I’ll Save Your Life, if You Save Mine
Parshat Ki Tavo 5779
This is a true story. The name has been changed.
Sasha Bazarov never had it easy. He emigrated to the USA together with his parents from Uzbekistan as a young child. His parents had to leave everything behind, and in order to be able to support the family both of them had to work all day every day. Sasha grew up in the projects of Queens and was partly raised by his grandparents, partly raised by the streets.
When he was just eight years old his grandmother died in his house. This would have been devastating in its own right, but just two years later, his great grandmother, the matriarch of the family fell ill, and was soon on her deathbed. The family did everything they could, but every measure failed. When the doctors said she had only hours left to live, the family members began streaming into the house to say goodbye to the woman of steel who had shepherded them through so much turmoil.
Little Sasha came home from school to a miserable scene. The somber procession of relatives saying goodbye to their beloved matriarch was too heavy to bear. Suddenly, Sasha found himself climbing the stairwell of the public housing building until he reached the top. He sat down on a step, put his head between his knees, and began to beg, “G-d, please don’t take my grandma away. G-d, pleased don’t take my grandma away.” Again and again he repeated this one plea, his prayer rising in intensity until he was practically shouting it, “G-D, PLEASE DON’T TAKE MY GRANDMA AWAY.”
By the time Sasha stood up, it could have been an hour, it could have been five, he was drenched in sweat and totally exhausted, which was strange because it was only the early afternoon, and Sasha was quite the rambunctious young man. He went downstairs, and unnoticed he went off to his room and fell asleep. Sasha woke up the next morning around 6am, and walked out of his room into the family room. There he was met with the surprise of his life. Sitting in her favorite rocking chair was his great grandmother, looking calm and serene, and very much alive.
A shocked Sasha asked her, “Babushka! What are you doing here?” and her answer would stay with him forever.”Yesterday, as the family members were saying their goodbyes, I felt my soul leaving this earth and floating toward heaven. There was a big white light, and I could see all of my family reaching toward me with open arms. Your great grandfather was there along with your grandmother, my parents, and my sisters and brothers. They were all smiling at me and beckoning me, but just before I reached them, you suddenly appeared on the other side. You were praying that I shouldn’t leave, and somehow you brought me back to your side.” She looked at little Sasha, and said to him, “Shimon dear, you brought be back to life.” She then went on to live another eighteen months.
At sixteen years old, Sasha was one of the world’s top junior motorcycle racers. Unbeknownst to most normal people, children can start racing tiny motorcycles at 7 years of age, and as they get older the bikes get bigger and faster. By the time a child is 16, he can race full size race bikes. (See here for more info on junior racing) I’d rather my kid play baseball. But Sasha was a scrappy teen with an appetite for fast bikes and dangerous races, and luckily for him, he was quite good at it. He had already won a racing series in NY State, and Red Bull sponsored him to participate in Moto2, an international racing competition.
Moto2 was made up of a variety of racing events over the span of six months, and by the second to last race of the series, Sasha was the point leader by five points, a very small margin. He went to Jerez, Spain for a major race at Circuito de Jerez, and if he won that race, he would have clinched the first place spot for the entire Moto2 series. The pressure was enormous.
Sasha raced that day on a prototype custom built Suzuki racing bike with a 600cc engine and a host of high-tech bells and whistles. Early on, rider and bike were doing splendidly well. After ten laps, at speeds of up to 175 MPH, Sasha had a six second lead on the field, and he only needed to maintain his lead for 17 more laps, and he would be hoisted to the podium in a shower of champagne and confetti. But that was when the transmission started playing funny tricks. It started overpowering the bike at times and then downshifting unexpectedly. Sasha knew that he should really pull into the pit and have his bike fixed, but that would guarantee that he lost the race. When flying around a track at ridiculous speeds with enormous pressure to win, we don’t always make the best decisions and Sasha decided to stay in and go for the gold.
The pack of racers rapidly closed in on Sasha and his troubled bike. Soon they were just meters behind him, the whine of their bikes filling his helmet. His heart was pounding in and out of his racing suit, the competitive adrenaline now mixed with the fear of riding an uncontrollable bike. And just after he came out of a particularly hairy turn at 80MPH, his bike spun out from under him, sending him flying into the air in front of his bike, in the most deadly of motorcycle crashes, the high side crash.
As Sasha flew toward the track wall, dozens of projectiles were zooming at him at once. His bike was hurtling after him, but even worse, the pack of riders behind him would have no time to turn away, and within a fraction of a second they would be bearing down on him. But in midair, Sasha suddenly heard the unmistakable voice of his grandmother, “Shimon, Shimon!”
The axle of the first motorcycle sliced through his helmet, Sasha slammed into the wall, and the other riders managed to pull away. Sasha crumpled to the floor, medics rushed to pull him off the track, and soon he found himself on a stretcher in the medical tent. The doctor who was tending his broken bones held up his helmet, pointing to the gash cutting right through it. “If that motorcycle axle would have been an inch closer, you would be in the morgue, not the medical tent.”
Sasha, with his prayers, saved his grandmothers life. She returned the favor.
Today Sasha is getting a doctorate in Pharmaceutical Sciences and is conducting medical research at Long Island University. I met Sasha a few weeks ago Heritage Retreats, a Jewish learning program that brings together students and young professionals from around the country for a week of learn hard/play hard. Sasha and I had a number of conversations throughout the week, but we finally pulled away from the group for a more substantial conversation on the last day of the trip.
As he told me this story, he was clearly reliving it, and at times he broke down, literally shaking. He then told me that despite these stories, he’s never really reconnected with G-d since his prayer experience at the age of ten. Mostly, it was out of the fear that he wouldn’t feel that connection with G-d again, and he would be left questioning G-d’s connection with him altogether.
This brought us to an important conversation about experiencing G-d in our life, and our overall spiritual potential. There is a phenomenon, in which one can see what something looks like in its fullest sense for a very short time, without having earned it, and then it is taken away from them, and they need to work strenuously to try to get that feeling back. It is akin to being magically dropped on the top of a towering mountain, having fifteen minutes to experience the bliss of being “above it all,” and then being brought down to the base and being told, “now climb your way back up.”
This happens often in relationships, where at the beginning there will be short period of exhilaration where one feels totally connected to the person they are relating with, even though they barely know each other, and then suddenly that “puppy love” drops away, and they both have to work really hard on the relationship in the hope that they can recapture the original feeling. The advantage of course is that the second time they will be standing on the solid ground of months or years of hard work beneath them.
We see it with the Jewish people as well. When they left Egypt, they were on a total “high” having witnessed the miracles of the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea, a true gift of kindness form G-d, but then they were dropped off into the desert, where they had to work on their faith and dedication in order to merit receiving the Torah many weeks later at Mt. Sinai.
Sasha merited to see this phenomenon in an extraordinarily powerful way. He was able to see with great clarity the power of prayer, and he was able to experience a heavenly intervention saving his life, all without having necessarily earned it. Now the ball is in his court to regain his power of prayer, and rebuild his recognition of how Divine Providence runs this world down the last inch. It won’t come for free this time, he will have to climb the mountain for many months and many years, but he already has the gift of knowing what it looks like from the top.
We too have all had moments in our lives of great clarity, moments where we could feel our inner G-dliness coursing through our veins, where we felt a deep sense of connection with G-d, and a strong faith that He runs our world. But that may not be the way we feel right now. Life may have taken its toll on us, and we may have lost our deep connection with G-d, our sense of empowered prayer, or even some of our faith in Him altogether.
The Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, which started two weeks ago with the beginning of the month of Elul, and will continue until Yom Kippur, is a time of renewal. It is a time dedicated to bringing us back to a previous level of connection, a time for Teshuva, which means “returning to.” It is also a time when “the King is in the field,” when G-d so to speak leaves His heavenly abode and comes just a bit closer to us, making it that much easier to reconnect with Him and feel His presence.
We need to climb the mountain ourselves, but this time of year there is a staircase hewn out of the sheer walls. We just need to climb.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha, Moshe instructs the Jews on the actions they should take while entering Israel. One of the instructions seems quite difficult to understand. Moshe tells the people “When the day comes that you cross the Jordan to the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you, erect large stones and coat them with whitewash.You are to write on them all statements of this Torah while crossing; in order that you come to the land that Ad-noy, your G-d, is giving you, a land flowing milk and honey, as promised by Ad-noy, G-d of your forefathers, to you.”
It would be quite understandable if Moshe told them to write the Torah on special stones before crossing into Israel, or even directly afterwards, but here he instructs them to write the Torah on the stones while crossing into Israel in the middle of the Jordan River! (Malbim, Deut. 27:3) Furthermore, the Talmud tells us that a great miracle occurred while the Jews crossed the Jordan. The water stopped flowing, as if there were a dam, to allow the Jews passage on dry land. Normally, when there is a dam, the river water backs up creating a lake, but here the water stacked up higher and higher, until it reached towering heights! This surely did not create a serene writing environment, where scribes could sit quietly, etching the Torah into stone. Rather, there was a stressful and frightful environment, which would make it quite difficult for the people to do their task. Knowing this, why did Moshe command this action?
Because this was exactly the type of environment that Moshe wanted, in order to teach them an important lesson. The Jews had lived in the desert for forty years, existing in a protected environment, with all their needs met. Their food was delivered to their door daily in the form of manna, they had a miracle well that would emit streams of water which would pass by each tribe, and the Clouds of Glory protected them from enemies. Now, when they would get to Israel, their life would be radically different. They would have to toil diligently to draw food from the ground, go to war to protect themselves, and the idyllic life they had in the desert would be a thing of the distant pass.
However, this would not mean that they could stop studying the Torah. One of the greatest challenges of entering the land and living a normal life would be figuring out how to make Torah a prime aspect of their life even with a hectic stressful schedule. This was the message that Moshe was sending to the people. Your crossing into Israel represents the beginning of an era in which you will need to learn Torah even in taxing environments. What better way to obtain that skill, than by etching the Torah into stone while thousands of feet of water tower above you!
Today may be the time in history when this message is most relevant. Even though we create thousands of technological marvels that save us so much time (car, dishwasher, etc.), we seem to be busier now than ever before in history. Let us learn from this lesson, and discover ways to make the raging river of modern life stop, (even though it might pile up) so that we can have some dry land, some unhurried time to etch Torah knowledge into our hearts.
This week’s Parsha begins with the Mitzvah of Bikurim, the offering of the first fruit. When a farmer would notice the first of his crops begin to bloom (specifically the Seven Fruits with which Israel is Praised; wheat, barley, grape, pomegranates, figs, olives, and dates), he would tie a string around it. When it would mature, he would bring it to Jerusalem and give it to the Kohen in the Temple. He would say a paragraph describing the Jewish people’s history of difficulties, and would then go on to enumerate his blessings – the fact that he is bringing his crops to the Temple, in his land, undisturbed by the world. This was meant to underscore the elation a Jew should feel at this juncture. At a time when we might be most tempted to take full credit for something (when our crops finally grow in after months of hard work), this mitzvah helps us recognize that our bounty is a gift from G-d.
The next portion deals with the Confession of the Tithes. We are not always so up to date on our required tithes, so, once every three years, there is a commandment to take any tithes that we were supposed to have distributed already, and GET THEM OUT! It is done on Erev Pesach, after the three years are over. After making sure that all our tithes are distributed to the proper destinations, (some go to the Levite, some to the poor, and some to yourself to be eaten in Jerusalem), you confess to G-d, saying that you have taken care of all your obligations, and asking G-d to He look down with favor onto His nation and bless us with continued largess and beneficiation.
It is at this point that Moshe tells the Jews that G-d has chosen us to be His treasured Chosen People, When we walk in the path G-d has set for us, that designation will be recognized by the whole world. (I think you can figure out the flip side of that coin. So, if you are wondering how to stem Anti-Semitism, or how to bolster the world opinion of Israel and the Jews, don’t go marching in Washington. March down the corridors of self-introspection, and see what you can do to help the world understand that we are the Chosen Nation!)
After that, Moshe tells the people that when they enter Israel, they should proceed directly to two mountains called Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival There, six tribes should ascend each of the mountains, leaving the elder Levites in the valley along with the Ark of G-d. The Levites should then face Mount Gerizim and proclaim a blessing (e.g. Blessed is he who judges the widow, orphan, and poor person with righteousness), to which all the Jews should answer with a thundering Amen! Then, the Levites should face Mount Eival, and give the inverse of the blessing in the form of a curse (e.g. Cursed is he who perverts the judgment of the widow, the orphan or the poor), and everyone should answer Amen! Most of the 12 blessings and curses dealt with matters that could be done secretly (moving a boundary in the middle of the night, giving someone bad advice, certain forbidden sexual relations, and so forth). This was the Jews’ way of saying, as they established their homeland, that they as a society abhor furtive and underhanded crimes.
The last portion of this Parsha contains the strongest admonition Moshe ever gave the Jews. In it, he detailed for them the incredible blessing that they can bring to themselves if they keep the Torah, but also the terrible destruction that will come as a result of us cutting ourselves from our Source. In it, we find something fascinating. Moshe says that all the hardships we encounter will be come upon us, “Since you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness” (Deut. 28:47). It is clear that G-d doesn’t want us to simply serve Him – this is not Wal-Mart – G-d wants us to serve Him with joy and goodheartedness! He wants us to be enthused by the practices we keep, He wants us to be corybantic in our prayers (yeah, that’s right, look it up!), and ecstatic to be in His service!
So, I’m going to sign off, because I am sure there is somewhere you have to ecstatically rush off to!
Quote of the Week: Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it nearly impossible. ~ George Lorimer
Fact of the Week: Before being the first to summit Mt. Everest, Edmund Hillary was a New Zealand beekeeper.
Funny Line of the Week: If crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?
Have a Jovial Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham