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Parshat Bechukotai — Changing the world

How cornflakes and disposable cups can make the world a better place (Bechukotai)
The Battle Creek Sanitarium, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Public Domain, Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection/ Wikimedia Commons)
The Battle Creek Sanitarium, Battle Creek, Michigan. (Public Domain, Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection/ Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who knows me also knows that I love cornflakes. I have cornflakes for breakfast and cornflakes for dinner. I have cornflakes at home and cornflakes at work. If I ever wrote a cookbook, it would only contain four recipes: pasta with ketchup, pasta without ketchup, ketchup without pasta, and cornflakes.

In New Zealand, the local cornflakes are manufactured by a company called Sanitarium. I never understood why the company chose that name until I learned that John Harvey Kellog invented cornflakes to treat patients at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where he was the chief medical officer.

Many famous patients spent time under Kellog’s care, including William Howard Taft, Roald Amundsen, Amelia Earhart, George Bernard Shaw, Johnny Weissmuller, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Sarah Bernhardt.

Kellog believed that most diseases were caused by poor diet and “unchastity,” and he invented cornflakes, which he believed was an anaphrodisiac, to feed his patients.

A bowl of cornflakes. (CC BY-SA, GeoTrinity/ Wikimedia Commons)

Another patient, who went on to become famous, was Charles William Post, better known as CW Post. He spent nine months at the Sanitarium in 1891 and thought breakfast cereal was such a good idea he moved to Texas and set up his own eponymous rival company.

In 1895 Post founded Postum Cereal Co, and he found success in 1897 with his Grape Nuts.

In 1906, with some of his newly minted fortune, Post purchased 91,000 hectares (225,000 acres) of land in Texas from John Bunyan Slaughter and built Post City, a model town with shady, tree-lined streets, a school, churches, a hotel and a department store. It even had its own newspaper — the Post City Post.

CW Post, photographed in 1910. (Public Domain, Bain News Service/ Wikimedia Commons)

Post City, where Post himself lived, was the ideal town except for one thing. Post couldn’t make it rain. But Post thought he had a solution for that too.

In 1871 Edward Powers wrote a book entitled “War and the Weather.” Powers had been a Civil War general and then a civil engineer in Chicago. He reviewed some 200 battles and noted that it usually rained within a day or two after the fighting ended. He claimed that the artillery barrages caused the rain to fall. His arguments were so convincing that Congress agreed to spend $9,000 on a series of experiments to determine whether shooting explosives at the sky would make it rain.

On August 9, 1891, the testing party, joined by Powers, set off a few experimental charges as a practice run. The next day it rained. The media were tipped off leading to headlines such as, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News’s “They Made Rain,” and the Washington Post’s “Heavy rain fell, extending many miles,” and the New York Sun’s headline “Made the Heavens Leak,” according to a Politico article.

However, the reality is that there was no clear connection between rain and the detonations, and by the following year, the experiments were called off.

Illustrative. Artillery fire. (CC BY-SA, Krishna Chaitanya Velaga/ Wikimedia Commons)

The truth is that it had long been known that rain often follows battles. It was noted by the ancient Greek Plutarch, who obviously did not witness gunfire in the wars he observed. Napoleon also knew that it rained after war. Except that it is far more likely that this can be attributed to the fact that generals often plan their battles with one eye on the weather forecast, and try to avoid fighting during a downpour. Additionally, the examples of rainfall after a battle are counterbalanced by the greater number of times it did not rain after warfare.

Even though the government had ended the experiments, Post, with his vast cereal wealth, wanted to make it rain. So from 1911 until 1914, he spent thousands of dollars firing dynamite charges every four minutes for several hours every day. The experiments stopped only when Post died. There is no evidence that his efforts to shoot the sky had any impact at all on the weather.

Post wasted his money, his time, and I daresay the patience of the residents of Post Town. Had he read this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 26, 2-3), he would have known exactly how to make it rain.

If you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments and do them. I shall give you your rain in its seasons, and the earth will yield her produce, and the tree of the field will give its fruit.

According to the Torah, rainfall is directly connected to observing the commandments. Rashi, in his commentary on the verse, cites Torat Kohanim that the word “commandments” here actually refers to toiling in learning Torah. The solution to drought is to learn more Torah.

Today, scientific and technological innovations have created desalination plants and so many other technologies that free us from our former dependence on rainfall to a certain extent.

Yet when we look at the world around us, it seems that so many of the curses mentioned in the Torah reading (Leviticus 26: 19-20) are coming true.

I will break your brazen pride, and I shall make your heavens like iron and your land like copper. And your strength will be spent for nothing, and your land will not give its produce, and the tree will not yield its fruit.

Perhaps this is our punishment for not learning enough Torah — even though there are more people devoting their lives to full-time Torah learning now than at any other time in history. Or maybe we are not yet at the stage where the promised blessings are fulfilled.

Nahmanides (himself a physician) writes at length about how in the future there will be no illness, but in the meanwhile, people are permitted and expected to go to doctors if they become sick. Ultimately, when the Jewish people act as they should, the laws of nature will not apply. But until then, we must act in the most responsible way with the world as it is.

Maybe it is also time for us to take responsibility for the health of the globe.

A dry riverbed in California. (Public Domain, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ Wikimedia Commons)

Our actions are destroying our earth, even as some politicians deny climate change even exists. Earlier this month, scientists warned that our lives are in jeopardy if we don’t halve greenhouse emissions within the next few years. Already we are seeing crazy climate patterns which have caused massive destruction and many deaths around the world.

Just this week the Guardian announced it was changing the language it uses to describe the changing climate. The paper now prefers the terms “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” which better reflects the reality.

Individuals often feel helpless in the face of global crises like climate change. They question whether their actions have any significance compared to the vast scale of the issue.

But we have to start somewhere. We have to take responsibility. As the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Tarfon said, (Pirkei Avot 2:16):

It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to take no action.

I don’t know what we can do. There are many experts who we should consult. But I notice that according to a report in Calcalist, Israelis use the highest number of disposable cups per capita in the world. Furthermore, the report says that the use of disposable goods is the highest in the most religious neighborhoods. Trying to cut back on the amount of single-use plastic we use and throw away seems like a relatively easy place to begin. Even though on its own, it will not save the planet, it will make a difference in some small way.

Assortment of disposable plastic cups. (CC BY-SA, Daniel Case/ Wikimedia Commons)

The attitude of some religious people to climate change reminds me of a dispute in the Talmud about whether one is required to act, or should focus on learning Torah and leave others to do all the work:

Our Rabbis taught:

What does the verse, “You shall gather your grain,” (Deuteronomy 11:14) mean? Since the verse states, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth,” (Joshua 1:8) you might think that it is meant literally. Therefore the verse teaches, “You shall gather your grain.” Act according to the way of the world. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai says, ‘It is possible that a man will plough when it is time to plough, plant when it is time to plant, reap when it is time to reap, thresh when it is time to thresh, winnow when the wind blows — what will become of the Torah? Rather, when Israel does the will of the Omnipresent, their work will be done by others… But when Israel does not do the will of the Omnipresent they will have to do their work themselves… and furthermore, they will have to do the work of others…

Abaye said: Many have acted like Rabbi Yishmael and were successful, like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and were not successful.

So the conclusion of that piece of Talmud is that for the many, it is not sufficient to rely on Torah learning. Rather, for most people, it is important to also take practical steps to achieve one’s goals.

Over and over again our Torah portion repeats the refrain, “And if you treat Me as happenstance,” and each time it is followed by warnings of even harsher punishments. The longer we see no connection between our actions and the world around us, the more we are held responsible.

Post tried to change the weather and failed. Nowadays we find ourselves in exactly the opposite situation. We are affecting the climate, and we seem uninterested and unable to do anything about it.

This week’s Torah portion warns that we will reap the benefits of learning Torah and doing the commandments by living in a beautiful world that provides us with what we need. But at the same time, the rabbis of the Talmud warned that we must also take action to achieve our goals, and until the time is right, we must live within the natural world and do what is necessary to make it a better place.

With many thanks to the amazing podcast The Constant, and particularly the episode “Snap, Crackle, Boom!

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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