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If You’re Looking for a Little Humiliation….Shoftim 5776

If you ever find yourself with a craving for humiliation, try the following: walk into any Hermes store, and ask the salesperson if they have any Birkin bags. What will follow is a full sizing up of you as a human being, executed by the salesperson looking you up and down slowly from shoes to hair, followed by an almost visible decision that you are not worthy, expressed in a disdainful, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any Birkin bags in stock.”

It’s a lie, every Hermes store has a Birkin bag or two in the back, they just don’t find you worthy of one, and you know it. The company knows that you know it, their research shows that this rejection of you is actually more likely to make you want a Birkin bag even more, you need to get that bag to show that you are worthy, that you do have value as a human being, you need to heal that open wound of humiliation, and the only thing that will heal the pain is a Birkin bag.

The Birkin Bag, the stuff dreams are made of, and heirs fight bitterly over. The bags are sold by Hermes, a French fashion house that started out in 1837 as a high end harness and bridle shop, and slowly evolved to include saddlery, riding gloves and boots, and eventually a full line of haute couture and ready to wear fashion. Of all the items sold by Hermes, there is none as coveted as the Birkin bag, and that is by design.

The Birkin bags range in price from $12,000 to as much as $200,000 depending on what material is used, and what it is adorned with. A classic Togo calfskin bag with gold hardware can be obtained by those deemed worthy for $12,000, but if you want a Nilocitus Crocodile bag with gold and diamond hardware, expect to pay well into the six figures. The most expensive handbag ever sold, was that model exactly, and it sold for $223,000. Sometimes you have to decide, either you can have a new handbag or a new house…

It is hard for anyone to justify a $25,000 price tag on a handbag, but Hermes tries to do it by describing the labor intensive process that it takes to make a Birkin bag. They will explain that the entire bag is made by hand by one craftsman, a craftsman who has been trained for years. They will talk about it takes that craftsman anywhere from eighteen to forty eight dollars, and they will talk about the great scarcity of bags. Only 70,000 Birkin bags were sold last year, according to an industry estimate (Hermes never releases the numbers), meaning that 99.99999% of the people in the world will never get one of this year’s bags. (I’m OK with being part of the 99.99999%, I’ve learned to accept my station in life with dignity.)

Of course the scarcity is engineered by Hermes. If there were millions of Birkin bags flooding the market, their value would plummet. Instead, Hermes keeps the production low, they have a policy of refusing almost anyone who asks for one, and they don’t even list it on their website. The only way to get a Birkin bag is by spending a fortune on other Hermes items first, and that only gets you on the waiting list. So if you first buy a pile of scarves, ($400-$1,100) and then ask if they have a Birkin bag, they may say, “Why don’t we put you on the waiting list, and we’ll call you when something comes in.” But this is all a game, because there is likely a Birkin bag sitting in the back. After all, there are only 307 Hermes stores worldwide, and they sell 70,000 Birkins a year, so if you do the math it’s pretty clear that every store always has a couple of Birkins in the back, saved for the special people.

At the end of the day, the Birkin is not about the bag, it’s about the status symbol. All this combines to give the Birkin an almost mysterious allure, and people sit patiently for up to six years on the waiting list for certain Birkins. I’d rather go fishing.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on women’s handbags, I heard about the Birkin on a podcast talking about the economics of engineered scarcity, and did a bit of research.

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One way to get a Birkin bag on the first try is by showing up to the Hermes store in a brand new Bugatti Chiron. Made with enough carbon fiber strands to stretch to moon and back nine times (carbon fiber is a lightweight but strong material made by weaving tiny fibers made mostly of carbon), and able to muster up the power of 1,500 horsies through its sixteen cylinder engine, the Bugatti Chiron is looking to be the fastest production car in the world.

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But speed is not nearly everything in the Chiron, this car is a looker that freezes everything in its vicinity in sheer awe. Long, low, and loud, the Chiron announces its presence with styling that was pulled out of the future: swooping lines, two tone color scheme, and headlights made of a string of crystal squares. The interior is not only luxurious, but a work of art. A center stack made of single piece of milled aluminum holds the dials, the seats are separated by a swooping arch that echoes the exterior design, and the leather is soft enough to get lost in. Each of the four tweeters speakers had a one carat diamond membrane to ensure perfect sound quality, because what’s a Bugatti worth if you can’t hear the Torah class you’re going to listen to while driving it as if you were sitting right in front of the speaker?

The tires alone cost $42,000 for the set, which gives you a slight idea that the price tag of the Chiron is going to be ridonculous. Getting a Chiron into your driveway is going to set you back $2.6 million, but if you had to ask, you probably aren’t going to be lining up to buy one. And speaking of lining up, if you want one, you better get in line fast, only 500 of them will be produced. It’s not that Bugatti can’t make more of them, it’s another classic example of engineered scarcity. No one who spent $2.6 million on a car wants to come home from work and see his neighbor pulling up in the same car.

There may be only 70,000 Birkin bags made a year, but if there will only be 500 Chirons ever produced, the challenge in getting one is going to be significantly higher. Driving up to an Hermes store with a Chiron will probably get you a Birkin, but walking up to a Bugatti dealership with a Birkin will most definitely not get you a Chiron. For that you have to be much more special.

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It is interesting how in the world of luxury goods, the more special a gift, the more unobtainable it has to be. In the Jewish world it is the opposite. The greatest gifts that we get are not only freely offered to us all, but we are actively encouraged to obtain them and make them part of our lives.

There are two things described as gifts that are given to mankind from G-d. The first is Shabbos. The Talmud tells us (Shabbos, 10A), “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, I have a precious gift in My treasure house, it is called Shabbos, and I desire to give it to Israel; go and inform them.” It was not enough that G-d gave us this amazing oasis in our week, a time of tranquility and serenity, of holiness and joy, but G-d also asked Moshe to make sure to inform us that He was giving us this gift so that we should recognize its value. The mitzvah of Shabbos is mentioned again and again throughout the Torah, and it is included in the Six Remembrances that we are supposed to recall every day, all to insure that we are aware of how great this gift is, and how much it can change our lives for the better.

The second gift is repentance, the ability to change our negative behaviors and not only become better human beings, but also have the mistakes of our past entirely erased from who we are. The Gates of Repentance, one of the masterpieces of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, opens with the following statement: “From the greatest goods that G-d did for His creations is that he prepared for them the way to get up from the pit of their actions… as it says (Psalms 25:8), “The Lord is good and upright; therefore, He leads sinners on the road.”

G-d, in His infinite kindness gave us this gift whereby we can get out from under the burden of past mistakes, and on top of that, He makes Himself more available to us during this time of the year to enable us to do repentance more easily. The month of Elul, the month we just started on Sunday, is a month set aside for preparing ourselves for the High Holidays and the Ten Days of Repentance. We can’t simply waltz into the Ten Days of Repentance unprepared, so G-d gave us an entire month to ready ourselves, to start working on our characters, to start fixing those mistakes, so that when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come, we are ready to truly make meaningful change.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, OBM, in his masterpiece the Tanya, explains that during this month, “The King is in the field.” This idea is that during the whole year, we can come close to G-d through repentance and self-reflection, but we need to elevate ourselves to G-d’s level, to attempt to spiritually climb to the heavens, to come to the King in His palace. But during this month G-d so to speak comes down to us, making Himself extra accessible to us so that we can properly avail ourselves of His gift of repentance. During parts of the year we may find it hard to feel G-d when we reach out to Him, during this time of the year we will feel Him when we reach out to Him.

There is engineered scarcity, and there is engineered abundance. G-d’s gifts to us come with engineered abundance. They improve our lives immeasurably, they are not just status symbols but rather status enhancers, and G-d makes them as easy as possible for us to get. We simply need to go pick up our gifts!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In the beginning of this week’s portion, Shoftim, the Torah commands us to set up proper judges and law-enforcement officers in all our cities. A few verses later the Torah says the following: “Justice justice you shall pursue so that you may live and inherit the land that Ha-shem, your G-d, is giving you.” (Deut. 16:20) The obvious question is why does the Torah repeat the word justice twice?

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pishischca (1765-1827), one of the leaders of Chasidic Judaism in Poland, answers this question with an important fundamental of Judaism. Sometimes people will do something wrong, but will use all kinds of justifications that seem truthful. An example of this would be refraining from giving charity by claiming that giving charity is only going to hurt people because it teaches them to become dependent on others. Other people do things that are correct but get there through ways that are wrong. An example of that would be giving charity to the poor by stealing from the rich.

Here the Torah tells us, “Justice justice pursue,” hinting that both the means and the ends have to be pure in order for something to be worth pursuing. We have to pursue justice through justice, and then we may, “live and inherit the land that Ha-shem, your G-d, is giving you”

 

Parsha Summary

The Jewish People stand on the brink of putting down roots in a land in which they hope to live peacefully forever. Moshe dictates to them a number of commandments that will allow for a stable society. The first commandment is to set up courts in all the cities. Additionally, Moshe warns the people to appoint honest people as the judges, ones who won’t accept bribery or favors. Juxtaposed to this is the prohibition against planting asheira trees, trees which served as idols. The juxtaposition underscores the idea that a corrupt judge is similar to an asheira tree. Just as the tree looks beautiful and productive from the outside, yet is really a vehicle to entice people to serve foreign gods, so too, a corrupt leader appears righteous and upstanding, yet he really lures the people into lawlessness and chaos. This is followed by the prohibition against offering sacrifices that have blemishes.

The Torah then discusses the capital punishment of idol-worshippers. We learn many of the laws that apply to capital cases from this portion of Torah. Circumstantial evidence, or testimony by a single witness, is considered invalid, and there is a very thorough cross-examination required before condemning anyone.

Next we are told that when we are not sure of the law, we must bring it to the judges, “who will be in those days.” This indicates that even if we feel that the judges and leaders of our times are not as great as those of previous generations, we must nonetheless follow them just as the previous generations followed their leaders.

The Torah inserts a verse reminding us to listen to the Rabbis, as is stated (Deut. 17:11), “In accord with the Torah that they instruct you, and upon the law that they state to you, are you to act; do not deviate from the word they tell you, neither right or left.” This verse could not have been telling us to simply listen to the Rabbis telling us to keep the clear Biblical prohibitions, as the Torah itself constantly tells us that. Rather, this verse is the source of the mandate the Rabbis have to make a fence around the Torah, that is, to pass laws that will keep us from violating Biblical commandments. (An example of this is the Rabbinic prohibition against playing a musical instrument on Shabbos. This prohibition was set to prevent someone from fixing a broken instrument, such as by replacing a broken guitar string, which would be a Biblical violation of Shabbos.)

The Torah then lays down the rules for picking a king. The king must be righteous and of Jewish origin, he must not have too many wives lest they distract him from his duties, he may not have too many horses lest he initiate a return to Egypt (where the best horses came from at the time), and he may not have too much money lest it lead to corruption and excessive taxation (I always thought the Torah was Republican). The king must have two sifrei Torah written for him, one that he keeps at home and one that he brings with him everywhere to constantly remind him Who is the King of all kings

Next, the Torah reminds the Jews of the gifts they are required to give the Kohen (he gets no portion of the land since he is supposed to live among the people and provide them with spiritual support. In return, they support him with all kinds of gifts). These include a portion of all grain, oil, wine, and wool sheerings produced by Jewish farmers, and select parts of some slaughtered animals. The Kohen can bring sacrifices to the Temple at any time, and perform the services associated with his sacrifice. However, regarding communal offerings, there was a system in which the various Kohen families would take turns performing all Temple services, one each week.

Here the Torah commands us not to seek out the future through various supernatural forces such as sorcery, divination using bones or omens, witchcraft, or astrology. G-d tells us (Deut. 18:13), “You shall be wholehearted with Ha-shem, your G-d,” meaning that you should have faith that G-d will take care of you, without having to look to other sources to discover your future. (Sorry, you are going to have to stop calling those psychic hotlines!) G-d tells us that He will send us prophets when He feels we need to know what lays in store for us. If a prophet predicts something and it doesn’t happen, we can know that he is a fraud.

The Torah then discusses the laws of the city of refuge, a place to which someone who murders someone unintentionally (but in a way which could have been prevented if more caution was exercised) must exile himself. Next is a warning not to move a boundary marker so as to steal land that rightfully belongs to a neighbor.

This is followed by the laws of the conspiring witnesses. Two people come to court and give testimony, e.g. “On Sunday, March13th, we saw Mike break Sam’s window in Detroit, and now he must pay Sam $400 to fix it.” Then, a second group of witnesses comes and says to the first group, “How can you say you saw that, you were with us on the 13th of March in Acapulco?” The Torah tells us that whatever verdict the conspiring witnesses were trying to attain against the defendant is now given to them, so, in this case, the witnesses would actually have to pay Mike the $400 they were trying to make him pay.

An exact procedure for war follows. A special Kohen, anointed specifically to lead the people to battle, would address the people and tell them that anyone who was faint of heart due to his sins, who betrothed a woman but did not marry her, built a house but did not settle in it, or planted a vineyard but did not harvest the fruits, should go back from the front lines. Then, before attacking a city, the Jews had to offer the other party a peaceful resolution. Only after being refused were they allowed to attack. While lying siege on a city, the Torah forbids cutting down fruit trees to build siege implements such as battering rams or siege towers.

The Torah concludes the Parsha with the laws pertaining to an unsolved murder found in the open, but I have already written way too much, so I encourage you to take out a Chumash, and see what the Torah commands us to do when we have an unsolved murder (and no, we do not post reward for anyone who calls a tip line with information that leads to the arrest of the killer- there were no phones back then!).

 

Quote of the Week: The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm. ~ Swedish Proverb

Random Fact of the Week: Neptune’s summer is 40 years long.

Funny Line of the Week: Who said nothing is impossible? I’ve been doing nothing all my life!

 

Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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