Ironman, Bourbon and Bats
Parshat Lech Lecha 5779
There’s a dial somewhere, that spans the continuum from None to Enough. It describes how much people work out, and 99.9% of the populations gets dialed in somewhere in the middle. But there are select individuals who break the dial and crank it up to Off the Rails. This is the group of people who just don’t find running a marathon stimulating, they don’t see hundred mile bike rides or multi-mile swims to be challenging , these are the people who compete in Ironman triathlons combining all three.
The Ironman triathlon started in Hawaii in 1978, the result of a bragging competition between a group of runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Each group felt they were the best athletes, and because there was no way to determine who was the best, they decided to combine all three disciplines into one race. They determined that whoever would win would be called the true Ironman, the nickname of the most die-hard runner in Hawaii. The course would be grueling, a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon, a 26.2 mile run. In order to be counted as a race finisher, you have to complete the whole 140.6 miles in sixteen hours (some harder races today have a seventeen hour cutoff time).
What was born in 1978 as a small race between fifteen men in Hawaii became a phenomenon now celebrated around the world, with over three dozen Ironman competitions taking place in dozens of countries including Mexico, Malaysia, the Canary Islands, Ireland, Norway, Korea, and of course the US. There are over 2,400 people compete yearly in these events, with the world record for completing the full 140.6 miles being Jan Frodeno of Germany for the men, with a completion time of 7:35:39, and Chrissie Wellington of England for the women, with a completion time of 8:18:13. The youngest person to be crowned the title Ironman was Hunter Lussi who did it while he was 13, and the oldest person to complete is was Hiromu Inada, who this week completed the Kona, HI Ironman at the age of eighty five!
In 1867, Henry Kraver, an eight-year old poor Jewish boy from Poland moved with his family to New York City. Finding the city stifling and overcrowded, he boarded a river boat on the Ohio River at the age of twenty-six with a small amount of money in his pocket and decided that he would settle wherever he ran out of money. That turned out to be Henderson, KY, a small city undergoing growth due to a recently installed rail line connecting it with Louisville and St Louis. He got off the boat, went to a local department store called Mann Brothers, and offered to sweep floors if they would give him a place to sleep and some food to eat.
Henry worked at Mann Brothers for three years, but the Mann brothers saw that he had far more potential and invested in his future, helping him buy a saloon and start a tobacco business. The next year, Henry bought a failing distillery from the Worsham family, who had just suffered the death of their patriarch. He quickly modernized the machinery, built additional rick houses to age the whiskey, and brought production up from eight barrels a week to two hundred. He was soon the largest consumer of corn and grain in all of Kentucky.
In 1907, Henry changed the name of the distillery from Worsham Distilling Company to Kentucky Peerless Distilling Company, and sold stock for $100,000, about $2.5MM in today’s dollars. Not bad for a boy who got off the boat without a penny in his pocket, but he wasn’t done. He bought a brewery called Henderson Brewing Company and expanded their market by shipping his beer (and his whiskey) up and down the Ohio River using steamships.
Henry had quite a creative bent. He gave away all sorts of freebees with his product to create brand loyalty; from beer bottle openers, to corkscrews, to beautiful glass bottles, he did everything he could to push his brand recognition. When Henderson made an ordinance outlawing the sale of spirits on Sunday, he simply opened saloons across the river in Indiana and had free ferries taking his thirsty patrons back and forth across the river, doing brisk business.
Henry branched out into other businesses as well, investing in banks, theaters, and hotels, eventually being given a seat on the board of a number of banks in Henderson, as well as Chicago where he maintained a home and did a lot of his investing. One of the hotels he invested in, Palmer House was the first hotel in the world to install electric light bulbs and telephones in guest bedrooms, the first to install a hotel-wide air conditioner, and the first Chicago hotel to install elevators. To this day, it remains the oldest continually operated hotel in the US.
By the time Henry died in 1938 at the age of seventy-eight, he was a very wealthy man who left over generational wealth to his children. His great grandchild, Corky Taylor, recently retired from a successful career in banking, and moved to Florida to live his out his retirement in the golden glow of the Florida sun. A year later he found himself driven close to insanity by boredom, and moved back to Kentucky, where he re-opened Henry’s distillery, Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., under Henry’s original license number, DSP-KY-50. He and his son now produce superlative whiskies by sparing no expense to produce the best product, and employing a combination of cutting edge technology and timeless recipes. Their rye whiskey was recently named the best rye whisky and 15th best whiskey of any kind in the world by Whisky Advocate.
- F. Hillerich, a German immigrant to the US, opened a woodworking shop in Louisville in 1855. He primarily made stair railings, spindles, porch columns, bedposts, and butter churns, and grew it to a respectable factory with twenty employees. As soon as his firstborn son Bud was old enough to turn a lathe he joined the family business, and began churning out churns. But Bud was still a teenager and he loved the growing national pastime, baseball. He played amateur baseball, and watched the Louisville Eclipse, the local major league team as often as possible. One day, he slipped out of work to watch the Eclipse play a midday game, where he saw the tear star, Pete Browning, struggling with a hitting slump. He couldn’t get a single base hit the whole game, and even broke his bat during his last failed at bat.
Bud invited Pete to come back with him to his father’s shop where he would make Pete a custom-made bat. Pete accepted the invitation, and after the shop closed for the day, Bud and Pete selected a nice piece of birch and made a brand-new bat according to Pete’s exact preferences. The next day, every time Pete stepped up to the plate he got on base, going three for three. When his teammates asked him how he broke his hitting slump, he gave all the credit to his new bat. By the end of the day, most of the Eclipse players were lined up at J.F. Hillerich’s shop asking for bats.
J.F. didn’t like baseball, as a proper German, he thought it was pathetic to have adults spend their life playing games. He saw no future for baseball, it was just a fad, and he certainly didn’t want to turn his woodworking factory into a place that made toys for adults. He also had recently patented a butter churn that swung from a frame and didn’t need to be churned by hand and he thought that was the future of his company. But his son convinced him to let him use the factory equipment to make bats during off hours, and soon the word spread. Although there were times when J.F. turned away baseball players, eventually he began to realize the value of the bat business, and went into partnership with his son to produce them.
That was a good thing for the Hillerich family, because today the company known as Louisville Sluggers, the official bat of Major League Baseball, is the very same company started by J.F. Hillerich. In 1905, Honus Wagner, the superstar shortstop of the Pittsburg Pirates signed a deal with the company, and became the first player to endorse a bat. He also allowed his signature to be burned into their bats, the first time an athlete ever endorsed an athletic product. This not only led to great success for Louisville Sluggers but led to the billions of dollars in athletic endorsement made each year today on everything from sneakers, to soccer balls, and jerseys.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never used a swinging butter churn. I have used many a Louisville Slugger bats…
What do these three things have in common? Ironman competitions, whisky and bats? They all featured prominently on a recent Partners Detroit trip to Kentucky. We drove down to KY after our Shachris service on Sunday morning, stopping in Cincinnati for lunch at one of the few kosher authentic Indian restaurants in the US, and a full afternoon of Torah study at Congregation Zichron Eliezer. We arrived in Louisville later that evening in time to watch dozens of people stream across the finish line of the Louisville Ironman. The next two days, we had services and Torah study in the morning and spent the rest of the day visiting the Louisville Slugger factory, Peerless distillery, Churchill Downs (home of the Kentucky Derby), the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green where the Corvettes are manufactured and Mammoth Cave, the largest cave system in the world.
But they all have another thing in common, they are all things that happened when people crawled out of their comfort zones. When Henry Kraver left his family behind in NYC, and headed down the Ohio River with nothing but a few shekels in his pocket, he was leaving behind the comforts of family and the support system they offered and heading out into the unknown. When J.F. Hillerich listened to his son and began to turn his factory into a production facility for baseball bats, which he thought were just toys for adults, he was leaving behind a successful business with great swinging butter churns and beautiful spindles, and putting his financial future on the line for something he thought might be a fad. And when you compete in an Ironman, the word comfort zone doesn’t even exist.
Curious as I am, I spoke to as many Ironman finishers as I could. They all described the punishing and strenuous training they endured for months before being ready to compete. One guy I met had just finished and was waiting around for his wife who was probably about an hour or two behind him. He told me that both he and his wife had been living a perilous lifestyle, making really bad food choices and never working out, and were both tiptoeing closer and closer to Type-2 diabetes when they made the decision that they were going to complete the Ironman triathlon. It took years of good choices, changing the way they ate, changing how they used their leisure time “less TV, more running,” just to get them to the level where they could complete a marathon. From there, they had to learn how to competitively swim and cycle as well. But he told me that now, they use all their vacation money to go to Ironmans, and the Louisville Ironman was going to be the sixth one they completed. His whole life was different, nothing like his previous, and he was thrilled with it.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read of one of the ten tests that our patriarch and matriarch Avraham and Sara were tested with. They were visited by G-d, who in His first conversation with them ever, told them to pack up their bags and move, leaving behind their families, homeland, and birthplace to venture out into the unknown. When this happened, they were not novices at spiritual questing. Avraham had discovered the monotheistic G-d many decades earlier, and he and Sara were already teaching the idea to the people around them, gathering many followers. Avraham had risked his life defending monotheism, allowing himself to be thrown into a fire rather than bow down to an idol. When he miraculously emerged unscathed, he became lit up with the passion of teaching what he knew to as many people as possible.
So Avraham and Sara were doing just fine in their city of Charan, they were fighting the good fight, so why did G-d make them give up everything they knew and felt comfortable with?
The answer is that self-discovery never comes when you are in your comfort zone. You may be doing fine, but have the capability to do so much more, you may have enormous stores of untapped potential. And you will never know that until you are thrown out of your peaceful contentment and forced to dig deep within to see what other strengths you have. Only after that happens do you learn who you are.
If someone grew up comfortable, and was financially stable their whole life, but then goes through a few years of dire poverty, they will likely come out with far more compassion for the plight of the struggling than they had before. When someone struggles with a rebellious teenager they may discover that they can’t control teenagers, and learn new skills for working with teens that they can then use to benefit the whole community.
Hatzalah, the international volunteer medical response service that has saved thousands of lives was started by someone whose uncle died because the NY EMS didn’t get their in time. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization that changed how America viewed drunk driving was started by someone whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. Bonei Olam, an amazing organization that works with couple struggling with fertility challenges and has brought over a thousand babies into the world, was started by someone who was unable to have children. These are all examples of people who were taken out of their comfort zones and discovered enormous strengths that helped the world through that.
There are times when we are forced out of our comfort zone by circumstance beyond out control, but that is not the only way. We can take it upon ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, we can try getting up earlier every day for a few months and see if we can add something to our lives. We can try changing our eating habits, we can try a new workout regimen, we can try to add a new volunteer hour into our week, we can try just about anything that causes us to stretch.
When we stretch, we discover just how far we can go, and most of us discover that we are really elastic!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This Dvar Torah follows the idea from above and elaborates it further.
This weeks parsha, Lech Lecha, begins with one of Avraham’s greatest test, the challenge of Lech Lecha. “G-d said to Avram, “Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, [and go] to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1). This journey was more than physically leaving his father’s house. It was a spiritual journey of leaving behind the traits, idols, and philosophies of his father’s house, and going out to forge his identity in a new place with G-d as his sole Guide.
This can be seen in the words “Lech lecha” which translates literally to “Go to yourself.” G-d was telling him that if he wanted to discover who he really was, he would need to leave all his “nurture” behind. By doing that he would journey toward his own identity, not stumble along living the identity of his parents. (This was what college used to be about. Besides the education students received, they also had the opportunity to form their identity, away from all the people who would try to influence them to be a certain way. Unfortunately, today, many college students on campuses across the country, still remain under the influence, if you know what I mean!)
One of the famous questions asked about this passage is why G-d kept the destination from
Avraham, electing to only tell him “To the land that I will show you?” One answer I heard from R’ Akiva Tatz is very fundamental in understanding human growth. (It is a bit deep, so if you haven’t passed the deep water test, make sure to take a life jacket with you!!)
In spiritual journeys, the greatest ones are the ones in which we can’t comprehend where he will end up. Spiritual journeys entail going to places that we can’t imagine we can reach. The spiritual world is called the world of thought (it has nothing to touch and feel, the only way you can imagine it is in the thought process.) In the world of thought, the moment you think of a place you are already there. The way one goes on a thought journey is by slowly thinking of one place after another, and as you think of each one, you have reached another place on your journey.
The same applies to spiritual journeys. If we can imagine ourselves a certain way, we are already halfway there. The great journeys are the ones in which we reach places we never thought possible. Recently, I was walking with someone to prayers on a Saturday night. He is someone who has grown enormously over the past two years. He remarked to me that one year ago, he could never have imagined keeping Shabbos. Although, he was interested in Judaism, and was learning a lot about the religion he barely knew as a child, nonetheless, he would tell himself that he was never going to be one of “those” that kept Shabbos. Today, he says that he can’t imagine himself without the blessing of Shabbos. It is the highlight of his week, and he can’t imagine living any other way!
The reason G-d didn’t tell Avraham the location of his destination was because He couldn’t. If Avraham could have seen it, he would have been there, and that would be no significant journey.
Let’s hope that we have the courage to follow Abraham’s trailblazing patheway, and set out on journeys to places that we can’t even envision right now! Journey On!!!
In this week’s Parsha, the story of the creation of the Jewish people commences. In the beginning of the Parsha, Ha-shem tells Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and the house of his father, and go to the place that G-d will show him. G-d promises him greatness, wealth, and children if he goes. We learn two things from the journey that Avram embarked upon. Firstly, in order for a person to make his mark in the world, he has to do things because he believes in them, not because it is the way he grew up, the custom of his people, or the custom of his parents. Additionally, we see that G-d never told Avram his destination, he simply told him to go “to the place I will show you.” G-d was not trying to hide the destination from Avram, He simply couldn’t show it to him. When one sets out on a spiritual journey, he can’t possibly comprehend his destination, because the journey itself transforms him into a different person, with a different perspective, one that he couldn’t have had at the beginning of the journey
As soon as Avram gets to Israel , the place he was told to travel to, there was a famine. This was one of the 10 tests that Avram was tested with. Would he have complaints against G-d who promised him greatness and wealth, or would he accept the situation, and know that G-d was doing what was best for him? (Avram underwent 10 tests, which covered every class of challenge his progeny would ever face, so that he could code his children with the spiritual DNA needed to overcome those ordeals.)
Avram traveled to Egypt to escape the famine. Knowing the rampant immorality of Egypt , he asked his wife Sarai to say she was his sister so that they wouldn’t kill him in order to steal his wife. As Avram suspected, they did indeed snatch Sara to become the king’s wife. However, G-d intervened and miraculously plagued the house of the pharaoh until he got the message and, feigning innocence, sent Sara back to her husband with compensatory gifts. He then asked the couple to leave his country knowing that his people could not control themselves.
Avram went back to Israel, only to have an argument with Lot, his nephew, who was allowing his flock to pasture in fields which didn’t belong to him. Avram finally said to Lot, “Pick a direction, go there, and I will go the other way, but I will stay close enough to protect you.” (Important Lesson: If you can’t beat them, leave them. If you stay around people doing evil you are bound to get influenced.) After Avram parted ways with Lot , G-d appeared to him and repeated the promise of numerous progeny which, as a childless man 75 years old, Avram accepted unquestioningly.
Then came the Great War. 4 Kings vs. 5 Kings. All the bookies had the five kings as the strong favorites but, lo and behold, the underdogs took the five kings in a sweep, capturing Lot in the process. Avram set out to save his nephew with a few men, and this time, the bookies once again favored the wrong team, as Avram scored a miraculous victory. Although the king of Sodom (one of the 5 losers that Avram rescued) offered Avram all the wealth of his people, Avram refused to take any of it, being unwilling to exchange an infinite mitzvah for mere finite money no matter what the amount.
Once again, G-d assured Avram that he will have children that will be numerous like the stars and, not only that, he will also give them the land of Israel as an inheritance. Avram asked, “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” Avram knew that man has free will, and was afraid that he or his offspring would sin and become unworthy of the Holy Land. At this point G-d made a special covenant with Avram using different animal parts, to signify that his progeny would inherit the land in the merit of the animal offerings they would sacrifice in the temple.
After this, Avram, on the urging of his wife Sara, took a second wife, Hagar. She was the daughter of a pharaoh, who came to Avram and declared that she would rather be a maidservant in his house than a princess in the house of a pharaoh. Sara asked that Avram marry Hagar, hoping that she would have a baby that Sara would raise as an adopted child. However, once Hagar got married and became pregnant with Avram’s first child, she began to be haughty toward Sara, thinking that she must be holier than Sara if she got pregnant so quickly. Sara told Avraham of the outrage occurring in his house and said that G-d should judge what should happen with the situation.
Avraham told Sara to deal with Hagar as she saw fit, and Sara, sensing a woman who needed to remember the humility that brought her to the house in the first place, dealt with her harshly. Hagar ran away to the desert. An angel met Hagar and told her to go back and be afflicted under Sara, as it would teach her the humility she needs. He then informed her that she will have a child who will be a wild man, fighting with everyone, and she should name him Yishmael (Yishmael is the father of the Arab nations. As a matter of fact they claim that the Akeida- the final test Avraham was tested with, occurred with Yishmael their forefather and not Yitzchak, our forefather). She thanked and blessed G-d (this, possibly, is the root of Arab women who are happy with their suicide bomber children, as Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, accepts the news of her progeny’s wildness and banditry as a blessing).
Thirteen years after Yishmael was born, when Avram was 99 years old, G-d commanded him to circumcise himself. One of the ideas behind bris milah is the understanding that G-d, by design, creates an imperfect world so that we can be partners with Him in bringing the world to its perfection. This is true regarding food, he creates the olives, grains, and grapes, but we complete His creation by making oil, bread, and wine. He creates us with some negative character traits, and we spend our life changing them and perfecting ourselves. The ultimate symbol of this is our circumcision, in which we show that we believe that G-d only gave us the raw material (an uncircumcised body), and it is our job to bring it to its completion and perfection through the bris.
After this mitzvah, G-d informed Avram that He was changing his name from Avram to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sara. In Hebrew, a person’s name reflects their essence, so when G-d tells someone He is changing their name, it means that with it He is changing their essence. With their new names and essences, Avraham and Sara will finally be able to giver birth in the next Parsha, but I better stop here because I don’t want to give away too much!
Quote of the Week: Being bored is an insult to oneself. ~Jules Renard
Random fact of the Week: Syngenesophobia is the fear of relatives.
Funny Line of the Week: An escalator can never break: it can only become stairs. You should never see an Escalator Temporarily Out Of Order sign, just Escalator Temporarily Stairs.
Have a Delicious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham