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Every Step Counts, but Some More
Parshat Chukat 5779

The New York City Subway system has 472 stations stretching over four boroughs, making it the largest subway system in the world. It is clean, efficient, reliable, inexpensive, and most importantly, it saves people hours of snarling traffic every day. In 2017, the most recent year data was presented, over 1.72 billion rides were provided by this amazing subway system which counts the mayor himself, Bill DeBlasio, as one of its regular commuters.

The D, N, and R lines all stop at a relatively unremarkable station in Brooklyn, on the corner of 36th Street and Fourth Avenue. It is not the most popular station (that would be Times Square) or the most unpopular (Aqueduct Racetrack, surprisingly) it is the 128th most popular station in NYC, with an annual ridership of 3,569,139, which breaks down to about 10,000 riders a day.

But recently, the 36th St Subway Station had its 15 minutes of fame. In one day, not only did hundreds of thousands of people watch the station in awe and admiration, but it made its way into news stories all around the world. This all happened because of something unique about the 36th Street Station, or better yet the stairs leading up from the 36th St Station.

There are sixteen stairs leading up from the subway station to the street above. They are just like tens of the thousands of subway stairs, except for Stair #10, or Numten as he likes to be called by friends and family. He’s a sneaky little one, and there is nothing he likes to do more than trip people. All day long and even late into the night, Numten grabs peoples legs as they climb up the stairs making them trip ever so slightly. He never does it to people going down the steps, and rarely does anyone totally fall over, they usually catch themselves a few steps later, or prop themselves up with their hand. But he is consistent, he probably gets about a third or a quarter of all stair climbers.

This caught the eye of Dean Peterson, a local Brooklyn hipster and filmmaker, who decided to film the stairs for a few minutes, and then make a video montage of all the people falling. The only thing people want to see on YouTube other than cute kitty videos is strangers getting hurt/embarrassed. Within 24 hours of Dean posting the video, over 300,000 people had seen it, and since then the story has gone viral on the web and in news outlets all over the WWW (World Wide Web).

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, the company that operates the NYC subways system, was thoroughly embarrassed by all the publicity Numten was getting and it dispatched a crew to address the problem right away. This of course was an even more newsworthy item, because normally, MTA never deals with any complaint without at least a week to process the paperwork, look over the files, assess the situation, write a report in triplicate, have some committee meetings and an open discussion forum, and then finally fix the problem. But here, the work crew materialized magically immediately and began addressing the problem

What they discovered is that Numten (the #10 step out of sixteen steps ) is not mischievous, malicious, or naughty, he is simply a little bit taller than all his brothers. When the first few steps in a staircase are uniform in height, our mind automatically assumes that the next ones will all be uniform as well. Without even thinking, we start moving our foot forward instead of up after that exact number of inches. But when there is one random stair that is a bit higher, our foot that is already moving forward gets caught on it, and we fall and make good YouTube material.

Fifteen of the steps in the 36th St Station are 7.25 inches high. Numten is 8 inches tall. That tiny ¾ of an inch gave him the ability to trip thousands of people each day, about a million each year, for decades! It was only when some bearded, bespectacled, filmmaker-hipster named Dean decided to actually notice it and make a film about it that anything was done about it. After all, you can’t fix a problem you don’t know about.

This story fascinates me for a two reasons. Firstly, Numten’s ¾ inch anomaly and the thousands of people subsequently tripping each day taught me about a function my brain does all the time without me realizing it all. Did you know that as you mount a flight of stairs, your brain starts taking incredibly precise measurements of the height and pitch of the steps? Did you know that it then commands you feet to swing up and over the step at just the right height so that you shouldn’t waste any energy stepping higher than you need? Did you know that it was so precise that just ¾ of an inch discrepancies can set the whole function out of balance?

I had no idea, until some hipster named Dean brought it to my attention, but now I have one more thing for which to be thankful to G-d when I think about my body. I like to collect things to be thankful for, because the more thankful you are, the happier you are, so this was a real treat. (Please see an extensive footnote of amazing things about your body that you can be thankful with me, and if you have one that I might not know, PLEASE email it to me!)[1]

The next thing that was amazing about Numten is that so many people were hurt, embarrassed, and agitated by this step for so long, yet no one did anything about it, because no one was looking for it. This brings up the possibility that there may be things in our life that are causing us pain, stress, or loss of spiritual potential that we simply don’t fix because we’re not looking for them.

Maybe we are snappy in the morning, and if we actually took the time out to think about what it’s doing to our day, our family, and our co-workers, we would make the adjustment to force ourselves to greet people cheerfully instead of acidly. Perhaps we are talking our way through services every time we go to the synagogue, and maybe it’s because we sit among such good shmoozers, but if we just moved our seat to somewhere else, we could get some prayer back into our prayer service. Maybe we are occasionally talking to our elderly parent in a way that is a bit less than respectful. Even though we are overwhelmed by the caregiving responsibilities that fell upon us, if we stop and think about how much they did for us, we can find it in ourselves to be a bit kinder and softer even when they forget things we just told them.

In the Path of the Just, an 18th century mussar masterpiece, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto encourages the reader to conduct a daily spiritual and ethical inventory. Rabbi Luzzatto compares this inventory to the one a large retailer makes at the end of each day, monitoring what came in, what went out, where all the money went out, how much money came in, what parts of the operation are profitable, and what needs help. In the same way, says the Path of the Just, at the end of the day, we need to sit down by ourselves, and look over our personal operation. What came out of us, what went in, where our resources were invested, what benefits did we reap, what parts of our day were laudable and what parts need help and focus.

When we put on our hipster Dean spectacles and look over our day with a discerning eye, we may just find some steps that need only minor adjustments. And we may be able rapidly fix those problems, and save ourselves countless future pitfalls. But we need to look for them. Because you can’t fix a problem you don’t see.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Torah portion we find what seems to be a bizarre sequence of events. For forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were miraculously provided with water from a well called Be’er Miriam, which was provided in the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moshe and Aaron. When she dies, the well dries up and, as could be expected, the Jewish people come to Moshe to complain. G-d tells Moshe to gather the Jews, and to speak to a rock which would then spout forth water, thus sanctifying G-d;s name in the eyes of the Jews.

Moshe gathers the people but, lo and behold, instead of speaking to the rock he hits it! G-d becomes upset with Moshe and declares that due to the fact that he failed to honor G-d in the eyes of the people by following G-d’s command, he will not be able to lead the Jews into Israel, and will die in the desert prior to their entry.

By now, I hope you’re scratching your head in disbelief and asking yourself the following three questions. #1 Why didn’t Moshe do what G-d told him to do? #2 Why does G-d care if the miracle comes through hitting the rock or through speaking to it – either way, watching water spontaneously spurt forth from a rock is quite a miracle? #3 Why is G-d punishing Moshe in a manner which will hurt the entire nation, and not in a way which will affect only him?

If we look back to Genesis 3:24, we see that after G-d removes Adam from the Garden of Eden, He places “the blade of the turning sword” at the entrance to prevent man from forcing his way into Eden and eating from the Tree of Life. This marks a very significant notch on the timeline of human history. G-d’s original plan was to have the world run by His word alone. He would command, and humans would listen. This was proven as a non-feasible method when Adam disregarded G-d’s word and ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

At that time, G-d changed the entire order of the world so it would rule not by His word, but by the sword. At first G-d had said, “Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” Now G-d prevented people from eating that which they were not supposed to eat by placing a sword in the way. Ever since then, the entire history of man has been: this group conquered this group, and this civilization destroyed that one etc. etc. (I taught high school history for 8 years and can testify to the veracity of the above statement.)

The Jews are now about to enter the land of Israel after having spent 40 years living a spiritual existence in which they were sustained by spiritual food. They are on such a high level that G-d wants to restore the world to its previous exalted state in which it follows the word, not the sword. He therefore commands Moshe to speak to the rock in front of all the Jews so that they should see that the word of G-d is that which will be the new mode of conducting world affairs, and even nature itself.

Moshe, however, having witnessed so many of the Jew’s rebellions and failings, didn’t feel that they were ready to live on such a lofty plane where they would be expected to follow the word of G-d to the T. Therefore, he hits the rock, symbolizing that the Jews should retain the status quo of living in a world run by the sword. Even though Moshe did this to benefit the Jews, ultimately, it showed a lack of faith on his part in the Jewish people’s ability to live at a higher state. G-d responded by telling him that he would not lead the Jews into Israel, because a leader who doesn’t fully believe in his people will never be able to get them to the next level.

The lesson for us is clear. If we want to inspire others and become leaders anywhere – in our workplaces, families, schools, or even Little League teams – we have to truly believe in the people we are trying to lead. That will inspire them to live up to the ideals we set for them. Furthermore, it sets out the Jewish role in the world as the people who are supposed to return this world to one in which it is the Word and not the sword that shapes the destiny of mankind.

 

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Chukas, begins with the laws of ritual impurity contracted by contact with a corpse. Corpses impart impurity to those who come in contact with them because they represent the loss of potential as life equals potential. Capability being wasted is the essence of impurity, just as potential being actualized is the essence of purity. The Torah describes the purification process afer contact with a corpse, which involves being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a completely red heifer. This mitzvah is considered the quintessential chok, a law we can’t understand. The most puzzling aspect of this law is that the pure person who prepares the ashes that will purify the impure person, ends up becoming impure himself. It is important for humans to accept that we cannot fully understand G-d. By keeping mitzvos we don’t fully understand we show that we live as we do not just because we think it’s moral or healthy, but because G-d told us to.

The Torah now shifts its narrative forward by close to forty years. The years that the Jews wandered in the desert were peaceful and relatively uneventful, and this is the first mention of the events that occurred to them at the end of their wandering. The Torah describes the death of Miriam and the subsequent drying up of the Well of Miriam which had provided the Jews with water for all the years they were in the desert. It is at this point that G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock and bring forth water – Moshe hits the rock instead. G-d then punishes Moshe by not allowing him to lead the nation into Israel.

Even though Moshe knows he will die before the Jews entered Israel, he does not try to delay them, but continues to help them get to the Holy Land ASAP. The path to Israel is blocked by the nation of Edom. G-d instructs Moshe to ask the Edomites if the Jews could peacefully traverse their land to reach Israel, but Edom refuses. Even though the Jews would later invade a different country when the inhabitants didn’t allow them peaceful access to Israel, this time G-d commands them to simply travel around Edom rather than fight them, as they are their cousins. (Edom is descended from Esau, brother of Jacob.)

It is on the border of the ancient country of Edom, that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and brother of Moshe, passes away. (Aaron’s grave is still around, at the top of a mountain directly above the world famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I was there, and I could see the little building in which the tomb lies. Due to time constraints, I was unable to go up, since it is a 3 hour donkey ride each way. However, I was able to look at his gravesite and pray. It was quite an awe-inspiring moment.)

After Aaron’s death, the job of Kohen Gadol is given to his son Elazar. The entire Jewish nation mourns Aaron for thirty days, something rare for someone in such a high position. Aaron merited this incredible honor by devoting his life to bringing peace between man and his fellow. (Note to Self: If I want people to mourn me when I die, and not rejoice privately, be nice to others and promote peace in the community, and then people will actually miss me!)

After the nations see the Jews mourning Aaron’s death, they know that a leader of the Jews died and figure that this would probably be a good time to attack them. So along comes their arch-enemy Amalek, and attacks the Jews, while they are down and unprepared. (Same modus operandi as the Yom Kippur War, they never stop being slime!) But G-d delivers the Jews from their hands, and they made short work of them.

Then, believe it or not, some of the Jews complain again about the manna (the spiritual food they ate in the desert). This time, G-d sends serpents which come into the camp and start inflicting fatal bites. G-d tells Moshe to make a copper serpent, put it on a high pole, and to tell anyone who was bitten to look up at it and be healed. (The sages say that the serpent wasn’t what healed, rather, when the Jews looked heavenward to gaze at the serpent, they remembered their Father in heaven and repented, and then deserved to be saved)

The Jews travel on toward Israel. Two lepers who are at the back of the camp notice a strange sight (no, not glowing discs in the horizon), and bring it to the attention of the Jews. Upon investigation, the Jews discover the following story. The Canaanites, aware that the Jews were marching toward their country with the intent of settling there, tried to ambush the Jews, They hid in caves along one side of a thin canyon waiting for the Jews to pass through, after which they would attack and mercilessly slaughter them (it seems like no one is willing to take us on head to head – they all have some sneaky plan!). What they didn’t know was that the Clouds of Glory traveling before the Jews prepared the way for them by flattening out their path.

As the Jews approached the canyon, the Cloud squished the two sides of the canyon together, thus making all the Canaanites waiting in ambush into mashed potatoes. The Jews would have never even known about this if not for the two lepers who were walking far behind the camp and saw the river turn red with the blood of our would-be attackers. When the Jews see this sight, they make a special song of thanks because they realize that there are countless times that G-d protects them without them even knowing about it. (In Israel, the army claims that 95% of terrorist attempts are foiled without the knowledge of the citizens. That shows that even today we don’t realize how much G-d is protecting us!)

The last part of the parsha tells us the story of Sichon, a kingdom to the west of the Holy Land. The Jews ask the people of Sichon permission to cross through their land peacefully on their journey to Israel. Sichon, emboldened by Edom’s refusal (which worked, but only because G-d commanded us to leave them alone), reject their request and even mass their troops at the border, as if to say, “over my dead body!” This is exactly what the Jews do. They beat them in battle and move calmly towards Israel over their dead bodies. That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: Necessity is the mother of taking chances. – Mark Twain

Random Fact of the Week: Karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.

Funny Line of the Week: “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

Have a Phenomenal Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

[1] Your lungs contain over 300,000 million capillaries (tiny blood vessels). If they were laid end to end, they would stretch 1500 miles.

Your bone is as strong as granite in supporting weight. A block of bone the size of a matchbox can support 9 tonnes – that is four times as much as concrete can support.

Each of your kidneys contains 1 million individual filters. They filter an average of around 1.3 liters (2.2 pints) of blood per minute.

Nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as 170 miles per hour.

The average heart beats over 3 billion times

You are taller in the morning than at night

Humans shed about 600,000 particles of skin every hour.

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