When I think of jellyfish, I think of the bright colorful gummy candies I used to eat as a kid. But when I think of swimming in the ocean, I think of the living jellyfish. As a matter of fact, I think about jellyfish so much when considering swimming in the ocean, that I simply don’t do it.
I could count on one hand the amount of times I’ve swam in the ocean in the last twenty years. And those few times were marked with fear. Every time some seaweed grazed my feet, I would kick wildly, fearing the seaweed to be the softly floating tentacles of a diaphanous SBD (silent but deadly) jellyfish. My jellyfish phobia got so bad that swimming in the ocean produces more fear than pleasure, so I gave it up altogether. Swimming in pools is much more fun.
I am not the only person in the world afraid of jellyfish, most people who are up to date on the jellyfish situation are afraid of jellyfish, but not necessarily for the same reason as me. I am intensely afraid of the sting that occurs when skin comes in contact with a jellyfish tentacle. Each tentacle of a jellyfish can contain up to 500,000 nematocysts. The name alone should strike fear in the heart of all healthy minded humans, who wants anything to do with even one nematocyst? And when a person gets brushed by the multiple tentacles of a jellyfish they can easily come into contact with over a million of them!
What happens when you are touched by a nematocyst? Here’s what Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, has to say:
“When a nematocyst is triggered by contact by predator or prey, pressure builds up rapidly inside it up to 2,000 pounds per square inch until it bursts. A lance inside the nematocyst pierces the victim’s skin, and poison flows through into the victim.”
There are thousands of different types of jellyfish, each with its own level of venom toxicity. The stings can cause anything from mild irritation and itchiness (such as the ones that actually touched me in the Mediterranean before my phobia), to severe burning, or even death. The box jellyfish, so known for its cube shaped medusa (the bell shaped part of the jelly), can kill a grown man in a matter of seconds. The tentacles of a single beached Lion’s Mane Jellyfish in New Hampshire injured between 125 and 150 people in 2010 (the tentacles of a Lion’s Mane can reach up to 120 feet long!).
I rest my case.
The sting of a nematocyst however, is not the only concern of scientists and other more-informed-less-phobic individuals than myself. In the past decade, the rising number of jellyfish blooms has wreaked havoc on marine ecosystems and the worldwide economy. Jellyfish have been eating other fish and other fish’s food at alarming levels. In Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin raises the alarm:
“If I offered evidence that jellyfish are displacing penguins in Antarctica—not someday, but now, today—what would you think? If I suggested that jellyfish could crash the world’s fisheries, outcompete the tuna and swordfish, and starve the whales to extinction, would you believe me?”
As you may have guessed, she then goes on to offer precisely that evidence. Blooms of Jellyfish can kill off tens of thousands of salmon in minutes. The Mnemiopsis jellyfish (a kind of comb jelly), were introduced to the Black Sea through seawater ballast from ships arriving from the East Coast of the US in the 1980’s. They began to ravenously consume the anchovies and sturgeon that were important resources in the economies of Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia. As Gershwin reports,
“By 2002 the total weight of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea had grown so prodigiously that it was estimated to be ten times greater than the weight of all fish caught throughout the entire world in a year. The Black Sea had become effectively jellified.”
Off of southern Africa, jellyfish blooms are so intense that they have created an area of 30,000 square miles that is one big slimy killing field, made up of a foamy jelly produced by the jellyfish that contains stinging cells and trillions of floating tentacles. Understanding the reproduction of jellyfish may help us comprehend how these blooms grow so fast and so big. Again, we go back to Gershwin’s work:
“One of the fastest breeders of all is Mnemiopsis. It begins laying eggs when just thirteen days old, and is soon laying 10,000 per day. Mnemiopsis is able to eat over ten times its own body weight in food, and to double in size, each day. They can do this because they are, metabolically speaking, tremendously efficient, being able to put more of the energy they ingest toward growth than the more complex creatures they compete with. And they can be wasteful. Mnemiopsis acts like a fox in a henhouse. After they gorge themselves, they continue to collect and kill prey. As far as the ecosystem goes, the result is the same whether the jellyfish digest the food or not: they go on killing until there is nothing left. One study showed that Mnemiopsis removed over 30 percent of the copepod (small marine crustaceans) population available to it each day.”
Even when not rapidly consuming the worlds marine food supply, jellyfish are busy doing other damage. They are clogging nuclear reactor’s cooling systems, shutting down facilities around the globe, and causing rolling blackouts in countries around the world. They are clogging the nets of fishing trawlers. In November of 2009, a net full of gigantic jellyfish weighing up to 450 pounds each actually sank the trawler hauling it in. And in 2006, they shut down what was then the most modern aircraft carrier in the US Navy, the USS Ronald Raegan, by clogging its cooling systems.
Jellyfish are more than my personal phobia, they are a worldwide problem of staggering proportions. There are many reasons for their prodigious growth in the last few decades. We have been overfishing their natural predators and the fish that used to compete with their food supply. Acidification of the oceans melts off the shells of the crustaceans that used to keep them in check. Oygen depletion of the oceans creates massive zones of the ocean inhospitable to other creatures but fine for the less oxygen-needy jellyfish. The warming of the oceans creates an environment in which jellyfish can grow even faster. The combination of all these factors has created an amazing thirty years for jellyfish, but a real bad thirty years for everyone else.
The only comparison I can think of for jellyfish in the human world is that they are the Lashon Hara and Machlokes, the gossip and divisiveness, of our world. Gossip looks harmless or even oddly beautiful on the outside, a small diaphanous floating statement that might be real juicy and fun to pass on, but carries with it a trail of stinging tentacles. The sting of gossip may sometimes be only mildly irritating and itchy, but other species of gossip can be fatal to human relations. And gossip reproduces real quickly, each person who hears it may pass it on to dozens of others.
As gossip continues to grow and reproduce it blooms into a deadly mass of Machlokes, of divisiveness, fighting, and disunity. It begins to pull families apart, to wreck communities that have lived in peaceful harmony for decades, and to destroy the very goodness that has fed society for so long. The acidification of the community creates even more opportunities for dissension and in-fighting, as does the rising temperature as anger flares and people begin to take other people’s arguments personally. Within a very short time, gossip and petty fighting can overtake a family, community, or nation, spreading a curtain of venomous goo all over what was once a vibrant peaceful place. Over the past few years, we have seen the politicization of almost every area of life, from sports, to corporations, to the intense sign display on our lawns across the neighbor hood creating a sense of “You’re either with us or against us,” and it’s pulling our communities apart at the seams.
At least in the realm of the jellyfish, we are beginning to fight back. A few years ago, the world was introduced to JEROS, the Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm. Jeros is a team of robots that float above the water, and track jellyfish with a camera and GPS systems. JEROS then propels itself to the site of the jellyfish bloom and gets to work. Big nets on the bottom of JEROS catch the jellyfish, and then a powerful fan sucks the jellyfish into its deadly blades. The blades tear up the jellyfish and spit it out as sea mulch. A team of three robots tore through 2,000 pounds of jellyfish in one hour.
Currently, the JEROS swarms are small, a few robots at most. But the JEROS system can be scaled up, and you could soon have swarms of hundreds of robots methodically tearing their way through massive blooms of jellyfish, and taking back our oceans from this diabolical threat to mankind.
We too need to learn to fight the jellyfish of human relationships. We need to learn how to take gossip and divisiveness and put it through the shredder. When we hear people talking negatively of others, we need to move quickly to kill the conversation and move on to another topic. If we feel the tentacles of fighting and dissension moving into our homes or communities, we need to be the people who actively destroy it by fighting for peace, refusing to stoke the fires of the fight, and quieting the agitation of those involved.
If we want to live a thriving peaceful existence, we need to be the JEROS.
Parsha Dvar Torah
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. (Gen. 6:9-10)
The Torah begins Parshas Noach by introducing Noach and his family, the people who would survive the Great Flood and repopulate earth. However, the wording seems a bit strange. In Biblical Hebrew the word aileh – “these are,” is an exclusionary phrase. What is the Torah coming to exclude when it says these are the offspring of Noach, who else might I have thought would be his offspring?
In the answer to this question lies the key difference between Noach and the patriarchs. While Noach was a righteous man, he is not considered one of our great leaders and didn’t merit becoming a patriarch. Noach did what was right, but he didn’t concern himself with the welfare of those around him. The opposite of this approach was that of Avraham, the first of the patriarchs. In next week’s portion, G-d tells Avraham to leave his birthplace and set out to a place which would be more conducive to spiritual growth. In describing the journey, the Torah tells us, “Avram took his wife Sarai, Lot, his brother’s son, all the possessions they had acquired, and the soul that they had made in Charan, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” (Gen. 12:5)
What or who were the souls they made in Charan? Did Avraham have a soul factory with his wife, where they made souls (if there is such a thing, I would love to buy some extra souls for some of my professors from grad school, since I am quite certain they have no soul of their own)? Rashi explains that these were the people that Avraham and his wife Sara converted while living in Charan. When Avraham found the ultimate truth, which was known to almost no one else in his time, he didn’t simply keep it to himself. Rather, he tried to teach all of humanity about the new monotheistic understanding he had reached.
Avraham and Sara were rewarded by having the Torah call the converts that they helped create “the souls that they made in Charan.” The Torah recognizes that when one instills spirituality into someone else they are, in a sense, similar to a parent. One type of parent gives people their physical life, while the other type gives them their spiritual life. We see that Avraham felt a parental concern even for the sinners of his generation by the way he prays, beseeches, and entreats G-d on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorra, asking that they not be wiped out. A person like Avraham, while only having a few biological children, has thousands of spiritual offspring.
Noach, on the other hand, didn’t pray that the people of his generation not get wiped out in the Great Flood. Nor do we find that he worked with them to try to turn them into true penitents who would merit to survive the Flood along with him and his family. For this reason, the Torah tells us, “these are the offspring of Noach” highlighting a deficiency – Noach only had the biological children that the Torah continues to list, not the numerous spiritual offspring he could have had.
The Sages tell us that one must always ask himself, “When will my actions reach the actions of my forefathers?” One of the important ways in which we should emulate our patriarchs is by feeling a sense of responsibility for others, even sinners. Those that we can influence for the good, we should, and those that we can’t, we should pray for, asking that they repent and become good people. In this way, when the time comes for us to take leave of this good green earth, we will leave behind offspring too numerous to count!
This week’s parsha talks mostly about the Great Flood. The basic idea behind this cataclysmic event was that mankind had had such a negative effect on the earth that a complete overhaul was necessary. G-d returned the earth to its most primitive state, and the few survivors were able to rebuild on a clean slate. If they had tried to program the new world order on top of all the existing filth, immorality, and depravity, it would have been nearly impossible to succeed, so instead G-d washed the world clean, and let them paint on a fresh canvas. The opening verses of this Parsha express that concept, while also teaching us another important lesson.
These are the offspring of Noach. Noach was a righteous man, flawless in his generation; Noach walked with El-him. Noach fathered three sons, Sheim, Cham and Yafes. The earth was corrupt before El-him, and the earth was filled with violent crime. G-d saw the earth and beheld that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. G-d said to Noach, The end of all flesh has come before Me. The earth is filled with violent crime because of them, and so I will destroy them with the earth. (Gen 6:9-13)
One lesson that is not readily apparent without the benefits of Rashi’s wisdom is the explanation of the first two verses. It says, “these are the offspring of Noach” but then, before mentioning his offspring, the Torah tells us that Noach was a righteous man. How did that get stuck in there? Rashi explains that the primary offspring of a person are his actions and the effects they have on others. His children are certainly important, and he can have a powerful positive effect on them but, ultimately, what he bequeaths to the world are his actions not those of his children.
G-d commanded Noach to build the ark a hundred and twenty years in advance of the flood. He did this in hope that people would ask, “Hey Noach, what is this woodcraft project you’ve been working on for the last eighty years?” and Noach would explain to them that earth was about to become a really wet place for a while due to man’s evil actions. This would hopefully inspire the people to repent. However, in typical bad-people fashion, they instead chose to mock Noach and tell him that if he dared try to enter the ark, they would break his 120-year project and then kill him (see, I told you they were bad guys).
The ark was pretty big, about 600 feet long, 100 feet wide (or, as you yachters would say, “it had a beam of 100 feet”), and 60 feet tall, 22 of which were below the water line. Despite the large dimensions of the ark, it was a massive miracle that Noach was able to fit thousand upon thousands of animals into this area. The ark was split into 3 floors, waste on bottom, animals in the middle, and humans on top. It had a light source which some say was a skylight, while others posit was a special luminescent stone.
When the time for the flood came, animals starting miraculously trekking to the ark from all corners of the world. G-d commanded Noach to take a male and female from every non-kosher species and seven pairs from every kosher species. The ark would not allow any species that had mated with other species to enter (some say that this is when dinosaurs died out). When the rain started coming down thick and fast and the aforementioned bad guys came to stop Noach from entering the ark, G-d set up a ring of lions and bears around the ark preventing anyone from getting near it. Check. Mate.
For forty days and nights the flood waters raged, with rain falling heavily from heaven, and underwater boiling springs erupting and spewing out steaming sulfuric matter from below. The waters came down until the highest point on earth was thirty feet below the water line. Then, after the forty days, the waters stopped coming down and up, but the existing water stayed put for another 150 days. The waters then slowly started receding. Noach sent out a raven to see if there was any dry land, but the bird didn’t even check, he just flew around the ark, afraid that someone was going to steal his mate. Next, Noach sent out a dove three times. The first time he came back empty handed, the second time he brought with him an olive branch, showing that the water level had dropped substantially, and the third time he stayed out, confirming that there was dry land once again. Soon after that, exactly a year after the flood began, Noach left the ark with his wife, his three children, their wives, and all the animals.
When they left the ark, G-d gave them a blessing that they be fruitful and multiply, to refill the now desolate world. They immediately brought offerings to G-d. Then, tragedy struck. Noach planted a vineyard, made wine, got drunk, and fell asleep in an uncovered position. One of his sons, Cham, debased his father in his nakedness, and then went out to tell his other brothers. Shem enlisted Yafes, and together they covered their father, while looking the other way, so as not to see their father in a compromised position. Noach awoke, and understanding what happened, gave Cham a severe curse, and gave Shem and Yafes blessings.
From Noach and his family sprouted all of the nations of the earth, and the Torah goes into great length telling over the genealogy of Noach’s children and grandchildren, as each of these grandchildren would be the father of a nation that would arise later in history.
Humans simply don’t seem to learn their lesson. Only a few generations after the Great Flood, under the leadership of the wicked king Nimrod of Babel, mankind devised a plan to take G-d out of the picture. They attempted to build a tower that would reach the heavens itself, so they could then challenge G-d, and chase Him away. These people, although wicked, had one merit – they presented a united front, there was no bickering and arguing between them. However, since this unison was being used for an evil purpose, G-d punished them by introduced the concept of language to mankind. Suddenly, people were speaking 70 different languages! As you can imagine, the building of the Tower of Babel went downhill quickly (I speak the same language as my contractor yet I never feel I can get exactly what I want over to him, imagine if we didn’t speak the same language!). From Babel, the people began to spread out to all four corners of the earth, where they are until this very day!
Quote of the week: A first rate soup is better than a second rate painting. – Abraham Maslow
Random Fact of the Week: If you shake a can of mixed nuts, the larger nuts rise to the top.
Funny Line of the Week: Flying is simple, just throw yourself at the ground, and miss.
Have an Exhilarating Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham