Did I ever tell you about the time I was kidnapped by a group of radical turkeys? It was definitely one of the crazier times of my life, and something I generally avoid talking about because I’m still suffering from the PTSD, but my therapist says that sharing the story can lessen the trauma, and he suggested to me that I write about it, so here goes….
It all started on a Wednesday in mid-October, when I was driving through Pennsylvania en route to New York to visit friends and family. Now, most people think that New York is where all the chaos and crazy resides, but I’ve always been suspicious of Pennsylvania. It’s a state that tries so hard to project that Plain Jane, as regular as apple pie look, but Willy and I say, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
When I stop at gas stations in Pennsylvania, I’m always careful to peer over my shoulder and cover my six, but the turkeys got me because I wasn’t looking down, who’s expecting to get taken by a horde of fowl that only reach your knee? But let me tell you, the turkey is a lot more powerful than he looks. Sure, he’s pretty defenseless when you put him out on your Thanksgiving dinner table and carve him up like he’s made of putty, but when that thing still has the fighting spirit in it, it can be quite nasty.
Anyway, before you know it, I’m being carried and dragged across the Pennsylvania backcountry bound and gagged. I tried to keep count and I believe that the kidnapping party was made up of just fourteen of them. They probably carried me about four miles, and trust me, I’ve gone back and checked every single farm within a ten mile radius of exit 81 and there is not a trace of them, it’s like they vanished into thin air (although they did say that most of them disappear in mid-November…)
I spent seventeen days in a smelly industrial barn filled with thousands of turkeys from theThe Great UBAH Liberation Front before I finally managed to escape. They had planned this for a long time, they wanted to get their ridiculous message out to the world, and I was the unfortunate chap who was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Interestingly, they weren’t even trying to advocate that we stop eating the majority of the living turkeys in the US each Thanksgiving, they believed there was no chance of getting that pushed through, although there was definitely a lot of snide comments made about that during my stay. They just wanted us to stop calling them names.
They made it clear time and time again that they were not turkeys. Their spokesperson, who spent the majority of his waking hours lecturing me in his hilarious accent that strangely sounded like a Scottish version of the Brooklyn accent, used to say to me, “Do I look like a Turkey to you? Huh? What part of Turkey do I come from, huh? What exactly about me is screaming Turkey to you? Do I look like a piece of Baklava to you? Maybe a Turkish Rug? Why do you peoples keep calling us Turkeys?”
To be fair, they had a point. We’ve been calling them turkeys for over 400 years even though they have nothing to do with Turkey. And I get it that its annoying, but did you really think kidnapping a human being and holding him hostage for close to three weeks was going to change anything? And sure, we’re in an age where all sorts of names and nouns are becoming vilified and made verboten, but couldn’t we do this in a peaceful way? Every day, often for as many as nine hours, I would have to listen to their ridiculous chanting, the leader would yell platitudes like, “We’re not Turkeys and we won’t be called Turkeys!!!” and thousands of turkeys would shout back in unison, “WE’RE NOT TURKEY AND WE WON’T BE CALLED TURKEYS!!!” “Stop the Misnaming!” “STOP THE MISNAMING!” “Birds Names matter!” “ BIRDS NAMES MATTER!” “Birds are not countries!” “BIRDS ARE NOT COUNTRIES!!!”
On the sixteenth day, when I agreed with them for the thousandth time, when I chanted with them for a few hours, and when I called them loudly by their preferred nomenclature, Great UBAHs (Untasty Birds of American Heritage), they finally agreed to remove the chicken wire from my feet. The very next day, I waited until they were in the height of their chanting fervor, all eyes on Comrade Leader, and I slowly made my was as quietly as possible to the doorway. By the time they noticed me slinking out it was too late. Sure, they came rushing at me, at least a thousand strong, but with only my hands tied I could run as fast as possible. They were gaining on me, but luckily there was a hunter in the woods and when he saw what was going on, he let off a few shotgun rounds in the direction of the turkey mob, and they turned heel and wobbled back to the barn as fast as they could…
While I still have some unresolved anger about the ordeal, and this may be the Stockholm Syndrome speaking, I do feel their pain. Imagine you were mislabeled for four hundred years, and called all sorts of names? In the English-speaking world, we call them Turkeys. In Hebrew we call them “Tarnagol Hodu,” which means Indian Chicken (Do I look like an Indian to you? Do you see me eating curry? What part of me makes you think of India!!?!) The French call them dinde, which is from D’Inde – from India, the Turks call them hindi, which means India. In India, they call it a tarki which means Turkey! In Portuguese, the turkey is called Peru, another country they are not from (Birds aren’t Countries!!!). And worst of all, in Burmese they call them “kyat sin,” and in Farsi “fel murgh” both of which mean “elephant chicken,” what’s with the fat shaming?? These poor Great UBAHs can’t get no respect.
The reason that we call the Great UBAHs turkeys is quite convoluted. As far as we can tell, the first Europeans to encounter a turkey were the conquistadors who came with Hernan Cortez in the early 1500s. They brought the turkey back with them to Europe where the English began to domesticate it for meat. At the same time there was another bird being imported to Europe from Africa, the guinea fowl. The two birds were similar, they are both bigger and wilder versions of the chicken. The African birds were being brought to Europe by traders from Turkish lands. So when people saw the American turkey, they thought it was the guinea fowl, which they called the Turkish chicken because of who brought them over. The name transferred over and stuck.
That explains the Turkish connection, but what about the Indian related names? Why is the Great UBAH called “The Indian Chicken” in Hebrew, D’Inde in French, and Hindi in Turkish? That has to do with those who knew that the bird was brough back from the New World, but they mistakenly thought that the Americas were India. When the Columbus and his men sailed west from Europe, they figured the earth was round and they were looking for a shortcut to India, from which there was a lucrative spice trade. They simply had no idea that in between Western Europe and India was the Americas. Indeed that’s why the natives that were found in the Americas were called Indians, and the native bird was called the Indian chicken!
So nobody got the name for turkeys right, but for a variety of wrong reasons. At least now we can work on righting the wrongs. Please pass the Great UBAH, and the cranberry sauce.
First impressions are a very powerful factor in determining how we see people for years after that first moment, even if subsequently we’ve been shown evidence that the person is not who we initially pegged them to be. We may know the bird has nothing to do with Turkey, but we don’t change the name, and in the same way, we may know that Bob is not the standoffish snob we first thought he was, but years later we still have that negative feeling toward to him because that was our initial impression. (Interestingly, people often give off a standoffish vibe when they are in a new place, but it’s really them broadcasting their personal discomfort with being around so many new people. Alternatively, people can be louder and more animated when in a room with a lot of people they don’t know, which can be read as arrogance, but is often an overcompensation for their discomfort of being around so many new people!)
The Torah commands us (Leviticus 19:15) Do not commit a perversion of justice; do not favor the destitute nor honor the powerful, with fairness you must judge your fellow man.” That seems like a straightforward statement, but the Talmud (Shavuos, 30a) says, “With fairness you must judge your fellow man – [this means] you must judge your fellow favorably.” For those of us who love semantics, this presents a real problem, how can you tell me that the statement telling us to be fair is actually telling us to be favorable? Fair and favorable are opposites!
Our Rabbis explain that this statement of the Torah, encouraging us to judge people favorably, refers to a situation where we don’t know the person, and they have no positive or negative track record (see the commentary of Rabbenu Yonah and Maimonides on Avos 1:6). Someone with a long track record of doing evil deeds, explains Maimonides, should not be given the benefit of the doubt, he hasn’t earned that, and it would be naïve and foolish of us to extend it to him! But the Torah recognizes that we see someone for the first time, and we don’t know much about them, our cynical brains often judge that person unfavorably for no valid reason. To combat that inherent cynicism and doubt we have toward strangers, the Torah tells us to judge them favorably, so that our first impression of them, which is so important, will be a positive one.
If you’re not sure how hard it is to change people’s mind after their first impression, just ask any Great UBAH, they will happily tell you about, although I recommend staying away from the militant Great UBAHs in Pennsylvania, find some friendly ones in Delaware. But in the meantime, let’s make sure to give strangers a fair shot, by giving them a favorable eye, and building a positive image of them in our mind when we first meet them. We will likely find our outlook on the world and the people around us becomes more positive and idealistic, and our lives in general happier and more serene!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we see the difficulties Ya’akov encountered while dealing with Lavan, his father-in-law, who happens to have won the award for World’s Biggest Slimeball for 23 years running. From cheating Ya’akov out of the wife for whom he worked seven years, to switching his pay rate 100 times, this guy was a class act. He had every scam possible sitting securely in his pocket.
Finally, Ya’kov had enough. He waited until Lavan went to one of his Idol Fests, took his family and belongings, and headed back to Israel. When Lavan found out that Ya’akov ran away, he set out after him in a rage, and was ready to kill Ya’akov (his own son-in-law! Did I mention that Slimeball Award he won repeatedly?). Luckily, Ya’akov had G-d on his side. G-d came to Lavan the night before he approached Ya’akov and warned him very sternly that he better not touch Ya’akov or anyone in his family. The next day, Lavan approached Ya’akov’s camp and said the following, “It is within the power of my hand to harm you, but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘Guard yourself not to speak to Yaakov either good or evil’” (Gen; 31:29).
The commentators point out the fallacy in that statement. Lavan starts off saying that it is within his power to harm Ya’akov, when it is clear from the end of his statement that in fact he knows he cannot. This points to a human condition where a person clearly knows something to be the truth, but due to a whole life of living a different way, can totally ignore reality. Lavan was so used to thinking that he was in control that even once it was very clear to him that he couldn’t do what he wants, he still foolishly blurted out “It is within my power to harm you…”
Today we see it in the smoker who smokes through the tube inserted into his trachea, who sees the devastating effects of his ways, but cannot stop himself. We also see it in people (myself including) who really wish to add more spiritual content to their lives, but are so used to living as they do that they make excuses, and stay the same. Sometimes we are blessed to have a moment of clarity, a brief period where we feel like G-d is sending us a message. Let’s remember not to fall into the Lavan trap, where we ignore it the very next day, but rather let’s seize it, use it, and grow from it.
This week’s Parsha begins with Yaakov going to Charan to find himself a good non-Canaanite wife. As he heads down, he spends the night in the location that would, years later, be the site of the Holy Temple. He has a dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder. The angels of Israel were leaving him, and the angels of Chutz La’aretz (literally “outside the land” meaning anywhere out of Israel) were coming down to accompany him. In this dream G-d promises Yaakov that he will be guarded and protected in the house of Lavan, that he will come back to Israel in peace, and that eventually the whole Israel will be given to his offspring.
When Yaakov reaches Charan, he sees the local shepherds waiting around a well, and asks them why they don’t let their sheep out to pasture. They answer that they all gather around the well until they have enough people to be able to push off the boulder resting on its mouth. As Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, approaches, Yaakov sees with Divine intuition that this will be his wife, and he is filled with strength. He flips the boulder off the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep. Upon going back to Lavan’s house, Yaakov stays with Lavan for a month and works as his shepherd before Lavan asks him if he wants some sort of remuneration for his work. (Yep, Lavan the no-goodnik had Yaakov, his guest and relative, watching his sheep for a month without pay before finally offering him some pay.)
Yaakov tells him that he would like to marry Rachel, Lavan’s younger daughter. Lavan gives him his blessing on the condition that Yaakov shepherd his sheep for seven years, which Yaakov gladly does. However, Lavan the Lowlife switches the daughters and gives him Leah. Yaakov had been anticipating this, and gave Rachel certain signs which she was to give him on their wedding night. However, Rachel, fearing the incredible humiliation that Leah would undergo when Yaakov realized he was being given the wrong bride, gives Leah the signs even though that meant she would be left to marry Yaakov’s brother the Evil Eisav. This teaches how far one must go to prevent someone from being humiliated.
Yaakov is not happy with Lavan upon realizing that he has been duped, but Lavan offers a quick and easy solution – work another seven years for Rachel. Yaakov does so. Leah has four children, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda, after which she stops having children. Rachel has none, so she decides to give her maidservant, Bilhah, to Yaakov in the hopes of building a family through her children. This works, and Rachel names Bilhah’s two children Dan and Naftali. Leah, seeing that she stopped having children, also gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Yaakov as a wife and she gives birth to two children, Gad and Asher.
Soon Leah has two more children, Yisachar and Zevulun, and finally, after many years of praying and yearning, Rachel has a son, whom she calls Yosef. After Yosef (who is destined to quash Eisav) was born, Yaakov is ready to head back to his land. However, after 14 years of devoted service Lavan is finally ready to cut a deal. If Yaakov stays, he will let him keep certain sheep based on their coats (i.e. ringed, speckled, spotted, or brownish). Over the next six years Lavan changes the agreement 100 times, but Yaakov manages to devise a system in which he still gets some sheep. G-d blesses his flocks, and in six years Yaakov becomes very prosperous.
Realizing that Lavan and his family are getting jealous of and angry with him, Yaakov tells his family that its time to leave their villainous Zeidy, and Rachel and Leah answer that they are only too happy to leave the father who didn’t treat them as daughters but as strangers. Yaakov leaves while Lavan is on a trip to one of his Idol Fests, and Rachel steals her father’s idols. When Lavan hears about the exodus of his daughters and grandchildren, and the theft of his idols, he becomes enraged and chases them down with the intent to seriously harm them. But G-d comes to Lavan in a dream and tells him that he better not do anything, neither good nor bad (as the saying goes, not from your honey and not from your sting), to Yaakov and his family.
Instead, Lavan comes and plays the hurt and abandoned grandfather, complaining that he wanted to see them off amid great fanfare. Then he accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Lavan searches all the tents, but Rachel hides them in her saddlebag and tells her father that she can’t get off her camel, because she is sick. In the end, Lavan makes a treaty with Yaakov and then peacefully departs in the morning. That’s all Folks.
Quote of the Week: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin
Random Fact of the Week: The mayfly’s eggs take three years to hatch. Lifespan: about six hours!
Funny Line of the Week: I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. As soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.
Have a Serene Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham