People seem to have a higher regard for Paris than for any other city in the world. No less than twenty cities in dozens of countries have prided themselves as “the Paris of the East” or “the Paris of the West.” Detroit, with its grand boulevards and majestic avenues branching out from Campus Martius Park, used to pride itself as the Paris of the West. So didAbidjan, (Ivory Coast), Denver, Merida, (Mexico), Montreal, and San Francisco. (I of course, call Paris, “the Detroit of Europe.”)
Paris of the East was a moniker applied a bit more liberally; it was given to Baku, (Azerbaijan), Bandung, (Indonesia), Beirut, (Lebanon), Bucharest, (Romania), Budapest, (Hungary), Esfahan, (Iran), Kolkata, (India), Lahore, (Pakistan), Prague, Riga, (Latvia), Saint Petersburg, Shanghai, Warsaw, and a handful of other cities. But one of the most interesting Parisites (the plural of Paris) would have to be Hanoi, Vietnam.
The French colonized the area that would later be Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos in 1887, and called the entire area French Indochina. They decided to make Hanoi the capital of the region, and were determined to build it into a city as grand as Paris. The French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built grand villas where the French colonial rulers could live in the same style and ease as they would back in Paris. They built cafes, museums, administrative buildings, and universities on the scale they would have back at home. Soon enough, Hanoi began to truly resemble Paris. All they were missing was modern plumbing and a sewer system.
Never the type to leave a job half done, the French built an extensive sewer system under the city, and installed modern plumbing in all the buildings. Within a few months, the last reminder of Paris came to the great city of Hanoi; rats. Big bold rats, who now had a comfortable unchallenged home in the sewer system began invading the city in great numbers, and soon reports of rats climbing out of the flush toilets and invading homes and cafes began to emerge.
The prestige of living in modern parts of the city began to fall rapidly, and when outbreaks of bubonic plague began, and the French began dying from the plague spread by these bold rats, it became downright life-threatening. The French colonial rulers were at a loss at how to deal with this system, so they devised a bounty system; they began paying the Vietnamese for each rat they killed in the sewers. They didn’t want bagfuls of rats brought in each day, so they would simply pay by the tail.
Records show that in the beginning of the program a few hundred rats a day were killed. But instead of the number of rats decreasing, the number actually increased dramatically. At its highest point, the city records for June of 1902 show that in one day, 20,114 rat tails were brought in, and bounty was paid out. The French were confounded, how could they be killing so many rats, and yet the problem was just getting bigger?
It all became clear when a French official went to go visit a village on the outskirts of Hanoi, and found rat farms. The natives, with the type of entrepreneurial spirit the French were trying to cultivate, were growing hundreds of thousands of rats in order to cut off their tails and collect the bounty. The French stopped paying the bounty, and as you can imagine, no farmers wanted to continue raising rats, so they released all their rats, and the rat problem exploded.
This story is a common example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. People think they can solve a problem with a solution that makes so much sense at the time, but the consequence is that the problem gets much bigger. This Law is also known as the Cobra Effect due to a similar story that happened in Dehli, India where a bounty for the cobras that were plaguing the city led to a massive proliferation in the cobra population.
Another striking example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, comes from the United Nations (an organization you know I love and admire if you’ve been reading my Shabbos emails). In 2007, the UN created a carbon credit system with the goal of reducing global warming. Companies that reduced the types of gases that trap heat in the “greenhouse” were awarded carbon credits that could be exchanged for cold hard cash.
One of the most offensive gases in the world is HFC-23, a gas that traps 14,800 times more heat than CO2. Under the new UN program, companies that destroyed HFC-23 would get huge carbon credits (which equal lots of money). HFC-23 is the byproduct of the ozone killing refrigerator coolant HFC-22. When companies realized they could make a lot of money by destroying HFC-23, they began ramping up production of the HFC-22 coolant. The result of the UN’s well meaning program is that crooked companies made $695 Million by producing coolant that punches holes in the ozone, and then destroying the byproducts of their production.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is not only found when incentives are involved. The Endangered Species Act sounds like a noble cause. When an animal is feared to be nearing extinction, scientists can raise the issue, and after a one-year review period, the animal can be placed on the list of endangered species. At that point, destroying its habitat through development becomes illegal. The problem is that during the one-year review period, people who own the lands that might be habitats, quickly kill off the species, because they fear that their land will become useless once it is the habitat for an endangered species. Putting an animal on the endangered species list often brings it much closer to extinction!
Rabbits introduced to Australia by the British First Fleet as an easy source of food, now have gone amok, and feral rabbits are one of the biggest challenges facing farmers in Australia. The food now eats the food.
Kudzu, a Japanese plant known for its water retention was introduced in some southern states to prevent the erosion of flood lands, but the hardy plant can also snuff out native flora. It has taken over millions of acres of Southeastern US, and is growing at a rate of 150,000 acres a year!
The Prohibition was intended to stop drinking and reduce crime, but instead turned most ordinary citizens into “criminals” when they continued to drink in speakeasies, and led to the rise of mafias all over the country that made the bulk of their money smuggling and producing alcohol.
The Law of Unintended Consequences is the first law that mankind discovered. It was discovered by Adam, the first human. G-d told him not to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because on the day he did, he would plunge the world into darkness and mortality. But Adam had a better plan, he was going to eat of the fruit, plunge the world into darkness, and then inspire mankind to serve G-d despite all the darkness. This would be far superior to serving G-d in the Garden of Eden, a world of light and clarity, because it would entail much more struggle and sacrifice for G-d.
Adam’s plan sounded so noble, but the Law of Unintended Consequences reared its head, and mankind didn’t really serve G-d too well in the darkness, instead they often entirely lost their moral compass in the darkness. Adam’s own son, Cain, killed his brother! The next 5,781 years have seen immeasurable symptoms of a lost moral compass. Genocides, female infanticide, coliseum games where spectators watched 10,000 die for sport, pillage, plunder, and the list goes on. Things didn’t work out according to Adam’s plan. We now have to fight to bring the world back to the light, to bring it back to a state of mankind before the sin, where we don’t try to second guess G-d and His wisdom.
Ever since that seminal moment in history, our lives are a constant re-enactment of that first struggle. Deep down we know what’s right, we know what G-d wants of us, but we think we can come up with better plans, we think we have a better way to work the system, and we act accordingly, and then we struggle with the Law of Unintended Consequences.
We know that we shouldn’t spend too much time at the office while our children are young and at home, but we convince ourselves that it is necessary to support all their needs. But the Law of Unintended Consequences results in our discovery that the greatest need they had was our attention, and once we neglected to meet that need, it is very hard to rebuild the relationship we could have had. We know that we shouldn’t gossip, but we come up with all sorts of rationales for the gossip we want to talk, and in the end we just add bitterness, dissension, betrayal and backstabbing into our lives.
Many thought they could create a more vibrant and meaningful Judaism by removing many of G-d’s laws and mitzvot that seemed outdated and didn’t “talk to people”, but instead they found that the new easy and attractive Judaism was deeply challenged by assimilation, apathy, and children becoming entirely unaffiliated (40% of those under 30).
However this raises the obvious challenge: almost anything we do can trigger the Law of Unintended Consequences! How do we avoid the Unintended Consequences?
A pretty safe bet would be to go with G-d. There are no Unintended Consequences with G-d because G-d is omniscient and knows all the consequences of every action anyone might do. He can also see the future, a tool none of us have in our toolkit. Therefore, He gave us an instruction manual, called the Torah, and told us (Deuteronomy 30:19): “This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses for you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.” Hashem tells us clearly; I see the future, I see what the results of each action are, and I’m giving you the gift of a map that will get you to the blessed life you want. I won’t show you full video of the future, but I’ll give you the step by step instruction manual. I’ll also put righteous people in the world, who are living that life, and you can see the serenity and joy in their lives and see if that is something you want to tap into.
It is not always the easy choice to make, but it is the one way we can live a life in which we are always meeting the Law of Intended Consequences.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha we read about Bilaam, the gentile prophet who embarks on a journey to curse the Jews. As his donkey is meandering along the road, it notices an angel blocking the path with a drawn sword. Immediately, the donkey reprograms his GPS and tries to take a detour through the fields. Bilaam, who can’t see the angel, beats his donkey, berating him for leaving the road. After similar events occur two more times, the donkey miraculously talks back to Bilaam and rebukes him sharply. G-d then opens Bilaam’s eyes and lets him see the angel. He then finally understands what has been causing the donkey to deviate from normal traveling procedures.
Let us study the sequence that led up to this whole showdown with the angel. After clearly seeing that G-d did not want him to curse the Jews, Bilaam persisted in asking again, and finally G-d gave him permission. As he set out on his journey, the Torah tells us, “G-d showed anger because he [Bilaam] went, and an angel of G-d placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants.” (Numbers 22:22) Rashi (1040-1105 CE, France), the primary commentator on the Chumash, tells us a bit about this angel. On the words “to thwart him” Rashi comments, “He was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning, so that he would not sin and perish.”
The Oznaim Latorah (written by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, 1881-1966, Lithuania/Israel) points out something interesting. This angel was brandishing a sword and threatening to kill Bilaam. Most people would see him as a frightening, angry, and disciplinarian angel. But Rashi is telling us that he was actually an angel of mercy trying to save Bilaam. Not everything is what it seems to be. Sometimes the person feeding you honey can be poisoning you, while the person forcing vile tasting medicine down your throat can be saving your life. It is a matter of pulling back and looking at the big picture.
This angel of mercy teaches us that sometimes (and only sometimes) the most merciful thing we can do is to be a strict disciplinarian. In dealing with our children it will give them structure, and will help them learn to build stable patterns that will last them their entire lives. In dealing with ourselves it can help us stick to a diet, finish projects we really need to finish, or push ourselves to constantly grow and strive for more.
Ultimately, we can let the donkey keep plodding down Dangerous Lane, but we would be much better off recognizing the caring of the AWBS (Angel Who Brandishes a Sword), and heeding his kind message before we end up having to take rebuke from a donkey!
This week’s parsha, Balak, tells the story of the great gentile prophet Bilaam and his nefarious dealings with the Moabite king Balak. The Midrash tell us that the gentiles complained to G-d, claiming that if only they would have prophets like the Jews have, they too would lead more G-dly lives. G-d responds by giving them a prophet Bilaam, who was equal to Moshe in his power of prophecy. However, Bilaam did not use his gift for the betterment of mankind as Moshe did, rather he used it to acquire fame and fortune for himself.
Balak was the ad hoc king of Moab, who was installed to defend the Moabites from the Jews who had just destroyed two of the strongest nations in Moab’s neighborhood. Realizing that no army was big enough to fight the Jews, Balak looked to AWMD (Alternative Weapons of Mass Destruction), such as curses from a prophet. He sent a large delegation to Bilaam asking him to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam tells the delegation that he needs to sleep on it (he would communicate with G-d while sleeping), and asks them to spend the night. That night G-d tells him not to go curse the Jews, as they are a blessed people.
Bilaam tells the delegation that he cannot go as, “G-d refused permission for me to go with you” thus hinting that the problem was with the delegation, as they were not important enough. Sure enough, Balak sends another delegation, composed of more prestigious members of his court. This time, G-d tells Bilaam that he can go with them as long as he realizes that he will only be able to say what G-d puts in his mouth. This shows us that ultimately G-d will allow us to follow our will, even if we’re making a big mistake.
While Bilaam is traveling, G-d sends an angel in the path which only Bilaam’s donkey can see (this is supposed to teach Bilaam how blinded he is by his desire for honor, – even a donkey can see more clearly than him). The donkey first tries to detour into the fields, later he brushes up against a wall, and finally he stops moving alltogether. Bilaam hits him each time, until finally G-d opens the mouth of the donkey, and he says to Bilaam, “Why are you hitting me? Did I not serve you faithfully your entire life? Have I ever done this before?” Only then does G-d open Bilaam’s eyes and he sees the angel, and understands his donkey’s actions. The angel reminds Bilaam that he can only say exactly what G-d puts in his mouth.
Finally, Bilaam and Balak go out to the camp of the Jews. Bilaam tells Balak to set up seven altars on which Bilaam will bring sacrifices in the hope of enticing G-d to allow him to curse the people. (Think about it – he is bringing sacrifices to G-d, to get permission to curse G-d children! It’s like bringing a parent $100,000 to kill their firstborn! Could any action possibly contain more gall than that? And what are the chances that it would work?!! But Bilaam is blinded by fame and fortune, and fails to see the folly of his false and fallacious scheme!)
Of course, G-d does not allow him to curse the Jews, and instead puts beautiful praises of the Jewish people in the mouth of Bilaam. Balak, very frustrated, suggests that possibly if Bilaam tries to curse them from a vantage point where he only sees part of the Jewish nation he will be more successful, but again Bilaam praises them eloquently. Again Balak persists, and requests that Bilaam try to curse them from a third location. This time, when he sees the Jewish tents laid out before him, Bilaam doesn’t even try to curse them, but rather blesses them of his own volition. (This blessing is such a poetic praise of the Jewish people that it has become part of the morning prayers.)
Balak tells Bilaam that he better catch the next plane out, as he failed miserably at his mission. But before he leaves, Bilaam gives Balak a strategy for destroying the Jews. He explains that the G-d of the Jews hates sexual immorality, and suggests that Moab send their maidens into the camp to seduce the men, and use their sensuality to coerce the men to not only sin through promiscuity, but even go as far as idolatry. When a man would be at his most vulnerable moment, she was to pull out a small idol, and tell the man that she would only continue if he worshipped it.
This diabolical plan actually works, and thousands of Jews were seduced. It got so bad that the prince of the tribe of Shimon was seduced by a princess (imagine the hatred of Moab – they sent their princess out on a mission like this!). He began to publicly justify his actions, and went as far as to sin publicly in front of Moshe and the Elders at the entrance to the Tabernacle. A plague broke out amongst the sinners, and they started dying. Immediate action was called for, before this would spread to the whole nation. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, stepped up to the task at hand, took a spear, and killed the princess and her paramour, the prince of the tribe of Shimon. After that, the plague stopped, leaving 24,000 dead. On that happy note – That’s all, Folks!
Quote of the Week: He who walks in another’s tracks leaves no footprints. – Joan Relfank
Random Fact of the Week: Sixty percent of American men say they normally eat a hot dog in five bites or less.
Funny Line of the Week: The only reason people get lost in thought is that it is such unfamiliar territory.
Have a Sublime Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham