Fertilizer. It’s the stinkiest, dirtiest pile of blessing you can get your hands on. Laying fresh fertilizer on your field may not leave you looking like Mr. Clean, but it will make your crops look like they were taking whatever Lance Armstrong was taking.
Fertilizer has been in use for thousands of years. It is talked about extensively in the Mishna and Talmud, which were written around 200CE and 500CE respectively. But recently, as the population of the world has soared and the size of the world has stayed the same, it became that much more important to use fertilizer to increase crop yields. In the last 50 years, fertilizer has become even more popular than Nike, Barbie dolls, and Coca Cola, despite the fact that most of us have never handled it in our lives. According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, almost half of the world is fed as a result of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use. And most unfortunately for the world, Russia is the largest producer of synthetic fertilizer in the world.
Plants need a lot of different things to grow properly. These are broken down into two groups, macronutrients and micronutrients. The three main macronutrients that are essential to all plant life are carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. These are all supplied by water and air. But plants also thrive on six other macronutrients; nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S). Then there are the micronutrients that make the difference between the pumpkin you make into pie and the 800 pound pumpkin you schlepp to the state fair. These include: boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), zinc (Zn) and nickel (Ni).
If you want to ensure that your plants are getting all the macronutrients and micronutrients they so crave, you need to spread fertilizer all over your field. Many years ago, that meant spreading manure all over your field. But about 200 years ago, scientists discovered that not all manure is created equal. Some manure worked better than others, and its’ efficacy was based on its’ chemical composition. It was then that the first synthetic fertilizers were invented, by adding various phosphates and other chemicals to nature’s best manures.
In the 20th century, fertilizer production evolved into a highly sophisticated science, and due to that, crop production per acre of farmland skyrocketed. Along with that increase, fertilizer production has gone sky high. To give you a picture of what I’m talking about, in 2019 (the last year before the world descended into madness) the world used over 110 million tons of nitrogen based fertilizer, 50 million tons of phosphorous based fertilizer, and 39 million tons of potassium fertilizer. And those were just some of the fertilizers used. There are many more, but I won’t bore you (I’m afraid I already have).
As you can imagine, fertilizer production is a big business. Yara International, the largest producer of fertilizer in the world, has a presence in 150 countries, and had revenues totaling $16.6 billion USD in 2021. Dmitry Rybolovleva, a Russian fertilizer magnate, made headlines in 2011 when he shattered real estate records by buying a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park for the astronomical sum of 88 Million USD. He had no plans to live there; he bought it for his daughter Ekaterina Rybolovleva. The funny thing is that she didn’t live there either, she lived in Cambridge, MA, where she attended Harvard University. But I’m sure she put the apartment to good use on the weekends, it’s always nice to have a place to get away and relax after a week of tough classes in Harvard. For all we know, the US government seized the apartment at the same time it seized superyachts belonging to Russian oligarchs…
So fertilizer is great, right? It makes half of our food, it prints cash for all those involved in producing and selling it, it’s a win-win for everyone, no? Well, not exactly. You see the ammonium nitrate which is found in many forms of fertilizers is highly explosive. A fertilizer bomb was used in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, which killed six and wounded over a thousand. It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing, which claimed 168 lives, injured more than 680 people, and destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius,
The mechanics of this explosivity are kind of complicated, but let’s just say they include a detonator, detonation waves that move 2 to 3 miles per second, solid fertilizer turning into gas instantly, and pressure waves moving at the speed of sound. The result is a deadly explosion that travels rapidly and can tear apart a city.
That’s all I’m at liberty to tell you, but if you want more information and instructions for making your own explosion, check out Al Qaida’s quarterly online magazine, Inspire. Not specific enough? Try reading “Destroying Buildings” by the AQ Chef, in the Winter 2010 issue, and the “Remote Control Detonation” article in the Fall 2011 issue. Not sure if you want to use the remote control detonation or the finger-on-the-trigger detonation? Try reading “Which is better: Martyrdom or Victory?” by Abu Khowla, in the Winter 2010 issue. I really need to stop here, do some of your own research!
Not all fertilizer explosions are the result of terrorist activity; often they happen as industrial accidents, the byproduct of working with something so explosive. In 1921, workers at a German fertilizer plant tried to use dynamite to break up a large mass of solidified fertilizer that was clogging up the plant production. The resulting explosion killed 500 people. And just this Wednesday, a fertilizer plant in the city of West, TX blew up, causing the deaths of at least 15 and injuring over 180 people. Details of what caused it are still unclear, but it is clear that the blast leveled homes in a five block radius. It was so strong that the USGS registered it as a 2.1 magnitude earthquake.
So what is fertilizer? Is it the magical product that supports the existence of billions of people, or the ruthless concoction that destroys lives and cities? I It is both. Fertilizer: you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it.
In this sense, fertilizer is very similar to speech. Speech is the power that fuels all the innovation and collaboration our world has ever seen. It has helped mankind build towers that scrape the sky, and supercomputers that can make 25 thousand trillion computations per second. Communication has allowed mankind to eradicate smallpox, create a global marketplace, and improve the living conditions of billions around the world. Communication has allowed us to pass on the Torah from generation to generation, and has given us the platform upon which we can build relationships of enormous depth.
But speech is also the power that foments hatred, wars, and enormous pain. Speech propelled Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot into power. Speech is what rips apart families, destroys communities, and shatters lives. Some form of speech is probably the cause of at least 80% of the pain in your life. Speech: you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it.
Our job is to make sure we use our speech only to fertilize others, to help them grow and flourish. When we communicate with our friends, children, co-workers, and spouses, we can be layering them with the emotional nutrients they need to bloom and develop. But when used wrongly, our words can detonate deeply inside others, destroying their already fragile self esteem, and causing them to crawl back into themselves. If we are parents or teachers, our words are much more powerful, and can cause someone psychological trauma that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Speech: you can’t live with it, you can’t live without it.
“And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:6)” Onkelos, the primary translator of the Torah, translates “a living soul” as “a speaking spirit.” This teaches us that the uniqueness of man is his ability to speak, which gives him infinite power over the world around him, far more than was given to any beast of the field. On a higher level, G-d created the world with speech (And G-d said “Let there be light” etc). We humans, who were created in His image, can also create (or destroy) worlds with speech.
When we use our words to fertilize the world around us, we experience the greatest yield possible. We experience the Divine voice of kindness and compassion speaking from within us.
Parsha Dvar Torah
According to American law, if you were to stand at the edge of a pool doing nothing while watching someone drown, you would have committed no crime. Even if you stand impassive while he’s screaming for help and there is a life preserver lying by your feet, you could not be prosecuted. The Torah however specifically prohibits this, “You shall not stand idly by the blood (life) of your fellow (Lev. 19:16)” The Torah sees humans as having responsibility for one another, and mandates it as law.
Interestingly, in the next verse, the Torah tells us that we also have a responsibility to help someone who is struggling spiritually. “You shall surely reprove your fellow,” (Lev. 19:17). Not only does the Torah require us to help people who are making moral missteps, but the Torah also gives us clue on how to successfully do so.
“Reprove not a scorner lest he hate you; reprove a wise man and he will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)” Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, otherwise known as The Shelah (1564-1630 Prague/ Safed), tells us that this verse does not necessarily refer to two different people, but rather to two ways of correcting someone. “Reprove the scorner” means that if you call him a “scorner,” i.e. if you point out his negative habits, he will hate you. “Reprove a wise man” means that you call him “wise” or point out his otherwise good qualities that make his behavior unbecoming, and he will love you!
Some even read this into the continuation of the verse in the Torah that tells us to reprove others: “You shall surely reprove your fellow; [but] you shall not bear a sin on his account.” Reprove someone, but not by bearing down on him with the weight of everything wrong he ever did. One of the people who had the greatest effect on my life was a Rabbi who, regardless of what I was going through, would always point out my best qualities and encourage me to live up to the potential he saw in me.
The Chofetz Chaim (1838-1933) was once traveling throughout Europe to sell his books, when he stopped at a Jewish inn for the night. As he sat in the corner of the dining room waiting for dinner, he saw a sorry sight. A big burly fellow barged in, sat himself down at a table and demanded a huge meal. He was gruff with the waitress, made rude jokes at the people at neighboring tables, and cursed loudly when anyone said something that was not to his liking. When his meal came, he noisily wolfed it down without reciting any blessings, washed it down with a big mug of ale, and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
The Chofetz Chaim began approaching him, when the innkeeper intercepted him. “Don’t even attempt to talk to him. That guy was a cantonist, conscripted into the czar’s army at age seven, and he was not let out until twentyfive years later. People have tried to change his ways, but he’s stubborn. It seems he missed the stage of developing his manners or his Judaism.”
Unperturbed, the Chofetz Chaim pulled up a chair and said to him: “Is it true that you were a cantonist, drafted into the czar’s army for 25 years?” The cantonist grunted in affirmation. “You must be such a holy individual! I can’t imagine what it took for you to retain your Jewish identity. Countless times they must have beaten you for not converting to Christianity! You never even had a chance to study Torah and yet you held on! You’ve been through the worst of conditions and yet you stayed strong! I wish I would have the merits you must have! I wish I could have your portion in the World to Come!”
By this time the hardened veteran was crying like a baby, and kissing the hand of the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim continued, “There are just a few things you probably need to work on, but if you could improve in those areas, there would be no one like you!” After this, the man who was previously never affected by the years of people rebuking him became a changed man. For years he remained a close student of the Chofetz Chaim, and truly lived up to his true potential. We may not let people drown, but we don’t help them when we knock them down. The only way to truly help someone is to lift them up and out of their difficult situation!
This week we read Parshas Kedoshim, which starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell the Jews “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Ha-shem your G-d.” I could write volumes on this statement alone but then you would all put me on the “Block- Spam” list so I’ll keep it simple. This is G-d’s way of telling us to stay away from excess even in things that are allowed. Even though there is plenty of kosher wine, and good USDA Grade A Angus steaks, that doesn’t mean that we should sit all day drinking wine and eating steaks. Even within that which is permitted to us, we must learn not to overindulge, not to constantly focus on fulfilling our physical desires as that takes us away from pursuing spiritual growth.
The Torah then enumerates so many fundamental laws that Rashi says that “most of the essentials of the Torah depend on it (this Parsha).” Included in them are keeping Shabbos, honoring your parents, not serving idols, being honest in your dealings with others, paying your workers on time, not giving bad advice, leaving certain parts of your harvest in the field for the poor, not perverting justice in favor of the rich or poor. (O.K. lets take a deep breath and we’ll dive right back in!) The commandment to love your fellow like yourself, the requirement to save your friend from physical harm, and to give him reproach in a way that will save him from spiritual calamity. The prohibition against gossiping, taking revenge, bearing a grudge, and hating your brother in your heart. This portion concludes with the words “I am Ha-shem!” because many of these things cannot be discerned from the outside, such as hating someone in your heart, or giving someone bad advice, so Ha-shem says I am G-d and I know what you’re thinking!
Immediately after the above laws, many of which seem to be moral laws that we as a thinking society would probably institute anyway for the preservation, the Torah brings the laws of Kelaim. Basically, you can’t wear clothes made of wool and linen, you can’t mate two different animal species together, nor plant mixed seeds in your field. These mitzvos seem to have no apparent rationale.
The reason the Torah juxtaposes these two types of commandments is to show us that just like we keep the laws of Kelaim solely because G-d commanded it, so to we should keep the laws that we think are moral solely because G-d commanded it. Human morality is flippant. The “great” Greeks and Romans on whose civilizations our Western world is modeled, killed children on childbirth for the crime of being female and justified it. Some cultures sent elders out into the wilderness to die when they became too old, and justified it.
In order for us to be able to really say something is right or wrong, in order to have an absolute morality, it has to come from G-d, who would be the only One who could classify things as right or wrong and everyone would be bound by it. By definition, some parts of it we will understand and some parts we won’t as He is divine and we are human. This is the message of the unfathomable laws of Kelaim coming right after such simple laws as don’t cheat, steal, and take revenge.
The torah continues with more mitzvos including not eating from the fruit of a tree for the first three years, then consecrating its fruit on year four, and only on year five is it yours to enjoy as you please. The prohibition against indulging in sorcery, believing in lucky times, getting tattooed, cutting yourself to show sadness over someone’s death, or totally shaving your head (hence the mitzvah for men to have peyot, or side locks), or of shaving your beard with a razor are also found here.
There are some more laws still in this incredible Parsha, but alas, the candle is beginning to dim, and the hour is late, so I’m going to have to sign off here. Let’s try to take one or two of the many lessons in our two Parshiot and integrate it into our lives, and we will surely find our lives enriched, enlivened, enthused, enervated and energized!
Quote of the Week: Make the most of all that comes, and the least of all that leaves. – Sara Teasdale
Random Fact of the Week: 1995 was the first year Americans used credit cards more than cash.
Funny Line of the Week: Psychic Wanted! Paying Top Dollar! – You know where to apply.
Have a Contemplative Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham