For most people, the rule of thumb is to stick to what you’re good at. But there are those rare individuals who can’t seem to stick to anything and are good at everything. Joseph Paxton was one of those people, and although very few people know of him, millions of us appreciate the result of his prolific work. (Most of the details about Joseph Paxton have been taken from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.)
Joseph was born in 1803 as the seventh child of a poor farmer, and after a limited education began working as an apprentice gardener at the age of 14. In only six years he so distinguished himself that he was asked to run an experimental arboretum for the prestigious Royal Horticulture Society. While working there, he befriended the Duke of Devonshire, who being hard of hearing, probably appreciated the loud and clear voice of Joseph more than his gardening skills. Impulsively, the Duke, one of the wealthiest noblemen in Britain, who owned over 200,000 acres of English countryside, asked twenty-two-year-old Joseph to become the head gardener at Chatsworth, principal seat of the House of Devonshire.
Not being one to waste any time, Joseph showed up for work the next day at 4:30AM. He surveyed the entire sleeping estate, scaling walls when gates were still shut. He then put the gardeners to work on his new plans, and sat down for breakfast with the housekeeper’s family, where he met his future wife, the housekeeper’s niece Sarah Brown. By 9AM, he had already done a full day’s work, met his bashert, and was ready to start developing grand plans for the estate.
He installed the Emperor’s Fountain, a marvel of engineering that could shoot a plume of water 290 feet into the air, a feat that to this day has only been bested in all of Europe once. He built the largest rockery in the country, and even designed a new estate village, one that fit in with the landscape better than the previous one. Using efficient estate management techniques, he was able to save the Duke £1,000,000 at a time when the average field laborer made only £30 a year!
Chatsworth Estate with the Emperor’s Fountain in the foreground
Paxton quickly became the world’s leading expert on a variety of flowers and invented the modern greenhouse to encourage the growth of his exotic flowers. His water lilies grew to be over 12 feet wide, so big that his daughter could sit on them comfortably! His enormous tropical greenhouse, The Stove, was big enough that Queen Victoria could tour it in a horse drawn carriage in 1843.
But when you are so talented, why stop at gardening? With the Duke’s permission, Paxton launched two gardening magazines, and a national newspaper, the Daily News, which for a time was edited by Charles Dickens. He began investing in railroads, and did so well that he was asked to join the boards of three of the largest railroad companies of the time.
The Daily News, circa 1846
To get a feel for what he did next, all you need to do is head to Belle Isle or any one of hundreds of other municipal parks all over the US including Central Park, the Niagara Falls Parks, and the Emerald Necklace in Boston. Paxton didn’t design them, Frederick Law Olmsted did, but Paxton did design the world’s first municipal park in Birkenhead, near Liverpool. Instead of having miles of exotic flowers and manicured bushes which were expensive to maintain and inefficient, Paxton designed Birkenhead to have a very natural look, with native trees and gently sloping land that opened into natural looking meadows and parade grounds. It was this style that so impressed the visiting Olmsted that he studied it intently, then copied it all over the US and Canada on his return.
But his crowning achievement came in 1850. The British Government, in its desire to display its wealth to the world, decided to have a Great Exhibition. Tens of thousands of exhibitors from around the world would display their latest and greatest inventions for the millions of visitors, both national and international, that would surely flock to the Great Exhibition. The only problem was that the government began planning it only fifteen months before it was slated to open, and no one had any idea how to build the massive structure to house the exhibition.
The British created a public competition, and over 245 designs were submitted, all of which were rejected on the basis that they were unfeasible. When the public sector isn’t helping, the government does what the government does best, which is to create a committee. Of the four people on the committee tasked with building a structure big enough to host the Great Exhibition, only one was an architect, and even he had never built anything yet. At the time he was earning his living as a writer.
The structure they devised was a monolithic one story brick building that would just stretch on forever, with a damp, cold and gloomy interior. It would require the manufacture of over thirty million bricks, something prohibitively expensive and impossible to do in the short time frame needed for the May 1, 1851 opening date. And just as Great Britain began to despair, Joseph Paxton published his idea in newspapers around the country. Why not just build a giant greenhouse?
Sheet glass had recently been invented, which meant that you could manufacture large sheets of glass for a relatively inexpensive price. All you would need would be a strong metal framework, and the rest of the building could be glass. The glass and the iron would be of standard sizes, making the building process much easier. The building would be filled with light, it would be airy, and most of all, it would boggle the minds of all the spectators, this being something never done before anywhere in the world! The public was totally struck by the idea, and Joseph Paxton, an untrained gardener from Bedfordshire, was given the contract for the largest job the nation had ever attempted.
Joseph designed special mobile glass mounting platforms, upon which teams could lay 18,000 plates of glass a week, and with great rapidity the largest building in the world reared its head over Hyde Park, London. The building was completed in a very ungovernmental fashion; ahead of schedule and under budget. The whole edifice, which was 1,851 feet long (remember the year?), 408 feet across, and 110 feet high along its central hallway, was built in just thirty five weeks! Comprised of 293,655 panes of glass, 33,000 iron beams, and acres of wood flooring, the whole building cost a trifling £80,000. The people of the day had simply no words to describe this ethereal edifice until a reporter termed it The Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.
An aerial view of the Crystal Palace taken shortly before a fire destroyed it in 1936
What perhaps makes the story of Joseph Paxton so unique was his ability to think outside of the box. Never before had someone attempted to make a building out of glass and steel. Never before had anyone grown 12 foot wide water lilies. Never before had someone made a municipal park simply to benefit the common citizens of a city by giving them a clean and open place to relax, and never before had anyone built a park in a way that it looked natural and organic. Never before were buildings made of glass and steel, But “it’s never been done” never stopped Joseph Paxton. Had Joseph been an “it’s never been done before” man, he would have spent his life in obscurity, quietly gardening in Bedfordshire. Instead he dazzled the world.
We just finished the High Holidays, where surely most of us committed to changing our lives and becoming better people. But the problem is that we don’t really know what that looks like. We’ve never been the person we want to be, it’s never been done before. How do I rearrange my priorities? How do I learn new habits? How do I stop doing what I’ve done for decades and replace it with different action, ones that are more selfless, meaningful, and purposeful? How do I get out of the box that I’ve been living in, and become a new me?
Luckily, right after the High Holidays, we have the holiday of Succos, where we literally get out of the box we’ve been living in, and move into a different sort of existence! We move out of the physical comfort of our homes, and into a succah, a small dwelling place made of flimsy walls and an even flimsier roof. Yet we not only survive in the succah, we thrive!
We find incredible joy in pulling back from our phones and computers and spending more time with the family! We love singing songs of inspiration, serving each other festive meals, and sharing words of Torah and encouragement! We find again the joy of simply sitting with friends and chatting, face to face, with no distractions. The succah may be minimalist by design, but it maximizes our concept of self, and what we can do! Our life doesn’t need to be measured by the physical things we have, the big house, the new car, etc, but rather by the things we do, the mitzvos we perform, the family we build.
Succos is called Zman Simchaseinu, the Time of Our Joy. The word for joy in Hebrew, simcha, is very closely related to the word for growth, tzimcha. Rabbi Moshe Shapiro Shlita, a leading scholar in Jerusalem, explains that this because joy is the emotion we feel when our soul is growing and expanding. Succos is the Time of Our Joy because when we go out of the box, we are able to expand far beyond what we thought we could do. We are able to learn new habits and patterns, we are able to start our year off expanding our soul and doing things we never did before.
Let’s use this Succos to cultivate one new habit, let’s think out of the box, let’s do what has never been done before, let’s expand, let’s experience true joy in Time of Joy!
Exterior of the Crystal Palace
An artist’s rendering of the interior of the Crystal Palace
Today, buildings are commonly made of glass and metal, using Paxton’s system
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Parsha is mostly comprised of a song, which Moshe related to the Jewish people. Melding past, present, and future the beautiful, and at times haunting, song is about the Jewish people and their relationship with G-d. In the beginning of the song Moshe proclaims, “Let my instructions flow like rainfall, let my sayings drip like dew; like storm winds upon vegetation, and like raindrops on grass.” (Deut. 32:2) The Vilna Gaon asks, why did Moshe describe his teachings, the Torah, as being like rainfall?
While falling on a field, rain will water the whole field equally. However, what the rain will cause to grow is dependent on what was put into that earth. If the person toiled and planted fruit or grain seeds, he will soon have an orchard or field of grain growing beautifully. If he planted nothing, having chosen to spend the planting season chatting online or catching up on all the soap operas and celebrity poker shows, he will find his field to be quite empty despite the prodigious rain. Worse yet, if he planted the deadly foxglove plant in this field, he will find that the rain helped him get a full crop of a venomous poison.
Torah, the Vilna Gaon explains, has the same attributes. It is an incredible receptacle of Divine wisdom that is given to humans to interact with and explore. What we get out of it however is dependent on what we put in. If we invest ourselves in the Torah and expend the necessary time, energy, and emotion into capturing its truth, if we approach it with respect, and are honest with ourselves as we study it – even when it calls upon us to make meaningful changes in our lives, the Torah will then lead us to levels of knowledge and spiritual joy we could not have imagined possible. On the other hand, if we leave our field of Jewish knowledge fallow (i.e. we take an unhealthy approach or we don’t cultivate it), we will be left bereft of the most incredible inheritance we have as a people – the Torah.
One can also distort Torah or selectively find a Torah source to find license for distorted perspectives or to justify their preconceived, inaccurate ideas. Our approach to Torah study makes all the difference as the prophet Hoshea cautions, “For the ways of the Lord are straight, the righteous shall walk in them, and the rebellious shall stumble on them.” (Hoshea 14:10)
Rabbi Avigdor Miller zt”l (1908-2001) was one of the greatest Torah teachers in America in the latter half of the twentieth century. His many books were fascinating and interesting yet taught many of the foundations of Jewish belief and philosophy. Tapes of his weekly Torah classes made their way all across America and allowed him to inspire many more than the thousands who attended his unapologetic, direct, yet uplifting Torah lectures. He even created the Telephone Torah Program, in ways a forerunner of Partners in Torah, whereby one individual would learn portions of Chumash and then would repeat them over the telephone to a partner on a weekly basis. After beginning with Parshas Bereishis and Noach, the program was expanded to include Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) and Talmud. Where did Rabbi Avigdor Miller get his fiery love for Torah, Jews, and Judaism?
When he was in his early twenties, Rabbi Miller left the comforts of the US to go study in the famed Slabodka Yeshiva in Lithuania. There he dedicated himself to Torah study with an uncommon seriousness. During the first three hours of the day, he would talk with no one, wanting that time to be purely dedicated to Torah study. If people came to him to discuss something, he would motion to them to return later. He was busy planting his field with fertile seeds of Torah.
This Succos, let’s make sure to plant the coming year with a crop of love, kindness, Torah, holiness, giving, prayer, and study. We can then be assured that 5777 will be a year filled with a bumper crop of goodness!
As mentioned above, most of this week’s Parsha is comprised of a song. In the beginning Moshe calls out to the heavens and earth to hear his song, as they are witnesses that will exist forever, and they can be G-d’s messengers to reward the Jewish people with plentiful rain and bountiful crops, or punish them by withholding the bounty.
Moshe begins by talking about the greatness of G-d, in that He is out Creator, Father, and the Rock onto which we hold to maintain our stable existence on this shaky planet. G-d is incorruptible, hence the corruption we see on this world is the invention of His children. Just ask your elders, Moshe tells us, and they will tell of the greatness of G-d, and the miracles He performed while taking us out of Egypt. They will relate to you how G-d chose us and made us into His special portion.
There will come a time when the Jewish people will be living in a place where everything is working out for them, and they will become prosperous. They will then begin to kick out at G-d and deny His role in their success, and even desert Him entirely. When this happens G-d will become angry with the Jewish people and set enemies upon them, enemies that will scatter them all over the world. (If you read the history of our people, you will find this to be chillingly accurate. Every time the Jewish nation becomes too comfortable in their host nation, and they begin to assimilate and lose their Jewishness, a terrible calamity suddenly befalls them and forces them to recognize their identity. It comes in different forms, from expulsions, to Inquisitions, to libels, to a Holocaust, but unfortunately it is a pattern that has repeated itself many times in our challenged history.)
Then, the enemy will rejoice thinking they have great power. They will not have the wisdom to see that no one has been able to quash Judaism in the past, and it is only the G-d of the Jews that has allowed them the success they have had in persecuting us. At this point, G-d swears that He will lift up His sword (metaphorically of course) and take vengeance upon those who have wreaked havoc on His people. He will lovingly return His people to their land and once again they will bask in His presence.
Although this message has some frightening and sobering undertones, we have to understand that this is what makes it a song. A song in order to have real beauty must have both low parts and high parts, which when contrasted with each other form enchanting music. This is the song Moshe teaches us before he dies. It is the story of a nation that has lows, when we are afflicted and persecuted, but then rises from the ashes to take flight again and soar. No good song can be created in monotone, the challenges and lows are what make the highs so special and precious.
At the end of the Parsha, Moshe tells his prime student and successor, Yehoshua, to teach in front of all the Jews, so that everyone will witness Moshe giving the mantle of leadership to Yehoshua, and not question his authority later. The Parsha concludes with G-d telling Moshe to climb to the top of a Mt. Nevo from where he will see the Land of Israel, the land he will be unable to enter. From this vantage point, Moshe saw not only the land, but he also saw prophetically all that would transpire to his beloved flock from the time of his death until the time of the Messiah!
Quote of the Week: Tomorrow is the only day in the year that appeals to the lazy person. ~ Jimmy Lyons
Random Fact of the Week: Michigan borders no ocean… but has more lighthouses than any other state!
Funny Line of the Week: Raisin cookies that look like chocolate chip cookies are the main reason that I have trust issues.