What would you say if I told you that the US agricultural system is dependent on millions of unpaid slave laborers that almost no one knows about? What if I told you that they are crammed into the back of eighteen-wheeler trucks and moved from field to field under the cover of dark? Or that there are brokers and owners who buy and sell them, lease and rent them, insure and collateralize them, like they were chattel? What if I told you that the reason you can get a pound of delicious necatarines for the absurdly low price of $1.29 is because the workers who make it happen aren’t paid a penny!

These workers have no voice, and are unable to cry out for help. They can’t hold up signs or protest in city squares. They can’t shut down highways to bring attention to their plight. No one teaches about them in Oppression Studies classes at universities and colleges; they suffer in silence. Well, not complete silence, they do buzz angrily about from time to time, because I wasn’t talking about human workers, I was talking about bumble bees. 

One out of every three bites of food that you take started its life with the help of a worker bee! Bees pollinate the trees of most fruits and many vegetables, here is just a small sampling of the fruits and vegetables pollinated by bees: apples, almonds, broccoli, cucumbers, cherries, blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, strawberries, tomatoes, grapes, eggplant, peaches, nectarines, lime beans, string beans, kidney beans, mangoes, avocados, lemon, limes, oranges, tangerines, grapefruits, coffee, coconuts, cantaloupes, watermelons, chili peppers, bell peppers, beets, cabbages, celery, onions, and potatoes. There are also fruits you never heard of being worked on by bees you’ve never met; carambolas, Rowan berries, sword beans, crown vetch and feijoas are a few I’d like to try (or throw in my cholent?). 

But the humble bee is not done, he also pollinates cotton, giving you half your clothing, and alfalfa  which is used to feed the cows that make your milk and meat. Amazingly, while making all those crops grow, they also take the time to produce honey, which we enjoy in our foods, never goes bad, and has lots of medicinal properties. Every year, their pollination helps $15 Billion worth of crops grow. 

There are entire companies dedicated to cultivating beehives and then trucking them all across the US, where they are rented out to orchards and farmers to pollinate their crops. The bees are shipped on eighteen wheelers, with each truck carrying about fifteen million bees. Interestingly, this is not a new practice, in the 1800s, bees were transported to orchards on horse drawn carriages, only the scale has changed. Last year, 30 billion bees were put to work just on almond trees in California. There is even a thriving black market of people who steal hives from orchards and sell them to farmers willing to look the other way… because where there’s honey and money, there’s gonna be some ruffians!

So what exactly does pollinating mean? Pollination by insects, which is called entomophily, is one the greatest miracles of creation. Flowering plants (like all the ones listed above, you probably don’t need me to list them again!) produce something called pollen which is like the seed of the plant. The seeds are so tiny that they look and feel like flour, and they are stuck to the stamen which protrudes from the plant. That pollen needs to make it to the pistil, where it will be able to turn into a baby plant. How does the pollen make its way from one plant to the neighboring plant? Insects, most commonly bees. 

The flowers make themselves attractive to bees or other insects by making themselves smell good, look good (bright colors), and taste good. The way they taste good is by providing free sweet juice called nectar to any visiting insects. The bee, natures most prolific pollinator comes to the plant to drink of its nectar, and collect its pollen. It drinks of the nectar through a tongue that is shaped like a straw and is called a probiscus. The nectar will be turned into honey, by bees passing it from one bee’s stomach to the other, losing a bit of water each time, and eventually thickening into honey. The pollen is a source of protein that it will feed to developing baby bees. Hashem gave the bee special baskets on its legs, as well as branched hairs that work like a comb,  that both collect and carry lots of pollen. When the bee moves on to the next flower to gather its nectar, it drops off a bit of the pollen into the pistil of the plant, and unknowingly gives that plant the ability to make a baby plant! 

So the bee gets what it wants from the plant, sweet nectar to make honey and pollen to feed its young, and the plant gets what it wants, an insect that helps move the pollen from the stamen to the pistil so that it can reproduce. Everyone wins! 

This week, I davened Shachris, the morning service at an outdoor minyan. There was a vine on the fence in front of me, and a group of bees were hard at work doing what they do throughout the service. After davening I moved in and watched for a few minutes in silenced awe. The worker bees are hard work; they don’t stop for lunch breaks, none of them had headphones on, they didn’t stop to play candy crush, they just went at it, spending 20-30 seconds at one flower, then heading over to the next, and the next. (Bees generally work on about 100 flowers per trip, and make up to 15 trips a day. They will fly as far as six miles for food, flying about 20MPH and flapping their wings over 200 times a second!) I didn’t see the plant do anything, but I know that beneath the surface, the plant is using significant amounts of energy to produce the nectar, its free lemonade stand for the bees. What a beautiful process of symbiosis, all winners no losers!

In game theory and economic theory, there are a few different models that govern transactions or interactions. The three most common are zero sum game, non-zero sum game, and win-win situation. A zero sum game is where whatever one gets, the other loses. Classic examples would be the game of chess, or two children splitting a piece of cake; the more one takes, the more the other doesn’t get.  

Non-zero sum games are where both can benefit, and while neither gets everything they wanted, both people get something more than they could otherwise have. For example, a couple wants to go out for the evening. The husband wants to go to a steakhouse, and the wife wants to go to a dairy restaurant. But both of them don’t want to go out to eat alone, so the husband prefers to go to the dairy restaurant with his wife over going to the steakhouse alone, and the wife prefers to go to the steakhouse with the husband over going to the dairy restaurant alone. So while no one gets their ultimate choice, they both end up getting together something better than they would get alone. 

Then you have a win-win situation like the bee and flowers, where all parties win. In human terms, this is the equivalent of me buying a dozen assorted doughnuts from the local bakery for $10. For me to make twelve different kinds of doughnuts in my kitchen, it would take me seven hours, probably singe all the hair off my eyebrows, and possibly burn down my house. I’m thrilled to be able to buy them for ten dollars, what a win! On the other hand, the baker who has all sorts of machinery and skilled staff, as well as a large client base coming and buying all sorts of products, is happy to sell me a dozen doughnuts for $10 because his cost basis is probably somewhere around $7.50 and if he can sell enough doughnuts, cakes, challah and rugelach, he can support his family! With the right lenses, you can see the world as being full of bees and flowers, win-win situations!

Another Tisha B’av is upon us, and we are still shockingly in exile. After close to 2,000 years, we still seem not capable of fixing the problems that got us into this mess. The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed and this exile started because of baseless hatred. What is baseless hatred? It’s not like people are running around looking at people they don’t know and hating them for no reason? (That is done to entire ethnic or cultural groups, where people hate you because your Jewish or because you’re Roma, but now we’re talking about interpersonal relationships.) Perhaps the reason the Sages call it baseless hatred is because it’s based on a mistaken notion, the notion that human relationships are zero sum games. 

How often do we look at other people as our competition, assuming that if he is successful, I am not. If we both sell shoes and he makes more money, I will be losing money. If she is more popular in our social group, I am less popular. If she got the promotion at work, I can’t get promoted! The more we see each other as competition, the more divided and angry we get at one another, the more we demonize other people, the more baseless hatred we direct toward them. 

But isn’t it true that most of life is a zero-sum game? If we both sell shoes to the same community, and my competitor’s store puts on a big sale, won’t I make less money? Only one girl can be the most popular girl in the clique, and if someone else takes that crown, it’s no longer on my head? There’s only one promotion available at work, we can’t both get it? If the rabbi made a rule that there’s no more kiddush clubs, he clearly has it in for me, because I’m the president of the kiddush club! 

In 1891 David Frederick Schloss introduced a concept today called the Fixed Pie Fallacy. While it was mostly an economic calculation, we’ll look at it from the lens of human relations. Humans are the most incredible things in all of creations, we were imbued with a spark of G-dliness, a spark of the Infinite. And as such, we have infinite abilities, we are not limited. Shoe store #1 can make more money and shoe store #2 can also make more money as the community becomes more successful and prosperous. More than one person in a clique or social group can feel fully supported and admired, respected and loved for who they are, and what they bring to the table. A company can become successful and promote more than one person, or even open a new branch or line of business, and give promotions and opportunity to a number of employees who hadn’t even considered it! 

The whole notion of zero sum game in human relationships is what drives so much enmity and hate, and it’s all one big Fixed Pie Fallacy! We need to look at human beings as the G-dly limitless beings they are, we need to look at ourselves as the G-dly limitless beings we are, and we will find ourselves softening our hardened hearts, find more room for others in our lives, and being more tolerant of people different from us. We will be able to accept people more readily with their faults and foibles when I don’t need to worry that my friends challenges are going to hold me back. 

Almost everything you eat or wear is only here because of beautiful win-wins, both the win-wins in nature like the bee and the flower, but also the human win-wins of being able to buy a pair of shoes for $50 and a dozen assorted donuts for $10! Hashem set up the world like that, so that we should be able to learn that thriving happens much more by symbiosis than conflict. 

This year on Tisha B’av let’s take a few moments to reflect on where in our lives we’ve allowed the zero sum game mentality to dominate, let’s think about how it has affected our relationships, and let’s commit to changing that perspective and bettering our relationships. It will undoubtedly be a win-win, for us, for the Jewish people and for the whole world, as our win-wins will undoubtedly lead to the ultimate win-win, the end of this exile, the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash and the coming of the Moshiach!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s portion, Devarim, we read about the final discourse that Moshe gave the Jewish people before he passed away. It was quite a long lecture, as it took over a month. However, it was a time that Moshe used to review with the Jews not only the laws he taught them, but also the lessons they needed to take from their experiences in the desert. That included reminding them of certain mistakes they had made. Moshe did this sensitively by only hinting to the experiences, instead of directly confronting the people with their shortcomings. 

One of the events Moshe reminded the people of was the sending of spies to “check out” the land that G-d had already promised would be good. The spies came back and gave a degrading report of the Land of Israel, the people believed them, and wept all night (the first Tisha B’av ever). G-d then decreed that the Jewish people would wander in the desert for forty years, and that none of the people of that generation who slandered Israel would live to see the land.

When Moshe reminds the people of that event, and describes the people coming to him to request spies, he says the following: “You approached me, all of you, and said, ‘let us send men ahead of us to spy out the land for us.” (Deut. 1:22). Rashi comments on the apparently extraneous “all of you,” and explains that Moshe was hinting to a mistake they made. “You approached me, all of you in a hodgepodge- the young pushing aside the elders, and the elders pushing aside the leaders” (Rashi on loc.) 

Rav Chaim Volozhin (1749-1821, Poland/Russia, known as the father of the yeshiva movement), asks why Moshe went out of his way to point out a seemingly small misdeed especially when the real topic, the sending of the spies, was such a severe one?

Rav Chaim answers that Moshe wanted to preclude any possible excuse the Jews could have given for sending the spies. The Jewish people might say that they sent out the spies with the best of intentions, and it was not their fault that the spies came back and persuaded them to believe the slander against the land of Israel! To counter this, Moshe showed the people that from the get go, they had the wrong intentions in mind. If they were truly noble in purpose when they sent the spies out, they would not have advanced the request in a way that would be disrespectful to others. By pointing out that they came as an irreverent, insolent, and impudent, group, Moshe was proving to the people that the problem was rooted not only in the persuasion of the spies, but also in the people who sent them.

We all get into arguments with others, whether at work, at home, or at the synagogue. Often we feel that we are in the argument only to champion the truth, and there is nothing personal about it. Even if things get a bit tense in the argument, that’s OK, because we are out there defending what is just and right. In this week’s parsha Moshe gives us a litmus test to determine our motives. If no one’s feelings get hurt through our argument, then it is an argument of principles, with each person solely trying to discover what is right. But the minute any person feels insulted, we know that we have crossed the divide and taken it into the personal attack arena. Hurt feelings, disrespect, or insensitivity are the smoking guns pointing to something less than noble. Let us use Moshe’s tool to help us disagree more effectively, which will lead us to live in harmony, and in that merit we will see the rebuilding of the Temple which was destroyed as a result of discord.

Parsha Summary

The Parsha of Devarim is a record of what Moshe told the people before he died. In the later Parshiot, Moshe reviews some of the key laws (mostly those that will empower the people to set up a stable, functioning society in Israel), but in this Parsha, he reviews the salient events that occurred in their forty year journey. The goal was to ensure that those entering the land wouldn’t rest on their laurels and assume that if they were great enough to inherit the land, then obviously, they wouldn’t fall to sin. To negate this idea, Moshe recounts how the generation that witnessed the greatest miracles of all time (the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Reed Sea), and saw G-d at Sinai in the clearest revelation mankind ever experienced, still fell in the trap of sin. 

The basis for this phenomenon is the principle that, “Whoever is greater than his friend, his Evil Inclination is greater.” (Talmud Succah 52a) The higher one’s ability to soar, the lower they are able to fall. (This applies for geographic locations as well. Yerushalayim comes from the merging of Yeru Shalom which means “will see peace,” because it has the ability to bring the entire world peace. This could be accomplished by being the focal point of our prayers, and the city in which the whole world would come together to serve G-d in His temple. In that same way, it also has the ability to see the greatest negation of peace, as it has. I believe, and please email me if I am wrong, that Jerusalem has been the city that has seen the most violence in the world over the course of its 3,000+ years of history.) The generation of the desert had so much pushing them towards good but, to balance that, they also had so much pushing them toward evil. Therefore, Moshe felt it imperative to warn those going into Israel that, although they may be on a lofty spiritual plane, the danger of sin abounds. 

Moshe first hints to the Jews’ major sins, including the Golden Calf, their complaining that G-d took them into the desert to kill them, the sending of the spies, their sins with the Midianite women, Korach’s rebellion, and their loss of faith in him at the sea before and after it split. After hinting to these sins, Moshe begins to detail certain events such as the appointment of judges and the failed mission of the spies. He also reminds them of how they had to circle around Israel and not enter from the south due to the Edomites and Moabites not allowing them through their lands, and G-d telling them not to fight with them.  

Moshe then reminds the Jews of how, with the help of G-d, they were able to defeat giants like Og, and mighty kingdoms like Sichon, thus telling the Jews that if they put their faith in G-d, they need not fear the imminent conquest of Israel. Finally, the Parsha closes with Moshe describing the agreement he had made with the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe regarding their settling land on the eastern side of the Jordan River. That’s all Folks! 

Quote of the Week: The true test of character is… how we behave when we don’t know what to do. ~ John Holt

Random Fact of the Week: In 1924 a new Ford cost $265.

Funny Line of the Week: I don’t like people to talk while I’m interrupting.

Have an Introspective Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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