Parshat Beha’alotecha
June 2, 2018 — 19 Sivan 5778

I have a very complicated relationship with ice cream.  I can have no ice cream.  Most days I have no ice cream.  But I cannot have a moderate amount of ice cream.  I cannot take a spoonful or two and call it a day.  Once I open the pint, I finish the pint.

My favorite ice cream, the one that has seduced me into the most whole pint offenses, is a Ben & Jerry’s flavor appropriately called Chubby Hubby.  It is vanilla malt ice cream with fudge-covered pretzels and peanut butter swirls.  Who can resist that? Not me.

There is only one problem.  When you look at the nutrition facts of the Chubby Hubby pint—nutrition facts is perhaps a euphemism, a better description might be gruesome facts—once  the deed is done, what you see is not pretty.  There are 4 servings in each pint, and each serving is 340 calories.  When you do the math…why even go there.  Suffice it to say that the math is heart-breaking.  I rename the ice cream in my own mind.  Not Chubby Hubby.  But Guilty Chubby Hubby.  Or Chubby Hubby filled with self-loathing.

Then one day, while loitering around the ice cream freezer at Whole Foods, Hashem seemed to answer my prayers.  God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, God has now created a whole new concept in ice cream pints called Halo.  Unlike Chubby Hubby, which buries the amount of calories in the nutrition facts, Halo wears its heart on its sleeve.  Halo comes right out with it. 360.  There you have it.  You can eat this entire pint, and only gain 360 calories. In fact there is so much lean protein you almost lose weight eating it.   Not guilty chubby hubby.  But guilt-free hubby.  Plus, 360 calories is double chai times a hundred.  This is the ice cream of the Jewish people. This is how we do math.

Seeing this ice cream for the first time in the freezer section of Whole Foods felt almost Biblical. Nevermore shall you be called Chubby Hubby.  From this time forward, your name throughout the Jewish people shall be known as Halo.  

Now why talk about halo ice cream on such a Shabbat as this?  Jewish sources do not speak of a halo per se.  But in Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Shimon taught that there are three crowns: The crown of Torah. The crown of Priesthood.  And the crown of Royalty.  But the crown of a good name, keter shem tov, exceeds them all.

The very concept of the crown of a good name, the very concept of a halo, suggests one of the most important issues of our day.  How important is our character?  We know that what we do is important.  We know that what we say is important.   But how important is who we are?  Let me tell you a story about a man who has a halo, who has the crown of a good name.

His name is Hamdi Ulukaya, and he came to America from Turkey 23 years ago, when he was 22 years old.  He came here legally.  He had almost no money.  He had no family in America. He had no friends.  He knew nobody.  He spoke no English.  He got a job working on a dairy farm in upstate New York.  One day he sees an ad that there is a fully equipped yogurt plant for sale.  The factory, built in 1920, was owned by Kraft Foods.  But Kraft was getting out of the yogurt business.  The price, for a factory, was very low, and he was able to get a loan from the Small Business Administration to buy the factory.  He hires five people who had worked at the old yogurt factory.  They spend two years thinking about how to create a whole new kind of yogurt.

The yogurt in Turkey where he grew up was rich and tangy, less watery and less sugary than American yogurt.  When they finally alighted upon the recipe, he wanted a name that evoked the shepherds and the mountains, the bucolic peace in the small Kurdish village in Eastern Turkey where he grew up.  The word for shepherd in Kurdish is Chobani.

Roll the film forward, and Chobani became a billion-dollar company.  Hamdi Ulukaya, the penniless immigrant, became a billionaire who is the father of the Greek yogurt industry in our country.  If that were all the story, he would just be another very successful businessman, another rags-to-riches American immigrant story.

But Hamdi Ulukaya did two things above and beyond building a billion-dollar company out of nothing.  Each of these two things speaks to our character.

When Chobani started growing, and needed to hire workers, Hamdi Ulukaya made it a priority to hire immigrants and refugees.  He knew what it was like to be an immigrant and a refugee.  He had been an immigrant and a refugee.  He knew how precarious his own existence had been.  His first big recruiting effort was in a refugee resettlement center.

He went there personally to urge the refugees to come work at Chobani.  They said we live 40 miles away and don’t have a car.  He said, no problem, we will provide the transportation. And he did.  They said we don’t speak English.  He said, no problem, you will learn, and while you are learning we will provide you translators.  And he did.  Thirty percent of Chobani’s employees are immigrants and refugees, and they proved to be exceptionally hard working and dedicated.     

Hamdi Ulukaya here channels a basic intuition of the Torah: you know what it is like to be vulnerable because you were once vulnerable. Therefore see those who are not seen.  Help those who are not helped.

The first ingredient in character is to realize, in a deep way, that we all won the lottery being born when and where we were born, and that we have a moral obligation to pay that forward.  Character means caring.

Which leads to the second thing that Hamdi Ulukaya did.  Two years ago Hamdi Ulukaya decided that he would give his 2,000 full-time employees 10 percent of the value of the company.  This is something he did not have to do.  He was giving them a portion of his ownership interest in the company.  Their getting more necessarily meant he got less. Employees who used to get paid by the hour, who used to live paycheck to paycheck, became very wealthy.  But Hamdi Ulukaya did not see this as charity.  He saw it as partnership.

Here Hamdi Ulukaya balance selfish with selfless.  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?    What adjustments do I need to make to get the balance right?

That is character. Character means caring.  And character means getting the balance of selfish and selfless right. If we can get both of these right, we will discover the truth of what Ernest Hemingway once said:  We know something is good not if it feels good while we are doing it, but if it feels good after we have done it.  Is there an afterglow, that feeling we feel when we think back about a deed that we did, and we say to ourselves, good.  It was the right thing to do. I am so glad I did it.

After Hamdi Ulukaya went out of his way to hire immigrants and refugees, it still feels good. Afterglow.

After Hamdi Ulukaya went out of his way to give 10 percent of his company to long-time employees, it still feels good. Afterglow.

There have been lots of successful businesspeople the last number of years.  But Hamdi Ulukaya enjoys the crown of a good name not because he makes great Greek yogurt, and not because he makes a lot of money, but because of his decency.

What about us?

What are you doing today, that, long after you have done it, you will still feel good, because you are doing a favor for somebody else.  The halo we are going for is not found in the freezer.  The halo we are going for is found in the afterglow. Shabbat shalom.