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Satisfaction Guaranteed

October 26, 2016

Good Yom Tov.

There is certainly much to talk about.  After the latest developments in the presidential race, I am sure that there are many rabbis wishing they had waited until the last minute to write their Yom Kippur sermon.

I will not comment on when I wrote this one, but I want to speak about something far more important and much closer to my heart.  My slippers.

Yes, it is Yom Kippur and we are not allowed to wear leathers shoes, and I will touch on this in a couple of minutes.  But the reason I chose to speak to you about my slippers runs much deeper.

I have had my slippers for 7 or 8 years and I have worn them so much that at this point they are no longer really wearable.  There is a huge hole in the toes of one of them and the sole of the other has worn through in at least two spots.  But I can’t bring myself to get rid of them.

And here’s the kicker, every time I look at my slippers or put them on for what has to be the last time, I experience a serious moral dilemma.  Because if I wanted to I could easily get myself a new pair of the exact same slippers for free.

You see, the slippers were made by LL Bean.  And that means that they come with what the company affectionately calls, “The Guarantee.”

I recently heard a report about the LL Bean guarantee.

Within the company, it’s not so much policy as sacred foundational text. It’s printed on every receipt and on the store’s website. It reads, “Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise.”

I know that I can walk into any store, or send the slippers in the mail and I will get a brand new pair, no questions asked.

The report interviewed a number of people who work at the returns desk of LL Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, ME.  Here are some of my favorite stories they shared.

  • There were people who brought back a living room chair because they’d done a bad job strapping the chair to their car, so when it fell off and broke in the middle of the highway, they were upset. Or maybe they’d call it dissatisfied.
  • An older gentleman who brought some extremely worn out shirts, and t-shirts. He began the exchange by saying “I love these.  Can they be repaired?”  When Cindy Wilson, the customer service agent explains that they can’t repair the shirts but they’d be happy to give him credit for new shirts, he says “Thank you very much.” As an afterthought the sales representative asked for how long had the shirts.  “40 years” was the answer.
  • Dog collars that are returned because the person’s dog died
  • The band Phish put on a three-day show in the tiny northern town of Limestone, Maine, and 60,000 people showed up for it. It seemed like all 60,000 stopped at LL Bean on their way up to get tents, sleeping bags, stoves and whatever else they needed.  And all of them came back at the end of the concert to return their gear for a full refund.
  • But here’s the part that really got me. Jonathan Woodword, one of the salespeople described the massive amounts of slippers that are returned to the store:

“These truly disintegrating pieces of animal hide and fur that have been exposed to their feet for years and years and years of wandering around, the hide is all shiny, the shearling is totally mustard colored and damp and matted. And it smells like four years of somebody’s toes.
They put them in front of you and they say, I want to return these. And there’s no question you can ask that would– there’s no question like, don’t you think that you might have gotten enough use out of these to warrant buying some new ones? I mean, Nikes fall apart in a year, but you don’t even ask that. You just look at them and your face is totally neutral. And their face is totally neutral. And you’re going to both agree that the normal rules of retail interaction do not apply in this situation.”

As the reporter observes: it is so clear that the slippers are being returned “not because the customer wasn’t satisfied with them, but because the customer clearly loved them.”

And hence my dilemma.  I love my slippers.  If I could I would wear them for another 10 years, at least.  I cannot say that I am not satisfied with them.  But knowing that The Guarantee exists, I would feel like a total sucker if I bought a new pair knowing that I could have had it for free.

Many have pointed out that we live in a consumer society.  This is certainly seen in the world of religion and the synagogue.  Our generation is one that wants to know “what’s in it for me?” Even among the most traditionally minded, the fact is that the congregants vote with their feet.  If the rabbi says one thing to upset someone, or the president neglects to mention the graduation of Mrs. Cohen’s 7th grandchild from pre-school, that might be serious reason for someone to not come back to shul the next week.  We are a generation that needs instant satisfaction.

But the notion of satisfaction is not so cut and dry.

To give one poignant example. The Torah records:

Deuteronomy 14:22 דברים פרק יד:כב

עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיֹּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה:

Thou shalt surely tithe all the increase of thy seed, that which is brought forth in the field year by year.

The Gemara questions the seeming redundancy of the phrase עשר תעשר.

Talmud Ta’anit 8b-9תלמוד בבלי תענית ח:-ט.

+דברים י”ד+ עשר תעשר – עשר בשביל שתתעשר אשכחיה רבי יוחנן לינוקא דריש לקיש, אמר ליה: אימא לי פסוקיך! – אמר ליה: עשר תעשר. אמר ליה: ומאי עשר תעשר? – אמר ליה: עשר בשביל שתתעשר. – אמר ליה: מנא לך? – אמר ליה: זיל נסי. – אמר ליה: ומי שרי לנסוייה להקדוש ברוך הוא? והכתיב +דברים ו’+ לא תנסו את ה’! – אמר ליה: הכי אמר רבי הושעיא: חוץ מזו, שנאמר +מלאכי ג’+ הביאו את כל המעשר אל בית האוצר ויהי טרף בביתי ובחנוני נא בזאת אמר ה’ צבאות אם לא אפתח לכם את ארבות השמים והריקתי לכם ברכה עד בלי די, מאי עד בלי די? אמר רמי בר חמא אמר רב: עד שיבלו שפתותיכם מלומר די. – אמר ליה: אי הות מטי התם להאי פסוקא – לא הוית צריכנא לך ולהושעיא רבך

And R. Yochanan said:  What is the meaning of that which is written tithe you shall tithe?  It teaches: Tithe (aser) so that you will become wealthy (ashir).  R. Yochanan met the young son of Reish Lakish.  R. Yochanan said to him:  “Tell me your verse.”  The boy answered him: Tithe you shall tithe.  The boy then asked:  “What is signified by the double expression [tithe you shall tithe]?”  R. Yochanan answered, “Tithe so that you will become wealthy.”  The boy asked, “From where do you know this?”  He answered, “Go and test it.”  The boy asked, “Is it permitted to test the Holy One, Blessed is He?  Is it not written Do not test the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  R. Yochanan answered him:  “Thus said R. Hoshaya: This case is an exception, for it says Bring all the tithes to the storehouse so that there may be food in My house and test Me now through this, says the Lord, Master of Legions, if I will not open for you the windows of the sky and pour out blessing to you without limit” (Malachi 3:10).  What is meant by without limit?  Rami bar Chama said in the name of Rav:  “Until your lips wear out from saying ‘Enough!'”  The boy then said to R. Yochanan:  “If I would have reached that verse I would not have needed you nor Hoshaya your teacher.”

This passage has always troubled me – since when do we give tzedakah in order to become wealthy ourselves?!  And if the goal is to become wealthy, shouldn’t we keep our money rather than give it away?!

Many have wrestled with this question.  One answer is that it is descriptive and not prescriptive.  Giving tzedaka causes one to become wealthy because it gives a greater appreciation of the wealth—or relative wealth that we have.

Another answer – though we can’t make any promises or guarantees, by encouraging people to test the notion of עשר בשביל שתתעשר, R Yochanan insures that more tzedakah will be given.

A final suggestion I’d like to make is that the Gemara is meant to make us feel uncomfortable with the premise, and in doing so helps us to focus on the reasons why we follow Torah and Mitzvot.  We certainly stand to gain from leading a life devoted to Torah.  There are certainly personal benefits from keeping Shabbos, from being part of the Jewish community, etc But at the same time we cannot let our personal gains and benefits be the be all and end all.  We cannot become such strong consumers of Judaism that we come to expect a satisfaction guarantee like so many customers of LL Bean.

We have to realize that Judaism will make difficult demands of us.  And just because we are committed Jews is not a guarantee that life will always be easy or go our way.

Ne’ilat ha-sandal

As promised, I will also discuss the prohibition against נעילת הסנדל.  I’m sure I am not the only one who is bothered by this halacha.  I often wonder what someone on the street would say seeing everyone dressed in their finest yom tov clothing wearing Tevas or Converse All-Stars on their feet.  If we are meant to look like angels on Yom Kippur, how do sneakers help create that image?

Yom Kippur is not the only time we see a direct connection to shoes and spirituality.  The halachah mandates that anybody who went to the Beit ha-Mikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) they had to remove their shoes.  Even the kohanim (priests) who served in the Temple had to remove their shoes.  This practice is still manifest whenever we have birkat Kohanim (the Priestly blessing).  Furthermore, when Hashem appears to Moshe for the first time at the burning bush, God instructs him:

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

“Do not come closer to here, remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground” (Shemot 3:5).

Many commentators understand the need to remove one’s shoes when entering holy space as an assurance against tracking mud, dirt and spiritual impurity into that space.  But there is a deeper message in this Halachah.  Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that Hashem’s instructions to Moshe to remove his shoes is a directive about Moshe’s own spirituality.  He explains that Hashem said to Moshe: “Instead of trying to find out about a phenomenon that lies beyond your sphere, understand and devote yourself to the loft destiny of the ground upon which you already stand.”  In other words, Moshe’s spiritual yearnings could be satisfied by concentrating on his task in this world.  True spirituality is achieved by focusing on the world around us and what we can achieve in it.  We need not climb to great heights or reach beyond our capacities.  I would argue that the same message is being sent to those worshipping in the Temple.  The Beit ha-Mikdash was a truly unique place, it is wrong to think that spiritual fulfillment is possible only in such a setting.  Rather, by removing our shoes and maintaining constant contact with the ground, we are sent a strong reminder that our spiritual energies must be focused on our life in this world.  Along similar lines, I was shown an insight from Rabbi Yehoshua Baumol, who served as Rabbi of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Rabbi Baumol was also a founder and the first president of Agudas Yisroel in America.  He writes: “with shoes, humans are undeterred, unaware, unconcerned with what they trample underfoot.  When barefoot, they are sensitive to every blade of grass, pebble.  By divesting themselves of shoes, [they] open up new areas of sensitivity, concerns, empathy…”  The removal of our shoes heightens our awareness of the world around us, and of the little things that would literally be trampled under our feet if we did not have that heightened sensitivity.  Perhaps our feeling of awkwardness at wearing sneakers, Tevas or Crocks with our yom tov attire contributes to this heightened spiritual sensitivity.

A final lesson to be learned from my slippers.  This could be perceived as a question of letter of the law and spirit of the law.  According to the letter of the law, or the company’s carefully crafted satisfaction guarantee, I can bring the slippers back and get a full refund.  No one will question me.  No one will criticize me.  In fact, LL Bean would be happy to fulfill its guarantee with someone like me because I am the type of person who would be so moved by the guarantee as to become a customer for life.

But as we engage in the process of Teshuvah we have to go beyond the letter of the law.

Over Rosh Hashanah we mentioned one of the amazing powers the Shofar has.  Not only does the Shofar move us – humans – to great things.  It inspires us, it instills fear in us, it moves us.

But the shofar has a second, more amazing power – the capacity to move God.  The pasuk in Tehlim says:

Psalms 47:6 תהלים פרק מז:ו

 עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְקֹוָק בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר:

God is elevated through the teruah – the Lord through the sound of the Shofar.

The shofar is not the only time in our davening on the yamim nora’im that we mention our capacity to move God.

During this time of year, the third bracha of the amidah – the bracha declaring God’s sanctity and holiness, the bracha of אתה קדוש – is expanded.   We conclude this blessing by recognizing Hashem as המלך הקדוש – the Holy King – in contradistinction to the rest of the year when we recognize Hashem as הקל הקדוש – the Holy God.  We emphasize God’s malchut, His Sovereignty.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we also add three paragraphs of ובכן.

The additional paragraphs end with the following:

קדוש אתה ונורא שמך, ואין אלוק מבלעדיך, ככתוב ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט והקל הקדוש נקדש בצדקה,  ברוך אתה ה’ המלך הקדוש.

Our machzorim translate it as: You are holy and Your Name is awesome, and there is no god other than You, as it is written (Isaiah 5:16):  Hashem Master of Legions will be lofty in judgment, and the holy God will be sanctified in righteousness.  Blessed are You, Hashem, the Holy King.

The verse from Yeshayahu –  ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט והקל הקדוש בצדקה can be understood many ways.

I much prefer the following translation (from JPS)

And the Lord of Hosts is exalted by judgment, the Holy One proved holy by retribution/righteousness.

The Malbim comments:

ויגבה ה’ צבאות במשפט – שע”י שישובו לעשות משפט יתרבה ה’ ויוגבה.

 By resolving to do mishpat (justice), God will be elevated.

God is moved and elevated when we see to it that there is משפט and צדקה in the world.

As we focus our efforts on Teshuva and how we can be better people, better friends, better spouses, better children, better parents, we must push ourselves to act לפנים משורת הדין – beyond the letter of the law.  We must internalize a sense of ethics and morality that inspires us and inspires others not to do only that which is within their rights to do, but do the right thing.

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