I’m pretty confident I have weird feet. I don’t know if they’re flat, crooked, or inverted, but they don’t seem to fit into most shoes like a hand fits in a glove. If you’re a podiatrist and reading this, please don’t email me back with suggestions or diagnoses, I’ve been to doctors and they always confirm my suspicions, “Yep Mr. Burnham, you have weird feet.”

There were a few years of denial back in my late teens and early twenties, but after buying too many pairs of shoes that spent their day quietly torturing me, I finally reached acceptance. My feet are weird and there are very few shoes that will provide me with more comfort than pain. As you can imagine, shoe shopping is a drag. I’ve already gotten to the place that function is more important than fashion, so I won’t even try on 90% of the shoes in any given store, but even the 10% is not a given. 

The ideal shoe for me is like a hug from a cousin. Cousins give you a nice warm hug, but won’t hold on too tight or too long to the point that things start to get uncomfortable. Shoes that are too loose make my feet feel unloved, I’ve never been able to wear Crocs or sandals for any significant length of time. Shoes that are too pointy also don’t work for me, my toes are friendly with each other, but they all need their own space.  So finding a good shoe is a challenge. 

More importantly, once I find a shoe that works for me, I want to hold onto that shoe for as long as the Good Lord will let it live. I’ve resoled shoes three of four times, I’ve worn shoes until they’re so beat that even shoeshine guys in the airport won’t touch them, they’re like, “Sorry man, even I have standards. I’m not gonna do that.”

This all brings me to my current situation. I bought a pair of Cole Haan shoes back in December of 2013 (Cole Haan generally seems to work best with my feet). I was real lucky because someone had put them on eBay with no minimum price, and they only cost me $17.51 and $7.99 in shipping (yes, I checked my eBay account this morning to verify that, and yes they were NIB- new in box). For almost two years now, I’ve worn those shoes all day, every day, about three hundred days a year. I’m happy with them, they seem happy with me, it’s been a mutually beneficial relationship. 

I’m the kind of person that gets emotionally attached to things that take good care of me. I love my big old sweater, the one I wore until it started to get all holy on me.  I once spent seven minutes in a junkyard saying goodbye to a car that had given me three years and 40,000 miles of its life before being totaled in an unfortunate accident. Needless to say, I have a great appreciation for my current shoes, I’ve probably walked 2,000 miles in them. But over the last few months, I’ve noticed that the soles of these shoes are wearing thin.

The problem is that these kinds of soles can’t be replaced. You can slap a flat sole on top of another flat sole, glue it down, and you have another year of life on a pair of shoes. But these shoes come with a ridged sole; nothing sticks to their irregular surface, and when they’re done they done. They go to where all good soles go when they die…

Already now, with the soles so thin, I can feel the texture of gravel and cracks in the concrete as I walk over them. But I can handle that. I can’t handle what happens next. One day, perhaps in a week, perhaps in a month, a tiny hole will just appear in the sole of my beloved shoe. Anytime it rains, my socks will get damp and clammy. I’m going to try to hold on just a bit longer; I’ll only wear those shoes when there’s no rain or snow on the ground, but there’s only so long I can keep those shoes on life support. Soon, I’m just going to have let them be at peace. 

If you can’t tell, my shoe situation has taken up an unfair amount of my brain power recently. I’ve spent real time wondering, how does this happen? How does a good pair of shoes, well made with quality materials, just give out on you? The answer I know to be true but still don’t want to accept, is that every single step I take I leave a tiny bit of rubber on the pavement. The rough concrete scratches off a microscopic amount of rubber, but by the time you’ve walked approximately 4,200,000 steps like I have, a lot of rubber has been left behind. (At this advanced stage of my shoes’ deterioration, I’m careful not to twist my shoes laterally on the pavement, such as when getting in a car, as I’m sure that takes off more rubber than a regular step.)

My shoes mortality has of course caused me to ponder my own mortality. My soul too only has a certain number of steps in this world. And every time my soul scratches against the pavement, every time I interact with another human being, a little bit of me is left with them. This applies to people I meet behind the checkout counter, in the toll both, wait staff, friends, janitors, and family alike. Even an interaction as simple as passing someone in the hall causes me to leave a bit of me with them. Was my demeanor warm and welcoming, or cold, uncaring, and distant? Every time I talk to my children, even about simple things like how their day went, I leave a chunk of me with them that will not only stay with them forever, but likely be transmitted in weaker form to the way they treat their children. 

The great sage Shamai taught us (Ethics of Our Fathers, 1:15) “Receive every person with a cheerful face.” Shamai recognized that a human being who passes by 150 people smiling at him during the course of each day is an entirely different person that a human being who passes 150 people who don’t look at him, or look grim as they pass each other hurriedly and uncomfortably. It is our responsibility to be people who make others better by quietly radiating comfort and encouragement as we pass them by, talk to them, or otherwise engage with them.

I will only interact with a set amount of people in my life. The number may be in the millions, but when this soul is done with all its steps, I won’t be able to simply slap another one on. My goal is to be a good shoe, to make sure that I provide the most comfort, support, and warmth to everyone I interact with, before my soul goes off to where all souls go when they’re done. 

Parsha Dvar Torah

Abraham stood ready to accept his fate. Though he and Sarah had spent a lifetime spreading loving-kindness and bringing countless people back to a relationship with the one true G-d, they had no children of their own. He had been promised offspring by G-d on at least two occasions (Bereishis 12:7, 13:16), but still, Abraham’s understanding of the spiritual laws that govern human existence led him to believe that he and Sarah were not destined to have a child together.

At that very moment, the word of G-d came to Abraham once more and reassured him that his fate has not been sealed. Not only would he have offspring, but also their numbers would be like the stars in heaven. Previously, G-d foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the “dust of the earth.” (Bereishis 13:16)

The Talmud comments on these two metaphors, noting that when the Jewish people stray from their mission and refuse to follow the will of G-d, they will be trampled and looked down upon by all – like the dust of the earth. However, when they fulfill their mission as G-d’s emissaries in the world, they rise to unimaginable heights – like the stars in the heavens.

There is a deeper aspect to comparing the Jewish people to the stars in heaven. From our vantage point, stars appear as tiny specks of light in the sky. It would be easy to regard each star as relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Each star is actually a phenomenally huge, burning mass of energy and power; most are more than a hundred times the size of our own sun.

The same holds true with regard to the powerful spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. From a distance, it can be easy to overlook – or not notice – the special talents and abilities found within each Jewish person. The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as hidden potential! There is only potential that we have perhaps not yet come to see, recognize or understand.

Rabbi Yisroel Brog relates this story from his childhood that illustrates this point:

Rabbi Brog’s father was a man with an enormous heart. He would regularly invite people into his home to share meals, even offering them a place to sleep if need be. Even when a person was a bit eccentric, rude, or demanding, he continued to care for them with patience, kindness and love.

One day, Rabbi Brog’s father brought an elderly, apparently homeless Jewish man home for breakfast. The man asked for two eggs cooked for exactly two minutes. When the eggs were done, he asked for another set – the first two had been cooked longer than his required two minutes! By the end of the week, not only was this man having his “two eggs cooked for two minutes,” he actually moved in – and ended up living with the family for a number of years!

Every day, this old Jew would leave the house at five in the morning. For large parts of the day, he was gone. No one knew where he went or what he did. Rabbi Brog, then a youngster, was curious. One day, he worked up the courage to ask him what he did. The man told him that if he wanted to know, he should join him. The next morning, the young Yisroel was up and ready at five a.m., and together, he and the old man left the house.

That day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the young boy’s life. For an entire day, he watched as this elderly Jew went from hospitals to old age homes to individual homes, helping people without let-up. They visited the elderly and the infirm, bringing them various things they needed, helping them put on tefillin, cheering them up, and raising their spirits. The whole neighborhood felt the impact of this man and his good deeds.

It turned out that Rabbi Brog’s eccentric house guest was a survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. Now, his only wish was to help others as much as he could. Imagine what the young Rabbi Brog would have grown up thinking had he never bothered to draw closer to this hidden treasure!

There are many such people among the Jewish people. Perhaps they are hidden just beyond our view, or perhaps we have not taken the time to discover who they are. Nonetheless, they are there. Learning to seek out, appreciate and encourage the spiritual potential of every Jew enriches our lives and helps us become a nation of people who are truly likened to the stars.

Parsha Summary

In this week’s Parsha,  the story of the creation of the Jewish people commences. In the beginning of the Parsha, Ha-shem tells Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and the house of his father, and go to the place that G-d will show him. G-d promises him greatness, wealth, and children if he goes. 

We learn two things from the journey that Avram embarked upon. Firstly, in order for a person to make his mark in the world, he has to do things because he believes in them, not because it is the way he grew up, the custom of his people, or the custom of his parents. Additionally, we see that G-d never told Avram his destination, he simply told him to go “to the place I will show you.” G-d was not trying to hide the destination from Avram, He simply couldn’t show it to him. When one sets out on a spiritual journey, he can’t possibly comprehend his destination, because the journey itself transforms him into a different person, with a different perspective, one that he couldn’t have had at the beginning of the journey

As soon as Avram gets to Israel , the place he was told to travel to, there was a famine. This was one of the 10 tests that Avram was tested with. Would he have complaints against G-d who promised him greatness and wealth, or would he accept the situation, and know that G-d was doing what was best for him? (Avram underwent 10 tests, which covered every class of challenge his progeny would ever face, so that he could code his children with the spiritual DNA needed to overcome those ordeals.)

Avram traveled to Egypt to escape the famine. Knowing the rampant immorality of Egypt , he asked his wife Sarai to say she was his sister so that they wouldn’t kill him in order to steal his wife. As Avram suspected, they did indeed snatch Sara to become the king’s wife.  However, G-d intervened and miraculously plagued the house of the pharaoh until he got the message and, feigning innocence, sent Sara back to her husband with compensatory gifts. He then asked the couple to leave his country knowing that his people could not control themselves.

Avram went back to Israel, only to have an argument with Lot, his nephew, who was allowing his flock to pasture in fields which didn’t belong to him. Avram finally said to Lot, “Pick a direction, go there, and I will go the other way, but I will stay close enough to protect you.” (Important Lesson: If you can’t beat them, leave them. If you stay around people doing evil you are bound to get influenced.) After Avram parted ways with Lot , G-d appeared to him and repeated the promise of numerous progeny which, as a childless man 75 years old, Avram accepted unquestioningly. 

Then came the Great War. 4 Kings vs. 5 Kings. All the bookies had the five kings as the strong favorites but, lo and behold, the underdogs took the five kings in a sweep, capturing Lot in the process. Avram set out to save his nephew with a few men, and this time, the bookies once again favored the wrong team, as Avram scored a miraculous victory. Although the king of Sodom (one of the 5 losers that Avram rescued) offered Avram all the wealth of his people, Avram refused to take any of it, being unwilling to exchange an infinite mitzvah for mere finite money no matter what the amount. 

Once again, G-d assured Avram that he will have children that will be numerous like the stars and, not only that, he will also give them the land of Israel as an inheritance. Avram asked, “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” Avram knew that man has free will, and was afraid that he or his offspring would sin and become unworthy of the Holy Land. At this point G-d made a special covenant with Avram using different animal parts, to signify that his progeny would inherit the land in the merit of the animal offerings they would sacrifice in the temple.

After this, Avram, on the urging of his wife Sara, took a second wife, Hagar. She was the daughter of a pharaoh, who came to Avram and declared that she would rather be a maidservant in his house than a princess in the house of a pharaoh. Sara asked that Avram marry Hagar, hoping that she would have a baby that Sara would raise as an adopted child. However, once Hagar got married and became pregnant with Avram’s first child, she began to be haughty toward Sara, thinking that she must be holier than Sara if she got pregnant so quickly. Sara told Avraham of the outrage occurring in his house and said that G-d should judge what should happen with the situation.

Avraham told Sara to deal with Hagar as she saw fit, and Sara, sensing a woman who needed to remember the humility that brought her to the house in the first place, dealt with her harshly. Hagar ran away to the desert. An angel met Hagar and told her to go back and be afflicted under Sara, as it would teach her the humility she needs. He then informed her that she will have a child who will be a wild man, fighting with everyone, and she should name him Yishmael (Yishmael is the father of the Arab nations. As a matter of fact they claim that the Akeida- the final test Avraham was tested with, occurred with Yishmael their forefather and not Yitzchak, our forefather). She thanked and blessed G-d (this, possibly, is the root of Arab women who are happy with their suicide bomber children, as Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, accepts the news of her progeny’s wildness and banditry as a blessing).

Thirteen years after Yishmael was born, when Avram was 99 years old, G-d commanded him to circumcise himself. One of the ideas behind bris milah is the understanding that G-d, by design, creates an imperfect world so that we can be partners with Him in bringing the world to its perfection. This is true regarding food, he creates the olives, grains, and grapes, but we complete His creation by making oil, bread, and wine. He creates us with some negative character traits, and we spend our life changing them and perfecting ourselves. The ultimate symbol of this is our circumcision, in which we show that we believe that G-d only gave us the raw material (an uncircumcised body), and it is our job to bring it to its completion and perfection through the bris.

After this mitzvah, G-d informed Avram that He was changing his name from Avram to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sara. In Hebrew, a person’s name reflects their essence, so when G-d tells someone He is changing their name, it means that with it He is changing their essence. With their new names and essences, Avraham and Sara will finally be able to give birth in the next Parsha, but I better stop here because I don’t want to give away too much!

Quote of the Week: Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still. – Leonardo Da Vinci

Random fact of the Week: The deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean is 28 times as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

Funny Line of the Week: I started out with nothing…I still have most of it.

Have a Delicious Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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