Some would almost call it a lobbyist hobby, arguing over the best restaurants in DC. When you take people out for breakfast lunch and dinner, food becomes a pretty obsessive topic of conversation. Young lobbyists can spend hours discussing who makes better Italian food, Tosca or Fiola, or who has fresher seafood, Joe’s Stone Crab or Oceanaire. They can bicker for hours over who has the better filet mignon, The Hamilton or Capital Grille. But for seasoned lobbyists like Phil Borland, there is only one place to eat when you’re on the job, Old Ebitt Grill. Open in Washington since 1856, and decorated with rich woods, oil paintings, and dimly lit leather booths designed for hushed conversations, this was where you wanted to be to talk politics, money, and the muddy area where they mingled. 

You could spot Phil in the Old Ebitt almost every day of the week, they usually kept a booth for him in the back corner, away from tourists and nuveau-politicos. Whenever he was there, a never-ending stream of food would parade itself into his booth; steak tartare, oysters Rockefeller, pork belly sliders, American Farmhouse cheese platters, pan-seared Atlantic salmon, braised beef short rib ravioli, and of course the famous Cedar River Farms filet mignons. Drinks flowed even more liberally than the food, Phil was partial to American bourbons and ryes, but he made sure his guest was always well lubricated with his favorite beverages and cocktails. Dessert was a test of endurance in a class of its own, who would give up first, the diner or the kitchen, and the kitchen always won.  

A dinner-for-two bill could easily top $500, but when you’re defending American industry and fighting against regulations and legislation that could cripple hard-working Americans, there is no price too high to pay. Phil had his pitch down to a science; never mention business before the main, start with golf, football, vacation stories, or kids, always mention your political contributions increase in the pause between the main and dessert, and then go for the kill over dessert. Just before the onset of a food coma and alcohol exhaustion there is a place in the human brain that is agreeable to almost everything it hears. And the envelope with campaign contributions slid across the table never hurt the process. 

Who does Phil Borland work for? Which industry is paying him to fight the good fight?  Is it Big Pharma pushing to maintain the rights to charge hundreds of dollars for medications that cost fractions of that in Canada and the rest of the world? Is it Big Oil lobbying for the rights to continue drilling on government owned land, leaving behind the cleanup tab on the US taxpayer? Is it the banking industry looking to overturn consumer protection laws? No, Phil Borland works for a much more important industry, the balloon industry.

Crazy as it sounds, the balloon industry does have a lobbying arm, the Balloon Council, and it not only spends millions on lobbying the government, it even has its own mascot, Faraday, who is named after Michael Farady the scientist who invented the balloon almost 200 years ago. Faraday, the “official Spokesballoon” of the Balloon Council, would be happy to come visit your community in full life-size balloon costume and talk about the joys of balloons, and how to use them safely. 

Who is fighting against balloons? What could be so terrible about balloons that millions need to be spent by lobbyists to protect them? That would be the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and dozens of other pro-animal organizations, as well as power companies. Their contention is with helium balloons, the kind that fly far away your house, getting smaller and smaller in the sky until they disappear. The problem is that they don’t actually disappear. Eventually, what goes up must come down, and hundreds of thousands of those balloons come down each year wreaking havoc on wildlife and snagging on power lines setting off blackouts and power outages. 

Since the 1980’s thousands of dead animals have washed up on beaches; turtles, whales, and birds that have been killed by balloons. Animal often ingest balloons mistaking the bright and colorful bobbing objects for fish. The balloons then clog up their esophagus or digestive systems and because they don’t break down, block them, causing the animal to slowly starve to death. Birds get caught in the strings hanging from balloons and as they thrash around trying to release themselves get even further entangled eventually depriving them of their ability to fly and obtain food. One 2012 study found that thirty percent of debris found in washed up turtles was made of balloons. 

National and state governments, as well as environmental groups started pushing for bans on helium balloons or fines for those who release them into the air, and even started the Balloon Alert Project, a grassroots organization that publicized the dangers of balloons and enlisted school children to write letters to their elected officials demanding bans. Texas, California, Florida, and Connecticut responded by enacting legislation against balloons, the first of their kind in US history. In 1991, the balloon industry started fighting back. Dan Flynn of the Pioneer Balloon Company, one of the largest balloon manufacturers in the nation with over $100MM a year in revenue, reached out to Princeton Public Affairs Group, a large lobbying firm, and together they created the Balloon Council, the pro-balloon lobby that pays for Phil Borland’s herculean efforts to quash any anti-balloon legislation.

The pro-balloon lobby is not claiming that balloons are not dangerous for animal life, their claim is that balloons are a very important part of the income of thousands of mom-and-pop stores nationwide. They say they are fighting the dangers posed to wildlife and power lines by sending Faraday the mascot to communities across the nation to teach safe and responsible balloon usage. And lastly, they claim that when legislation is enacted against balloons, it will frighten off consumers and it can shut down the whole industry which gives a livelihood to so many American workers. 

 As of right now, it looks like the pro-balloon lobby is winning; since it was founded in 1991, only one state, Virginia, has been able to enact an anti-balloon law. Unlimited spending at Old Ebitt Grill and envelopes filled with cash being passed across the table sure works. 

I’m not here to give any answers today, I’m here to pose questions. Can I buy helium balloons for my daughter’s graduation in a few weeks? When my previous daughter graduated elementary school, my wife and I showed up without any balloons and were horrified to see so many parents streaming into the building with large clusters of balloons in all shapes and sizes. Trying to play catch-up, I ran out during the speeches and returned just in time with a cluster of balloons of our own. Did any of them make their way to the Great Lakes? 

Obviously, with the knowledge I now have, I will be much more careful to tie them down with weights as Faraday teaches, but am I really going to watch them until they slowly lose their helium and start dragging on the floor? Do I have to deflate and throw out the balloons the night after graduation to make sure that they never escape at the hands of one my children? We know that there is a prohibition against hurting animals, the Talmud in multiple locations (Shabbos 117B, Bava Metzia 31A, et. al.) talks of the sensitivity we must show toward not hurting animals. There is even a story in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 85A) of the great Rabbi Yehuda the Prince being punished for showing a callous attitude toward an animal that was about to be slaughtered.

 But how far do we have to go? Does it mean that I can’t buy helium balloons? Does it mean that I have to ensure that every balloon is popped before it gets away? Can my children never have the experience of watching a solitary helium balloon soar and drift off into the heavens? Not every balloon that drifts away hurts animals, the vast majority of them simply come back down and at most make a littering nuisance. 

But let’s go further. We know that the Torah tells us to be good stewards of the earth, in Genesis we are told that man was places in the Garden of Eden (Genesis, 2:15), “to work it, and preserve it.” This means that we need to be careful not to destroy our world. Mankind was given vast power over the natural world, more than any other creature, and while we’ve done amazing things with these powers such as curing cancers and farming vast amounts of food, we’ve also wreaked havoc on the planet, filling rivers with pollutants, and creating a the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is twice the size of Texas. 

How careful do we need to be with recycling? I happen to love recycling, and recycle obsessively while home, but what about when I’m on the road? Is it OK for me to keep buying plastic soda bottles, and throwing them out at rest stops along the road, from where they will end up in landfills leaching chemicals into the ground for decades? Or do I have to keep containers in my car, and only refill it with water or fountain sodas so that I don’t add more garbage to the world’s garbage mess? 

If I’m shopping for disposable cups at Kroger’s and they have regular Styrofoam cups for $1.99 per package and the plant based bio-degradable cups for $2.99, do I need to spend the extra dollar? How about if the bio-degradable cups are $2.19? $2.39? 

When shopping for a new family-friendly SUV, do I need to get the four cylinder engine that will groan and rasp but spew far less pollutants out of its tailpipe over its twelve year lifespan, or can I get the smoother, quieter, and faster V-6 of V-8? How far do I have to go in my responsibilities to this world, to the environment, to the animals we share the planet with?

This is not the ode of tree hugger trying to guilt trip other people into becoming zero-carbon-footprint enviromentalists, this is really my personal quandaries that I’m sharing with you. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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!

Parsha Summary

The first of the two Parshiot that we read this week, Achrei Mos starts of with Ha-shem telling Moses the proper way for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) to enter the Holy of Holies which is only done on Yom Kippur. This commandment was given after Aaron’s two eldest sons died after entering the Holy at an improper time. The lesson is that Holiness requires preparation and cannot be jumped into off the cuff, and the Holier the place, the more groundwork required. Everyone understands that it would be foolish to buy a house without checking it out properly first, or sign a contract without going over the details, all the more so in the spiritual world whose effects are more far-reaching do we have to prepare properly before rushing in. 

The Torah describes the Yom Kippur service in detail but one interesting item to note is that the Kohen Gadol first brings a sacrifice to atone for his personal and his families sins, then a sacrifice to atone for all the Kohanim (his tribe), and only after that does he bring an offering to a atone for the entire Jewish community. This is very much in synch with the concept of preparation mentioned above, in that one before trying to change the world must first change himself and then work outward in concentric circles personal-family-tribe-community at large.

The Torah then discusses the prohibition against bringing sacrifices outside of the Temple or eating their parts out of their boundaries. (Yep, in case you didn’t pick up on it, this is also about showing respect for the act of sacrifice and understanding that you can’t just sacrifice it anywhere or anytime that you feel like it, there is a system that you must follow. So if you have that Tyco altar in your backyard, its time to fold it up, and wait for the Messiah when we will have a real Temple again!) 

Then the Torah mentions the prohibition of eating blood. The blood is considered to be the seat of the soul of the animal hence we offer it on the altar, as a sign that we want one soul to be offered to atone for another, and therefore it would be profane to eat it in any other medium. (I know this week is a tough one, you have to fold up the Tyco altar, and stop your membership with the Vampires R Us club.) In fact the Talmud learns a great lesson from this. If we get reward for not eating blood or other forbidden insects that one naturally loathes, how much greater is our reward for holding ourselves back from doing things that we are attracted to! This is why the forbidden relationships juxtaposed to this topic in this same Parsha to help us realize this lesson.

Here the Torah also commands us to cover the blood of non-domesticated animals or birds that we slaughter. The reason for this is that if the blood contains the soul of the animal it would be improper to eat the animal while its lifeblood and soul are lying exposed on the ground. This shows two things. One, that even animals have some sort of soul, as do even plants and rocks each to a lesser extent, as everything is an emanation from G-d and to exist must have some sort of soul or life to it. This is evidenced by Psalms talking about how different inanimate objects sing the praises of G-d, which is not just a metaphor. (Now we begin to understand the crazy Pet Rock fad of the 70’s!) Another lesson is the incredible sensitivity the Torah displays even toward animals, how much more so must we be sensitive to people’s feelings.

After this the torah enumerates many of the forbidden sexual relationships including adultery, incest, homosexuality, and bestiality. Right after this the Torah write a warning not to commit certain forms of idol worship. The juxtaposition is explained as follows; both the idol worshipper and the person committing adultery are being treacherous to one who deserves their loyalty, whether it be G-d or one’s spouse. 

At the end of the parsha the Torah enjoins us not to commit these immoral acts, as they were the cause that the dwellers of Canaan (Israel) to be expelled from it. If we contaminate ourselves with them, we will also be banished from our land as the Holy Land itself has holiness and it can’t contain impurity. This concludes the Parsha, and now we have come full circle because the same concept of preparation and respect we see applying to the Holy Land as it does to the Holy of Holies that the Kohen Gadol enters on Yom Kippur.

The second parsha we read is 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: Enthusiasm is common, endurance is rare. – My mother

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 an Enduring Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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