Aluminum, also known as Aluminium in lesser parts of the world, is a remarkable metal with many properties that make it indispensable to human thriving. It is a light metal, it’s number 13 on the periodic table of elements, exactly half of its chief competitor iron, 26. The elemental number tells us how many protons and neutrons are in each atom, so gold that has 79 is much heavier than silver which has 47. Silver is heavier than iron at 26, and then there is Aluminum at 13. But Aluminum is not a one trick pony, it has many other benefits besides for being light, it is flexible, infinitely recyclable[1], and most importantly, non-corrosive, which means it doesn’t rust. 

Aluminum is relatively new in the world of metals. It’s not that it didn’t exist thousands of years ago when mankind was playing around with bronze, copper, gold, iron and tin, it existed but not in a readily available state. Aluminum is almost nonexistent in a native state, it is almost always part of a compound known as bauxite ore, which in case you were wondering is a mixture of about half hydrated aluminum oxide, mixed with silica and iron oxide. You can refine down 4 to 5 tons of bauxite ore to get 2 tons of alumina which is a white powder, and then you refine those 2 tons of alumina to get 1 ton of aluminum. So aluminum was always there, it was just hiding in bauxite ore and alumina…

Aluminum only shows up in the early `1800’s first when in 1807 Sir Humphry Davies, a British scientist suggested that the powder alumina could be hiding a metal and later in 1821 German chemist Eilhard Misterlich came up with the final version of Aluminum we have today. But it was exorbitantly expensive because it was so hard to produce, at one point it was even more expensive than gold! When the United States government finished the Washington Monument in DC, they commissioned a chemist to create an 8 inch tall, 100 oz pyramid of pure aluminum to be the capstone of their new 555 foot tall obelisk. While at the time its price had fallen to $1.10 an ounce, cheaper than gold which was about $26 an ounce, they felt aluminum would fit more with the aesthetic of the white obelisk and wouldn’t tarnish like silver. To this day on a clear and sunny day, you can occasionally catch a glimpse of the sun shining off the aluminum cap of the Washington Monument. 

Ironically, two years after it was installed, in 1886, Charles Martin Hall, a recent graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, discovered a new way to refine the alumina into aluminum and the price of aluminum plummeted, and its ubiquity skyrocketed. Not only was it a great metal by itself, but it lends itself easily to being mixed into alloys that are much stronger than pure aluminum, but still hold onto aluminums lightness and corrosion resistance. It is essential in the building of airplanes, skyscrapers, satellites and soda cans. Today, the world produces over 55 million tons of aluminum each year, and a ton costs about $2400. If you’d like to buy wholesale, I also want some, maybe we can split a ton?

We come into contact with aluminum all the time, but perhaps nowhere as much as in the kitchen where we use aluminum foil for just about everything. It’s strong enough to hold liquid in without spilling, doesn’t retain heat, so you can take a piece of pizza out of the toaster oven by its foil corners without burning your hand, and is an easy to measure and cut cover for casseroles, chicken, or whatever you want to cook covered! But today we are finally going to discover one of the greatest mysteries about aluminum; why is one side of the aluminum foil shiny and the other side is velvety? You know that you’ve thought about this before, and if you’re like me, you’re now sitting up in your chair, reading with a bit  more interest, relieved that your this mystery which has tickled your brain for pretty much your whole life is about to be answered! Here goes…

The manufacture of aluminum foil is a bit more complicated than you would imagine, because aluminum foil is so incredibly thin. A standard piece of aluminum foil is only 0.016 millimeters thick, and even the better heavy duty rolls are only 0.024 millimeters thick. If you don’t like using the metric system, even the heavy duty foil is less than one thousandth of an inch thick! While this keeps it cheap, and very easily bendable, which is important for aluminum foil, it also makes it very hard to make without ripping it. The aluminum needs to be “milled” where it’s heated and stretched and heated and and stretched and pulled until it’s the right size. Just to understand how hard this is, they start off with blocks of aluminum that are 45 millimeters thick and weigh about 1600 pounds and they have to get them down to 0.016 millimeters thick

The process is really cool and definitely worth some research if you’re kidsare home from school for a snow day, but I can tell you that in involves going through massive heavy superheated rollers that roll out the aluminum like a rolling pin and dough dozens of times. By the time you get down to the last rolling phase, known as cold rolling, the aluminum is so thin that it could easily rip and break. To prevent that, they mill two sheets at a time, one on top, and one on bottom, and they reinforce each other and prevent ripping. But the only side that gets shiny is the one that faces the rollers, because they are constantly spinning against it, sort of like buffing it. So the top sheet of aluminum foil will have the top side shiny and the bottom side matte, while the bottom sheet will have the bottom side shiny and the top side matte. 

The next time you open the aluminum foil container in your kitchen, you can easily know which side was being pressed by the heavy rollers and which side was just sitting there, the shiny side is always the side that was getting rolled. 

Aluminum is much like life. The incredible value that is you, is not usually native and doesn’t show itself easily. We are born as a form of ore, it contains a lot of our parents, and a health dose of our environment, but not really the full us. That needs to be developed and brought out. It can lie dormant for a long time, if you just go with the flow, until you start to experiment with various processes and find one that brings you out of the ore you were born into. 

But even after you discover the real you, and start to refine it, you somehow find that what makes you shine, is when you face the rollers of life. They squish you and pummel you, they roll you and buff you, but if you stick with the program and don’t rip, you come out shining. And the more you had the face the rollers of life the more you can shine. Yes, there is a great risk of ripping and many people do rip and need to get recycled back into new ingots and start over, but when you make it through you come out shining! 

We are currently reading the book of Genesis and seeing all the deep challenged that our Partriarchs and Matriarchs went through, the famines and foes, the travails and troubles, the deceit and despair they faced, and yet they came out shining, not despite the troubles, but because of the troubles. At one point, Rashi quotes the Medrash (Rashi, Genesis 37:2, that

“Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility, but  immediately this trouble with Joseph suddenly came upon him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, the Holy one, blessed be He), says to them: “Are not the righteous satisfied with what is stored up for them in the world to come that they wish to live at ease in this world too!”

This does not mean that G-d is saying that you can’t have it easy in this world because you’re going to have it good in the next world, but rather G-d is saying that they way you have it good in the Next World is when you go through difficulties in this world, and come out shining on top! That’s why G-d sends challenges to our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, because he is shining them and buffing them!

When we feel our own personal challenges, we often wonder, why? Why Me? Why this? Why can’t my challenges stop! But now we know, it’s those challenges that we go through, the heavy rollers that seem to be rolling over us again and again, that are really buffing us, smoothing out any rough edges we have, so that we can come through shining and bright!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Parsha we see the difficulties Ya’akov encountered while dealing with Lavan, his father-in-law, who happens to have won the award for World’s Biggest Slimeball for 23 years running. From cheating Ya’akov out of the wife for whom he worked seven years, to switching his pay rate 100 times, this guy was a class act. He had every scam possible sitting securely in his pocket. 

Finally, Ya’kov had enough. He waited until Lavan went to one of his Idol Fests, took his family and belongings, and headed back to Israel. When Lavan found out that Ya’akov ran away, he set out after him in a rage, and was ready to kill Ya’akov (his own son-in-law! Did I mention that Slimeball Award he won repeatedly?). Luckily, Ya’akov had G-d on his side. G-d came to Lavan the night before he  approached Ya’akov and warned him very sternly that he better not touch Ya’akov or anyone in his family. The next day, Lavan approached Ya’akov’s camp and said the following, “It is within the power of my hand to harm you, but the G-d of your father spoke to me last night saying, ‘Guard yourself not to speak to Yaakov either good or evil’” (Gen; 31:29).

The commentators point out the fallacy in that statement. Lavan starts off saying that it is within his power to harm Ya’akov, when it is clear from the end of his statement that in fact he knows he cannot. This points to a human condition where a person clearly knows something to be the truth, but due to a whole life of living a different way, can totally ignore reality. Lavan was so used to thinking that he was in control that even once it was very clear to him that he couldn’t do what he wants, he still foolishly blurted out “It is within my power to harm you…” 

Today we see it in the smoker who smokes through the tube inserted into his trachea, who sees the devastating effects of his ways, but cannot stop himself. We also see it in people (myself including) who really wish to add more spiritual content to their lives, but are so used to living as they do that they make excuses, and stay the same. Sometimes we are blessed to have a moment of clarity, a brief period where we feel like G-d is sending us a message. Let’s remember not to fall into the Lavan trap, where we ignore it the very next day, but rather let’s seize it, use it, and grow from it.

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha begins with Yaakov going to Charan to find himself a good non-Canaanite wife. As he heads down, he spends the night in the location that would, years later, be the site of the Holy Temple. He has a dream in which he sees angels going up and down a ladder. The angels of Israel were leaving him, and the angels of Chutz La’aretz (literally “outside the land” meaning anywhere out of Israel) were coming down to accompany him. In this dream G-d promises Yaakov that he will be guarded and protected in the house of Lavan, that he will come back to Israel in peace, and that eventually the whole Israel will be given to his offspring. 

When Yaakov reaches Charan, he sees the local shepherds waiting around a well, and asks them why they don’t let their sheep out to pasture. They answer that they all gather around the well until they have enough people to be able to push off the boulder resting on its mouth. As Rachel, Lavan’s daughter, approaches, Yaakov sees with Divine intuition that this will be his wife, and he is filled with strength.  He flips the boulder off the well, and waters Rachel’s sheep. Upon going back to Lavan’s house, Yaakov stays with Lavan for a month and works as his shepherd before Lavan asks him if he wants some sort of remuneration for his work. (Yep, Lavan the no-goodnik had Yaakov, his guest and relative, watching his sheep for a month without pay before finally offering him some pay.)

Yaakov tells him that he would like to marry Rachel, Lavan’s younger daughter. Lavan gives him his blessing on the condition that Yaakov shepherd his sheep for seven years, which Yaakov gladly does. However, Lavan the Lowlife switches the daughters and gives him Leah. Yaakov had been anticipating this, and gave Rachel certain signs which she was to give him on their wedding night. However, Rachel, fearing the incredible humiliation that Leah would undergo when Yaakov realized he was being given the wrong bride, gives Leah the signs even though that meant she would be left to marry Yaakov’s brother the Evil Eisav. This teaches how far one must go to prevent someone from being humiliated.

Yaakov is not happy with Lavan upon realizing that he has been duped, but Lavan offers a quick and easy solution – work another seven years for Rachel. Yaakov does so. Leah has four children, Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Yehuda, after which she stops having children. Rachel has none, so she decides to give her maidservant, Bilhah, to Yaakov in the hopes of building a family through her children. This works, and Rachel names Bilhah’s two children Dan and Naftali. Leah, seeing that she stopped having children, also gives her maidservant, Zilpah, to Yaakov as a wife and she gives birth to two children, Gad and Asher.

Soon Leah has two more children, Yisachar and Zevulun, and finally, after many years of praying and yearning, Rachel has a son, whom she calls Yosef. After Yosef (who is destined to quash Eisav) was born, Yaakov is ready to head back to his land. However, after 14 years of devoted service Lavan is finally ready to cut a deal. If Yaakov stays, he will let him keep certain sheep based on their coats (i.e. ringed, speckled, spotted, or brownish). Over the next six years Lavan changes the agreement 100 times, but Yaakov manages to devise a system in which he still gets some sheep. G-d blesses his flocks, and in six years Yaakov becomes very prosperous.

Realizing that Lavan and his family are getting jealous of and angry with him, Yaakov tells his family that its time to leave their villainous Zeidy, and Rachel and Leah answer that they are only too happy to leave the father who didn’t treat them as daughters but as strangers. Yaakov leaves while Lavan is on a trip to one of his Idol Fests, and Rachel steals her father’s idols. When Lavan hears about the exodus of his daughters and grandchildren, and the theft of his idols, he becomes enraged and chases them down with the intent to seriously harm them. But G-d comes to Lavan in a dream and tells him that he better not do anything, neither good nor bad (as the saying goes, not from your honey and not from your sting), to Yaakov and his family. 

Instead, Lavan comes and plays the hurt and abandoned grandfather, complaining that he wanted to see them off amid great fanfare. Then he accuses Yaakov of stealing his idols. Lavan searches all the tents, but Rachel hides them in her saddlebag and tells her father that she can’t get off her camel, because she is sick. In the end, Lavan makes a treaty with Yaakov and then peacefully departs in the morning. That’s all Folks.

Quote of the Week:  “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Random Fact of the Week: The mayfly’s eggs take three years to hatch. Lifespan: about six hours!

Funny Line of the Week: I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work. As soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.

Have a Serene Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

[1] The vast majority of the things we recycle aren’t really recycled because it’s too cost prohibitive, so they just collect it in separate trucks, but it ends up in the dump anyway. Aluminum soda cans are one exception, they almost all get turned back into fresh aluminum. 

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