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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Beshalach 5773/Shabbos Shirah/Tu B'Shvat "The Price of a Whistle"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Benjamin Franklin – letter to Madame Brillon, 1779 :

When I was a child of seven years old, my friends, on a holiday, filled my pocket with coppers. I went directly to a shop where they sold toys for children; and being charmed with the sound of a whistle, that I met by the way in the hands of another boy, I voluntarily offered and gave all my money for one. I then came home, and went whistling all over the house, much pleased with my whistle, but disturbing all the family. My brothers, and sisters, and cousins, understanding the bargain I had made, told me I had given four times as much for it as it was worth; put me in mind what good things I might have bought with the rest of the money; and laughed at me so much for my folly, that I cried with vexation; and the reflection gave me more chagrin than the whistle gave me pleasure.

“This, however, was afterwards of use to me, the impression continuing on my mind; so that often, when I was tempted to buy some unnecessary thing, I said to myself, Don’t give too much for the whistle; and I saved my money.

“As I grew up, came into the world, and observed the actions of men, I thought I met with many, very many, who gave too much for the whistle.

“When I saw one too ambitious of court favor, sacrificing his time in attendance on levees, his repose, his liberty, his virtue, and perhaps his friends, to attain it, I have said to myself, this man gives too much for his whistle.

“When I saw another fond of popularity, constantly employing himself in political bustles, neglecting his own affairs, and ruining them by that neglect, "He pays, indeed," said I, "too much for his whistle."

“If I knew a miser, who gave up every kind of comfortable living, all the pleasure of doing good to others, all the esteem of his fellow-citizens, and the joys of benevolent friendship, for the sake of accumulating wealth, "Poor man," said I, "you pay too much for your whistle."

“When I met with a man of pleasure, sacrificing every laudable improvement of the mind, or of his fortune, to mere corporeal sensations, and ruining his health in their pursuit, "Mistaken man," said I, "you are providing pain for yourself, instead of pleasure; you give too much for your whistle."

“If I see one fond of appearance, or fine clothes, fine houses, fine furniture, fine equipages, all above his fortune, for which he contracts debts, and ends his career in a prison, "Alas!" say I, "he has paid dear, very dear, for his whistle."

“When I see a sweet-tempered girl married to an ill-natured brute of a husband, "What a pity," say I, "that she should pay so much for a whistle!"

“In short, I conceive that great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by the false estimates they have made of the value of things, and by their giving too much for their whistles.

“Yet I ought to have charity for these unhappy people, when I consider that, with all this wisdom of which I am boasting, there are certain things in the world so tempting, for example, the apples of King John, which happily are not to be bought; for if they were put to sale by auction, I might very easily be led to ruin myself in the purchase, and find that I had once more given too much for the whistle.”

The Shiras Hayam concludes after recording the great song which the nation proclaimed and adding that the women too sang together with Miriam. The following verse states “And Moshe urged Yisroel to travel from the Yam Suf; they went out into the desert of Shur, and they went three days and didn’t find water.[1]

Rashi notes that there was a tremendous amount of valuables that kept washing up on the sores of the sea. These were the adornments that the vanquished Egyptian army had placed upon their cavalry as they pursued Klal Yisroel. Moshe had to urge the nation away from the sea because they were so consumed trying to amass as much wealth as they could.

Rabbi Mordechai Druk[2] relates that his grandfather once went to visit a wealthy man who lived in Yerushalayim. He was ushered into the ostentatious home where numerous maids and servants were rushing in all directions. The breakfast table was set with an elaborate spread of delectable foods. However, the wealthy man sat down and only ate half a piece of bread. Rabbi Druk’s grandfather was informed that his host suffered from an illness which did not allow him to digest food properly, and therefore he had a very restrictive diet.

Later that day, Rabbi Druk’s grandfather walked past a water carrier who was eating a vegetable sandwich and was apparently enjoying it.

Rabbi Druk’s grandfather related that it is obvious that money isn’t everything. Someone can be blessed with wealth and affluence, but cannot enjoy it because of emotional or physical reasons. Another person may have far less, but if he is able top appreciate what he has he is more privileged.

With that in mind Rabbi Druk explained the juxtaposition between Moshe urging the nation away from the sea after they sang the shirah and the debacle with the bitter water. Klal Yisroel had just left Egypt amidst great joy and miracles. After eating the Pesach offering exactly as proscribed and circumcising themselves, they marched into the desert with uncanny faith in G-d. Then at the edge of the sea they suddenly became intoxicated by gold, silver, and pearls, so much so that Moshe couldn’t pull them away. They had instantaneously become wealthy. And immediately after G-d demonstrated to them that in reality they had nothing! With all their gold and silver they had no water water; you can’t drink money.

There is a classic quote which reads, “He spent his health to acquire wealth, and then he spent his wealth to get his health back again”.

People often think that all they are missing is ‘just a little more’ and then they can be truly happy. But the reality is not that way. Very often money and materialism becomes a person’s ‘whistle’ and subsequently too often they pay dearly for their whistle.

To paraphrase the expression of Shlomo Hamelech in Koheles, one who ‘pays too much for his whistle, “gam zeh hevel - this too is futile”; a tragic waste of energy and effort.

Rav Chaim Epstein[3] shlita noted that the verse states “Emes kinay v’al timkor- Acquire (purchase) truth and don’t sell it.” The verse is obviously not referring to ‘fun’ because that is transitory. The only thing that can be deemed ‘truth’ and will last forever is Torah and mitzvos.

How does one purchase truth? Some cars cost 10,000 dollars. But a really expensive car may cost 50,000 dollars. Some cameras cost fifty dollars, but a really good camera can be upwards of five hundred dollars. If I really want the better quality camera I am willing to pay the added expense. The more I have to give up for something the more I will feel that thing is worth. If one sacrifices a great deal to acquire something, it will be all the more valuable and precious to him.

In order to purchase truth one must sacrifice falsehood. The price of acquiring Torah is to give up anything that is falsehood. To become proficient and gain mastery in Torah one must be prepared to sacrifice some of the pleasures and conveniences of life. Doing so however, will help a person to realize the invaluableness of the Torah and that it’s worth the effort and sacrifice. “We acquire truth” by sacrificing falsehood and then we won’t sell it, i.e. we won’t ‘let it go’ because we will feel that it is the most precious and valuable thing we can have.

During the first moments after they became prosperous, G-d engrained in them that the only whistle worth the sacrifice and investment is Torah and Avodas Hashem, for all else is fleeting. The more one sacrifices the more he will appreciate and value his efforts.

Shirah is always sung after national salvation, which includes triumph over adversity. The greater the peril is the greater the subsequent song and rejoicing. It is those things which we sacrifice which become the content of the shirah of our lives. The Torah exhorts us “And now write for yourselves this song; teach it to B’nai Yisroel, place it in their mouths.” Torah must be the shirah of our lives; our guide through life’s adversities and uncertainties.

The holiday of Tu B’shvat serves as a jolting reminder to analyze, contemplate, and appreciate the greatness of G-d’s natural world. We also consider the analogies between humankind and trees. It takes great effort to grow a tree. Aside from all the effort entailed in planting itself, the tree must have the nurturance it needs to be able to develop strong healthy roots so it can grow upwards and tower above the ground. There is a price to be paid for such august growth. But the payoff is well worth the effort.

“Moshe urged Yisroel to travel from the Yam Suf”

“Acquire truth and don’t sell it”

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[1] Shemos 15:22

[2] Darash Mordechai

[3] Rabbi Epstein is the Rosh Yeshiva of Zichron Melech in Brooklyn N.Y. He delivered this thought during a lecture to the fifth grade students of Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch on 8 Iyar 5767/April 26,2007

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