Xi Cheng left home at the age of fourteen in search of bread. A two year drought had killed off all but the hardiest vegetable crops in his farming village of Zihua-Ni (mostly horseradish, potatoes, beets, and other root crops), and there was not much to eat. His parents sold their little hut to buy food to sustain the family, but it was not enough for Xi. So he went down to the local train station, and when no one was looking he hopped onto a freight car on a train that had stopped to unload a trickle of relief supplies. He didn’t know where the train was going, but he didn’t get off until he saw a sea of buildings all around him, and he knew he was in a big city.
Lucky for Xi, he had landed in Shanghai, a city that was booming in every sense of the word. Countless construction cranes dotted the horizon; towering trees in the forest of progress and industrialization. After alighting from his freight car, Xi was able to find a job with the first construction crew he stumbled upon.
For the next nineteen years Xi worked fourteen hour days, seven days a week. At first, he only made enough to buy the bread he came looking ffor; his living quarters were under a concrete and steel on-ramp. But he soon got his first promotion, and he was finally able to rent a bed in a boardinghouse filled with construction workers, sixteen to a room. His second promotion came shortly thereafter,as did his third and fourth, and within nineteen years Xi climbed from the lowly position of human cement-mixer to site manager.
Xi Cheng is a typical Chinese success story; he left the agrarian village his family had lived in for millennia, and became part of the rapidly growing middle class that is filling the cities faster than you could crack open a soggy piñata filled with chili sauce. But he is also like the typical Chinese success story in that he almost never sees his parents. In his mind, they don’t just live 700 miles away, they live 700 years away. Their simple way of living off the land, eating what they grow and growing what they need, is antediluvian, primitive, and archaic. He represents the future, they represent the past, and he has no need for the past.
Some years, he visits them for the Lunar New Year, but his visits are short and condescending. They beg him to visit more often, but he doesn’t find it meaningful, and leaves as soon as the next train can whisk him back on the rails of progress to the big city; the lights, the glamour, the restaurants, and the nightclubs.
Chinese culture is filled with ideals of filial piety. As schoolchildren, the Chinese are taught about the Confucian disciple who subsisted on wild grass while traveling with sacks of rice to give to his parents. But that was religious school, Xi lives in the modern world, and the two don’t seem to have much overlap.
The Chinese government, recognizing the wholesale abandonment of elders that is occurring to hundreds of millions of parents, recently enacted laws requiring people to visit their parents. A New York Times article published on July 2 reported on the new law, called “Protection of the Rights and Interests of Elderly People.” Its nine clauses, that lay out the duties of children and their obligation to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly,” were described, along with the challenges this new law faces in an era where filial piety is at its nadir. The weakness of this law is in the fact that it calls upon the young to visit their parents to tend to the “spiritual needs of the elderly,” when really the young should be visiting their parents to tend to the “spiritual needs of the young.”
This Tuesday is Tisha B’av, the day upon which the Jews mourn the destruction of our Temple and the subsequent exile into a diaspora in which Jews have wandered and settled in over 100 countries around the world. It is not the most popular of Jewish holidays,;indeed, in many communities it is not commemorated at all. Many Jews see the Temple as antediluvian; primitive in its animal sacrifice and hierarchal service, and archaic in its need for a physical location to bring about spiritual enlightenment. But perhaps one way to understand Tisha B’av is through the eyes of the parents of Xi.
This couple raised Xi by giving him everything they had. They cared for him as a baby; holding him, feeding him, changing him, taking care of his every need. When he was old enough, they began teaching him their values: respect for elders, the value of family life, the importance of religion, and the significance of community. Yet as soon as there was a short drought, he abandoned them and their ways, moving to the big city filled with lights. In the big city he found what he was looking for, but it was not what they were hoping he would find. Sure, he had his own apartment with modern amenities, and certainly, he worked hard to achieve it, but in the process he lost the values they had taught him, and now they could see only the shell of the beautiful man they had hoped to create.
G-d gave us everything we have. He took us out of Egypt, and provided for our every need. He fed us with His manna, nursed us with the Well of Miriam, swaddled us in His clouds of glory, and gave us His Torah to teach us the values that He holds dear:spirituality, mitzvos, love, selflessness, kindness, sanctity, holiness, and respect. He brought us into His country where he watched over us like the apple of His eye, and He related to us in Our Home, the Holy Temple, where G-d and His children came together to live and grow.
But there was a spiritual drought, the Jewish people fought incessantly amongst one another, baseless hatred and divisiveness took hold of our people, and G-d had to “sell” His home in the hopes that it would be enough to bring us back to where we were supposed to be.
But we got on the train of diaspora and never fully came back. Sure, we became successful, the Jews earn more per capita than any other people, and certainly, we have beautiful homes and apartments filled with modern amenities, but we lost our ideal relationship with Him in the process. Many of G-d’s children only visit Him around the New Year, many of them think of His ways as ancient, archaic, and not meaningful to their lives, and hop back on the train of modernity after spending the minimum amount of time with Him that they can. Even those that come around more often haven’t stopped the bickering, the baseless hatred, and the divisiveness that broke up the home in the first place.
So, G-d stands at a distance, longing for the day of the return of His children, hoping that they once again take up the mantle of the “nation of ministers and a holy people,” yearning for the time that they once again will be “a light unto the nations.” His desire for our return is not that “the spiritual needs of the Father be met,” but that the “spiritual needs and capabilities of His children be met.”
Tisha B’av is the day for us to sit on the floor and contemplate what we’ve lost. It is the day for us to think about how we can get on the train of spiritual progress and return to our Father in Heaven. It is the day that we hope and pray will turn from a day of mourning to a day of rejoicing, when the words of the prophet Tzefania (3:20) are fulfilled:
“At that time I will bring them, and at that time I will gather you, for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your captivities before your eyes, said the Lord.”
Parsha Dvar torah
This week’s dvar torah is from the beautiful writings of R’ Elchonon Jacobovitz
And God spoke to me [Moshe] saying: Enough of your circling around this mountain [Mt. Sa’ir], turn yourselves northward.
Nearing his final days among the living, Moshe delivers a marathon pep talk to the Jewish nation, better known to us as the book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy. In pointing out the fledgling nation’s strong and weak points, he spends much time reviewing the forty years spent together in the desert, reflecting upon the trials and triumphs of that tumultuous period. Nearing the end of this short chronicle, Moshe recounts how, after having spent some time circling Mt. Sa’ir, ancestral homeland of Israel’s arch-nemesis Esau, God told him, “Enough of your circling around this mountain [Mt. Sa’ir], turn yourselves northward”.
While Moshe’s account is perfectly accurate, there is something odd about how he tells of God’s instructing him to move on. By saying “Enough of your circling around this mountain”, God seems to be almost annoyed at the Israelites for sticking around Mt. Sa’ir for too long. Yet in truth, it was God who had instructed them to remain there in the first place, for as we know, it was He who dictated the Israelites’ every move throughout the forty years. What, then, could God possibly mean?
Perhaps understanding the terms “Mt. Sa’ir” and “northward” metaphorically, will shed new light on God’s intent. As the ancestral territory of our nemesis Esau, “Mt. Sa’ir” can be understood as the seemingly impenetrable fortress of the forces which stand in the way of our spiritual success. Similarly, our Sages teach that the word Tzafon, or “northward”, can also be read as Tzafun, which means “hidden”. With this in mind, an entirely new message emerges, encrypted in a seemingly innocent account of the Israelites’ travels.
“Enough of your circling around this mountain”, says God. You have wasted enough time circling your challenges, trying to dream up of ways how “little you” can somehow overpower “big them” in one fell swoop, David-and-Goliath style. Don’t focus on being the glorious knight in shining armor scoring a knockout blow against Evil. Instead, turn your attention to scoring small, hidden triumphs; little, secret victories that may not get you into the newspaper. “Turn yourself to something hidden”. It is only through those small victories that your challenges will eventually fade away entirely. Trying to take them down with one knockout punch is simply effort wasted chasing the impossible.
Overcoming the forces that keep us away from God is not meant to be an all or nothing proposition. God does not want us to spend five minutes in the ring with adversity, with thousand of spectators cheering, and take him down with superhuman strength. Our struggle is meant to be a lifelong one, and we are only expected to be human. What God does want us to do is put up a sustained fight made up of small, entirely winnable battles, in the most hidden of forums and most unspectacular of ways.
Are we to suddenly begin praying Shacharis for two hours? No. But how about truly reflecting on how much we owe God for two seconds; two seconds so short that nobody even notices.
Should we suddenly throw everything for which we lust, out of our lives? No. But maybe we should hold ourselves back once or twice, and revel in the knowledge that only God and ourselves share the little secret of the victory we just achieved.
God does not expect, nor want us, to face down the mountains which stand in our way, and tear them down with our bare hands. All He asks is that we silently chip away tiny slivers off those mountains, slivers so small that only He and us even notice. And yes, with time, those mountains will crumble, so long as we keep on fighting the good and small fight, instead of dreaming about their dramatic downfall while doing nothing practical to accomplish that goal.
Don’t break mountains; break molehills, and the mountains will come crashing down.
The Parsha of Devarim is a record of what Moshe told the people before he died. In the later Parshiot, Moshe reviews some of the key laws (mostly those that will empower the people to set up a stable, functioning society in Israel), but in this Parsha, he reviews the salient events that occurred in their forty year journey. The goal was to ensure that those entering the land wouldn’t rest on their laurels and assume that if they were great enough to inherit the land, then obviously, they wouldn’t fall to sin. To negate this idea, Moshe recounts how the generation that witnessed the greatest miracles of all time (the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea), and saw G-d at Sinai in the clearest revelation mankind ever experienced, still fell in the trap of sin.
The basis for this phenomenon is the principle that, “Whoever is greater than his friend, his Evil Inclination is greater.” (Talmud Succah 52a) The higher one’s ability to soar, the lower they are able to fall. (This applies for geographic locations as well. Yerushalayim comes from the merging of Yeru Shalom which means “will see peace,” because it has the ability to bring the entire world peace. This could be accomplished by being the focal point of our prayers, and the city in which the whole world would come together to serve G-d in His temple. In that same way, it also has the ability to see the greatest negation of peace, as it has. I believe, and please email me if I am wrong, that Jerusalem has been the city that has seen the most violence in the world over the course of its 3,000+ years of history.) The generation of the desert had so much pushing them towards good but, to balance that, they also had so much pushing them toward evil. Therefore, Moshe felt it imperative to warn those going into Israel that, although they may be on a lofty spiritual plane, the danger of sin abounds.
Moshe first hints to the Jews’ major sins, including the Golden Calf, their complaining that G-d took them into the desert to kill them, the sending of the spies, their sins with the Midianite women, Korach’s rebellion, and their loss of faith in him at the sea before and after it split. After hinting to these sins, Moshe begins to detail certain events such as the appointment of judges and the failed mission of the spies. He also reminds them of how they had to circle around Israel and not enter from the south due to the Edomites and Moabites not allowing them through their lands, and G-d telling them not to fight with them.
Moshe then reminds the Jews of how, with the help of G-d, they were able to defeat giants like Og, and mighty kingdoms like Sichon, thus telling the Jews that if they put their faith in G-d, they need not fear the imminent conquest of Israel. Finally, the Parsha closes with Moshe describing the agreement he had made with the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe regarding their settling land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Cooperation is doing with a smile what you have to do anyhow. ~ A. Sulwaki
Random Fact of the Week: In 1924 a new Ford cost $265.
Funny Line of the Week: I don’t like when people talk while I’m interrupting.
Have a Introspective Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham