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I'm going to make America great again…

The economy has been in the doldrums for a while, and many people are suffering. Sure, the economist keep claiming our unemployment numbers are dropping, and now hover around 5%, but ask around, and you’ll hear a much different story. What the economist won’t tell you is that if you are an out-of-work engineer who used to make $65,000, but you now work for at least one hour a week, and get paid $20 or more, you are no longer considered unemployed. Mowing a few lawns a week is enough to make you “employed.” If you were a union carpenter making $28 an hour, and now you have two shifts a week at Best Buy making $11 an hour, well you should just be happy that you are employed!

Gallup reports that only 44% of adults in America have a “good job,” which is defined by at least thirty hours a week at a workplace that provides a steady paycheck! They also report that thirty million Americans are either out of work or severely underemployed. They estimate that we need ten million jobs immediately to get our economy up to a healthy level.

The good news is that I’m going to change this. Forget Donald Trump’s plan to kick out all illegal aliens, or Bernie Sanders’ plan to just give full salaries to all unemployed people. I’ve got a better plan; I’m going to give America ten million jobs and you don’t even need to elect me as president.

I’m going to start off pretty innocuously, knocking out all the glass windows within a square mile of my house with a BB gun. It may not get the whole economy booming right away, but all the window and glass repair people in the area will definitely get a boost in their disposable income. They will also order food from the local restaurants while they’re busy working on the massive amount of work they will suddenly find. They’ll be working more hours, so they will need more childcare and babysitting. They’ll probably even pay for cleaning help. All those people with extra incomes will probably buy more stuff, causing the retail industry to start hiring more.

Then I’m going to kick it up a notch. I’ll take a loaded cement truck out for a date. I don’t usually date anything that weighs thirty tons or more, but I also don’t usually try to destroy hundreds of cars at a time. You get one of those sweet truckies up to speed, and all you have to do is drive through the local Best Buy parking lot, and you can do your own little Dance of Destruction with oodles of panache. Personally, I feel like some Johann Sebastian Bach is the perfect music to accompany a parking lot rumble, but that’s just an opinion. What is a fact is that hundreds of people, auto mechanics, body shop technicians, car dealership employees, and insurance adjustors, will suddenly find a lot more work than they’ve been finding recently.

I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but I’m not going to stop there. After our little playful romp in the parking lot, me and my cement truck are going to head to greener pastures, the great suburban sprawl of Metro Detroit. You’d be amazed what one of these trucks is capable of! They can rip walls right off of houses, they can convert two car garages into one car garages, and if you get enough speed and the right angle, they can actually take down an entire house!

People might not be happy coming home to a trashed home, but stop thinking about all the little individuals for a moment. Look at the forest, man. Forget the trees! We are going to give tens of thousands of contractors, roofers, electricians, carpenters, and plumbers back as much work as they can handle. Even the malls are going to see some more traffic, as people rush in to buy new clothes, furniture, toys, and all their other necessities. Sure, some people are going to call me a villain, but I’ll sleep easy with a big ole’ grin on my face, because I will know that I revitalized our economy.

Thirty years from now, kids will be taught about the Cement Truck Hero who drove his trusty Mack from coast to coast, leaving revitalized economies and restored prosperity in his wake. I just know it.

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As ridiculous as that scenario sounds, it is not my idea, borne of a wild imagination coupled with a lack of sleep. No, this concept was first articulated by Frederic Bastiat, a noted 19th century economist. He told the story of the shopkeeper’s son who carelessly breaks a window. The broken window invariably creates work for the glazier who can then use the money to buy fruits from the farmer, who can then buy a bolt of cloth from the shopkeeper. The breaking of the glass is seemingly stimulating the economy. Could it be that breaking windows is economically useful?

This question has been the subject of much debate for decades. Economists deliberate between Keynesian principles which value employment above all, and the Austrian School principles which look at where and how value is being added to the system. These issues were recently revived after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, as people wondered if all the “broken glass” in Japan would stimulate enough new work to get the Japanese economy out of the doldrums it has been mired in for the last two decades. The results are still not clear.

In a study of eighty nine countries, Mark Skidmore and Hideki Toya found that countries that suffered great disasters actually grew and were more productive that those that didn’t suffer at all. Could it be that I really could stimulate the economy by becoming a One Man Natural Disaster?

It turns out that this is not so simple. The reason that countries usually do well after a disaster is because they don’t simply replace the old glass with new glass. They upgrade their infrastructure, introduce more efficient technologies, and don’t rebuild wasteful areas. In ordinary times, inertia keeps old wasteful technologies in place; it is easier to make dramatic changes when you have to start from scratch. Evidently, it’s not enough to get people working, they have to be working to create a newer and better system in order to truly stimulate an economy.

In Judaism, we have a system in place to encourage us to renew ourselves even without needing to experience a disaster. Every spring, the time when the world renews itself, we too are called upon to renew ourselves. We clean out the old “chametz” and replace it with fresh new matzah. Like all the mitzvot, cleaning for Pesach is an external action which helps us focus on an internal concept. While we clean out every room in our house, striving to remove all the chametz, we should be focusing on cleaning out our spiritual “homes” looking for inefficiencies, weaknesses, and wasteful activities and working to switch them with activities which will lead to growth, accomplishment and fulfillment. The redemption of Pesach can happen every year, if only we liberate ourselves from the grip of inertia, and challenge ourselves to upgrade all our systems once a year!

This week, we will read a special Torah portion called “Hachodesh.” It speaks about the first mitzvah ever given to the Jewish Nation, the mitzvah to follow a lunar calendar. On first thought it would seem anticlimactic; this is the first mitzvah? It seems so trivial! Why not the mitzvah of Shabbat? Of kashrut? Why not something more dramatic?

But in truth, the first instruction from G-d to His people was one of the most seminal messages we would ever get. G-d was telling us that He wants us to be like the moon, ever renewing itself. Inertia keeps negative practices in place and stifles growth, but right from the get-go our people aligned themselves with the constantly changing moon. We need to be constantly re-inventing ourselves. The person I was last year may have been great, but for the next year, I don’t want to be that same guy all over again. I want give myself new goals, reach for new heights.

If this year, I used a cement truck, next year I want to use a tank. If next year I use a tank, the following year I’ll be back with an army of berserk robots. I don’t know where I’ll take it from there, but if I really take the message of Pesach to heart, I know I’ll always be kicking it up a notch!

Parsha Dvar Torah

The portion of Tazria includes a detailed discussion of an affliction known as Tzara’at, one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Torah. Because Tzara’at afflicts the skin, it is commonly mistranslated as leprosy. Nachmonides explains, however, that Tzara’at was not a physical malady, but a spiritual ailment that manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgressions, the most common of which was lashon hara, or gossip, and slander.

The Torah goes into great detail when discussing the various forms of Tzara’at that may exhibit themselves on a person’s body. Should a person discover a suspicious-looking patch of skin, a Kohen must be brought in to examine the affected area. There are several stipulations that must be fulfilled in order for the Kohen to declare the person spiritually impure and afflicted with Tzara’at, and there are times when the individual must be quarantined and then reexamined. However, one situation is absolutely clear-cut: If the Kohen looks and sees that the person’s entire body is covered with what appears to be Tzara’at, the law is that the Kohen must declare the person pure.

At first glance, this seems completely counter-intuitive. If a small patch of Tzara’at renders a person impure, certainly this should apply when the person’s entire body is covered. On closer consideration, it becomes clear that the Torah is teaching a fundamental lesson about the Kohen’s relationship to those in need of spiritual guidance. If the Kohen sees someone as totally blemished, without even a single redeeming speck, he must not be seeing the person properly, and therefore is not in a position to declare him “afflicted,” or, even more significantly, to help him. Only when the Kohen sees some healthy skin, i.e., some good in the person, may he then declare him “impure.” In such a case, the declaration is the beginning of the individual’s journey back to spiritual health, rather than a permanent judgment about his status.

A great Chassidic Rabbi used to lead his congregation each Yom Kippur for the Kol Nidre prayers. One year, everyone stood quietly waiting, but the Rabbi wasn’t moving from his place. He seemed entirely lost in thought, and no one dared to disturb him. Finally after a protracted wait, he finally began in his usual manner. His followers were intrigued. After Yom Kippur, a few of them approached the Rabbi to ask him what caused the long delay. The Rabbi explained:
“I try to never lead the Kol Nidre prayer until I can find one area in which each person is better than I am. Only with the recognition that we are all flawed, and that some of us are greater in some areas, and some in others, can I approach G-d with my prayers. This year, just before I was about to begin, someone walked in who behaved so rudely that I simply could not find any redeeming qualities in him. After thinking about it for a while, however, I realized that he was in fact greater than I in one respect: If I was as rude as he is, I would never come for Yom Kippur services! Once I came to this realization, I was able to begin the prayers!”

In one way or another, each of us serves as a mentor or guide to someone else at some point in our lives. It may be to our children, a younger co-worker, a study partner, or friend. Sometimes we come up against a situation in which the other person appears beyond hope. However, this week’s portion demonstrates that the status of being beyond hope is more of a problem with the mentor than the person in need of guidance. If our view of someone else is so tainted that we cannot find any redeeming qualities, it is a sign that we are not viewing his situation – or our relationship with that person – properly. Finding the good in a person is the seed from which all of our efforts on their behalf can bear fruit.

Parsha Summary

This weeks parsha, Tazria, begins with laws of impurity associated with childbirth. The idea is that life alone in not an end, rather life’s purpose is that we elevate ourselves, To this end, when a child is brought into this world the mother goes through a process of impurity which then leads to purity. This mimics the type of life she wants her child to lead – one of growing, and elevating themselves from their basic state to a higher state.

After that, the Torah launches into the laws of tzara’at (see above) for the rest of the Parsha. It talks about the different forms of tzara’at, the way the Kohen makes his diagnoses, and what the metzora does after being diagnosed. One major part of his “medicine” is the law requiring him to sit in isolation for a week. This is supposed to help him realize how he made others feel when he spoke negatively about them, and caused rifts, dissension, and isolation.

The last section of the parsha deals with tzara’at that appears on clothing. (No, that reddish or greenish blotch on that suit is not the latest styling from Versace, it is actually a spiritual disease manifesting itself on clothing!) Our Sages explains that because of G-d’s great compassion, one does not immediately get tzara’at upon his body. Rather, he first gets it on his house, as is described in our second Parsha, Metzora. Hopefully, he learns his lesson and stops gossiping and slandering, however, if he doesn’t, it starts to afflict his clothing (a little bit too close for comfort). If the person continues to ignore these blatant cues telling him to shape up, he then gets the full force affliction on his body, for which the atonement process is the longest.

Quote of the Week: Man is free in his imagination, but bound by his reason. – Rabbi Yisrael Salanter

Random Fact of the Week: Our sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than our sense of taste!

Funny Line of the Week: I saw this wino, he was eating grapes. I was like, “Dude, you have to wait.”

Have a Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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