Traveling to the Amazonian jungle in the mid-1800 was dangerous and harrowing. Bringing your entire mishpacha with you would either be described as blindly optimistic or just plain foolish. But when Henry Wickham decamped from England to build a plantation in the jungle, he took with him his wife, mother,  brother, brother’s fiancée, brother fiancée’s mother, sister, sister’s fiancée and a few other souls eager to find fame and fortune far from the stuffy chaos of life in Victorian London.

The Wickham party settled in Santarem, a region where the Amazon and Tapajos Rivers come together, and quickly began setting up camp. They made a large clearing in the jungle and set about building homes and planting crops, but the Amazon turned an unfriendly eye to them. Their crops failed, five members of their group died by jungle fevers, and the rest of the group abandoned them. Henry and his wife were going to have to head back to England alone and with nothing to show for their five years in the Amazon. But, before they did Henry managed to pack 70,000 seeds of Hevea brasiliensis, the Brazilian rubber tree, onto the ship that took him back. (Rubber is made out of the sap of a tree.)

How he got those seeds is a matter of debate among historians. The story he told (over and over) was that he canoed upriver himself and rapidly collected them so that they would be fresh when he got back to England. The problem with that story is that once they were packed in banana leaves to keep them fresh and moist, the load would have weighed over 3,000 pounds, quite the load for a one-man canoe. Additionally, the Brazilian rubber tree seeds don’t simply drop to the ground at the base of the tree, they are catapulted out of their pods and land in a circle forty yards in diameter, making it incredibly time consuming to collect 70,000 seeds. The other theory is that he simply hired natives to do the collecting and packaging work, and had them load the baskets directly onto the boat.

Either way, what Wickham did was quite risky and could have cost him his life. At the time, Brazil controlled almost the entire rubber industry, and with the rise of cars, the industry was becoming more lucrative each year. The Brazilian government forbade the export of rubber tree seeds, and was quite zealous in their efforts to prevent bio-piracy. But Henry Wickham did manage to pull it off, and he sold the seeds for a hefty price to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. He tried to convince Dr. Joseph Hooker, the director of the gardens to hire him to set up rubber plantations around the world, but Hooker refused, having no faith in Wickham’s agricultural skills.

Hooker turned out to be a good judge of character. Wickham’s next business venture was a tobacco farm in Queensland, Australia, but that failed. He started a controlled fire to clean the scrubland but a change in wind direction caused it to turn and burn down the thatched house he had just built. The replacement home, this time covered in corrugated iron, had its top ripped off in a storm. His tobacco plants refused to grow, and his business partner, for whom Wickham stood as a guarantor, upped and left, leaving Wickham deeply in debt. He came back to England in 1886 broke and mostly broken. 

Shortly after his return, he headed out again, this time to British Honduras. He started out with a governmental post in the colonial center, but he quickly bored of his post and felt the need to once again scratch his agricultural itch, no matter how futile it had proven in the past. He moved to an area sixty miles from “civilization,” and set about developing a banana plantation. That didn’t work either and 1893 found him limping back to England once again destitute and desperate.

Much has been said about Henry Wickham, but it has never been that he gave up easily. His next idea was to develop a few tiny islands in British New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea), in an area known as the Conflict Islands. He harvested sponges from the ocean, cultivated oysters, and made copra out of coconuts. His wife, driven to despair after not seeing another white woman in two years, abandoned him for Bermuda and never saw him again. Even on the other side of the world, Henry was no great businessman, and when his venture failed , he returned to England for good in 1911.

Ironically, while Henry’s ventures never succeeded, his rubber trees were wildly successful. Of the 70,000 seeds he brought back to England, all of which were carefully planted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, only 2,397 germinated. Most of the successful plants were sent to British Colonies in the Far East, including Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). From those plants, a thriving rubber industry was built that changed the world of travel forever.

Surprisingly, the Hevea Brasiliensis grew better in the Far East than in its home country. In Brazil the trees would only grow far from each other, making the cultivation and harvesting of rubber quite difficult. In the Far East, with its rich soils and humid conditions, the trees would not only grow in tight clusters, but freed from the fungal blight and insects that were its natural enemies in Brazil, it would now grow to towering heights, often over 100 feet tall. Whereas Brazil once had a monopoly on the global rubber trade, by the 1920’s it was reduced to just three percent.

When Wickham returned to England in 1911, he was given somewhat of a hero’s welcome for the role he had played in the thriving rubber industry. The British Rubber Growers Association gave him £1,000 and bought him an annuity for another £1,000. In 1920, he was knighted for “Services in connection with the rubber plantation industry in the Far East.” In 1926, the American oil baron Edgar B Davis presented him with a £6,000 check for his 80th birthday, and the British Government of Malaysia followed that with £8,000. Two years later, he died a rich and lonely man’s death.

The entire fame and fortune of Henry Wickham came from the smallest of his efforts. Decades of his life was devoted to the pursuit of various agricultural ventures, and every single one of them was a colossal failure. One tiny act, done in the week or two before he headed back to England as a young man, changed the world, made him wealthy, and ensured that his name be remembered for posterity.

In Ethics of Our Fathers  (2:1), the Sages tell us, “Be careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvos.” We never know which one of our actions will have life changing results. We never know which kind word and smile given to a passing acquaintance will change their entire life, literally. We never know which act of small charity will change ours. We think we have a handle on what is big and small in the spiritual realm, but in G-d’s eyes, often a small but meaningful act of self-sacrifice on our part can be greater than decades of regular spiritual life.

Wickham’s story also illustrates just how much G-d runs our financial lives. If we are not supposed to be rich, we can work for decades, at times putting our family life or personal lives on the line in our pursuit of wealth, but if we are not supposed to have it, nothing will be fruitful. And when we are supposed to have wealth, G-d can find ways to send it to us in the most unexpected of places.

Henry Wickham is long gone, the descendants of his rubber trees are likely in your car’s tires right now, but the lessons his life taught us, will be around forever.

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 mussar movement 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.

Parsha Summary

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: What isn’t tried won’t work. ~ Claude McDonald

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: Take my advice – I’m not using it.

Have a Swell Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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