When Too Much is Too Much
Parshat Matot Masei 5778
Some guys in tri-cornered hats sacrificed everything so that you can have the liberty to eat 69 hotdogs and buns in 10 minutes. Happy Birthday America.
America is a great country. We are the world leading democracy, and our beliefs in freedom, the rights of the individual, and equality before law have shaped democracies all over the globe. Tens of thousands of patriots died so that we can experience those fruits of liberty, but I’m not sure that when they were fighting at Bunker Hill, Yorktown, or Valley Forge, they had the 102nd Annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in mind.
It is not easy to win Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Top contestants train for weeks in advance to enable their stomachs to stretch to inhuman limits. They devise strategies for eating as fast as possible, with the Solomon Method, Dunking, and the Carlene Pop being the most popular. The Solomon Method entails breaking every hot dog in half, eating both halves at once, and then shoving the bun down. Dunking is done by dunking the buns in water and then crushing them in the fist so that they slide down the throat. But the most bizarre is the Carlene Pop, which involves jumping up and down while eating so that the food is forced down the gullet.
Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, a “sport” watched by 40,000 live fans, as well as up to 1.6 million people on ESPN, has its share of characters, villains, and heroes. Takeru Kobayashi, born in Nagano, Japan was launched into competitive eating stardom when he doubled the previous world record at the 2001 Nathan’s contest by eating 50 hot dogs. He then went on to win the next five competitions, breaking his own record three times. But Takeru Kobayashi has not competed in Nathan’s contest since 2010 because he is in a fight with the contest’s organizer, Major League Eating, over sponsorship money.
The current poster boy of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is Joey “Jaws” Chesnut, born in Vallejo, California, many years ago. He is the current Guiness World Record Holder for hot dog eating. Joey won the 2018 “Yellow Mustard Belt” by eating 74 hot dogs in ten minutes, edging past his previous world record of 73 hot dogs. He also holds the record for the most Nathan’s wins, at eleven. He was brought to this year’s competition stage on a mustard-yellow throne, carried by admirers from around the world.
Women used to compete together with men, but in 2011, Nathan’s set up gender specific competitions, catapulting Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas to instant fame. She won the first three competition and holds the world record of 45 hot dogs. Sonya is neither black nor a widow, she earned her name by regularly outeating men three or four times her size (she weighs in at a puny 98 lbs). But she no longer wears the crown. For the past five years straight, that honor goes to Miki Sudo, who this year only managed to scarf down thirty seven hot dogs because of the extreme heat and humidity.
Where there are heroes, there are villains, and one of the most famous is Juliet Flanagan, who tried to cheat by throwing the buns over her shoulder and hoping they would just disappear or get eaten by the unicorns under the table. She didn’t win, but she did create a new term, and Julieting now refers to cheating by throwing food away.
Where there are heroes and villains, there are bound to be wannabe’s and the world of competitive eating is filled with people with aggressive sounding names, but none of them can hold a candle to the triumvirate of Takeru, Joey Jaws, and the Black Widow. But just because they try so hard, we’ll give honorable mention to Tim “Eater X” Janus (11.8 pounds of burritos in 10 minutes), Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti (21 pounds of grits in 10 minutes), and Eric “Badlands” Booker (49 glazed doughnuts in 8 minutes).
It is ironic that the mother of all eating competitions, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, is always held on July 4th, as if to point to the very American-ness of the event. If the founding fathers of this nation saw that they were fighting to give people the freedom to Carlene Pop all over a stage with 1.6 million viewers cheering wildly, they probably would have left the country to George III and moved to Barbados.
The founding fathers were moved by feelings of thankfulness to G-d, as George Washington explained when in 1789 he instituted Thanksgiving Day as a national holiday, “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.” If Thanksgiving is about thanking G-d for the bounty we are blessed with, eating competitions are the way of telling G-d, “we have way too much here!” I am amazed at G-d’s patience and tolerance. If I was G-d, I probably would have struck the US with Sub-Saharan grade famines just for thinking of hot dog competitions! (Thank G-d I’m not G-d!)
But life is not about the extremes, the crazy televised food contests, life is about the little stuff. We too face the challenge of deciding whether we will live lives of thankfulness and appreciation to G-d for all the blessings in our lives, or whether we will abuse the G-d given blessings in our life by using them wastefully, or even worse in a way that will hurt us.
Are we overconsuming technology? In 2015, the average US household spent $7,900 on technology, which includes gadgets like phones, Nest, Ring, laptops, etc, and services like cable, Netflix, Microsoft subscriptions, and cell phone plans. Are we filling our homes with technology faster than Joey “Jaws” Chesnut can swallow fistfuls of hot dog and bun?
Are we overbuying clothing? The average American male has 12 pairs of shoes in his closet, while the average American female has 27 pairs. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry and watches each year ($100 billion) than we spend on higher education. The average adult has at least 30 outfits in their closets, and one in ten Americans rent storage space to hold all their extra “stuff.” We have 3.1% of the world’s children, but we own 40% of the toys in the world.
Are we buying more food than we need, and then frequently throwing out the extra food after it starts to go bad in the fridge? Each day 150,000 tons of food is throw away, about one pound per US citizen, at a value of $165 billion a year! About one third of that happens in homes. Are we spending an inordinate amount of money on clothing, fine wines, or luxury goods? Are we truly acting in a way that tells G-d we are thankful for every bit of blessing He sends us, or are we perhaps sometimes sending a message back up that says, “we have way too much over here!”
It’s easy to be disturbed by the contestants at Nathan’s hot dog competition, but it is really uncomfortable to turn that same lens onto ourselves, and simply fine tune the focus a bit more. It’s a simple equation of appreciating the good vs. abusing the good.
One way to turn the focus onto appreciating the good is to express your thankfulness for things to others. Frequently point out to your children how blessed they are to live in a country where clean water comes running out of faucets all over our house, and how a regular dinner table is filled with delicious and nutritious foods. Mention to your spouse how thankful you are to have a wardrobe filled with nice clothing, or a job that gives you the ability to support your family even if it is demanding. Talk to your children about how lucky they are to have such a great mother. When people ask you how you are doing, answer with “Thank G-d doing great!”, with all the problems we have, 80% of the world would only dream of having our lifestyle.
Talk about your blessing all the time, and you will feel blessed all the time. Feel blessed all the time and you’re a lot less likely to waste those blessings. And when we use our blessings properly, instead of sending a message of “we have way too much over here,” we send the message that we are proper stewards of G-ds blessings, and because of that He will hopefully just increase those blessings!
This starts a cycle. We feel blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed. Thich causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed, so we use the blessing properly, ideally to help others who are less blessed, which causes G-d to bless us more, making us feel even more blessed!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In Parshat Ma’asei, the final parsha in the Book of Numbers, we read about the setting up of the cities of refuge. If anyone would kill unintentionally, they would be forced to exile to one of these cities, and remain there until a designated time. This was a punishment one would undergo only if there was some minor negligence on his part, something he could have done that would have prevented the death of another human.
There were a total of six cities of refuge. Three were in Israel, and three in the land east of the Jordan, that was given to some of the tribes, who requested their inheritance there. The Torah here teaches us that none of the cities of refuge were able to provide refuge until all six were set up. If that is the case, we then have to wonder, why did Moshe even bother to set up the first three (the ones not in Israel)? G-d had already told him that he would not enter the land of Israel, hence in his lifetime, the three cities that were in Israel would not be set up./ If they were not set up, all cities of refuge would be invalid. So why did Moshe make an effort to set up cities that would have no purpose throughout his life?
The answer is based on a fundamental difference between the way most people view mitzvos, and the way Moshe viewed them. Most people see mitzvos as things to accomplish. By the time we die, we want to have accomplished X amount of mitzvos. Today if I have done 6 mitzvos, I have fulfilled my quota. I can’t wait for the prayer service, so that I will know at least I did one mitzvah today!
But Moshe understood that mitzvos are not things to accomplish, but things to do. Through doing them, one gets closer to G-d. The word of the word mitzvah, is the word tzavta, which means to bridge, to narrow the gap. Naturally, there is a huge gap between physical creatures, and their spiritual creator. Mitzvot help us bridge that gap, by taking the physical and using it for the spiritual. Taking a ram’s horn and using it as a shofar, eating flour and water as matza, etc.
Therefore, Moshe did not care whether he would finish setting up the other 3 cities of refuge or not. As long as he had the opportunity to be involved in a mitzva, involved in narrowing the gap between His Creator and he, Moshe jumped at the opportunity, even if it wouldn’t accomplish anything in his lifetime. Let use Moshe’s powerful message to remind ourselves to focus on doing, not accomplishing!
This week we read two Parshios, Mattos and Masei. Mattos starts off with the laws of nedarim, strong spiritual vows. While many people may feel that vows are simply words, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in Judaism we believe the opposite to be true. We see the human being’s greatest asset to be that which is shared with no other species, his faculty of speech. The verse in Genesis describing Adam’s creation says “and He blew into his nostrils a soul of life” (Genesis 2:7) Onkelos translates it as “and He blew into his nostrils a talking spirit,” thus indicating that speech is the very essence of the human.
Everything a person utters with this gift of speech should be taken seriously, especially when it is said as a vow. However, there are situation in which one can nullify a vow. These include a person who goes to one expert or a court of 3 people, who can nullify the vow under certain circumstances, a wife who makes a vow which will affect her husband in which case he can waive it, or a young girl who makes a vow and her father annuls it.
The parsha continues with the Jews going to war with Midian to avenge the people who died as a result of the abhorrent trap the Midianites had set for them involving base immorality and idol worship. G-d tells Moshe that after this war he will die, yet Moshe immediately works on gathering the troops. The Jews on the other hand, have to be coerced to raise the troops, as they don’t want to see Moshe depart from the living. The Jews are victorious in battle and the Torah goes into detail on the splitting of the spoils.
In summary, of the living spoils (sheep, donkeys etc.) half went to the soldiers with1/500 being given to the Kohanim. The other half went to the whole nation, and 1/50 was given to the Levites. You might be wondering, why did the rest of the nation got spoils if they hadn’t gone to war? Well, it is important to note that in Judaism we view ourselves as one unified nation. Not only are the people in the front lines fighting, but those back at home praying and learning in their merit are also considered to be fighting the battle. Therefore, it was only fair that they should get a share of the spoils.
This is an extremely important lesson right now, as it reminds us that the forces defending Israel are fighting on two fronts, some in green uniforms sitting in military installations, and some in black pants and white shirts sitting in study halls. And the good news is that we can also pitch in and be part of the force protecting Israel from our homes here in the USA! If we take an additional ten minutes a day to say psalms for our soldiers or learn in their merit, we are taking an active and crucial role in Israel’s defense, and in saving our brethren.
The last part of the parsha is the story of Reuven and Gad’s request to remain east of the Holy Land where the land was good for grazing. Moshe was quite angry with them for desiring the rich pasturelands outside of Israel instead of the Holy Land that would have the Divine Providence manifest more strongly than anywhere else. He asked G-d, who allowed those tribes to live in Trans-Jordan as long as they were ready to play to fight for the capture of Israel along the other tribes. Moshe than apportions the Trans-Jordan lands to Reuvain and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe.
Parshat Massei, being the last parsha in Numbers, is the wrap up of the Jews’ time in the desert, as the story part of Deuteronomy focuses almost exclusively on the last day of Moshe’s life. Therefore, Massei starts with recounting every station the Jews camped at throughout their 40 years in the desert, and some of the events that happened at these spots. Then, the Parsha focuses on the future – on the conquest of Israel. G-d commands the Jews to destroy all forms of idols when they conquer the land, and to distance themselves from the inhabitants them so they don’t get enticed to sin.
The Torah then delineates the borders of Israel, and names the leaders who would lead each tribe when they entered the land. After that, the Torah commands the people to set aside cities in which the Levites would dwell. The Levites weren’t given any specific portion of Israel because their job was to spiritually motivate and to teach the people. Therefore, they were scattered amongst the people so that everyone could have some good neighbors. The Torah also commands the people to set aside cities of refuge to which people can flee if they commit unintentional murder. Although they can’t be held fully responsible, they are somewhat at fault because they could’ve avoided it by being more careful (in American law this is called negligent homicide). Therefore, they must run to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol.
This is clearly not a good thing for the Kohen Gadol, as it meant that many people were eagerly anticipating his death so that they could return to their families. The Talmud teaches us that the Kohen Gadol is given this weighty burden because he should have prayed harder that there be no accidental killers on “his watch,” and he didn’t. This shows us how much the Torah expects Jews to feel responsibility for one another.
The Parsha (and the book of Numbers) concludes with the people of the tribe of Tzelophchad coming to Moshe with a concern. In last week’s parsha, Tzelophchad’s daughters came to Moshe to ask for a portion of the land, since their father had died and left no sons to inherit him, and Moshe agreed that they would get it. Now, the people of that tribe were concerned that if the daughters would marry men of a different tribe, the land would end up being lost from their tribe, since it would go to the husband’s tribe. Moshe then told the women that they should choose mates from their own tribe to alleviate this problem. This law only affected women receiving inheritances who were among the first generation which was apportioned the land of Israel, so that there should at least be one moment where each tribe had exactly the portion they received. Later, people could choose a spouse from any tribe, as long as they loved each other and cared about one another through sickness and health, poverty and wealth etc. etc. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: One that is overcautious will accomplish little. J.F.C. von Schiller
Random Fact of the Week: The population of the American colonies in 1610 was 350.
Funny Line of the Week: National Atheist’s Day is April 1st.
Have a Stimulating Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham