In the year 1913, dark clouds were massing on the international scene. What had once been whispers of a possible Great War were no longer quiet. The world was hurtling towards a conflagration that would surely take millions of lives and herald in untold misery. Shalom Van Winkle, a wealthy industrialist, oil tycoon, and brilliant inventor from Pittsburg, PA, wanted to do anything he could to avoid living through the next part of history, and fortunately for him, he had just invented something that could help him with that.

Van Winkle had a massive laboratory not far from his home, and he employed dozens of scientists who were free to explore any area of innovation they found interesting. Hundreds of patents had been secured already, and it was a highly profitable venture, but it also served as the place where Shalom could scratch all his intellectual itches and scientific curiosities. He had always been fascinated by the ability of some animals to hibernate over the winter, staying alive without eating or drinking for months. While most people are familiar with bears hibernating, they are not the kings of hibernation. Bears hibernate for up to eight months, but there are snails that hibernate for 3 years! There are wood frogs that go a step further, they can be frozen in place for months with nary a heartbeat or breath and then just thaw out come spring! If you’re willing to bust out the microscope, you could observe the tardigrave, a tiny eight legged creature that can go without food or water for over five years!

Shalom spent years researching these incredible creatures and eventually built a chamber in which he could hibernate for years. He was confident it would suspend life, but he wasn’t quite sure for how long, it could be 1 year, 10 years, 100 years, 200 years, who knew! Understandably, none of his employees wanted to test it for him, so in 1913, with the world falling apart anyway, he decided he was going to see how long he could suspend his life.

He left most of his money to his family, but then took his last $200,000 and hid half of it in dollars and half in gold. In 1913, an ounce of gold cost $18.92, so his $100,000 bought him 5,284 ounces of gold. He hid the money and gold in a vault deep in the forest on a property he owned and he left the land in a perpetual trust with instructions that it be left as a “nature preserve” and never be developed! (Hmmm…. Is that what all those nature preserves are?) All the lab scientists gathered around as he gave a short speech, hugged his family goodbye and climbed into the life suspension chamber. The chemical solution was flooded in, the chamber sealed, and everyone shuffled away.

Ten years past, twenty years passed, by now his wife had passed away, and the kids were raising families of their own. Forty years passed, eighty years passed. Fortunately for Shalom, he had left a sizable trust with the funds to keep the electricity going on his chamber because by now, none of his descendants really knew much about him, and even in the lab, his tank was just sequestered away in a corner room. Technicians checked on it weekly, and the occasional reporter came to write a story, but most people doubted he would ever come back to life.

One hundred and ten years and two months after Shalom entered the tank, on June 4th, 2023, an alarm sounded in the lab, the night guard came running to the room with the tank, and got the shock of his life when he saw liquid draining out of the tank forcefully, and the lid valve spinning slowly. The valve came to a stop, the lid was pushed open and out climbed a man, looking surprisingly spry for a guy that just slept for 110 years! The next three days were insane. Every news outlet in the world was covering the story, and every one wanted to interview Shalom. The world had changed drastically, people were all holding small bricks in their hand and constantly flicking their fingers across them, reporters had video cameras instead of note pads, and there were humans with blue hair!

When the novelty wore down, Shalom stole away in middle of the night and dug up all his hidden money and gold. The next morning he went into a bank to deposit the money, and while he put the gold in a safety deposit box, it took some hushed conversations with the US Treasury Department to determine that his dollars were real and should be honored. They were real, they were honored, and they gave him an account with $100,000 in it. He took $5,000 in cash, enough to buy himself a nice six bedroom home, (he planned to use bedrooms as offices, mini labs, storage, etc) a new car, a whole wardrobe, and enough money to buy food and supplies for the next week or so.

Shalom walked into a realtor not from his lab and asked to see what six or seven bedroom were available in the area. The agent pulled out a selection of homes, and Shalom got the sticker shock of his life. The homes were priced from $550,000 to $1.4 million dollars! In his day, a house like that cost $4200! He left in shock and asked direction to a car dealership, where the horror continued. In 1912, the last time he was in the market for a car, he could get a top of the line Touring car for $900, now a nice car would be over $55,000! Admittedly it had way more feature and was a lot bigger, but Shalom just needed something to get around town!

There were no more haberdashery’s around, but someone kindly pointed him to a men’s wear store where he couldn’t believe his eyes! A well tailored suit that used to cost $18 now cost $400, shoes that used to cost $2.50 a pair were now $90, and a shirt that should be $1.15 at most, was now on sale for 3 for $100!! He stumbled in shock to the grocery store, figuring that he should just eat something and collect himself, but that was not going to a place of solace. He came in expecting the old prices, a loaf of bread for six cents, a rib roast for fifteen cents a pound, a box of Kellog’s corn flakes for eight cents a box or coffee for thirty five cents a pound, but everything was priced crazy!!! Shalom walked around the store in a daze, his $100,000 wasn’t going to get him anywhere…

But then he remembered that he still had his gold. How much was his 5,284 ounces of gold worth. He went back to the bank and asked if they could help him out. Gold used to be $18.92 an ounce, hopefully it was worth more now. The good news, is that it was worth more, way way more. An ounce of gold was no worth $1920 an ounce! His hoard of gold now made him worth more than ten million dollars! He was going to be OK, his dollars may be worth almost nothing, but that gold more than made up for it! Times had changed, things were different, but he sure was happy he had those gold bars. He looked at those greenbacks with the bold statement “In G-d We Trust” and he was thankful to G-d that he didn’t just trust those dollars!

Dollars are called fiat currency, which means currency whose value is established by the fiat, the decree, of the government. This type of currency is not backed by gold or any other hard asset, it’s just backed by your trust in the government that prints it. The problem with fiat currency, is that every single fiat currency in history eventually fails, because people are weak and don’t have the discipline not to print money, when they can simply print money and get free stuff for nothing more than the cost of the printing supplies. Today, when the vast majority of money isn’t even printed, the government doesn’t even have to pay for printing costs, they just create money out of thin air, and people give them stuff for it.

Proof in point is the last few years. It’s hard to truly calculate how much money has been created because there are so many different metrics on how to calculate the money supply, you have to learn about M0, MB, M1, M2, M3 and a host of other calculations, and I challenge you to figure it out, but suffice it to say that the US government has created at least 6 trillion dollars since the pandemic, and according to many metrics triple that amount! The US didn’t produce more goods than usual during that time, they actually produced less, they just created more money. And the US has been able to buy goods from all over the world by giving them those newly created dollars. But somewhere the system has to break, because there are limited goods and unlimited dollars. Hence we have inflation. Shalom  Van Winkle’s fictional experience shows us just how much inflation our country has experienced over the last 110 years, with most things now costing 10 times to 100 times more than they used to cost!

This means that anyone holding onto dollars is slowly having their value leached away by a government that is spending like a drunk sailor. If you kept $100,000 in the bank since before the pandemic it’s buying power is now 20% less than it was. People are desperate to put their money into something that will appreciate, because cash is losing value quickly, so they buy up real estate and stocks, and those shoot up in ways that leave people scratching their heads. How did the median price of a house in the US go up by $130,000 in three years? How is the market value of Tesla $815 billion when it was only $62 billion in the beginning of 2020, and in that time their total profit is less than $30 billion? It’s just the desperation of people to find a way to keep value in their money, so people will speculate on anything they think will go up, when the value of money is going down.

The incredible rate of printing creates distortions all over the market, and the less fortunate people, who don’t have money to invest in real estate and the stock market, just keep seeing their purchasing power go down, while the rich people who have money to invest see their net worth skyrocketing. Inflation robs the poor and gives to the rich, which is why in the current high inflation environment the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor is growing at alarming levels. Federal Reserve data indicates that as of Q4 2021, the top 1% of households in the United States held 32.3% of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50% held 2.6%.

Ever since President Nixon took the US off the gold standard in 1971, inflation and inequality have been on the rise, money has been devalued tremendously, and people are sinking deeper into debt and despair. People who worked their whole lives and were guaranteed a good pension are seeing that pension’s purchasing power slowly get diminished and they don’t have the ability to go out and earn more. It’s no wonder that an April study by Momentive and CNBC reported that 70% of American are feeling financially stretched, and are living paycheck to paycheck. Less than 50% have an emergency fund, which means that when an emergency shows up, as it inevitably does, they are off the financial cliff.  

There are no easy solutions. But there is an asset class that we can invest in that grows in value, where you can invest a little right now and experience exponential growth. It is an asset class that will continue to grow and doesn’t experience any bubbles and busts. It is a safe asset that can’t be stolen from you by government bureaucrats or greedy bankers. It is of course, spiritual investments. Every mitzvah you do, every prayer you say, every time you hold your tongue back from speaking gossip or yelling in anger, every bit of tzeddaka you give, becomes an asset on your balance sheet.

Right off the bat, the asset is worth so much than the investment. For starters, you become a better person by doing the good deed, and that is infinitely valuable. People like you more, people treat you better, your children look up to you, your community appreciates you more. But more importantly is the amazing retirement benefits. Retirement in this world lasts fifteen years, thirty years if you’re lucky. Retirement in the next world is for eternity. Every good deed you do, and every bad deed you hold yourself back from, stays with you forever, and gives you ecstasy and bliss that is unimaginable. Not only that, but if those good deeds affected other people and they now are doing good because of them, those deeds keep appreciating in value while you’re in your heavenly retirement!

So while we can’t fix inflation and currency debasement in any easy manner, we can start focusing on investing in a much more valuable currency, the currency of G-dliness!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha we read of the rebellion of Korach, a man driven by his blind desire for honor. We read of the terrible fate that befell him and his cohorts for bringing divisiveness to the Jewish people. Let us focus on the ketores, the incense that twice plays a vital role in our parsha.

When Korach brings 250 leaders with him, all claiming that Moshe and Aaron should step down, Moshe tells them that ketores will test them. The next day every man should bring a fire pan filled with ketores, and Aaron the High Priest will do the same. G-d will show whom He favors by sending down a fire from heaven to light the ketores of the chosen one, while everyone else will die. Sure enough, the next day the test is performed, a heavenly fire comes down and ignites Aaron’s ketores, and at the same time a fire burns the other 250 rebels to death.

Later in the Parsha, the Jewish people gather around Moshe and Aaron, accusing them of killing people from G-d’s Holy Nation. (They don’t seem to get it, do they? Moshe and Aaron clearly seem to have the winning team, but you always have people rooting for the “underdog”) A plague breaks out amongst the people, and they begin dropping like flies. Moshe tells Aaron to hurry out with the ketores as a plague has started. Aaron brings out a firepan filled with burning ketores and by this act he stops the plague.

What exactly is the nature of this ketores? Is it a killer, as it killed 250 men, or is it a savior, as it stepped into the middle of a plague and halted the dying? Why is it that the same item is used both ways in the same Parsha?

One answer is that the ketores represents the idea that no thing in this world is essentially either good or bad. Good or bad are only defined by our reaction to those things. Wealth is neither good nor bad. We all have seen people whose wealth has ruined them and their families. We have also seen people who have used their wealth properly, bringing greatness to them and their families. So what is wealth, good or bad? In that same vein, is the internet good or bad? Is free speech good or bad? Is being smart good or bad?

Even something as seemingly deleterious as cancer can’t be classified as good or bad. I worked with people suffering from cancer for years. I have seen people who have changed their entire lives for the better after living through cancer. I have seen others who unfortunately passed away, but who, during the time of their illness, reached greatness unimaginable to most people of their age or of any age, for that matter. Of course, there are also those who succumb not only to the illness, but also to despair, anger, rage and disillusionment. The message of the ketores is this duality, that every object in the world contains the possibility of bringing salvation or desolation. Our actions, and our actions alone, merit the titles Good and Bad.

But why is the ketores specifically singled out to teach us this lesson? The ketores was made of many different spices. One of them was known as chelbona, and the Sages tell us that it had an exceedingly foul odor. Yet, when mixed with the other spices, it actually benefited the overall fragrance of the ketores. The chelbona is neither good nor bad; it depends on what you do with it. The very makeup of ketores contained a proof of this concept, and hence it was used to show us this powerful message.

Parsha Summary

This week’s entire Parsha focuses primarily on one story, the story of Korach. Being from the tribe of Levi, Korach had an elevated status compared to most other Jews, but he wanted more power and honor. There are several opinions in the commentaries as to what exactly he wanted. Some say that he was a firstborn, and was angry that the Temple service had been taken from the firstborns and given to the Kohanim. Others say that he wanted to be the Kohen Gadol, or the leader of the Kehas clan, a job given to his younger cousin. Regardless of what exactly he was after, we know exactly how he went about getting it, and it is a perfect study in undermining authority.

Step #1 Gather a large group of followers (a.k.a. rabble), with as many famous people as possible (Yes, this is why you constantly find actors and musicians speaking out on areas of politics where their knowledge is nebulous). Step #2 Feed them well. Step #3 Make mockery of anything the other side holds sacred. Step #4 Publicly challenge your opponent. 

Let’s see how Korach did this. Step #1 He gathers 250 leaders from his neighboring tribe, Reuben, among them some noted trouble-makers named Dasan and Aviram, who already had an entire file at central booking for their previous run-ins with authority. Step #2 He feeds them a delicious meal where the wine flows like right-wing rhetoric from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. Step #3 He starts mocking some of the laws of the Torah which Moshe had taught, thus implying that the entire Torah could have been made up by Moshe. Lastly, step #4, Korach challenges Moshe publicly, claiming, “We are all a holy nation, so who do you think you are to exalt yourselves (Moshe and his brother Aaron) over us?

Moshe falls on his face before them in humility, and begs them to change their mind. Upon being rebuffed, he says “O.K., lets take this one outside. Tomorrow morning everyone should bring a fire pan with incense. G-d will miraculously bring down fire in just one pan, and everyone else will die. But remember, sons of Levi, you have so much already, why are you demanding more? Be happy with your lot.” (Here is an incredible lesson. All 250+ people knew that only one person was going to emerge standing, yet they all showed up in the morning, each sure that he would be the single winner. When arrogance and jealousy get the better of you, it is clear that you lose the ability to think clearly!) 

That afternoon, Moshe, the paradigm of humility, attempts to end the rebellion peacefully by going personally to the tents of Dasan and Aviram to beg them to retract their evil mutiny. They reply with an emphatic “Even if someone were to gouge our eyes out, we would not make peace!” The next morning Moshe delivers the following ultimatum; “If these men die normal deaths, you will know that G-d didn’t send me, but if the earth opens its mouth and swallows these people alive, then you shall know that I did everything I did by the word of G-d!”

Moshe tells everyone to step back from the camp of Korach, in order to save themselves from sharing in his punishment. Sure enough, the earth opens wide and swallows up not only Korach, Dasan, Aviram, and their familes, but also everything they owned in this world, down to the last bobby pin. The 250 men did not fall into the earth – the same fire they were hoping was going to prove their supremacy over Moshe and Aaron comes down and enters their nostrils, and kills them instantaneously. This shows us the horrific results of machlokes, or divisiveness. It not only destroys the original antagonist, but also his family, and anyone around him. The fire pans of the 250 rebels were taken and beaten into sheets which were then placed on the altar in the Temple to remind everyone never to try to usurp the leadership positions that G-d dictates.  

In response to this event, the people complained to Moshe and Aaron, saying “You killed the nation of G-d” (obviously, they hadn’t learnt the two key lessons of the story of Korach: that one is better off not rebelling against Moshe and Aaron (it does terrible things to your life expectancy), and that G-d is the one running the show here, not Moshe and Aaron.) A plague erupts in the camp, executing the people who were slandering Moshe and Aaron. Moshe tells Aaron that he should quickly bring a fire pan of incense and walk amongst the people to stop the plague. (Moshe learnt this trick from the Angel of Death when he went up to heaven to receive the Torah.) Aaron does so, and the plague stops.

G-d tells Moshe to conduct one final test to demonstrate to everyone that Aaron is the one picked by G-d to be the Kohen Gadol. Aaron and the leaders of the twelve tribes all bring their staffs. The staffs are deposited in the Temple, and everyone waits to see whose staff would blossom. Sure as turkeys hate Thanksgiving, Aaron’s staff is the one in full bloom the next morning. Now the people are shaken up, and express their fears (not complaints) to Moshe, that anyone who gets too close to the Temple will die! Moshe allays their fears by explaining that it is the Kohen’s job to ensure that people don’t go beyond their proper places. As the leaders of the Jews, their duty is to bring people as close to G-d as they can, but also to remind them that one must be careful with that which is holy. Judaism is a system of living, which expects one to understand the importantce of structure and boundaries.

The final portion of the Parsha discusses the various gifts given by the Jewish people to the Kohanim and Levi’im in return for their dedication to the Jewish people. The tribe of Levi received no portion in the Holy Land (save a few cities), in order that they devote themselves to promoting spirituality. In return, we are commanded to help support them. The Torah here lays down the idea that it is incumbent upon a society to support those charged with facilitating its spiritual growth. The same way we understand that we must pay taxes to support those who keep our streets clean and safe, we must also support those who keep our spirit alive and healthy. That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: “When inspiration does not come to me, I go to meet it.”- Anonymous

Random Fact of the Week: A woodpecker’s tongue actually wraps all the way around its brain, protecting it from damage when it’s hammering into a tree.

Funny Line of the Week: Despite the rapidly rising cost of living, have you noticed that it remains so popular?

Have a Marvelous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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