Pet peeves. We all have them, and we can’t really explain why we have them. The little things that could go unnoticed by most people, but seem to be particularly outsized grievances to us. People who walk slowly while texting in middle of a crowded street, people who use the word “like” like way too much, people who say exspecially, loud chewers, public nail biters, people who discuss being on a diet during a kiddush, chain email forwarders, pop-up ads, the list goes on forever.
One of my biggest pet peeves is the little note found in almost every hotel bathroom which explains the deep righteousness of the hotel chain and their absolute commitment to the environment, and asks you to leave your towels on the floor if you want them changed but leave them anywhere else if you want to save the world from the effects of 9 billion pounds of detergents spilling into the oceans daily killing off the dolphins, whales, turtles, narwhals, tuna fish, and Nemo. I don’t mind reusing my towels, I really don’t, but I sure do wish they would simply write a card that says, “Our hotel chain, like you, loves to make money. Help us make more money by reusing your towel, and we’ll appreciate you for it!”
My pet peeves’ little brother is also found in restrooms, but not just in hotels, rather in most public spaces in the US. It’s the little sign that asks you, in the name of the environment, to use the hot air blowing hand dryers instead of paper towels. Often, they don’t even offer paper towels at all, but simply tell you that the reason they don’t is because of the environment. This is one I saw recently, “We prefer paper towels too. But air dryers save trees, water, oil, and landfill space. Thanks for understanding.” On the scale of one to ten, that scores 11.5 for sanctimoniousness. Again, just say it straight, “We prefer paper towels too. But we make more money when you use this lousy air dryer that will dry out your hands. Sorry! Thanks for understanding.”
But the sordid truth behind air dryers is much more complicated. I was alerted to this on a recent road trip with a friend. I was using the air dryer and he told me, “You know those things blow microscopic filth all over your hands, right?” No, I can’t say I did, but I can say that I have never used an air dryer since. There are certain images that enter your mind, and can never be erased.
I can also report that he was scientifically correct. New research shows that air dryers are excellent at covering your hands with germs and bacteria they picked up from other people. A study was conducted at the University of Connecticut and Quinnipiac University, and its results were titled, “Deposition of Bacteria and Bacterial Spores by Bathroom Hot-Air-Hand Dryers,” a title scary enough in its own right. But reading it is even more discomforting, and I’ll spare you the bother with a quick summary.
The researchers used petri dishes which are basically small plates filled with nutrient rich gel, that is a very inviting home to bacteria. They put the open petri dishes in the same restrooms, in the same area, but during some of the tests the air dryer was blowing, during some of the tests, it was off. The petri dishes were then sealed and brought back to the lab. The petri dishes that were exposed when the air dryer was off often had no bacterial colonies develop, and sometimes had one. When the air dyers were on for just 30 seconds, the petri dishes developed between sixteen and eighteen bacterial colonies on average, with one specimen developing 254 bacterial colonies!
The University of Leeds did a similar study focused exspecially on hospital bathrooms. Hospitals are particularly sensitive to contamination as there are several illnesses considered to be hospital-borne illnesses like C. Diff, VRE, and CRE (a bunch of nasty fellas you never want to meet in a dark alley). In this study, researchers spent twelve weeks swabbing all sorts of surfaces in the restrooms of hospitals in France, Italy, and the US, such as sinks, door handles, floors, and soap dispensers. Some of the locations had air dyers in the room, while the control group was restrooms with no air dyers.
They discovered that air-dryers blow bacteria off the hands of people who don’t wash their hands correctly, and then create wind patterns that disperse them over all the surfaces in the bathroom. Their conclusion is that if you walk into a restroom with a hand dryer, and touch anything, you will likely come out with lots of new microscopic stowaways even if you don’t use the dryer!
The lead author, Professor Mark Wilcox recommends that hospitals revert to paper towel use. “Jet-air dryers often rely on no-touch technology to initiate hand drying. However, paper towels absorb the water and microbes left on the hands, and if they are disposed of properly, there is less potential for cross-contamination.” It’s going to be a lot harder for people to put those little holier-than-thou signs in restrooms going forward, they will now have to read: “We prefer paper towels too. But air dryers save trees, water, oil, and landfill space. So we are going to blanket this room with filthy bacteria that may make you ill. Thanks for understanding.”
My pet peeve may not be that petty after all…
Bacteria is hard to conceptualize. Most of us have never seen a bacterium in our lives. They are so microscopic that thousands of them are on your hand right now and you never thought twice about them. But they have a tremendous affect on our lives. Ask anyone who is home sick with strep for a week. They didn’t see it coming, no one does. Which is why we need to be so vigilant about our environment. Don’t think the guy with the alcohol swabs wiping down the tray table on the airplane is weird, we’re the weird ones for not doing it. Airplane tray tables often have far more bacteria than airport bathrooms! If we want to be healthy, we need to be hyper-conscious of those invisible creeps all around us.
In the same way, we need to be hyper-conscious of the spiritual world around us. Think of spiritually hurtful people as air dryers, blowing negativity, apathy, and crudeness all over anything in their proximity. We may not see the corrosive affect they have on us, because it happens on a microscopic level, but even if we are not close friends with them, they can contaminate us anyway.
In Ethics of Our Fathers (2:13), we read about a challenge that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai gave his five prime disciples. He told them, “Go out and discern what is the proper path for a person to cling to.” They came back with five different answers. Rabbi Eliezer said having a good eye, Rabbi Yehoshua said having a good friend, Rabbi Yosi said having a good neighbor, Rabbi Shimon said considering the outcome of all our actions, and Rabbi Elazar said having a good heart.
Ultimately, their Rebbe chose the answer of Rabbi Elazar over all the rest, because when a person has a good heart, the other traits come as part of the package. But the answer that always seemed strangest to me was a good neighbor. Who cares what my neighbor is like, especially if he is not my friend? (A good friend was a different answer.)
But after understanding bacteria, it becomes a lot clearer. We are not only affected by those things we know will affect us, we are in ways more vulnerable to those things we don’t realize can hurt us, because we don’t put up adequate defenses against them. You have no idea how much bacteria is on your in-flight tray table so when some airline pretzels fall on them we just pick them up and pop them into our mouth, not realizing that we’re eating off of a surface far more bacteria drenched than a bathroom tile!
Our neighbors, both the actual people living next to you as well, as the people you sit next to in shul, the people you carpool with, and the people you schmooze with at a simcha, have a significant affect on you. You expect your friends to have an affect on you, but you don’t realize the people you surround yourself with in innocuous situations have a significant affect on you as well. Just like you would try to change seats if the person sitting next to you on a flight was coughing and sneezing excessively, so too we should be conscious of what the other “neighbors” in our life are spewing. Some of them are spewing positivity, love, and holiness, and we want to be in their vicinity to catch their spray, but some are doing quite the opposite, and we want to get out of their vicinity as fast as possible!
This explains why Avraham, our first patriarch, separated from his nephew Lot. He saw that Lot was leading a morally stained life, and consciously choose to put considerable distance between them. It also explains why our Sages in Ethics of Our Fathers (4:18) said, “Exile yourself to a place of Torah and do not assume it will come after you- for it is your colleagues who will cause it to remain with you.”
We also should think of ourselves as the air-dryer. What messages are we unconsciously sending to all the people around us? Are we spreading little specks of goodness and cheer, or are we constantly talking about other people, constantly criticizing people and organizations, slowly sending up clouds of dangerous bacteria that quietly land on others and start to colonize like bacteria on a petri dish.
We are all air-dryers; let’s infect everyone around us with exactly what we want them to infect us with: love, positivity, sanctity, confidence, and good will!
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