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Let’s be Smart This Time….Nitzavim 5776

If you were to think of the people who shaped the course of this country, you would certainly think of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and John Adams. You might also think of Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, or Albert Einstein. If you’re more intellectually inclined, you would consider Emerson, Twain, Salk, FL Wright, or Einstein. What you probably would not think of is a man named Eli Whitney, but he likely had a greater effect on the US than most of them.

Eli Whitney, a real Yankee from Massachusetts, graduated from Yale University in 1792, and moved south to fill a tutoring position which was supposed to assist him in paying off his college loans (some things never change). When he arrived, he found the employers would only pay half of what they had promised (again, some things never change). He left, and went looking for other work. He was invited to stay a week at a plantation outside of Savannah, while he went job-hunting.

At the plantation, he noticed a problem with Upland Cotton, the species commonly grown in the South. It had seeds covered in a coating resembling green velvet which stuck to the cotton fibers like Velcro. It took a full day of labor to “gin,” or remove, the seeds from one pound of cotton. This was so inefficient that Upland Cotton was essentially worthless and the entire South was only exporting a few hundred bags of cotton to England each year.

Eli invented a machine called the cotton gin, which ginned cotton and cleaned itself. The South soon changed from an uncultivated wilderness to a wealthy blossoming agrarian region, eventually exporting as much as 920 million pounds of cotton to England each year! The South became extraordinarily wealthy, and this wealth helped the US became a super power on the global scene.

One might of thought that needing much less work to clean cotton would liberate the slaves; but au contraire, slavery boomed, with the price of slaves rising from $50 in 1800 to $1,000 by 1850. Sure it was easier to gin cotton, but now the South needed many more slaves to plant it and cultivate it. This of course led the US to the Civil War, one of the most powerful defining moments in our nation’s history. However, the upside was that the price of cloth dove down 99%, and people worldwide were clothed in comfortable, washable clothing. Even the common man could own more than one set of clothing for the first time in history.

But Eli didn’t strike it rich. What was his big mistake? He tried to grab too big a piece of the pie. Recognizing the enormous benefit of his invention, he decided to set up his own cotton ginning centers where he charged farmers 40% of their crop. The Southerners found this ridiculous, especially coming from a Yankee, and began making their own crude cotton gins, waving a big thumb at Eli Whitney’s patent. They even began a rumor that his machines were inferior, and soon factories in England wouldn’t buy cotton ginned in his machines. He fought patent battles for years and ended up losing money on this world-altering invention.

Lesson #1: Every year we are tempted to make the coming year “the Big Year,” when we fix all our bad habits. We’re going to never raise our voice again, come home from work no later than 5:30 pm, go to synagogue daily and be there on time, begin learning with a study partner once a week, and never say anything negative to anyone.

Let’s learn from Eli. We may have the ideas for great innovations and positive changes, but we need to moderate them to ensure they will be doable. We can’t bite a bigger piece than we can chew. In Social Work school, we learned the S.M.A.R.T. way to make goals; make them Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Based. An example of that would be, “I will spend 20 minutes a week with each of my children, where I give them total attention with no distractions.” Or, “at least once a week I will get to synagogue on time for services.” Just think where we’d be in 20 years from now if every year we were to take on one S.M.A.R.T. goal and actualize it.

I can tell you personally, that earlier this year, I took upon myself to make one bracha a day with full concentration, that first cup of water that I have in the morning. It sounds like a small commitment, and it is, but I can also tell you that it has changed my life.

This Rosh Hashana, let’s be S.M.A.R.T., let’s change our lives by making one significant but small step forward, and holding on to it until next year when we make one more!

ELI STRIKES BACK

After losing money on his gin, Eli needed cash, so he implemented the system called mass production. Until then, most items were made beginning to end by one master craftsman, thus making every piece unique. If one part broke, the whole thing was useless. The U.S. Army was having a particularly difficult time manufacturing muskets. They took days to make, were expensive and, if one piece broke on the battlefield, the musket was useless, and the soldier became a sitting duck.

Eli implemented a new system using high precision tools to manufacture parts. These parts could be assembled by any unskilled worker, and were entirely interchangeable. Thus, if a trigger were to break, a foot soldier would simply pull out a spare trigger and get back into action. This format of mass production that Eli Whitney used for the musket was adopted all over the world, revolutionizing manufacturing. Today, almost everything you buy is made using mass manufacture techniques honed by Eli Whitney. Your car, washing machine, refrigerator, laptop, and bicycle are cheaper, easier to fix, and better as a result. Eli finally struck it rich.

Lesson #2: The problem Eli set out to fix can beset any of us. We often make resolutions which are complex and dependent on many factors. If I get up an hour earlier every day, and pray and exercise immediately after waking, then I’ll be able to make my family a hot breakfast, and spend quality time with my kids before they go to school. That kind of resolution is dependant on far too many factors – if one detail breaks (you sleep through the alarm, your workout takes longer than expected, or one of your kids refuses to get out of bed), the entire resolution falls apart.

An example of a better resolution would be, “Every evening I will spend five minutes reviewing my day. I will make note of both the good things that should be repeated the next day, and the mistakes that should not.” This is something that doesn’t require other people’s cooperation, it can be done anywhere, and at anytime in the evening, and if you miss one day you can be right back on track the next day.

Let’s make sure our resolutions are not only S.M.A.R.T., but that they can be easily fixed if we slip, so that we can get back on track. These kinds of resolutions will help us mass produce good deeds, and a happy fulfilled life! Shana Tova!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

“For this mitzvah that I am commanding you today; it is not abstruse to you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say, “Who will travel overseas for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)

Many of the early commentators tell us that this verse is referring to the mitzvah of repentance, which is discussed in the paragraph preceding this one. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein zt’l asks, why does the Torah say “in your mouth and your heart to do it”? Shouldn’t the order be your heart and then your mouth?

Usually, a person thinks or feels something, then they begin to verbalize it, and only after talking about it for a while do they actually carry it out. (For example, for years now I have had an idea of a really cool invention. At first I thought about if for a long time. Then I started discussing it with people who knew the industry, and they liked it. In about four or five years I may actually get around to doing something about it!)

Contrary to what most people think, the reverse of the above idea works as well. One can verbalize an idea so much that it starts to get solidified in his heart. I’ll give you an example. When I stub my toe, I start to sing a little song with the following words “yisurim mechaprim avonosov shel adam!” This is a phrase from the Rabbis that means that when one gets afflicted in any way, major or minor, it serves to atone for some of his sins. I sing it to remind myself that the pain I am feeling from my stubbed toe, is actually serving a great purpose. Within second of singing my little ditty, I usually start smiling.

That is the power of words. Most people in that situation would be saying things which wouldn’t reflect too well on them as a person, and I am actually happy! The words we utter can affect real changes in our heart.

This is the message that Moshe is imparting to the Jewish people. Repentance is a very daunting task. It forces us to come face to face with our shortcomings and reminds us that we will need to undergo significant lifestyle change. Sometimes we feel in our hearts that we simply can’t do it. However, we must verbalize (out loud, not just in thought) how much we want to change, how negative our behavior is to our life, and that WE CAN DO IT. If we do that, the words will enter our hearts, and we will be capable of instigating changes we had previously thought impossible.

I’m sure some of you are skeptical, and you may even be thinking that my social work background is making me too touchy-feely and new age, so I will give you the following exercise. Next time you are angry at someone for something that you know deep down does not really deserve that anger, say, “I’m not angry, it’s not worth it,” ten times, and I guarantee that you will cool off significantly. If it doesn’t work, email me, and we will have to work out an alternative anger-management strategy, but I am quite confident that it will work.

This concept is the underlying idea behind Viduy, the verbal confession on Yom Kippur. G-d knows what we did wrong, why do we need to verbalize it? For the answer please read this dvar Torha once again and you will have your answer. As a matter of fact, read it out loud, verbalize it, and you will begin to feel its truth!

 

Parsha Summary

This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai, but with one key difference.

The new covenant included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.

If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being.

Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!

Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than that, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove my protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.

Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way he rejoiced with out forefathers.

Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.

The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be leared from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, they fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.

Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point.

Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I happen to be a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!

Quote of the Week: He that fears not the future may enjoy the present. ~ James Patterson

Random Fact of the Week: A woodchuck, while hibernating breathes 10 times an hour. While it’s awake, it breathes 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Quip of the Week: Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Have a Tranquil Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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