The L'chaim I had with George Washington – Mishpatim 5776

by Leiby Burnham | February 8, 2016 11:50 am

George Washington led a supersized life, almost nothing he did was in moderation. For starters, George was physically a giant of a man. At a time when the average male was 5”6, George was a towering 6”2.

Long before he became the general of the Colonial Army, George had already started a world war. Leading a force of Native American warriors and the British sponsored Virginia Regiment, he led his men into a battle against French soldiers camped in what is now Ohio, and this sparked the Seven Years War, a war that stretched across North America, Europe, the West Indies, West Africa, and even the Philippines.

George Washington, while president, received a giant salary; two percent of the US budget. That would be the equivalent of President Barack Hussein Obama making $64 Billion dollars a year, which would make him the richest person in the world in just two years of office! Washington was also one of the largest landowners of his time. Not only did he live on a giant 8,000 acre estate known as Mount Vernon, but he also owned over 50,000 additional acres in what is now MD, VA, WV, OH, and KY.

Washington owned the largest distillery in the country. At that time, distilleries were incredibly common, with over 3,600 operating in Virginia alone. But most of them produced modest amounts of whisky; between 500-1,000 gallons. But Washington supersized his distillery, and produced close to 11,000 gallons a year! He also owned one of the largest fisheries in the country, stringing nets across the Potomac River which fronted his estate, and pulling in between 1.5-2 million herring, shad, bass, carp, catfish, and sturgeon, as they merrily swam passed his home each spring. The vast majority of them were salted in barrels for preservation and sold up and down the coast and as far as the Caribbean!

He lived in a giant house, likely the largest home in the nation at the time. Ten times the size of the average home, it was tastefully decorated to the fashions of the time, including a huge salon, many bedrooms, dozens of outbuildings, dozens of paintings, and even rooms painted green (which showed considerable wealth, as green paint was prohibitively expensive due to the cost of the rare dyes). Not only did George himself oversee the many expansions, he himself drew up the plans, and added details that were not common at the time. This included a large airy colonnaded back porch called a piazza, which overlooked the Potomac River. After it was built in Mount Vernon, it became a popular architectural element added to many American homes!

We are all quite aware of his accomplishments in the political and military arenas. He led a ragtag force of colonial dissidents through an eight year war against the world’s greatest superpower. And while he lost more battles than he won, he was able to inspire his soldiers to forge on through starvation, bitter cold, military loss, and disease, to eventually win a war that shook the entire Era of Imperialism to its core. As a statesman, he cobbled an alliance of bitterly divided states into the United States of America, that is now objectively the world’s greatest nation.

His problems were of giant proportion as well. He was probably the sickest president in US history. Throughout his life, he suffered from enough ailments to fill a medical textbook, Diphtheria, tuberculosis, smallpox, dysentery, malaria, quinsy (tonsillitis), carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis—to name a few. He had incredible dental problems, so much so that at his first inauguration in 1789, he only had one working tooth left, a lower bicuspid. That too was eventually pulled. He had many sets of dentures made, using exotic materials such as hippopotamus ivory, whale bone, and human teeth (he bought some of his teeth from his slaves). The dentures were painful and ill-fitting, eventually changing the shape of his face.

Despite being land-rich, there were times when he was ravaged with poverty, to the point where he had to borrow money just to be able to attend his own inauguration! As he lay dying, on December 14, 1799, his doctors performed bloodletting on an enormous scale, first pulling 12 ounces, then 18 ounces, another 18 ounces, and a final 32 ounces, all bled out into a porcelain bleeding bowl. While they may have been trying to save his life using the best medicine practices of the time, they probably killed him by removing five pints of blood in less than twelve hours. He lived as a giant, and went out like one.

Last month, my wife and I were privileged to spend a day visiting George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon, VA. It was quite a delightful experience. The grounds are beautiful, the mansion itself is incredibly well preserved, and there is something very powerful about standing in the room where George Washington died, looking at the canopied four posted bed in which he died! The weight of the history lies heavily on you in the mansion, much more so than in a recreated Greenfield Village or some other historical enactment location.

You can walk the grounds, read up on the functions of the many outbuildings that dot the property, and meet actors who are dressed in period clothes, and play the roles of actual people who were in George Washington’s household! We met with George Washington’s personal valet, and we met with “James Anderson,” the farm manager for the estate, who regaled us with fascinating details of the farm life in Mount Vernon, and the many varied ways that George Washington made his money.

We were talking with “James” about the distillery, which was built on his urging, and I mentioned to him that I wondered what the whisky that George Washington drank tasted like. What would it be like to have a L’Chaim with George himself? “James” responded that we could easily find out! It turns out that they still produce whisky in the distillery in Mt. Vernon, using the exact recipe that the distillery used back in the 1700’s, 65% rye, 30% corn, and 5% malted barley. They also used all the techniques they used back then, from hand chopping the wood, to grinding the grains,  and mixing the mash in huge barrels with hand held paddles. They happen to sell that whisky in the gift shop, and it also happens to be quite expensive being that it is very labor intensive and they only produce a few hundred gallons a year.

I bought a shot of it in the gift shop, so curious I was to taste the whisky George Washington produced and drank. It was not great. Back then, they didn’t age whisky in charred oak barrels for years as they do now. They made it, barreled it, and sold it. The whisky was not amber like whisky that is aged, but rather a slightly cloudy clear liquid. It tasted a bit oily, and the you could taste the corn, but it wasn’t harsh, and went down rather smoothly. I would never buy it again, but it was nice to figuratively share a L’chaim with the Father of Our Nation, as George was affectionately called!

I believe all Americans should try to visit Mount Vernon once in their lives. There is much to learn from the man who founded our country, who was a great friend to the Jews, who performed great hachnassas orchim, the welcoming of guests at his estate, and who was an industrious farmer down to his very last days. And there is no greater way to do it than by seeing the place he built, and the things he worked on as they still stand.

Throughout my time in Mount Vernon, I kept thinking about a statement from our Sages, found in the Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu, an early work that records the teachings taught by Elijah the Prophet to an Amora (rabbi of the Talmudic Era) known as Rav Anan. It teaches that every person is required to say, ‘When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?!’ We are supposed to aspire to the great achievements of our forefathers, and even though none of us will found a nation, we can do amazing things that will affect how our offspring and communities function for generations to come.

While generally brazenness is considered a very bad trait, there is a brazenness that is praised, and that is called “Azus d’kedusha,” holy brazenness. While many people go through their lives telling themselves that they are relatively insignificant and that they can’t accomplish much because they are just a “regular Joe,” our Torah teaches us that we must have a strong belief in ourselves and in our ability to meaningfully change the world around us.

Recently, my shul dedicated its Torah Study Hall to a man named Rabbi Avraham Abba Friedman, OBM. He was the leader of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda for many years, and during this time worked tirelessly to inspire the precious Jewish children in his care. He went knocking door to door at the homes of newly arrived Russian immigrants, begging them to send their children to a Jewish school. He would personally pick them up from home, and drop them off after school. He never took a day off, and spent his life dedicated to furthering Jewish education in the Metro Detroit area.

During the speeches, his son Rabbi Bunny Friedman said that what was so remarkable about his father was that he was not remarkable at all. He was not overly charismatic or suave, he was not a prolific orator, and he did not have a forceful presence. He wasn’t tall, rich, handsome, or loud. But what he did have was holy brazenness, he believed he could make a change, he felt compelled to do so, and he absolutely did.

We need to spend more time around great people, we need to visit where they lived, and if we can’t because it’s been destroyed, we need to read their stories. The Jewish people have hundreds of George Washingtons, hundreds of people who forged the destiny of our people through their hard work, piety, and humility. The more we visit their homes or synagogues, the more we read their stories, the more we automatically feel, “When will my actions reach the actions of my forbearers?”

We may not be tall, rich, aristocratic, or powerful. We may not have lots of land, spacious mansions, or military genius. But we can all be giants.

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s parsha, Mishpatim, is the first one in which the Torah lists all the Jewish festivals. “Three pilgrimage festivals shall you celebrate for Me during the year. You shall observe the Festival of Matzos…” (Exodus 23:14-15). It is also the first time we learn the Torah’s name for Passover – the Festival of Matzot. This is interesting as we don’t call Passover by the same name as G-d does. He calls it the Festival of Matzot and we call it Pesach. This discrepancy doesn’t apply to any of the other holidays, as we see that G-d does use the terms Shavuos and Succos, “Three times a year all your males should appear before Ha-shem your G-d in the place that He shall choose, on the Festival of Matzos, the Festival of Shavuos and the Festival of Succot” (Deut. 16:16). Why, then, do we call Passover by a name not given to it by the Torah?

The Derech Avos explains that the nomenclature of Pesach demonstrates the ideal relationship the Jewish people possess with G-d. Each party focuses on the virtues of the other. G-d calls the holiday the Festival of Matzos, in remembrance of the Jewish peoples’ sacrifice in following Him out to the desert with nothing but a few wafers in their food sacks. Not only did the Jewish people have faith that G-d would provide all their dietary needs in the desert, they were in such haste to join G-d on a journey through the desert that they didn’t even wait for their bread to leaven.

We, on the other hand, call the holiday, Pesach, Passover. This reminds us of the great miracle G-d performed for us by passing over the Jewish people’s houses while slaying the firstborn in every other house in Egypt. Thus the names used to describe Passover do more than describe a holiday, they describe a relationship we should all try to mimic in all of our relationships, one in which each party is wholly focused on the good the other has done for them.

 

Parsha Summary

This Parsha is where we begin to learn about the Jewish system of law. The first verse starts with a fundamental, namely that a Jew cannot take his legal issues to a non-Jewish court even if he knows they will give the same verdict as the Jewish court. We believe that when a Jewish judge sits in trial, he receives Divine assistance, which aids him in adjudicating properly. A non-Jew in a secular court doesn’t have that added benefit, therefore the Torah commands us to bring our issues before a Jewish court.

The first laws dealt with in this portion are those of the Jewish servant, someone who stole and didn’t have the money to return the stolen goods, who the court then sold so he could pay the victim of his thievery. The Sages tell us, “Anyone who buys a servant is acquiring a master for himself.” According to Jewish law, not only does the master need to take care of the servant’s wife and kids (who are not working for him), but if there is only one pillow in the house it must be given to the servant. The goal of the servitude is to rehabilitate the criminal by having him be around his master for a number of years and see how fair and upright he is. (Having once been beaten by a gang of thugs fresh out of prison, I believe that anything would probably be better at rehabilitating miscreants than our current prison system!)

There are so many laws in this week’s Parsha that I will only list some of them. After the laws pertaining to servants, the Torah deals with: murder – intentional and unintentional, kidnapping, striking or cursing of parents, and damages for bodily harm to others caused by a person, his property, or his animal. It teaches us how to deal with the stealing of livestock or other goods, the right to self defense, the different types of legal guardians, and the laws of a seducer, sorcerer, or people who engage in bestiality. G-d warns us to be extra sensitive to widows, orphans, and converts, warns us against charging interest for loans, and reminds us of the importance of upholding the integrity of the judicial system.

Next, we get back to some general mitzvos as G-d commands us here regarding the laws of Shmitah (leaving the land fallow on the 7th year), the laws of Shabbos, and the laws of the three major festivals, Pesach, Shavuot, and Succos. After that G-d promises us that He will watch over us, and get us settled into the Holy Land swiftly and safely, without disease or lost battles.

The last part of the Parsha goes back to the narrative of the Jews at Sinai. We are told that the Jews, upon being asked if they wanted the Torah, replied, “Na’aseh V’Nishma,” meaning we will do and we will listen. This was the Jewish people’s way of showing their complete faith in G-d. They were so certain that G-d would only give them mitzvot which were good for them that they accepted them even before hearing them all. Even today, we can still express the idea behind Na’aseh V’Nishma by doing the mitzvot we don’t yet understand as beneficial or just. When we do them anyway, we show that we do even what we don’t fully “hear” (understand). That’s all Folks!

 

Quote of the Week: The past is tomorrow that got away. ~Leonard Levinson

Random Fact of the Week: At the Battle of Monongahela in 1775, George Washington had two horses shot out from beneath him, and his coat was pierced by four musket balls, yet he emerged unscathed.

Funny Line of the Week: If you fall, I’ll be there for you. – Floor

Have a Feisty Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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