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Parshat Vayechi 5780

Living in Michigan comes with a lot of benefits. We have abundant fresh water all around us (we’re the only state that touches four of the Great Lakes!), and we have the longest freshwater coastline of any state in the union. We have a true four-season climate, giving us a change of ambiance every 90 days, from color streaked falls, to pristine white winters, blooming springs, and lazy warm summers. Natural disasters are exceedingly rare, we almost never see tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, or New Yorkers. We have Vernor’s and Faygo Rock-n-Rye, and the best seven-layer-cake in the world. We have incredible nature, from the Sleeping Bear Dunes (recently voted “Most Beautiful Place in the USA!” by Good Morning America), to Pictured Rocks, Valley of the Giants to Mackinaw’s Arched Rock. Combine that with the thousands of lakes and waterfalls, and there is always something beautiful not far away.

We also have the highest automobile insurance rates in the nation. The average premium for liability-only coverage on a car in Michigan is $2,611 which is 83% higher than the national average of $1,427. A lot of that is due to the fact that Michigan pays out most benefits. Until recently, every insurance had to include unlimited medical coverage for anything stemming from an accident for the life of the injured. The auto industry also pays top dollar on all medical services, a 2013 study showed that while Medicare would pay $484 on a lower back MRI, and the state worker’s compensation program would pay $766, auto insurers would pay as much as $3,279!

As you can imagine unlimited payouts invite fraud, and the state has been wracked with auto insurance fraud ranging from the criminal to the ethically dubious. My wife, who is a nurse was recently talking to a co-worker who told her that she has a side-job doing overnight shifts watching a eleven year old girl who had been in an accident when she was four. She needs certain breathing treatments every night, but 99% of people who need these treatments either self-administer them or have them administered by a parent, they are not very complex. But this girl has twenty four hour nursing care, paid at a rate far above a regular nurses hourly rate, and her parents essentially use the nurses as babysitters. That’s on the ethically dubious side of the scale because the nurses, although really not needed, are providing some medical care; the fraud gets much worse than that.

In my particular case, it’s even worse. I live in a ZIP code that is shared between Oak Park and Detroit. Detroit has a significantly higher motor vehicle accident rate then Oak Park, but since our ZIP codes are the same, we get priced at almost the same level as Detroit, leading to insurance rates that are tragically high. Insurance companies make their profit by assessing risk and making you pay a little more than the value of risk, but when they lump people in the same category by ZIP code, it can often lead to overcharging of customers who deserve to pay less, and undercharging customers who should be paying more.

There is another way. A recent study was conducted by two Polish students, one at the University of Warsaw, and the other at Stanford University, who thought that they could better assess risk by seeing a picture of people’s homes, and the way people took care of them. They did their study using 20,000 applications submitted to a Polish insurance company, and for each one they created two risk profiles, one using the traditional modeling algorithms created by the insurance industry, and the other one added another dimension, they took a Google Street View picture of the house and asked volunteers to assess what the likelihood of that person getting into a reckless crash was. They would be looking at not only the size and age of the house, but also the cleanliness and upkeep of the home.

Using the latter approach, the team put together a risk model that was 25% more accurate than the modeling of the algorithms alone. Evidently, the way you take care of your home has a lot to do with the way you live your life in general, and the way you live your life has to do with how you drive, and how much of a risk you are for getting into an avoidable accident. Cleanliness is a thing.

In Judaism, we place a high value on how you take care of your “stuff.” Do you live an orderly life or a chaotic one? Is your office piled high with stacks of “but I know where everything is!” or is it neat and clean? Does your inbox have 27,382 emails or 27? Does your house get progressively filled with stuff all over the house, only to be mercifully rescued by the cleaning lady who comes every Friday, or do people put things back in their place even on Mondays?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1809-1883), who is known as the father of the Mussar Movement, or the movement to encourage people to always work on ethical development and refinement, used to classify thirteen traits that we should continuously be working on, and one of them is Seder, order. He is referring to both order of the mind as well as order of our environment because the two are linked. When we keep ourselves clean, our homes clean, our cars clean, our offices clean, we also keep our minds and souls clean, and clean here doesn’t mean not dirty, it means everything being where it belongs, known as Seder, order. If we strive to make sure all the physical stuff in our life is where it belongs, the spiritual matters will follow as well.

There is a famous story told about the Alter of Kelm, one of the great Mussar Masters, that he wanted to check up on how his son was doing in Yeshiva. He arrived during one of the times when his son would be in middle of studying Talmud, and he didn’t want to interrupt his studies. Instead he went to the dorm and looked at his son’s room. He saw that the room was neat, slippers next to each other under the bed, socks and underwear drawer filled with neatly folded clothes, and the bed made neatly. After exiting the room, he remarked that even without seeing the boy, he knew he was fine, if the room was so orderly, so too his life would be. The Alter of Kelm’s algorithm used not just the ZIP code, that the boy was in Yeshiva, but also the Google Street view, how he actually lived.

Rabbi Matisyahu Solomom, the Mashgiach of the BMG, the largest Yeshiva in the US (about 7,500 students!), in his book on parenting uses this story to portray the importance of parents teaching their children to be neat and orderly. It’s not just about mess elimination, it’s about an orderly mind, which gets a lot further and crashes a lot less often! I could go on for a while, but I think I’m going to tackle the pile of “but I know where everything is!” on my desk right now! Have a Good Shabbos!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Vayechi, Yaakov blesses the two children of Yosef, Ephraim and Menasheh, and makes them equal to his children. They are the only grandchildren of Yaakov that merit a place among the Twelve Tribes. More than just that, when blessing them, Yaakov says that all Jews should bless their children that they should grow to become like Ephraim and Menasheh. “He blessed them on that day saying: “Through you shall the People of Israel bless saying; ‘May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menasheh’ “ (Gen. 48:19). What is so unique about Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov would say that for all of eternity Jews should bless their children using them?

One answer I heard is that there was a quality unique to Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov wanted to instill in his progeny. They grew up in a foreign country surrounded by people who didn’t have their faith, yet they remained true to their values and didn’t allow themselves to be swayed by the prevailing winds of their society. Yosef, their father had the advantage of being raised amongst a very close knit family led by the patriarch Yaakov, as did the rest of the Twelve Tribes. But these brothers grew up in Egypt, a land steeped in immorality, and they grew up as children of the viceroy to whom no pleasure or experience would be denied. Yet with all that, they held onto the values of their family and people, and that was what Yaakov saw in them.

Yaakov blessed them on his deathbed. He knew that this would be the beginning of a long and arduous exile, and that it would portend the many subsequent exiles. He therefore wanted to give them role models that they could look to for inspiration in trying times when assimilation would beckon and Jewish identity would wane. That is why we bless our children that they be like Ephraim and Menasheh, people who stood out, stood up, and did what was right for no other reason than that it was right!

 

Parsha Summary

This parsha begins at the end of the life of Yaakov. It discusses the last things that Yaakov did before passing from this world. First, Yaakov asked Yosef to ensure that he would be buried in Israel. He asked Yosef and not the other brothers because he understood that Yosef was the only one with the power to guarantee it, as Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef readily agreed.

Soon after that encounter, Yosef got a message that his father was ill, so he immediately hurried to his father’s bedside with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. When they arrived, Yaakov gave Yosef’s sons the status of tribes, thus equating them with their uncles, the rest of Yaakov’s children. This meant that they would each have a separate share in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Yaakov’s grandchildren.

After that, Yosef brought his sons forward to be blessed by his father. Yosef purposely put Menasheh on the left which would be Yaakov’s right, because he was the older brother and the right hand is considered the choice hand. However, Yaakov switched his hands and placed his right on the head of Ephraim. When Yosef tried to switch them back, Yaakov told him that he did this purposely, because the younger brother Ephraim would produce greater people, most notably Joshua who would lead the Jews into Israel after Moses’ death.

Yaakov then blessed them with the following blessing, “Through you shall [the People of] Israel bless saying; ‘May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.’” (Gen. 48:20). To this day, when parents bless their children on Friday night, as is the custom in many homes, they say that exact formula: “May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.”

After that, Yaakov called in the rest of his children and blessed all of them, except three, whom he reprimanded. Those chastised were Reuven for moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent without consulting his father, and Shimon and Levi for destroying the entire city of Shechem after their sister had been kidnapped and violated by the city’s prince. After blessing his sons, Yaakov them to bury him in Me’aras Hamachpela, the same place that Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka were buried. After his final request he pulled himself onto the bed and joined his people in heaven.

The entire Egypt mourned the passing of Yaakov, as the famine stopped when he moved there. Pharaoh gave Yosef permission to leave, and the twelve brothers all traveled to Israel to bury their father in the Me’aras Hamachpela. When they came back, the brothers were concerned that now that their father was not there Yosef might try to take revenge on them for the time they sold him. However, he reassured them that he bore them no ill will; rather he understood that G-d sent him down to Egypt to sustain his people through the years of famine.

Yosef was the first of the twelve tribes to die. However, even he lived to the ripe old age of 110 and was able to see three generations of progeny (that means he helped raise his great grandchildren). Before he died he asked the Jewish people that when G-d takes them out of Egypt they bring his bones with them to be buried in Israel. And with that the book of Genesis concludes!!

Quote of the Week: The best way to prepare for life is to begin to live. ~ Elbert Hubbard

Random Fact of the Week: Hibernating, a woodchuck breathes 10 times an hour, awake, 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Line of the Week: I would imagine if you could understand Morse Code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.

Have a Balmy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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