Getting Lost in the Weeds
Parshat Bo 5780
When we think of the earliest explorers of our fledgling country, we tend to think of rugged adventurers of the Daniel Boone genre, people who would kill a bear with their bare hands and then eat its raw flesh for dinner, feeding the leftover scraps to their pet wolves.
Unbeknownst to many is the fact that these intrepid fellows were preceded by a far gentler group of souls. Botanists were often the first to go forth from the colonies southward to Florida, and west to the Mississippi River. These kindred spirits roamed the forests of Appalachia, the grassy plains of Alabama, and the marshy wetlands of Florida and Louisiana. They weren’t looking for gold, furs, or Indian scalps, they were looking for rhododendrons, hydrangea, azalea, and ostrich fern. And plants they found. Of the approximately 800 plants discovered in America during the colonial period, nearly half were found by just a few of these early botanists.
To be totally candid, not all of them did it with the lofty intention of introducing the world to yet another leafy species. Some of them were in it for the gobs of money that could be made by sending seedlings, bulbs, and baby plants back to Europe where wealthy individuals and the royalty collected exotic plants. This source of money was discovered accidently by John Batram, the father of both American botany and William Batram, the most prolific of American naturalists for generations to come. (To this day John’s garden is the oldest botanical garden in the US.)
John, a devout Quaker, had no formal education in botany, couldn’t read Latin, and didn’t understand the Linnaean classification system responsible for naming organisms (it helps us differentiate between Prunus cerasus the sour cherry and Prunus avium the sweet cherry). But he did have an eye for all things autotrophic, and he began his botany career by producing herbal remedies for people who either couldn’t reach doctors or couldn’t afford them.
In a fortuitous letter to a Peter Collinsen, a fellow Quaker in London, he mentioned his findings. Peter offered to pay him handsomely for any plants he could send back to the motherland, and a thirty six year relationship began. Peter eventually became an agent of sorts for John, at one point handling orders from over fifty European collectors, all desperate to get their hands on any new plants from camellia, to catalpa, or Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper).
As the amount of money available for new species became recognized, the forests of the Appalachian Mountains became filled with botanists, opportunists, and sack wielding meshugenas grabbing everything they could and sending it to Europe. From just one hillside, John Lyon harvested 3,600 saplings of Bigleaf Magnolia, a tree that, true to its name, can produce leaves that are three feet long by one foot wide. Another explorer returned from a several year expedition with over 50,000 specimens! These botanists were able to earn a fortune for their efforts – we have records of people netting close to ₤1,000 in a single year (the equivalent of ₤1.28 million pounds using average earnings from that period)! For the money and glory they had to brave the elements, bears, panthers, hostile Indians, and the risk of picking poisonous plants that would leave them looking like tomatoes, and feeling like they were vacationing on the surface of the sun.
Perhaps the most instructive story of that era is one that involved William Batram. After his father earned the title “Botanist to King George III” in 1765, father and son journeyed to the Floridas, newly acquired by the British in 1763. Amazed by the vast diversity of plant life in the Everglades and wetlands, William returned there alone after his father’s death. Determined to bring back as many plants as he could, he embarked on one of the longest expeditions ever, a five year journey in the wilderness without any contact with the outside world. He didn’t stop at outposts, didn’t come home for a short visit and a slice of his wife’s famous apple pie, didn’t even check into the cities near his route for a few days of civilization. He was a man on a mission, and he wouldn’t allow any distractions.
So for five years he roamed, fighting off rattlesnakes, copperheads, panthers, blistering heat, and biting blizzards, He collected thousands of seeds and bulbs, and hundreds of saplings, lovingly protecting his precious treasures from the elements that could destroy them. What sustained him through the low moments was the image of how they would hail him back in England, likely knighting him, and giving him his father’s title Botanist to King George III. But upon emerging from the forests, he saw a new banner hanging from the flagpoles, he heard people talking of war, and there were very few men in town to whom he could announce his success. Imagine his chagrin when he discovered that America was in the midst of a war with Britain, that there was no business contact between the two countries, and that he had lost his patrons! There would be no great riches, no knighthood, no fame and fortune, nothing.
What is striking about this story is the idea that someone can be so absorbed in a particular goal that they neglect to regularly insure that it is still worth pursuing, and that they are still meeting that goal. This happens not only to people in the deep forests of the Appalachian Mountains, but can crop up in any human relationship. Take, for example, the father who is so fully immersed in the career track he embarked on to support his family that ends up sacrificing his family to support his career track. Or the mother who is so busy making sure her children get every possible extracurricular activity, who gets drowned in a flurry of karate, hockey, piano, gymnastics, math club, and lacrosse to the point that she can’t possibly focus on being a mother. Look at the college student who is so busy cramming, writing papers, and fighting to maintain the 4.0 that he forgets that the goal of the college years is not to simply amass knowledge, but to have a transformational period of self development and identity formation.
A common example of this malaise which transcends age, gender, or social station, is a situation in which one is so busy living life that he forgets mankind’s primary role – to build a relationship with G-d, and constantly elevate himself and the world around him.
One of the most important things we can do to ensure that we stay on course and that our course is going where we want to go, is to frequently pause for “station identification.” In Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato’s eighteenth century magnum opus, the Messilat Yesharim, this idea is fleshed out. “One who wishes to watch over himself must take two things into consideration. First he must consider what constitutes the true good that a person should choose and the true evil that he should flee from; and second, he must consider his actions, to discover whether they appertain to the category of good or to that of evil. (Messilat Yesharim, Chap. 3)”
Not only does Ramchal tell us that we need to determine if our goals are good and if our actions are moving us closer to them, he even tells us how often we should make this recalculation. “I see a need for a person to carefully examine his ways and to weigh them daily in the manner of the great merchants who constantly evaluate all of their undertakings so that they do not miscarry. He should set aside definite times and hours for this weighing so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one which is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields rich returns.”
A wise man once said, “Some learn from their mistakes, but the wise learn from the mistakes of others.” Let us learn from the lesson of William Batram, a man who lost five years of endeavor by never pausing for re-evaluation. Let us set aside five minutes a day to review our goals, and see if we’re moving toward or away from them. Five minutes is only .35% of our day, but we can use it to make the other 99.65% so much more effective and meaningful!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha continues the story of the Ten Plagues that started in last week’s parsha. After we learn about Moses warning Pharaoh about the last plague, the Death of the Firstborn, there is a peculiar break in the narrative. Suddenly, the story of the redemption from Egypt is broken by 28 verses that bear very little relation to the actual storyline. Instead, these verses contain the first mitzvos the Jews were commanded to observe as a nation.
We know that the Torah was given by G-d, and is therefore perfect by its very nature. Nothing is superfluous; everything is calculated down to the very vowels of the letters. Why, then, would G-d choose to interrupt one of the most important narratives to these commandments? If anything, the story was just beginning to peak; it was reaching its climax. We spent the last few weeks reading about the rise of Moses from an infant cast into the Nile to the redeemer of the Jewish people. We learn how G-d sent him back into Egypt with a message of hope for the enslaved Jews. Hashem told him to challenge Pharaoh and demand freedom for the Jews. The dialogue continued with Pharaoh’s refusals, which were met with miraculous plagues that brought harsh punishment upon the Egyptians. All of these events were for the single cause of freeing the Jews. Now, we are about to reach the last plague, freedom is near, and G-d decides to interrupt this riveting story with a few commandments! Why?
The answer to this question holds an important lesson for us. The Jews were at a pivotal moment in their national history. Until now, they were slaves; physically, they were oppressed and broken people. As bad as things were from a physical perspective, their spiritual state was even worse. They were totally unaffiliated with their heritage, disconnected from the legacy of their great predecessors. But, now they were about to leave Egypt and venture into the desert to begin a journey of spiritual growth. G-d wanted to give us the first commandments specifically before the journey began.
In doing so, G-d taught us that you don’t have to be far into a spiritual journey to begin observing some of the mitzvos. In fact, you can be at the very beginning of your spiritual enlightenment, and still begin practicing those mitzvos that are within your power to keep. Sometimes we feel like we are not “on the level” to do a particular mitzvah, or that due to a past that was deprived of spirituality, we cannot possibly be ready to perform a specific mitzvah. The truth is that you don’t have to be worthy to perform a mitzvah; the mitzvah itself gives you worth.
In Egypt, when the Jews were in a deep spiritual slump, G-d gave them a few mitzvos which provided the merit needed to get the Jews out of Egypt. G-d clearly showed us that mitzvos are relevant to everyone, and every single person is worthy and capable of performing them. Once we tap into that opportunity, we are on the path to our own personal and spiritual redemption.
A beautiful story illustrates this point. Back in the seventies, a young man who grew up without any Jewish identity somehow found some Jewish classes and began to study. He was enthused by what he learned, but was soon drafted into the army, and prepared to fight in Vietnam. On his last leave of absence before being deployed, he visited his rabbi back home. His rabbi encouraged him to begin doing one mitzvah, but he was reluctant to commit, as he had never before kept any commandments. After some persuasion, he agreed that he would try to keep the mitzvah of netilas yadayim, ritually washing ones hands before eating bread.
One day, after a long day of fighting, his platoon settled down for chow. While everyone ravenously attacked their food, this soldier went to a nearby stream to wash his hands. As he was washing his hands, he heard a series of explosions and machine gun bursts. He came running back to discover that his platoon had been ambushed. Like our forefathers in Egypt, this man took upon himself a mitzvah even though he was not sure he was ready for it, and it proved to be his personal redemption.
This week’s portion starts with the final three plagues. After Moshe warns Pharaoh of the locust that will be the worst Egypt has ever or will ever see, Pharaoh backs down and says he will let the Jews go. But, in typical Pharaoh fashion, he then reneges on the deal and claims that he only meant that the men could go. So G-d sends the locust. Lots of them. They eat everything that is not stored away. Pharaoh, in a panic, calls for Moshe and tells him to pray to G-d to take away the locust, and he will let the Jews go. Moshe prays, a wind comes and removes every last locust from Egypt (even the ones that were pickled and tucked away in Egyptian basements in Mason jars), and Pharaoh reneges.
G-d commands Moshe to stretch his hand out to the sky and, when he does so, darkness falls upon Egypt. After three days, the darkness gets stronger, to the point that it is so thick that people can not move. Meanwhile, the Jews have total reign to do as they please, and they scope out the Egyptians hiding places to find where they keep their treasures.
Finally, Pharaoh calls Moshe and tells him yet again that the people can go. Of course, there is one huge string attached, namely, that they have to leave the livestock behind. Moshe says, “We are going to bring sacrifices and you want us to leave the livestock behind? You will see that by the time we leave, you will be giving us livestock to get us out quicker.” Pharaoh tells Moshe to get away, and warns him that if he comes back, he will have him killed. Before Moshe leaves, he gets a prophecy, and he turns and warns Pharaoh of the death of the firstborns, the final plague. He tells Pharaoh that by the time the plague is over, the Jews will be driven out of Egypt, and with that, he leaves Pharaoh stewing.
G-d tells Moshe to tell the Jews to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians who miraculously are willing to “lend” it to them. (The amount they “borrowed” was still not enough to compensate for all the years of free labor that the Jews had given the Egyptians.)
Then G-d commands Moshe to tell the Jews about the first mitzvah they received as a nation, namely following the lunar months to determine Jewish holiday. G-d calls out the first month, Nissan, and tells Moshe to inform the Jews that on the tenth of the month they should set aside a lamb for a Pascal offering. This was no easy task, as the Egyptians worshipped the lamb, and were certainly less than pleased to see their gods being prepared for slaughter by their former slaves. G-d told Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring the lamb as a Pesach offering on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan. They were to put blood on their doorposts on the night of the 15th and this would ensure that G-d would skip over their houses when He struck all the Egyptian firstborns.
The Jews brought the first Pascal offering, put the blood on the doors, and that night G-d went through Egypt slaying every firstborn. While doing so, He skipped over the Jewish houses, thus giving the holiday the name Pesach, which means skipped over. The entire Egypt was consumed with wailing and mourning, and finally even Pharaoh caved in. He went through the streets calling out for Moshe, telling him to get the Jews out of Egypt.
As morning broke, the Egyptians pushed the Jews to leave so quickly that they didn’t even have enough time to let their breads leaven. They quickly baked the dough as matzah, and left Egypt. About 1.2 million adult Jews left Egypt along with millions more children. Besides for the Jews, a large group of people called the eirev rav, or the great multitude, left Egypt with them. They were so impressed by the miracles G-d had show in Egypt that they decided to stick with the winning team.
As the Jews left Egypt, G-d told Moshe to teach the people the laws of Pesach which would be a holiday for eternity to relive our miraculous exodus from Egypt. G-d also tells Moshe that from now on, the firstborn of both Jews and kosher animals are holy, since G-d saved them by not striking them when He struck the Egyptians firstborn children and animals. This is the source for the mitzvah of pidyon haben, redeeming one’s firstborn from the Kohen. It is also the source for the mitzvah to give most firstborn animals to the Kohen (with the exception of donkeys that get redeemed for sheep). Additionally, G-d tells Moshe about the mitzvah of teffilin which are worn to remind us of G-d’s great miracles. The parsha concludes with G-d’s commandment that the Jewish people transmit the story of our exodus from generation to generation, as it has been transmitted for 3,314 years!
Quote of the Week: The only menace is inertia. ~ John Perse
Random Fact of the Week: It took Leo Tolstoy six years to write “War & Peace”. (It took me almost that long to read it!)
Funny Line of the Week: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.
Have a Chipper Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham