The Eurasian tree sparrow, according to Wikipedia, is a passerine bird in the sparrow family with a rich chestnut crown and nape, and a black patch on each pure white cheek. It reaches a height of about five inches, and weighs in at just under an ounce, keeping it on the lower range in terms of bird size. But despite its diminutive size and relatively cheerful disposition, millions of people were mobilized to battle this humble bird, and they attacked it for years with ferocity.

Mao Zedong, the son of peasant farmers in the Chinese province of Hunan, was attracted to radical ideas from a very young age, and became an avowed Marxist while working as a librarian at Peking University. He became one of the founding members of the CCP, Chinese Communist Party, in 1927, and led it until his death in 1976. He led the battle against the Chines Nationalist Party until 1949, and when he was victorious and chased them to Taiwan, he continued battling his own people for ever greater Communist commitment. Along the way, he was responsible for the death and torture of well over 55 million people; never assume librarians are as docile as they appear. But his war against sparrows had nothing to do with Communism, it had much more to do with grain.

At some point, Mao decided that each sparrow eats about two kilo of grain a year, and as such, they were terrible thieves stealing from the hardworking Communist workers. The punishment for such theft, if done by a human in Mao’s China, would have been death, and the sparrows were no less guilty. Whatever Mao decided was immediately backed up by scientific studies, so soon war was declared on the sparrow.

The sparrow was not alone. During a period known as The Great Leap Forward from 1958-1962, Chinese society entirely upended itself trying to meet centrally planned goals and actually took a great leap backwards. The two main goals of the Great Leap Forward were to increase the supply of grain, and turn China into an industrial powerhouse. There were four species deemed to be holding back the progress of society. The Four Pests Campaign was aimed at eradicating the mosquitos responsible for malaria, rodents responsible for carrying the plague, flies who were annoying, and the sparrow for eating grain. Posters were placed all over public and private areas calling upon the patriots to patrol and purge The Four Pests.

The war against the sparrow was carried out by millions of people spanning the country destroying any nests and smashing any eggs they could find. Sparrows were shot out of the sky. People would bang pots and pans day and night, making loud noises and preventing the sparrows from resting. It is unclear how the humans got sleep, but that was of less concern to Chairman Mao.

To illustrate the zealousness of this campaign, the story of the Polish embassy is instructive. The Polish people were offended by the war on sparrows, and refused entry into the embassy to the Chinese who wanted to come in and kill the sparrows. Soon, sparrows from all over Beijing made their way to the one safe space they could find, the Polish Embassy, and the grounds were filled with sparrows. So the Chinese surrounded the whole embassy with thousands of people who banged pots and pans for three days and nights, and finally the sparrows dropped dead from exhaustion. The Polish personnel eventually had to clean out the dead sparrows with shovels.

The campaign worked, and eventually there were almost no sparrows left in China. You would assume that it would have left the people with much more grain, but it was not so simple. While Mao assumed each sparrow ate two kilo of grain, he forgot about something much more important that the sparrows eat, locust. With all the sparrows gone, the locusts had no predator to keep them in check, and massive swarms of locusts began to ravage the country, becoming one of the biggest contributors to The Great Famine. Widely regarded as the deadliest famine and one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history, the Great Famine had a death toll due to starvation that ranges in the tens of millions, with estimates as low 15 and as high as 55 million. Eventually, China had to import hundreds of thousands of sparrows from the Soviet Union to bring the locusts under control.


We are rapidly approaching Rosh Hashana, a day that wears many hats. It is the Jewish New Year, it is the Day of Judgment, the birthday of mankind, and the Sages tell us it’s the Day of G-d’s Coronation. When you look at the prayers, there is a far greater emphasis on the coronation theme than any of the others. Indeed, the Rabbis tell us that our thoughts and prayers should be mostly about declaring G-d king, and not so much about asking for a great New Year for ourselves. Less focus on the Judgment, more on the Coronation.

But what does it mean to coronate G-d? He is the Creator of the world, and as such, is technically the king whether we acknowledge it or not! What does it mean when I chant the prayers that keep repeating “Hashem is the King” or some derivation of that?

Coronation means that I recognize G-d’s supremacy in the world, and don’t question His decision making, the way a loyal subject doesn’t question a king’s decisions. G-d created a world with wisdom far beyond human comprehension, but we keep thinking that we can engineer a better world than G-d. So we take down parts of His world or His word, and we think it will lead to a better life for us, but it never does.

G-d created sparrows, Chairman Mao thinks they were a mistake because they eat grain, so he eradicates G-d’s creation, and then discover that G-d’s creation was perfect all along, and that sparrows are crucial to human thriving! We do this all the time. G-d tells us that we need to sanctify our Shabbos and spend it immersed in soul cultivation, we think we can use it better by going to the beach, or catching up on chores around the house. We create our own rules for Shabbos, and then when we don’t see the family life we wished we could have, we don’t have a single day free from emails and phone calls, we don’t see the bracha and serenity we hoped for and we wonder why!

G-d tells us not to speak badly of one another. We think we know better, “it’s only words!” and then we can’t understand why our world is fractured with fighting and interpersonal pain. G-d tells us to make blessings on everything we eat with real intent, to say prayers filled with gratitude with feeling and authenticity, we at best mumble our way through our prayers, and then wonder why we’re cynical, critical and unhappy!

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of mankind. On this day 5784 years ago, G-d kickstarted human history by blowing a Neshama in Adam and Eve. It is also the anniversary of the first time humans thought they had a better plan, they could eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and it would work out fine. It’s the anniversary of the first time humanity realized a bit too late that G-d knew best. Now we try to be proactive, we try to start off our year with a declaration of “You are King, I coronate you!” I am not trying to second guess You, G-d, I’m not going to try to figure out a better system, I’m going to do what I can to get in line with Your vision for the world, not mine. We can’t promise we’ll get it right every time, and we can’t promise that we’ll follow through with 100% compliance, but Rosh Hashanah is at least the time where we declare where our allegiance is. It’s not to our own plan, it’s to His.

So as the shofar blows, let’s take that moment to calibrate our thinking, let’s commit to not second guessing G-d, let’s commit to coronating G-d by recognizing His sovereignty, then G-d will surely bless us with a Sweet New Year, so that we have the tools at our disposal to spend the year lifting ourselves to the place we committed to at the very beginning of the year!

Have a Shana Tova Umesuka!

Parsha Dvar Torah

“For this mitzvah that I am commanding you today; it is not abstruse to you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say, “Who will travel overseas for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)

Many of the early commentators tell us that this verse is referring to the mitzvah of repentance, which is discussed in the paragraph preceding this one. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein zt’l asks, why does the Torah say “in your mouth and your heart to do it”? Shouldn’t the order be your heart and then your mouth?

 Usually, a person thinks or feels something, then they begin to verbalize it, and only after talking about it for a while do they actually carry it out. (For example, for years now I have had an idea of a really cool invention. At first I thought about if for a long time. Then I started discussing it with people who knew the industry, and they liked it. In about four or five years I may actually get around to doing something about it!)

Contrary to what most people think, the reverse of the above idea works as well. One can verbalize an idea so much that it starts to get solidified in his heart. I’ll give you an example. When I stub my toe, I start to sing a little song with the following words “yisurim mechaprim avonosov shel adam!” This is a phrase from the Rabbis that means that when one gets afflicted in any way, major or minor, it serves to atone for some of his sins. I sing it to remind myself that the pain I am feeling from my stubbed toe, is actually serving a great purpose. Within second of singing my little ditty, I usually start smiling.

 That is the power of words. Most people in that situation would be saying things which wouldn’t reflect too well on them as a person, and I am actually happy! The words we utter can affect real changes in our heart.

This is the message that Moshe is imparting to the Jewish people. Repentance is a very daunting task. It forces us to come face to face with our shortcomings and reminds us that we will need to undergo significant lifestyle change. Sometimes we feel in our hearts that we simply can’t do it. However, we must verbalize (out loud, not just in thought) how much we want to change, how negative our behavior is to our life, and that WE CAN DO IT. If we do that, the words will enter our hearts, and we will be capable of instigating changes we had previously thought impossible.

I’m sure some of you are skeptical, and you may even be thinking that my social work background is making me too touchy-feely and new age, so I will give you the following exercise. Next time you are angry at someone for something that you know deep down does not really deserve that anger, say, “I’m not angry, it’s not worth it,” ten times, and I guarantee that you will cool off significantly. If it doesn’t work, email me, and we will have to work out an alternative anger-management strategy, but I am quite confident that it will work.

This concept is the underlying idea behind Viduy, the verbal confession on Yom Kippur. G-d knows what we did wrong, why do we need to verbalize it? For the answer please read this dvar Torha once again and you will have your answer. As a matter of fact, read it out loud, verbalize it, and you will begin to feel its truth! 

Parsha Summary

This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai, but with one key difference.

The new covenant included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.

If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being.

Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!

Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than that, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove my protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.

Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way he rejoiced with out forefathers.

Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.

The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be leared from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, they fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.

Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point.

Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I happen to be a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!

Quote of the Week: To seek fulfillment is to invite frustration. – JK

 Random Fact of the Week: A woodchuck, while hibernating breathes 10 times an hour. While it’s awake, it breathes 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Quip of the Week: Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Have a Celebratory Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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