Under the soil in southern Louisiana are mountains of salt the size of Mt Everest. When Hashem was creating the many miracles of creation, one of them was that the land beneath our feet would always be shifting and churning, huge continent sized tectonic plates grinding against each other and creating beautiful mountains as well as horrifying earthquakes, perhaps a metaphor for the fact that our existence, the land we walk on, depends on constant struggle and upheaval. 

When the earth pushes and pulls, it at times creates mountains of salt, which lighter than the rock around it rises in great towers of unimaginable size. Those same violent tectonic moves open up holes and cracks in earth’s crust, which over time fill with oil, causing the mountains of white salt to lie quietly next to rivers of black oil. 

Jefferson Island, on the edge of Lake Peigneur (pronounced Pang-YOOR), was the site of a salt mine owned by the Diamond Crystal Salt Company, which began hacking salt out of the earth in 1919. With an almost limitless supply of salt, the miners dug shaft after shaft into the underground salt mountain, using pillars of untouched salt as the support beams to hold up the roofs of each floor as they dug deeper. Coexisting peacefully with the salt mine on Jefferson Island was a lush botanical preserve known as Live Oak Gardens. People would still be visiting the gardens today, and miners still pulling truckloads of salt out of the earth, if not for a fateful day in November of 1980. 

While the Diamond Crystal Company was pulling white out of the ground, Texaco, one of the largest oil companies in the world, was sniffing around, hoping to pull some black out of the soil, as it was known that the area was rich in oil as well. In the predawn hours of November 20th, a Texaco drilling team hit salt, at about 500 feet below the sea bed.  This was concerning to them because according to their calculations, there wasn’t supposed to be salt for at least 300 more feet! Then the drill bit got stuck and all sorts of popping and hissing noises started coming up. The oil rig tipped dangerously onto one side. What they didn’t realize was that they miscalculated where they were drilling, and a 14 inch wide drill bit just opened a hole into the roof of the mine. 

The lake had 2.5 billion gallons of water above, the salt mine had massive cavernous empty areas below, and now water started rushing from above to below with ten times the pressure of a fire hydrant. The hole that started out just 14 inches thick, but got bigger and bigger as the water rushed through it. The miners quickly began evacuating the mine as water rushed in and fortunately due to the well-rehearsed evacuation drills of the men, no miners were hurt in the process. 

The oil drillers also abandoned their oil rig, and to their alarm, 90 minutes after the hole opened, all 150 feet of their oil derrick just slid underwater in a lake that was only ten feet tall! Like a bathtub full of water draining out through one small hole, all of Lake Peigneur began draining into the salt mine. A massive whirlpool formed on the surface of the lake, with water getting sucked down loudly, while 1300 feet below ground, the water began dissolving the salt, collapsing the whole mine. 

On the surface, 11 large barges and a tugboat started getting pulled into the vortex, as their crews leapt for safety, and shortly thereafter, the barges and tugboat and four fully loaded flatbed trucks were swallowed whole, by the ever-growing hole that was now 100 feet wide! Now the vortex was no longer content to swallow water, 150 year old trees were being snapped in half and sucked in, and eventually, it started eating away at Jefferson Island itself! By the end of the day, 65 acres of land went down the hole!

But wait, there’s more! The Delcambre Canal, a waterway which normally carried water from Lake Peigneur’s higher ground down to the Gulf of Mexico, now found lower ground in the empty lake bed, so it reversed course and started carrying water from the Gulf of Mexico downward toward the bottom of the mine! This created a 164 foot waterfall of water rushing downward to fill the empty lakebed and the mine cavities below, the tallest waterfall in the history of Louisiana. 

For two days, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico flowed northward, filling the mine and then eventually filling the now empty Lake Peigneur. As the water filled mine, nine of the eleven barges popped up to the surface like champagne corks popping off a bottle. Within a week everything settled down, and the lake once again was calm and serene. But there were three major differences, the lake is much deeper in some parts, half the island disappeared, but more importantly, the water of the lake is now brackish saltwater, changing the nature of the lake forever. 

The story of Lake Peigneur is one that we can all relate to, because we all have a drill bit that can drill down and hit sensitive spots and change the nature of our relationships forever, and that drill bit is called the tongue. In Proverbs, King Solomon reminds us (18:21), “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Use that tongue properly to constantly describe the value and qualities you see in others and you can access storehouses of treasure; children that are joyful and confident, spouses that are loved and supported and eager to give back that love and support, and communities that feel valued and connected. But more importantly, the person who uses  his tongue in a positive way all the time, fosters within himself a sense optimism, dignity, and self-esteem, because the more you express the good in others, the more it reflects back on yourself, even if only on a deep subconscious level.

But the opposite is true as well; if we use that drill bit carelessly, with one mistake we can open up holes in our relationships that will wreak unimaginable havoc and never be fully repaired. Those types of breaches usually happen when we decide that we “just need to be fully honest with __________.” So we let them know what we truly think about some aspect of their looks, or the shrillness of their voice, or our mother in law, or some other aspect of their lives that they have no power to change. And boom, in one minute the sinkhole opens up and life and energy starts draining out of the relationship, sucking down everything around it, including acres of relationship grounds that we build up over years. The waters may settle after that and become calm again, but there will likely be a brackishness to the water, the sweet waters, the innocent beauty of the relationship will be lost forever. 

The Gemara tells us, (Arachin 15B), “Rava says: One who wants life can attain it by means of his tongue, one who wants death can also attain it by means of his tongue.” The most powerful tool in our world sits quietly just a few inches from our brain, a paintbrush that allows you to paint your future. You can paint salty criticism and negativity wherever you go, and that is the world you will live in, one that doesn’t support life and flourishing. But you can also paint a world full of color and joy, positivity and blessing, a world full of opportunity and love, admiration and blessing, and then after building that beautiful world with your tongue, you get to move in and live there! 

Thank you Hashem for the tongue you gave me, and please help me use it only to bring life to myself, the world around me, and honor to Your Name!

Parsha Dvar Torah

“And behold Egypt was traveling after them!” (Exodus 14:10)

In this week’s parsha, the exodus story culminates with the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Jews walking through safely, and the Egyptians drowning. However, this only happened after a terrifying ordeal that the Jewish people endured. Before the sea split, the Jews found themselves running from the Egyptians who were chasing them with all their military might. 

Noting that the verse above describes the Egyptians in the singular tense (“Egypt”) instead of the plural (“the Egyptians”), Rashi comments that the Egyptians were pursuing the Jews “With one heart, like one person.” This comment is interesting because Rashi makes almost the same exact comment in next week’s parsha, when the Torah describes the Jewish people camping at the foot of Mt Sinai. There too, the Torah used the singular tense to describe the Jewish people, “and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2).” On that verse Rashi describes the powerful unity the Jews felt as they were about to receive the Torah, that they were “Like one person with one heart.” 

Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner of blessed memory (1906-1980, Warsaw- NYC), the founder of one of the largest American yeshivas, Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin, asks why Rashi reverses the order in describing the two phenomena. With regard to the Egyptians, Rashi notes that they were “With one heart, like one person,” whereas with regard to the Jews at Mt. Sinai, the description is “Like one person with one heart?” 

Rabbi Hutner answers that there was a fundamental difference between the unity of the Jewish people and the Egyptians. The Jewish people are intrinsically unified as one. It is as if the entire Jewish people are one big human being, in which each person is a different part of that organism. Since we are all one, it goes without saying that our desires should be one, in just the same way that my left hand wants the same things as my right hand, my kidney, or heart wants. Because of this, the primary connection is that we are “Like one person.” What happens to follow that is that we all have one heart, we all want the same thing. 

This was not the case with regard to the Egyptians. They were intrinsically a collection of individual people, who were not truly unified. It so happened that when they wanted to get their Jewish slaves back, they were able to unite, but it was not representative of who they were. For that reason Rashi described them as “With one heart, like one person.” In this particular scenario, they had one heart; they all wanted to force the Jewish people back. As a result, they were able to act as one person. The moment they would have finished subjugating the Jews, they would no longer be like one person. 

This difference is something we see playing itself out in world politics today. The nations of the world are not unified. There is plenty of squabbling, fighting, and anger between them. Yet somehow, when it comes to criticizing the Jews and our tiny Jewish country, they all unite. Cries come forth from every major capital, the UN passes almost unanimous resolutions against Israel, and even America issues statements condemning our “excessive force.” When they are with one heart, it almost seems like they have the unity of “one person.” However, as soon as the focus is lifted from Israel, the world reverts to its regular disunity. The Shi’ites kill the Sunnis, Russia freezes half of Europe by cutting off their natural gas, North Korea makes aggressive moves on South Korea, and genocide continues unfettered in Africa. 

As Jews, we truly remain “Like one person with one heart.” Not only in times of crisis or shared interest do we unite, but we remain united at all times. There is a constant flow of support from the Diaspora to Israel. There are countless organizations looking to help any Jew in need, no matter their affiliation, race, country of origin, or economic strata. There are dozens of Federations giving much of the money they raise to support our brothers in Israel, the Former Soviet Union, and anywhere else Jews find themselves in need. There are free loan societies, camps for children with cancer, food banks, and health care providers for Jews of every type and stripe. May we always continue to follow the praise of Rashi, and see ourselves as a nation, “Like one person with one heart!”

Parsha Summary

This week’s portion begins with the Jews turning back to Egypt after having been driven away just a few days earlier. Their goal was to fool the Egyptians into thinking that they were trapped by the desert, and prompting the Egyptians to come pursue them, which they did. Pharaoh led his men, in full battle formation, in chasing down the Jews, and they caught them right by the See of Reeds.

The Jews were trapped between a sea and a hard nation, but Moshe told them that they could be confident as G-d would fight for them. Then Moshe told the people to keep on traveling as if there was no sea before them, but most of the people were too scared. Nachshon the son of Aminadav was the first to plunge into the waters and, just as they were about to drown him, the sea split and the entire Jewish people was able to cross through the sea onto dry land. The Egyptians followed, but for them, the sea didn’t remain standing. Upon the bidding of G-d, Moshe picked up his staff, and the waters came crashing back down on the Egyptians.

The Jews, upon seeing G-d’s greatness and miracles, broke out in song, together as one. They sang Az Yashir, a most poetic and beautiful song that is still said daily as part of the morning prayers. The Jews were able to collect enormous amounts of gold that the Egyptians brought with them to war, and eventually had to be pulled away from the sea.

They then came to a place called Marah, where they found the water to be bitter, but G-d told Moshe to throw a tree into the water and they were sweetened. There the Jews learnt some Halachot including the laws of Shabbos. Soon afterward the Jews complained about the lack of food, and G-d gave them the manna. After that they complained about the lack of water and G-d told Moshe to hit a rock and water came out (it’s later in Deuteronomy is when G-d tells him to speak to the rock). 

After that, the Jews had their first battle with their archenemy Amalek. The Amalekim knew it would be suicidal to attack the Jews after all the miracles G-d had done to protect them, but did so anyway, just to show the world that it was possible to still attack the Jews. Moshe ascended a mountain overlooking the battle. When he raised his hands, the Jewish people would look up and remember G-d, and they would be victorious, but when he would lower his hands the Jews would lose. Evidently Moshe kept them up more than down, as the Jews won! That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Judgment comes from experience, great judgment comes from bad experiences. ~ Robert Packwood

Random Fact of the Week: Penguins have an organ on their foreheads that desalinizes water.

Funny Line of the Week: Cheese… milk’s leap toward immortality.

Have a Sprightly Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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