Little Boy, the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, used one hundred and forty one pounds of enriched uranium to produce its big bang. With improved technology, today’s nuclear bombs can be created with thirty five pounds of Uranium-235 or even nine pounds of Plutonium-239. But there is a material far deadlier than enriched uranium or plutonium.
This poison is so deadly that a single gram, carefully dispersed, could kill a million people. Ten pounds of it could kill of most of mankind. It’s the most acutely lethal poison known to mankind. It’s also considered one of the world’s most deadly potential agents of bioterrorism, and the CDC has it on the list of substances that could “pose a severe threat to public, animal, or plant health.” But every day, thousands of people line up to inject it into their faces, and they are willing to spend over 1.3 billion dollars annually to do so.
Botulism is a neurotoxin, a poison that targets the nervous system. It was first described by Justinus Kerner, a small-town German medical officer and poet, who observed people’s reactions to eating infected sausages. Their eyelids drooped, and they had difficulty breathing and swallowing. He called the illness Wurstgift, which means “sausage poisoning.” (Only in German does the word gift mean poison…) Despite recognizing its severe symptoms, he presciently wrote about possible future uses of the bacteria for medicinal purposes.
Seventy-five years later, when dozens of people fell ill and three musicians died after eating infected ham at a funeral, Emile Van Ermengem, a microbiology professor in Belgium isolated the bacteria, which he named Clostridium Botulinum, deriving it from the Latin word for sausage, “botulus.”
Ermengem’s discovery of the bacteria causing botulism was just in time, because the late 1800s happened to be the time that the canned food industry was just starting to take off, and it was almost derailed by the sausage-gift illness. Invented in 1809, canned food was first exclusively used by armies and navies who needed it for their extended travel. By the mid-1800s, canned food was ironically a status symbol, as only luxury households could afford the frivolous excess of canned food.
In the late 1800s, companies began to mass-produce canned goods cheaply and quickly. While this was great for pantries, it was also great for C. Botulinum, as the bacteria thrives in tight sealed spaces. People started dying of botulism in alarming numbers, and the canned food industry might have died, if not for the dedicated work of Karl Friedrich Meyer, a Swiss-American professor at UC San Francisco, who researched botulism in depth. He taught the world how to properly heat food after it was canned to kill off any bacteria that might be in the food.
In the mid-1900s, people began looking at C. Botulinum as a possible weapon. In World War II, both the Americans and the Nazis stockpiled the bacteria, hoping to use it in biological warfare. The fear was so great that the US produced a vaccine and shipped it out to the soldiers preparing for D-Day, although the vaccine was never administered. After United Nations’ investigations, it was discovered that the Iraqis had stockpiled large quantities of C. Botulinum hoping to use it in the tips of their Al-Husayn warheads as part of a biological warfare program.
It wasn’t until the late Eighties, one hundred and sixty years after its discovery, that C. Botulinum was finally used as a medicine. This was due to the work of two scientists who were working with the toxin from two opposite angles. Ed Schantz spent a few decades purifying the botulinum toxin for the US Military in Fort Derick, the Maryland home of the US Biological Weapons program. Alan Scott was an ophthalmologist who was looking for a treatment for people suffering from strabismus, also known as crossed eyes. Strabismus is caused by muscle nerves pulling on the eyes in the wrong places, and Scott was looking for something that would disable those nerves. When the two scientist were put together, they began experimenting with a very dilute form of botulism used to block the nerves pulling on the eyes. At that time, there were no rules about shipments of C. Botulinum, and they were sending each other samples of the most acutely poisonous toxin in the world through the Unites States Postal Service!
The therapy not only worked on strabismus, but also on blepharospasm (twitchy eyelids), and the drug Alan Scott created, called Oculinum, was approved by the FDA in 1989. Two years later, a company called Allergan bought the drug from Alan Scott and renamed it Botox. Mitchell Brin, Allergan’s chief scientist for Botox was enamored by the drug and began testing it on a variety of other conditions, such as slack-jaw, muscle spasms all over the body, and tics and twitches. He greatly expanded its uses, and today, it is approved for use in over twenty different medical cases, ranging from overactive bladders to severe migraines, excessive sweating, and even depression.
In the early nineties, Botox began its next life as a cosmetic application. It all started in the office of Jean Carruthers, an ophthalmologist in Vancouver. She had been treating a woman in her late 30s for twitchy eyelids by injecting Botox into her eyebrows. After a regular treatment, the woman pointed to her forehead and demanded another shot. “Why would you want that? There’s nothing wrong with your forehead?” The woman responded, “Every time you give me a shot, I leave here with this beautiful untroubled expression, and I want that on my forehead!” It turned out that the Botox not only stopped her twitching, but it also stopped the muscles that made the skin sag and wrinkle, instead bringing the skin back to its original vibrancy.
Jean happened to be married to a dermatologist, who had a long line of patients troubled by their wrinkles, and they decided to investigage what Botox would do to people’s faces. They first experimented on Cathy, their receptionist, and then on Jean herself (who says that she hasn’t frowned in over two decades!), and soon Botox became a rapidly rising cosmetic treatment. Today, it is the most common cosmetic treatment in the world, with over 2.9 billion treatments a year!
Today, almost all the botulinum toxin in the world is created by one company, Allergan. The entire annual production of the toxin would fit into the size of an aspirin pill, and by the time it is diluted down to treatment form, it is measured in billionths of a gram. Allergan treats the toxin with the respect it deserves, creating it in a facility with more protection and security than the Pentagon, and moving it with the same security detail as a presidential motorcade (minus the limos, flags, and fanfare). The fear of it being weaponized is still there. But the benefits of this neurotoxin, the most poisonous toxin in the world, are too great to ignore, and the production of poison marches on.
What is C. Botulinum? Is it a deadly food-borne illness? A wonder-treatment for dozens of debilitating medical illnesses? A $600 shot of youth on the face? A weapon that can take out a city? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes.
C. Botulinum is a microcosm for our lives. It is an incredibly powerful bacterium that can bring life, end life, heal pain and suffering, or be used excessively and frivolously. We humans have a neshama, a soul burning deep inside of us, that gives us immense power over the world around us. We can use it to bring life, end life, heal pain and suffering, or be used excessively or frivolously.
When G-d created this world, He gave animation to many species of plant and animal, but only gave human beings a neshama that closely resembled Him. People have used it to create skyscrapers, airplanes, and cancer fighting drugs, and people have used it to create atom bombs, heroin, and AK-47s. People have used it to make organizations that bring medicines to the third-world, clean water to villages that have no access to it, and boxes filled with food to the doorsteps of the hungry. People have used it to create $10,000 handbags, $700 shoes, $1,000 coats, and an accompanying culture of “I want it, I need it, I won’t feel whole without it.”
We all get to decide how we use our N. Eshama, but we most importantly need to give it the respect it deserves. The worst thing we can do is go through our lives without realizing the power of our soul, randomly sending it back and forth in the US Postal Service without caring about the great consequence it can have. Once we realize its power, we need to decide how we want to use it, and create a gameplan for checking in regularly on our most coveted asset.
Utilized properly, one billionth of a lifespan at a time, we can light up our world.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Abraham stood ready to accept his fate. Though he and Sarah had spent a lifetime spreading loving-kindness and bringing countless people back to a relationship with the one true G-d, they had no children of their own. He had been promised offspring by G-d on at least two occasions (Bereishis 12:7, 13:16), but still, Abraham’s understanding of the spiritual laws that govern human existence led him to believe that he and Sarah were not destined to have a child together.
At that very moment, the word of G-d came to Abraham once more and reassured him that his fate has not been sealed. Not only would he have offspring, but also their numbers would be like the stars in heaven. Previously, G-d foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the “dust of the earth.” (Bereishis 13:16)
The Talmud comments on these two metaphors, noting that when the Jewish people stray from their mission and refuse to follow the will of G-d, they will be trampled and looked down upon by all – like the dust of the earth. However, when they fulfill their mission as G-d’s emissaries in the world, they rise to unimaginable heights – like the stars in the heavens.
There is a deeper aspect to comparing the Jewish people to the stars in heaven. From our vantage point, stars appear as tiny specks of light in the sky. It would be easy to regard each star as relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Each star is actually a phenomenally huge, burning mass of energy and power; most are more than a hundred times the size of our own sun.
The same holds true with regard to the powerful spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. From a distance, it can be easy to overlook – or not notice – the special talents and abilities found within each Jewish person. The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as hidden potential! There is only potential that we have perhaps not yet come to see, recognize or understand.
Rabbi Yisroel Brog relates this story from his childhood that illustrates this point:
Rabbi Brog’s father was a man with an enormous heart. He would regularly invite people into his home to share meals, even offering them a place to sleep if need be. Even when a person was a bit eccentric, rude, or demanding, he continued to care for them with patience, kindness and love.
One day, Rabbi Brog’s father brought an elderly, apparently homeless Jewish man home for breakfast. The man asked for two eggs cooked for exactly two minutes. When the eggs were done, he asked for another set – the first two had been cooked longer than his required two minutes! By the end of the week, not only was this man having his “two eggs cooked for two minutes,” he actually moved in – and ended up living with the family for a number of years!
Every day, this old Jew would leave the house at five in the morning. For large parts of the day, he was gone. No one knew where he went or what he did. Rabbi Brog, then a youngster, was curious. One day, he worked up the courage to ask him what he did. The man told him that if he wanted to know, he should join him. The next morning, the young Yisroel was up and ready at five a.m., and together, he and the old man left the house.
That day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the young boy’s life. For an entire day, he watched as this elderly Jew went from hospitals to old age homes to individual homes, helping people without let-up. They visited the elderly and the infirm, bringing them various things they needed, helping them put on tefillin, cheering them up, and raising their spirits. The whole neighborhood felt the impact of this man and his good deeds.
It turned out that Rabbi Brog’s eccentric house guest was a survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. Now, his only wish was to help others as much as he could. Imagine what the young Rabbi Brog would have grown up thinking had he never bothered to draw closer to this hidden treasure!
There are many such people among the Jewish people. Perhaps they are hidden just beyond our view, or perhaps we have not taken the time to discover who they are. Nonetheless, they are there. Learning to seek out, appreciate and encourage the spiritual potential of every Jew enriches our lives and helps us become a nation of people who are truly likened to the stars.
In this week’s Parsha, the story of the creation of the Jewish people commences. In the beginning of the Parsha, Ha-shem tells Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and the house of his father, and go to the place that G-d will show him. G-d promises him greatness, wealth, and children if he goes.
We learn two things from the journey that Avram embarked upon. Firstly, in order for a person to make his mark in the world, he has to do things because he believes in them, not because it is the way he grew up, the custom of his people, or the custom of his parents. Additionally, we see that G-d never told Avram his destination, he simply told him to go “to the place I will show you.” G-d was not trying to hide the destination from Avram, He simply couldn’t show it to him. When one sets out on a spiritual journey, he can’t possibly comprehend his destination, because the journey itself transforms him into a different person, with a different perspective, one that he couldn’t have had at the beginning of the journey
As soon as Avram gets to Israel , the place he was told to travel to, there was a famine. This was one of the 10 tests that Avram was tested with. Would he have complaints against G-d who promised him greatness and wealth, or would he accept the situation, and know that G-d was doing what was best for him? (Avram underwent 10 tests, which covered every class of challenge his progeny would ever face, so that he could code his children with the spiritual DNA needed to overcome those ordeals.)
Avram traveled to Egypt to escape the famine. Knowing the rampant immorality of Egypt , he asked his wife Sarai to say she was his sister so that they wouldn’t kill him in order to steal his wife. As Avram suspected, they did indeed snatch Sara to become the king’s wife. However, G-d intervened and miraculously plagued the house of the pharaoh until he got the message and, feigning innocence, sent Sara back to her husband with compensatory gifts. He then asked the couple to leave his country knowing that his people could not control themselves.
Avram went back to Israel, only to have an argument with Lot, his nephew, who was allowing his flock to pasture in fields which didn’t belong to him. Avram finally said to Lot, “Pick a direction, go there, and I will go the other way, but I will stay close enough to protect you.” (Important Lesson: If you can’t beat them, leave them. If you stay around people doing evil you are bound to get influenced.) After Avram parted ways with Lot , G-d appeared to him and repeated the promise of numerous progeny which, as a childless man 75 years old, Avram accepted unquestioningly.
Then came the Great War. 4 Kings vs. 5 Kings. All the bookies had the five kings as the strong favorites but, lo and behold, the underdogs took the five kings in a sweep, capturing Lot in the process. Avram set out to save his nephew with a few men, and this time, the bookies once again favored the wrong team, as Avram scored a miraculous victory. Although the king of Sodom (one of the 5 losers that Avram rescued) offered Avram all the wealth of his people, Avram refused to take any of it, being unwilling to exchange an infinite mitzvah for mere finite money no matter what the amount.
Once again, G-d assured Avram that he will have children that will be numerous like the stars and, not only that, he will also give them the land of Israel as an inheritance. Avram asked, “Whereby shall I know that I am to inherit it?” Avram knew that man has free will, and was afraid that he or his offspring would sin and become unworthy of the Holy Land. At this point G-d made a special covenant with Avram using different animal parts, to signify that his progeny would inherit the land in the merit of the animal offerings they would sacrifice in the temple.
After this, Avram, on the urging of his wife Sara, took a second wife, Hagar. She was the daughter of a pharaoh, who came to Avram and declared that she would rather be a maidservant in his house than a princess in the house of a pharaoh. Sara asked that Avram marry Hagar, hoping that she would have a baby that Sara would raise as an adopted child. However, once Hagar got married and became pregnant with Avram’s first child, she began to be haughty toward Sara, thinking that she must be holier than Sara if she got pregnant so quickly. Sara told Avraham of the outrage occurring in his house and said that G-d should judge what should happen with the situation.
Avraham told Sara to deal with Hagar as she saw fit, and Sara, sensing a woman who needed to remember the humility that brought her to the house in the first place, dealt with her harshly. Hagar ran away to the desert. An angel met Hagar and told her to go back and be afflicted under Sara, as it would teach her the humility she needs. He then informed her that she will have a child who will be a wild man, fighting with everyone, and she should name him Yishmael (Yishmael is the father of the Arab nations. As a matter of fact they claim that the Akeida- the final test Avraham was tested with, occurred with Yishmael their forefather and not Yitzchak, our forefather). She thanked and blessed G-d (this, possibly, is the root of Arab women who are happy with their suicide bomber children, as Hagar, the mother of Yishmael, accepts the news of her progeny’s wildness and banditry as a blessing).
Thirteen years after Yishmael was born, when Avram was 99 years old, G-d commanded him to circumcise himself. One of the ideas behind bris milah is the understanding that G-d, by design, creates an imperfect world so that we can be partners with Him in bringing the world to its perfection. This is true regarding food, he creates the olives, grains, and grapes, but we complete His creation by making oil, bread, and wine. He creates us with some negative character traits, and we spend our life changing them and perfecting ourselves. The ultimate symbol of this is our circumcision, in which we show that we believe that G-d only gave us the raw material (an uncircumcised body), and it is our job to bring it to its completion and perfection through the bris.
After this mitzvah, G-d informed Avram that He was changing his name from Avram to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sara. In Hebrew, a person’s name reflects their essence, so when G-d tells someone He is changing their name, it means that with it He is changing their essence. With their new names and essences, Avraham and Sara will finally be able to give birth in the next Parsha, but I better stop here because I don’t want to give away too much!
Quote of the Week: Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still. – Leonardo Da Vinci
Random fact of the Week: The deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean is 28 times as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.
Funny Line of the Week: I started out with nothing…I still have most of it.
Have a Delicious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham