It is freezing outside, quite literally. It has been freezing outside, quite literally, since a week ago. The coldest we’ve seen in the last week has been 5 degrees Farenheit, and the balmiest has been just below the freezing point. Snow, snow, snow, everywhere. Except on the roads of course, where it is salt, salt, salt, everywhere. I’ve got good news and bad news, which one would you like to hear first?
I know you can’t really answer that, but 90% of the time that I ask that, people say they want to hear the bad news first, so here goes: Detroit has significantly worse weather than Oahu, HA. While only the third largest island in Hawaii, Oahu is the most populated island, largely due to it’s incredible climate. Temperatures rarely rise above 90 degrees even in the summer, and in the winter, they tend to stick to the mid-seventies. There are usually only six nights a year where the thermometer drops below sixty degrees, but most nights even in the winter are in the high-sixties to low-seventies. Winter coats don’t exist in Oahu.
The good news is that Detroit has significantly better weather than Oymyakon, Siberia. The closest inhabited place to the Arctic Circle, Oymyakon winters make your freezer look like a sauna. Your freezer is usually set to zero degrees Fahrenheit, and temperature in Oymyakon usually dips below that in mid-September and doesn’t climb above that until May. In January, February, March, the average daily low is fifty eight degrees below zero. Schools remain open even with fifty-below temperatures, but close when it gets extreme, somewhere around sixty two below. In 2013, the temperature dipped to ninety-eight degrees below zero, so cold that many of the thermometers in the village committed suicide, literally breaking from the pressure of the mercury being compressed so tightly.
When people walk outside in the winter, something they try to do as little as possible, they generally cover every part of their bodies except their eyes, and their eyelashes accumulate ice. The diet in Oymyakon consists of a lot of meat, often eaten in raw strips, or cooked into stews. A delicacy is frozen cubes of horse blood mixed with macaroni.
There aren’t a lot of fruits and vegetables available because nothing grows in the ground, which is permanently frozen. In the summer, they get more fresh food trucked in, but in the winter, no one wants to make the drive. It is over 1,000 kilometers from the closest large city, Yakutsk. Speaking of driving, people leave their motors running continuously throughout the winter, unless the car is in a heated garage, because the frigid temperatures can kill a battery in a few hours.
During the winter, there are only three hours of sunlight a day. Most of the people use outhouses because indoor plumbing tends to freeze. Many of the villagers are herders, some of them keeping their animals in insulated barns, but surprisingly many of them letting their horses, reindeer, and even cows stay out in the cold during the winter.
If you’re wondering why people would ever choose to live there, it wasn’t really a choice originally. The Soviets believed that the nomadic people of Northern Siberia were unable to properly adapt to Soviet culture, so they shipped large groups of them off to all sorts of forsaken hinterlands. One of them was Oymyakon, which previously had been a place where reindeer herders would bring their flocks to drink from the thermal spring flowing through the village. Today, some people make money from tourism, as every winter brings numerous people who are looking to experience something extreme. This is not Cancun. Days are not spent lying on the beach but rather reindeer sledding, ice fishing, and if you are really adventurous, reindeerback riding!
So while we may not have the weather of Oahu, we also don’t have the weather of Oymyakon!
I’ve got more good news and more bad news. The bad news is that you’re not as rich as Bill Gates, or even as rich as your neighbor with the larger house and nicer car. The good news is that you’re not dying of starvation. Unfortunately, that is not true for everyone in the world. Each year about thirty six million people die of starvation, which means that on average, every second, someone in the world dies of starvation.
On every metric there will always be someone doing far better than you, and someone doing far worse than you. The happiness in your life will depend on what you choose to focus on. There is a verse in Ecclesiastes (10:2) that says,לב חכם לימינו ולב כסיל לשמאלו which translates as “The heart of the wise man is to his right and the heart of the fool is to his left.” This seems like a bit of an enigmatic verse, as we all hopefully have left ventricles in our heart as well as right ventricles. The same can be said for left and right aortas. What is this verse teaching us?
One of my rabbis, (probably either Rabbi Yisroel Steinwurtzel, or Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, but my brain is a little fuzzy on this) explained this verse with the following idea. Imagine you’re the letters for heart in Hebrew, לב, and imagine that all the letters are lined up in a row. If you look to the right you see the letters ג and מ, and if you look to the left you see the letters, א, and כ. The letters גמ spell the word Gam which means also, the letters א, and כ, spell the word Ach, which means but.
The heart of the wise looks to the right and says Gam, also. I not only live, but I also have plentiful food and clean water. I also have a roof over my head, central heating and air conditioning, I also have a wardrobe filled with functional clothing and shoes. I also live in a place where I don’t fear for my life every day, and I also live in place where we need a freezer to keep our food frozen. I’m not only alive, but my life is ALSO filled with blessings.
But the heart of the fool looks to the left and sees the word Ach, but. I may have life, but I don’t have as much money as the Goldsteins, but I don’t look as good as the Goldbergs, but I don’t have the same good health as the Goldfarbs, but I can’t afford as nice clothing as the Goldmans. But I don’t have the same vacations as the Bergers, but I don’t have such well behaved children like the Bermans, but I don’t have as good a job as Bernstein, but I don’t have stature in the community like the Bertrams. But I don’t have good weather like Oahu.
Happiness is a choice, not a result. It’s not the result of what happens to you, but a choice of where you want to look. Let’s look right!
Parsha Dvar Torah
The Children of Israel…requested from the Egyptians silver vessels, gold vessels and garments…and they granted their request – so they emptied Egypt (Exodus 12:35-36)
Talk about chutzpah! After ten plagues, and the destruction of Egypt, not only do the Jewish people triumphantly march out of the county, but they actually ask the Egyptians to hand over their wealth on the way out.
Much debate surrounds the exact nature of this request for wealth. In Hebrew, the word for “request” and the word for “borrow” are the same. The Seforno commentary understands the term to mean “borrow.” (Exodus 3:22) Others understand it as a request that the wealth be given to the Jews with no expectation of return.
Based on the Talmud, the Egyptians clearly heard the word “borrow.” More than a thousand years later, the Egyptians even brought their “case” to none other than Alexander the Great in an attempt to recoup their wealth. At the time, the Jews answered, first pay for the 430 years of unpaid manual labor performed by 600,000 Jewish men – then we can talk about transferring wealth back to Egypt! (Tractate Sanhedrin 91a). (Incidentally, a group of Egyptian legal scholars attempted to bring the same lawsuit in Switzerland in 2003! The Jewish response was the same.)
In another somewhat ambiguous request, Moses repeatedly asked Pharaoh only to allow the Jews a three-day respite in the desert to serve G-d, even though he had no intention of returning. What was the purpose of this apparent subterfuge? Why did G-d choose to orchestrate events via trickery, when He could have instructed Moses and the Jewish people simply to demand what they wanted and get it?
The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797, Lithuania) answers this question in a way that also illuminates the workings of Divine justice. In Judaism, “punishment” is not an arbitrary act of revenge. Rather, it is the natural outcome of a person’s actions. The Heavenly Court interacts with the world “measure for measure.” (midda k’negged midda). Spiritually, each action elicits a reaction, which is perfectly in synch with the original action. This is the case even if it is not apparent at the time it is happening.
The Egyptians tricked the Jews into slavery. The Medrash describes how Pharaoh deceived the Jews by announcing the availability of “well-paid, public-works jobs.” He even joined in the manual labor to demonstrate his commitment to the project. Under this pretext, the Jews felt obligated to participate along with everyone else. Soon, however, the Egyptians slipped away and forced the Jews to remain, while simultaneously depriving them of their wages. The Heavenly reaction to this deceit was, essentially, to give Pharaoh and the Egyptians a taste of their own medicine. Measure for measure, G-d called on Moses and the Jewish people to “deceive” the Egyptians into setting them free and giving them their wealth.
Measure for measure also plays a role in rewarding a person for his good deeds. A story that stretched from one World War to the eve of another illustrates this point:
In 1917, in the middle of World War I, Alex Lurie, of Duluth, Minnesota, was an American Jewish soldier stationed in Seldes, Germany. Though not particularly religious, he went to the local synagogue one Friday night for Shabbat prayers. Instead of welcoming him, many people were suspicious of this uniformed soldier who appeared in middle of their services. One man, Herr Rosenthau, saw beneath the uniform and recognized a fellow Jew looking to connect to his Creator. He helped Alex through the services and then invited him over for the Shabbat meal.
Touched by the Rosenthaus’ kindness, Alex made sure to send a thank-you note as soon as he returned to the states. The letter was lost for 20 years. In 1937, it miraculously reached its destination at the very point in time when Jews throughout Germany were desperately seeking entry visas to any country that would take them. The Rosenthaus contacted Alex, who was able to save their entire family.
Sometimes we relate to our acts of kindness as just another random event in the course of our lives. However, there is nothing random about our ability to help other people – or ourselves – through our actions. As we recount the Ten Plagues and the Exodus from Egypt, our greatest freedom is the knowledge that everything we do plays a role in fulfilling G-d’s master plan for creation.
This week’s portion starts with the final three plagues. After Moshe warns Pharaoh of the locust that will be the worst Egypt has ever or will ever see, Pharaoh backs down and says he will let the Jews go. But, in typical Pharaoh fashion, he then reneges on the deal and claims that he only meant that the men could go. So G-d sends the locust. Lots of them. They eat everything that is not stored away. Pharaoh, in a panic, calls for Moshe and tells him to pray to G-d to take away the locust, and he will let the Jews go. Moshe prays, a wind comes and removes every last locust from Egypt (even the ones that were pickled and tucked away in Egyptian basements in Mason jars), and Pharaoh reneges.
G-d commands Moshe to stretch his hand out to the sky and, when he does so, darkness falls upon Egypt. After three days, the darkness gets stronger, to the point that it is so thick that people can not move. Meanwhile, the Jews have total reign to do as they please, and they scope out the Egyptians hiding places to find where they keep their treasures.
Finally, Pharaoh calls Moshe and tells him yet again that the people can go. Of course, there is one huge string attached, namely, that they have to leave the livestock behind. Moshe says, “We are going to bring sacrifices and you want us to leave the livestock behind? You will see that by the time we leave, you will be giving us livestock to get us out quicker.” Pharaoh tells Moshe to get away, and warns him that if he comes back, he will have him killed. Before Moshe leaves, he gets a prophecy, and he turns and warns Pharaoh of the death of the firstborns, the final plague. He tells Pharaoh that by the time the plague is over, the Jews will be driven out of Egypt, and with that, he leaves Pharaoh stewing.
G-d tells Moshe to tell the Jews to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians who miraculously are willing to “lend” it to them. (The amount they “borrowed” was still not enough to compensate for all the years of free labor that the Jews had given the Egyptians.)
Then G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jews about the first mitzvah they received as a nation, namely following the lunar months to determine Jewish holiday. G-d calls out the first month, Nissan, and tells Moshe to inform the Jews that on the tenth of the month they should set aside a lamb for a Pascal offering. This was no easy task, as the Egyptians worshipped the lamb, and were certainly less than pleased to see their gods being prepared for slaughter by their former slaves. G-d told Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring the lamb as a Pesach offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. They were to put blood on their doorposts on the night of the 15th and this would ensure that G-d would skip over their houses when He struck all the Egyptian firstborns.
The Jews brought the first Pascal offering, put the blood on the doors, and that night G-d went through Egypt slaying every firstborn. While doing so, He skipped over the Jewish houses, thus giving the holiday the name Pesach, which means skipped over. The entire Egypt was consumed with wailing and mourning, and finally even Pharaoh caved in. He went through the streets calling out for Moshe, telling him to get the Jews out of Egypt.
As morning broke, the Egyptians pushed the Jews to leave so quickly that they didn’t even have enough time to let their breads leaven. They quickly baked the dough as matzah, and left Egypt. About 1.2 million adult Jews left Egypt along with millions more children. Besides for the Jews, a large group of people called the eirev rav, or the great multitude, left Egypt with them. They were so impressed by the miracles G-d had show in Egypt that they decided to stick with the winning team.
As the Jews left Egypt, G-d told Moshe to teach the people the laws of Pesach which would be a holiday for eternity to relive our miraculous exodus from Egypt. G-d also tells Moshe that from now on, the firstborn of both Jews and kosher animals are holy, since G-d saved them by not striking them when He struck the Egyptians firstborn children and animals. This is the source for the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming one’s firstborn from the Kohen. It is also the source for the mitzvah to give most firstborn animals to the Kohen (with the exception of donkeys that get redeemed for sheep). Additionally, G-d tells Moshe about the mitzvah of teffilin which are worn to remind us of G-d’s great miracles. The parsha concludes with G-d’s commandment that the Jewish people transmit the story of our exodus from generation to generation, as it has been transmitted for 3,314 years!
Quote of the Week: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is? ~ Frank Scully
Random Fact of the Week: It is impossible to sneeze with your eyes open
Funny Line of the Week: Did Noah keep his bees in archives?
Have a Chipper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham