The Tower that Leans…Ki Teitzei 5777
Construction is never a simple thing. The general rule is to expect projects to take thirty percent longer than scheduled and to cost thirty percent more than budgeted. But a building taking more than 200 years to build is considerably out of the norm, and if the resulting building is falling over before you even get to the third floor, you might be a bit disappointed. When that happens, you find yourself facing a choice; you can fire the contractor and take him to court to get your money back, or you can turn it into one of the most recognized tourist hotspots in the world. In the case of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you probably can guess which route was taken.
The city of Pisa became important in the late 800’s as a major port and city of trade. Situated advantageously on the northwestern coast of Italy, Pisa was not only a place where pilgrims from Europe would stop on their way to Jerusalem, but also a thriving economic powerhouse, with a mighty navy to protect its maritime interests. It was the Pisans who turned back the Arabic invaders who taken over the nearby islands of Corsica and Sardinia, and it was the Pisans who protected the entire Western Coast of Italy for centuries.
What do you do when you are a wealthy city and you want to show the world just how important you are? You build impressive buildings. In 1063, the other great maritime power on the Italian coast, Venice, had just begun construction of St. Marks Basilica, so the Pisans decided to respond with a massive marble cathedral. They built it outside of the city walls to show that they were not afraid of any attackers, and completed it in 1118. In 1152 they built a baptistry next door, the largest baptistry in Italy of course. The one hundred and eighty foot marble baptistry took two hundred and eleven years to finish, and leans ever so slightly, which might have warned the Pisans that the ground below them wasn’t super stable, but why bother worrying about trifling details like ground stability?
After building a cathedral and a baptistry, what self-respecting city doesn’t build a bell tower to call the faithful to minyan? Thus, the Bell Tower of Pisa (what it was called before it started leaning), began its life in 1173, after a widow contributed a considerable sum of gold toward the project. The architect (identity under much debate), started digging the foundation, but there was so much water in the soil that he stopped after getting down ten feet. This should have been no surprise, as the word Pisa comes from a Greek word that means marsh. Instead of searching for a more suitable place to build the foundation, the architect simply began building on top of the ten foot foundation. That would turn out to be an error that would make Pisa famous for centuries.
By the time the second floor of the bell tower was completed, the building was tilting significantly to the south. You can’t build a tower on a marsh, and certainly not if it only has a ten-foot foundation. Had construction continued as planned, the tower would have toppled by the fourth or fifth floor, and no one would come to visit The Fallen Tower of Pisa. As fate would have it, Pisa became embroiled in close to a hundred years of war with its neighbors Genoa, Lucca, and Florence, and the foundation settled and hardened over that time.
In 1272, architect Giovanni di Simone continued work on the tower. To compensate for the tilt, he built the northern side of the tower slightly longer than the south side. This means that the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is technically also the Curved Tower of Pisa. By 1284, the tower was up to six stories, but construction was halted again after the Genoans defeated the Pisans in the Battle of Meloria. The seventh floor was completed in 1319, and the bell chamber on top was finally completed in 1372, just 199 years after construction began.
The bell tower enjoyed great fame and acclaim for hundreds of years due to it rakish tilt, but in 1989, when a similar tower, the Civic Tower of Pavia, crumbled, killing four people, the Italian government became concerned. For starters they shut off access to the Leaning Tower. Then they made a $40 million grant to researchers to figure out how to stop the Leaning Tower from toppling. One attempt in 1998 included wrapping the higher side of the base with eight hundred tons of lead weights to try to settle the tower. Another solution was to wrap cables around the third floor of the tower and anchor them into the ground a few hundred feet away.
As you may have expected, the solution that eventually worked dealt with the foundation. Professor John Burland, a soil engineer at the Imperial College London, devised a method where workers would drill out slivers of soil from beneath the northern side of the tower. The goal was that as the earth became thinner below the northern side of the tower, gravity would slowly coax the tower off its extreme tilt. In all, over seventy tons of soil were removed from below the tower, and it slowly shifted back to a less extreme angle. Burland also built a custom drainage system to keep the water table below the tower stable. In May of 2008, engineers announced that the tower had stopped moving for the first time ever, and that they expected the tower to be stable for at least two hundred years. The Leaning Tower of Pisa will continue to lean, but it will not lean any further.
When all is said and done, the Leaning Tower of Pisa worked out pretty well for Pisa, over a million tourists visit each year, bringing tens of millions of dollars to a city that would otherwise be forgotten in history. But many buildings with the same foundational problems have not had the same fortune, they have just collapse, often killing many people in the process.
The foundation of a building is a funny thing. It is not seen at all to the naked eye, yet in a normal building a disproportionate amount of effort is put into the engineering and building of the foundation. This is because the entire building rests its weight on the foundation and the success or failure of a building depends on how well the foundation is built.
When building the Freedom Tower, the highest building in the US, the engineers first sank twenty-four humongous steel beams into the ground to form the foundation. Each beam is fifty-six feet long and weighs sixty four tons. The foundation itself reaches over seventy feet into the ground below the building, and is filled with tens of thousands of cubic feet of concrete. It may seem like a lot, but if you want a big stable building, you need an incredible foundation lying quietly beneath it.
We are currently in the foundation month of the Jewish calendar. This month precedes Tishrei, the towering month of Jewish calendar, the one filled with holy days, from the two days of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, to the seven days of Succot and two days of Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. There is so much spiritual value to be mined in the month of Tishrei, but the height of our accomplishments in Tishrei will depend on the strength of the foundation we lay in the month of Elul. Just as we would not walk into a courtroom where we were facing serious charges without any preparation, we cannot walk into Rosh Hashana, when the fate of our year is determined without any preparation.
It is no coincidence that the month of Elul is the sixth month in the Jewish calendar. The sixth of the seven sefirot, the seven mystical character traits that define all our actions, is Yesod, which literally means foundation. This month is like all foundations, there are no visible holidays in it, just like a foundation is not visible when a building is built. But it is incredibly important, as we want our Tishrei to be more like the Freedom Tower and less Leaning Tower of Pisa.
So how do we lay the foundation during this month so that we have an inspiring and empowered Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Succor and Simchat Torah? There are a few components that we can focus on; increasing our charitable giving, praying more often or with greater focus, studying a little extra Torah every day. One recommendation is that we take on one new little addition in our interactions between us and our fellow man, and one new addition in our interactions between us and G-d. This way, when Rosh Hashana, the Judgment Day, arrives, we have a track record of better behavior that we can point to when we ask G-d for a great year in 5778.
In order to help us lay the correct foundation, G-d tells us that during this month, He will be extra close to us, giving His assistance in a way not necessarily available to us the rest of the year. This is the month about which it is said, “I am to my Beloved, and my Beloved is to me.” G-d knows that we are doing the quiet but fundamental work of laying the foundation for the High Holidays and indeed the year ahead, so He comes to help us with whatever projects we set out for ourselves.
May G-d give us the strength and inspiration to make a robust foundation during this month, and may we merit to build a towering 5778 on top of it!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this weeks parsha, Ki Saitzei, the Torah tells us the following commandment: “Do not observe your brother’s donkey or ox collapsing on the road and ignore them. You must surely lift it up with him.” (Deut. 22:4) The modern day equivalent of this commandment would be the Torah commanding us to help someone whose car breaks down. (As a matter of fact, on the East Coast, many cities with a large Jewish population have an organization called Chaverim, Friends. These organizations have a 24 hour hotline that is made specifically for anyone whose car breaks down or has any other car related trouble. They dispatch someone who helps the person for no charge.)
Now, as we have mentioned in previous emails, there are many mitzvos that are mentioned elsewhere in the Torah that are repeated in Deuteronomy. (Hence the prefix Deut which means second, as many mitzvos are repeated here). This mitzvah is one of them. The first time we see this commandment in the Torah is in Exodus, 23:5, “If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might not want to help him, [but you should] make every effort to help him.” Five points for you if you notice the difference between the two verses. OK, I’m not waiting anymore. The difference is as follows: in the earlier verse in Exodus the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your enemy, whereas in our verse in Deuteronomy, the Torah describes the fallen donkey of your brother. Why does the Torah transition from enemy to brother?
Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda (early 11th century rabbi and philosopher from Spain) gives us the following explanation. The word for love in Hebrew is Ahava. The root of that word is the word hav, which means to give. This teaches us that, contrary to popular notions, we don’t love the person who gives, and sacrifices so much for us. Rather, we love the person we give so much to, and sacrifice so much for. (This explains why parents generally love their children more than the children reciprocate. The parents give so much more to the children than the children give to the parents.)
That being said, if someone feels that there is some love lost between them and their spouse, a child, or a friend, one way to help rekindle the feeling is to find something he can do for that person (if he can do it without the other person knowing that is sometimes even better!) Now that we got the Therapy Tip of the Week out of the way, we can get back to our question about why the Torah transitions from calling the donkey owner your enemy to calling him your brother. Based on this concept, if the first time one sees his enemy’s donkey fallen on the side of the road he goes and helps him despite his inner dislike, then he will build love for that person, and that person will no longer be his enemy, but change to being his brother! The Torah here is hinting to us the powerful recipe for turning enemies into friends. Do something for that person, water, place in sunlight, and watch the friendship blossom!!!
This week’s Parsha is made up almost entirely of laws, dozens of them. As a matter of fact, this Parsha contains more mitzvos than any other Parsha in the Torah – 74 to be exact. I won’t be able to go into detail for all of them, and I may skip some, but I challenge you to find out which ones I skipped and email me back with the list.
The first law is quite a intriguing one. It deals with a soldier falling for the beauty of women captured in battle, and desiring her as a wife. The Torah knew that if it flat-out forbade the relationship, soldiers overcome by the fatigue and the challenges of war would disregard the law. Instead, the Torah allows one to take the captive lady as a wife, but only after a number of conditions are met. These conditions are designed to help disenchant the soldier. The captive woman must sit by the door of his house dressed in clothes of a mourner, with no makeup, and mourn the family that she lost in the war. (This is a great insight into marital relationships: no one wants a spouse who sits moping and mourning all the time!) If, as the Torah hopes, he decides that he doesn’t want her as a wife after all, he must set her free; he can’t make her a captive servant after putting her through that ordeal.
The next law discusses someone who has two wives – one he favors and one he hates. The Torah estate law dictates that a man’s firstborn son gets a double portion of the inheritance. If this person’s firstborn is from the less favored wife, he cannot elect to give the double portion to his oldest son from the beloved wife, but has to leave it to the rightful heir, the firstborn. The reason this law is found immediately after the previous law is to teach us that those who marry people based on their looks, as did the soldier in the previous law, are bound to end up hating each other and trying to find ways to spite each other.
The next portion discusses the Ben Sorer U’moreh, the rebellious son, the kind of person who makes us tell our children, “Just give him the lunch money; I can’t afford to buy new glasses every day!” This follows the previous law to teach us that if one hates their wife and there is no shalom in the house, they are setting the stage for rebellious children. While I was living in NYC I spent many years working with delinquent children, and I saw this to be so true. Ninety percent of the children we worked with came from homes lacking shalom.
The Torah warns us about the law of Hashavas Aveida, returning a lost item. Not only does the Torah command us to not ignore any lost items we see, it even tells us that we have a responsibility to actively seek out the rightful owner, so that we can return the object to them. We are then told that if we wish to take eggs or young birds from a nest, we must first shoo away the mother. This mitzvah is rewarded with long life, a fact which prompts Rashi to point out that if we get long life for such a simple mitzvah, imagine the reward for a difficult mitzvah, one that demands strong self-control! The Torah next prohibits cross dressing, commands us to put up a fence on our roofs to prevent any accidents, and reiterates the mitzvah of tzitzit.
One of the laws in this week’s Parsha shows a great deal about the sensitivity of the Torah. Before the banking industry was what it is today, personal loans were the most common form of loan. In order to guarantee that a lender would get his money back, he would often take an object belonging to the debtor as collateral. The Torah teaches that we may not take an object that will impede the debtor’s ability to earn a livelihood, such as a millstone (the part of a mill used to grind grain, which would earn the debtor money). The creditor is not allowed to come into the debtor’s house to demand the collateral. Rather, he must wait outside while the debtor brings the collateral out to him. This way, the debtor is able to retain a certain level of dignity – he is the sole ruler of his house, and his debts and inadequacies need not follow him into his home and sanctuary.
In this week’s Parsha there is also the prohibition against usury or taking interest for a loan. The Torah both commands us to lend money to help the destitute get back on their feet, and forbids us from taking interest. This is to help us become more giving. The Torah understands that the only way we will become better people is by doing acts of kindness, not by simply having all the right feelings in our heart. It is no wonder that the Jewish people are the most philanthropic race on this planet, with a higher percentage of their wealth being given to charity than any other race (According to one study the Mormons give more. The problem is that the Mormons are a very small group, and the researchers only count the religious ones as real Mormons, and the non-religious ones, who would likely give less, are not included in their calculations). In the Jerusalem phonebook, there are 96 pages listing free loan societies which lend or give away everything from medicine to power tools to chairs and tables for events to free medical referrals to mother’s milk! As we say, “Mi K’amcha Yisrael- who is like your nation O Israel”
Quote of the Week: Aim at nothing and you will succeed. ~ A. Gombiner
Random Fact of the Week: Koalas do not drink, they ingest all the moisture they need through the leaves they eat.
Funny Line of the Week: I bought a vacuum cleaner six months ago, and so far all it has done is collect dust!
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham