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Bungalow life vs. Desert life: Greatness in the Eye of the Beholder

In today’s day and age, there are a number of things that people say and do that are unanimously and universally considered taboo – acts and ideas that are simply too treacherous to even fathom. Among them: polluting the environment, to the tree-huggers, “mistreatment” by the livestock, poultry and fur industries, to the animal-lovers: insuring the rights and privileges of prisoners, including violent criminals: violation of the all-important commandment – “separation between religion and state” – especially in schools is a real no no, and of course, what could be more politically incorrect than the fine art of stereotyping.

Stereotyping a group of people or a particular race or creed of individuals is an ancient practice that dates as far back as Avraham Avinu calling the Land of Egypt, whose people abducted his wife for illicit purposes, a land where “there is no fear of G-d in this place”. Like in today’s times, Avraham would probably have lost an election for public office in Egypt due to his off-color and politically incorrect pronouncement, albeit he was telling the absolute truth.

When broadcasters make observations about how a certain race of people have natural athletic abilities, he is deemed a “stereotypist” and summarily dismissed from his job. When male public officials issue regulations that are directed at female employees, his words are labeled “stereotypical” and denounced. (By the way, if anybody could tell me why the word “stereotype” means what it does, I’d really appreciate you giving me a buzz. I can’t figure it out for the life of me!)

But what is the real travesty of this mode of illustration? After all, one of the biggest compliments that we attach to any given group of people, is when we discuss their “culture”. The fact that a race or a nation of people all feel the same way about something, or enjoy the same types of food, or dress in the same style of clothes, or listen to the same kind of music, or think, talk and act in the same manner – this is lavished with praise and admiration, for these people have “heritage” and “culture”.

Just recently, New York was so fortunate (!!!) to host the Puerto Rican Day parade, a parade which gave an opportunity for the people of that island to celebrate and show pride in their heritage. Added police protection and a no-tolerance policy for potential “revelers” (Read: rioters, abusers, vandals, etc.) is a way for the rest of the world to celebrate this auspicious occasion! But the point is, we are not stereotyping the people of Puerto Rico, rather we are emphasizing their “culture”!

Okay, by now you’re all wondering what exactly is my point here. Well, here comes a real shocker – the Jewish people have also been victims of stereotyping! Wow, I knew you’d be impressed with this bombshell, but in truth, not always is this idea such a terrible thing. Of course, to say that Jews use the blood of gentiles to make matza before Pesach is not only harmful and absurd, but really, really gross! Likewise, the whole pointy nose thing tends to be overdone quite a bit and the heavy European accent – well, in most cases it’s true!

There is one classification that is labeled on Jews, though, which is not all bad, in fact it could even be considered a double-edged sword. The expression, “Jews are too smart for their own good!” can be perceived as a negative when the pronouncer intends it to rile up less fortunate people, both financially, intellectually, and spiritually, to cause mischief and mayhem towards the Jews. On the other hand, the Torah tells us that when the gentiles will say that we are too smart, that means we’re on the right path. “When the nations will hear about these laws (Mitzvos) that you keep and they will say ‘Alas, a wise and understanding nation, this great people’ “. (Devorim 4-6) So you see, if the nations of the world were to stereotype the Jewish people and say, “Look how smart they are,” I would take that as a compliment and consider it a measure of admiration and praise towards the culture of the Jewish people.

However, it’s one thing when a couple of people here and there say it, or if the newspapers report it (after all, we all know how intelligent the journalists and media people can be!) The real measure of respect is when great leaders and dignitaries reiterate these words. How about prophets? That’s the ultimate.

Now, we know that the greatest prophet ever in the history of the world was Moshe Rabbeinu. The Torah praises him and his greatness in all matters, whether it was teaching Torah to his flock or leading his warriors in battle or the level of prophecy that he attained, the Torah testifies about Moshe, “No prophet ever rose in Yisroel like Moshe who knew Hashem face to face.” (Devorim 34-10) There was, and never will be, someone as great as Moshe Rabbeinu …..  in Bnei Yisroel. However, there was someone as great as Moshe amongst the nations. What!? Could such a thing possibly be? A goy should be as great as our beloved Moshe Rabbeinu? Chazal tell us yes. That man, that great man who is so knowledgable and capable in prophecy, who actually compares favorably to Moshe Rabbeinu, is none other than the arch-nemesis of the Jewish people, the fiend and murderer who plotted to kill and seduce them – Bilaam HaRasha! He may have been evil to the bone but he possessed within him amazing abilities and prophetic wisdom.

We all know the story about the talking donkey and if we really think back, maybe some of us even remember that Bilaam was an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt. But the highlight of his career (or lowlight, if you’ll ask him!) must be the story of how he tried as hard as he could to curse the Jewish nation and when he opened his mouth, words of praise and blessing came out. Twice he did this, with all his sacrifices and hocus pocus, and each time he opened his mouth, out popped the wrong words. All the while, the king who hired him is standing there behind him fuming because the exact opposite of what he paid for is happening. (I must tell you, no greater Disney character could have been created to rival Bilaam!)

Until he lifted up his eyes and saw the Jewish people and then his blessings came forth of his own volition. The Medrash tells us that what was it that Bilaam saw? He saw the manner in which the people pitched their tents; no family’s tent opening would ever face the opening of it’s fellow family’s tent opening, so that the members of one family would never come to accidentally or inadvertently peer inside and see the members of the other family. This would create a decided lack of modesty and tznius amongst the people. This show of supreme modesty and the extreme effort it obviously took to ensure such high morality among the people, impressed the Prophet Bilaam to the extent that he came to realize how great and pure the Jewish nation was. Thus, he opened his mouth and declared, “How great are your tents Yaakov, your resting places Yisroel, etc. Those who bless you should be blessed and those who curse you should be cursed.” (Bamidbar 24-5, 9) Forget the lowly servants and far-flung nations! When the greatest non-Jewish prophet sees what he sees and declares how great are the Jewish people, well, I’ll take that “stereotype” any day!

The summer season is upon us and you know what that means: Bungalow Colony life. Kids cheer. Women get out the walking weights and bicycles. Men cringe! Just the usual preparation, come late June. Many Rabbonim begin lecturing weeks before on the importance of tznius and modesty in the colony and for good reason. In stark similarity to the living conditions of the Jews in the desert for 40 years, where 600,000 people were made to inhabit a specific spot of desert land for any given period of time, so too, thousands of Jews willingly displace themselves from their comfortable homes and attempt to “inhabit” specific and, in many instances, small, quasi-inhabitable bungalows for the duration of the summer.

This is all well and good, but what we, today, must attempt to truly emulate from our desert-wandering ancestors is their extreme effort and unconditional dedication to a lifestyle of tznius and modesty, to the point where hundreds of thousands of tent openings were always situated away from one another – not an easy task in such a limited amount of space. I’ve been to quite a few bungalow colonies and in many instances, once you’ve waded through the mud and traversed the maze of cozy coupes, baseball gloves and bicycles (not to mention the bike helmets, which have the curved sides to insure maximum slippage!), you can’t even find the entrance ways, or shall I say, “Tent Openings”, for a particular unit. The proximity of one to another and especially the paper-thin walls separating the units, mount a unique challenge, not too different than positioning the opening of the tents away from each other. I remember being in a bungalow where the back wall of my medicine cabinet, which was, of course, the back wall of my neighbor’s medicine cabinet, had a hole in it and on more than one occasion, I would conduct surreptitious conversations with my neighbor while getting ready for Shabbos. Privacy was obtained by closing the medicine cabinet door – but who could say that the door wouldn’t be poked open from the other side?

It is commonly stated that the natives of the Catskill Mountain region are less than thrilled when New York City invades, in all its glory, bustle and rudeness. I defy you to find me a person who’s been to the mountains who can’t relate a personal experience where they felt that they were being treated less-than-desirably by the “hicks” up there. Well, it seems that the solution lies right in front of our noses as stated clearly in the Torah.

Let us work on our middos, our tznius and modesty, throw in a little dab of humility and friendliness, mix it all together and what do you get? Maybe when the people will open their mouths to talk about us, words like, “How great and wise are your people, Yisroel” will pop out! Maybe their attitude towards us can shift in the right direction when they look at us and see how we conduct ourselves, among ourselves and amongst them. This is our chance to prove ourselves, and if we can unite the goyim in singing our praise, they will ultimately sing the praises of the one, true G-d, Hashem, in the coming days of Moshiach.


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