For ten years, one million men did nothing but eat, drink, sleep, and lay bricks. Brick after backbreaking brick, mile after backbreaking mile, the million-man workforce built a wall like the world had never seen before. Up mountains, along rivers, and plunging to valleys below, the wall undulated like a serpent, ever growing its tentacles, and ever extending its reach. Ten years after construction began, the wall was longer than the distance from New York City to Los Angeles
The crew that built the wall was incredibly diverse. Criminals, unemployed intellectuals, peasants, and disgraced noblemen all toiled side by side. The wall was the great equalizer. The lucky ones lived, close to 400,000 of them did not. And those who died were simply buried in the wall, making the wall not only the longest wall in the world, but also the largest cemetery in the world. The wall continued to grow in fits and spurts for over 2,000 years, and today it stands as one of the greatest engineering feats mankind has ever put forth, the Great Wall of China.
Begun in roughly 220 BCE, the wall was an attempt by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, to stop nomadic marauders from the north from invading China. Massive towers were built every 500 to 1,000 feet, and those towers were used to house soldiers, protect and oversee trade routes, and relay military messages via smoke signals and fire beacons from the roof. While Qin oversaw the construction of the first 3,100 miles, the wall was far from finished.
The Han Dynasty (206BCE-220CE), the Northern Dynasties (386-581) and the Sui Dynasty (581-618), all repaired and extended the wall. The Tang and Song Dynasties ignored it. But it was the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) that really brought the Great Wall to its full prominence. The Ming struggled mightily with the wild Mongols to the north, often unsuccessfully. They devoted an entirely new level of industriousness to the Great Wall, which they believed was their best chance at defense from the Mongols.
The Mings built a larger wall, over 25,000 watchtowers, and often even used two parallel walls, an inner wall and outer wall, to provide better security. They also upgraded the materials used to build the wall, using skilled labor to work with brick, limestone, and granite, with single slabs of granite weighing as much as twenty tons! While most people think of the Great Wall as one continuous long wall, in reality the Great Wall is comprised of many different layers of walls, some intersecting, some never touching each other at all.
Under the Ming Dynasty, the Great Wall reached its mature length, which is somewhere north of 11,000 miles, but no one is quite sure how long it really is. Some parts of the wall have deteriorated, others have been reclaimed by wild trees and grasses, making it harder to measure the full length of the wall. As recently as 2009, archaeologists using the latest technologies discovered 180 miles of Great Wall, previously unknown. In 2015, six more miles were discovered in a remote province of China. How many sections have still not been discovered? That is anyone’s guess…
Ironically, despite the considerable cost of building the wall, it never successfully performed its primary function; to keep out invaders from the north. The Mongols under Genghis Kahn spilled over the wall, attacked China and ruled the country for close to a century (1271-1368). Later, after the Ming Dynasty fortified the wall, the Manchus ran through it, over it, and below it, and defeated China, ruling it for close to 300 years (1644-1912)!”
While the Great Wall never met its primary goal of defending China from northern invaders, it did morph into the greatest symbol of pride for the Chinese people. This impossible task, the creation of a wall that could fit almost halfway around the world if it were laid out end to end, is an achievement that fills the Chines with pride, and every year prior to the pandemich millions of tourists and visiting dignitaries from around the world were shuttled to the beautiful parts of the wall in Jinshanling, just north of Beijing.
The most famous myth about the Great Wall is that it is visible from the moon, which is entirely untrue. The first mention of this myth was in 1754, when the English expert on antiquities William Stukeley wrote that the Great Wall was visible from the moon. It is unclear how he got this information, as all records indicate the William Stukeley never spent any significant amounts of time on the moon, but the legend stuck and it was repeated by various experts millions of times since. In reality, the Great Wall is only thirty feet wide at its widest, and the moon is an average of 238, 851 miles away from Earth. Seeing the Great Wall from the moon would be the equivalent of seeing a single strand of human hair from a distance of two miles away!
But while the Great Wall can’t be seen from the moon, it can be seen on almost any travel brochure for China, and is talked about in any global history book worth reading. It is the pride of the most populated country in the world, the symbol of hard work and ingenuity spanning two millennia.
My interest in the Great Wall stems from the number of bricks required to build the it. As the largest man-made structure in the world, there is no building in the world that used more bricks. How many bricks were used? That is a complicated question, being that we don’t even know how long the wall is. Additionally, many of the earliest parts of the wall weren’t constructed by brick, but rather by ramming mud in between wooden frames and letting it harden. But according to a few estimations, there are roughly 3.8 billion bricks in the Great Wall. If you think I’m off, please go check for yourself.
Why do I care about how many bricks were used in creating the Great Wall of China? That has to do with something that happened to me at lunch a little while back. My wife and I were able to get away for a quick lunch at Prime Ten, a welcome rarity in our busy schedules. Seated a few tables behind us was a group of four women, a few of them regulars at a lunch and learn series I give. As they were on the way out, two of them stopped to say hello to my wife. One of them, Mrs. Raizel Snow (she deserves to be mentioned, it’s a mitzvah to publicize those who do good deeds!), chatted with my wife for less than thirty seconds, but in that time did something amazing. In the span of her thirty second conversation with my wife, Mrs Snow gave her two compliments! One toward the beginning, when she remarked how my wife was looking great after having just had a baby, and once just before she left, when she commented how nice her wig looked.
To me, this was absolutely amazing! How thoughtful of this woman! It didn’t cost her a penny, yet I know it made my wife feel great; everyone loves to hear compliments. It even made me feel great to hear my wife getting those compliments! While at that lunch we undoubtedly met a number of people, but there is only one thing that I remember from that event a few years ago, because someone went out of her way to say nice things to us.
When people say nice things to us, they are using a tool called words of affirmation. They affirm who we are, they affirm the worth people see in us. We live in a world, where there is so much effort put into making us feel small. The advertising industry’s sole focus is to make us feel like we are not enough the way we are, so that we can buy their products to make us whole. We need to eat this yogurt to be young and radiant, and buy that phone to replace the dinosaur we have if we want to be productive and successful. We need these shoes to be carefree and happy, and that car to be suave and sophisticated. You need this, you need that, you are simply not cutting it the way you are. When other people give you words of affirmation, it has the opposite effect. It tells you that you are inherently good just the way you are (which you are!). It costs nothing but does so much. It is Lashon Tov, good speech, the opposite of Lashon Hara, negative speech.
The Great Wall of China is made up of billions of little bricks, but together they create the largest man made structure in the world, the pride of billions of people. We as humans should engage in building up other people, one compliment at a time, one brick at a time. It costs us nothing, but it means so much to the people we engage with! When we see a friend, we can tell them how sweet their children are, how nice they look, how impressed we are with the way they raise their children, how nice their lawn looks, how thoughtful the comment they made the other day was. With each compliment we give, we are building a wall for someone to keep out the inherently negative messages the world is bombarding them with.
This is not a calling for you to begin lying to other people, giving them compliments that are undeserved. It is a call for all of us to begin verbalizing to other people the good we see in them. It is a call to help others around us build a wall of self-confidence that can repel the negative messages they may be hearing from the environment around them. It is a call for us all to see ourselves as bricklayers, and to use every interaction we have with another person to lay a few bricks in their wall of self-esteem and self-worth.
But there is another important point here; when Mrs. Raizel Snow gave my wife compliments, it not only made my wife feel so affirmed and validated, it made me feel so appreciative to her for saying such nice things to my wife. In the same manner, when we give someone a compliment, it not only makes them feel great, but it must make G-d feel so appreciative to us for building up one of his children! G-d sees each of us as His child, and who would not love someone who builds up their child? So when we give someone a compliment, we not only build them up, we build up goodwill from G-d toward us. It’s a double freebie.
We are now in the period known as the Three Weeks, when we mourn the destruction of our Temple, and the Jewish people’s two-thousand-year exile, an exile pockmarked with death and hatred, pogroms and pain. The Sages tell us that this exile was started because of baseless hatred, and ipso facto the way we will get out of it will be baseless love. Giving other people positive affirmations is an easy way to build a world of baseless love. It doesn’t cost us anything, and it makes a world of difference. No one compliment will change a world, but layers of them, millions of them, can together create the greatest man made structure in the world!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha begins with the reward given to Pinchas. Pinchas glorified G-d by killing one of the leaders of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly committing adultery and idolatry with a princess from Midian. The Midianite people had sent their daughters to seduce the Jews. At the moment of their highest vulnerability, the women would entice the Jewish men to serve the Midianite Gods. Pinchas, with his quick and violent action, brought the people back to their senses.
The parsha begins: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them…Therefore, say, “I hereby give him My covenant of peace.” (Numbers, 25:12)
For a man who committed a zealous and violent act, peace seems an incongruous reward. The Talilei Oros quotes the Steipler Gaon (1899-1985, Ukraine-Israel) who explains the following idea. Normally peace is a diametrically opposed to zealousness, and one who acts zealously is liable to lose any sense of peace. However, Pinchas’ zealousness did not come from anger, but from a deep love for G-d and a desire to stop the devastating spiritual downslide the tribal leader was causing with his brazen public idolatry and adultery.
G-d therefore assured him that he would not lose his sense of peacefulness through this act, but would instead be rewarded with more peace.
Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.. a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted… A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing… a time to keep and a time to cast away… a time to be silent and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
In today’s world there is often a push to paint everything with broad, over-arching strokes that are actually quite dangerous. We want peace everywhere, all the time, and would rather look the other way at the people who don’t want peace and are attacking us. We want to be happy all the time, and find ways to make even a funeral a happy event, murmuring platitudes like “Charlie would have wanted this to be a real party.” We want to shower our children with kindness all the time. We want our whole world to be painted in vibrant, cheerful colors all the time.
Judaism believes that there is time and a place for everything. The only way we can feel true joy is if we can also experience sadness. The only way we can be truly kind to our children is if we sometimes discipline them. The only way we can have peace in the world is if people occasionally act violently to stop that which threatens the peace.
Even though Pinchas acted violently, it was done for the right reasons. Therefore G-d assured him that this will not make him into a violent person, but rather a person who has a greater appreciation for what true peace really is.
This week begins with the reward given to Pinchas who glorified G-d by eradicating one of the leaders of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly committing adultery with a princess from Midian. The Midianite people had sent their daughters to seduce the Jews. At the moment of their highest vulnerability, the women would entice the Jewish men to serve the Midianite Gods. Pinchas, with his quick action, brought the people back to their senses. The reward Pinchas received was the ability to join the ranks of the Kohanim, the people whose entire raison d’etre is to bring people closer to G-d by cleansing them of the negative effects of their sins. After this incident, the Jews went to war with the Midianites, in retribution for the spiritual war the Midianites waged against the Jews.
If you remember in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), there was a major census taken of all the Jews. That was at the beginning of the Jew’s forty years in the desert. Now, at the end of their 40 year journey, G-d commands Moshe to take another census. Why was another census necessary? A number of reasons are given. First, just like a shepherd counts his sheep after a wolf attacks, so too G-d, after forty years and a number of punitive plagues, counts the Jews to see how many remained. In addition, just as Moshe counted the people at the beginning of his leadership, now that his watch was about to end, he counts them again before returning his flock to their master.
Another purpose of the census was to count the people by family, as this would determine their portions when they entered Israel. At this point, the daughters of Tzelafchad came before Moshe to make a request. They were from a family with only women, five of them to be exact. Their father had died, and they were concerned that with no men to represent them, their family would get no portion in Israel. Moshe, after a quick consultation with G-d, told them not to worry, as they would get a portion of the Land of Israel in lieu of their father. (Here is an interesting note: 2000 years ago, Jews were the most liberal nation in the world in regards to women’s rights. They gave women land, offered them many forms of protection in the case of divorce or death of a spouse, and gave them equal protection under law. Today, people look at Orthodoxy and claim that it represses women. It is important to try to understand the Orthodox position before judging them, in light of their record of being the foremost champion of women’s rights for thousands of years.) Once dealing with laws of inheritance, the Torah here summarizes the Jewish laws of bequest and inheritance.
The Torah, now close to wrapping up the narrative of the Jew’s desert experience, tells of G-d informing Moshe that he will die imminently and he therefore has to pass the mantle of leadership onto his principal pupil, Joshua. The Parsha then concludes with a list of the sacrifices brought on all the various festivals. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: A well spent day brings happy sleep. ~ Leonardo Da Vinci
Random Fact of the Week: There are 132 Hawaiian Islands.
Funny Line of the Week: I’m reading a book about anti-gravity. I can’t put it down.
Have a Splendalicious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham