’t deserve great blame or great credit for doing what people always do, change. That’s not news.
King Solomon said it best (Eccl, 1:4), “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth endures forever.” Whatever “revolutionary change” we’re seeing now, we’ve seen before, and we’ll see many times again.
But how do we resolve this conflict; is there newness or is it all the same? The key is to look at the wording of King Solomon, as this is wording he uses dozens of times in the book of Ecclesiastes, the final installment of his collected wisdom. There is nothing new under the sun. Throughout the book, King Solomon refers to things under the sun. Our Sages teach us that this means things in our physical world. In the physical world, nothing really changes qualitatively, we live out the same tropes as every generation, only the flavors change. The place where there is real newness is in what is over the sun, i.e. the spiritual world. In that world, real change is taking place all the time, and new things are happening.
That is because the spiritual struggles that I deal with are entirely unique to me based on my personal history, talents, limitations and life challenges. The same goes for you, and every other person on this planet. The choices we make are exclusive to us, and what we face has never been faced before. The Torah we produce, whether in actual explanations of the Torah or the Talmud, or in the way we live our lives is the real newness that can be found in the world. We are the revolutionaries.
So we can let the world around us talk about the Millennial revolution, but we know that the real revolution has been going on for Millennia. But it still is fresh every day. Every day a new challenge, every day a new opportunity to discover strengths and Torah inside of us that we never knew we had. Every day an opportunity to be uniquely and refreshingly new.
Parsha Dvar Torah
So there is a Great Flood with only 8 human survivors. They spend a year and change drifting around in a massive wooden boat, with thousands of animal, bird, and insect shipmates. Finally, the land lust starts running high. Afraid to venture out on his own, Noach sends out a couple of different birds hoping that one of them will find dry land. The raven refuses to leave the ark’s vicinity, but the dove, ever brave, courageous, and chivalrous, and sets out to find land.
The first time, the dove returns empty handed, not having found anything. However, the second time he is sent out, he returns with a branch from an olive tree, indicating that the floodwaters had subsided. The third time the dove does not return – clear proof that he has found a peaceful resting place on the newly washed earth.
One might wonder why it was an olive branch that was the mechanism chosen by G-d to show Noach the world would be inhabitable once again. G-d could have used any one of hundreds of fruits, yet He chose the olive. Why? (I personally would have hoped for an avocado branch, After spending about a year in the Ark, I would really appreciate a fresh guacamole!)
I lived in Israel for four years and went on many hiking trips in the beautiful and picturesque Galilee. There one can find olive trees growing in the wild, clear reminders of olives status as one of the 7 fruits Israel is blessed with. Being that I love olives (there is no place better than Israel for olive lovers – one can go to stores with tens of varieties of olives of every color and size), one day I decided to taste one of the many olives lying on the ground around one of the trees. Imagine my surprise when I found this natural, organic, fresh olive to be entirely inedible! It was bitter and tart, and I couldn’t even finish the one olive I had bitten into.
Wikipedia helped me with an explanation: “Olives freshly picked from the tree contain phenolic compounds and a unique glycoside, oleuropein, which makes the fruit unpalatable for immediate consumption.” (You see, you learn something new every day. I bet you didn’t know that!) There are a number of ways of processing olives to make them palatable. One can use one of several fermentation techniques to make olives edible, or crush them to make olive oil. But it is clear that olives need extensive processing in order to have any value to human beings.
Maybe this was the message of the olive branch. G-d was hinting to Noach that if he wanted to be able to repopulate the world properly he would need to undergo extensive processing. Naturally, man has a lot of evil in his heart. As the verse says in this weeks parsha, “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from [the time of] his youth.” (Gen. 8:21) His physical body pulls his mind toward the lowly ground from where it came, while his soul draws it upward to the spiritual world from where it originated.
The generation of the Flood was one that didn’t try to process at all. They just let themselves follow their raw, natural, and physical desires. This led to a world so evil that it needed to be washed clean, so it could have a fresh start. When the flood was over, G-d sent the olive to Noach as the instruction manual for the New World Order. The only way that man will be able to survive is by processing constantly, pressing and fermenting himself, to extract the best he has to offer world.
This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)
One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.
G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys).
The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area. The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.
When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.
For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding.
Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.
When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.
From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.
Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel , the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!
Quote of the Week: The bridges you cross before you come to them are over rivers that aren’t there. ~ Gene Brown
Random Fact of the Week: Benjamin Franklin invented crop insurance.
Funny Line of the Week: I like rice. Rice is great when you’re hungry and you want 2,000 of something.
Have a Supernal Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham