If you’re like 99% of the world, you’ve never heard of Nauru. That is because the Republic of Nauru is a tiny country with only .00014% of the world population! Naura is the third smallest country in the world, only bigger than the Vatican City and Monaco. And while the Vatican City is surrounded by Italy, and Monaco is surrounded by France, Naura is surrounded by nothing but water. Lots of water. Its closest neighbor is two hundred miles away, and that is Banaba Island, another tiny island that is part of the Republic of Kiribati. You’ve probably never heard of the Republic of Kiribati either, but Nauru is different, because at one time Nauru was the richest country in the world, and yet you still never heard of it!
So where is this Nauru? Nauru sits all by itself in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. By plane, it takes five hours to get to the closes major city, Brisbane, Australia. Nauru is an exceedingly small country; it’s just one island, with a total of 8.1 square miles. To put that into perspective, you could fit eight Naurus into Disney World in Orlando. So how does a miniscule scrap of land in middle of the Pacific Ocean become vastly wealthy? Surprisingly, it accomplished this by owning some of the most expensive excrement in the world.
When you are an island in middle of nowhere, you are really attractive to birds. When birds migrate over long expanses of water they always look for rest stops. When they find a rest stop, they spend a few days there, eating whatever they can find, and then moving on. But while on the island, they leave behind their waste, known as guano. Nauru was slowly covered with billions of pounds of guano, the guano was eventually covered by topsoil, and a lush rainforest grew on top of the topsoil, covering the entire island. But leave billions of pounds of guano to bake in the equatorial sun, composting under a tropical forest, and over thousands of years it changes into a valuable product known as phosphate, the principal ingredient in fertilizer. And while phosphate isn’t worth its weight in gold, luckily there was a lot of it in Nauru.
Nauru was first inhabited by Pacific Islanders about 2,500 years ago. The island was lush, abundant fish could be pulled out of the ocean, the temperature stayed in the mid-seventies and eighties all the time, there were no mosquitoes, things were good. Europeans first chanced upon it in 1798, as Captain John Fearn, a whale hunter landed there, and promptly named it Pleasant Island, an honest if not particularly creative name. Soon Europeans began stopping there to replenish their supplies, particularly freshwater. Some of them traded guns for food and water, sparking a ten-year civil war among the newly armed local tribes in the late 1870s. So far, that history is standard fare for a Pacific Island.
All that changed when Henry Denson arrived. Denson was working for the Pacific Island Company, a mining company, and he noticed a strange rock on Nauru that looked like petrified wood. He took it back home as a novelty, and for three years used it as a doorstop to prop open the door to his phosphate testing laboratory. A chemist who was working at the lab was interested in the strange looking petrified wood, and decided to test it. It turned out to be the riches phosphate ore that had ever been found.
Nauru quickly turned into a strip mine, with operators cutting down the rain forest, and digging out all the phosphate bedrock beneath it. It was first annexed by Germany, then given to Australia as a League of Nations mandate after WWI. The Japanese took it over in WWII, and the US bombed its only airport in 1943. It became a UN trustee after WWII, and finally became an independent country in 1968.
You might think that the islanders would want to go back to a quiet peaceful life after decades of occupation and stress, but they opted instead to capitalize on the enormous wealth sitting beneath them. Throughout the 1970’s and 80’s, Nauru made untold millions from their phosphate mining activities. It was during this time, that Nauru had the highest per capita income in the world. Everyone bought cars despite the fact that there wasn’t really anywhere to go. People left their thatch huts and build big cinderblock homes, each one equipped with satellite TV. Western food became the rage, a new airport was built, Nauru Airlines began to fly, a big gleaming hotel opened, and most importantly, a golf course was laid out in the middle of nowhere.
But there was only so much phosphate, and when Nauru was thoroughly mined out, the country was in some serious trouble. Their money was gone, wasted on extravagances or stolen by corrupt officials. The entire interior of the country was a wasteland, the vegetation had been destroyed, and the earth itself torn apart. Agriculture was impossible. Freshwater ponds had disappeared. The Nauruans were stranded in middle of nowhere, with nothing.
From that time in the late eighties until today, Nauru has been involved in a string of unethical attempts to make money, and here are some of them:
- Banking, also known as money laundering. Nauru allowed anyone to open a bank for as little as $20,000. Unlike regular banks, they didn’t require any disclosure. No reporting was required to establish where the money was coming from, nor where it went. The banks were not even required to report who was running the bank. Over $100 billion was laundered through Nauru, most of it coming in and out of one building.
It was not a beautiful edifice of stone and glass, rather a shabby two room building filled with computers. Air conditioners ran at full blast to keep the rows of servers comfortable. The only employee working there was the cleaning lady who would clean away the phosphate dust that continually covers everything in Nauru. Mafias, cartels, oligarchs, dictators, and anyone else who wanted to hide their dirty money still found value in Nauru. The US convinced Nauru to shut down their money laundering operations in the early 2000’s.
- Selling passports. Suspected terrorists all over the world have been found traveling on Nauruan passports. They can be bought for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000.
- Housing refugees in detention camps. Refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan started arriving in Australia by boat, but Australia didn’t want them. So it paid Nauru to take them. Nauru didn’t really want them either so they put them into camps that are more like prisons than refugee centers. Currently, there are about 600 refugees imprisoned on Nauru, and Nauru collects millions in monthly payments from Australia.
- Setting up spy operations for the CIA. The US offered to return Nauru to paradise by building fisheries, health clinics, schools, and desalination plants. In return, Nauru had to stop its banking and passport business, set up a listening post for US intelligence agencies, and sign Article 98, exempting the US from all war criminal proceedings in the international courts.
The US also required Nauru to open an embassy in China which would be used as a front for the CIA to smuggle North Korean defectors out of the country. Nauru upheld its part of the bargain, building the embassy, but the CIA ruse never worked because China refused to give embassy status to a Nauruan embassy staffed entirely by Westerners and headed by a New Zealand spy. The US reneged on the deal, Nauru sued the US in an Australian court, and won the courtcase. But the US still has not kept their part of the deal, no fisheries, no health clinics, no schools and no desalination plant.
So where is Nauru today? It’s still in middle of nowhere. They no longer have their passport and banking operations because they closed them down during their dealings with the US, and other corrupt countries took their place. They still have no agriculture, and almost everything consumed on the island must be flown in from thousands of miles away. They still have hundreds of refugees imprisoned. But that’s about it. There’s really not much else. Narau wasted all its resources and has nothing to show for it.
The most promising idea for the future is that they just shut down the country and move all 10,000 Nauruans somewhere else. Australia has offered them an island near the Great Barrier Reef. They might be the first country in modern history to simply shut down, a true failed state. In twenty years, if you’ve never heard of Nauru, it might be because it doesn’t exist…
There is a verse in the Torah that instructs us on the proper way to show respect for the elderly. The words of the verse (Leviticus, 19:32), “Mipnei seiva takum,” are generally translated as, “You shall get up in the presence of an old person.” However, the Midrah Hane’elam, a part of the Zohar, gives an altogether different explanation. “Rabi Bo said that this verse is an exhortation for young people. In other words, when it says to rise before the elderly, it means that one should rise to do good before he himself becomes old, and if he does so, then he will thus honor himself in his old age…”
The Zohar is telling us that every human being has a massive deposit of the most valuable stuff around, not phosphates, but human potential, the power of our neshama. If we use that potential properly when we still have plenty of it, then we can build a thriving, successful, and sustainable world for ourselves, our families, and our communities. If we don’t use it properly, if we mine all that potential, and waste the proceeds on cars, houses, hotels and golf courses, then we leave nothing over to build the things that are important, the schools, fisheries, hospitals, and desalination plants. We can either mine our youth to build a glorious old age, or we can waste all of our potential on things that aren’t important, and find ourselves in our old age with barren rock, devoid of vegetation, unable to sustain a joyful, proud, and happy life.
This is not to say that one ever loses their potential entirely, Judaism believes that as long as a person has a breath in their soul, they can still change for the better, but it is so much harder to cultivate anything on land that has been stripped of its nutrients.
The Torah tells us, get up and become big people while you still have a lot of energy left in you. Before you begin to lose your strength, mine your potential and build something you’ll look back at with pride for the rest of your life. No one ever complains on their deathbed that they didn’t spend enough time at the office. No one ever looks back and says, “I wish I worked longer hours so that I could have gotten a nicer car.” No one ever says, “I wish I would have been more demanding of others, I wish I spoke more gossip while the gossip was hot!” But many people look back and say, “I wish I gave more charity, spent more time with the kids, gave compliments more freely, studied more Torah, and developed a deeper connection with my Creator and Sustainer.”
The wealth is in us right now. Let’s go build the fisheries, schools, and health clinics. Let’s not be a failed state, but rather a model state, developing our Pleasant Island into a place that will be lush, verdant, and beautiful for as long as we are around!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s portion, Shelach, we read about the meraglim, the spies that the Jews sent forth to reconnoiter the land of Israel before they would enter it. The meraglim came back to the desert and gave a negative report, causing the Jews to lose spirit, and even suggest that they should return to Egypt. G-d was very angry that the Jews believed the spies’ slander on the land He had promised would be good, and He decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years. During that time, all the people who had cried all night long bemoaning their fate, and asking to die in the desert, would die in the desert. Their children would be the only ones to enter the land, and witness the goodness of a land filled with G-d’s blessing.
The morning after this decree, a group of Jews decided that they had made a drastic error, and that they would rectify it by leaving immediately for the land of Israel. Moshe sent word that they should not go, as G-d had decreed that they must stay in the desert. If they were to go, G-d would not be with them, and they would fall in battle to the Amalekites and Canaanites. The group refused to listen to Moshe and charged forward. As I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, they were met by a welcome party of Amalekite and Canaanite commandos who massacred them.
The commentators point to something strange in the storyline. One night earlier these people had been so sure that Israel was a death trap that they begged to go back to the slavery of Egypt rather than to go to that dangerous land. Can it really be that the very next morning they are so sure that Israel is the greatest place in the world that they are willing to risk their lives to get there?
The Alter of Kelm, (1842-1898, Lithuania) [the father of the Kelm yeshiva, a bastion of the mussarmovement which focused intensely on character development], answers this question with a fascinating insight. Many times we are on the cusp of greatness, and the evil inclination, the negative force inside of us, senses this, and puts up a magnificent fight, using every weapon it has. However, when we are on the way to do the wrong thing, the evil inclination is noticeably missing. If anything, the fact that everything is going our way easily can sometimes be a sign we’re heading the wrong way.
The Jews were about to enter the Land of Israel, and begin living on a new plane of existence, incomparable to any previously experienced by the Jewish people. The evil inclination put up a massive fight, the spies came back with a negative report, and the people fell for it. The next morning, the Jews were no longer supposed to go to Israel, au contraire, they were supposed to stay in the desert. Now the evil inclination lifts the wool off the eyes of the Jews and they see how wrong they had been. All the doubts and distortions they were shown the night before dissipate, and they see the truth. Now they want to go to Israel, and the evil inclination stays real quiet, because he knows it is the wrong thing. Sure enough, they fell for it again, and suffered the unfortunate consequences.
This teaches us a big lesson about our daily life. When we are just coasting along with no challenges, we need to recognize that we are probably in the wrong lane, or possibly even heading in the wrong direction. If we were heading toward greatness, our negative inner forces would be putting up every roadblock possible. Our growth comes from overcoming challenges, and if we’re not experiencing them, then we’re not on the path of growth.
When all is quiet on the Eastern Front, it probably because we belong on the Western Front.
As mentioned above, this Parsha speaks about the spies the Jews sent into Israel. When the people came to Moshe with a request to send spies, Moshe asked G-d. G-d replied, if you want to send spies, go ahead, but I see no reason for it, as I told you the land would be good. From here we see that right from the get-go, this spy idea wasn’t too hot. We also learn that G-d will not prevent you from doing something bad. He gave us free will, and if we desire a wicked path, He will not bar us from walking down it.
Next, Moshe picked the leaders of the tribes, amongst them his best disciple Hoshea. Moshe changed Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which is an acronym for “G-d should save you (from the counsel of the meraglim).” He gave the spies instructions as to where to go exactly and what to look for. Moshe told the spies to study at the cities they would encounter. If they were heavily fortified with many defenses, it would be a sign that the people are weak. However, if the cities were open, it would show that the inhabitants are strong and have nothing to fear. This is often also true in human psychology. Sometimes we see people who, due to unfortunate events in their past, put up strong walls of defense, almost never allowing their true emotions to show. Although some might view this as a strength, in reality, it is a sign of emotional weakness. The person who has emotional strength learns to overcome difficult events, and to slowly open themselves up to the entire range of emotions, even though at times it will be painful. (Thanks Wurzweiller School of Social Work, I am using you for the first time this year!)
The spies went, and came back bearing the fruit of the land. They described the land to the Jews as the ultimate Super Sized country; the fruit was huge (eight people were needed to carry one cluster of grapes), the people were gigantic, and inhabitants were dying all over the place (As a favor to the spies, G-d arranged that a lot of people should die so that, due to their grief, no one would notice the spies. However, when someone is looking for bad, they will find it even in the good being done for them). The Jews began to fear going to Israel, and started talking about going back to Egypt, ignoring the protests of Yehoshua and Caleb, the two righteous spies, who tried to tell the people how good the land was. The Jews became so hysterical that the entire nation wept all night long.
G-d was so angry that He threatened to destroy the entire nation and rebuild it from Moshe alone, but Moshe prayed very hard. He said that if G-d did so, all the nations would claim that G-d could only beat one king (Pharaoh), but not the 31 kings living in Israel so He killed His people before they got to Israel. Moshe also used the 13 Attributes of Mercy, a special formula for praying which G-d had told Moshe never returns without results. In the end, G-d acquiesced and said that He would not wipe out the Jewish nation for their grievous sin of not believing in Him and His promises about the Holy Land. However, G-d swore that all the adults who did not believe Him would never see the land – they would die out slowly over forty years of wandering in the desert. (The forty years paralleled the forty days the spies spent in the Holy Land gathering evil information to tell the Jews.)
Additionally, the night that the Jews cried for no reason was the night of Tisha B’Av (the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av), and G-d declared that it would be the night on which Jews would cry forever. Sure enough, on Tisha B’Av we lost both our first and second Temples, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, World War I began — a war whose outcome triggered World War II and its Holocaust, The Final Solution was decreed and signed by Goring YS’V the day before Tisha B’Av 1941, and the cattle cars left Warsaw, the largest ghetto with 400,000 Jews, on Tisha B’Av 1942. Although this seems like an awful lot of punishment for one sin, we need to understand that the underlying mistake of the Jews’ tears was their lack of complete faith that G-d can deliver on His promises. This lack of faith in G-d’s ability continues to be the cause of our pain and suffering as a nation.
After G-d spelled out the decree, a number of Jews suddenly felt remorse, and decided to go up and conquer Israel. Moshe told them not to go, as G-d had just decreed forty years of wandering. They went anyway, but G-d was not with them, and they were easily defeated by an army of Canaanites that they encountered immediately.
The Torah next describes the libations (offerings of wine and flour) which were brought along with the different sacrifices offered in the Temple. O.K. I was a teacher for eight years in NYC, and old habits die hard, so for homework I’m asking you to email me an answer as to what is the significance of the juxtaposition of the story of the spies and the libations. They seem to be totally unrelated, so why are they right next to each other in the Torah?
The Torah then describes the mitzvah of challah, which is the commandment to take a bit of dough off any dough we make and give it to the Kohen. Today we don’t give it to the Kohen, because they don’t have the level of ritual purity necessary to eat it, but we do take off a piece from our dough, (and if the dough is 5 lbs or more, we even make a blessing on doing this special mitzvah!) Today, being that we don’t give the Challah to a Cohen, and we can’t eat, we instead simply burn it. The Torah then discusses the atonement process for different forms of idol worship including intentional individual, unintentional individual, and unintentional public (when the High Court makes an erroneous ruling that allows a practice which is actually idol worship.) The last story in the Parsha is about a person who went out and desecrated Shabbos publicly, even though he was warned not to do so, and the punishment he received.
The Parsha concludes with the commandment to wear tzitzis, the fringes we wear on four cornered garments. They are there to serve as a constant reminder of our obligations to G-d. Here’s a quick story to illustrate this, which happened to a close friend of mine, Rabbi Aaron Eisemann, of Passaic, NJ. Once, when he was on a campus out in the West Coast doing outreach, he saw a big commotion. After going out to see what was going on, he sees a number of PETA activists (who advocate for animal rights and veganism) with a huge sign reading, “Stop the Holocaust on your plate; become a vegetarian!” Understandably, there was a large group of people standing around demanding that they take down this offensive sign which so minimized the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Fist were about to fly, when, suddenly, the leader of the PETAniks shows up. Sure enough, he is this little timid looking Jewish guy, and he averts the danger by telling his troop to take down the sign. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to reach out to another Jew, Rabbi E went to talk to him. He noticed that the fellow had a massive tattoo on his arm with some kind of message saying “Never Forget the Other Animals of this World” which the boy told Rabbi E he had drilled into him to ensure that he never forgets his responsibilities to the other animals of the planet. (I assume getting that tattoo should probably be considered cruelty to humans, getting tattoos hurts!) Rabbi E then told him that all Jews have a similar thing to remind them constantly of their responsibility to G-d and he showed him his tzitzit. The boy actually became interested in learning more about Judaism but, unfortunately, every time they were supposed to get together to learn, this boy was in jail for some illegal demonstration or other. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: “A well spend day brings happy sleep. – Leonardo Da Vinci
Random Fact of the Week: The average person will spend 2 weeks over their lifetime waiting for the traffic light to change.
Funny Line of the Week: If G-d wanted me to touch my toes, he would have put them on my knees.
Have a Swell Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham