“Mommy,” calls my six year old as she heads down the stairs, “What’s for dinner?” Evidently, a few seconds of foreknowledge makes all the difference when it comes to the dinner menu. “Lasagna, salad, and fresh fruit,” calls back my wife. Lasagna is enough to unglue me from the computer, and bring me shuffling to the kitchen.
The table is set splendidly. In an attempt to encourage our children to eat more fruits and vegetables, my wife has been setting them out in beautiful and colorful arrangements, so on the table is a plate with tri-color peppers sliced into spears, and another one with kiwis and mangoes. Standing next to them is a green salad in vinaigrette, adorned with almond slivers, craisins, and mandarin orange sections. Next to each plate is a full cup of water, a colorful napkin, and cutlery, while dominating the center of the table is a steaming pan of lasagna, fresh from the oven, melted cheese floating generously across the surface. I’m about to dive in when I stop and pause to contemplate the blessings before me.
My greatest blessings are clearly the people in the room, not the peppers. I look over each one, and think of why I’m so fortunate to be related to them. My wife and six vibrant children make me the world’s richest person, and are blessings beyond words. Making the time to sit down with them for dinner, while tricky due to everyone’s constantly evolving schedules, is one of the best investments I can make on any given day.
Then I move onto the food. The first thought that strikes my mind is that 500 years ago only the top .1% of society would even dream of having such food at their table. The variety, the freshness, the flavors, the quantity, would simply be unimaginable to average folk. Kiwis from New Zealand, mangoes from India, peppers from Mexico, almonds from California, craisins from Wisconsin, all on my table in Michigan, flavorful and delicious as ever!
And how did they get there? Let’s look at the almonds. Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are cultivated in California. However, left alone, almond trees won’t produce almonds. To pollinate the trees, over a million bee hives are trucked each year to California from as far as Vermont and the Carolinas. The beehives are stacked throughout the orchard, and the bees perform their own little miracle. Bees have an electrostatic charge which makes pollen cling to their legs as they dance among the flowers eating nectar. After they are coated in pollen, they rub up against the flowering part of the tree, and deposit the pollen, giving the tree what it needs to produce the almonds sitting on my table in Michigan, delicious as ever!
What about those mangoes from India or the kiwis from New Zealand, both coming from over 8,000 miles away? They’re picked before they are fully ripe, as they would spoil in the transportation process if they were ripe and squishy. In their pre-ripe state they are packed in crates and flown halfway around the world to the fruit companies’ huge US distribution centers. There, they are sprayed with ethylene, a gas that coaxes them to achieve their full ripeness. This of course ensures that when they are sitting on my table in Michigan, they’re delicious as ever!
Then there is the tomato sauce and mandarin sections, from produce that may have been picked over two years ago, but still taste ever so fresh! That feat is due to an invention by Nicolas Appert, a French brewer, in response to a 12,000-franc award offered by the Napoleonic government. Napoleon found his military campaigns being limited to the fall and summer due to short food supply, so he offered that enormous sum to anyone who would invent a way to preserve food for a long time. Nicolas discovered that using boiling and sealing techniques, one could preserve food for years. Today, canning has become eminently more sophisticated; in some cases, preserving the nutrients better than fresh food (canned tomatoes have more lycopene than fresh ones). This allows me to have two year old mandarin sections in my salad, that taste like they were picked last week!
What about the yellow cheese floating on the top of the lasagna, or the ricotta, cottage cheese, and white cheese, nestled between multiple layers of pasta? They came from an animal that by placidly munching grass somehow produces 20,000 pounds of milk a year! That milk, besides being one of the most nutritious liquids in the world, is transformed into dozens of products we all love, including butter, sour cream, yogurt, and tens of varieties of cheese, from moldy blue to briny feta, hard cheddar, soft brie, gouda, camembert, Parmesan, havarti, and my favorite, gournay. The versatility of milk is astonishing! Besides keeping our bones strong, it keeps our palette from ever getting bored.
Now that we’ve marveled over the source of all the products on my table, let’s focus for a moment on what they contain. The cornucopia of fruits and vegetables I’m having for supper contain dozens of vitamins (short for vital minerals). These vitamins, which the human body can’t produce on its own, are essential for healthy living. They ferry items around our cells, act as chemical mailmen transporting messages throughout the body, work as policeman neutralizing harmful free radicals, keep our vision sharp, tell our baby cells what type of cells they should grow up to be, and even help us conquer our acne! Contained in the foods on my table are large quantities of Vitamins A, C, D, E, and K, all ready to scurry around my body, working tirelessly, while I sit back and enjoy the supper on my table in Michigan, delicious as ever.
Of course, we can’t ignore the billions of molecules floating out of the hot lasagna and around the kitchen, stimulating my olfactory nerves and sending messages to my brain that translate into the heavenly lasagna smell (and greatly aiding the process of taste). Neither can we forget the hundreds of thousands of taste receptor cells on my tongue which, despite each one being limited to tasting only one of the five primary tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory also known as umame), send enough messages to the brain that it creates a comprehensive taste profile, thus allowing me to appreciate the full flavor of everything I eat.
All these thoughts are just a fraction of the blessings that flood my mind as I survey the dinner table, massive blessings that most often pass us by without even getting a trace of recognition.
There are two ways we can live our lives, being blessed or being troubled. The difference between a blessed life and a troubled life depends on where we are looking. There are always going to be difficulties that one can focus on. “Man was born for toil” (Job 5:7), we are going to have challenges thrown our way all the time. This adds flavor to life, and gives us our mission of elevating ourselves by climbing the mountains confronting us. But at the same time that we are challenged, we are also blessed.
We are blessed with life. We are blessed with five extraordinary senses. We are blessed with an average lifespan nearly double what it was for most of history. We are blessed with a great variety of inexpensive and accessible food. We are blessed with heat in our homes. We are blessed with electricity. And the blessings go on endlessly, as long as you look for them.
People who spend their lives focusing on the vast blessings in their lives will live as thankful people. They realize that nothing is coming to them, and that all their blessings are gifts from G-d. They are appreciative for what they have, and feel motivated to give back to others. People who spend their lives focusing on the troubles in their lives will live as bitter people. They feel that they deserve so much more than they have, and walk around feeling slighted by life. They are much more likely to retreat into a shell overwhelmed by their difficulties, or take out their frustrations on others.
So how do we foster in ourselves and our children a sense of thankfulness, a sense of being blessed?
One of the easiest ways is to regularly verbalize those feelings. That’s one of the purposes of reciting blessings on foods. Before one bites into that lasagna he should express his thankfulness, before one smells a delicate lily he should express his thankfulness, and before doing a mitzvah one should express his thankfulness for such a great opportunity. So, ramp up your blessing experience, whether it means starting to make one blessing a day, or concentrating more on the blessings you already make.
But even outside of blessings one should work to verbalize their feelings of thankfulness. Before you sit down to an incredible dinner, you can exclaim to your wife and children just how thankful you are to G-d for creating such wondrous fruits and vegetables and your wife for putting them all together in a gourmet dinner. While taking a walk with a spouse or a friend you can pause for a moment and talk about how blessed you are to be able to walk briskly in the crisp fall air, the trees alight in their fall fire, cool breezes providing the ultimate walking weather. Just getting out of bed and going to work is a blessing!
“Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.” (Deut. 11:26) Some commentaries say that G-d is referring to the same thing, and whether it’s a blessing or a curse is up to us. Let’s choose the blessed life!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot, Avraham’s nephew is saved from the devastation by an angel. Although Lot’s salvation can be most closely linked to his relationship to Avraham, Rashi tells us that he too had a merit that made him worthy of being saved. When Avraham went down to Egypt, he told the customs officer that his wife Sara was his sister, out of fear that if the Egyptians knew he was the husband of this beautiful woman, they might kill him in order to take his wife as a concubine for the Pharaoh. Lot was there, and he could’ve told the customs officer the truth, and probably he would have been rewarded handsomely, but he didn’t. In this merit he was saved from the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah.
But this seems strange because we see Lot doing deeds that seem to be far more difficult. When two angels came to Sodom, he invited them in and gave them a place to sleep and eat, even though he knew that this would enrage the people of Sodom to the point where they might try to kill him. When they actually came and demanded that he send out the two guests, he went out and defended the guests at the risk of his life. That being the case, why wasn’t Lot saved in merit of these action, which seem to indicate a much higher level of sacrifice, than the fact that he didn’t divulge information that could have caused his uncle to be killed?
The Sages tell us that the reward someone gets is not determined by how great the action seems to be objectively, but by the level of difficulty the action presents to a particular person. One person may find it very easy to keep kosher, but finds if very challenging to get out of bed and go to morning services. Another person may have an easy time going to morning services, but finds keeping kosher to be grueling. Each person will be rewarded based on the extent to which they overcame that which they personally found to be challenging, not based upon an objective measure of the difficulty of the actions they performed.
Lot grew up in the house of Avraham, and therefore, inviting in guests was not something he found difficult, au contraire he found it quite rewarding. Kindness came easily to Lot, and, therefore, it would not earn him a “get out of Sodom free” card. His challenge was his attraction to money, which had been his primary reason for moving to Sodom, a place that had great farmland and pastures. For him, to refrain from “ratting” on Avraham, an act which could have made him wealthy, was enormously difficult, and therefore, in the merit of that action he deserved to be saved!
Often we take a specific mitzvah that is very difficult for us, and we negate its value by saying, “Oh, it’s only a small mitzvah!” But the truth is that if that mitzvah is a challenge for us, then it is not a small mitzvah, it might be our biggest mitzvah! Because G-d isn’t looking for big displays or large actions, G-d is looking for big hearts, and large self-sacrifice.
Our parsha begins with G-d coming to visit Avraham as he recuperates from his bris. This teaches us the importance of visiting the sick – if G-d took the time to do it, we should definitely do it as well. As G-d is talking with him, Avraham sees three angels disguised as Arab travelers passing before his tent. He asks G-d to wait until he finishes doing the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim, inviting guest to one’s home, and he goes out to ask the travelers to join him for a meal. As he serves them a meal fit for a king (I would say a meal fit for an angel, but angels don’t eat), they reveal themselves as angels, and one of them tells them that in exactly one year Sara will give birth.
After they leave, G-d picks up the conversation again by mentioning to Avraham that he is about to destroy the five cities of Sodom, Gomorrah et. al. Avraham, being the true patriarch of all humanity, prays to G-d on their behalf. Acting as a defense attorney, he pleads with G-d to spare the cities based on the good people within them but, lo and behold, G-d informs him that there are no such people, and that is the exact reason that the cities need to be destroyed.
Two of the angels journey on to Sodom. (Each of the three angels had a job, as angles receive only one task at a time. The first one, whose job it was to inform Avraham and Sara of their upcoming baby, had completed his job and left. The remaining two angels continue to Sodom, one of them to destroy the city, and the other to save Lot.) When they get there, Lot, Avraham’s nephew, invites them into his house, something that was sure to anger the citizens of Sodom, who were notoriously cruel to any visitors or to anyone who was kind to visitors. Sure enough, the entire population of Sodom gathers around Lot’s house that night to wreak havoc on him and his guests. The angels blind the people, and tell Lot that it was time to hightail it out of Sodom, before the upheaval. Lot leaves reluctantly, not wanting to lose his material possessions, and eventually is practically dragged out.
The angels instruct Lot and his family (one wife, two daughters) not to look back, as they don’t deserve to watch the destruction of people who were not much worse than they. Lot’s wife ignores the instruction and does look back and turns into a pillar of salt (my mother has a picture of a pillar of dusty, salty stone that is in the form of a woman, which she saw on one of her trips to Israel. Its proximity to Sodom has caused people to theorize that this might be Lot’s wife). Lot, after begging G-d to let him remain in a city nearby, a wish which G-d grants, decides to run off to the mountains in fear of even this city getting destroyed (Lot wasn’t the biggest of believers).
In the mountain cave, Lot’s two daughters discuss their predicament. Fearing that the entire world had been wiped out as it had been in the Great Flood, they thought they were the only survivors on earth. The problem, one that hasn’t ceased since then, was that there was a real big lack of eligible guys for them to marry. Not wanting to be the last humans, they get their father drunk on two consecutive nights, and sleep with him. They both have children and those two children became the father of the nations of Ammon and Moav. (You will see more about these nations in Numbers and Deuteronomy.)
At this point there is another famine in Israel, and Avraham moves to Gerar to escape the famine. History repeats itself, and in order to avoid the murder of Avraham, the couple claim that Sara is his sister. Sure enough, she is taken to the house of the king Avimelech. An angel keeps Avimelech away from Sara, while the entire kingdom is struck with the inability to expel anything from the body (including urination, bowel movements, giving birth etc.). G-d reprimands Avimelech who claims complete innocence. G-d commands him to immediately return Sara to her husband, and to ask Avraham to pray on their behalf. This is what happens, and life returns to normal in Gerar.
After this story, Sara becomes pregnant and gives birth. They give Isaac a bris on his eighth day, and also make a big party for him on the day he is weaned. Sara notices that Ishmael is trying to kill and/or corrupt Isaac, so she demands that Avraham banish Hagar and Ishmael. Avraham is reluctant, but G-d tells her, “Whatever Sara tells you, heed her voice.” (My wife, who is also named Sara, finds this to be her favorite line from G-d!)
Hagar and Ishmael are sent away with some food and water, but they soon find themselves lost in the desert with the water depleted, and Ishmael falls ill. Hagar, being the cruel mother she was (see last week’s email for more details), doesn’t stay with her son through his sickness, but simply leaves him under a tree saying that she can’t bear to see him die (since when is it all about you, Mrs. Hagar?). An angel appears to her and tells her that even though a lot of evil would come out of Ishmael’s descendants, G-d only judges people based on their current status and, therefore, Ishmael is deserving of being saved. The angel shows Hagar a well, and she nurses her son back to health. (This portion of the Torah is read on Rosh Hashanah to remind us that G-d only judges people based on the way they are at the moment, so any time a person makes a real honest commitment to change, they can get back in the good books.)
The last portion of this Parsha is the final test Avraham underwent, one that involved testing his son as well. This is sort of the moment where the reins were passed on to the next generation, as it is the final test of Avraham, and the one of the first for Isaac. G-d commands Avraham to sacrifice his most beloved son, Isaac. This is the most difficult test possible for Avraham whose whole life revolved around kindness but, even so, he gets up early the next morning to fulfill G-d’s wishes. Isaac, even after being told the purpose of the journey they are taking, willingly goes along. As a matter of fact, the reason this event is known as Akeidas Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac, is because Isaac requested of his father that he bind him tightly so that he shouldn’t shake at the sight of the knife and make the sacrifice imperfect.
Before Avraham even has the chance to harm his son, an angel calls out to him and tells him to stay still. The angel goes on to explain that the event was really a test to see how faithful a follower of G-d Avraham was. Avrahom, in his deep desire to bring a sacrifice to his Creator looked around for an appropriate substitute and found a ram that G-d had prepared from the sixth day of creation especially for this purpose. (In commemoration of this act, we use a ram’s horn for the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. It so to speak reminds G-d of the sacrifice our forefathers had, and hopefully serves as a merit for us to get a favorable judgment on Rosh Hashanah.) This is one of the most action packed Parshas in the whole Torah, and if you are still reading by now, please email me, so I can gauge how many people made it this far. Congratulations.
Quote of the Week: One can never consent to creep when one feels the impulse to soar. ~ Helen Keller
Random Fact of the Week: Singapore is the only city in the world that has a zoo that is open 24 hours a day!
Funny Line of the Week: If my kid couldn’t draw I’d make sure that my kitchen magnets didn’t work.
Have an Electrifying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham