Let’s talk trash for a moment. It’s one of the few things that American do exceptionally well. The world will throw out 2.6 trillion pounds of garbage this year (here’s a visual to help you grasp that: 2,600,000,000,000 pounds!), and despite only making up 5% of the world population, Americans will account for 30% of the trash. We not only throw out billions of pounds of things we bought each year, we also throw out nineteen billion of pounds of packaging materials, like those Styrofoam peanuts that take more than 500 years to disintegrate. We are good at trash, and no one can take that away from us!
Let’s look at one kind trash, one of our favorites. Each year, Americans throw out about 35,000,000,000 plastic bottles. That is enough to form a chain of bottles that would go from planet earth to the moon and back 25 times. Where do these bottles come from, and where to they go when we’re done with them?
A clear plastic bottle actually starts its life as thick dark oil. The crude oil is sucked out of the ground, sometimes 5 miles below the surface, by huge oil wells or ocean rigs. The crude oil is then shipped in massive tankers to refining plants.
The job of a refinery is to split crude oil into its many components. While we think of oil as one plain goppy liquid, it is actually a soup of a bunch of different kinds of hydrocarbons (molecules made of hydrogen and carbon). In the refineries, the oil is superheated, and that splits the oil into its many different hydrocarbons. The more carbon atoms in a hydrocarbon, the heavier and darker the oil is. The heaviest hydrocarbons are tar and ashphalt, all black and gooey. The lightest are methane and ethylene, clear gases.
Ethylene is turned into PET, a compound made with long chains of ethylene and terephthalic acid (I’ll spare you the details), and PET makes a lot of things, from plastic bottles to fleece sweatshirts! The PET is usually sold as pellets, and in a bottle factory, those pellets are melted into a liquid plastic and then forced into molds that shape them into bottles. Every year, seventeen million barrels of oil are used to make bottles for American consumers.Those bottles are filled with water or soda, and sold at 7-11, Rite-Aid, Walmart, and pretty much every other store in the US of A. You buy the bottle, and drink the soda.
If you’re like most Americans, you recycle about one in three of those bottles, but we’re not going to talk about the lucky 32% that get recycled, we’re going to talk about the other 68%. That other 68% is made up of more than nine billion pounds of empty plastic bottles. The majority of those end up in landfills, where it will take about 1,000 years for them to decompose. But, when it rains, water filters through the landfill picking up all sort of junk; bacteria from your decomposing burger, acids from industrial waste, and some nasty little chemical compounds in your plastic bottle like antimony and polybrominated diphenyl ethers. That creates a highly toxic stew known as leachate, which frequently leaks into groundwater, soil, and nearby rivers, poisoning everything it touches.
The other plastic bottles are usually dumped with billions of other tons of trash into the oceans, the world’s biggest trash can. There, the bottles get pulled by ocean currents into massive garbage islands known as gyres. The largest gyre in the world is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it is as big as the continent of Australia. I’ve heard about these garbage patches, and I always imagined them to be floating landfills. But that is not what they look like at all. They look like regular ocean, because most of the garbage is just below the surface and reaches down to about 100 feet.
Living things bread down, that’s why they’re called biodegradable. Plastic was never alive, and doesn’t breakdown naturally. It is photodegradable, which means it breaks down in sunlight. So your bottle starts to slowly fall apart into ever smaller pieces called mircoplastics, but it never does melt away entirely. The vast majority of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage is made of microplastics far smaller than your fingernail. In some places, there are more than 2 million pieces of microplastic per square mile, and the microplastics outnumber plankton at a 6:1 ratio!
There are a few problems with microplatics. They leak toxic chemicals into the oceans, slowly killing marine life. That’s a problem because most of earth’s oxygen comes from algae, a primary form of marine life. Additionally, fish eat those microplastics, and die because they can’t get the plastic out of their system, yet their bellies are filled with it and have no room for other food, and they die of starvation. If they don’t die of starvation, the toxic chemicals in the microplatics leak into the fish. So, the lantern fish eats the plastics and starts building up toxins in his system. The squid eats 200 lantern fish over the course of a year, and he now has much more elevated toxins. The tuna eats 100 squid before being caught by HMS Chicken of the Sea. You eat the tuna…
Most importantly, new scientific discoveries uncovered “exit doors.” Just like junk is pulled by ocean currents into the vortex of the gyres, junk is also being spit out, and it has already started washing up on shores all over North America and South America.
The fascinating thing about trash is that there is no one piece of trash that anyone can point to and blame for all the toxic waste leaking into our world. It is the slow leaking of leachate into the groundwater, the slow build-up of toxins in our ocean caught salmon, the trillions of tiny little pieces of microplastics slowly clogging up our oceans and shores. But together, they build a trash dump in our oceans the size of Australia, together they are causing alarmingly high rates of cancer and other diseases in communities near landfills. Billions of tiny little pieces of trash are starting to pose a serious risk to the continuity of mankind on this planet. Are we committing global suicide?
(For the record, I first wrote about this in 2017, and since then, while I can’t say I don’t use any plastic bottles, I have given myself a mindful mission to reduce the amount of plastic and Styrofoam I use. I’m not down to zero, but probably to 30% of my previous consumption. As our Sages taught us in Ethics of Our Fathers, “It is not your responsibility to finish every job, but you cannot desist from doing…” We may not be able to solve global problems, but we can make meaningful efforts to change what we can…)
We are now in the depths of the Three Weeks, the time when the Jewish people mourn the destruction of our Temple and this long and bitter exile that followed it. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. What is baseless hatred and how does it destroy our temple and exile our people?
Baseless hatred is the tiny little hatreds that don’t really seem to be a big deal. I don’t like that guy because he always has his shirt hanging out of his pants. Rachel doesn’t like that woman because she’s always so put together, while Rachel struggles to get her kids out to school, let alone look put together while doing that! Rob hates Joe because he never invited him to his son’s Bar Mitzvah. I hate that guy because he’s always on time to shul and looks down at me when I walk in late. I hate that guy because I take shul seriously and come on time, and he always comes late. She hates that woman because she bought the same shoes as her, has a bigger house than her, drives a nicer car than her.
No one of those things will take down a temple. No one of those things will drive the Jewish people into a 2,000-year bloody exile. But all those little petty baseless hatreds start to develop into a critical mass, and the leachate starts to spread, contaminating the children, causing more hatred, more pettiness, more picking on other people because they are too good or not good enough. Slowly but surely, the trash becomes a garbage patch the size of Texas, and G-d says to us, I can’t live in garbage patch, so if you’re going to be this way, get out of My house, the temple, and my estate, the Land of Israel.
If we want to reverse this exile and achieve redemption, we need to reverse the flow of trash. But how do we do that? We need to find microgold in people to reverse the micropetty.
A friend and I recently became inspiration buddies. Every evening, we each message each other about one person that inspired us that day. When you have to send out that email each night, you are on the lookout all day for someone who inspires you. Unsurprisingly, I’ve had more than one person inspire me each day. And on the few occasions that I told them how they inspired me, they were absolutely delighted. Who doesn’t want to be an inspiration to others?
That is one way to find start seeding the world with good, seeing the good in others and telling them about it when you can. Another way to do that is to commit to giving a certain amount of compliments a day. Another way is to do two things a day for someone else without anyone else knowing about it. Another way is to pray for other people, especially people who rub you the wrong way. There are many ways to love other people, even more than there are ways to trash other people.
We can fill the world with little micro-baseless love. We can create an atmosphere of love and tolerance, respect and appreciation that begins to sink into the very groundwater that we drink, the very soil from which everything around us grows. We can fill our world with a Great Jewish Love Patch, and we can rest be assured that when we do, G-d will invite us back to His estate and His home, with the final redemption that will turn the Three Weeks into a time of celebration, and Tisha B’av into the greatest Jewish Holiday.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion we find the Jewish people preparing for battle with the Midianites who tried a few devious strategies to destroy them. G-d commands Moshe to draft men for the army:
“A thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe, for all the tribes of Israel shall you send to the legion.” (Num. 31:4)
The obvious question is why G-d repeats Himself in this commandment. The Sages tell us that there were actually two separate drafts, one for people to go to the front line to do physical battle, and one to go to the study halls to do spiritual battle. We are a people whose battles never smack of the ordinary. As Golda Meir commented on Israel’s miraculous victories in the Arab-Israeli conflicts, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a rationalist.” Those battles are not only won due to the physical strength of the soldiers, but also due to the Jewish people’s prayers and Torah study on their behalf.
In WWII, the Germans soldiers under Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” were pushing through North Africa with lightning speed, shrugging off all opposition as if it was nothing more than a pesky fly. Their sights were set firmly on Palestine, and they were confident of victory. Hitler had already met with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem to plan the slaughter of Jews in Palestine, so certain he was of success. With German troops less than a hundred miles from Palestine, it appeared that the Jews were doomed.
The Jews in Jerusalem called a community-wide three day session of prayer and fasting. All the men, women, and children of Jerusalem’s Old Settlement streamed into the synagogues and cried their hearts out to G-d to avert the impending perdition. The very day after they concluded their fasting, a relatively inexperienced British general, Bernard Montgomery, began a drive that forced Rommel and his forces to retreat all the way to Tunisia.
That battle showed the power of the Jews unconventional weapon, the spiritual one they first learned of in this week’s parsha. Since then, Jewish success in battle has always depended on having “a thousand from a tribe, a thousand from a tribe.”
Today, Israel seems to be in dire straits yet again. Hezbollah has 100,000 missiles stored throughout Lebanon aimed at point all over Israel. Hamas is using all the funds given to it to by the “concerned citizens of the world” to build deeper tunnels into Israel. Lone wolf attacks are everyday occurrences, and the world has turned its back on her. We feel helpless, watching the Anti-Semitism rise all over the world, starting on college campuses and spreading throughout the populace. What can we do?
This week’s parsha teaches us that we can do something. If we can’t join the fighters on the physical front line, we can certainly join the fighters on the spiritual front line. While they guard Israel with F-16s, tanks, and laser guided missiles, we will join the Israeli Defense Force from the Spiritual Front.
“Some trust in chariots, and some in horses; but we will call out in the name of the Ha-shem our G-d. They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength. O Lord, save us; may the King answer us on the day we call.”
This week we read two Parshios, Mattos and Masei. Mattos starts off with the laws of nedarim, strong spiritual vows. While many people may feel that vows are simply words, and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously, in Judaism we believe the opposite to be true. We see the human being’s greatest asset to be that which is shared with no other species, his faculty of speech. The verse in Genesis describing Adam’s creation says “and He blew into his nostrils a soul of life” (Genesis 2:7) Onkelos translates it as “and He blew into his nostrils a talking spirit,” thus indicating that speech is the very essence of the human.
Everything a person utters with this gift of speech should be taken seriously, especially when it is said as a vow. However, there are situation in which one can nullify a vow. These include a person who goes to one expert or a court of 3 people, who can nullify the vow under certain circumstances, a wife who makes a vow which will affect her husband in which case he can waive it, or a young girl who makes a vow and her father annuls it.
The parsha continues with the Jews going to war with Midian to avenge the people who died as a result of the abhorrent trap the Midianites had set for them involving base immorality and idol worship. G-d tells Moshe that after this war he will die, yet Moshe immediately works on gathering the troops. The Jews on the other hand, have to be coerced to raise the troops, as they don’t want to see Moshe depart from the living. The Jews are victorious in battle and the Torah goes into detail on the splitting of the spoils.
In summary, of the living spoils (sheep, donkeys etc.) half went to the soldiers with1/500 being given to the Kohanim. The other half went to the whole nation, and 1/50 was given to the Levites. You might be wondering, why did the rest of the nation got spoils if they hadn’t gone to war? Well, it is important to note that in Judaism we view ourselves as one unified nation. Not only are the people in the front lines fighting, but those back at home praying and learning in their merit are also considered to be fighting the battle. Therefore, it was only fair that they should get a share of the spoils.
This is an extremely important lesson right now, as it reminds us that the forces defending Israel are fighting on two fronts, some in green uniforms sitting in military installations, and some in black pants and white shirts sitting in study halls. And the good news is that we can also pitch in and be part of the force protecting Israel from our homes here in the USA! If we take an additional ten minutes a day to say psalms for our soldiers or learn in their merit, we are taking an active and crucial role in Israel’s defense, and in saving our brethren.
The last part of the parsha is the story of Reuven and Gad’s request to remain east of the Holy Land where the land was good for grazing. Moshe was quite angry with them for desiring the rich pasturelands outside of Israel instead of the Holy Land that would have the Divine Providence manifest more strongly than anywhere else. He asked G-d, who allowed those tribes to live in Trans-Jordan as long as they were ready to play to fight for the capture of Israel along the other tribes. Moshe than apportions the Trans-Jordan lands to Reuvain and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe.
Parshat Massei, being the last parsha in Numbers, is the wrap up of the Jews’ time in the desert, as the story part of Deuteronomy focuses almost exclusively on the last day of Moshe’s life. Therefore, Massei starts with recounting every station the Jews camped at throughout their 40 years in the desert, and some of the events that happened at these spots. Then, the Parsha focuses on the future – on the conquest of Israel. G-d commands the Jews to destroy all forms of idols when they conquer the land, and to distance themselves from the inhabitants them so they don’t get enticed to sin.
The Torah then delineates the borders of Israel, and names the leaders who would lead each tribe when they entered the land. After that, the Torah commands the people to set aside cities in which the Levites would dwell. The Levites weren’t given any specific portion of Israel because their job was to spiritually motivate and to teach the people. Therefore, they were scattered amongst the people so that everyone could have some good neighbors. The Torah also commands the people to set aside cities of refuge to which people can flee if they commit unintentional murder. Although they can’t be held fully responsible, they are somewhat at fault because they could’ve avoided it by being more careful (in American law this is called negligent homicide). Therefore, they must run to a city of refuge and remain there until the death of the Kohen Gadol.
This is clearly not a good thing for the Kohen Gadol, as it meant that many people were eagerly anticipating his death so that they could return to their families. The Talmud teaches us that the Kohen Gadol is given this weighty burden because he should have prayed harder that there be no accidental killers on “his watch,” and he didn’t. This shows us how much the Torah expects Jews to feel responsibility for one another.
The Parsha (and the book of Numbers) concludes with the people of the tribe of Tzelophchad coming to Moshe with a concern. In last week’s parsha, Tzelophchad’s daughters came to Moshe to ask for a portion of the land, since their father had died and left no sons to inherit him, and Moshe agreed that they would get it. Now, the people of that tribe were concerned that if the daughters would marry men of a different tribe, the land would end up being lost from their tribe, since it would go to the husband’s tribe. Moshe then told the women that they should choose mates from their own tribe to alleviate this problem. This law only affected women receiving inheritances who were among the first generation which was apportioned the land of Israel, so that there should at least be one moment where each tribe had exactly the portion they received. Later, people could choose a spouse from any tribe, as long as they loved each other and cared about one another through sickness and health, poverty and wealth etc. etc. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: Fools look to tomorrow, wise men use tonight. – Scottish Proverb
Random Fact of the Week: An alligator can run as fast as a horse for very short distances.
Funny Line of the Week: What does a clock do when it’s hungry? It goes back four seconds.
Have a Dandy Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham