This is a rerun from a previous Shabbos email, that came out exactly eight years ago. I hope you enjoy!
I introduced my wife to the pleasures of good sushi on our seventh date. In just a few hours, my slight obsession with sushi transferred over to her. This was all good and fine while we were living in NY, where even pizza shops have sushi counters, and decent sushi is as plentiful as leftover turkey on the fourth Friday in November. But when we moved to Detroit in 2005, we found ourselves in a kosher sushi wasteland. At that time, there was nowhere you could buy kosher sushi in the whole city, (this has B”H since been rectified), and my wife and I began experiencing sushi withdrawal.
The casual observer might notice us staring at a menu with glazed eyes for minutes on end, hoping that if we looked long enough we would see the hidden sushi options. But only close friends who spent time in our home would know the extent of our withdrawal. Drinking shots of soy sauce, eating schnitzel with chopsticks, spreading wasabi liberally on our challah, and eating those dried-rice-and-nori snacks from Trader Joe’s– these were all signs of something less than healthy.
My wife tried valiantly to make her own sushi, but little grains of rice got stuck in the bamboo mat and all over her hands, and the rolls were already falling apart before she was done. We were on the verge of importing an undocumented immigrant from Vietnam to become out personal sushi chef, when my wife learned that she too can make sushi. We had gone to her sister’s house in St. Louis, and on Shabbos morning, her sister set up a rolling station and calmly rolled out fifteen rolls of nice, tight, sushi rolls. My wife learned that you need to wrap the bamboo mat in plastic, wet your hands frequently, and add rice vinegar to the rice when it’s in the rice cooker. But follow those simple tips and you could make awesome sushi, all by yourself, right here on Gardner St!
In the early days, Sara stayed conservative, sticking to salmon-avocado, spicy salmon, spicy tuna, and Alaska rolls (with faux kani). But I encouraged her, always complimenting her extensively or perhaps even excessively. It worked, because not only did she get better at the sushi she was making, she also started getting more inventive. All her sushi has fish in it (my motto is “if it never swam, it ain’t sushi!”), but now her repertoire includes a number of different spicy sauces as well as a host of palate twisting ingredients from mango, to capelin caviar, cooked sweet potato, candied nuts, sour apple crunch, and even a gefilte fish! She has truly become a world class sushi chef. (I should have complimented her extensively or perhaps excessively on her stocks trading skills…)
It gets better. Recently, I entered Round 27 in the never ending battle of Leiby Burnham vs. Leiby’s Belly. I began running a bit, walking more, and I’m even trying to work on portion control and Nutrition Facts reading. The challenge is that when I’m starving and I open the refrigerator and see nothing enticing, I automatically reach for the leftover brownies from Shabbos or I start pounding Wheat Crackers, both options that score big points for Leiby’s Belly. To help me with this challenge, Sara has really stepped up the sushi production and will often churn out 15-20 rolls twice a week! Sushi is good and good for you, and now that it’s plentiful I can finally leave the leftover brownies alone!
But it gets even better. On Wednesday, I had a busy day, and I didn’t get home until 10:30ish. Sara also had a super busy day. She is an ICU nurse and she was deep in middle of an ACLS refresher class (Advanced Cardiac Life Support), where once again she had to master the complex and technical skill of keeping people alive even after they die. She had been in class all day, and had a killer test the next morning at 8AM. She had hours and hours of study time ahead of her, but when I came home famished, she dropped everything and focused on me.
She heated me a bowl of rich cream of mushroom soup, and cut me up a plate of her insanely delicious sushi. She then sat down with me at the kitchen table and we talked about our day as I ate. During dinner I must have thanked her seven to seventeen times, as I was overwhelmed not just by the great food, but by her dedication to being there for me despite her being so busy.
After dinner, she asked me if I could make her one of my special teas, so that she could sip it while she studied. It was at that moment that I felt intensely happy that I could do something for her! I was so filled with gratitude to her for everything she did for me, both in the short term that night, and in the long term in ten years of marriage, that I was thrilledthat there was something I could do that would make her happy. A cup of tea may be a small thing, but I sincerely thanked her for giving me the opportunity to do something for her, and I made her the best green tea with sugar and milk that I could possibly make. (Yes, my wife makes world class sushi and I make tea with milk, I know… I know…)
Love doesn’t mean that you are willing to do something for another; it means that you want to do something for another.
In a few days itwill be Rosh Hashana, a day that is of unparalleled importance on many levels. It is the birthday of mankind, and as such, the time we go before G-d for our annual evaluation. But it is also a very special day for G-d, as it is His inauguration day. It was on this day, thousands of years ago, that the first human beings, the first people with neshamos and free will, voluntarily crowned G-d as their king. In classical Jewish philosophy, as elucidated by the Vilna Goan, a king is only a king when ruling over citizens that voluntarily choose him, otherwise he is a ruler or master. In that sense, the first day G-d was called a King by humans who chose Him, was his original inauguration day.
To celebrate His inauguration day, G-d asks us to once again pledge our allegiance to Him. The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 34B) elucidates this with the following statement:
Rava said, The Holy One Blessed Be He said: “Say before me on Rosh Hashanah verses of Kingship, Remembrances, and Shofar. Kingship – so that you should make Me king over you, Remembrances – so that your memory should come before me for good, and with what? With the Shofar!”
Clearly, an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent G-d doesn’t have a need for us to call out his name in praise. He doesn’t need parades with marching bands and a fawning populace chanting “Long live the King!” But when G-d asks us to make Him the king over us, He is asking us to adopt His vision for the world, and to pledge our fealty to work with Him toward that ideal state. It is obviously for our good, just like He asks us to say Remembrances so that our memory go before him for good, but it is His request of us for this powerful day all the same.
What an amazing opportunity! G-d, the King of the World, the One who gave us everything from our health, prosperity, and intellect, to smaller pleasures like nectarines, capelin caviar, and avocado, is asking if we can “make Him a cup of tea!” He wants us on His team! What a pleasure! Thank you G-d for giving me the opportunity to do something for You, and not just anything, but to make you King! We have such gratitude to you that we want to do anything for you, and are overwhelmed that you gave us this all-important job!
So when we sit in shul on Rosh Hashanah, and read again and again about G-d’s Kingship, let’s think about what it means to us. How can we adopt His vision for this world? In what way can we commit to partnering with Him this year to bring the world closer to that ideal state?
What glass of tea can we make for G-d this year?
Let’s close with a final thought. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of mankind. Birthdays are very different for children and adults. Children see their birthday as a time that they should be celebrated, and they compose a long list of things that they want for their birthday presents. But as we mature, we realize that birthdays should be days when we celebrate those who birthed us. It is a day to call up our parents and say, “Thank you Mom and Dad for bringing me into the world and giving me the gift of life!”
Rosh Hashanah is no different. We can spend Rosh Hashanah telling G-d the list of presents we want for the coming year. We can ask Him for health, prosperity, vibrant Judaism for ourselves and our family, and all the other blessings that we need in our lives. And that is fine. Our Father in Heaven wants us to ask him for our needs, like any father that wants to provide for his children. But as we mature, we realize that the real mission of the day is to focus not on the birthday boy but on the one who gave us our life. It is a day to affirm His Kingship, to thank Him for giving us a central role in His world, and to pledge to make that world look like His vision for it.
“And let them all become a single society, to do Your will wholeheartedly… Iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will evaporate… Then you Ha-shem will reign alone over all your works, on Mount Zion, resting place of Your glory; and in Jerusalem Your Holy city…”
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha, Ki Savo, begins with the laws of bikkurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would see the first of his fruit beginning to bloom, he would tie a ribbon around it. When the fruit would finally be ready to eat, the farmer would take the first fruits of the seven species and bring them to the Temple. (The seven species with which Israel is blessed are; wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, figs, dates, and olives.) At the Temple, he would thank G-d for the land he was given, and say a special prayer detailing how the Jewish people got to Israel. H would then give the basket of fruit to the Kohen.
What we need to understand is how this beautiful mitzvah landed where it did, directly after the portion about Amalek, the Jewish people’s archenemy. Last week’s portion ended with the commandment to remember the insidious attack Amalek launched against the Jews as they were coming out of Egypt. Amalek’s attack was not just against the physical nation, but against the spirituality which the Jews represent. The nations of the world, hearing of the miracles of the Exodus, truly feared G-d and respected His people. Amalek attacked the Jews, knowing they would lose, but hoping that they would at least show the rest of the world that G-d Chosen Nation was fallible just like everyone else. How does a mitzvah like bikkurim juxtapose itself to this heinous nation’s attack?
If we look at the verses describing battle with Amalek, we see an interesting verb being used. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were going out of Egypt. When they chanced upon you on the way, and they struck at you who were hindmost, all the feeble ones at your rear, and you were exhausted and wearied, and they had no fear of G-d.” (Deut 25:17-18). Here is my question to you: if you were to see long columns of soldiers armed to the teeth, and heading directly towards you, would you call that an army “that chanced upon you?” NO! They didn’t chance on anyone, they came out with full intent to attack! So why does the Torah describe this attack as one in which Amalek chanced upon the Jews?
The answer is that this verb describes the essence of Amalek. Amalek is the nation that wants to deny the validity of G-d and the implications of a world with a G-d. To Amalek, everything that happens in the world is random, by chance, and not predestined by G-d. No G-d created the world, no G-d has a guiding hand that plays a role in current events, and no G-d has any knowledge of right and wrong which He would impart to people. Even when one nation attacks another, it is just happenstance, not anything done as part of a design or plan. When the Torah commands us to remember Amalek, it doesn’t only mean we should remember the battle, but that we should focus on our distance from their message, their raison d’etre.
The mitzvah of bikkurim is one that helps us achieve an attitude that is the polar opposite of the Amalek worldview. After working on his field for an entire season, day in and day out, a farmer could very well feel that the success of his crops belongs wholly to his hard work. The mitzvah of bikkurim reminds us that no matter how much work we put into our field, ultimately, it is G-d that blesses us with bounty. (The modern day equivalence of Bikkurim would be taking the first few dollars of every paycheck and giving it to charity. Even though we worked hard for that paycheck, this act would demonstrate that, ultimately, we believe our success is from G-d!)
While Amalek says that everything is random, we say everything is divinely inspired. We use our bikkurim to combat his worldview! May G-d rebuild the Temple speedily in our days, so that we can once again bring bikkurim!!
This week’s Parsha begins with the mitzvah of bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would notice the first of his crops begin to bloom (specifically the seven fruits with which Israel is praised; wheat, barley, grape, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates), he would tie a string around it. When they would mature, he would bring them to Jerusalem and give it to the Kohen in the Temple. He would say a paragraph describing the Jewish people’s history of difficulties, and would then go on to enumerate his blessings – the fact that he is bringing his crops to the Temple, in his land, undisturbed by the world. This was meant to underscore the elation a Jew should feel at this juncture. At a time when we might be most tempted to take full credit for something (when our crops finally grow in after months of hard work), this mitzvah helps us recognize that our bounty is a gift from G-d.
The next portion deals with the confession of the tithes. We are not always so up to date on our required tithes, so, once every three years, there is a commandment to take any tithes that we were supposed to have distributed already, and GET THEM OUT! This is done on Erev Pesach, after the three years are over. After making sure that all our tithes are distributed to the proper destinations, (some go to the Levite, some to the poor, and some to yourself to be eaten in Jerusalem), you confess to G-d, saying that you have taken care of all your obligations, and asking G-d to He look down with favor onto His nation and bless us with continued largess and beneficiation.
It is at this point that Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has chosen us to be His treasured Chosen People. When we walk in the path G-d has set for us, that designation will be recognized by the whole world. (I think you can figure out the flip side of that coin. So if you are wondering how to stem Anti-Semitism, or how to bolster the world opinion of Israel and the Jews, don’t go marching in Washington. March down the corridors of self-introspection, and see what you can do to help the world understand that we are the Chosen Nation!)
After that, Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they should proceed directly to two mountains called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival There, six tribes should ascend each of the mountains, leaving the elder Levites in the valley along with the Ark of G-d. The Levites should then face Mount Gerizim and proclaim a blessing (e.g. Blessed is he who judges the widow, orphan, and poor person with righteousness), to which all the Jews should answer with a thundering Amen!
Then, the Levites should face Mount Eival, and give the inverse of the blessing in the form of a curse (e.g. Cursed is he who perverts the judgment of the widow, the orphan or the poor), and everyone should answer Amen! Most of the 12 blessings and curses dealt with matters that could be done secretly (moving a boundary in the middle of the night, giving someone bad advice, forbidden sexual relations, and so forth). This was the Jews’ way of saying, as they established their homeland, that they as a society abhor furtive and underhanded crimes.
The last portion of this Parsha contains the strongest admonition Moshe ever gave the Jews. In it, he detailed for them the incredible blessing that they can bring to themselves if they keep the Torah, but also the terrible destruction that will come as a result of us cutting ourselves from our Source. In it, we find something fascinating. Moshe says that all the hardships we encounter will be come upon us, “Since you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness” (Deut. 28:47). It is clear that G-d doesn’t want us to simply serve Him – this is not Wal-Mart – G-d wants us to serve Him with joy and goodheartedness! He wants us to be enthused by the practices we keep, He wants us to be elated in our prayers, and ecstatic to be in His service!
So, I’m going to sign off, because I am sure there is somewhere you have to ecstatically rush off to!
Quote of the Week: Prospect is often better than possession. – Thomas Fuller
Random Fact of the Week: A tree planted near a streetlight will keep its leaves longer into the fall than other trees.
Funny Line of the Week: When someone tells you that nothing is impossible, ask him to dribble a football.
Have a Peachy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham