In a field in Ecuador, mountains of bananas lie rotting in the sun. They are a bit smaller than the average banana, and because of that, no supermarket will buy them. They could be turned into baby food, babies generally don’t care about the size of the banana that made their Gerber mush; they could be made into dried banana chips, they could even be fed to cows and pigs who are much less picky than babies, but they aren’t. The corporation that produces those bananas grows them for table consumption, and if they don’t make the cut for the table, they don’t make it off the farm.
There is a factory in Warren, Michigan that makes the kind of ready to eat sandwiches that you might find in a 7-11 or your local gas station. The sandwiches are sold in neat plastic triangles, and they come with a variety of fillings; turkey and cheese, tuna fish and lettuce, ham and cheese, grilled vegetables etc. The factory produces over one hundred thousand sandwiches a day, stacking them into boxes, and loading them into the never ending stream of trucks pulling into their loading docks. But behind the factory, tens of thousands of fresh slices of bread are thrown into massive garbage bins each day. People don’t want their sandwiches to be made out of the end slices of bread, and the factory only produces sandwiches, so the end slices get tossed.
Leonard Ligon is a farmer in Traverse City, Michigan. His family has been growing tart cherries on their farm for four generations. But Leonard is in the mulit-year process of uprooting his cherry trees and planting grape vines. The summer of 2009 was the year he started his farm makeover according to an article in the Traverse City Record Eagle.
It wasn’t that 2009 was a bad crop year for cherry farmers, quite the opposite; it was a year of a massive bumper crop. Over 300 million pounds of cherries were grown that year in the USA. But that was far more than was needed by US consumers and international exports. The federal government, fearing a dive in cherry prices, issued a federal market order that mandated that 42% of the crop not make it to market. Approximately 126 million pounds of cherries were left to rot in the fields that year to keep cherry prices stable.
On the corner of Telegraph and Twelve Mile Road, there is a Meijers supercenter. In the garbage bins behind it you would find a wealth of food. Boxes of Triscuits, frozen entrees, orange juice, Cheerios, and dozens of other products just a day or two past their expiration make their way to those garbage bins, where they join dented canned goods, day old bread, and mounds of fruits and vegetables that don’t look so nice. A few years ago, fregans began “dumpster diving,” or urban foraging as it’s more politely called, so Meijers simply gated their dumpster area, and put up No Trespassing signs, making it illegal to retrieve any food in their bins. Now it all goes where it’s supposed to go, to a landfill in Orion Township.
One of the greatest successes of the modern world is globalized food production. And one of the greatest failures of the modern world is globalized food production. One the one hand, we are extracting more food from the earth than was ever conceived possible. Advances in farming equipment, fertilizers, hybrid seed development, and insecticides, have allowed humans to produce enough food to give every human on the planet 2,700 calories a day, far more than they need.
But the way we produce and consume food causes waste of such a colossal scale that it is almost impossible to comprehend. Roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year — 1.3 Billion tons — gets lost or wasted. The majority of that waste happens at the farm, where fruits, vegetables, and grains are discarded because they are cosmetically flawed, because farmers don’t have the proper storage facilities to store their entire harvest, or to simply keep prices artificially high. Manufacturers and supermarkets take the credit for another chunk of the total waste due to overproduction, overstocking, and the disposal of byproducts that are perfectly edible but disposed for efficiency reasons. And we, the end consumers, are also responsible. We throw out enormous amounts of perfectly edible leftovers, as well as food that stagnated in our pantries and refrigerators until we had to throw it out.
It’s not like that food isn’t needed. 870 Million people in the world don’t have enough to eat. Poor nutrition causes 45% of deaths in children under five – for a total of 1.5 million children each year. One in four of the world’s children are stunted due to malnutrition. In Israel, one in five children (13.5% of Jewish children, and 33% of Arab children) goes to bed at least once a week without having had a single meal all day. In the US, 14.5% of households are termed “food insecure.” And hunger kills more people each year than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.
Wasted food is one of the greatest crimes of humanity. We hear daily reports of the atrocities in Syria, where over 100,000 people have been killed in a bloody two year civil war, but we almost never hear about the child dying of starvation every 21 seconds. We agonize over the obesity epidemic in the US, but we never think about the 1.3 billion tons of food that is thrown out each year. In terms of victims, food waste is worse than terrorism, communism, racism, and fascism combined. Hunger should be the Most Wanted criminal of all.
What does this all have to do with Yom Kippur, the most awesome day in the Jewish calendar, a day that will be upon us in just a few days?
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a day upon which we try to rectify all of our misdeeds from the previous year. Most of us focus on the things that we did that hurt others; the gossip we spoke, the petty arguments we got into with our friends and neighbors, any dishonesty we practiced in our business, or the disrespect we may have shown to a colleague. More sensitive people also focus on the things we did to hurt our souls and our relationship with G-d; things we ate that we shouldn’t have eaten, the lack of respect that we showed to Shabbos and the holidays, prayers we mumbled our way through, material we consumed that was harmful to our delicate and divine souls, or language and conversation topics that were beneath us.
But perhaps the greatest misdeed of our year was not one of commission but rather one of omission. Each one of us has a soul that is capable of producing enormous goodness in this world, and most of us have been guilty of soul waste this year. How much of our soul’s potential was left unharvested? How many people could have we nurtured this year, that instead went through the year emotionally malnourished because we didn’t reach out to them? Are our children stunted because of our lack of attention to their spiritual and emotional needs? How many people could have been helped if we had given more tzedakka or volunteered more of our time? How much more Torah could we have studied if we set aside a little more time for this primary need of our souls?
Our souls and the souls of so many around us are crying out from deep emotional, spiritual and intellectual hunger. The words of the prophet Amos ring loud and clear, “Behold, days are coming, says the Lord G-d, and I will send famine into the land, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord. (Amos 8:11)”
This year, when we talk to G-d in our prayers on this most holy of days, let us commit ourselves to working on a year where all of our bountiful soul produce is harvested, and those fruits are used to bring nourishment and light not just to ourselves but to countless others around us as well.
Gmar Chasima Tova!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha is mostly comprised of a song, which Moshe related to the Jewish people. Melding past, present, and future the beautiful, and at times haunting, song is about the Jewish people and their relationship with G-d. In the beginning of the song Moshe proclaims, “Let my instructions flow like rainfall, let my sayings drip like dew; like storm winds upon vegetation, and like raindrops on grass.” (Deut. 32:2) The Vilna Gaon asks, why did Moshe describe his teachings, the Torah, as being like rainfall?
While falling on a field, rain will water the whole field equally. However, what the rain will cause to grow is dependent on what was put into that earth. If the person toiled and planted fruit or grain seeds, he will soon have an orchard or field of grain growing beautifully. If he planted nothing, having chosen to spend the planting season chatting online or catching up on all the soap operas and celebrity poker shows, he will find his field to be quite empty despite the prodigious rain. Worse yet, if he planted the deadly foxglove plant in this field, he will find that the rain helped him get a full crop of a venomous poison.
Torah, the Vilna Gaon explains, has the same attributes. It is an incredible receptacle of Divine wisdom that is given to humans to interact with and explore. What we get out of it however is dependent on what we put in. If we invest ourselves in the Torah and expend the necessary time, energy, and emotion into capturing its truth, if we approach it with respect, and are honest with ourselves as we study it – even when it calls upon us to make meaningful changes in our lives, the Torah will then lead us to levels of knowledge and spiritual joy we could not have imagined possible. On the other hand, if we leave our field of Jewish knowledge fallow (i.e. we take an unhealthy approach or we don’t cultivate it), we will be left bereft of the most incredible inheritance we have as a people – the Torah.
One can also distort Torah or selectively find a Torah source to find license for distorted perspectives or to justify their preconceived, inaccurate ideas. Our approach to Torah study makes all the difference as the prophet Hoshea cautions, “For the ways of the Lord are straight, the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them.” (Hoshea 14:10)
Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l (1908-2001) was one of the greatest Torah teachers in America in the latter half of the twentieth century. His many books were fascinating and interesting yet taught many of the foundations of Jewish belief and philosophy. Tapes of his weekly Torah classes made their way all across America and allowed him to inspire many more than the thousands who attended his unapologetic, direct, yet uplifting Torah lectures. He even created the Telephone Torah Program, in ways a forerunner of Partners in Torah, whereby one individual would learn portions of Chumash and then would repeat them over the telephone to a partner on a weekly basis. After beginning with Parshas Bereishis and Noach, the program was expanded to include Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) and Talmud. Where did Rabbi Avigdor Miller get his fiery love for Torah, Jews, and Judaism?
When he was in his early twenties, Rabbi Miller left the comforts of the US to go study in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania. There he dedicated himself to Torah study with an uncommon seriousness. During the first three hours of the day, he would talk with no one, wanting that time to be purely dedicated to Torah study. If people came to him to discuss something, he would motion to them to return later. He was busy planting his field with fertile seeds of Torah.
This Yom Kippur, let’s make sure to plant the coming year with a crop of love, kindness, Torah, holiness, giving, prayer, and study. We can then be assured that 5784 will be a year filled with a bumper crop of goodness!
As mentioned above, most of this week’s Parsha is comprised of a song. In the beginning Moshe calls out to the heavens and earth to hear his song, as they are witnesses that will exist forever, and they can be G-d’s messengers to reward the Jewish people with plentiful rain and bountiful crops, or punish them by withholding the bounty.
Moshe begins by talking about the greatness of G-d, in that He is out Creator, Father, and the Rock onto which we hold to maintain our stable existence on this shaky planet. G-d is incorruptible, hence the corruption we see on this world is the invention of His children. Just ask your elders, Moshe tells us, and they will tell of the greatness of G-d, and the miracles He performed while taking us out of Egypt. They will relate to you how G-d chose us and made us into His special portion.
There will come a time when the Jewish people will be living in a place where everything is working out for them, and they will become prosperous. They will then begin to kick out at G-d and deny His role in their success, and even desert Him entirely. When this happens G-d will become angry with the Jewish people and set enemies upon them, enemies that will scatter them all over the world. (If you read the history of our people, you will find this to be chillingly accurate. Every time the Jewish nation becomes too comfortable in their host nation, and they begin to assimilate and lose their Jewishness, a terrible calamity suddenly befalls them and forces them to recognize their identity. It comes in different forms, from expulsions, to Inquisitions, to libels, to a Holocaust, but unfortunately it is a pattern that has repeated itself many times in our challenged history.)
Then, the enemy will rejoice thinking they have great power. They will not have the wisdom to see that no one has been able to quash Judaism in the past, and it is only the G-d of the Jews that has allowed them the success they have had in persecuting us. At this point, G-d swears that He will lift up His sword (metaphorically of course) and take vengeance upon those who have wreaked havoc on His people. He will lovingly return His people to their land and once again they will bask in His presence.
Although this message has some frightening and sobering undertones, we have to understand that this is what makes it a song. A song in order to have real beauty must have both low parts and high parts, which when contrasted with each other form enchanting music. This is the song Moshe teaches us before he dies. It is the story of a nation that has lows, when we are afflicted and persecuted, but then rises from the ashes to take flight again and soar. No good song can be created in monotone, the challenges and lows are what make the highs so special and precious.
At the end of the Parsha, Moshe tells his prime student and successor, Yehoshua, to teach in front of all the Jews, so that everyone will witness Moshe giving the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, and not question his authority later. The Parsha concludes with G-d telling Moshe to climb to the top of a Mt. Nevo from where he will see the Land of Israel, the land he will be unable to enter. From this vantage point, Moshe saw not only the land, but he also saw prophetically all that would transpire to his beloved flock from the time of his death until the time of the Messiah!
Quote of the Week: Tomorrow is the only day in the year that appeals to the lazy person. ~ Jimmy Lyons
Random Fact of the Week: Michigan borders no ocean… but has more lighthouses than any other state!
Funny Line of the Week: Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the main reason that I have trust issues.
Have a Radiant Shabbos and a Joyful Succos,
R’ Leiby Burnham