There are two kinds of people in the world: People who live to do any stunt that will take them close enough to death that they can run their fingers through its hair, and people who like to watch them doing it. The first group can’t wait to rollerblade down the mouth of an active volcano. The second group loves to watch in suspense, screaming “OH MY GOSH!!!” and then go home, reheat the leftover casserole, and call it a night.
Both groups had fun whenever Robbie “Kaptain” Knievel suited up with his signature leather white jumpsuit emblazoned with a blue V filled with stars. Robbie Knievel jumped over the Grand Canyon in 1999, over 5 military aircraft on the deck of an aircraft carrier in 2004, and more recently jumped over 24 delivery trucks at Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati, in front of a huge crowd. The jump earned him a world record for the most trucks ever jumped. (P.S. I earned a world record for the most times a person said the word WATER while pulling both ears. It was a pretty easy record; I only had to say it seven times to beat my previous world record of six times.) King Island is a historic place for the Knievel Mishpacha. It was there that Robbie’s father, Evil Knievel, performed one of his most famous stunts – jumping over 16 buses – back in 1975. (That happened to be one the most watched sporting events ever, proving my point about two kinds of people.)
Before heading out to the starting ramp, Knievel had a quick pep-talk with the over 40,000 people who came to see him flirt with death. “Hopefully I’ll see you after the jump,” he told the roaring crowd. He wasn’t joking; these jumps are not without risk. His father has the world record for broken bones, after breaking them more than forty times while doing a variety of stunts, including riding a rocket powered motorcycle over the Snake River Canyon. He also spent 29 days in a coma after crash landing an attempt to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas!
Robbie, who uses motorcycles specifically designed for jumping, as opposed to the heavy Harleys his father used, has had much more success. He jumped the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, from one skyscraper to another, and over 250 other jumps. At one jump in New Mexico, traffic was backed up 38 miles as the second type of people in this world tried desperately to see their hero jump 18 semi-trailers.
The Knievels don’t have a monopoly on ridiculous stunts by any means. David Blaine is yet another shining example of someone who seems unable to enjoy life unless he’s hanging on to it by a thread. His most famous stunts include spending 44 days suspended over the River Thames with no food. He lost 50 pounds and needed medical intervention at the end, but he said, “The first 28 days were beautiful. I’d never throw that one away, although I did get major organ failure.” He endured 62 hours encased in an ice block in Times Square, in which he began hallucinating from the lack of sleep, because, “I had to stand in one spot completely still because you can’t lean into the ice — you’d get frostbite.” He also spent seven days in a coffin with no food and water. I guess being dead takes practice.
I think his craziest stunt was when he held his breath underwater for 17 minutes on the Oprah Winfrey show. Afterwards he explained, “It was overwhelmingly intense. I felt my heart suffering, my lungs suffering. The urge to breathe was overwhelming.” Most humans begin suffering irreparable brain damage after 4 minutes without fresh air. With training, you can dramatically increase that time limit, but there is still a risk of drowning or permanently damaging tissue in the brain, heart, or lungs. I would have thought that this was his first stunt, in which he damaged his brain in the reasoning regions, which would explain why he did the rest of these stunts!
How about Steve Truglia who spent 2 minutes and five seconds fully engulfed in flames, while wearing 110 pounds of protective equipment? What about Jackie Bibby who stuffed the tails of 9 poisonous rattlesnakes into his mouth, and let them dangle in front of him for 10 seconds? Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule that was 127,852 feet above planet earth and broke the sound barrier on the way down! Of course, we’d better be egalitarian. There is Nur Malena Hassan, a 27 year old woman from Malaysia, who spent 36 days in a glass enclosure with 3,069 poisonous scorpions. After her seventeenth sting she felt she had enough, so she stepped out of the box and starting shopping in the mall in which she performed her stunt!
While these people are certainly on the fringe, and the things that they do are far beyond the pale of normalcy, there are plenty of other people who engage in very dangerous activities simply for the thrill of it. There are the bungee jumpers, the skydivers, the freestyle skiers and snowboarders, the extreme white water rafters, the surfers who ride out into 40 foot waves, and a whole host of other athletes and fools. The description for Class 6 White Water says it all, “Successful completion of a Class 6 rapid without serious injury or death is widely considered to be a matter of luck or extreme skill.” The injury list of any pro-skier or snowboarder will be sure to include over a dozen broken bones, and there is no injury list for bungee jumpers…
I myself dallied with danger for a spell. Back in my snowboarding heyday, I was drawn to taking runs through the freestyle park and catching airtime on the jumps. There was something intoxicating about the fear, excitement, and intense concentration you feel while speeding up a ramp that will launch you into the sky. But it all ended for me the first time I took a really bad spill. I remember lying twisted on the icy snow, in massive pain, and telling myself, “That’s it, no more of this. I hope to have kids one day, and they are going to need a Daddy in full working order!”
What is it that attracts people to the dangerous? Why do people feel the need to gamble with their lives for sport? I believe that part of motivation is the thrill humans feel when we push ourselves to very limits of what’s possible. At that moment, we are living on the edge, and that causes an exhilarating, intoxicating rush of emotions. David Blaine regularly says that his goal is to show people that we are capable of doing things that are normally thought of as impossible, that by going to the edge and pushing outward we can stretch human accomplishment beyond our wildest dreams.
The good news is that we can get our thrills without hanging off a glacier, running in front of dozens of two-ton bulls, or climbing up skyscrapers. In Judaism we see all those feats of strength and physical prowess as insignificant compared to the limits we can and need to push in realm of character development.
Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated (Mishlei, 16:32), “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the conqueror of a city.” (Pirkei Avos, 4:1)
The Magen Avos explains that when dealing with physical strength, humans are insignificant. A grasshopper can jump 30 inches. If humans could jump that many times their body length, they could jump the Grand Canyon without a rocket powered motorcycle! A whale can stay underwater for 2 hours at a time, camels can live for 50 days without water, and fish can easily swim Class 6 white-water rapids without getting harmed. Our achievements in the physical realm are nothing compared to those of the animals around us. Our true strength lies in our character.
A classic example of someone who may have had physical power in spades, but lacked strength of character is Mike Tyson, a boxer who was a warrior in the boxing ring, who remained the undisputed heavyweight champion for years. But would we call him strong? No! He was a pathetically weak person who couldn’t hold himself back from some of the most depraved acts, including biting off the ear of another boxer in front of millions of people.
We can get our thrills by pushing ourselves to become better people than we ever thought possible, and seeing the accomplishments we never believed achievable. We can become more involved parents, more attentive spouses, better Jews, and more caring humans than we think possible. Challenging ourselves with specific milestones that seem beyond our capabilities, and then striving mightily to reach them can be more thrilling than sky-diving. Fighting with our natural negative inclinations and transforming ourselves into a new human being is harder than standing in a slab of ice for a week!
Of course the rush of endorphins is not the same, it won’t be covered on national TV, but then again, the success is far more impressive. You becoming someone your believed impossible for you to be is far more impressive that you doing something you believed impossible to do. It’s accomplishment is far more comprehensive, and it is far more difficult to motivate yourself to do it precisely because it won’t be coverd on national TV!
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter the father of the Mussar Movement, said that changing even one negative character trait is more difficult that learning the entire Talmud. The training, conditioning, focus, belief in oneself, willpower, and endurance necessary in building a better human are the most limit-pushing exercises available to mankind.
Let’s try to focus on one character trait we would like to change, and write down a plan of action to utilize our summer to train ourselves in that area.
Remember, real strength is not in stunts, but in self-development, not in muscles but in mastery – of ourselves.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell Aaron the exact procedure for lighting the Menorah. Rashi explains why the Torah juxtaposed this topic to last week’s Parsha which ended with the sacrifices the princes of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration ceremonies of the Tabernacle. When Aaron, the High Priest saw all the princes bringing their inauguration sacrifices and he had none, he became very disturbed and troubled. G-d sent him a message saying “I swear by your life, yours is greater than theirs because you will prepare and light the menorah.” What does this mean? How is the lighting of the Menora better that inaugurating the Tabernacle?
In order to understand this let us look at the very next Rashi which explains the Torah’s use of the word be’haloscha to describe the lighting of the menorah. This word literally translated means raise up, while figuratively it means to light. Anytime the Torah uses a word that has a literal meaning that is distinct from its current usage, it warrants an explanation. Rahsi’s explanation in our case is that while lighting the menorah the Kohen was required to hold the candle close to the wick until the flame of the wick would “rise up” on its own. What does this answer mean on a deeper level and what can we learn from this to apply to our own lives?
The menorah is the vessel in the Temple that represents knowledge, intellectual depth, and understanding. The symbolism is clear, as it is the one vessel whose primary function is to illuminate, which is what knowledge does. As a matter of fact the Sages tell us that if one wishes to become wiser, he should face slightly southward while praying the Amidah, because the menorah was on the southern wall of the Temple. Parenthetically one who wishes to become wealthier should face slightly northward, as the Table which represented wealth was on the northern wall of the Temple. (It is always interesting to see who faces northward and who southward, who wants wisdom and who wants $$$!)
Knowing this, we can understand a deeper level in the Torah’s message that when lighting the candles one has to keep the flame near the wick until the flame rises on the wick on its own. When we impart knowledge onto someone else, and teach them intellectual discernment, it is not enough that we simply dump our insights onto them, but rather we have to teach them how to use knowledge until they are able to understand things on their own. We have to kindle the flame until it rises on its own! A great teacher is not one whose students rely on him for all their understanding, but one who produces great thinkers each able of creating understanding for themselves as well as for others. This is the secret of lighting the menorah, of keeping the flame there until it rises on its own.
This can help us understand the message G-d was telling Aaron. The princes indeed had a very special job to inaugurate the Tabernacle, but Aaron’s job is greater. The prince’s job was to turn the key in the ignition and start the engine going, but Aaron’s job is brining the wisdom of Torah and spirituality into the world in a way that will produce people who will carry the torch on to the next generation and the next all the way until the Messiah! Additionally, this helps us understand the Mishna in Avos that says “be among the students of Aaron” as the students of Aaron are the ones who understand the value of not just knowing the right things but of helping train others to perceive the right things!
As seen above the Parsha starts off with the owners manual for the menorah telling you when to change the oil and how to light it properly. Following that is the Consecration of the Levites. In previous weeks we discussed how the Levites were given some of the holy jobs originally reserved for the firstborns. Here the Torah describes the procedure that the Levites underwent to begin their service. As most Temple procedures went, it included bringing specific sacrifices but it deviated a little in that it included shaving all of one’s hair, and Aaron picking up and waving each and every one of the 22K+ Levites. (No, Aaron, unlike some MLB did not use steroids, he was miraculously given the strength to pick them all up.) The Torah then tells us that the Levites would begin their apprenticeship at 25, begin working at 30, and retire at 50. (Where do I sign?)
The next part of the Parsha deals with the Pesach offering brought during the second year that the Jews were in the desert (the only year they brought a Pesach offering in the desert, the next one they would bring would be when they got to the Promised Land, 40 years later). It also talks about the people who couldn’t bring the offering due to ritual impurity who came to Moshe with a complaint “why should we be left out?” to which G-d replied with the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni which is a makeup date a month later for all those who couldn’t make it on the regular date.
Being that the Jews were about to embark on their first journey since encamping at Sinai, the Torah teaches about the Jewish travels in the desert. It talks about the signs of G-d that were omnipresent (cloud by day, pillar of fire at night), the frequency of their travels (totally random, ranging from once in 19 years to a day apart), the trumpets that were used to tell the Jews that they were about to pull out of their current parking spot (also used to call the elders together for meetings with Moshe), and the order of the people while marching. Moshe at this point invites Jethro his father-in-law to stay with the Jews, but he says that he has to go back to try to convert the people of the land from which he came.
I would like to preface the next part of the Parsha with the following explanation. The Jews who were in the desert were on an exceedingly high spiritual level after seeing G-d reveal Himself at Sinai and after witnessing the miracles in Egypt and at the Reed Sea. Therefore, as we read in the coming weeks the mistakes they made and the punishments meted out, we need to understand that when someone is so close to G-d, the judgment is so much more strict, much the way a top official in the government is scrutinized so much more than an average Joe. Additionally, a lot of the mistakes have deeper meaning that explain that they were not the large mistakes they appear to be, rather they were judgment calls which were made in the wrong direction, but with good intentions.
Soon after the Jews first travels, some of the evil people amongst the Jews began to complain about their fate in the desert. G-d responded by sending down a heavenly flame that devoured some of the complainers. Moshe prayed to G-d and the fire stopped. Soon after that the people began to complain about the manna which was a spiritual food that came down from heaven daily. One cannot imagine a better food. It tasted like whatever you wanted it to be (think prime rib for breakfast every day!!), it produced no waste products, it didn’t cause you to gain weight, and was delivered to the ground where you just had to pick it and eat it! (Imagine the cover of the 1312 B.C.E. Readers Digest: New Diet! Eat whatever you want and never gain a pound!)
Most of these complaints were initiated by the mixed multitude a group of people who joined the Jews as they left Egypt, many of whom were insincere converts, and didn’t have the tools to appreciate true spirituality. This bothered Moshe to the point where he asked G-d how he was supposed to deal with such a difficult nation alone. “Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?” (Numbers 11:12) In response to this G-d told Moshe to appoint seventy Elders to be the Great Sanhedrin, a group charged with helping Moshe lead the nation. (I think I need seventy people just to help me with my two daughters!) After this G-d responded to the complainers by sending flocks of quail to the camp, which were lethal to anyone who ate them. (Most people didn’t eat them because they were more than happy with G-d’s spiritual food.)
The Torah also talks about how when Moshe called together the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, G-d increased the spirit of prophecy of Moshe to extend onto all the others. The Sages compare it to a candle which can light another flame without losing any of its light. (If you are still reading, thank you, and please email me back, I’m trying to get a feel for how many people read this part of the email.) After this event, Miraim, Moshe’s sister was talking to her brother Aaron, and she discussed the fact that Moshe left his wife (this was done because he spoke to G-d so frequently and with such clarity, that he wasn’t allowed to have any distraction). She talked in a slightly negative way, and she was immediately punished with tzara’as the spiritual affliction of the skin reserved for people who speak lashon hara, negative speech about others. Because of her greatness, the entire Jewish people waited seven day until she was healed before moving. This was a reward for her waiting at the riverbanks when Moshe’s cradle was cast in the water in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. This shows us that every act we do, no matter how natural it seems to us (as a sister guarding her brother in the water), is evaluated, appreciated and rewarded. Well that’s about all for this week folks.
Quote of the Week: Today was once the future from which you expected so much in the past. ~ Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Black whales are born white.
Funny Line of the Week: Free cheese only in mouse catching machine! – Russian teen on application for school in the US
Have a Glorious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham