Some states, like California or Texas, seem to have it all; glamour, big business, large populations, beautiful nature, national and international recognition, and lots of things to do. Other states, like Iowa or Idaho, seem to have none of it, no glamour, no big business, tiny populations, unremarkable nature, and so little recognition that when given a map less than 20% of Americans can point out where they are. Wisconsin is definitely in the latter category. When you’re largest metro area is the people who live in your state only because it’s near Chicago, IL and your nickname is America’s Dairyland which means your bovine population likely exceeds your human population, you know you’re not winning any awards at the State Popularity Contest.

Some of the calendar highlights in Wisconsin: The Warren Cranberry Fest, the Bayfield Applefest, and the Morel Mushroom Festival, sound like events I would want to attend only if electricity was no longer a thing. It’s no surprise that Wisconsonians (they’d prefer you call them Badgers, which doesn’t win them any more points in the State Popularity Contest) are big drinkers; ten of the top 20 drunkest cities in the US were in  Wisconsin according to a USA Today article, including all of the top four. Other notable states on the list were Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota, all plagued with the same lack of things to do like Wisconsin.

So what do you do when there is nothing to do? You make up wars. One city in Wisconsin was invaded by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and another city seceded from the state and created its own sovereign state. Let’s go through these battles one at a time.

Winneconne is tiny city of about 2,300 hardy souls smack dab in the middle of Wisconsin. Its most notable for the Kay Wilde Doll Museum, and without visiting it, I’d venture to say that Kay Wilde probably didn’t want to give up her dolls, so she now stores them in a “museum.” And frankly, when there is nothing else to do in Wisconsin, I’d rather someone spend their time keeping their dolls clean and comfortable than turn to Wisconsin’s other pastime, drinking. 

In 1967, disaster struck the placid people of Winneconne; the official roadmap of Wisconsin was released, and Winneconne was nowhere to be found! In the days before GPS, roadmaps were how people navigated a state, and if no one knew that Winneconne existed, no one would stop there and eat at their restaurants, sleep in their hotels, drink at their bars, or visit the Kay Wilde Doll Museum! The president of the Chamber of Commerce, Vera Kitchen, wrote to the governor describing their predicament:

“Dear Sir, We would like to call your attention to the omission of Winneconne on the new 1967 official Wisconsin highway map, published by the State Highway Commission. As a small community, we do a great amount of advertising for Winneconne and Wisconsin, which you undoubtedly know. If something can be done to correct the 1967 map, we would greatly appreciate your efforts.”

But it was too late, the maps were already printed and distributed. The governor, Warren P. Knowles wrote back saying that there was nothing he could do other than guarantee that if any additional copies of the 1967 map were printed Winneconne would be included, and certainly they would be on the 1968 map. If you thought that would be enough to placate the citizens of Winneconne, you sorely underestimated their pain.

A number of secret meetings were held, and it was decided that Winneconne would secede from the uncaring state of Wisconsin and form the Sovereign State of Winnecone. They made their own flag, formed their own militia, (made up of the members of the Fox Valley Muzzle Loading club, a group that wore buckskin shirts and armed themselves with black gunpowder and muzzle loaded muskets), and created a government, with James Coughlin as president and Vera Kitchen as the prime minister and custodian of Vera’s Kitchen Cabinet. They waited until July 21, 1967, when the state’s National Guard was in Minnesota for summer training, and the rebels struck hard and fast.

The Winneconne militia lowered the Wisconsin flag in front of city hall, and fired a few ragged volleys from their fearsome muskets. With the rest of Wisconsin cowering in fear, the rebels hoisted the Sovereign State of Winneconne flag, which proudly proclaimed their motto, “We like it- Where?” a chilling response to Governor Knowles’ slogan “We Like It Here.” and like that Winneconne was a new sovereign state. The flag also displayed the state bird, the dodo; the state animal, the skunk; the state flower, poison ivy; and the state fish, the sheepshead.

The secession was only the first step, some Winneconnians were considering taking over the neighboring city of Oshkosh, and there was discussion of setting up toll booths to demand payment for traversing the Sovereign State. Another plan included joining another state, preferably one with better weather, but it wasn’t clear yet which states were interested. Needless to say, it was a tense day in Wisconsin, many compared it to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Territorial disputes are often bloody, but in the end Governor Knowles caved. He declared that Winneconne would be on the state map in 1968 (which he has already confirmed if you recall), and he agreed to erect a sign at the junction of US Highway 41 and Wisconsin Highway 110, pointing the way to Winneconne, and helping to drive tourism into the city.

The Wisconsin Attorney General, Bronson La Follette came to Winneconne on July 22nd, to welcome the city back into the state of Wisconsin and the war was officially over. As a publicity stunt, the secession worked; stories of the revolution were told in newspapers around the country. Alas, the only vestige of that war is the Sovereign State Days, a yearly festival held in Winneconne, one I would probably rate above Applefest, but below the Morrel Mushroom Fest.

While the people of Winneconne went to war with their own state, the people of Manitowoc were invaded by a massive military regime halfway around the world! In the early morning of September 6, 1962, a projectile came hurtling out of the skies and crash landed with a thud (or perhaps a hiss) in the middle of the North 8th Street, imbedding itself three inches into the concrete! It was in the shape of a disc, about one foot in diameter and weighed twenty pounds, and after some investigation it was discovered to have come from Sputnik 4, a Soviet Satellite.

The Sputnik satellites were famous for kicking off the Space Race between the US and USSR, when Americans were shocked that the Soviets were the first to launch an artificial satellite into space. They were relatively unsophisticated satellites, whose batteries would run out of fuel in a few weeks after which they would fall back into the atmosphere and burn up, but some pieces made it through reentry and crash landed in different parts of the world. The Manitowoc fragment was unique for landing in the middle of an American city. The story of the “Soviet invasion” was carried by newspapers all over the world, waking Americans up to the fact that we have a state called Wisconsin and making us wonder how to pronounce Manitowoc.

The fragment was eventually sent back to the USSR, and a replica was placed into the street on North 8th Street with a nearby plaque commemorating the event.  But each year in early September, the great city of Manitowoc has the Sputnikfest, which features an alien pet contest for people who want to dress up their cats and dogs in tinfoil hats. There’s also a costume contest for humans, and the city crowns a Ms. Space Debris. I’d place the Sputnikfest below the Sovereign State Days but above the Applefest.

One thing that we can learn from Wisconsin is that boredom breeds war. When there is nothing going on in our lives, the restlessness within leads to the desire to create some conflict or some illusion of conflict, and when it happens in Wisconsin we can laugh about it, when it happens in our lives, it can often be devastating.

This coming Thursday is Tisha B’av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we mourn the destruction of the First Temple, Second Temple, and all the pain that has befallen our people in our thousands of years in exile. The Sages tell us that the First Temple was destroyed because of people violating the three cardinal sins; murder, idolatry, and licentious immorality, and the Second Temple was destroyed because of Sinas Chinam, which translates as Baseless Hatred.

Baseless hatred seems to be the more severe of the transgressions. The exile caused by the three cardinal sins was only 70 years, but the exile caused by Baseless Hatred has carried on for close to 2,000 years, because we still have not been able to fix it. But what is Baseless Hatred? Do you know anyone who hates another person for no reason at all? Have you ever asked someone, “Why do you hate Bob?” and they respond, “For no reason whatsoever, I just hate him!”? Of course not! If you ask someone why he hates Bob, he will give you a long litany of reasons, transgression committed by Bob against him, things said by Bob that hurt him, and perhaps even years of animosity between their families. No one hates anyone for no reason?

But perhaps the Sages are telling us the secret to the problem by naming it Sinas Chinam, Baseless Hatred. Yes, I’m sure Bob did something or said something that you find offensive, but does that mean that getting offended is the right move for you? If you look at all the blessing in your life, do you think you would be better focusing on the minor injustice Bob committed against you or would you be better off focusing on the millions of blessings in your life being sent from above? The ratio of blessings in your life to the affronts being visited on you is so wildly out of proportion that you have no rational basis for focusing on the negative and filling your heart with hate, when your whole heart should be filled with gratitude and appreciation.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of great people is that they don’t let the petty things get to them, they stay focused on the blessings in their lives. Even more importantly, they recognize that the thorns poking them, the small negative things that others do to them, are actually tests from G-d to see if they will rise above or get mired in fighting and bickering. One of the most famous examples of this was the story of King David and Shimmy Ben Gera. Kind David was at a low point in his life, on the run from his son who was staging a coup against him, and while leaving a city, Shimmy Ben Gera came out and hurled a string of horrible insults at King David. The king’s men wanted to immediately kill Shimmy for his treason and invective, but King David instructed them to leave him alone, “G-d told him to curse.” (Samuel II, 16:11). King David, even in his time of pain, would not allow the negative in others to obscure the constant gratitude to G-d that filled his heart. Indeed we see that he wrote beautiful Psalms and praises to G-d, while facing attacks from others.

The reason that we lost our Second Temple, the reason that we are in bitter exile for close to 2,000 years is because we keep focusing on petty infractions between people,  building “wars” with others, when we should be wholly focused on the incredible good in our lives. We are going to war with the State of Wisconsin! We are being invaded by the Soviets! No, we’re just bored because we haven’t properly filled our lives with gratitude, so instead we take every opportunity to take offense, create senseless battles with others, and celebrate our petty victories over other people with personal festivals that rank even below the Applefest.

This year, as we close in on Tisha B’av, let’s look at our lives and see if we have any baseless wars brewing in our backyard. Let’s see if there are some petty fights that we can lay to rest. Let’s see if we can so powerfully focus on all the richness and positivity in our life that we no longer have room for negativity towards others. Let’s root out the baseless hatred and fill the gap with baseless love. Because if we are focused on all the blessings in our life, we naturally want to give back to others, whether they deserve it or not, because we feel like we’ve been given so much more than we deserve.

As we transform baseless hatred into baseless love, we will simultaneously be transforming darkness into light, suffering into relief, exile into redemption!

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s dvar torah is from the beautiful writings of Elchonon Jacobovitz

And God spoke to me [Moshe] saying: Enough of your circling around this mountain [Mt. Sa’ir], turn yourselves northward.

Nearing his final days among the living, Moshe delivers a marathon pep talk to the Jewish nation, better known to us as the book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy. In pointing out the fledgling nation’s strong and weak points, he spends much time reviewing the forty years spent together in the desert, reflecting upon the trials and triumphs of that tumultuous period. Nearing the end of this short chronicle, Moshe recounts how, after having spent some time circling Mt. Sa’ir, ancestral homeland of Israel’s arch-nemesis Esau, God told him, “Enough of your circling around this mountain [Mt. Sa’ir], turn yourselves northward”.

While Moshe’s account is perfectly accurate, there is something odd about how he tells of God’s instructing him to move on. By saying “Enough of your circling around this mountain”, God seems to be almost annoyed at the Israelites for sticking around Mt. Sa’ir for too long. Yet in truth, it was God who had instructed them to remain there in the first place, for as we know, it was He who dictated the Israelites’ every move throughout the forty years. What, then, could God possibly mean?

Perhaps understanding the terms “Mt. Sa’ir” and “northward” metaphorically, will shed new light on God’s intent. As the ancestral territory of our nemesis Esau, “Mt. Sa’ir” can be understood as the seemingly impenetrable fortress of the forces which stand in the way of our spiritual success. Similarly, our Sages teach that the word Tzafon, or “northward”, can also be read as Tzafun, which means “hidden”. With this in mind, an entirely new message emerges, encrypted in a seemingly innocent account of the Israelites’ travels.

“Enough of your circling around this mountain”, says God. You have wasted enough time circling your challenges, trying to dream up of ways how “little you” can somehow overpower “big them” in one fell swoop, David-and-Goliath style. Don’t focus on being the glorious knight in shining armor scoring a knockout blow against Evil. Instead, turn your attention to scoring small, hidden triumphs; little, secret victories that may not get you into the newspaper. “Turn yourself to something hidden”. It is only through those small victories that your challenges will eventually fade away entirely. Trying to take them down with one knockout punch is simply effort wasted chasing the impossible.

Overcoming the forces that keep us away from God is not meant to be an all or nothing proposition. God does not want us to spend five minutes in the ring with adversity, with thousand of spectators cheering, and take him down with superhuman strength. Our struggle is meant to be a lifelong one, and we are only expected to be human. What God does want us to do is put up a sustained fight made up of small, entirely winnable battles, in the most hidden of forums and most unspectacular of ways.

Are we to suddenly begin praying for three hours every day? No. But how about truly reflecting on how much we owe God for two seconds; two seconds so short that nobody even notices.

Should we suddenly throw everything for which we lust, out of our lives? No. But maybe we should hold ourselves back once or twice, and revel in the knowledge that only God and ourselves share the little secret of the victory we just achieved.

God does not expect, nor want us, to face down the mountains which stand in our way, and tear them down with our bare hands. All He asks is that we silently chip away tiny slivers off those mountains, slivers so small that only He and us even notice. And yes, with time, those mountains will crumble, so long as we keep on fighting the good and small fight, instead of dreaming about their dramatic downfall while doing nothing practical to accomplish that goal.

Don’t break mountains; break molehills, and the mountains will come crashing down.

Parsha Summary

The Parsha of Devarim is a record of what Moshe told the people before he died. In the later Parshiot, Moshe reviews some of the key laws (mostly those that will empower the people to set up a stable, functioning society in Israel), but in this Parsha, he reviews the salient events that occurred in their forty year journey. The goal was to ensure that those entering the land wouldn’t rest on their laurels and assume that if they were great enough to inherit the land, then obviously, they wouldn’t fall to sin. To negate this idea, Moshe recounts how the generation that witnessed the greatest miracles of all time (the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea), and saw G-d at Sinai in the clearest revelation mankind ever experienced, still fell in the trap of sin.

The basis for this phenomenon is the principle that, “Whoever is greater than his friend, his Evil Inclination is greater.” (Talmud Succah 52a) The higher one’s ability to soar, the lower they are able to fall. (This applies for geographic locations as well. Yerushalayim comes from the merging of Yeru Shalom which means “will see peace,” because it has the ability to bring the entire world peace. This could be accomplished by being the focal point of our prayers, and the city in which the whole world would come together to serve G-d in His temple. In that same way, it also has the ability to see the greatest negation of peace, as it has. I believe, and please email me if I am wrong, that Jerusalem has been the city that has seen the most violence in the world over the course of its 3,000+ years of history.) The generation of the desert had so much pushing them towards good but, to balance that, they also had so much pushing them toward evil. Therefore, Moshe felt it imperative to warn those going into Israel that, although they may be on a lofty spiritual plane, the danger of sin abounds.

Moshe first hints to the Jews’ major sins, including the Golden Calf, their complaining that G-d took them into the desert to kill them, the sending of the spies, their sins with the Midianite women, Korach’s rebellion, and their loss of faith in him at the sea before and after it split. After hinting to these sins, Moshe begins to detail certain events such as the appointment of judges and the failed mission of the spies. He also reminds them of how they had to circle around Israel and not enter from the south due to the Edomites and Moabites not allowing them through their lands, and G-d telling them not to fight with them. 

Moshe then reminds the Jews of how, with the help of G-d, they were able to defeat giants like Og, and mighty kingdoms like Sichon, thus telling the Jews that if they put their faith in G-d, they need not fear the imminent conquest of Israel. Finally, the Parsha closes with Moshe describing the agreement he had made with the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe regarding their settling land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: When you talk, you repeat that which you already know. When you listen, you often learn something new!- Jaren Sparks

Random Fact of the Week: In 1924 a new Ford cost $265.

Funny Line of the Week: I don’t like people to talk while I’m interrupting.

Have a Introspective Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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