The world as we know it could end in 20 minutes. It almost did on November 9, 1979. In the middle of the night, Zbigniew Brzenzinski, the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, got a call from the US nuclear early warning center in Colorado telling him that the Soviets had launched a massive nuclear missile attack against the US. During the first call, it appeared that there were 250 nuclear missiles heading toward the US at a rate of four miles per second. Moments later, he received the second call, this time it appeared that there were 2,200 missiles headed in the same direction.
The US had more than enough missiles to obliterate the Soviet Union and send it back to the Stone Age (some would argue that it was already in the Stone Age in 1979). But if Soviet missiles were already heading our way, President Jimmy Carter would have to decide what to do in a six minute window. Zbigniew already knew what needed to be done; he had to call the President, and ensure that Jimmy Carter would use his nuclear launch codes to initiate a total wipeout of the USSR.
The American nuclear arsenal at the time had thousands of nuclear missiles, with over 500 of them pre-aimed at targets throughout the USSR. The targets were grouped in three categories; opposing nuclear sites, war supporting industries, and key leadership figures of military and political importance. Over one hundred of those sites were in Moscow alone, with the rest distributed across the vast lands of the USSR. These nuclear missiles were not lightweights like the ones used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the warheads on the more modern weapons packed ten times the destructive power of those WWII baby-nukes. But if the USSR had launched 2,200 missiles at the US, Zbigniew knew that the US had to retaliate with a full out launch of all of its USSR targeted missiles, ensuring the total wipeout of the USSR.
Zbigniew was about to pick up the phone and call President Jimmy, when he got a third call from the nuclear early warning center in Colorado. This time they told him that it was all a mistake, there was no Soviet attack on the way. Someone had inadvertently loaded the wrong software into the radar systems, and instead of showing the true skies, it showed a simulation of an all-out nuclear war that was used in training the military for such a scenario. Had that call come in 6 minutes later, it would have been too late. The US would have already launched over 500 nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union would have surely responded in kind. There would be no more USA, no more USSR, and the nuclear fallout and radiation would have destroyed countries for thousands of miles around them.
This was not the only time that a scenario like this happened. Over the course of the Cold War, situations in which the world hung on a thread happened six times, three times on the US side, and three times on the Soviet side. One time a flock of birds taking flight near a radar facility almost caused the annihilation of hundreds of millions of people. The fact is that we live in a world in which mankind has access to enough nuclear weaponry to wipe out life on this planet many times over. People are worried about global warming, Harambe the gorilla, rising interest rates, and whether to buy whole milk or 2%, while there is most likely a nuclear missile pre-aimed at your head somewhere in the world. It may be in a submarine (the Russians like to park their subs near Bermuda, off the Eastern Seaboard), it may be in a missile silo in Siberia, and it may be surrounded in rice paddies in Guangzhou, China, but it’s there.
Even more remarkable is how surprisingly easy it is to launch one. The US nuclear protocol had many components, but the brain of the whole system is the president. A few days before a president takes office, he is prepped on the nuclear protocol, and on Inauguration Day he is given what is known as the nuclear football. The nuclear football contains the passwords that the president has to use to identify himself, proving his identity to the nuclear war room in the Pentagon, and a few alternate places. Once the President proves his identity, he is then able to call in a single missile strike, or chose from a few pre-approved menus of massive attacks. Those pre-approved menus determine what types of targets will be struck, in which countries, and the number of missiles.
The President also has the ability to appoint specific people, generally four star generals and their replacements (down to two star generals), that can act as his proxy in the contingency that Washington has been obliterated under a mushroom cloud. The NCINCs, Nuclear Commander in Chiefs, have full authority to call in any nuclear strikes in the event of a communications outage that prevents direction from the president or his lawful successors. If Washington was attacked, even with conventional weapons, there is a high likelihood that communications would be down, even for a short time.
If the President does call in a strike, whether or not it is in response to a strike from another country, the military has to obey his order. He or she does not have to elaborate on why they are calling in the order, does not need to prove beyond the shadow of doubt that there is a valid reason to launch a strike that will kill millions, the president’s command is absolute, and must be carried out. There is no wiggle room, no legal way for the military not to obey the order. Putting a convicted murderer to death requires a jury of peers, launching a nuclear holocaust is in the hands of one person. The necessity for this is clear, if there was an imminent danger, waiting until consensus was reached among top military personnel would be too long, but that does bring about a very shaky nuclear situation.
In this year’s hotly contested election cycle, one of the concerns that people have been voicing is the giving over of the nuclear football to someone who has no military experience (both candidates), especially someone who is known for being hotheaded. On top of that, said person is not known for taking advice, some of the things they have said on the campaign trail were clearly were not recommended by their campaign strategists. One of the presumptive nominees said in an interview in March, “My primary consultant is myself.” (Guess which one?!) That same nominee has also been known to fly into absurd attacks against anyone who defies him, such as a judge who ruled against him in a legal proceeding.
US Ambassador Richard Burt, who was leading the START negotiations with the USSR to discuss nuclear non-proliferation, says that he met one of the presidential nominees at a reception in NYC, and the nominee said he wished he could be part of the negotiations. He then advised Burt on how to cut a “terrific deal” with the Russians. His plan was to “arrive late to the next negotiating session, walk into the room where his fuming counterpart sits waiting impatiently, remain standing and looking down at him, stick his finger into his chest and say “(Insert inappropriate word here) you!”
The other presidential nominee has a history of not striking when strikes were called for, such as when the US embassy in Libya was under sustained attack for hours, eventually culminating in the death of a US Ambassador. As Secretary of State, she declared in 2011 that “Assad must go,” when only tens of thousands were killed, but she never followed through and now Assad and his goons have caused the death of over half a million people and the displacement of over 10 million people.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with either nominee having the nuclear football, it’s a scary world when one human being has in their hands the capability to destroy a world…
This past week I was given a nuclear football. I was made a Nuclear Commander in Chief. It’s a very weighty responsibility, one that I carry with enormous awe and respect. And while the encumbrance is massive, I’m also filled with joy that I was entrusted with it by the Commander in Chief.
The nuclear football itself is small, about 7lbs 13ozs, and 20 inches long. It breathes, it cries, it eats and it soils its diapers. My nuclear football is the son that G-d, the ultimate Commander in Chief blessed my wife and I with this week. In our little man is the power of a whole world, as the sages teach us (Sanhedrin 4:5), “It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world. When G-d gave us a child, He is giving us the ability to build up a world, ensuring that it is confident, good, kind, sensitive, loving, honest, disciplined, pure, and righteous. Of course, by giving us the nuclear football, He is also giving us the ability to misfire and bring up a world that is angry, brooding, selfish, insensitive, fearful, uncouth, and mean.
Our 7lb 13oz baby weighs a whole lot more than whatever some scale may say. The way my wife and I interact with this boy over the next twenty years will shape who he is, and what he is all about. It’s almost impossible to believe that G-d gives just two people so much power of a human being, a whole world.
So why am I so joyful, why am I so thankful that G-d gave me this beautiful nuclear football? Wouldn’t I better off without such a heavy task?
In life, every time we take on a new responsibility, we become bigger in the process. When I accept the job of chairing the synagogues annual dinner, I become bigger. When I commit myself to help the new neighbor move in, I become bigger. When I say that I’ll bring the Schwartzs dinner on Tuesday, because they just had a baby, I become bigger. The only way we get bigger is by accepting on ourselves new responsibilities. When we shy away from those opportunities, we stay small. When I make excuses for why I can’t chair the dinner, bring my neighbors dinner, or visit someone in the hospital, I pass up on the opportunity to be big.
Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a great sage living in Jerusalem, he should live and be well, said that joy is the emotion you feel when your soul expands. The Hebrew word for joy, simcha, is closely linked to the word tzimcha, which means growth. Growth = joy. The Hebrew word for pain, tzar, is also the word used to describe something narrow and constrained. Pain = lack of growth.
The truth is that we all have hundreds of moments a day when we can determine how another human being, another world feels. Every time we pass someone in the hall, every time we buy something from a clerk, every time we talk to friends, we are given a mini-nuclear football. We can uplift spirits or we can lower them. We can ennoble people or we can impoverish them simply with how we treat them. The biggest people in our world, are those that use each interaction to build up the other human being. They never misfire, they always use that football with precision, and make the world a better place for it.
When Ha-shem blessed us this week with the most awesome of responsibilities, He opened up a world of growth and joy for my wife and I. It may be heavy, there will surely be challenges and pain along the way, but despite it all, we are filled with gratitude and joy to Him, and we pray that we prove worthy recipients of our job as Nuclear Commanders in Chief. May we all share in many more simchas, Mazal Tov!
Parsha Dvar Torah
Last week’s Torah portion described the census that was taken of the tribe of Levi, starting with those 1 month and older. This week’s parsha continues with another census of the members of the tribe of Levi, this one only of males between the ages of 30-50. In both countings, we find a surprisingly low number: 22,273 in last week’s portion, 8,580 in this week’s – far fewer in number than any other tribe.
What makes this even stranger is the fact that Levi was the only tribe that was not forced into labor in Egypt. The Medrash records that the slave labor in Egypt was started by a massive public works campaign, one in which Pharaoh himself participated. But soon afterwards, the Egyptians slipped away and forced the Jews to remain. The tribe of Levi, who were preoccupied with Torah study, never joined the labor, and were thus never forced to remain. Knowing this, one would think that they should have been the largest tribe.
Nachmonides explains that it was precisely the fact that they were not subjugated that led to their small numbers. He explains that G-d gave a special blessing to the Jewish people that the “the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied, and so did they gain strength” (Exodus 1:12). Thus it was the tribes that were oppressed that grew with prodigious blessing, while the tribe of Levi only grew at a normal rate, and consequently had the comparatively lower numbers they had. Oppression, though something few would welcome, can sometimes be the harbinger of special blessing.
This message is reinforced in a verse in Psalms. The Psalmist praises G-d by saying, “He covers the heavens with clouds, He prepares rain for the land,” (Psalms 147:8). Rav Tzadok HaCohen explains that we often go through difficult times – times in which the horizon appears dark and cloudy – but what is really happening is that G-d is preparing for an outpouring of rain, and blessing. We see this in the germination of seeds, as well, the process that allows for all life on earth. At first, the seed disintegrates, seemingly beaten to nothingness. But then a new life sprouts forth. G-d’s miraculous nature has a way of showing us the light when all we can see is darkness.
A friend shared the following slice of life that underscores this point. Growing up, he had two classmates who were stepbrothers. The mother of one was a divorcee who married a successful attorney who had two children of his own. The woman indulged her child, taking care of all his expenses, providing him with a nice car, and not requiring him to work. The father, who achieved his success through hard work, treated his children much differently. He made them work hard for everything they received. That classmate constantly worked odd jobs, earning low wages in order to buy the things he wanted.
Ironically, the indulged son of the woman is today a baggage handler in a local airport. The husband’s son is a world renowned psychiatrist, who has published dozens of articles, written two books, and is frequently featured on CNN. The hard work, the stress, and the difficulty he went through as a teen certainly paid off. In a similar vein, people with physical handicaps, or who have undergone a serious illness, surprisingly tend to score much higher than others on tests that measure levels of happiness.
Many people are facing new challenges today, due to the economic climate and the market meltdown. This week’s counting of the tribe of Levi gives us a perspective that may help us see the silver lining behind those challenges. That silver lining may come in the form of some bountiful rain about to be showered upon them, or it may come in the form of us developing a deeper appreciation for our family, our health, or other aspects of our life that we may have neglected to appreciate.
This week’s Parsha starts off where the the last Parsha finished, namely, the jobs given to different families within the tribe of Levi. Here, the Torah describes the parts of the Tabernacle that the families of Gershon and Merari carried when the Jews moved from place to place in the Desert.
The Torah then commands us to treat our camp with holiness. In order to do so, people with specific levels of ritual impurity are not allowed into different parts of the camp based on the severity of their impurity. (It is interesting to note that the only group that has to leave the entire camp and sit alone is the people who contracted Tzara’as through speaking badly about others and alienating them. What goes around comes around!) After that, the Torah tells us what to do if someone steals, swears falsely to deny it, and then admits. OK, I won’t keep you in suspense; he pays an extra fifth and brings a special sacrifice for atonement. If the victim dies and leaves no heirs, the money goes to the Kohanim.
The next law discussed, is that of the Sotah. This is a wayward woman, who secludes herself with a specific man, despite having been warned not to do so by her husband. In order to determine if she committed a sin while in seclusion, she is brought to the Temple where a procedure is done to determine if she is as innocent as she professes to be. (If, at any point, she admits to being guilty, she goes home without doing the procedure.) The procedure includes a Kohen reading her the passage regarding the Sotah, and dissolving the parchment into water. She then drinks the mixture after bringing a meal offering. If she is guilty, she immediately dies a difficult death, (as does the adulterer wherever he is at the time), but if she is innocent, she is rewarded with an easier birthing in the future, and great children. (Even though she shouldn’t have secluded herself with someone her husband asked her not to, since the procedure was a difficult one she is rewarded for being innocent.)
The parchment which was dissolved contains G-d’s name. If G-d considers marital harmony to be of such import that he allows His name to be erased (for if the wife lives past this procedure, the husband will be placated and no longer think that she betrayed him), how much more should we be willing to go out of our way to keep our marriages peaceful even if it occasionally costs us a bruised ego. After these laws, the Torah discusses the nazir, whom we discussed above. The two are juxtaposed because when one sees the sotah in her degradation, he should be inspired to take measures to insure that he never fall in that way.
After the laws of the nazir, the Torah tells the Kohanim how to bless the people, a practice still done daily in Israel and on the festivals here in the Diaspora. The final art of the Parsha deals with special offerings the leaders of the Twelve Tribes brought to inaugurate the Tabernacle. The first thing they brought was six sturdy wagons and twelve oxen to pull them. These were to be used in the transportation of the Tabernacle, and were divided amongst the tribe of Levi.
The Kehas family didn’t get any wagons, because their job was to carry the holiest vessels and it would be inappropriate for them to relegate such vessels to wagons. In addition to the wagons, the tribal leaders each brought a number of sacrifices during the first twelve days that the Tabernacle was in service. Although the Torah never uses an extra word, in our Parsha, it spends over seventy verses repeating the sacrifices that the leaders brought even thought they were exactly identical. The Torah is telling us that although on the outside the sacrifices were the same, each leader had unique intentions and meaning in his sacrifice, thus making them different. This underscores the idea that even though we may all pray the same prayers, and do the same mitzvoth, each one of us can have an incredibly unique and individual relationship with G-d based on our intentions and thoughts. Let us all continue to develop that relationship, and grow closer with our Father in heaven!
Quote of the Week: Each day the world is born anew for him who takes it rightly. – James Russel Lowell
Random Fact of the Week: Wood frogs freeze solid in the winter, and then thaw back to life in the spring.
Funny Line of the Week: Money may not buy you happiness, but I would rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.
Have a Joyful Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham