Holy Sneakers

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine

The tribe of Dan was a challenged one. Both physically and spiritually they did not have an easy ride. Yet somehow they managed to make it to the top.

Dan, son of Yakov, the founder of the tribe, must have set a good example. Dan had only one child named Chushim. Chushim was deaf. If we compared Dan to the other tribes who started with larger and more capable families we would hardly expect to hear of the tribe of Dan. Yet, when the tribes are counted just a few generations later Dan is most numerous among them, second only to the tribe of Yehudah. Apparently Dan gave his one handicapped son his best. The legacy he imparted to his tribe was to acknowledge challenge and then to persevere.

Not only in a physical way, but spiritually as well, the tribe of Dan was challenged. They did not find greatness easy to attain. During the time in Egypt there was only one incident in which a Jewish woman flirted with and was then assaulted by an Egyptian taskmaster. That breach occurred with a woman from the tribe of Dan. And when the Jews entered the sea at the time of the Exodus there was just one big complaint against the salvation. The angels argued that perhaps the Jews didn’t deserve to be saved because they had taken out an idol from Egypt. That idol was in the possession of people from the tribe of Dan.

Indeed the tribe of Dan found its place in the Jewish people, not as royalty, like the tribe of Yehudah, but rather as a growth oriented tribe, readily sympathetic and encouraging to those who found themselves challenged. They were dubbed “the gatherers of the camps” because it was the tribe of Dan that looked out for those who did not fit into their designated tribe. The tribe of Dan would take them in, and nurture them, until they were ready to return to their proper place.

No wonder that when G-d instructs the Jewish people to build the Sanctuary, the Directive is to take a representative from the tribe of Judah, and a representative from the tribe of Dan. The Sanctuary was to represent unity in the Jewish people. It required that Bitzalel from Yehudah and Oholiav from Dan should work together. As our sages explain, “Who is greater than Yehudah?! Who is more downtrodden than Dan?! Let a representative of each join together to build a Sanctuary for G-d.”

The legacy of the tribe of Dan is so powerful that it totally changed the blessing and outlook with which their tribe was viewed. When Yakov blesses Dan in this week’s parsha he talks of, “A serpent on the path.” His bite is deadly and effective. But to be described as a serpent is not a description of honor or royalty.

Yet when Moshe gives his blessing at the conclusion of the sojourn in the desert, Moshe declares, “Dan is like a lion cub.” The tribe of Dan- through courage, dedication, and perseverance- had proven itself. It was regarded as second only to Yehudah, the tribe referred to as “the lion” and associated with royalty.

In our time the legacy of the tribe of Dan is a dominant one. So often we encounter people who are significantly challenged. Yet, despite the starting point in life that they were assigned, they persevere and achieve greatness. It is important to realize where people are coming from and to recognize and celebrate moments of perseverance and greatness together.

For example: I recently walked into shul for morning services and noticed “Michael” taking his teffilin out of a cheap, plastic, shopping bag. I looked again, discreetly, but thoughtfully. “What happened to Michael’s beautiful teffilin bag from yesterday?” I wondered. But then I remembered. In the past Michael had been borrowing the shul’s loaner pair of teffilin, which did have a beautiful velvet bag. If he was not using the shul’s teffilin this morning, I reasoned, it must mean that he had bought his own teffilin. Probably he did not have a chance to buy a bag yet.

I went over to Michael and, pointing to the teffilin, I asked, “Do you get a Mazal Tov?” His smile literally lit up the room. He said, “Yes. We ordered the teffilin from the sofer you recommended, and they came yesterday.” And then he added, “I didn’t even have a chance to buy a proper bag yet!” His pride in his new mitzvah was tangible. I was so glad that I recognized the milestone; and all because of the shopping bag.

There is great value in noticing the legacy of the tribe of Dan in our daily lives. Not everyone finds greatness and spiritual excellence with ease. Some have enormous challenges which they must slowly strive to overcome. When we develop the skill of noticing a milestone, we have the privilege of acknowledging and celebrating together.

I recall one particular Shabbos morning when I was introduced to “Steve”. Steve was a good conversationalist and a stylish dresser. The only thing I couldn’t figure out was the sneakers he was wearing. It seemed to me an awkward match- to be wearing high tech sneakers with a stylish suit.

Until I found out that Steve lived on the other side of Kings Highway.

Suddenly I realized that the sneakers represented his newfound commitment to walk to shul on Shabbos. The commitment to walk a few miles from the other side of Kings Highway must have been daunting. Allowing himself to wear sneakers must have made the decision to walk just a little more bearable. My heart warmed with joy when I realized the monumental milestone that those sneakers represented.

Each of us is constantly involved in building a Sanctuary, sometimes in the literal sense, sometimes in the figurative sense through the mitzvos that we do. Our job is to bring together the people of Yehudah’s legacy of royalty, with the people of Dan’s legacy of persistence, so that we can truly sanctify G-d’s Name together.

Young Israel of Cherry Hill
Torah Links of South Jersey

3 comments on “Holy Sneakers

  1. And may every Yehuda appreciate the Dans just dying to join him!

    Really a lovely maamar. Y. Koiach.

  2. This is marvellous. The anecdote about the new tefillin in a grocery bag is significant on many levels.

    May every Dan find a Yehuda to work with.

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