First of all, he explains that the Chivi nation (one of the 7 Canaanite nations within Eretz Yisrael before the Jews entered as a Torah Nation) were soil-experts.
Different kinds of vegetation needs different kinds of soil. Some need more alkaline soil, some need more acidic soil.
Chivi comes from the Aramaic word for "snake": chivya. These Chivim would taste the soil (like how snakes lick dust) and based on that, they decided what to plant there.
Rav Avigdor Miller paints a picture of this ancient Eretz Yisrael (pg. 2):
And so, in Cana’an were found the biggest agricultural experts that ever lived.
And because they put everything they had into beautifying the land, the whole land became like one big garden.
They terraced every hill, every mountainside, in Eretz Yisroel.
There wasn’t a span of earth that was uncultivated. And the very best produce grew there.
It was a remarkable thing what they made from that land.
If we could take a look at the land as it was when the Bnei Yisroel entered, we would have gasped in amazement at the remarkable fertility of that land.
What is an Even Bigger Threat than the & Canaanite Nations?
The occultist human-sacrificing warrior Canaanite nations?
Nope. Hashem dealt with them.
The biggest danger was being given this botanical Land flowing with milk and honey, this fruitful Land dotted with beautiful homes.
As it says in the parsha to Am Yisrael: You'll eat. You'll even be satiated. And you'll be able to eat so much, you'll get fat.
And then you'll turn to the gods of others.
"Hishamru! Watch out!" says Hashem in the parsha. "Lest your minds will be led astray."
Rav Miller comments (pg. 3)
When there’s plenty to eat, that’s when people have to watch out.
It's true that when Americans needed to work for their food, they were better off, ethically speaking.
Prior to the 20th century, Americans loved Mishlei/Proverbs & Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, naming their children from Tanach or after middot lauded in Mishlei. ("Charity" & "Patience" used to be popular names for girls, while "Reason" & "Truth" were popular for boys.)
Basic manners were prized, as were the embodiment of Mishlei middot like humility, honesty, and integrity.
Women provided a natural barrier to negative social behavior, with men curbing their behavior and speech around females, and the expectation to behave with chivalry meant that men needed to treat women with extra courtesy & selflessness - and sometimes, even with courage in situations which demanded the protection of females.
Women too were expected to behave in a dignified manner with appearance, which encouraged dignified male treatment.
All this is looked down upon in modern society, to the harm of both men & women, though most won't admit this.
And while so many old-fashioned names have come back in style (including Biblical ones like Elijah and truly strange ones like Atticus), the "virtue" names are some of the only old-fashioned names NOT being used.
And while people will name their children any other name, no matter how strange, people just aren't interested in naming their children Patience or Reason. Scarlet? Yes. Chastity? No.
(In fact, one baby-name website discourages people from using the name "Chastity," calling it "so weird, it's cruel," while another insists that it will cause the child deep psychological problems later in life. Yet the first website sees nothing wrong with the "L" name of a well-known demoness, which has become increasingly popular for American girls in recent years. And yes, the origin of the name is clearly stated, yet apparently it's not considered weird or cruel to call your daughter that name.)
It's a sign of the times.
Furthermore, it's ironic that amid the greatest food abundance in history, eating disorders like anorexia & bulimia have become serious threats. You'd expect obesity in a society bursting with easy access to abundant food, but starvation and purging?
Only societies with an overabundance of food can afford such eating disorders in such large percentages.
What is the Big Danger of Material Abundance?
(Unfortunately, this is changing in America. But at the time of Rav Miller it was still true and let's face it: The current upswing in hateful acts against Jews is still not what it was in many places in Europe in the 20s & 30s.)
But throughout the dvar Torah, Rav Miller emphasizes that material abundance is a terrible danger.
Material abundance even causes people to forget Hashem.
They rebel against Hashem.
And if you look at the children of billionaires, you see a lot of issues with drugs, eating disorders, petty crime, and wanton behavior.
Even princesses have had children out of wedlock and it's no longer something they need to hide.
And with so much money at their disposal, why don't they make major donations to change lives?
I don't mean show-donations (where the money gets funneled into the pockets of the organizers or stolen by thugs) or creating not-terribly-useful make-me-look-good charities; I mean really changing lives & even societies for the better by channeling their money and their skills in the right way.
But no, they focus on their hobbies and their parties and, for some of them, their celebrity status & their brands.
The Callow Kasha
"You just go into a store, try it on, pay for it, then take it home and wear it. What's the big deal?" I didn't understand how it was different than buying a bakery cake.
(I'm a bit embarrassed now by my naive lack of understanding & appreciation back then.)
I expressed my puzzlement to a couple hosting me one Shabbos, and they chuckled good-naturedly, then explained that in the not-so-distant past, a new piece of clothing was a big deal. Accessing & choosing fabric, plus all the manual labor than went into it — it was a VERY big deal.
The metaphorical light bulb snapped on, and I immediately understand how callow I was — without even realizing or meaning to be.
My family was "just" suburban middle-class, but even that was too much in the sense that Rav Miller means. Because I didn't appreciate exactly what a new outfit meant, I couldn't understand thanking Hashem for it in a whole special bracha. (Back then. Now I get it.)
And that's just a small example of how material abundance distances you from Hashem if you're not careful.
When "Kosher" Mediocrity isn't Enough
You come across the word cheit a lot in Torah literature. It's usually translated as "sin."
But these related words (chatat & cheit) actually mean:
“to miss out” — to not utilize the opportunity of life to become something.
You can really end up sinning when you just settle for "kosher" mediocrity.
Rav Miller explains that experiences like Yom Kippur & teshuvah cleanse you of sin. Gehinnom also cleanses you of sin. It's painful & takes a while, but it cleanses.
Yet being clean isn't enough.
To really make it into Gan Eden, we need to step up our game.
On page 11:
To live in the World to Come you must have accomplishment. And that’s the big test, the most important test in this world — are you making something from yourself? If a person fails to accomplish, for that he can never atone!
You can always change yourself for the better!
He means that at the end of the day, if you were meant to be a big baalat chessed or write sparkling chiddushim, yet you were texting or surfing instead, atonements cannot turn you into a baalas chessed or a talmid chacham. They can only cleanse you of the sin.
But they can't accomplish what you could have had you made the effort.
A List of Meaningful Activities
- attend shiurim
- listen to mussar
- increase daat
- learn Torah
- learn halachot
- increase Torah
- increase yirat Shamayim
- learn Chumash properly
- learn Mishnayot properly
- learn a little bit of Gemara (at least)
For women specifically, he adds:
- read good books
- increase knowledge of lessons in Tanach
- increase knowledge of lessons in history
- increase knowledge of yirat Shamayim
Rav Miller adds:
The Gra told his daughters to learn mussar seforim. Absolutely; it’s very important. A girl, a woman can become very great in acquiring a Torah mentality, a Torah mind, no less than a man.
He said whatever he understood was the Torah truth, even if it made people mad, even if they rejected him, left his shul, stopped talking to him, and wrote him angry letters or subjected him to angry phone calls or subjected him to public disagreement carried out in a disrespectful manner or called him names.
He was like a superpower locomotive charging down the iron track of daas Torah; nothing could stop him or derail him.
So when Rav Miller states that, just by virtue of learning whatever she should learn and coming close to Hashem, a woman can become very great in acquiring "a Torah mentality, a Torah mind, no less than a man"...you can certainly take him at his word.
He's not blubbering up to the feminists. He darn well means what he says.
What is a Cheit?
Yes, he asserts that forgetting to say ya'aleh v'yaavo in Rosh Chodesh davening or letting grumpy word slip to your spouse are indeed sins for which we must regret and ask forgiveness (also from the spouse).
All the things we did wrong or forgot must be included in Yom Kippur.
But the main thing, the big life-transforming cheit, is that of missed opportunity.
It is all the times we could have done something good, but didn't.
It is all the times we could have spent our time meaningfully, but didn't.
It was all the opportunities we had to increase our closeness to and awareness of Hashem...but didn't.
More Than Just Frum: How to be a Real Success
This is the big challenge of our generation.
We have so much. What do we do with it?
For those who can afford it, there are kosher cruises with "kosher" entertainment. There are 5-start hotels glatt l'mehadrin. There are amazing European vacations — all glatt l'mehadrin, no gebruchts, separate swimming, Shabbos locks on the doors, etc. etc.
We have kosher movies, kosher novels, kosher circuses, kosher comedy, kosher designer clothing and accessories, kosher treifus (if you know what I mean).
Women can totally knock your eyes out today (according to the creme de le creme of goyishe standards), while technically covering her knees, elbows, and hair. She may not even look frum or like she's covering her hair.
American have Sundays to fill. Many frum schools make Sunday a half-day of learning for the boys (which comes with its own challenges, BTW), but Sundays can still offer frum families the opportunities for glatt entertainment & other activities.
Boating, fishing, shopping — these aren't evil or sinful, but are these really activities a Torah Jew should be indulging on a regular basis? (I mean as regular lifestyle and not as an occasional rejuvenating activity.)
In the modern Orthodox community from which I initially entered into Orthodoxy, Motzai Shabbos was definitely movie night, either going out to the theater or renting a video at home.
Of course, it stands to reason that a person might occasionally need a kosher venue as a break from a truly stressful life. People struggling with family illness might take advantage of Sukkot in a hotel with all the amenities, for example.
The phenomenally hospitable & unmaterialistic Machlis family spent Pesach in a hotel in order to have true family time together & to really pass on the Pesach mesorah.
But pages 10-14 elaborate on all the ways many precious Jews get caught up materialism. Even when it's combined with spiritual meaning, it doesn't always justify the means or the ends. Sometimes, yes. But not always.
On page 14, Rav Miller states:
In order to make something out of yourself, you need time; you need a mind, you need to be free to work on thinking about Hakodosh Boruch Hu, thinking about all of the great Torah principles we talk about in this place.
And if you’re too busy with the unnecessary luxuries of this world so you become arrogant with satiation and it’s impossible to succeed.
You might be frum, very frum, even very very frum, but a success you won’t be.
Live So You'll Have No Regrets in the Next World
- Did you engage in this study?
- Did you learn about Me?
- Did you use your gift of free-will when you had before you such a wonderful world of lessons, lessons in the sky, lessons on the earth, and lessons in the Torah?
- Did you utilize them?
And Rav Miller urges us to think about the consequences of our answers, like if we say, "I was traveling, I was on the phone, I was so busy shopping for a new outfit for Yom Tov!"
If you've ever felt regret in This World, imagine what regret in like in the Next when you have no screen of denial, no unconscious back-of-the-mind in which to bury it, no excuses...
Happily Ever After? Living Without Gets You There.
Sure, there are some things you need to make life easier. A big enough washing machine, a dryer when you have several children — all these make a massive difference.
I've lived with a too-small washing machine and no dryer, so I saw that these things aren't luxuries per se. It depends. Sometimes, it makes the difference between a well-run home and a poorly-run home. Same thing with air-conditioning — mothers have personally told me that they speak & behave so much more nicely when the air-conditioning is on during a hot humid day. These aren't ladies who need custom shaitels or cars (in Eretz Israel, of course; cars are a necessity in the USA).
On pages 17-18, Rav Miller describes what was considered wealthy back when he was in Lithuania pre-WWII. (Lots of challah in milk — a sure sign of abundance!) And poor meant that a child could not have a second slice of bread. And that's how it was.
As an aside, I remember it took me years to get out of the habit & mentality of "going out" Motzai Shabbos. Not movies or anything unkosher at all, just going out.
Again, there's nothing innately wrong with it, and it can even be a good refreshing activity when necessary, but it's like Rav Miller said: If you don't need it, try to wean yourself off it.
Ultimately, it wasn't my choice.
I was in a place in which nothing was open Motzai Shabbos, and sometimes I felt like I would jump out of my skin or scream if I couldn't go out somewhere.
Sometimes, I went walking Motzai Shabbos, either by myself or with my husband or a friend. And that was really good exercise, plus air after being in the house most of the day.
And now, I rarely have the urge to "go somewhere" Motzai Shabbos.
Frankly, I don't think it would have been so bad if I would've gone out somewhere during those times I was jumping out of my skin, but it just wasn't an option.
And now it's fine.
On pages 18-19, Rav Miller explains the symbolism of bowing in Shemoneh Esrei.
It's very, very helpful.
As always, all credit for all quotes goes to Toras Avigdor.