The information presented below is based on an article by Jordan Weissman in The Atlantic magazine, which appeared on Dec 27, 2013.

I had my first whole cup of coffee at the age of ten. Oh, how I savored that coffee. Making it was almost a sacred ritual; putting a heaping teaspoon of coffee in my favorite mug, followed by three teaspoons of sugar, some hot water from the urn, some milk from the fridge, and finally mixing it all and watching the milk and coffee swirl together into a perfect tan. There was no gulping this cup of coffee, only small little sips were permitted; after all, it would be a year before I’d have another coffee.

 Growing up, we had a system of coffee priveledges in my family. When you were ten, you could have one cup a year; eleven- one cup a month, twelve – one cup a week, and finally at thirteen, you could have a coffee every day! These draconian coffee laws were there for our benefit; everyone knew that drinking too much coffee could stunt your growth! My parents didn’t want us to live our lives at our ten-year-old heights, so they limited our coffee intake. I’ve been doing the same to my children, and I’m sure many of you had similar relationships with coffee, or the lack thereof, in your youth.

The problem is that the long held notion that coffee stunts the growth of developing children is simply not true. Not only is it not true, but it was fabricatd, and promugulated at great expense, by the man who offered the most common alternative to coffee. That man, Charles William Post, also known as C. W. Post, is most famous for creating the Post cereal company, well known for its classics, Grape Nuts and the first corn flakes (known as Elijah’s Manna), and its more modern, and less healthful products, Alpha Bits, Fruity Pebbles, and my personal favorite, Cocoa Pebbles.

But before C. W. Post began making cereals, he created an entirely different product out of cereal grains, and that was a coffee alternative, which he named by adding um to his last name, Postum. You may remember Postum, and growing up in a very health conscious household, I certainly remember Postum. Postum was what my mother always offered us when we complained that we wanted coffee. She told us it tasted just as good as coffee, and was much better for us, but we didn’t like it so much because it tasted like toasted earth.

When C.W. Post created his Postum product, he knew it would have no chance competing head to head with the more flavorful caffienated coffee; so he waged a propaganda war against coffee. For decades, his company took out full page ads in hundreds of publications educating the public of the perils of coffee. One of those ads, from 1933, proclaims that “by crowding milk out of the diet of children, coffee is a cause of undernourishment. It robs children of their rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. It lowers their vitality, lessens their resistance to disease, and hampers proper development and growth.” Other ads touted findings by a “world famous Research Institute” that had conclusive evidence that drinking coffee brings down children’s grades. They claimed that coffee gave people sallow skin, depressed kidney and liver function, and caused indigestion and nervousness.

At one point, the Post company even commissioned a comic strip, in which a devilish villain known as Mr. Coffee Nerves would wreak havoc on children’s lives, causing them to rebel, run away, get horrible indigestion, and a whole host of maladies. They would be on the brink of total ruin, but at the last minute, they would switch to Postum, and live happily ever after!

The result of the Post attack on coffee was dramatic, and not only made C. W. Post a millionaire many times over, but also imbedded our world with a fear of mixing coffee and kids. Ironically, the Post company ended up acquiring the Maxwell House coffee brand in 1928, but continued their attack on coffee, knowing that coffee drinkers would continue to drink coffee, but their negative campaign against coffee would drive other people, and especially parents, to Postum, the drink that makes all stories end well. And so it was that despite there not being a shred of scientific evidence to support the “coffee stunts the growth of children” myth, I never got a full cup of coffee until I was ten, and my second cup had to wait till I was eleven!

Now here is the crazy thing. I know about the Post compnay coffee hoax, I’ve read the studies. And yet when I was discussing the story with my wife, I was afraid that my daughter would hear and start asking for coffee. On one side of my brain I knew that coffee won’t stunt her growth, but on the other side of my brain, I still feared that it would have terrible effects on her. The Post hoax had created a reality in my mind that is almost impossible to break despite all the evidence to the contrary!

King Solomon, the wisest of men, told us (Proverbs, 18:21), “Death and life are in the hands of the tongue.” He understood that the words we say create realities, realities that become imbedded deep in the human psyche. This applies on a global scale with people like Adolf Hitler and Haman, whose words were able to convince a generation of sophisticated civilized people to turn into animals frothing at the mouth with the desire to wipe out an entire nation of people, and people like Gandhi and Lincoln, who with words alone championed peace and equality in world changing ways. It applied back in during our Exodus when the words of Moses uplifted the Jewish people from the mentality of slaves to partners with the divine, and it applies today when college professors glorify savages using words like resistance and decolonization.

But it also applies on a personal level. The words we use with the people around us can either lift someone up, give them life and purpose, or destroy them, shatter their self-esteem, and chase them around for life like the angel of death. We all know people who can never believe in their own value and goodness no matter how much they do, because they were repeatedly told as a child that they were no good, selfish, or rotten. And we also see people who seem so capable at handling whatever challenges life throws their way with grace and composure. Many of these people were given a healthy self-esteem through affirming words, they had their personal human greatness affirmed to them and shown to them, and they just know they can handle life’s challenges! Often in the Talmud, after hearing affirming words, a great sage will tell the person who told him those words, “Chiyisani,” which means “you gave me life.”

It is amazing to think that with nothing stronger than our mouths we can mold the future of our children’s lives, our spouse’s lives, and our friend’s lives! When we give people honest compliments, when we tell people of the greatness we see in them, that narrative becomes their reality. They begin to see it in themselves, and soon begin acting it out. Of course, when we do the opposite, when we criticize and bite at others, when we constantly point out their deficiencies (even when we’re “only joking!”), that narrative becomes their reality, and we can literally be ruining their lives. We can be creating a story in their mind that is truly stunting their growth and development.

So let’s become life givers, let’s sprinkle life wherever we go. Let’s be like those magical people we all know who leave every person they encounter brighter and more filled with life. Let’s use our words to give children back their rosy cheeks and sparkling eyes. Let’s use our words to increase people’s vitality, strengthen their resistance to disease, and foster proper development and growth!

Coffee is good, but words are so much better!

Epilogue: Sales of Postum eventually began to decline, as less and less people were interested in a drink that tasted like burnt hay. But it was the rise of Starbucks in the mid-nineties that really did Postum in. By 2007, sales were so low, that Kraft Foods (the current owners of Post products) finally pulled it from the shelves. But they reintroduced it in 2012. t turns out that Postum is really popular in Mormon households, they are not allowed to drink coffee! Viva la Postum!

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Pekudei, we continue reading about the building of the Tabernacle, and finally see it  completed. In all, there are four parshiot that deal almost exclusively with the building of the Tabernacle, and the vessels and vestments used inside it. The Torah goes into enormous detail describing every facet of the construction. It even repeats everything twice – once when it was commanded and once when it was built. This is uncharacteristic of the Torah which normally is very brief. Why did the Torah go into such detail specifically here?

The Tabernacle was the place in which G-d dwelled amongst the Jews. It was also a model around which we can learn to build our homes, and through which we can learn to build a temple inside ourselves for G-d. If we want to have a good relationship with our spouses in our homes, and a good relationship with G-d we need to understand that the majority of a relationship is built through the details.

People often wonder why Judaism stresses all sorts of intricate laws. Shabbat, kashrut, Passover, and tefillin are just some examples of mitzvot that are governed by dozens of technical laws. Why can’t we just love G-d? Why isn’t it enough for me to talk to Him a few times a day, give Him thanks, and tell Him that I love him?

Let’s answer that with this question. Would it be enough for you to simply tell your wife you love her? How about if you told her five times a day? Of course not! The way you show her you love her is by doing all the little things she wants you to do for her. By taking out the garbage, by putting down the seat in the washroom, by writing little love note, by doing the dishes, and by packing a lunch for her to take to work. Not only does doing those things show her you love her, but they also build your love for her, because you’re sacrificing for her, you’re putting her needs above your own. Taking care of the little details is what builds the big love.

We find a focus on detail by even the greatest of Sages. The Talmud recounts the chores that various great Rabbis would do to prepare for Shabbos. Rava would salt the fish, Rav Chisda would cut up beets, Rav Yosef would chop wood, and Rav Nachman would shlepp things that were needed for Shabbos on his shoulder. All of these Sages could have easily exempted themselves from these seemingly trivial tasks, claiming that they should save their time and energy for bigger and better tasks. But they loved Shabbos, and they wanted to be involved in every little detail of creating the perfect Shabbos. The love was in the details.

Rav Leib Chassid, one of the close disciples of the Vilna Gaon, settled in Telshe, Lithuania after the passing of his great teacher. He quickly developed a reputation for his great piety and spent his days studying torah, praying with heartfelt emotion, and helping others. Rarely did he leave his holy work.

One time, he told his wife and children that he needed to go on a journey, and after packing properly he was off. He was gone for weeks and people wondered where he was. He came back aglow with joy. He explained to his family that he wasn’t sure where the proper place to say Amen for the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon. So he traveled for weeks to consult with a great sage, and now he knew! When the love is there, even the smallest details are worth going to the ends of the world for.

The Tabernacle was the place G-d would live with His people. The only way it could be built was if we covered all the details, as details are the basis of a real loving relationship. Since this was the foundation of our relationship with G-d, the Torah spent four parshiot on it. Similarly, all the details contained in the mitzvot are the building blocks for the temple we can create within ourselves for G-d. By meticulously following the details He asks of us, we are putting Him above ourselves, and in that way we can build a big temple with little bricks!

Parsha Summary

Pekudei begins with an enumeration the exact amounts of gold, silver, and copper that were donated. (Quick lesson: no matter how great you are, if you are using public funds there should be a level of accountability. Listen up Department of Defense!!!) It then describes in detail the making of the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol (the priests and the High Priest). They were discussed already in detail in Parshat Tzav, three weeks ago, please feel free to see that email for more details (yes, I’m sure you save my emails, don’t you?). 

The Parsha ends with the commandment to actually set up the Mishkan, and describes its being erected. The Parsha, and indeed the Book of Exodus, closes with the climactic moment when G-d’s glory comes down from on High and rests in the Mishkan that was built for him!

Quote of the Week: The most exquisite pleasure is giving pleasure to others. – A. Gambiner

Random Fact of the Week: A lump of pure gold the size of a matchbook can be flattened into a sheet the size of a tennis court. 

Funny Line of the Week: Found on n a blanket from Taiwan. -NOT TO BE USED AS PROTECTION FROM A TORNADO. Found on a Korean kitchen knife. – WARNING: KEEP OUT OF CHILDREN.

Have a Dandy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

Print this article

Leave a Reply