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 significantly more important than fashion, so I won’t 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, they’re not awkwardly distant, but they also 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, Birkenstocks, 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 ole’ sweaters, the ones I wear until they start to get all holy on me. I once spent seven minutes in a junkyard parting ways with 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 inordinate 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
In this week’s Parsha we see two stories of Hachnassas Orchim, the mitzvah of inviting guests into ones home. In the beginning of the parsha, Avraham invites the angels disguised as Arab travelers passing by the front of his tent, into his home for a meal and some refreshing shade. In the middle of the parsha we see Lot, Avraham’s nephew inviting the same angels to his home. On the outside, it would seem that Lot’s mitzvah took a lot more sacrifice, as he was in Sodom, a city where people were killed for doing kindness to strangers. Why is it that the Torah makes a big deal of Avraham’s kindness, while largely ignoring Lot’s sacrifice in performing his mitzvah?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), also known by his most prominent work, the Bais Halevi, offers the following explanation: A careful examination of the verses leading up to the guests’ reception points us to one key difference that explains everything. Regarding Avraham it says, “He lifted his eyes and saw, and behold three men were standing near him. He saw them, and ran from the door of the tent to greet them, and he bowed down to the earth.” But regarding Lot it says, “The two angels came to Sodom in the evening while Lot was sitting at the gate of Sodom. Lot saw them, and he got up to greet them, and he bowed with his face to the ground.” What is the difference? Go ahead, find it! I’ve got all day, and I can be surprisingly patient…
The divergence between the texts is noted in the description of the guests. By Avraham, they appeared as people, as a matter of fact, the Sages tell us they posed as idol-worshipping Arab travelers. Avraham still rushed out to greet them, bowed to them, and invited in to his home. By Lot they appeared as angels, knowing that as people they would not get the welcome greeting they got at Avraham’s tent.
It’s easy to roll out the red carpet when someone famous, distinguished, or powerful is visiting you. It is much more difficult to do so for the impoverished, vulnerable, and needy people we meet.
One powerful tool you can use when trying to judge character, is to watch how someone treats people who are on a significantly lower social or economic strata than they. I’m not talking about politicians walking through a blue collar town, shaking hands, smiling, and then running of to their trailer to wash their hands and talk about “those rednecks.” I’m talking about someone who genuinely gives of his time, his energy, and his respect to those less fortunate than him. The people who make everyone feel as equals. Those are the people who understand chessed, who understand hachnassas orchim, the people who understand what makes this world tick!
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 live 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 to the relief of the entire population (no pun intended).
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: A good example is the best sermon. – Rabbi Shmuel Leknarf
Random Fact of the Week: Added together, the world’s unused frequent flyer miles equal 42,500 round trips to the sun!
Funny Line of the Week: Dolphins are so smart that within a few weeks of captivity, they can train people to stand on the very edge of the pool and throw them fish.
Have an Unusual Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham