A fuming red brown liquid at room temperature that readily evaporates to form a similarly colored gas. Sounds like a ton of fun on a Sunday afternoon, at the Weevly World of Wacky Science Wexperiments! Probably not something I want in my tea… But bromine, the fuming red brown liquid/gas in question was regularly mixed into tea when people needed to calm down in the late 1800’s. If more bromine was added to the tea, it could totally knock you, so that a surgeon could remove your gall bladder, cut out a tooth, or remover those embarrassing extra fingers, all while you were under the spell of the fuming red brown liquid!
Today, we have better sedatives and anticonvulsants than bromine, but we still use plenty of bromine. It is used as a fire retardant, and sprayed on appliances, upholstery, and mattresses to make them less likely to burst out in flame when touched by fire. It is also used to purify water, and in larger quantities to treat swimming pools and hot tubs.
A little company here in Michigan became a really big company based on their innovative approach to producing bromine, but even more importantly for their deftness in fighting off the big German cartel trying to put it out of business.
Dow Chemical Company was founded in Midland, MI in 1897 by Herbert Henry Dow. He had recently been kicked out of his previous company, Midland Chemical Company, by the board of directors who didn’t like his constant desire to try new things and in new ways. Three years later he would buy out Midland Chemical, and fold it into Dow Chemical, which to this day is the largest chemical producer in the US.
The product that drove the success of the young Dow Chemical company was bromine. Herbert Henry Dow invented a new process to extract bromine from brine – very salty water, and Midland, MI happened to be sit on top of a huge underground cavern filled with brine. Using his process he could produce bromine very efficiently, and he began selling it for 27 cents a pound, a really good deal at the time.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s most of the world’s supply of bromine was produced by a big German-government backed cartel called the Bromkonvention. (I never liked them from the first moment I read about them, so many things I don’t like: German, cartel, government backed, and Bromkonvention!). The Bromos were selling bromine for 49 cents a pound. They didn’t mind that Dow Chemical was selling bromine for less than their standard price in the US, but they were very concerned that Dow would start selling their product in Europe where Bromo has a complete monopoly.
The Bromo sent a message to Dow, saying that if Dow were to start selling bromine anywhere in Europe, they would retaliate by flooding the US market with such cheap bromine that they would put Dow Chemical out of business. Herbert Henry Dow was not the back down type, within a few months he was selling bromine in England at much lower prices than the Bromo. The Bromo was not the back down type either. They started sending boatloads of bromine to the US, where they sold it at fifteen cents a pound, losing money with each pound they sold, but also making it impossible for Dow to compete.
A fascinating thing happened. Demand for bromine in the US skyrocketed; every pound of Bromo bromine was snapped up as soon as it arrived, and orders were placed for more. Dow Chemical was still able to sell its bromine for twenty-seven cents because there wasn’t enough cheap Bromo product to satisfy the soaring US demand. The Bromo kept lowering their prices, eventually selling it for ten cents a pound, but they simply couldn’t hurt Dow Chemical, because there was always more demand than supply in the US.
Back in Europe things weren’t going well for the Bromo either. New suppliers kept showing up, selling bromine for twenty seven cents a pound, the same price Dow used to charge in the US. Even in Germany, the Bromo’s backyard, the new competitors kept snapping up market share. No one seemed to know where the competitors were getting their bromine from, and members of the cartel began to suspect each other of acting on their own.
After a few years of the Bromo losing money in the US, and losing market share in Europe to these new competitors, the cartel was broken. Many of its members went out of business, and the others were in financial disarray.
Shortly after the dissolution of the cartel, an extraordinary discovery was made. Herbert Henry Dow had been tricking the Bromo the whole time. He had appointed a few friends to buy all the cheap bromine in the US for fifteen cents, and he simply repackaged it, and sent it to Europe where he was selling it for twenty seven cents. Dow was making the Bromo lose money by ordering millions of pounds of bromine that they were selling at a loss, and he was making them lose money by shipping it to Europe and taking away their market by selling it for much cheaper than them!
The Bromo tried to unfairly shut down Dow Chemical, and in the end, Dow Chemical made a mockery of them and brought them to financial ruin. Today, Dow Chemical is worth about $60 Billion, the Bromkonvention is long dead. The bully got his comeuppance. (I’ve always wanted to use that word.)
Many people think that the way of the righteous is to turn the other cheek to injustice. Turning the other cheek is not a Jewish concept at all. It is a Christian concept, and here is the quote people take it from (Matthew 5:39-40), “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”
The Jewish belief is exactly the opposite; and this quote is most instructive (Samuel II, 22:26-27), “With a kind one, You show Yourself kind. With an upright mighty man, You show Yourself upright. With a pure one, You show Yourself pure; But with a perverse one, You deal crookedly.” If someone is trying to cheat you in business, you are allowed to use subterfuge to stop him. If someone is spouting gossip and shaming other people, you are allowed to shame him into stopping, if there is no other way to stop him. Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right, but sometimes they make a better world.
We see this with Jacob and Esau. Esau is a thief who uses deviousness to trick his father into thinking that he is righteous, and Jacob in this week’s parsha uses deviousness to get the blessings his father was intending to give to Esau. (He deserved the blessings because he had bought the firstborn rights from Esau, but he never told his father that Esau sold them because he didn’t want to embarrass Esau.)
We see this with Abraham and Isaac, who say that their wives are their sisters when they are in a place where they don’t trust the moral fiber of the people. We see it again next week with Jacob. When Lavan tries to cheat him out of the his fair wages, Jacob devises a trick to ensure that the lambs being born are going to be of the type that is his pay.
This is of course not a carte blanche permission slip to steal from a dishonest person, or talk bad about a bad person, it simply means that when someone is trying to hurt you, do not turn the other cheek. Turning the other cheek only allows evil to flourish because no one is standing up to evil.
Henry Herbert Dow was happy to play by fair and standard rules of trade, but when the Bromokonvention tried to run him out of business, he fulfilled the verse, “with a perverse one, You deal crookedly.” And although that verse is referring to G-d, we are supposed to emulate G-d as much as we can!
Our hope is that when evil people get a dose of their own medicine, and see just how much they don’t like it, then they will reconsider their pathways, and come back around to the good side.
May we have the courage to stand up to evil in our midst, and by doing so may we become true agents of change for the world around us!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Jacob and Esav, the twin brothers born to Isaac and Rebecca, who began fighting while in utero, as the Torah relates, “The children agitated inside her [Rebecca]” (Genesis 25:22). In his commentary, Rashi explains that “They were struggling with one another, and fighting over the inheritance of two worlds (this world and the World to Come).”
Clearly, Jacob and Esav had very different values and interests. Their fighting is therefore difficult to comprehend. Esav loved hunting, killing, stealing, and adultery. He enjoyed this world, without any concern for the World to Come. He sold his spiritual birthright for a bowl of lentil-stew, indicating that even a minute pleasure in this world was worth more to him than the spiritual benefits of the firstborn. Jacob on the other hand, sat in the tents and studied. He spent his entire life focused on the World to Come, totally dismissing the delights of this world.
What then were they fighting about? Why couldn’t they simply agree that Esav would get the pleasures of this world, while Jacob would get the lofty World to Come?
In truth, however, both worlds are indelibly linked, and each brother needed components of both worlds. Esav wanted to indulge in the physical pleasures of this world – yet couldn’t do so completely, because he understood the value of the World to Come. This knowledge alone creates a profound dissatisfaction with living a purely material life and a desire to seek something deeper. As John D. Rockefeller once said, “I can think of nothing less pleasurable than a life devoted to pleasure.”
The soul (our spiritual side) only finds pleasure in spiritual accomplishments. This explains why people are always looking to add meaning to their lives, even when they are quite comfortable physically. Esav’s soul was therefore not fully satiated. He wanted to dominate the next world as well, so that he could somehow have his cake and eat it too.
In the same vein, while Jacob recognized that the ultimate goal of our lives is to develop our spiritual side and to focus on the World to Come, we nevertheless need this world to truly earn our full-spirited portion. This world is necessary precisely because G-d isn’t apparent here and doing the right thing often doesn’t come easy. A soul not having to contend with the challenges of this world has no battles to fight and never can really become great. Jacob therefore wanted to dominate this world so that he could fully enjoy the spiritual pleasures of the World to Come.
The final irony is that in the end, the spiritual path of Jacob not only earned him a great World to Come, but also gave him a meaningful life in this world, proudly raising the twelve tribes, and in the end, living in Goshen surrounded by righteous children and grandchildren. He ultimately “won” by dominating both worlds.
It is interesting to note that scientific studies show a strong link between a person’s spiritual beliefs and practices, and his ability to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression. While it is validating to see this data in prestigious journals, we already knew from Jacob and Esav that a life lived by blending both worlds is a life best lived.
The Parsha begins with Yitzchak and his wife Rivka, praying fervently for a child as they didn’t have one in twenty years of marriage. G-d grants them their wish and grants them twins. One of them is great and every time Rivka passes a Yeshiva he kicks indicating that he wants to learn. However, when she passes an idolatrous temple, the other guy is kicking away! This confuses Rivka, who didn’t know she had twins, so she goes to ask two scholars, Shem and Aver. They, through Divine Knowledge explain to her that she has two babies in her womb, both of who will be the father of great nations. They further tell her that there will be an inverse relationship between them, with one gaining power when the other loses it.
Soon two babies are born. The first comes out fully formed, and with a hairy coat of reddish hair, and he is called Eisov, which means “made.” His brother comes out holding onto the heel of his twin, and he earns the name Yaakov, which alludes to the heel he was pulling out in his attempt to get out first.
The twins as kids are pretty similar as babies (you know how it is, babies, they all look and act the same! They cry, dirty their diapers, and eat!) But when they get older, it becomes painfully obvious that these fellas couldn’t be farther apart. One spends his time learning in the tents, and one goes of hunting and robbing people in a way that would only make Ted Nugent proud. On the day they turn thirteen, Avraham dies right before his grandson, Eisov has his debut as All-Mesopotamian Bad Guy, as he spends his Bar Mitzvah committing all three of the Big Three sins, Adultery, Idolatry, and Homicide.
Arriving home from a day of high crimes, Eisov is famished and finds Yaakov cooking a lentil dish for his fathers (mourners are supposed to eat round things to remember that life is a cycle, and although they are in a down right now, things will turn up again). Eisov sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of beans that was poured into his mouth and some bread, thus showing that he has zero appreciation for the finer things in life such as a fork and spirituality (the birthright is primarily a spiritual function as it designated who was supposed to serve in the Temple).
Then there is a famine in the Land of Israel and Yitzchak and his wife must go to Gerar to live amongst the Pilishtim, where food is abundant. Using a trick he learned from his father, Yitzchak tells his wife Rivka to tell everyone that she is his sister, to avoid getting killed by someone trying to steal his wife. When Avimelech, the King of Gerar finds out that they are actually married, he scolds Yitzchak, saying that one of the nation (himself) almost took Rivka as a wife, and then asks them to leave town. They pack up and move to the neighboring valley, where they successfully dig up some wells that Avraham’s servants dug when Avraham was there. There are a number of fights between the local servants and Yitzchak’s servants over the wells, until finally they come to an agreement regarding one of the wells on which they made a treaty, and it was named Be’er Sheva.
Yitzchak has enormous agricultural success producing 100 times the amount his fields were assessed to produce, and eventually realizing that Yitzchak obviously has G-d on his side, comes and makes a treaty with Yitzchak.
There has been a longstanding difference between Yitzchak and his wife, Rivka. Yitzchak displays more affection toward Eisov, hoping that the extra love showered on him will turn him around, while Rivka knows that Eisov is a no-goodnik, whose not coming back so fast and she loves Yaakov more. As Yitzchak is getting older, he decides that he must bless his children before he dies. Yitzchak decides that he should give the bulk of the blessings to Eisov hoping that success will breed success. But Rivka seeing her son with the deeper understanding that women possess, understands that Eisov will take the powers and use them for the other sides and she sets up a plan to circumvent the situation in a way that Yaakov will get the blessings. (It is interesting to note that both Avraham and his son Yitzchak had a son who was wicked, and each times their wives were the ones who realized how harmful they were, and took the necessary steps to ensure that the good children got whatever they needed.)
Yitzchak calls Eisov and tells him to bring him a good meal so that he can bless him out of appreciation. Rivka sees the opportunity and tells Yaakov to bring her two young kids (the goat kind) and she makes them into a dish she knows her husband loves. She then puts some of the goat skins on Yaakov’s smooth hands and neck so that they should feel like Eisov’s hairy ones. Yaakov brings the food into his father who asks him who he is. Yaakov, understanding the importance of his getting these blessing, needs to twist the truth a bit, and claims to be Eisov. His father unsure beckons him close to feel him, and feeling the skins thinks it is Eisov, and announces “The hands are the hands of Eisov, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov!” (This hints to the powers of the respective nations. Edom the progeny of Eisov, has their power in their hands, their physical strength, while the Jewish people, the offspring of Yaakov, has their power in their mouths, through prayer and Torah study!) Yitzchak then continues to give Yaakov all the blessings.
Soon after Eisov comes to his father with the meal he prepared for him, but when he arrives it becomes immediately clear that he has been tricked and that the blessing have already been given away. Eisov cries to his father, “have you left me at least one blessing?” Yitzchak tells him that he really gave all the good blessings to Yaakov, but he gives one blessing to Eisov, that his land should be fertile, that he shall live by his sword, and that although he will serve his brother, when his brother does the wrong things, Eisov will throw off his yoke, and dominate his brother.
Eisov furious that his brother stole his blessings begins to plan for the day his father will die so that he can kill his brother. Rivka realizing the danger facing her favored son, sends him off to the land she came from to get away from his murderous brother, and to get married with someone from her family. The parsha ends by telling us how Eisov seeing how much his parents dislike the local Canaanite women, marries himself a non-Canaanite woman, the daughter of Yishmael. Of course he keeps the Canaanite women, marrying a different wife was just a PR ploy to get parental approval.
Quote of the Week: Any coward can fight a battle when he is sure of winning! ~ George Elliot
Random Fact of the Week: Pteronophobia is the fear of being tickled with feathers.
Funny Line of the Week: I’ll be back in five minutes, but if not, just read this message again.
Have a Splendid Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham