Let’s Get Personal
Parshat Lech Lecha 5780
It was the perfect day. Jack had been dating Emily for three years, and he was finally going to pop the question! The setting could not have been more stunning; on a clifftop overlooking the Pacific ocean, at sunset, in a white wooden gazebo, with sheer lavender silk drapes wafting in the breeze, a waterfall of matching orchids framing the entrance to the gazebo, golden candlelit lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a champagne bucket on the table filled with ice and a bottle of champagne next to two crystal champagne flutes. Jack dropped to one knee, almost imperceptibly pulling the engagement ring box out of his BoxSock, a custom made sock that is made for hiding the engagement ring box. With a look of total devotion and sincerity, he looked into Emily’s eyes, and said, “Emily, love of my life, will you marry…”
“Hold on a second!” shouted Tim, the photographer. He pulled his head above the camera, “Emily, I’m gonna need you to switch your purse over to the other shoulder. If you have a Birkin bag, you might as well let people see it in your engagement picture!” Emily and Jack laughed, of course Tim was right, why would they not have the Birkin featured prominently in their engagement picture? Emily switched the bag over to the shoulder facing the photographer. Jack, still on one knee, started again, “Emily, love of my life, will you…
“Wait!” shouted April, the videographer, “the audio is not coming out clearly, let me come and check your mikes!” April got out from behind the video camera and came over. She checked the mic on Emily’s dress, and all was in order, but when she checked the mic expertly hidden in Jack’s lapel, she found the source of the problem. The Bluetooth enabled mic had been switched off by mistake when he was buttoning is suit; it did have a finicky on/off switch. “I’m so sorry, I got it on now, let’s try that again.”
While the mic was being adjusted, Emily checked her makeup for the sixth time, you never could be too careful. You needed the perfect Instagrammable engagement picture, and as her mother liked to joke, “You only get engaged twice, so get it right!” Jack dropped down to one knee again, held out the engagement ring box, “Tilt the box toward us, so we can see the ring in the box please!” shouted Tim. Jack tilted the box a bit toward the camera, “Emily, love of my life, will…”
“Stop! Stop!” Megan, the onsite coordinator from The Yes Girls, the company Jack paid $40,000 to plan the perfect proposal moment, came bounding up from behind. She had hired two security guards to block off that stretch of the beach for the thirty minutes they would need for the proposal shoot, but a local ignored the guards and was now walking her dog right though the picture perfect background in her sweatshirt and jeans. She knew the law, just because you put security guards doesn’t mean you can actually shut down a publicly owned stretch of the beach, so she waltzed right by the security guards and they couldn’t stop her.
Megan was getting visibly stressed. The sun was setting rapidly, and they maybe had three more minutes before the sky changed from a dazzling artwork of pastels into a more mundane dark grey, and they had to get this proposal done NOW! The local ambled across the beach slowly, and Megan could swear she was just taking her time, purposely slowing herself down just to spite the one percenters who were trying to close off her local beach without a permit. Finally she made her way to the other side. “OK team, let’s get this done now!” Jack dropped to one knee, the photographer asked him to pull up his suit pant a bit more so that his custom made BoxSocks could be more visible, the videographer asked Emily to pull a little bit more of her hair to the front, he wanted the half-visible-face look they had favored when they were looking at albums filled with options, and finally they were ready. “Emily, love of my life, will you marry me?” Emily put on the surprised-and-happy face she had practiced so many times with Megan, and with a practiced tearful voice, said, “Of course Jack, of course I will marry you!” The videographer, peeked above his camera, “Guys, I know we rehearsed this a hundred times, but we talked about making it look natural. That one looked too rehearsed, can you guys try it again?”
Jack, still on one knee, held out the open engagement ring box, slightly angled toward the camera, and said, “Emily, love of my life, will you…”
Today there is a burgeoning industry of wedding proposal planners. In a world where many people judge their own self-worth by their social media feeds, by how much of their lives is “Gramable,” people want to make sure every moment is documented and perfect. It’s not enough that I found the perfect girl, and bought her the perfect ring, and proposed to her, and she said yes, no, I need to make sure the whole world knows how perfect I am, and how perfect I have it. Every delectable meal I eat, every beautiful vacation I take, every new car I buy, the world needs to know about that as well.
Of course that means that the intimacy and beauty of the moment is compromised, but “I did it all for the Gram!” Sure, a proposal that is entirely set up by outside professionals, that is rehearsed and photographed by a team of support staff, that is more of a photo shoot than a proposal is going to be less intimate and personal, but you can’t have everything in life.
In my personal opinion, as you may have been able to surmise, it’s not a good tradeoff. Hopefully, you only ask someone to marry you once in your life, and the more private and intimate it is, the better your memory of it will be. Furthermore, when it becomes a whole spectacle, with someone photographing it, and those pictures being sent out to the world, it becomes a lot more about you boasting how cool you are at coming up with a creative way to propose (or how rich you are that you can pay people thousands of dollars to be creative for you) than it is about you declaring your undying love and ultimate commitment to someone else.
But this leads us to another more important area of life that is quite complicated and has been for centuries; jealousy. Jealously is clearly a bad thing; one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not covet.” However, jealousy is different from other bad traits in our level of responsibility to not trigger it in others. In the Orchos Tzadikim, the Path of the Just, an anonymously written but widely adopted Mussar masterpiece from the 15th century, there is a chapter dedicated to jealousy. The author points out how many great rabbis over the years, would not only minimize their outward displays of the blessings G-d had given them, but they would pray daily that others not get jealous of them. They didn’t pray that people not get angry because of them, they didn’t pray that people shouldn’t lie to them, and they didn’t pray that people shouldn’t speak Lashon Hara, gossip, about them. The only trait they felt they needed to pray to Hashem that they should not be the cause of was jealousy.
The Orchos Tzadikim then goes through a list of things one should do to minimize the potential that he will cause other people the pain of being jealous of him. Not dressing in a way that is way above the standard in his area, today it would include not buying a car that is way above the standard for his neighborhood. Social media unfortunately is not a place filled with people who read this chapter in the Orchos Tzadikim. People use Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms to specifically broadcast to the world all their envious moments. And it’s no surprise that extended exposure to social media has been linked in multiple studies to depression. When I’m busy looking at everyone’s perfect proposal, and perfect vacation, and perfect dinner, and I contrast it with my non-perfect life, I constantly feel like I’m coming up short!
Besides not causing other people jealously, there is another reason to post less and live more. The more we keep our moments of blessing personal, the more we save them for exactly the people who are supposed to be part of them, the more powerful they are. They are ours and ours alone, they are not diluted by the hundreds or thousands of people looking and commenting, and we feel the power of that uniqueness. We have a world of celebrity culture, where every moment of celebrity life is covered, from arguments with their spouses, to how they raise their children, to how and where they vacation. Their lives don’t seem to be going splendidly well for all of that publicity. We can’t let that world creep into our own. We can be celebrities to our spouses and children, but the more we are try to be that to others as well, the less they have that unique relationship with us.
Judaism is all about keeping everything where its supposed to be, and our personal lives are meant to be just that, personal lives.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Abraham stood ready to accept his fate. Though he and Sarah had spent a lifetime spreading loving-kindness and bringing countless people back to a relationship with the one true G-d, they had no children of their own. He had been promised offspring by G-d on at least two occasions (Bereishis 12:7, 13:16), but still, Abraham’s understanding of the spiritual laws that govern human existence led him to believe that he and Sarah were not destined to have a child together.
At that very moment, the word of G-d came to Abraham once more and reassured him that his fate has not been sealed. Not only would he have offspring, but also their numbers would be like the stars in heaven. Previously, G-d foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the “dust of the earth.” (Bereishis 13:16)
The Talmud comments on these two metaphors, noting that when the Jewish people stray from their mission and refuse to follow the will of G-d, they will be trampled and looked down upon by all – like the dust of the earth. However, when they fulfill their mission as G-d’s emissaries in the world, they rise to unimaginable heights – like the stars in the heavens.
There is a deeper aspect to comparing the Jewish people to the stars in heaven. From our vantage point, stars appear as tiny specks of light in the sky. It would be easy to regard each star as relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Each star is actually a phenomenally huge, burning mass of energy and power; most are more than a hundred times the size of our own sun.
The same holds true with regard to the powerful spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. From a distance, it can be easy to overlook – or not notice – the special talents and abilities found within each Jewish person. The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as hidden potential! There is only potential that we have perhaps not yet come to see, recognize or understand.
Rabbi Yisroel Brog relates this story from his childhood that illustrates this point:
Rabbi Brog’s father was a man with an enormous heart. He would regularly invite people into his home to share meals, even offering them a place to sleep if need be. Even when a person was a bit eccentric, rude, or demanding, he continued to care for them with patience, kindness and love.
One day, Rabbi Brog’s father brought an elderly, apparently homeless Jewish man home for breakfast. The man asked for two eggs cooked for exactly two minutes. When the eggs were done, he asked for another set – the first two had been cooked longer than his required two minutes! By the end of the week, not only was this man having his “two eggs cooked for two minutes,” he actually moved in – and ended up living with the family for a number of years!
Every day, this old Jew would leave the house at five in the morning. For large parts of the day, he was gone. No one knew where he went or what he did. Rabbi Brog, then a youngster, was curious. One day, he worked up the courage to ask him what he did. The man told him that if he wanted to know, he should join him. The next morning, the young Yisroel was up and ready at five a.m., and together, he and the old man left the house.
That day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the young boy’s life. For an entire day, he watched as this elderly Jew went from hospitals to old age homes to individual homes, helping people without let-up. They visited the elderly and the infirm, bringing them various things they needed, helping them put on tefillin, cheering them up, and raising their spirits. The whole neighborhood felt the impact of this man and his good deeds.
It turned out that Rabbi Brog’s eccentric house guest was a survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. Now, his only wish was to help others as much as he could. Imagine what the young Rabbi Brog would have grown up thinking had he never bothered to draw closer to this hidden treasure!
There are many such people among the Jewish people. Perhaps they are hidden just beyond our view, or perhaps we have not taken the time to discover who they are. Nonetheless, they are there. Learning to seek out, appreciate and encourage the spiritual potential of every Jew enriches our lives and helps us become a nation of people who are truly likened to the stars.
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 give birth in the next Parsha, but I better stop here because I don’t want to give away too much!
Quote of the Week: Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still. – Leonardo Da Vinci
Random fact of the Week: The deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean is 28 times as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.
Funny Line of the Week: I started out with nothing…I still have most of it.
Have a Delicious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham