I like rice. Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2000 of something. – Mitch Hedberg

Rice is actually much more than a good meal when you want 2,000 of something; in many countries around the world, rice equals life. For us Americans who eat an average of only 15.4 pounds of rice per year, rice seems like no big deal. If rice disappeared off the shelves of all stores in the US, most of our lives wouldn’t be that different, we’d just eat more quinoa. But for people in Asia, where most people eat rice two to three times a day, and average annual consumption soars above 400 pounds, rice is a big deal.

In China, this word:  飯 means both rice and food, because they are seen as synonymous. In Thailand, when you call your family to a meal, you say, “come eat rice.” In India, rice is the first food a wife offers her husband, and the first food parents feed their baby. Rice is so important to people in Asia that many countries consider it strategically important to ensure that their citizens can obtain rice at a fair price. They create governmental policies around rice pricing under the term “Food Security Acts”. 

The vast importance of rice to the many of the most populated countries in the world is actually what caused the 2008 Global Rice Crisis. The crisis started in October of 2007 in the government offices of India. India had plenty of rice; it was actually one of the world’s greatest exporters of rice. But in 2007, India had an antipoverty law in place to guarantee all its citizens with cheap food staples, an undertaking which required them to keep 60 million tons of wheat and rice on hand. The global prices of wheat were rising dramatically, so the Indian government decided that it was crucial for them to hold onto whatever rice they had, to offset the lack of wheat. On October 9, 2007, the Indian government banned the export of most forms of rice.

On October 10th, the price of rice on the global market jumped 20%. Economists from all over the world tried to convince India to abolish their premature export ban which could rapidly disrupt world markets (they had plenty of rice!). But the president of India got on the radio and resolutely told the world that he wasn’t responsible for the food security of the world, he was responsible for the food security in India, and he wasn’t lifting the ban. As kids, we used to have a saying, “What’s that got to do with the price of rice in China?” Well that statement from the president of India, a major exporter of rice, had a lot to do with the price of rice in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, the Phillipines, Senegal, Haiti, and all over the world!

India’s hoarding caused total panic in the market and by the time January had rolled around, the price of rice had doubled from $300 a ton to $600 a ton. But it got worse due to a famous law of geopolitics: paranoid nation see, paranoid nation do. Egypt and Pakistan banned rice exports in January, Vietnam in February, and Brazil in April. Thailand- the world’s largest exporter of rice, began floating the idea that it would create the rice equivalent of OPEC to regulate, control, and limit rice sales around the world. To top it off, corrupt politicians began buying rice on the sly, then selling it back to their own governments for enormous profits, further pushing up the price of rice. If things were out of control before, in April of 2008, they got downright crazy. Prices shot up to over $1,200 a ton, quadruple what they had been before the crisis! And please remember; there was no shortage of rice in the world.

People in many countries began to go hungry, having to forgo their breakfast staple altogether, and eat limited amounts for dinner. Riots broke out in cities across the world, six people died in a particularly vicious food riot in Haiti. In the US, Costco ran out of rice, because people were buying fifty pound bags, and shipping them to their relatives in the Philippines.

So how do you stop a global rice crisis? You bring in the superheroes. In this case they were Peter Timmer and Tom Slayton. Peter Timmer was a semi-retired professor of economics at Harvard, and Tom Slayton was a global rice expert with 35 years of experience following the rice market for the USDA and private commodity firms. They got together with the sole goal of saving the world from the Rice Crisis. They realized that the only way to stop the crisis was to flood the market with rice. But where do you find massive quantities of rice when nations around the world are hoarding rice? The answer? In Japan.

Japan had blocked the import of US rice for decades through high tariffs. But the World Trade Organization forced them to stop this blockage of international trade by requiring Japan to buy huge quantities of US rice. The Japanese complied, but they didn’t sell that rice to Japanese out of fear that Japanese would actually like US rice and stop buying Japanese rice. They also couldn’t sell it to other countries because of the World Trade Organization’s rules. So they would stockpile it in massive warehouses for years until it went bad, and then sell it to Japanese farmers as animal feed. 

After a thorough investigation, Peter Timmer and Tom Slayton discovered that Japan was holding 1.5 million tons of high quality US rice in warehouses, all while the world was starving for overpriced rice. They lobbied the US government and the World Trade Organization to make a onetime exception that would allow Japan to sell their American rice on the open market. Through extensive lobbying, article writing, and public announcements, they got their exception. 

In mid-April, Japan made an announcement that they would begin selling vast amounts of rice to the Philippines. The very next day the price of rice dropped $200 a ton. The global rice crisis, which was built not on a shortage of rice but on global fear and panic, began to dissipate. Within a few months the price of rice fell more than 50%, and people around the world got their food back.

For the record, Japan never sold that rice. It didn’t need to. The mere news that the market would soon be flooded with rice was all it took to topple the panic and fear, and end the crisis.

The Global Rice Crisis of 2008 holds a very important lessons for us. It teaches us the power of perception. There was no shortage of rice, there was more than enough rice to feed the whole world comfortably, but the crisis was caused by the perception of a shortage! And ironically it ended without Japan unloading their 1.5 million tons of rice, it ended because people perceived that there would be no more “shortage.” The global economy doesn’t run on reality, it runs on perception.

Perception doesn’t only play an enormous role in global economics, it also determines how many of us see our world. Right or wrong, perception determines whether people feel secure, loved, successful, and valuable, or whether they feel lonely, unloved, worthless, and distressed. I often see really good people plagued with self doubt, people who live their lives in quiet panic and fear because of their low perceived self worth.

It sometimes causes them to act loud and brash to overcompensate, and sometimes causes them to retreat inward, closing themselves off from greater involvement with the world, which would benefit them, and could benefit from them. They have no great shortages, it is simply a perception issue. I often find myself saying to them, “I wish you could see yourself through my eyes.”

There is one way we can help others build a positive self perception and that is by telling them how we perceive them. Reminding people frequently of the good qualities we see in them helps them perceive themselves differently, and positive actions almost always follow the change in perceptions. 

One of the most influential people in my life was Rabbi Yisroel Steinwurtzel. He was my rebbi during the most tumultuous period of my life, the late teenage years. I was filled with self doubt, but he filled me with confidence. He must have told me 1,000 times, “Leibush, you are a tzaddik!” This was in a period in my life when I certainly didn’t see myself as a tzaddik, but his perception of me changed my perception of me, and soon I wanted to get to where he saw me. I’m still on the road, but he was the one who put me on that road, by changing my self-perception.

If we have a son who is struggling with learning difficulties, we can be the ones who ensure that they know that their worth is not tied to test scores or their penmanship, but in the person they are. If we have a daughter feeling hurt and rejected because she can’t make her way into the “cool clique” in school, we can be the ones who give her the validation she needs by telling her frequently just how awesome she is. We can be the ones who lift a spouse out of mid-life existential angst, or give our aging parents a sense of just how important they are to our families. 

With our frequent positive words, we can reverse people’s internal crises, we can change their perceived shortages into surpluses. We can all be superheroes.

Dvar Torah on the Parsha

The two Parshas read this week, Tazria and Metzora, deal primarily with an affliction called Tzara’at. As Nachmonides explains, this was not a typical form of leprosy (which could be healed easily with some Noni juice and a little ginko-biloba, the common cure for pretty much everything) but rather a spiritual ailment which manifested itself on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgression, the most common being Lashon Hara, which is gossip and slander. 

It is fascinating to see how today, in the USA, there are dozens of magazines which make their entire livelihood by putting out gossip about other people, besides all the gossip carried by “mainstream media.” We live in a society that sees nothing wrong in maligning others, both behind their backs and in front of them. In Judaism, however, it’s seen as such a severe offense that it had its own spiritual affliction to heighten awareness and foster avoidance,.

When discussing the various forms of Tzara’as we find a very peculiar law. The Torah tells us that if one has the marks of the affliction (different shades of whitened skin in this case) the Kohen has to come to inspect it to determine if it is indeed tzara’as or not. The Kohen is like a spiritual Dr. and he has the ability to diagnose the affliction and help the healing process of the afflicted one. Now, the interesting thing is that if this mark covers the person’s entire body, it is not considered tzara’at and he does not become impure, but if a small amount of healthy skin begins to show through the mark then the person is declared to have tzara’s and becomes impure. That seems baffling! When the person is covered head to toe in tzara’as he should for sure be considered to have the spiritual affliction!

While I was in Social Work school, we discussed a famous question in a few different classes. Are people created bad, good, or a little of both. (Being that many of the students were training to be conflict resolution therapists, you can imagine that many people said “a little of both” right off the bat!) I personally believe that we are created with both good and bad, also known as the Good Inclination (the guy with the flowing white robes, the halo, and occasionally a harp) and the Evil Inclination (the guy in your head with the red pointy pitchfork). On one hand there is a verse that says “Yetzer leiv ha’adam ra mi’neurov,” the inclination of the heart of man is bad from its youth, while on the other hand we have a soul inside each of us that is lofty, pristine, and cannot be fully sullied no matter what evil we do. 

People who do a lot of gossiping and slander are usually the people who focus on the bad side of others, while people who your mother would call a “mentch” see the good in others and don’t want to talk bad about them. However, sometimes there are people that almost everyone sees as bad, and we just can’t seem to find a single redeeming quality in them. 

The message the Torah teaches us by tzara’as is that if you see someone as totally covered from head to toe in spiritual blemish, you are not seeing properly and you cannot call him afflicted and try to help him. Only if there is some healthy skin i.e. you see some good in the person, can you call him impure, and begin to help him on the path back to spiritual health. The lesson is powerful. We cannot help people until we can clearly see the good in them, because the goal of helping is to make the positive qualities within  grow until they take over. 

As long as you see anyone as 100% bad, not only can you not help him, but even more, it should be a sign for you that you are not seeing properly. And isn’t it amazing that this exact lesson is taught to us through the medium of dealing with the Metzora, who is afflicted because he talks bad about others which is as a result of focusing on the bad in others! So let’s try to focus on seeing the good in others (that doesn’t mean that we are blind to reality, but rather that we concentrate on the good) and through that we will be able to build each other up, and bring our nation closer to each other and closer to G-d!

Parsha Summary

The first of the two Parshas we read this week, Tazria, begins with laws of impurity associated with childbirth. The idea is that life alone in not an end, rather life’s purpose is that we elevate ourselves, To this end, when a child is brought into this world the mother goes through a process of impurity leading to purity, thus mimicking the type of life she wants her child to lead, one of growing, and elevating themselves from their basic state to a higher state. After that, the Torah launches into the laws of Tzara’as (see above) for the rest of the Parsha. It talks about the laws of the different forms of tzara’as, the way the Kohen makes his diagnoses, and what the Metzora does after being diagnosed. One major part of his “medicine” is the law requiring him to sit in isolation for a week. This is supposed to help him realize how he made others feel when he spoke negatively about them, and caused rifts and dissension amongst friends. 

The last section of the parsha deals with tzara’as that appears on clothing. (No, that reddish or greenish blotch on that suit is not the latest styling from Versace, it is actually a spiritual disease manifesting itself on clothing!) Our Sages explains that because of G-d’s great compassion, one does not immediately get tzara’as upon his body. Rather, he first gets it on his house as is described in our second Parsha, Metzora. Hopefully, he learns his lesson and stops gossiping and slandering, however if he doesn’t, it starts to afflict his clothing (a little bit too close for comfort). If the person continues to ignore these blatant cues telling him to shape up, he then gets the full force affliction on his own body, for which the atonement process is the longest. 

Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora on the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. if you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man. 

The Torah next discusses how tzara’as can afflict a house. In addition to the Sages’ view of the affliction of the house mentioned above, there are other commentators that note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in their walls. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures!  

The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contamination. Being that today there is no tzara’as to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!

Quote of the Week: A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read. – Mark Twain

Random Fact of the Week: Americans purchase over 20 million tons of Candy Corn each year. 

Funny Quip of the Week: My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.

Have a Preternatural Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham 

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