West Texas Intermediate sounds like a school for sixth to eight graders in a county where people wear cowboy boots to their wedding, their work, and their wake, but it actually describes a kind of oil. Even slightly more confusing are its other names, Texas light sweet, or domestic sweet crude which has nothing to do with a sweet taste, but with its low sulfur content. At that rate, my children, who generally have a low sulfuric content, should be called Michigan light sweet.
West Texas Intermediate has been powering the US, and fueling the Texas economy for decades. The Permian Basin, an oil field located underneath West Texas and Arizona, is the largest oil field in the US and has already yielded 29 billion barrels of oil and 75 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A barrel is just a way of saying forty two gallons, we don’t put oil in barrels anymore, that practice was abandoned as cruel and insensitive decades ago. Or maybe it was just inefficient, we now send oil through pipes, which is faster, quieter, cheaper, and less likely to cause an oil spill. Each barrel of WTI can be refined into 20 gallons of regular gas for your car and 12 gallons of diesel for your truck. You can call it whatever you want, just don’t call it late to dinner, because it’s probably delivering your dinner.
Lately, things have not been too sweet in the West Texas Intermediate world. A barrel of WTI on April 20, 2020 was selling for -$37.63, and yes, that means someone would pay you almost $38 to take a barrel of West Texas Intermediate off their hands. Not that you could do anything with West Texas Intermediate, it’s a raw product that you can’t exactly put into your car or heat your home with. You would need to refine it first and all the refineries in the country were overloaded with oil, and the backup storage was all leased up. When you buy WTI on the commodity market, each contract is 1,000 barrels, and the contract commits you to either selling it, or taking physical delivery of that oil. You can call it whatever you want, but you don’t want 1,000 barrels of oil showing up at dinner.
The place that all WTI contracts settle, a small city called Cushing in northeastern Oklahoma, has a population of only 7,659 people, but usually has over fifty million barrels of oil hanging out with them in massive storage tanks. It proudly calls itself the Pipeline Crossroads of the World, but it might be a bit humbler and more accurate to call is the Pipeline Crossroads of North America. It’s the hub for pipelines all over the US and Canada, and it can send and receive 6.5 million barrels through those pipes every day.
Normally, if a commodities trader wants to take delivery of an oil contract, he simply arranges to have his oil stored somewhere in Cushing. But in mid-April, there was a glut of oil clogging up the world. Saudi Arabia and Russia were in a price war, and were selling oil at ridiculously prices. Then COVID hit, and no one was going anywhere, which meant that gas and oil were hardly being used, so supply was way up, demand way down, and the price plummeted. When the price came down, hedge funds swooped in and bought millions of barrels of oil, not realizing that they would have nowhere to take delivery of it because Cushing was already full. Call it whatever you want, just make sure it has an open seat at the dinner table.
Commodity contracts all end on one day of the month, and the West Texas Intermediate May contract expired on April 20, 2020 much to the chagrin of traders and hedge funds desperate to sell a contract that no one wanted because no one had anywhere to deliver the oil. The WTI May contract was like a hot potato, with everyone throwing it to the next guy, panicked at the thought of having to take delivery of all that oil. Over the course of that one day, a barrel of oil went from about $10 a barrel to negative $37.65, as hedge funds payed through the nose to anyone who could take delivery of that oil. But to be clear, even on that infamous day, the June contract was selling for about $10 a barrel and as of today it is trading over $24 a barrel, the negative pricing was an anomaly having to do with the lack of storage and the immediacy of the need to liquidate the contract.
That being said, even West Texas Intermediate at $25 a barrel is a disaster to West Texas, and the entire domestic oil industry. Two years ago, a barrel was selling for more than double that. As the price of oil plummets, oil companies all over the Permian basin are shutting down wells and laying off workers. Drilling rigs are being taken apart and put into storage facilities, pumpjacks (the pumps that continuously pump up and down and dot the countryside wherever oil is to be found) are being turned off, and rows of trailer homes used to house workers sit quietly deserted throughout the countryside. The hundreds of small companies that support the drilling; the parts suppliers, repair shops, truck drivers, restaurants, and uniform providers are mostly sitting idle or shutting down.
The Permian has its history of booms and busts, driving through West Texas you can pass dozens of ghost towns, relics of better times gone bad. During the Great Depression, prices dropped to thirteen cents a barrel, the equivalent today of $2, wrecking the Texan economy and bankrupting banks and citizens alike. Then in the 70’s, when the oil embargo enacted by Arab countries to punish the US for its perceived support of Israel was at its height, West Texas hit another boom. Newly made millionaires were drinking champagne out of cowboy boots, people had to fight for parking spaces for their private airplanes, and the Houston Oilers were one of the NFL’s most beloved teams.
That all came crashing to a halt in the 80’s when an oil glut led to lowered prices for close to a decade. A common bumper sticker in West Texas read, “G-D GRANT ME ONE MORE OIL BOOM, I PROMISE NOT TO MESS IT UP THIS TIME.” G-d did give Texas one more boom, the last decade saw oil production in the Permian Basin rise from 850,000 barrels a day in 2007 to five million barrels a day a few months ago. But the combination of drastically weakened demand due to worldwide travel reductions and oil-rich countries flooding the market with cheap oil has given the Permian Basin a gut punch it may never recover from. Tens of thousands of workers have been sent home, not because of social distancing laws, but because there is no work for them, and hundreds of small businesses that service the industry have closed their doors. You can call me whatever you want, but please O Lord, help make sure I have food on my table for dinner!
The Duties of the Heart, the magnum opus of Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pachuda, an eleventh century Spanish sage and philosopher, has a section called Shar Habitachon, the Gate of Faith. In the introduction, Rabbenu Bachya talks about the advantages of the person who has faith over the alchemist. For thousands of years, people have endeavored to change base metals into gold. Even were a person able to do it successfully, Rabbenu Bachya lays out ten ways in which the person of faith is better off than the person who can turn iron into gold, and here are a few: ,
The alchemist can only make his money by using various chemicals and materials, without which he is lost, but the man of faith doesn’t need any outside ingredients, his faith sustains him from within. The alchemist always lives in fear of others, because if they learn of his secret, he will lose his business advantage, but the man of faith is happy to share his secret with others, and hopes to fill others with strength as well. If the alchemist gets sick, and is bedridden, he can no longer practice his alchemy, while the man of faith maintains his faith even while sick, and often that faith is what helps him through the illness! The practice of alchemy may include chemical processes that produce harmful vapors or odors, causing the alchemist to endanger his health in the pursuit of his gold, while the man of faith never endangers his health in pursuit of a livelihood, he knows that G-d can provide for him in myriad ways, as it says, “He leads me by still waters.”
Seeing the story of the Permian Basin economic collapse, we can add an eleventh benefit to the man of faith over the alchemist. The alchemist may devote his life to producing gold and then the price of gold plummets leaving him with nothing, while the man of faith builds value in his faith-inspired good deeds, and that value can never plummet. How many people spent their lives in the pursuit of “Black Gold,” the black liquid money that has been pulled out of the earth for over a century, churning out millionaires, billionaires, and even kingdoms whose entire wealth was built on petrodollars? If oil prices remain this low, black gold alchemists from Texas to Saudi Arabia, Russia to Nigeria, Venezuela to Canada are all going to be lost.
Even actual gold can lose all of its value. Take the case of aluminum. Throughout most of the 19th Century, aluminum was more valuable than gold, as the processes for aluminum extraction had not been discovered, and the metal was very rare. Napoleon III, served his state dinners on aluminum to show off his wealth. The US placed a small pyramid of aluminum at the top of the Washington Monument to show off its wealth and might. But once we discovered how to extract it cheaply and efficiently, the market dropped out and aluminum went from being more prized than gold to being something we throw out by the ton every year.
The point of Rabbenu Bachya is not about alchemy and gold, it’s about any kind of “gold” that we value and cherish, any gold we chase and fight for, any gold that we believe will take care of us and our families. Whether it is real gold, aluminum gold, black petro gold, stock portfolio gold, real estate holdings gold, a good secure job gold, or family money gold. Any time we put our faith in a thing instead of in a Being, we are at risk of seeing everything we put faith in melt before our eyes, leaving us at a total loss.
Instead, what we need to do is develop our faith in God over gold, in the Omnipotent over the impotent, in the Creator over creations. G-d has myriad ways of providing for us, and he has found ways to provide sustenance for close to eight billion in 2019 despite the fact that numbers of mouths He had to feed doubled in the less than fifty years. He also has found a way to keep us, His children, thriving despite all the naysayers. He has made His favorite country, Eretz Yisrael, into an envy among the nations despite it having every possible disadvantage. He can, He does, and when we put our faith in Him instead of putting our faith in stuff, He responds by shouldering our burden.
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and He will bear you; He shall never allow a righteous man to falter.” (Psalms 55:23)
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah details the laws of the festivals and the special mitzvos attached to each one of them. However, right in the middle of the festivals, immediately after the laws of Shavuos, the Torah inserts a few laws pertaining to agriculture. The laws, known as “leket” and “peah,” tell us to leave over different parts of our harvest for the poor. How do these laws fit into this particular Torah portion?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926, Lithuania), author of the Meshech Chochma, explains that we are being taught an important fundament of the Torah that was given on Shavuos. The Torah is not just a set of laws instructing mankind how to interact with G-d, a set of strictures and rules for human communication with the Divine. The Torah is an entire system of moral living, and as such contains the formula that synergizes optimal relationships with our fellow humans and with G-d.
To emphasize this idea, the Torah places moral precepts dealing with kindness and charity right next to the laws discussing Shavuos, when we received the Torah. Today, charity is such an ingrained value that people have a hard time linking it to the Torah, but indeed most of the primitive societies in the pre-Torah world were not charitable ones, and the idea of people tithing their crops or leaving over an entire corner of their fields to a poor person was as foreign to them as the idea of not eating milk and meat together or keeping Shabbat.
In a class on the history of social policy I once took, the professor explained to the class that the first record of a social policy in which people took responsibility for the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. I didn’t want to argue with my professor on the first day in class, but I remember scrolling mentally through the dozens of laws in the Torah (circa. 1312 BCE) that put responsibility for the poor, the widow, and the orphan onto the rest of society.
The message of our parsha is the all encompassing nature of the Torah. It was the same Torah we received on Shavuos that set the foundation for a social welfare, put forth the laws of Kosher, taught us to respect the wise man over the strong man, required us to eat matzah, and taught us to leave the last of our harvest for the widow and orphan. Indeed the marker of the greatest Torah scholars has not only been their brilliant minds, but their great sensitivity to the needs of all people.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892, Belarus) exemplified this. While known for his magnum opus, the Beis Halevi, a work still studied widely today, the stories of his kindness are even more legendary. During the busy pre-Passover season, as dozens of people streamed through his house asking him questions, a local widow came to him with a strange question. She wanted to know if she could use milk (instead of wine) for her Four Cups at the Seder. Although the question had a very clear and simple answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared to give it some serious thought, so as not to embarrass the woman for asking such a simple question, and then answered her that one could not use milk to fulfill the mitzvah of the Four Cups.
After the woman left, Rabbi Soloveitchik immediately called over one of the members of the household, gave him a large sum of money, and instructed him to go to the market and buy all the Passover necessities for the woman. Without further ado, the man bought wine, meat, matzah, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and discreetly placed it outside the woman’s door. When he returned, he asked Rabbi Soloveitchik his reason for this unusual errand. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, “If she is coming to ask me whether she can use milk for the Seder, it is clear that she can’t even afford four cups of wine, let alone all the other needs for Passover!”
This exemplifies the Torah’s perfect blend of spirituality and humanity.
This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!)
Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement.
The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up.
Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!).
The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings). We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us.
The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavout (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!).
The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would remain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!).
The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, Who gave you everything you have! So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d Who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!
Quote of the Week: He that is not in the war is not out of danger. ~ A. Sulwaki
Random Fact of the Week: During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
Funny Line of the Week: The scientific theory I like best is that rings of Saturn are entirely made of lost airline baggage.
Have a Satisfying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham