A few years back, I had three teeth extracted. The dentist who did the pulling, cutting, drilling, cutting, and stitching was a fine man named Dr. Gregg Bobier. He has great chairside manner and a calming demeanor, but nonetheless, the procedure was far from fun.
Two of the teeth that needed to be extracted were wisdom teeth, and they came out with less effort. (Wisdom leaves without a fuss; it is the unwise that make a stink about leaving even when they are no longer welcome!) One came out with a simple pull of the pliers, and the other required a bit of nip and tuck to open a passageway, after which it came out with ease. I even have them at home as souvenirs (gotta hold onto any wisdom I can get!). The third tooth was the one that was an ordeal, and its history is long and arduous.
I don’t know if it’s my genes or the Cleveland water that I grew up on, but thank G-d, my teeth are very strong. Despite all the sweets I crammed into my mouth as a kid, I only had 2 cavities in my entire life (may it be G-d’s will that it remains that way). But one tooth, #30 to be exact (the first molar on the right lower jaw), was a renegade, and she has given me lots of trouble. Back in 1992, tooth #30 started hurting me. Upon visiting the dentist, I learned that I needed a root canal.
I was living in Israel at the time, and there were a lot of immigrants who came when the USSR collapsed. Most of them claimed to be engineers (something I always doubted; my friend has a theory that in Russia, a high school diploma is called an engineering degree), and I got my root canal from a man who claimed to be an engineer. I don’t know why an engineer was working on my teeth, but he looked real comfortable with a drill and various bits. The root canal took hours and was no fun. However, as the years passed I forgot about it and even came to forgive Piotr.
Then, about eight years ago, the tooth began to chip. Slowly, more and more of it chipped until one day while driving on the highway, a chunk of metal appeared in my mouth and I realized that Piotr’s masterpiece of a root canal had just called it quits.
I then got a new root canal from the late Dr. Arnie Zuroff, one of the nicest men on the planet. Dr. Zuroff saw the whole Jewish people as his family and he never charged a fellow Jew a penny for any work he did for them. He also hummed wonderful ditties while working on you, making the experience of getting your root nerves destroyed into an almost pleasant experience. But, despite all the care and attention given to tooth #30, in the end, I needed the tooth extracted anyway (Hello Murphy!).
Sitting in Dr. Gregg Bobier’s chair, I watched him put one anesthesia needle after another into the back of my jaw, ostensibly to numb the area. In all, he probably stuck me 15-18 times in my gums, a part of the body hypersensitive to pain. (Who needs waterboarding? Let’s just send terrorist detainees to the orthodontist!) At this point I was strongly considering just taking the root canal sans anesthesia the way my forefathers would’ve, but soon enough he stopped the poking and gave me five minutes to let it sink in.
Despite all the anesthesia, and nitrous oxide blowing softly on me, the pain was so great that I found myself grinding my left foot into the chair till it was raw. While trying to extract my favorite tooth, #30, Dr. Bobier shattered it, and that introduced a long session of drilling and pulling, acute pain and dull aching pressure, until finally the ordeal was over. My jaw felt about two miles wide, and was throbbing with pain, yet I found myself sincerely thanking Dr. Gregg.
I knew that although he had caused me a lot of pain, ultimately it was for my benefit. I understood that it would alter the future health of my mouth, as leaving it the way it was would eventually cause the decay and deterioration of the rest of my teeth. Obviously, if a stranger on the street would start drilling in my mouth and pulling out my teeth, I would try to run him over with my minivan, but since I knew who the dentist was, and I trusted that he had my best interests in mind, not only didn’t I mind, I thanked him for the ordeal.
So far everything I said makes perfect sense, and no one would argue with me. But let’s take it a step farther. This perspective is the one we should use to view all our troubles, all our personal pain and suffering. G-d is the ultimate Doctor, and a basic precept of our faith is that when He administers a dose of difficulty, it is only for the purpose of bettering us. It is there to challenge us to become better people, to climb the mountain of difficulty and find ourselves at an elevated plane we never knew we could reach. We shouldn’t look at our challenges with anger and confusion, but rather with the comforting knowledge that it is for our best. We know the Doctor, we trust the Doctor, and even as we walk out of a situation numb and in pain, we should thank Him for entrusting us with this challenge.
In my seven years of volunteering with cancer patients, I have seen many who have reached this lofty recognition, and they are the best teachers I could ever have. A friend of mine, Boris Niyazov, battled cancer seven times before finally returning his pure soul to heaven. When fighting one of his battles, he called Rabbi Goldberg (of Southfield) who was the director of the oncology camp we attended to ask him how to die as a Jew. Rabbi Goldberg had a long conversation with him, and explained that we focus on living as Jews, and encouraged him not to give up. At the end of the conversation, Rabbi Goldberg said, “G-d bless you, Boris.” Boris the hero, who grew up in the Soviet Union without any religion, responded, “He already has.”
Another friend of mine, who lost his job, and is struggling to put his finances in order had a long conversation with me the other day. I tried to encourage him, but he didn’t need my encouragement, if anything I needed his perspective. He told me that he feels like G-d is showering him with goodness. He has a wonderful wife, wonderful children, and good health. The way he sees it, his current financial setback is probably just there to reset him on a better course. He’s in the process of reinventing himself, and is confident that his future will shine even brighter than his past. He has faith in the Doctor.
It is in these people of faith that I find incredible inspiration. When someone has this kind of faith, there is very little that can shake them. All the money, power, and success in the world can’t give someone the security that these people feel. A little dose of recession can wipe out money, power and success, but no one can wipe out a person’s faith.
The future can be scary. When will Iran go nuclear? Will I be able to hold onto my job for much longer? How will my children navigate those chaotic teenage years? So many questions, so few answers.
Knowing that we are in the hands of the Most Competent Doctor sure helps put the mind at ease. He has kept Israel alive for over sixty years despite being surrounded by millions of people who want it gone. He has kept our people alive for thousands of years despite being chased by hundreds of nations who want us to disappear. And He sure can help us make it through whatever root canals we might need.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha our forefather Yaakov passes from this world. Before his passing, Yaakov calls his children together and blesses them. At the end of the blessings, the Torah summarizes the event with the following verse, “And this is what their father spoke to them and he blessed them, he blessed each according to their blessing.” (Gen. 49:28).
On the surface this verse is troubling, why did he bless them according to their blessings? Shouldn’t he have blessed them according to what they were lacking? If one of the tribes was already blessed with a particular attribute, shouldn’t that be the one area in which he doesn’t need a blessing?
The answer to this puzzle contains a gem that will teach us an important lesson about human development. We all have certain natural qualities. Some of us are soft, some super intelligent, some have leadership qualities, some academic prowess, but everyone has some quality in which they shine. Many people think that since they have that quality naturally, they should ignore it, and focus on acquiring skill they don’t yet have. But the truth is that through focusing on their natural strength and developing it they can accomplish whatever they need.
This doesn’t mean that I can expect to breeze through college by being kind, rather, it means that if I find my natural tendency is to be very kind and warm, I should probably look for a job in the caring professions, while if I find myself to be analytical I should try to become an analyst or a lawyer, etc. When dealing with interpersonal problems, if I am the kind type I should use my kindness as a strength and find a way to draw myself away of the dissonance, whereas if I am analytical, I should sit back and tackle the problem as an equation, determining how to best go about solving it. (Sometimes the kind thing to do is to pull back and let someone else learn the hard way, and sometime the analysis will determine that an extra dose of caring and emotion is called for. The focus here is how a person arrives at the conclusion)
This is the meaning of Yaakov’s blessings. Yaakov was able to see each of his children’s strengths and to bless it, to ask G-d that it be brought out even more. He showed his children that he felt that it was that particular trait that they should focus upon. And this is how we should interact with our children. We should find their strengths and encourage their growth. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone is created to be a doctor, a rabbi, or a lawyer. Parents need to be in tune with that reality while raising their progeny, and college students need to be in tune with it when picking careers. If we stop trying to shoehorn children into what we think is best for them, but instead focus on their strengths and develop them, we will have a truly blessed world!
This parsha begins at the end of the life of Yaakov. It discusses the last things that Yaakov did before passing from this world. First, Yaakov asked Yosef to ensure that he would be buried in Israel. He asked Yosef and not the other brothers because he understood that Yosef was the only one with the power to guarantee it, as Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef readily agreed.
Soon after that encounter, Yosef got a message that his father was ill, so he immediately hurried to his father’s bedside with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. When they arrived, Yaakov gave Yosef’s sons the status of tribes, thus equating them with their uncles, the rest of Yaakov’s children. This meant that they would each have a separate share in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Yaakov’s grandchildren.
After that, Yosef brought his sons forward to be blessed by his father. Yosef purposely put Menasheh on the left which would be Yaakov’s right, because he was the older brother and the right hand is considered the choice hand. However, Yaakov switched his hands and placed his right on the head of Ephraim. When Yosef tried to switch them back, Yaakov told him that he did this purposely, because the younger brother Ephraim would produce greater people, most notably Joshua who would lead the Jews into Israel after Moses’ death.
Yaakov then blessed them with the following blessing, “Through you shall [the People of] Israel bless saying; ‘May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.’” (Gen. 48:20). To this day, when parents bless their children on Friday night, as is the custom in many homes, they say that exact formula: “May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.”
After that, Yaakov called in the rest of his children and blessed all of them, except three, whom he reprimanded. Those chastised were Reuven for moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent without consulting his father, and Shimon and Levi for destroying the entire city of Shechem after their sister had been kidnapped and violated by the city’s prince. After blessing his sons, Yaakov them to bury him in Me’aras Hamachpela, the same place that Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka were buried. After his final request he pulled himself onto the bed and joined his people in heaven.
The entire Egypt mourned the passing of Yaakov, as the famine stopped when he moved there. Pharaoh gave Yosef permission to leave, and the twelve brothers all traveled to Israel to bury their father in the Me’aras Hamachpela. When they came back, the brothers were concerned that now that their father was not there Yosef might try to take revenge on them for the time they sold him. However, he reassured them that he bore them no ill will; rather he understood that G-d sent him down to Egypt to sustain his people through the years of famine.
Yosef was the first of the twelve tribes to die. However, even he lived to the ripe old age of 110 and was able to see three generations of progeny (that means he helped raise his great grandchildren). Before he died he asked the Jewish people that when G-d takes them out of Egypt they bring his bones with them to be buried in Israel. And with that the book of Genesis concludes!!
Quote of the week: The wise learn from other’s mistakes, fools by their own. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Astronauts get taller when they are in space.
Funny Line of the Week: Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?
Have a Top Shelf Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham