Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing two starkly contrasted national treasures in rapid succession. Both were awe-inspiring, both left me speechless, but one was made by G-d, and one made by man. One displayed the majesty and might of G-d, while the other showcased the abilities He gave man.
My wife and I first visited one of our National Historic Landmarks, the Hoover Dam. Once the largest concrete edifice in the world, the immensity of the dam is the first thing that strikes you as you approach it. About a quarter of a mile long and 726 feet tall, it just goes down and down and down… Massive expanses of precision curved concrete sit baking quietly in the glaring sun, as they have for the last seventy-two years, never moving an inch, despite the fact that they hold back 9.2 trillion gallons of water.
After spending an hour in the excellent visitor center, one really begins to grasp what a colossal accomplishment it was to build the Hoover Dam. Recognizing that it was built in 1933, when many of the technologies we use for large-scale construction projects were about available as Wi-fi and Starbucks, the respect meter gets ratcheted up a few notches. But when you hear that seven companies worked seamlessly together to complete the dam two years ahead of schedule and well under budget, then the respect meter just breaks under the strain!
For starters, the builders had to create diversion tunnels so they could dry the riverbed enough to work on it. Parts of those diversion tunnels are still in use today, used to feed water to the hydroelectric generators. We stood on top of a thirty foot wide tunnel, and could feel the humbling power of the roaring Colorado River rushing beneath our feet. When the generators are at max capacity, there is enough water passing through those tunnels to fill 150 swimming pools every second!
The next requirement, before construction could begin on the dam itself, was to remove loose rock from the canyon walls, as the dam needed to be embedded in solid rock. “High-scalers” would climb down the canyon walls on ropes, where they worked with jackhammers and dynamite to strip away the loose rock.
Once the canyon was ready, the following step was to fill it with 4.4 million yards of concrete – enough concrete to build a four foot wide belt around the earth! The critical problem was that concrete heats up and contracts as it cures, and engineers estimated that it would take 125 years for all that concrete to cool down enough to be stable! The revolutionary solution, which would change dam building forever, was to put pipes in the concrete as they poured it, and pipe cold water through the concrete, to cool it down. This required building refrigeration plant in the desert, but it worked masterfully, and they were able to pour concrete twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty four days a year (and I don’t think it was Yom Kippur they stopped for!).
At the base, the Hoover Dam is essentially a solid wall of solid concrete, 660 feet wide. As it gets closer to the top, the thickness tapers off, since the weight of the water bearing down on it decreases. The top of the dam is forty-five feet wide, and contains a roadway straddling Nevada on one side and Arizona on the other, a roadway we traveled with healthy respect.
When the dam began doing its job of holding back the Colorado River, it took six and a half years for it to create Lake Mead, the largest manmade reservoir in the US. One hundred and ten miles long, Lake Mead effectively collects all of the Colorado Rivers waters, preventing the flooding that was commonplace before the dam was erected, and utilizing the water for hydroelectric generators in the power station at the base of the dam. We took an elevator that descended 500 feet into the bedrock and let us out into a rough-hewn tunnel that led to the generator room on the Nevada side.
Eight massive generators, each one over forty feet tall, stand side by side on a spotless tiled floor. They spin magnets inside coils of wire, to excite electrons and make them dance just a bit faster, something we call electricity. All the generators in the Hoover Dam create enough electricity to provide for 1.3 million people, (a total of 4.2 billion kilowatt-hours annually if that figure helps at all).
Leaving the Hoover Dam, there is a palpable sense of amazement at the people who were able to construct something so powerful, and a renewed respect for the potential mankind has to create almost anything it sets it’s mind to.
The next part of our trip took us to something radically different, but equally wondrous – the Grand Canyon. Using words to describe the Grand Canyon is like using a toothbrush to brush your hair; you can only just scratch the surface. The beauty one beholds when gazing at miles of brilliantly colored canyons stretching forth as far as the eye can see, silently standing guard over the lazy Colorado River, is virtually indescribable.
The Grand Canyon soars to majestic heights, in many places taller than four Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. Precipices and gorges jut out into the canyon, thousands of feet tall yet only a few feet wide, defying the laws of architecture city dwellers have grown accustomed to. The walls of the Grand Canyon vary in color from sandstone tan and dirty orange to a dusty maroon, but when the setting sun strikes the walls, the colors roar to life, taking on fiery hues far beyond the palette of any human artist.
All this beauty was created without a single pneumatic drill, not a stick of TNT, no cranes, bulldozers or cement mixers. G-d used one simple tool – water. Oh, and one more ingredient that G-d has an unlimited source of… time! For eons, the Colorado River rushed through the riverbed dragging with it bits of earth, sand particles, and little rocks. With enough time, this water carved out a 277 mile long canyon that in places is eighteen miles wide, and reaches depths of 6,000 feet! One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it is a masterpiece hundreds of times more difficult to build than the Hoover Dam, yet it’s a masterpiece mankind had no part in, it was created by The Artist.
This recent trip helped me focus on two things. It reminded me of what a wondrous world G-d has given us, and also how crucial it is for us to do our share to build it up, and make it even better.
When G-d finished creating the world and celebrated the first Shabbos ever, the Torah tells us, “And G-d blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, for on it He abstained from all His work that G-d created to do.” (Genesis, 2:3) The Sages ask about the meaning of the last words “to do,” as they seem quite unnecessary. The verse could have just as easily said, “for on it He abstained from all His work that G-d created.”
But the Sages tell us that it means that G-d created everything “to do” for us to do. He created a perfectly imperfect world leaving us to become partners with Him in creation by doing what we can to perfect it. The Colorado River was superb in its natural state, creating the monumental Grand Canyon and watering millions of acres of farmland, but now it is even better as it not only never floods, it also provides a steady supply of water to the farms that grow two thirds of US produce, and electricity for millions.
This setup is found not only in the physical world, but in the social and spiritual world as well. G-d created capable and resourceful human beings, but Ge left us plenty “to do”. There are poor people we can feed, sicknesses we can cure or find cures for, elderly people who can use an extra hand going shopping or cooking meals. There are people we can invite to our homes for a Shabbos meal and show them a beauty they may have never seen before. We can perfect ourselves and the world around us by making prayer a more meaningful part of our life and praying for others as well, or by finding ways to do private acts of kindness.
There is so much beauty in the natural world, yet we can create even more wonder when we put on our hard hats, and start building!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks parsha, Ki Saitzei, the Torah tells us the following commandment: “Do not observe your brother’s donkey or ox collapsing on the road and ignore them. You must surely lift it up with him.” (Deut. 22:4) The modern day equivalent of this commandment would be the Torah commanding us to help someone whose car breaks down. (As a matter of fact, on the East Coast, many cities with a large Jewish population have an organization called Chaverim, Friends. These organizations have a 24 hour hotline that is made specifically for anyone whose car breaks down or has any other car related trouble. They dispatch someone who helps the person for no charge.)
Now, as we have mentioned in previous emails, there are many mitzvos that are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that are repeated in Deuteronomy. (Hence the prefix Deut which means second, as many mitzvos are repeated here). This mitzvah is one of them. The first time we see this commandment in the Torah is in Exodus, 23:5, “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort to help him.” Five points for you if you notice the difference between the two verses. OK, I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is as follows: in the earlier verse in Exodus the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your enemy, whereas in our verse in Deuteronomy, the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your brother. Why does the Torah transition from enemy to brother?
Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda (early 11th century rabbi and philosopher from Spain) gives us the following explanation. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava. The root of that word is the word hav, which means to give. This teaches us that, contrary to popular notions, we don’t love the person who gives, and sacrifices so much for us. Rather, we love the person we give so much to, and sacrifice so much for. (This explains why parents generally love their children more than the children reciprocate. The parents give so much more to the children than the children give to the parents.)
That being said, if someone feels that there is some love lost between them and their spouse, a child, or a friend, one way to help rekindle the feeling is to find something he can do for that person (if he can do it without the other person knowing that is sometimes even better!) Now that we got the Therapy Tip of the Week out of the way, we can get back to our question about why the Torah transitions from calling the donkey owner your enemy to calling him your brother. Based on this concept, if the first time one sees his enemy’s donkey fallen on the side of the road he goes and helps him despite his inner dislike, then he will build love for that person, and that person will no longer be his enemy, but change to being his brother! The Torah here is hinting to us the powerful recipe for turning enemies into friends. Do something for that person, water, place in sunlight, and watch the friendship blossom!!!
This week’s Parsha is made up almost entirely of laws, dozens of them. As a matter of fact, this Parsha contains more mitzvos than any other Parsha in the Torah – 74 to be exact. I won’t be able to go into detail for all of them, and I may skip some, but I challenge you to find out which ones I skipped and email me back with the list.
The first law is quite a intriguing one. It deals with a soldier falling for the beauty of women captured in battle, and desiring her as a wife. The Torah knew that if it flat-out forbade the relationship, soldiers overcome by the fatigue and the challenges of war would disregard the law. Instead, the Torah allows one to take the captive lady as a wife, but only after a number of conditions are met. These conditions are designed to help disenchant the soldier. The captive woman must sit by the door of his house dressed in clothes of a mourner, with no makeup, and mourn the family that she lost in the war. (This is a great insight into marital relationships: no one wants a spouse who sits moping and mourning all the time!) If, as the Torah hopes, he decides that he doesn’t want her as a wife after all, he must set her free; he can’t make her a captive servant after putting her through that ordeal.
The next law discusses someone who has two wives – one he favors and one he hates. The Torah estate law dictates that a man’s firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance. If this person’s firstborn is from the less favored wife, he cannot elect to give the double portion to his oldest son from the beloved wife, but has to leave it to the rightful heir, the firstborn. The reason this law is found immediately after the previous law is to teach us that those who marry people based on their looks, as did the soldier in the previous law, are bound to end up hating each other and trying to find ways to spite each other.
The next portion discusses the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the rebellious son, the kind of person who makes us tell our children, “Just give him the lunch money; I can’t afford to buy new glasses every day!” This follows the previous law to teach us that if one hates their wife and there is no shalom in the house, they are setting the stage for rebellious children. While I was living in NYC I spent many years working with delinquent children, and I saw this to be so true. Ninety percent of the children we worked with came from homes lacking shalom.
The Torah warns us about the law of Hashavas Aveida, returning a lost item. Not only does the Torah command us to not ignore any lost items we see, it even tells us that we have a responsibility to actively seek out the rightful owner, so that we can return the object to them. We are then told that if we wish to take eggs or young birds from a nest, we must first shoo away the mother. This mitzvah is rewarded with long life, a fact which prompts Rashi to point out that if we get long life for such a simple mitzvah, imagine the reward for a difficult mitzvah, one that demands strong self-control! The Torah next prohibits cross dressing, commands us to put up a fence on our roofs to prevent any accidents, and reiterates the mitzvah of tzitzit.
One of the laws in this week’s Parsha shows a great deal about the sensitivity of the Torah. Before the banking industry was what it is today, personal loans were the most common form of loan. In order to guarantee that a lender would get his money back, he would often take an object belonging to the debtor as collateral. The Torah teaches that we may not take an object that will impede the debtor’s ability to earn a livelihood, such as a millstone (the part of a mill used to grind grain, which would earn the debtor money). The creditor is not allowed to come into the debtor’s house to demand the collateral. Rather, he must wait outside while the debtor brings the collateral out to him. This way, the debtor is able to retain a certain level of dignity – he is the sole ruler of his house, and his debts and inadequacies need not follow him into his home and sanctuary.
In this week’s Parsha there is also the prohibition against usury or taking interest for a loan. The Torah both commands us to lend money to help the destitute get back on their feet, and forbids us from taking interest. This is to help us become more giving. The Torah understands that the only way we will become better people is by doing acts of kindness, not by simply having all the right feelings in our heart.
It is no wonder that the Jewish people are the most philanthropic race on this planet, with a higher percentage of their wealth being given to charity than any other race (According to one study the Mormons give more. The problem is that the Mormons are a very small group, and the researchers only count the religious ones as real Mormons, and the non-religious ones, who would likely give less, are not included in their calculations). In the Jerusalem phonebook, there are 96 pages listing free loan societies which lend or give away everything from medicine to power tools to chairs and tables for events to free medical referrals to mother’s milk! As we say, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael- who is like your nation, oh Israel”
Quote of the Week: If you want people to think you are wise, just agree with them. – Samuel Fremont
Random Fact of the Week: Per capita, Canadians buy more diamonds than anyone on earth.
Funny Line of the Week: If the #2 pencil is the most popular, why isn’t it #1?
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham
This Post Has One Comment
Having visited both the Hoover Dam and The Grand Canyon this commentary was particularly meaningful to me. The awe they provoke is amazing. What good man can do if we use our gifts with wisdom.