Tucked in the impoverished northeastern corner of India is an island that holds a world record, but perhaps not for long. The island of Majuli is the largest river island in the world. While most islands we think of are in middle of the ocean, with a ring of sandy beaches meeting the mighty ocean, Majuli is surrounded by the Brahmaputra River, a river that is generally calm and serene. But once a year, during the monsoon season, the Brahmaputra River turns into a roiling beast, rushing and seething, ripping away thousands of acres of land as it rushes through three countries, only to deposit that land at its delta just before it tumbles into the Bay of Bengal.

This causes erosion on a massive scale, and over the last 100 years, Majuli Island, home to 150,000 people, has lost over half of its land mass. It may not be the largest river island in the world for long. But you may be wondering, if in 100 years, Majuli has lost half of its landmass, how is it even here? The Brahmaputra has been overflowing and flooding every year for thousands of years, so why didn’t Majuli start losing its landmass 500 years ago, and have nothing left by now?

When G-d created the world, He knew that rivers overflowing would be a significant process in the seasonal cycle, so He created this incredible technology to stop erosion; trees. Trees have huge roots systems underneath the ground, reaching not only deep in the ground but also horizontally spreading, curling and folding, grasping the earth in the root’s embrace. When flooding happens in heavily forested areas, not nearly as much earth is carried away, and often the trees and roots snag some of the earth being carried in the river and actually add landmass instead of losing it!

So why is Majuli suddenly losing so much landmass? Well, G-d created the technology to prevent erosion and man often comes and takes it away. Man loves to chop down those trees, using the wood for everything from firewood, to home building, to furniture manufacturing, to paper production. So we cut down the trees, leaving the land bare and dry, and incredibly vulnerable to the flooding river and the ravages of erosion. People talk about the importance of replanting what they cut down, but talk is cheap and replanting is difficult and costly…

Not only does the destruction of forests cause erosion, it also robs animals of their habitats and suddenly the biodiversity of the area plummets. Little animals lose their cover and protection, so they move away, predators don’t have smaller animals to prey on, so they leave as well, and soon the area loses all sorts of animal and bird life and reverts to a barren wasteland, devoid of flora and fauna.

But every story has a hero, and in the story of Majuli Island, the undisputed hero is Javad Payeng. Javad, who comes from an ancient tribe known as the Mising, is a farmer who has a small herd of cattle and supports his family by selling their milk. But in 1979, when he was nineteen years old, something he saw, changed his life forever. He was walking along a barren stretch of sandbar, and came across a large number of dead snakes. They had died of heat exhaustion, because the forest that had been their home and gave them cover from the blazing sun was gone. That day, Jadav decided to be the change that everyone was hoping for.

He went back to his village, cut twenty bamboo shoots and walked back to the barren land and planted them. He came back the next day to care for them, but he also brought more bamboo as well as some tree seedlings, which he planted as well. From that day in 1979 until today, 44 years later, not a single day has gone by without Jadav planting at least one tree, often many more. The state helped him in 1983 by planting hundreds of trees, but they abandoned the project. Jadav didn’t. What started out as motley collection of trees is today a forest stretching out over 1,360 acres, (about 60 million square feet) close to double the size of Central Park. The forest was named Molai Forest from the Indonesian word mulai, which means “to start,” because it all started with the drive and determination of one man.

As Molai forest began to thrive, with thousands of trees and hundreds of acres of thick bamboo forest, the animals started returning. It now houses the rare Bengal tiger and Indian rhinoceros, as well as over 100 deer, vultures, rabbits, monkeys and dozens of other species of bird, animal and reptile. Every year, a herd of 115 elephants descends on the forest, and spend four to six months there, and ten baby elephants have been born there in the last few years.

Jadav built himself a home in the forest, and continues to raise cattle there. He has lost over 100 head of cattle to the tigers who come in occasionally at night for a midnight snack, but he doesn’t blame the tigers, he blames the people who sneak into the forest trying to poach the tigers and rhinos and cause the tigers to search elsewhere for food. His planting work is much easier these days, the seedlings and shoots he needs to plant are right there in the forest, they don’t need to be carried over far distances like in the past, but that just means he can plant more per day!

Jadav has become somewhat of a national hero. He’s won the Padma Shri, one of India’s most prestigious civilian awards, he’s had award winning movies made and books written about him, and he received an honorary doctorates from multiple universities. He’s lectured and given speeches for thousands. But his labor of love is not done yet, there are still thousands of acres of sandbar to plant.

Let’s see what lessons we can pull from this remarkable story. For starters, Jadav has an attitude that in Judaism we call “Alay lihakeem,” which means “it’s on me to pick this up!”  While 99% of the world is more than happy to lament the sorry state of affairs, and talk about problems big and small, there is the 1% of people who roll up their sleeves and get fixin’. This attitude was coined by King Yoshiahu (Josiah), who grew up in a world absolutely devoid of Torah, after his grandfather King Menasheh worked strenuously to remove any vestige of Torah from Israel. For 57 years, there was almost no Torah, and when Yoshiahu was coronated at the tender age of eight, he had never seen a Torah scroll!

King Yoshiahu began renovating the Bais Hamikdash, the glorious temple that had fallen to disrepair, and there he discovered a Torah scroll lying open. It was open to the portion of the curses and blessings the Jews pronounced upon entering the land of Israel, specifically to the verse, “Cursed is he who does not uphold the words of this Torah.” He then uttered those powerful words, “it’s on me to uphold” and proceeded to launch the greatest movement of returning to G-d ever witnessed by mankind. He didn’t say it’s too late, he didn’t say the erosion has taken hold too deeply, he said, “it’s my job to fix what I can.” We can never underestimate the power of the 1% who are willing to do when 99% are content to lament.

Another remarkable aspect of Jadav’s story is his consistency. For 44 years, he hasn’t missed a single day of planting. In Judaism, there is a character trait called Netzach – endurance (it happens to be the trait we were supposed to be working on this whole past week in our Omer journey of character refinement). This trait reflects the greatness of anything done with consistency. Often, we want to do big things, but little things done consistently have a greater effect than big things done erratically. The Indian government may have come in and planted a lot of trees, but they gave up the project after one season. It was Jadav’s planting every single day without fail that truly built the forest.

The last thing worth pointing out, is that if we do our part, the rest will happen on its own. Jadav planted the forest, but there was no way he could have brought back the biodiversity. The tigers, deer, rabbits, birds, and elephants came back on their own. Hershel Weber started an organization called Hatzalah on his own, because he saw that municipal EMS services in Brooklyn were delinquent and people were dying, but thousands of others picked up the mantle, and now there are Hatzalah organizations in at least 14 countries and 10 states. Tens of thousands of dedicated volunteers, tens of thousands of lives saved, and all because someone got the ball rolling.

Jadav story gives us all a powerful reflection point, what trees can I start planting?

Parsha Dvar Torah

“These are My appointed festivals.” (Lev. 23:2) one of the chapters in this week’s Parsha, begins However, rather than continuing with a description of the festivals, the Torah interjects a verse regarding Shabbos, telling us that we may work for six days, but on Shabbos we must rest. Only then does the Torah continue with, “These are the appointed festivals of Ha-shem.” What is going on here? Shabbos is not one of the festivals?! Additionally, if it was going to be included here, shouldn’t it be at the end after all the festival got their time in the spotlight?

In order to understand this, let us look at the two verses in which the Torah gives a reason for keeping Shabbos. The first, is in Exodus (20: 8-11), where the Ten Commandments are stated for the first time:

“Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it…. For in six days Ad-noy made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore Ad-noy blessed the Shabbos and made it holy.”

O.K. It seems like we should keep Shabbos because G-d rested on the seventh day. (That’s about as simplified as saying “We should be involved in Judaism because it’s good.” But, due to time constraints, we won’t go into deeper explanations of that concept right now.) However, in Deuteronomy (5: 12-15), when the Torah tells us what was upon the second set of tablets (remember, Moshe broke the first set after seeing the Jews dancing around the Golden Calf) we find a verse giving a seemingly different reason for keeping Shabbos:

“Preserve the day of Shabbos to sanctify it, as Ad-noy, your G-d, commanded you… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and Ad-noy, your G-d, took you out of there with a strong hand and an extended arm. That is why Ad-noy, your G-d, commanded you to celebrate the Shabbos day.”

Here it seems that G-d gave us Shabbos to remember that He took us out of Egypt with a strong hand. This concept raises two questions. Firstly, what does the Exodus have to with Shabbos? Secondly, why does the Torah give two different answers for why we keep Shabbos? (If you are a bible critic, there’s a simple answer: because two different people wrote the Torah, and the editor of the most impactful book in all of history didn’t notice the glaring contradiction, and let it slide. But for most of us, that notion is unreasonable and we simply ask why would G-d give two distinct reasons for one of our most important mitzvos?)

One answer is as follows. G-d didn’t take us out of Egypt without a purpose. (The phrase “There are no free lunches,” may have a divine origin!) He took us out for the sole purpose that we come to Mount Sinai, accept His Torah, and become His nation. This goal is clearly stated in G-d’s first dialogue with Moshe regarding the Exodus in Parshas Shmos (Exodus 3:12) “He [G-d] said [to Moshe], ‘Because I will be with you. This will be the proof that I have sent you— when you bring the people out of Egypt— you will serve El-him on this mountain.’” This verse indicates G-d’s redemption of the Jews from Egypt will only be deemed successful once the Jews serve Him on that mountain (Mt. Sinai). This was the goal of the Exodus, and on a deeper level, of all of whole creation. (See footnote #1 for proof of this.)  The Jews were emancipated from Egypt for the same reason the world was brought into being, namely, the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah.

Now we understand why one of the reasons we keep Shabbos is because we were redeemed from Egypt. The Exodus only culminated with the acceptance of the Torah, which was the reason the world was created! Thus, Shabbos, which celebrates the creation of the world, also celebrates the Exodus, which gave the creation a purpose.

This idea also explains why the Torah mentions Shabbos before mentioning the festivals. All the festivals commemorate the Exodus, which was the goal of the creation, which is symbolized by Shabbos! The message for us is that when we keep the Torah, and lead a Jewish life with Jewish practice, we are validating not only the Exodus, but the very creation of the world. There can be no greater Tikkun Olam than fulfilling the very purpose for which the world was created!

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!)

 Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement.

The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up.

Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!). The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings).

We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us.

The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavous (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!).

 The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would reamain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!). The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, who gave you everything you have!

So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!

Quote of the Week: Make the most of today, translate your good intentions into deeds. ~ Grenville Kleiser

Random Fact of the Week: During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.

Funny Line of the Week: The scientific theory I like best is that rings of Saturn are entirely made of lost airline baggage.

Have a Satisfying Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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