Verizon is the second largest telecommunications company in the US, trailing only behind AT&T but ahead of rivals Comcast and T-Mobile. While they might be most recognized for their wireless service, they also provide internet for homes and businesses. They even have an entire division dedicated to risk management for their larger corporate customers, and this story comes from a memo published by that department. 

Recently, a company ran a log review of all their internet activity and found to their surprise that there was an open and active connection from their company to Shenyang, China. The company was a critical US infrastructure company, and it is well documented that China steals billions of dollars of American intellectual property yearly, so this discovery was a real cause for concern! The company reached out to Verizon’s corporate risk management team and asked them to investigate. 

The team first determined that the connection to China was running through their VPN concentrator, which is sort of like a large tunnel leading from multiple places into the company headquarters. The company had a flex policy that allowed people to work from home a few days a week, and they wanted to ensure that everything ran securely between their employee’s homes and the company servers so they set up this VPN concentrator. They even mailed RSA fobs to their employees, which is basically a little screen on a keychain with a constantly changing number, and in order to log in to the system you have to have the number that is on the screen at that second. Yet somehow, despite all their security efforts, this tunnel was open to Shenyang, China. Multiple times, they tried to shut down the whole system and restart it, hoping to shake this Chinese mole, but it didn’t work; a few minutes after they would turn the system back on, the Chinese would open a port into their tunnel!

The Verizon risk team started taking apart the logs of internet activity and noticed that all the Chinese incursions were happening on one employee’s workstation. The employee, who we’ll call Bob (because that’s the fictitious name given to him by the Verizon report) was a software developer in his mid 40’s; a quiet family man, skilled in almost every computer language (C, C++, java, Ruby, php, python, perl, etc.) If you rode up the elevator with him, you wouldn’t look twice, he was just a standard khaki panted, plaid button down shirted guy, with his Eddie Bauer backpack, and Cole Haan shoes. 

When the Verizon team watched his daily activity for a few days while at work, they found that he had a relatively unambitious work schedule. This is roughly what he would do every day: 

9:00 a.m. – Arrive and surf Reddit for a couple of hours. Watch cat videos

11:30 a.m. – Take lunch

1:00 p.m. – Ebay time.

2:00 – ish p.m Facebook updates – LinkedIn

4:30 p.m. – End of day update e-mail to management.

5:00 p.m. – Go home

But even more strange was the fact that when checking his performance reviews going back a few years, he consistently got glowing reports. His superiors mentioned that his code was super clean, he always finished his projects on or before the deadline, and his work product was first rate. Quarter after quarter, his managers wrote that he was the best developer in the building.

The investigators then downloaded everything on his laptop to further dissect it, and surprisingly they found hundreds of invoices from a company in Shenyang, China. What they realized is that while Bob was being paid by his company to develop software, he was outsourcing all of his work to China! He would simply open his computer and surf the net, while the Chinese developers entered the system through the backdoor he provided them and did his work. Any time his company would issue him a new RSA Security Fob, he would FedEx it overnight to China, so that the Chinese company always had the most up to date credentials to get into the company system! 

The investigators discovered that Bob did the same thing for a few different companies! He would show up at each company for one or two days a week, while “working remotely” all the other days. Between the different companies, he was earning over three hundred thousand dollars a year, and based on the invoices found on his computer, he was paying the Chinese developers about fifty thousand dollars a year! He probably had an entire team of developers working on his code, which is why it was so clean and elegant, and while he definitely got his projects done on time or early, it’s hard to say he was the best developer in the building!

Interestingly, I feel like there is a little bit of Bob in every one of us. While we show up to the office of life every day, we often not really putting in the development hours ourself and are instead just “surfing” while we react to things based on inputs from far away, usually our past. Every thing we do is either an action or a reaction. If we are being fully intentional, thinking through what we are doing and why we are doing it, then we do actions. If we are distracted, tired, or just not ready to do the work entailed in being proactive, then we just react. A human being reacting is sort of like an airplane on autopilot, it just acts based on patterns of development that are pre-installed, based on previous experiences or even previous actions.

To the outside eye, it may be very hard to know whether a person is acting or reacting, people can be quite functional, even successful, while entirely checked out! There is a story told about the great Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, OBM, that illustrates how pernicious this problem can be. There is a custom at Chassidic weddings to hire a “badchan” who weaves comedy and poetry into serious messages about life and living while honoring the family and the loved ones present at the end of the wedding when the more casual guests have already left. 

A famous badchan was performing at a wedding, and he approached the Rebbe and asked him if it would be OK with the Rebbe if he performed an imitation of the Rebbe’s davening as part of his repertoire, and the Rebbe readily agreed. A few hours later, to the amazement of those present, the badchna did a stunningly accurate copy of Rebbe’s davening, not just the voice but the inflection, the movements, the swaying, etc.

The Rebbe burst out in tears, and the whole wedding party stopped in its tracks. Immediately the badchan hurried over to the Rebbe and begged for forgiveness. The Rebbe responded, “Don’t worry! I’m not crying because I’m embarrassed or offended in any way! I’m crying because if you can do such a good job of mimicking Yoilish, maybe all that I’m doing is mimicking Yoilish!” The Rebbe was saying that he was concerned that he himself with all of his intense prayers was not really acting but just praying on auto-pilot! How much more so do we need to be concerned that when we are acting, we are simply not “the best developers in the building!”

So how does one ensure that they are acting and not reacting? How does one make sure they are piloting and not auto-piloting? 

One important thing to do is to ensure we inject fresh ideas and activities into our routine. The more we copy a particular action or thought pattern the more calcified it becomes, so we need to constantly switch it up, if even with one small detail just to ensure freshness. Another thing that we can do is to set aside some time to review our actions and try to see which of them appears to have VPN tunnel to another place and which appears to be motivated directly by our own thoughts and desires. And lastly, we can try to learn more about things that we already so that we can appreciate them from a different light. If we start listening to a class about the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, suddenly as we read it, it has new meaning to us! 

The Talmud (Eiruvin, 54A) compares this world to a wedding feast. There is much lavish food and beverage while we’re at the wedding, and we want to fill up on it before we go back home to our pedestrian diet. So too, in this world, there are so many opportunities to do amazing good deeds and to fill our lives with meaning, and as soon as we pass to the next world, we don’t get to add any fresh experiences or mitzvos to our life, which continues for eternity. So the trick is to make the most of life while we have it, to be as intentional and proactive as possible, to do all the development in-house and not let any bit of our life go by on auto-pilot. The world is ours for the taking, all we need to do is show up and grab it. Carpe Diem!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s Torah portion we find what seems to be a bizarre sequence of events. For forty years in the desert, the Jewish people were miraculously provided with water from a well called Be’er Miriam, which was provided in the merit of Miriam, the sister of Moshe and Aaron. When she dies, the well dries up and, as could be expected, the Jewish people come to Moshe to complain. G-d tells Moshe to gather the Jews, and to speak to a rock which would then spout forth water, thus sanctifying G-d;s name in the eyes of the Jews. 

Moshe gathers the people but, lo and behold, instead of speaking to the rock he hits it! G-d becomes upset with Moshe and declares that due to the fact that he failed to honor G-d in the eyes of the people by following G-d’s command, he will not be able to lead the Jews into Israel, and will die in the desert prior to their entry. 

By now, I hope you’re scratching your head in disbelief and asking yourself the following three questions. #1 Why didn’t Moshe do what G-d told him to do?  #2 Why does G-d care if the miracle comes through hitting the rock or through speaking to it – either way, watching water spontaneously spurt forth from a rock is quite a miracle? #3 Why is G-d punishing Moshe in a manner which will hurt the entire nation, and not in a way which will affect only him?

If we look back to Genesis 3:24, we see that after G-d removes Adam from the Garden of Eden, He places “the blade of the turning sword” at the entrance to prevent man from forcing his way into Eden and eating from the Tree of Life. This marks a very significant  notch on the timeline of human history. G-d’s original plan was to have the world run by His word alone. He would command, and humans would listen. This was proven as a non-feasible method when Adam disregarded G-d’s word and ate from the Tree of Knowledge. 

At that time, G-d changed the entire order of the world so it would rule not by His word, but by the sword. At first G-d had said, “Don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” Now G-d prevented people from eating that which they were not supposed to eat by placing a sword in the way. Ever since then, the entire history of man has been: this group conquered this group, and this civilization destroyed that one etc. etc. (I taught high school history for 8 years and can testify to the veracity of the above statement.

The Jews are now about to enter the land of Israel after having spent 40 years living a spiritual existence in which they were sustained by spiritual food. They are on such a high level that G-d wants to restore the world to its previous exalted state in which it follows the word, not the sword. He therefore commands Moshe to speak to the rock in front of all the Jews so that they should see that the word of G-d is that which will be the new mode of conducting world affairs, and even nature itself. 

Moshe, however, having witnessed so many of the Jew’s rebellions and failings, didn’t feel that they were ready to live on such a lofty plane where they would be expected to follow the word of G-d to the T. Therefore, he hits the rock, symbolizing that the Jews should retain the status quo of living in a world run by the sword. Even though Moshe did this to benefit the Jews, ultimately, it showed a lack of faith on his part in the Jewish people’s ability to live at a higher state. G-d responded by telling him that he would not lead the Jews into Israel, because a leader who doesn’t fully believe in his people will never be able to get them to the next level. 

The lesson for us is clear. If we want to inspire others and become leaders anywhere – in our workplaces, families, schools, or even Little League teams – we have to truly believe in the people we are trying to lead. That will inspire them to live up to the ideals we set for them. Furthermore, it sets out the Jewish role in the world as the people who are supposed to return this world to one in which it is the Word and not the sword that shapes the destiny of mankind.

Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Chukas, begins with the laws of ritual impurity contracted by contact with a corpse. Corpses impart impurity to those who come in contact with them because they represent the loss of potential as life equals potential. Capability being wasted is the essence of impurity, just as potential being actualized is the essence of purity. The Torah describes the purification process afer contact with a corpse, which involves being sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of a completely red heifer. This mitzvah is considered the quintessential chok, a law we can’t understand. The most puzzling aspect of this law is that the pure person who prepares the ashes that will purify the impure person, ends up becoming impure himself. It is important for humans to accept that we cannot fully understand G-d. By keeping mitzvos we don’t fully understand we show that we live as we do not just because we think it’s moral or healthy, but because G-d told us to. 

The Torah now shifts its narrative forward by close to forty years. The years that the Jews wandered in the desert were peaceful and relatively uneventful, and this is the first mention of the events that occurred to them at the end of their wandering. The Torah describes the death of Miriam and the subsequent drying up of the Well of Miriam which had provided the Jews with water for all the years they were in the desert. It is at this point that G-d tells Moshe to speak to the rock and bring forth water – Moshe hits the rock instead. G-d then punishes Moshe by not allowing him to lead the nation into Israel. 

Even though Moshe knows he will die before the Jews entered Israel, he does not try to delay them, but continues to help them get to the Holy Land ASAP. The path to Israel is blocked by the nation of Edom. G-d instructs Moshe to ask the Edomites if the Jews could peacefully traverse their land to reach Israel, but Edom refuses. Even though the Jews would later invade a different country when the inhabitants didn’t allow them peaceful access to Israel, this time G-d commands them to simply travel around Edom rather than fight them, as they are their cousins. (Edom is descended from Esau, brother of Jacob.) 

It is on the border of the ancient country of Edom, that Aaron, the Kohen Gadol and brother of Moshe, passes away. (Aaron’s grave is still around, at the top of a mountain directly above the world famous ancient city of Petra in Jordan. I was there, and I could see the little building in which the tomb lies. Due to time constraints, I was unable to go up, since it is a 3 hour donkey ride each way. However, I was able to look at his gravesite and pray. It was quite an awe-inspiring moment.) 

After Aaron’s death, the job of Kohen Gadol is given to his son Elazar. The entire Jewish nation mourns Aaron for thirty days, something rare for someone in such a high position. Aaron merited this incredible honor by devoting his life to bringing peace between man and his fellow. (Note to Self: If I want people to mourn me when I die, and not rejoice privately, be nice to others and promote peace in the community, and then people will actually miss me!)

After the nations see the Jews mourning Aaron’s death, they know that a leader of the Jews died and figure that this would probably be a good time to attack them. So along comes their arch-enemy Amalek, and attacks the Jews, while they are down and unprepared. (Same modus operandi as the Yom Kippur War, they never stop being slime!) But G-d delivers the Jews from their hands, and they made short work of them. 

Then, believe it or not, some of the Jews complain again about the manna (the spiritual food they ate in the desert). This time, G-d sends serpents which come into the camp and start inflicting fatal bites. G-d tells Moshe to make a copper serpent, put it on a high pole, and to tell anyone who was bitten to look up at it and be healed. (The sages say that the serpent wasn’t what healed, rather, when the Jews looked heavenward to gaze at the serpent, they remembered their Father in heaven and repented, and then deserved to be saved) 

The Jews travel on toward Israel. Two lepers who are at the back of the camp notice a strange sight (no, not glowing discs in the horizon), and bring it to the attention of the Jews. Upon investigation, the Jews discover the following story. The Canaanites, aware that the Jews were marching toward their country with the intent of settling there, tried to ambush the Jews, They hid in caves along one side of a thin canyon waiting for the Jews to pass through, after which they would attack and mercilessly slaughter them (it seems like no one is willing to take us on head to head – they all have some sneaky plan!). What they didn’t know was that the Clouds of Glory traveling before the Jews prepared the way for them by flattening out their path. 

As the Jews approached the canyon, the Cloud squished the two sides of the canyon together, thus making all the Canaanites waiting in ambush into mashed potatoes. The Jews would have never even known about this if not for the two lepers who were walking far behind the camp and saw the river turn red with the blood of our would-be attackers. When the Jews see this sight, they make a special song of thanks because they realize that there are countless times that G-d protects them without them even knowing about it. (In Israel, the army claims that 95% of terrorist attempts are foiled without the knowledge of the citizens. That shows that even today we don’t realize how much G-d is protecting us!)

The last part of the parsha tells us the story of Sichon, a kingdom to the west of the Holy Land. The Jews ask the people of Sichon permission to cross through their land peacefully on their journey to Israel. Sichon, emboldened by Edom’s refusal (which worked, but only because G-d commanded us to leave them alone), reject their request and even mass their troops at the border, as if to say, “over my dead body!” This is exactly what the Jews do. They beat them in battle and move calmly towards Israel over their dead bodies. That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: Necessity is the mother of taking chances. – Mark Twain

Random Fact of the Week: Karaoke means “empty orchestra” in Japanese.

Funny Line of the Week: “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticize them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

Have a Phenomenal Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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