The information in this essay is largely taken from an article called “What if we never run out of oil?” in the April issue of The Atlantic magazine.
You will burn ice. Not soon, but G-d willing, if you stick around for another decade or two, you will burn ice. You will burn ice when you drive to work, when you turn up your thermostat to banish an October chill, and when you drop your cell phone onto its recharging pad. You won’t be the only person burning ice; the world’s industrial complex will run on ice, electric power plants will run on ice, and economies the world over will rise and fall on ice burning.
How do I know that you will burn ice? It is simple: follow the energy. Wherever humans find lots of energy they learn to tap it. First we cut down the trees around us and burned the logs. Then we discovered coal in 2,000BCE, and began mining it out of the ground. We started drilling for petroleum in 347CE using metal bits attached to bamboo poles. We learned to drill for natural gas in 1820, and oil in 1859. Soon we were extracting energy that had been trapped thousands of feet beneath the surface!
But our ever growing appetite for energy forced us to be more creative. Our explorations led us to vast stores of energy trapped miles beneath the surface, in layers of shale rock, under the raging sea, or in the thick black gooey tar mixed into massive sand fields in Canada. People thought it would be impossible to extract these vast stores of energy, and indeed it took us quite a few years, but soon enough we came up with offshore drilling rigs that can drill 5 miles below the ocean surface, tar sands treatments that melt the black goo with massive jets of steam, and hydraulic fracking that shoots water, sand and chemicals into shale rock, and blows it open to release the gas trapped there. Each time, the naysayers said it can’t be done, but they forgot the #1 rule; Follow the energy, people will always figure out how to get it.
This all brings us back to burning ice. The ice you will burn is no ordinary ice, you can’t make trays of it in your freezer. The ice you will burn lies deep below the seabed, and it is actually a strange combination of water and methane gas. This ice is known as methane hydrate, and when you put a match to this ice, it burns (I’ve seen the video!). This ice is not uncommon at all, there are over 100,000 Trillion cubic feet of it on earth, and the energy found in it is more than all the other fossil fuels on our planet many times over!
Part of the reason for this is that the energy density of methane hydrate is so high. One cubic foot of methane hydrate contains as much methane as 180 cubic feet of methane gas. This is because in methane hydrate the methane molecules are trapped in a latticework of ice crystals, keeping it tightly packed, as opposed to methane gas, where the methane molecules whir around and take up a lot of space. To illustrate this, compare a gym filled with hyperactive ADHD children, which is filled beyond capacity as soon as you have 200 children in the gym, to a gym stuffed with children lying quietly in twenty story bunkbeds, into which you could fit thousands of children.
As of right now, we still don’t have the technology to turn methane hydrate into usable gas, but billions are being spent researching this conundrum. Remember the #1 rule; Follow the energy, people will always figure out how to get it. Countries like Japan, South Korea, Canada, Germany, and India are all scrambling to learn how to properly burn ice, because when they do, they will be the powerhouses of the world. Saudi Arabia and the other OPEC countries will become ghost countries in the new energy economy.
Is anyone skeptical? Sure! The naysayers always abound. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about peak oil, and you may have read some of the studies that say we are almost out of fossil fuels, but history shows it ain’t so. One particularly instructive example is the Kern River field in California, a huge oil bed just 100 miles from LA. As The Atlantic reports:
In 1949, after 50 years of drilling, analysts estimated that just 47 million barrels remained in reserves—a rounding error in the oil business. Kern River, it seemed, was nearly played out. Instead, oil companies removed 945 million barrels in the next 40 years. In 1989, analysts again estimated Kern reserves: 697 million barrels. By 2009, Kern had produced more than 1.3 billion additional barrels, and reserves were estimated to be almost 600 million barrels.
The same thing has occurred with methane hydrates. Experts have made countless statements speaking of the impossibility of viably extracting energy from this remote source. But a $540 million deep-sea drilling ship from Japan called Chikyu (Earth) just came back from its most recent expedition, having drilled four million cubic feet of usable methane hydrates at twice the expected rate. Methane hydrate energy is not just possible, it is inevitable.
Experts keep predicting that we have found all the reachable fossil fuel, but we keep on finding new sources of energy beneath the surface, and we keep finding new extraction techniques to get it. This is why when MIT economist Morris Adelman was asked, “When will the world’s supply of oil be exhausted?” he responded, “The best one word answer: NEVER.”
Get ready to burn ice.
Let’s look at two important lessons we can take from methane hydrates. The first lesson is how we should look at ourselves. Often we think we have reached the limits of our abilities. We have tried to conquer our anger, gossip, laziness, lust, jealousy, selfishness, or overeating for so long, and it hasn’t worked. We think we’re done. We’ve tried, and we’ve failed. We’ve tried again, and we’ve failed again. We’re sick and tired of trying, and we’re ready to throw in the towel.
But we have a neshama inside of us that is infinite. It is a piece of G-dliness, and as such it has no boundaries. We can find the energy inside of us to conquer any moral problem we face; we simply need to drill deeper. We need to work harder, and we need to employ new techniques. If we keep doggedly working at it, we will succeed. “If someone says, I tried but I did not find, don’t believe him. (Megilla, 6B)” We just need to go deeper. When will our abilities be exhausted? The best one word answer: NEVER.
We can burn ice.
The second idea is directly linked to the minor Jewish holiday that takes place this Sunday, Lag Ba’Omer. It is a holiday for a number of reasons. The primary reason given is that on this day the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died in a sudden plague stopped dying. That seems like a strange reason to celebrate, there were none left, of course they stopped dying!
But perhaps we are not simply celebrating the cessation of the dying, but what Rabbi Akiva did when this happened, he kept drilling. He started all over again with a new technique, a small cohort of students instead of a huge one. He began teaching just five students, but they are the people through whom almost all of the Torah we have today came about. They were the greatest Rabbis of the Mishna, and they energized the whole world of Torah with their light. We celebrate the tenacity and superhuman strength of Rabbi Akiva, a man who kept on drilling despite all signs that he was way past his peak.
Another reason that we celebrate Lag Ba’Omer is that it is the Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai , one of Rabbi Akiva’s five students. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is the author of the Zohar, the person who introduced the world to the deepest teaching of Kabbalah, the great light of the Hidden Torah. He is the one that showed us that beneath the surface of our world is an infinite store of spiritual light and energy. We light bonfires on Lag Ba’Omer to remind ourselves of the great light and fire that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai introduced to the world.
Lag Ba’Omer is the day that we remember that just beneath the surface, this world contains infinite spiritual energy. There is no end to the depth and energy in our Torah, there is a world of Hidden Torah that contains more energy than all the other energies in the world combined.
Rabbi Shimon taught us how to burn ice, and Lag Ba’Omer is when we celebrate that amazing accomplishment.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Torah portion, the Torah details the laws of the festivals and the special mitzvos attached to each one of them. However, right in the middle of the festivals, immediately after the laws of Shavuos, the Torah inserts a few laws pertaining to agriculture. The laws, known as “leket” and “peah,” tell us to leave over different parts of our harvest for the poor. How do these laws fit into this particular Torah portion?
Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926, Lithuania), author of the Meshech Chochma, explains that we are being taught an important fundament of the Torah that was given on Shavuos. The Torah is not just a set of laws instructing mankind how to interact with G-d, a set of strictures and rules for human communication with the Divine. The Torah is an entire system of moral living, and as such contains the formula that synergizes optimal relationships with our fellow humans and with G-d.
To emphasize this idea, the Torah places moral precepts dealing with kindness and charity right next to the laws discussing Shavuos, when we received the Torah. Today, charity is such an ingrained value that people have a hard time linking it to the Torah, but indeed most of the primitive societies in the pre-Torah world were not charitable ones, and the idea of people tithing their crops or leaving over an entire corner of their fields to a poor person was as foreign to them as the idea of not eating milk and meat together or keeping Shabbat.
In a class on the history of social policy I once took, the professor explained to the class that the first record of a social policy in which people took responsibility for the poor was the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. I didn’t want to argue with my professor on the first day in class, but I remember scrolling mentally through the dozens of laws in the Torah (circa. 1312 BCE) that put responsibility for the poor, the widow, and the orphan onto the rest of society.
The message of our parsha is the all encompassing nature of the Torah. It was the same Torah we received on Shavuos that set the foundation for a social welfare, put forth the laws of Kosher, taught us to respect the wise man over the strong man, required us to eat matzah, and taught us to leave the last of our harvest for the widow and orphan. Indeed the marker of the greatest Torah scholars has not only been their brilliant minds, but their great sensitivity to the needs of all people.
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892, Belarus) exemplified this. While known for his magnum opus, the Beis Halevi, a work still studied widely today, the stories of his kindness are even more legendary. During the busy pre-Passover season, as dozens of people streamed through his house asking him questions, a local widow came to him with a strange question. She wanted to know if she could use milk (instead of wine) for her Four Cups at the Seder. Although the question had a very clear and simple answer, Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared to give it some serious thought, so as not to embarrass the woman for asking such a simple question, and then answered her that one could not use milk to fulfill the mitzvah of the Four Cups.
After the woman left, Rabbi Soloveitchik immediately called over one of the members of the household, gave him a large sum of money, and instructed him to go to the market and buy all the Passover necessities for the woman. Without further ado, the man bought wine, meat, matzah, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and discreetly placed it outside the woman’s door. When he returned, he asked Rabbi Soloveitchik his reason for this unusual errand. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, “If she is coming to ask me whether she can use milk for the Seder, it is clear that she can’t even afford four cups of wine, let alone all the other needs for Passover!”
This exemplifies the Torah’s perfect blend of spirituality and humanity.
This week’s Parsha begins with G-d telling Moshe an assortment of laws that only apply to the Kohanim, the priests. The role of the Kohen was not only to serve in the Temple, but also to be the spiritual guide of the Jewish people. Immediately prior to the Jew’s acceptance of the Torah, G-d told Moshe “You shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim,” (Exodus 19:6). The Torah didn’t mean that we would all actually be priests, rather that we would be a nation of leaders which would guide all of mankind closer to their Father in heaven. (This is the source for the idea of Tikun Olam, that we have a manifest role in fixing our world, spiritually first, but physically as well. So, before you head to Haiti to help build power plants, or to Cambodia to purify villages’ water, remember to pray daily for the people of the world suffering from oppression or violence, such as the people of Darfur, Sudan, China and, most importantly, Israel!)
Because the Kohain has such a serious responsibility, he must act in a more refined manner than the average person. To this end he is given a special group of laws. Most important are those laws which forbid him to come into contact with tumah or ritual impurity, and to marry certain people. He also get some benefits from his lofty status, (no not medical, dental, or 401K) as we are commanded to accord him preferential treatment. The Kohen always gets the first aliyah to the Torah, we are supposed to offer him food first, and allow him to be the first to speak from among a group of speakers. The Kohen Gadol, being even more exalted than the regular Kohen, has an extra set of laws, to keep him on an even higher level of refinement.
The Torah then discusses the laws of blemishes that disqualify a Kohen from serving in the Temple. In order to be a servant in the King’s courtroom, one had to be unblemished both inside and out. Some of these blemishes include missing limbs, broken limbs, different type of rashes and, believe it or not, bad breath. Many of these blemishes only disqualify the Kohen while they are present, and once they are gone the Kohen can serve again (you could imagine, Listerine would have flowed like water in the Kohen’s Quarter had it been around. In its absence, the gemara talks about using different spices and herbs to cure bad breath). Even a Kohen with disqualifying blemishes was allowed to partake in all the food of the sacrifices; he just couldn’t offer them up.
Next, the torah talks about the laws of Terumah, a portion of everyone’s crops which must be given to the Kohanim. The number is anywhere from 1/40th of your crops if you’re as generous as Bill Gates (24 billion donated to world health) and 1/60th if your as stingy as Ebenezer Scrooge (a famous Charles Dickens character). The Torah enumerates exactly who is allowed to eat Terumah, what levels of purity they must have, and what happens if a non-Kohen eats it by mistake. We then learn what makes an animal unfit for use as a sacrifice (a similar group of blemishes to the ones disqualifying a human, ealthough I can’t imagine a cow with good breath!).
The Torah tells us there that it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal less than 8 days old, and it’s forbidden to slaughter a mother and its child on the same day (another example of the Torah’s sesitivity toward animals’ feelings). We are also forbidden to desecrate G-d’s name and given a responsibility to sanctify it. Whether we like it or not, when we do something wrong people often will say “How could a Jew do that,” or “look at that Jewish hypocrite.” These statements come from the fact that people understand that we are a Chosen Nation, that we are to be held to higher standard, and that when we fail to do so, we not only desecrate ourselves, but we also desecrate He who chose us.
The Torah then discusses all the festivals, and which sacrifices are offered on those special days. It goes into detail about the Omer offering brought on the second day of Pesach, which heralds in the counting of the Omer(which we are in the midst of right now), and culminates with the Shtei Halechem, a bread sacrifice brought on Shavout (no, in the Temple they didn’t offer cheesecake on the Altar on Shavous!).
The Parsha concludes with a discussion of the Menorah and the showbreads (breads that were placed on a special table in the Holy section of the Temple). Each set of twelve loaves would remain on the table for a week, after which time they would be replaced by fresh loves. They would miraculously remain warm and fresh the entire week, and eating them was considered an auspicious omen that one become wealthy. (I could use all twelve loaves of showbread right about now!!!).
The last part of this Parsha is the story of the blasphemer, a man who blasphemed in public and was sentenced to death. Even in the Biblical times, treason was a capital offense, and there can be no greater treason than blaspheming G-d, Who gave you everything you have! So, I would like to wish all you faithful ones who are still reading a wonderful week! I think one the main lessons we should take home this week is that, as the Chosen Nation, we must behave in a more refined manner than everyone else, as we represent G-d Who chose us. And don’t forget – don’t blaspheme!
Quote of the Week: He that is not in the war is not out of danger. ~ A. Sulwaki
Random Fact of the Week: During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
Funny Line of the Week: The scientific theory I like best is that rings of Saturn are entirely made of lost airline baggage.
Have a Satisfying Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham