On our most recent vacation, our family went on a trip from the dining room to the living room. We weren’t able to get a direct flight, so instead we had to go the long route, with a short stopover in the hallway. There was no inflight entertainment, but my kids don’t go anywhere without their tablet appendage so there was still plenty of mindless games to keep everyone entertained. We are planning on going south with a trip to the basement, but for now we’re only doing essential trips, which take us mostly to the refrigerator.
On our previous vacation, our family went to a wildlife preserve filled with animals, where we could see many species of monkey, lizards, and frogs. We were able to hold starfish and sea cucumbers, and see rescued sea turtles. But my children were most fascinated by the sloths, a surprising choice due to the fact that the sloths don’t do much. Watching sloths is like watching leaves grow.
The sloth is the slowest mammal in the world. They spend 90% of their time hanging upside down in the top branches of trees, a trick made possible by the fact that many of their organs are attached to their rib cage, so when they hang upside down, the organs don’t weigh down on their lungs, making it just as easy to breath upside down as right side up. Additionally, their hooked claws lock them in place, so they don’t need to use any muscles to hang upside down, allowing them to conserve energy. While most animals need to devote 40-45% of their body weight to energy-hungry muscle tissue, sloths only devote 25-30%. Interestingly, the way sloths lock onto branches deters people from hunting them, because even when shot and killed from below, they don’t drop out of the trees, and the hunters can’t climb that high onto small branches!
The sloth’s fur camouflages them so well, that even when someone was pointing directly at a sloth in a tree, the rest of the family would be looking up and exclaiming, “Where? I can’t see it?” They blend perfectly into the foliage, and when you finally lock onto them, if they’re not moving, they are nothing but a brown clump on a branch. Their two main predators are big cats from below, and hawks and eagles from above. The greater danger is from above, as even the big cats don’t want to climb onto the thin branches they hang from. When hanging upside down, the sloth can scan the sky above it for bird activity, but sloths also have an extra vertebrae in their neck that allows them to swivel their head 270 degrees, so they can look almost everywhere without having to shift their bodies at all!
It’s hard for people to understand why sloths move so slowly, but the reality is that the sloth is build for living below the radar. Because it moves so little, it needs very little muscle, and very low energy intake, which means it can live on a diet of leaves alone. Even its digestive system wins awards for lethargy, a single leaf can take 30 days to move through a sloth’s digestive tract! If it would move faster, it would need much more muscle and it would require eating significantly more every day to support that.
Mountain gorillas, which are active animals that eat a similar diet of leaves and shoots, need to consume about forty pounds of leaves a day to maintain their strength. As they say, mo’ movement, mo’ food. The sloth goes the other way. It will rarely move more than 125 feet in a day, and when on land it moves about a foot a minute, but it doesn’t need to eat much and can spend the vast majority of its time contentedly hanging upside down, doing its favorite hobby, bird watching.
Knowing all this, scientist have been puzzled for years over a ritual performed religiously by the three toed sloth. Once a week, the sloth descends from the tree, defecates, covers his dung with leaves and goes back up. This ritual is strange in that the sloth takes considerable risk in doing this. On the ground, the sloth has very little protection and is an easy target for jaguars, ocelots, and other big cats. Going down to ground level to go to the bathroom is more dangerous than going shopping in a COVID world, half of sloths deaths occur at the ground level despite the fact that they spend the vast majority of their time high up on trees. For years scientists have studied this puzzling behavior, and recently published a paper shedding light on this enigmatic corner of animal behavior.
The three toed sloth is not simply an animal, it’s an ecosystem. When you look at a sloth, you see one species, but you’re really looking at three species. There is one sloth, hundreds or thousands of a species of pyralid moth that exists nowhere in the world but in sloth’s fur, and billions of algae cells. The sloth’s fur grows in clumpy shafts, and in between the shafts, algae colonies bloom. So, who is feeding who?
The sloth risks life and limb to go down to ground level and defecate, and then covers his dung with leaves. But while he does that, the pregnant moths lay their larvae onto his dung, as that species of moth is coprophagus, the nicer word for insects that are dung consumers. The eggs hatch into little caterpillars that find themselves already neatly placed on a food source. They do their coprophage thing for a while, and then metamorphose into moths. The moths fly up into the trees above them looking for some nice sloth fur to settle down and raise a family. They are protected by the sloth, and even when the sloth grooms itself, it moves so slowly that the moths can get out of the way of its claws.
After living a productive and exciting life, the moth dies and it’s body is decomposed by the algae (with the help of some fungi), and its decomposing body releases a lot of nitrogen that gets trapped in the sloths fur. But it so happens that this species of algae feeds on nitrogen, so the dying moths help the algae colonies bloom. This is good for the algae, but it’s also good for the sloth, because he eats the algae, giving him some extra nutrition when those leaves just aren’t cutting it. We know this because we’ve found the algae in the stomachs of deceased sloths. So the moth larvae feed on the carefully positioned excrement of the sloth, the algae feed on the nitrogen from the dead moths, and the sloth feeds on the algae! You couldn’t ask for a better setup.
Every day, three times a day in our prayers, we say Psalm 145, which goes through the Hebrew Alphabet praising Ha-shem with (almost) every letter. Verse 16 says, “You open Your hand and feed every creature according to its desire.” The Sages tell us that this verse is such an important pathway for bringing G-d’s Heavenly Shefa Abundance down to the world that if we read it and forget to concentrate we should go back and reread it. “You open Your hand and feed every creature according to its desire.” G-d makes sure the sloth has what to eat while staying almost motionless for most of the day, He makes sure the moth’s larvae are born into a nutrient rich world, and He makes sure that algae colonies can thrive from the decomposing moth bodies. If Ha-shem can ensure that millions of species all over the world have their nutritional needs met, in myriad wondrous ways that we keep discovering, surely He can provide for our needs, being that we are the only species He created in His image, and we are the only people He described as His first born son!
We are living through difficult times. Thirty million Americans filed for unemployment in the last few weeks, and many more are watching the businesses they built over years of hard work dissolve before their eyes. People are being laid off, furloughed, temporarily suspended, or having their hours cut. It can be a scary time, and many of us are feeling the emotional weight of wondering how we are going to be able to provide for our families going forward. Which means that this is a time when we need to remember that G-d’s abilities are limitless. He can and will provide for us. He is the One who “feeds every creature according to its desires.”
In the late 60’s, Paul Erlich, a Stanford professor wrote a best selling book, “The Population Bomb,” that predicted mass starvations and tens of millions of people dying of starvation yearly because the world population was about to crest above the three billion mark and the planet couldn’t produce enough food to feed them. Many were caught up in the widespread fear of the “population explosion.” Last I checked, there are close to 8 billion people in the world and we have so much food that we burn or destroy excess food all over the world. Why? Because “He opens His hands and feeds every creature according to their desire.”
I don’t know how this COVID crisis will resolve itself, and anyone who says they do is precisely who you should not be listening to. But I do know that if G-d can create perfect supply chains for three-toed sloths, pyralid moths and algae, if He can make a planet produce enough food for 8 billion people even though science thought it couldn’t feed more than three billion, He can and will provide for me and my family as well. This is not a G-d problem, it’s a me problem, can I have the faith I need to get me through this time, or will I succumb to fears and anxieties about futures that no one can foretell?
One recommendation , is whenever you find yourself worrying about your financial future, during COVID and even when it’s all resolved, just look up heavenward, open up your hands to heaven, and say that verse, “Poseach ess yadecha u’masbia lichol chai ratzon, You open Your hand and feed every creature according to its desire.” When we let Him handle the logistics, He comes through every time.
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!
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 a Serene Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham