India is a vast and complicated country. Its 1.4 billion citizens, the world’s largest population, are spread out over 1.2 million square miles, with terrains ranging from the Himalayan Mountains, to the Indian Ocean coastline, the Thar Desert, the rainforests of the Western Ghats, and the vast farmlands of the Deccan Plateau. Its history is as varied as its geography, with the Indus Valley considered to be one of the great cradles of human civilization.

The birthplace of two of the world’s five largest religions, it went through millennia of dynastic rule, centuries as one of the most powerful colonies of the British Empire, and a heroic struggle to build itself into a strong modern country ever since gaining independence in 1947.

It has also been a place of widespread poverty for centuries, with hundreds of millions still living under the poverty line today. It’s GDP per capita has been the lowest among large nations since the 1700s, which is often attributed to the fact that the British discouraged education and advancement for the two hundred years it ruled the country, knowing that the more advanced the society became the more it would seek its independence. (The British may have had a bad experience with an educated colony in North America if you know what I mean!)

Ironically, the worst wave of poverty came after the British left, because they took all their governing infrastructure with them, leaving behind a country of about 350,000,000 people with no idea how to self-govern. During much of the 50s and 60s, over 50% of Indians were living in absolute poverty, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. Which brings us to moonshine, gambling and chess.

When people are poor, unemployed, and without any light at the end of the tunnel, they often turn to illicit behaviors and experiences to mask the pain of their plight. The widespread poverty of India in the 60s, especially in rural areas, led to an epidemic of moonshining. While American and British people talk about bathtub gin, the people of India didn’t even have bathtubs in which to make their alcohol. People usually distilled palm tree sap in large terra cotta containers. The resulting moonshine, known locally as taddy, was strong, cheap, and unfortunately often toxic due to the lack of quality control in the distilling process.

Moonshine is never a good thing, but it is especially bad when you combine its consumption with other risky behaviors. If you’re going to get drunk, stay at home and be drunk there. Don’t drive, don’t tightrope walk, don’t operate a chain saw, don’t wrestle with baboons, and please please don’t gamble. Gambling while drunk has favorable outcomes as often as bathing in hydrochloric acid.  But unfortunately, this too was widespread in depressed rural India, with millions of people getting drunk on moonshine and then gambling away any money they did have.

The village of Marottichal, in the western Indian state of Kerala was no exception. Nestled in forests about ten miles east of the city of Thrissur, Marottichal is a large village with 6,000 residents that mostly relies on agriculture. During the 60s and 70s it was plagued by alcoholism and gambling like so many villages and cities in India, but salvation came in the form of a chessboard.

C. Unnikrishnan, whom we’ll call Unni from now on, was a native of Marottichal who moved away as a young man. He heard about the game called chess and read about a prodigy named Bobby Fisher who was born to a homeless single mother in Chicago but became an international star as a chess Grandmaster, and Unni wanted to see if he could follow in Fisher’s footsteps. Unni spent years learning how to play chess while working in a nearby city, and while he never achieved Fisher-like success, he also never stopped loving the game. Eventually, he moved to the city of Bangalore, married and settled down.

Even while in Bangalore, Unni kept up with friends and family from Marottichal, and was deeply pained to hear about its slide into alcoholism and gambling. Finally in the late 80’s Unni decided he was going to save the village he loved so much with the other love of his life, chess. He moved back to Marottichal, opened up a small tea shop, and offered to teach anyone how to play for free. He would even lend out chess sets so that people could play at home. What started as a small trickle of students/tea customers eventually became a torrent as hundreds of villagers came to learn how to play this game they found challenging and calming. They found that the joy of a good chess victory was better than the feeling they got from moonshine or gambling.

Within months, people were playing chess all over Marottichal; in the bus stops, in the chai shops, while waiting for haircuts at the barbershop, and all over the village parks. There were players and spectators, teachers and eager students, and all of them faced each other over the same sixty-four black and white squares. And the more chess that was played, the less alcoholism, the less gambling, and even less TV. People engaged with each other, not with vices and media.

To this day, Marottichal is considered a chess haven in India, with most of its citizens playing at least one game a day. Tourists even come to visit for two or three day crash courses in chess strategy. The parks and chai shops are still filled with players and spectators, and spirited conversations about previous games fill the air. TV’s in most of the cafes and chai shops sit unplugged in the corner collecting dust. Crime, vandalism, alcoholism, gambling, and truancy are almost non-existent. Productivity is up, it is one of the cleanest villages in India, and there is a much deeper sense of community in Matrottichal than you would find in other villages in the region.

Marottichal was saved not by removing the bad, but by giving the people a much better alternative to the bad.

Today’s world is chaotic and stressful. We seem to be getting sucked deeper and deeper into our screens. Studies indicate that the use of social media is on the rise, with a global increase of 12.5% per year since 2015! The global average is two hours and twenty four minutes per day on various platforms. Studies also indicate that increased use of social media (and especially use of multiple social media platforms) is directly correlated with depression, anxiety, narcissism, and other mental health challenges. There are studies indicating that people’s optimism for their future is also rapidly declining.

Families are struggling to build a sense of cohesiveness when most members of the family would rather retreat into a screen.  People are struggling to find a sense of purpose and meaning deeper than endless scrolling. The media we constantly consume spends most of its time excoriating the “other side,” leading people to feel that everyone they meet is either with you or against you and a horrible person.

One way to try to tackle this problem is to try to force social media limits on children, to try to preach endlessly about the evils of the screen, and to constantly fault others for spending too much time on their screens. The other way is to take out a chess board. The other way is to work on helping people find something better than a screen.

In ancient mythology, there was a famous island upon which a group of people called sirens lived. They would sing so beautifully that anyone who heard their song would be powerfully drawn to them. The problem was that the island was surrounded by jagged rocks, and all who tried to approach it would drown after their boats were shattered by the rocks. Companies had to expend considerable resources routing their ships around the whole area because there seemed no solution to the problem.

One day a young innovative captain came up with a solution. He hired a few musicians to come on board, and as they neared the island, he had them play music as loud as they could. The music on the ship blocked out the song of the sirens and the boat made its way safely past their island.

The solution to today’s problem is to find the music that we can play on our boats that will be more powerful than the siren song of the screen. That can mean teaching a child to master an instrument, to learn karate, to excel in sports or robotics, to find his own voice in the study of Torah, or to volunteer for a teen board of a local organization so that he feels he’s making a difference. It can mean a mother taking her child out for bowling once a week, or a father doing experimental cooking with a child once a week. The key is that we find a way to make our music louder than theirs, our chess board more exciting than moonshine.

In the Jewish arena, this plays out as well. Our religion is under assault. A 2020 report by the PEW Research Center is painting a picture even bleaker than the well-known PEW report from 2013. At this point, 40% of Jews under the age of thirty, and 27% of all adults report that they don’t have any religion and are at most culturally Jewish. Rates of atheism in the Jewish population are more than double the rates in the broader US population. It’s no wonder that intermarriage rates are at 72% in non-observant households, the youth haven’t found any music on their Jewish boat that would drown out the siren song of the non-Jews they meet in college or at work.

Here too we need to learn to make our music louder, we need to find the way to show our children a religion that is more engaging than Twitch, Instagram, or Tik Tok. We need to focus on making Judaism so meaningful to our youth that they only seek to connect with people who can fully share in that music with them. And the key to that is more in our hands than theirs. Every day, we say a prayer called V’haarev Na, where we ask G-d: Make the Torah sweet in our mouth and the mouths of our children. If the Torah is sweet to us, it will be to our children. When we find our own Jewish music, our children will see how meaningful our Judaism is to us, and they too will seek to create theirs.

You can try to run after the moonshiners and gambling dens or you can bring in the chessboards.

Check mate.

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha the Torah talks about the nazir, a person who swears off wine and all grape products, haircuts, and contact with dead bodies, for a specified period of time. The Torah describes this person with the following accolade: “the crown of his G-d is upon him” (Numbers 6:7) which means that a nazir is given some kind of spiritual crown directly from Heaven. One might claim that refraining from drinking wine, getting haircuts, or coming into contact with dead bodies doesn’t seem to be enough to warrant such a lofty outcome; after all many people do that for a month or more without even noticing!

        In order to understand this, let us look at why one would choose to become a nazir. The nazir is one who sees himself slipping in his enthusiasm toward spirituality, and fears that he will begin to falter or fall. He therefore takes added measures, divorcing himself even from permitted actions, in order to guarantee that he stays strong. He insures he doesn’t lose control by not drinking wine or even coming into contact with grape products. He tries to prevent arrogance, a trait which causes one to lose focus, by letting his hair run wild. He distances himself from corpses, which represent the loss of potential (once one is dead they can no longer become better or improve their surroundings), in order to constantly remind himself of the sanctity of life, and the importance of not wasting his limited time here on the 3rd rock from the sun.

        One can compare the nazir’s move to a popular military strategy. If a unit has to protect a particular location, such as an armory, and they are afraid that they will be attacked, they don’t just set up guards around the location. Rather, they attack and take ground from the enemy. In this way, even if they are forced to retreat a bit, their primary objective of guarding the armory will be successful. As they say in the military (and in basketball camp) “A good offense is the best defense!”  This is what the nazir does. He sees himself being attacked by the Evil Inclination and is afraid of coming to do things he shouldn’t. Instead of waiting for the attack, he goes on the offensive, denying himself permissible things in a way that will ensure that he will continue to safeguard that which he holds so precious, keeping the Torah and its mitzvos.

        One who is willing to sacrifice even that which he is allowed in order to ensure that he doesn’t fall, is obviously doing so out of an incredible love of G-d and a sincere desire that his relationship not be hurt by sin, which in essence is a blockage between us and G-d. Someone going such lengths for such reasons, truly deserves, “the crown of his G-d!” We too, should not wait to be pulled down by our lower desires, but rather earn the crown of G-d by going on the offensive, and introducing practices into our lives that will help us climb higher and get closer to G-d.

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha starts off where the the last Parsha finished, namely, the jobs given to different families within the tribe of Levi. Here, the Torah describes the parts of the Tabernacle that the families of Gershon and Merari carried when the Jews moved from place to place in the Desert.

The Torah then commands us to treat our camp with holiness. In order to do so, people with specific levels of ritual impurity are not allowed into different parts of the camp based on the severity of their impurity. (It is interesting to note that the only group that has to leave the entire camp and sit alone is the people who contracted Tzara’as through speaking badly about others and alienating them. What goes around comes around!) After that, the Torah tells us what to do if someone steals, swears falsely to deny it, and then admits. OK, I won’t keep you in suspense; he pays an extra fifth and brings a special sacrifice for atonement. If the victim dies and leaves no heirs, the money goes to the Kohanim.

The next law discussed, is that of the Sotah. This is a wayward woman, who secludes herself with a specific man, despite having been warned not to do so by her husband. In order to determine if she committed a sin while in seclusion, she is brought to the Temple where a procedure is done to determine if she is as innocent as she professes to be. (If, at any point, she admits to being guilty, she goes home without doing the procedure.) The procedure includes a Kohen reading her the passage regarding the Sotah, and dissolving the parchment into water. She then drinks the mixture after bringing a meal offering. If she is guilty, she immediately dies a difficult death, (as does the adulterer wherever he is at the time), but if she is innocent, she is rewarded with an easier birthing in the future, and great children. (Even though she shouldn’t have secluded herself with someone her husband asked her not to, since the procedure was a difficult one she is rewarded for being innocent.)

The parchment which was dissolved contains G-d’s name. If G-d considers marital harmony to be of such import that he allows His name to be erased (for if the wife lives past this procedure, the husband will be placated and no longer think that she betrayed him), how much more should we be willing to go out of our way to keep our marriages peaceful even if it occasionally costs us a bruised ego. After these laws, the Torah discusses the nazir, whom we discussed above. The two are juxtaposed because when one sees the sotah in her degradation, he should be inspired to take measures to insure that he never fall in that way.

After the laws of the nazir, the Torah tells the Kohanim how to bless the people, a practice still done daily in Israel and on the festivals here in the Diaspora. The final art of the Parsha deals with special offerings the leaders of the Twelve Tribes brought to inaugurate the Tabernacle. The first thing they brought was six sturdy wagons and twelve oxen to pull them. These were to be used in the transportation of the Tabernacle, and were divided amongst the tribe of Levi.

The Kehas family didn’t get any wagons, because their job was to carry the holiest vessels and it would be inappropriate for them to relegate such vessels to wagons. In addition to the wagons, the tribal leaders each brought a number of sacrifices during the first twelve days that the Tabernacle was in service. Although the Torah never uses an extra word, in our Parsha, it spends over seventy verses repeating the sacrifices that the leaders brought even thought they were exactly identical. The Torah is telling us that although on the outside the sacrifices were the same, each leader had unique intentions and meaning in his sacrifice, thus making them different. This underscores the idea that even though we may all pray the same prayers, and do the same mitzvoth, each one of us can have an incredibly unique and individual relationship with G-d based on our intentions and thoughts. Let us all continue to develop that relationship, and grow closer with our Father in heaven!

Quote of the Week: Those who make the worst use of their time most complain of its brevity. ~ Jean La Bruyere

Random Fact of the Week: A toaster uses almost half as much energy as a full sized oven.

Funny Line of the Week: Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.

Have a Chic Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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