In early 1973, a US researcher named John Calhoun found himself in the middle of a small city that had mysteriously died out. There was not a single resident remaining, despite it having a population of 2200 just two years earlier. The strange thing was that not one of them moved out, they all died in place, over the course of two years. There was some evidence of fighting, even of cannibalism, but it was unclear why. The city was well stocked with food and water, had plenty of room and adequate housing, and was not affected by natural disaster or invaders. It seemed like an environment that should be teeming with life, but instead was eerily devoid of it. Even if there were some remaining survivors, he wouldn’t have been able to interview them, because the city wasn’t inhabited by humans, it was a city of mice.

Universe 25, as the city was known, was not the first city of its kind, nor the last. It was one of the most prominent in a string of studies conducted by Calhoun over decades, trying to understand the effects of overpopulation. In the middle of the 1900’s scientists became concerned over the rapidly growing population of planet earth, and many scientists were concerned that the world would no longer be able to feed its inhabitants. 

This fear was nothing new, scientists had been concerned about it since the late 1700s. One school of thought, the Malthusians, named after British scientist Thomas Malthus, had been predicting mass starvations for hundreds of years. While Malthus lived in a time where the world population was estimated to be one billion people, the concerns were heightened in the 1960s with the world population reaching over 3.5 billion people, having doubled in just 65 years. With the advent of modern medicine, infant mortality was plummeting and people were living longer. It seemed to scientist that the world was reaching a breaking point, there was only so many people the earth could support! 

Interestingly, we are still seeing that today, with Dr Edward Wilson, a Harvard trained sociobiologist recently claiming that we will run out of food by 2050. For hundreds of years humanity has been facing extinction threats heralded by scientists, from food scarcity, to global cooling which was a popular concern in the scientific community in the 70s, to global warming and climate change which today grips us with many scientific predictions saying we’re already past the point of no return. But John Calhoun was interested in the opposite question, what if we had global plenty? What if we had more food than we needed, more water and shelter than necessary, what if our every need was met with ease? 

For decades, Calhoun constructed experiment after experiment with mice populations, finding the ideal food, temperature, and nesting material, before arriving at his most famous one, Universe 25. In case you were wondering, the ideal temperature for mouse thriving is 68 degrees, which is what Universe 25 was kept at. There were 16 hoppers that brought limitless food through tunnels to the middle of the floor, each one capable of feeding 25 mice at a time. There were bottles bringing clean water all around the periphery, enough boxes and bedding to comfortably house 3000 mice. The eight starter mice were chosen for their optimum health from the National Institute of Health’s breeding colony and each one was isolated weeks in advance to make sure they weren’t bringing any disease into the colony. 

At first, things were going swimmingly well. The mice didn’t need to waste time on foraging, building shelter, or evading predators, and instead focused all of their time on building families. On average every 55 days, the colony size would double. But suddenly, at Day 315, when the colony size hit 620, the first sign of problems arose. For starters the rate of expansion slowed dramatically, from doubling every 55 days to every 145 days, eventually it would peak at 2200 mice, far below capacity for Universe 25. Strangely, although the whole Universe was built with identical boxes and access to food and water, some areas would be crowded with over 100 mice, and some areas would be almost vacant with just 13-20 mice.

 On top of that, there were many mice, both males and females who found themselves without a significant role. They were not the strong leaders, or the coveted females that were leading the rapidly growing families, and they found themselves with nowhere to be, and nothing to do. These males started congregating in large packs, and the females did the same in separate packs. These withdrawn packs, didn’t do much, they slept a lot, they didn’t try to engage with members of the other gender, or with the more established “families.” 

And then the violence showed up. The packs began turning on their own members, repeatedly attacking particular mice. The mice would often just lie there while being attacked, but soon the attacked would become attackers. This was not limited to the male packs, the female packs also exhibited extreme levels of violence and bullying as well. Soon almost every mouse had wounds, scar tissue, and chewed up tails. There was no clear reason or explanation for the violence, no benefit to the aggressors to explain it. 

Some mice withdrew from society altogether. They would seek out and find a quiet corner, and just like there all day by themselves, preening themselves, licking their coats, and never engaging in fighting. This left them with beautiful fur coats and they began to known as the “beautiful ones.” 

Male mice started invading nests where mothers were caring for their babies, something not seen in the wild; some mothers would fight back with extreme aggressiveness, some would not fight back at all. The aggressive females would often eventually turn their aggression onto their own children and attack or even eat their children. The meek ones would just abandon their children, leaving tiny baby mice to starve to death, and seeking a quieter place to be by themselves. 

The lower areas were soon filled with violent gangs, attacking others as well as their own, while the upper areas were mostly filled with withdrawn mice, the “beautiful ones.” By Day 560, Universe 25 hit its maximum population of 2200 mice, and from there the drop off was sharp. Mice simply weren’t engaging in family life, and even when they did give birth, litter size was one or two instead of the usual five or six, and many of the newborn mice couldn’t survive. If they did survive, they couldn’t engage in normal family, they didn’t focus on courtship, and child rearing, they just joined the chaos.

Day 920 was the last time that a baby was conceived in Universe 25, and by then the average age of a survivor was 776 days old, only the old, tough, and grizzly were surviving. Even when the population imploded and there were only 120 mice left, the same level in which the first 120 were building families like crazy, there was no interest in continuity, and the members just withdrew further until eventually every scarred and chewed up mouse was dead, and Universe 25 was a ghost town.  It was designed as a utopia for mice thriving but turned into a horror scene in short order. 

John Calhoun published papers throughout the process and gained much fame and notoriety for his shocking findings which captivated the scientific community and led to a host of theories of why it happened and what we could learn from it for our lives. Some talked about the dangers of overpopulating cities, Calhoun used the phrase behavioral sink to describe the negative and immoral behaviors that would attach themselves to an overcrowded environment. But some of Calhoun’s later experiments could shed light on the story of Universe 25. 

In later experiments, Calhoun devised worlds where the animals (he later switched to rats) were encouraged to, or given the opportunity to be more creative and to have a job so to speak. Those animals lived far longer than otherwise would have been expected from all of his other studies. It would seem that even for mice, having a purpose, leads to more pleasure and a greater desire to continue living and producing for the future. 

Fascinatingly, this is similar to a description of humanity given to us by the Torah. When Hashem first put mankind on earth, it was a semi-utopian world. The weather was always great, people had total food security, and they lived really long lives. But humanity turned to depravity, thievery, violence and immorality. G-d had to switch out the whole world with the Mabul, the Great Flood, and He made some key differences to post flood humanity; He shortened our lives, He introduced the seasons, so that there would be some struggle just to survive. We would have to build shelters from the cold and the rain, we’d have many different seasons for the various vegetation we grow, so we’d essentially be working all the time. Humanity without purpose and without struggle is not a healthy humanity. 

Even as far back as Adam’s Original Sin in the Garden of Eden, Hashem’s response was to load up work on Adam, “thorns and thistles shall grow for you, and by the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” Humanity needs struggle to survive. Originally, Hashem’s plan was that we should be struggling with spiritual matters, that is why at first all of Adam’s needs were met and the only challenge in his life was to keep the spiritual commandment of Hashem, but once he failed, Hashem gave him other struggles to contend with to keep him sharp and focused. 

There was a Twilight Zone episode in which an evil man dies and goes to Heaven. After going through his trial on high, they sentence him to Gehinnom. He gets dropped off in a mansion where everything is perfect. The weather, the food, the drink, is all exactly as he would have ordered it. Everyone is absolutely agreeable to him and acquiesce to his every wish. He laughs, “This is Gehinnom?” The angels tell him just wait and see. Day 1 is great, he’s feasting and carousing. Day 2 is the same and Days 3-7 too. By Day 8 it’s getting a bit boring. By Day 30 he’s going crazy, screaming at the walls, losing his mind. Having zero struggles, nothing to overcome is painful.

We’re all going to struggle with something, but like early mankind, Hashem will prefer that we struggle with our own G-dliness fighting mightily with our inclinations to be a better person. If we don’t He’ll find other things for us to struggle with; family, health, finances, the list goes on. 

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, let’s commit to this year being a year of spiritual struggles and spiritual battles, our own battles, the ones we choose to make ourselves bigger and better people. Hopefully then, we won’t need any other struggles and we will be given a year that is otherwise truly a utopia, Universe 613!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this weeks parsha, Ki Saitzei, the Torah tells us the following commandment: “Do not observe your brother’s donkey or ox collapsing on the road and ignore them. You must surely lift it up with him.” (Deut. 22:4) The modern day equivalent of this commandment would be the Torah commanding us to help someone whose car breaks down. (As a matter of fact, on the East Coast, many cities with a large Jewish population have an organization called Chaverim, Friends. These organizations have a 24 hour hotline that is made specifically for anyone whose car breaks down or has any other car related trouble. They dispatch someone who helps the person for no charge.) 

Now, as we have mentioned in previous emails, there are many mitzvos that are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that are repeated in Deuteronomy. (Hence the prefix Deut which means second, as many mitzvos are repeated here). This mitzvah is one of them. The first time we see this commandment in the Torah is in Exodus, 23:5, “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort to help him.” Five points for you if you notice the difference between the two verses. OK, I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is as follows: in the earlier verse in Exodus the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your enemy, whereas in our verse in Deuteronomy, the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your brother. Why does the Torah transition from enemy to brother?

Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda (early 11th century rabbi and philosopher from Spain) gives us the following explanation. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava. The root of that word is the word hav, which means to give. This teaches us that, contrary to popular notions, we don’t love the person who gives, and sacrifices so much for us. Rather, we love the person we give so much to, and sacrifice so much for. (This explains why parents generally love their children more than the children reciprocate. The parents give so much more to the children than the children give to the parents.)

That being said, if someone feels that there is some love lost between them and their spouse, a child, or a friend, one way to help rekindle the feeling is to find something he can do for that person (if he can do it without the other person knowing that is sometimes even better!) Now that we got the Therapy Tip of the Week out of the way, we can get back to our question about why the Torah transitions from calling the donkey owner your enemy to calling him your brother. Based on this concept, if the first time one sees his enemy’s donkey fallen on the side of the road he goes and helps him despite his inner dislike, then he will build love for that person, and that person will no longer be his enemy, but change to being his brother! The Torah here is hinting to us the powerful recipe for turning enemies into friends. Do something for that person, water, place in sunlight, and watch the friendship blossom!!!

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha is made up almost entirely of laws, dozens of them. As a matter of fact, this Parsha contains more mitzvos than any other Parsha in the Torah – 74 to be exact.  I won’t be able to go into detail for all of them, and I may skip some, but I challenge you to find out which ones I skipped and email me back with the list.

The first law is quite a intriguing one. It deals with a soldier falling for the beauty of women captured in battle, and desiring her as a wife. The Torah knew that if it flat-out forbade the relationship, soldiers overcome by the fatigue and the challenges of war would disregard the law. Instead, the Torah allows one to take the captive lady as a wife, but only after a number of conditions are met. These conditions are designed to help disenchant the soldier. The captive woman must sit by the door of his house dressed in clothes of a mourner, with no makeup, and mourn the family that she lost in the war. (This is a great insight into marital relationships: no one wants a spouse who sits moping and mourning all the time!) If, as the Torah hopes, he decides that he doesn’t want her as a wife after all, he must set her free; he can’t make her a captive servant after putting her through that ordeal. 

The next law discusses someone who has two wives – one he favors and one he hates. The Torah estate law dictates that a man’s firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance. If this person’s firstborn is from the less favored wife, he cannot elect to give the double portion to his oldest son from the beloved wife, but has to leave it to the rightful heir, the firstborn. The reason this law is found immediately after the previous law is to teach us that those who marry people based on their looks, as did the soldier in the previous law, are bound to end up hating each other and trying to find ways to spite each other.

The next portion discusses the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the rebellious son, the kind of person who makes us tell our children, “Just give him the lunch money; I can’t afford to buy new glasses every day!” This follows the previous law to teach us that if one hates their wife and there is no shalom in the house, they are setting the stage for rebellious children. While I was living in NYC I spent many years working with delinquent children, and I saw this to be so true. Ninety percent of the children we worked with came from homes lacking shalom.

The Torah warns us about the law of Hashavas Aveida, returning a lost item. Not only does the Torah command us to not ignore any lost items we see, it even tells us that we have a responsibility to actively seek out the rightful owner, so that we can return the object to them. We are then told that if we wish to take eggs or young birds from a nest, we must first shoo away the mother. This mitzvah is rewarded with long life, a fact which prompts Rashi to point out that if we get long life for such a simple mitzvah, imagine the reward for a difficult mitzvah, one that demands strong self-control! The Torah next prohibits cross dressing, commands us to put up a fence on our roofs to prevent any accidents, and reiterates the mitzvah of tzitzit.

One of the laws in this week’s Parsha shows a great deal about the sensitivity of the Torah. Before the banking industry was what it is today, personal loans were the most common form of loan. In order to guarantee that a lender would get his money back, he would often take an object belonging to the debtor as collateral. The Torah teaches that we may not take an object that will impede the debtor’s ability to earn a livelihood, such as a millstone (the part of a mill used to grind grain, which would earn the debtor money). The creditor is not allowed to come into the debtor’s house to demand the collateral. Rather, he must wait outside while the debtor brings the collateral out to him. This way, the debtor is able to retain a certain level of dignity – he is the sole ruler of his house, and his debts and inadequacies need not follow him into his home and sanctuary. 

In this week’s Parsha there is also the prohibition against usury or taking interest for a loan. The Torah both commands us to lend money to help the destitute get back on their feet, and forbids us from taking interest. This is to help us become more giving. The Torah understands that the only way we will become better people is by doing acts of kindness, not by simply having all the right feelings in our heart. It is no wonder that the Jewish people are the most philanthropic race on this planet, with a higher percentage of their wealth being given to charity than any other race (According to one study the Mormons give more. The problem is that the Mormons are a very small group, and the researchers only count the religious ones as real Mormons, and the non-religious ones, who would likely give less, are not included in their calculations). In the Jerusalem phonebook, there are 96 pages listing free loan societies which lend or give away everything from medicine to power tools to chairs and tables for events to free medical referrals to mother’s milk! As we say, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael- who is like your nation O Israel”

Quote of the Week: Aim at nothing and you will succeed. ~ A. Gombiner

Random Fact of the Week: Koalas do not drink, they ingest all the moisture they need through the leaves they eat.

Funny Line of the Week: I bought a vacuum cleaner six months ago, and so far all it has done is collect dust!

Have a Stupendous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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