We are living through paradoxical times. On the one hand, Baruch Hashem, we have plenty. Supermarkets are stocked with food, our dinner table still has a collage of colors, Amazon is still dropping off packages almost daily. Our homes are heated and cooled. Water runs clean and clear. We have so much! On the other hand, getting hand sanitizer, thermometers, Lysol wipes, and many other corona fighters is still quote difficult. And then there is the lack of toilet paper. Perhaps no item was hoarded as strenuously and unnecessarily as toilet paper. Which reminds me of the Global Rice Crisis of 2008, a story that is fascinating, and hopefully instructive.
I like rice. Rice is great if you’re hungry and want 2000 of something. – Mitch Hedberg
Rice is actually much more than a good meal when you want 2,000 of something; in many countries around the world, rice equals life. For us Americans who eat an average of only 15.4 pounds of rice per year, rice seems like no big deal. If rice disappeared off the shelves of all stores in the US, most of our lives wouldn’t be that different, we’d just eat more quinoa. But for people in Asia, where most people eat rice two to three times a day, and average annual consumption soars above 400 pounds, rice is a big deal.
In China, this word: 飯 means both rice and food, because they are seen as synonymous. In Thailand, when you call your family to a meal, you say, “come eat rice.” In India, rice is the first food a wife offers her husband, and the first food parents feed their baby. Rice is so important to people in Asia that many countries consider it strategically important to ensure that their citizens can obtain rice at a fair price. They create governmental policies around rice pricing under the term “Food Security Acts”.
The vast importance of rice to the many of the most populated countries in the world is actually what caused the 2008 Global Rice Crisis. The crisis started in October of 2007 in the government offices of India. India had plenty of rice; it was actually one of the world’s greatest exporters of rice. But in 2007, India had an antipoverty law in place to guarantee all its citizens with cheap food staples, an undertaking which required them to keep 60 million tons of wheat and rice on hand. The global prices of wheat were rising dramatically, so the Indian government decided that it was crucial for them to hold onto whatever rice they had, to offset the lack of wheat. On October 9, 2007, the Indian government banned the export of most forms of rice.
On October 10th, the price of rice on the global market jumped 20%. Economists from all over the world tried to convince India to abolish their premature export ban which could rapidly disrupt world markets (they had plenty of rice!). But the president of India got on the radio and resolutely told the world that he wasn’t responsible for the food security of the world, he was responsible for the food security in India, and he wasn’t lifting the ban. As kids, we used to have a saying, “What’s that got to do with the price of rice in China?” Well that statement from the president of India, a major exporter of rice, had a lot to do with the price of rice in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, the Phillipines, Senegal, Haiti, and all over the world!
India’s hoarding caused total panic in the market and by the time January had rolled around, the price of rice had doubled from $300 a ton to $600 a ton. But it got worse due to a famous law of geopolitics: paranoid nation see, paranoid nation do. Egypt and Pakistan banned rice exports in January, Vietnam in February, and Brazil in April. Thailand- the world’s largest exporter of rice, began floating the idea that it would create the rice equivalent of OPEC to regulate, control, and limit rice sales around the world. To top it off, corrupt politicians began buying rice on the sly, then selling it back to their own governments for enormous profits, further pushing up the price of rice. If things were out of control before, in April of 2008, they got downright crazy. Prices shot up to over $1,200 a ton, quadruple what they had been before the crisis! And please remember; there was no shortage of rice in the world.
People in many countries began to go hungry, having to forgo their breakfast staple altogether, and eat limited amounts for dinner. Riots broke out in cities across the world, six people died in a particularly vicious food riot in Haiti. In the US, Costco ran out of rice, because people were buying fifty pound bags, and shipping them to their relatives in the Philippines.
So how do you stop a global rice crisis? You bring in the superheroes. In this case they were Peter Timmer and Tom Slayton. Peter Timmer was a semi-retired professor of economics at Harvard, and Tom Slayton was a global rice expert with 35 years of experience following the rice market for the USDA and private commodity firms. They got together with the sole goal of saving the world from the Rice Crisis. They realized that the only way to stop the crisis was to flood the market with rice. But where do you find massive quantities of rice when nations around the world are hoarding rice? The answer? In Japan.
Japan had blocked the import of US rice for decades through high tariffs. But the World Trade Organization forced them to stop this blockage of international trade by requiring Japan to buy huge quantities of US rice. The Japanese complied, but they didn’t sell that rice to Japanese out of fear that Japanese would actually like US rice and stop buying Japanese rice. They also couldn’t sell it to other countries because of the World Trade Organization’s rules. So they would stockpile it in massive warehouses for years until it went bad, and then sell it to Japanese farmers as animal feed.
After a thorough investigation, Peter Timmer and Tom Slayton discovered that Japan was holding 1.5 million tons of high quality US rice in warehouses, all while the world was starving for overpriced rice. They lobbied the US government and the World Trade Organization to make a onetime exception that would allow Japan to sell their American rice on the open market. Through extensive lobbying, article writing, and public announcements, they got their exception.
In mid-April, Japan made an announcement that they would begin selling vast amounts of rice to the Philippines. The very next day the price of rice dropped $200 a ton. The global rice crisis, which was built not on a shortage of rice but on global fear and panic, began to dissipate. Within a few months the price of rice fell more than 50%, and people around the world got their food back.
For the record, Japan never sold that rice. It didn’t need to. The mere news that the market would soon be flooded with rice was all it took to topple the panic and fear, and end the crisis.
The Global Rice Crisis of 2008 and the Toilet Paper Crisis of 2020 hold a very important lessons for us. It teaches us the power of perception. There was no shortage of rice, there was more than enough rice to feed the whole world comfortably, but the crisis was caused by the perception of a shortage! And ironically it ended without Japan unloading their 1.5 million tons of rice, it ended because people perceived that there would be no more “shortage.” There is no shortage of toilet paper, there is already enough toilet paper to supply our country for many months to come. But there is a perception of toilet paper shortage, and that is all you need. The global economy doesn’t run on reality, it runs on perception.
Perception doesn’t only play an enormous role in global economics, it also determines how many of us see our world. Right or wrong, perception determines whether people feel secure, loved, successful, and valuable, or whether they feel lonely, unloved, worthless, and distressed. We all know really good people plagued with self doubt, people who live their lives in quiet panic and fear because of their low perceived self worth.
It sometimes causes them to act loud and brash to overcompensate, and sometimes causes them to retreat inward, closing themselves off from greater involvement with the world, which would benefit them, and could benefit from them. They have no great shortages, it is simply a perception issue. I often find myself saying to them, “I wish you could see yourself through my eyes.”
There is one way we can help others build a positive self perception and that is by telling them how we perceive them. Reminding people frequently of the good qualities we see in them helps them perceive themselves differently, and positive actions almost always follow the change in perceptions.
One of the most influential people in my life was Rabbi Yisroel Steinwurtzel. He was my rebbi during the most tumultuous period of my life, the late teenage years. I was filled with self doubt, but he filled me with confidence. He must have told me 1,000 times, “Leibush, you are a tzaddik!” This was in a period in my life when I certainly didn’t see myself as a tzaddik, but his perception of me changed my perception of me, and soon I wanted to get to where he saw me. I’m still on the road, but he was the one who put me on that road, by changing my self-perception.
If we have a son who is struggling with learning difficulties, we can be the ones who ensure that they know that their worth is not tied to test scores or their penmanship, but in the person they are. If we have a daughter that is struggling with social issues, we can be the ones who make sure they know just how truly loved they are. We can be the ones who lift a spouse out of mid-life existential angst, or give our aging parents a sense of just how important they are to our families.
Social distancing is a perception as well. Obviously, we are not going to restaurants, concerts, school, or even the barber. But that doesn’t mean we need to be socially distant from anyone, it only means that we need to be physically distant. This is the greatest opportunity for those who seek to be socially close! All we need to do is pick up the phone, hop on Facetime or WhatsApp video, or log onto a Zoom chat! And because most people are at home, they have time for us, they want to talk to friends and acquaintances.
With our frequent positive words, with our open reaching out to people who are physically isolated, we can reverse people’s internal crises, we can change their perceived shortages into surpluses. We can all be superheroes.
Parsha Dvar Torah
The two Parshiot of this week, Tazria and Metzora, deal primarily with an affliction called tzara’at. As Nachmonides explains, this was not a typical form of leprosy (which could be healed easily with some Noni juice and a little ginko-biloba, the common cure for pretty much everything today) but a spiritual ailment which manifested itself physically on the person’s body. This affliction was the result of committing one of several transgression, the most common being lashon hara, which is gossip and slander.
As part of the purification process, the metzorah is commanded to bring a number of items that symbolize messages he needs to inculcate. The one trait that characterizes any gossiper is arrogance, as this gives him the callousness to hurt other’s feelings. Therefore, the metzorah brings some hyssop branches, a lowly plant meant to remind the metzorah to become more humble. Additionally, he brings a piece of crimson wool, whose dye is made of a pigment from a lowly snail, which also reminds him to lower himself.
The third thing he brings is a piece of cedar wood, which is quite baffling, as the cedar tree is anything but lowly. Au contraire, it is a very tall tree reaching heights of 120- 180 feet tall! Rashi (in Arachin, 16A) explains that the cedar wood reminds the person of the haughtiness that he needs to purge from his character. But that leaves us with the question of why it is wrapped together with the hyssop that symbolizes the opposite pole
My Rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, once offered the following explanation, which is very instructive for anyone on a pathway to personal betterment. There are two ploys used by the yetzer hara (the evil inclination, the little red guy in our heads with the pitchfork) to prevent us from growth. The first one he uses is inflating our ego to the point where we believe that we are just fine the way we are, and we don’t need to change anything in our lives. When we feel this way, we can come to the sin of slander. Such a situation needs a spiritual affliction, such as tzara’at, to wake us up to the reality that we do need to change. As far as the evil inclination is concerned, strategy #1 works just fine for most people, and for that reason most people live their lives without a constant, urgent drive to change.
But what does the evil inclination do when he bumps up against those individuals that are really bent on change? He changes gears, does a 180, makes a U-turn, flips a turn about, or if you have French in your blood, pulls a volte-face, but I think you get the point. Now he comes to that same person and tries to minimize him, put him down, and tell him that he is a nobody, he is weak, he can’t possibly change anyway so why try. Or he tells the person that they are so insignificant that what they do make no difference to G-d or to the world.
After a review of the two possible thought patterns that can deter a person from change, we understand what the cedar wood is doing in the metzorah’s purification process. He has two items (hyssop and crimson wool) to remind him to be humble, as arrogance led him to gossip and slander in the first place, and it is clear that he saw himself as above others. But there is still a fear that he will swing to the other extreme, and begin to say, “I’m just a nobody; my words don’t make a difference to anyone,” or, “I’m such a bad person, so steeped in my ego that I will never be able to really change for the better!” To counteract this, there is also a piece of a towering tree involved in his purification to remind him that he has unlimited potential, that he can grow and soar and ascend to heights he never fathomed reaching!
The first of the two Parshiot we read this week, Tazria, begins with laws of impurity associated with childbirth. The idea is that life alone in not an end, rather life’s purpose is that we elevate ourselves, To this end, when a child is brought into this world the mother goes through a process of impurity which then leads to purity. This mimicks the type of life she wants her child to lead – one of growing, and elevating themselves from their basic state to a higher state.
After that, the Torah launches into the laws of tzara’at (see above) for the rest of the Parsha. It talks about the different forms of tzara’at, the way the Kohen makes his diagnoses, and what the metzora does after being diagnosed. One major part of his “medicine” is the law requiring him to sit in isolation for a week. This is supposed to help him realize how he made others feel when he spoke negatively about them, and caused rifts, dissension, and isolation.
The last section of the parsha deals with tzara’at that appears on clothing. (No, that reddish or greenish blotch on that suit is not the latest styling from Versace, it is actually a spiritual disease manifesting itself on clothing!) Our Sages explains that because of G-d’s great compassion, one does not immediately get tzara’at upon his body. Rather, he first gets it on his house, as is described in our second Parsha, Metzora. Hopefully, he learns his lesson and stops gossiping and slandering, however, if he doesn’t, it starts to afflict his clothing (a little bit too close for comfort). If the person continues to ignore these blatant cues telling him to shape up, he then gets the full force affliction on his body, for which the atonement process is the longest.
Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora upon the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. If you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week, and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man.
The torah next discusses how tzara’at can afflict a house. Although we explained above that tzara’at of the house was the first step to awakening someone to change, the commentators note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in the walls of their homes. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures! If you are wondering why someone seems to get rewarded for sinning, I’m glad. A. Because you’re still reading, B. because you’re thinking critically about what your reading. Please go out, get an answer and email me back with it, or email me that you’ve given up, and I will send you the answer!
The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contaminations. Being that today there is no tzara’at to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!
This week, Shabbos is also Rosh Chodesh, which means that if we were in shul, we would take out a second Sefer Torah and read the portion that described the special sacrifices that were brought in the Beis Hamikdash on Shabbos and on Rosh Chodesh. How we would love to see the redemption so that we can once again bring the beautiful offerings of the Jewish People to our Father in Heaven!
Quote of the Week: Honesty is the first chapter of the Book of Wisdom. ~ Thomas Jefferson
Random Fact of the Week: A blue whale’s heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle!
Funny Quip of the Week: A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.
Have a Preternatural Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham