White, Pure, and Deadly… Parshat Metzora 5776
Go to any anti-government rally and you are sure to see a sprinkling of people wearing silver foil covered hats. Ask them about this interesting fashion choice and they will explain to you that they use it to keep the government from sending radio signals into their brain. In hushed tones, they will tell you that telephone poles have nothing to do with telephones, telecom wires have long been buried underground. Instead they are an elaborate network of listening devices so that the government can spy on you, and transmitting devices to get inside your head. Stick around long enough, and they will start to take all sorts of old newspaper clippings out of their pockets, which all prove their point beyond the shadow of doubt.
I’m not sure if the government is sending radio signals into our brain. But if they are, they’re doing a terrible job of it, because the government approval rating is currently around 11%. If I was sending radio signals into people’s brains, the primary message would be “Love me, adore me, think favorable thoughts about me.” It would not be “89% of you should hate me!” Therefore, I tend to think that the government is not sending radio signals into our brains.
There is however another industry that is certainly implanting us with harmful materials, only it’s done in a much more sophisticated manner. All the harmful material is packaged inside of things that you buy. There’s so much of it, that 99% of Americans buy copious amounts of it each day. And you gladly implant it in your body, not fully realizing what it’s doing to you!
The industry I’m referring to is not the media (although you could make a similar argument), but the food industry. And the poison they have you ingesting every day is something so deceptively innocent; it’s pure, it’s white, it’s sugar. Every day, the average American eats twenty-two teaspoons of sugar. We can’t imagine someone coming down for breakfast and calmly eating twenty two teaspoons of sugar, because that is not how we do it. We eat some with our cereal, then we have some in the flavored creamer we put in our coffee. If we bring a sandwich to work, there’s sugar in the bread, sugar in the peanut butter, and plenty of it in the jelly. Even if we opt for the “healthy option” at lunch and have a salad, there’s sugar in our fat free Italian Salad dressing.
There’s sugar in the pretzels we eat for a snack, and there’s sixteen teaspoons of it in that twenty ounce bottle of Coke we drink to give ourselves a little pick-me-up at the end of the workday. You come home for dinner, and there’s sugar in your pasta, sugar in the ketchup you put on your pasta, sugar in the teriyaki sauce you pour over salmon, and sugar in your canned corn. If you decide to treat yourself to some ice cream after dinner, you might as well just shovel a few teaspoons of sugar straight into your mouth. By the time you go to bed at night, you’ve probably had more than twenty two teaspoons of sugar, all without ever actually eating any sugar!
So what’s so bad about sugar? Sure, sugar is filled with empty calories, but it’s much better than saturated fat, and all the cholesterol that comes with fat! Wrong.
Sugar calories are not empty calories, they are toxic calories. This is not new information, an exhaustive well researched book called “Pure, White, and Deadly,” came out describing the deleterious effect of sugar on our health in 1972. It was written by John Yudkin, a Jewish professor of nutrition in Great Britain, and it was attacked almost as soon as it was published. Yudkin died in 1995, a bitter, largely forgotten figure in the history of nutritional sciences. Recently, his work has been dredged up, and found to be incredibly accurate and prescient. Why did his work get attacked, and what caused its resurrection?
It all started on September 23, 1955, when US President Dwight D Eisenhower had a heart attack. Instead of trying to hide his illness, he had his chief physician, Dr Paul Dudley White, announce what happened to the American public. He ended his press conference by telling Americans that if they wanted to avoid heart disease, they should stop smoking and cut down on fat and cholesterol. In a follow up article he cited the work of Ancel Keys, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota. This launched the entire world’s crusade on fat and cholesterol.
Ancel Keys was charismatic, brilliant, and combative. He put forth the hypothesis that eating excess fat in our diet raises cholesterol which clogs the arteries and causes heart disease. When his work was cited by the US President and the president’s chief physician, he gained enormous respect in the scientific community and used it to discredit anyone with an alternative theory. Ancel Keys attacked John Ludkin, the anti-sugar scientist from Britain, calling his work, “nonsense” and “science fiction,” and largely caused his work to be ignored. Interestingly, Eisenhower immediately cut all fat and cholesterol out of his diet, but despite sticking to the diet recommended by Ancel Keys, he died of heart disease in 1969.
The notion that fat and cholesterol were the main culprits in dietary health problems became entrenched. In 1980 the US published its first ever dietary guidelines, and they could have been written by Ancel Keys himself. These guidelines shaped the perceptions of hundreds of millions. Doctors made recommendations based on them, public policy was shaped by them, food companies made food to comply with them, and the UK followed with similar guidelines three years later. The most important recommendation was to cut down on fats and cholesterol.
The American public dutifully obeyed. Fat free and lowfat foods became a major part of our diet. We replaced meat with pasta, milk with orange juice. We lowered our saturated fat intake and increased our carbohydrate and sugar intake instead. And we ballooned. Obesity rates, which were trickling up, suddenly soared. From 1980 to 2000, using the new guidelines, obesity in the US doubled! The British, who also followed the US guidelines now find themselves the most obese country in the EU, with two thirds of Britons overweight or obese. Type 2 diabetes has risen in both countries as well in lockstep with obesity.
What made John Ludkin’s work come back into the spotlight, was the soaring obesity and diabetes rates all around the world. Obesity is on the rise in every single country in the world. There is not a single country that can claim a success story in combating obesity. Dozens of studies were done expecting to find that the culprits were saturated fats and cholesterol, but they all came back empty.
The Women’s Health Initiative did a massive study in the nineties and found that women on the low-fat diet were no less likely than the control group to contract cancer or heart disease. This should have raised some flags, but because the findings did not show what scientific groupthink expected, scientists decided that the findings must have been flawed and kept marching down the same road.
In a recent article in the Guardian called “The Sugar Conspirancy,” the author Ian Leslie sheds light on similar research:
In 2008, researchers from Oxford University undertook a Europe-wide study of the causes of heart disease. Its data shows an inverse correlation between saturated fat and heart disease, across the continent. France, the country with the highest intake of saturated fat, has the lowest rate of heart disease; Ukraine, the country with the lowest intake of saturated fat, has the highest. When the British obesity researcher Zoë Harcombe performed an analysis of the data on cholesterol levels for 192 countries around the world, she found that lower cholesterol correlated with higher rates of death from heart disease.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, in a 2008 analysis of all studies of the low-fat diet, found “no probable or convincing evidence” that a high level of dietary fat causes heart disease or cancer. Another landmark review, published in 2010, in the American Society for Nutrition, and authored by, among others, Ronald Krauss, a highly respected researcher and physician at the University of California, stated “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD [coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease]”.
But we still ignored the studies. We still continued to focus on saturated fat and cholesterol. The second most prescribed drug in the US is a cholesterol fighter. Low fat and fat free products continued to dominate our supermarket shelves, while sugar got the blind eye.
Finally, doctors are starting to look at sugar as the culprit again. They have discovered that while adding 150 calories a day to one’s diet raises their chance of contracting diabetes by only .1%, if that 150 is made of a sugary beverage, the risk rises elevenfold! They’ve discovered that cholesterol is a product made naturally by the body, and that when you ingest more of it, your body simply produces less. They’ve discovered that sugar causes the body to make fatty deposits around your internal organs, which is much worse than belly fat. They’ve found huge swaths of the population that are TOFIs (Thin Outside Fat Inside), and are at a much greater risk of heart disease and diabetes than FOTIs (Fat Outside Thin Inside).
The biggest challenge for nutritionists is to change a public perception that has been entrenched for so long. Us humans like to stay the course, if we’ve believed something for decades, we like to keep believing it. It may be killing us, but it’s the path of least resistance…
Next week we will celebrate Pesach, the Time of our Freedom. What was the redemption of Pesach back in Egypt, and how can we experience that freedom again today?
The Egyptians worshipped the sheep. Why? They were bright people, they built the pyramids, performed brain surgery, and had incredible knowledge of science and astronomy, but they would come home and bow down to a statue of a sheep that they made in arts and crafts the day before?
The Egyptians were actually worshipping what the sheep represents, which is to just stay the course. Every herd of sheep has one leader-sheep, and wherever it goes, every other sheep will follow it, never asking themselves if this is right or wrong. In 2006, over 1,500 sheep walked calmly off of a cliff in Gevas, Turkey because they were simply following the leader sheep. Don’t ask questions, don’t look right or left, JUST DO IT! The Egyptians didn’t want to think about morals or ethics, they would rather just follow what everyone else was telling them to do. Everyone just walk like an Egyptian. This did give them stability in their society. If you were born a noble, you’d always be noble, no matter what you did. If you were born a merchant, you’d always be a merchant, and if you were born a slave, a slave you would remain for your entire life. This is how they were able to enslave the Jews for over one hundred years!
When Ha-shem told Moshe to lift the Jews out of slavery, the way they had to do it was by challenging the status quo in the starkest way possible, slaughtering the sheep. They would not only be slaughtering the Egyptians god, they would also be slaughtering the ethos of “just do it because everyone else is doing it,” that was the mainstay of Egyptian culture.
On the night of our national redemption, it was the blood of the sheep on the doorpost that signaled to G-d that the people in this house are ready to question the status quo, ready to change their lives dramatically for what is right and true. No longer would they be pulled by the sweet enticement of stability and groupthink, they would look for what is true and right. No longer would they be TOFI, thin and beautiful on the outside but rotten on the inside with Egypt’s twisted morality clogging all their internal organs.
This Shabbos is called Shabbos Hagadol, the Big Shabbos, as it was on this day 3,328 years ago that the Jews took the sheep and tied it to their beds in preparation for the big Pascal offering that would come four days later. There are many opinions describing why we call this Shabbos the Big Shabbos, one of the main ones being that it was a big miracle that none of the Jews were killed by the Egyptians who must have been horrified that the Jews were going to kill their god.
Perhaps another idea is that on this Shabbos, through their willingness to slaughter the sheep, the god of groupthink and the just do it mentality, the Jews became big people. They were now adults with their own minds, and the ability to forge their own destiny.
This Pesach, let’s be BIG, let’s find our own personal redemption. Let’s ask ourselves the big questions; whether we are truly on the path that is best for us, or on a path that just trundles along being told where to go by the prevailing culture. The Seder is filled with questions; the children ask the Four Questions, we do things to encourage the children to ask more questions. Because we believe that the way to faith and redemption is to always be questioning, always seeking the truth, never complacent to simply follow the culture around us.
If our whole country walked blindly down the wrong path for forty years, in an area as vital as health nutrition, perhaps there are other ways that they are steering us in the wrong direction as well! Perhaps I need a lot more spirituality in my life and less emphasis on the physical? Perhaps the American Dream is not really the dream I should be chasing after all? Perhaps the messages they’re sending me are sweet like sugar, but as harmful as sugar as well? Perhaps I need to remove not just excess sugar from my diet, but the chometz of harmful messages from my mindset as well?
This Pesach, let’s ask the big questions, let’s search out the truth, let’s find our personal redemption, freeing ourselves from groupthink, and launching ourselves on the road to greatness!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parsha, Metzora, begins with the laws of how one purifies himself from tzara’at the spiritual leprosy we discussed last week. As part of the purification process, the metzorah is commanded to bring a number of items that symbolize messages he needs to inculcate. The one trait that characterizes any gossiper is arrogance, as this gives him the callousness to hurt other’s feelings. Therefore, the metzorah brings some hyssop branches, a lowly plant meant to remind the metzorah to become more humble. Additionally, he brings a piece of crimson wool, whose dye is made of a pigment from a lowly snail, which also reminds him to lower himself.
The third thing he brings is a piece of cedar wood, which is quite baffling, as the cedar tree is anything but lowly. Au contraire, it is a very tall tree reaching heights of 120- 180 feet tall! Rashi (in Arachin, 16A) explains that the cedar wood reminds the person of the haughtiness that he needs to purge from his character. But that leaves us with the question of why it is wrapped together with the hyssop that symbolizes the opposite pole?
My Rebbi, Rabbi Shmuel Brazil, once offered the following explanation, which is very instructive for anyone on a pathway to personal betterment. There are two ploys used by the yetzer hara (the evil inclination, the little red guy in our heads with the pitchfork) to prevent us from growth. The first one he uses is inflating our ego to the point where we believe that we are just fine the way we are, and we don’t need to change anything in our lives. When we feel this way, we can come to the sin of slander. Such a situation needs a spiritual affliction, such as tzara’at, to wake us up to the reality that we do need to change. As far as the evil inclination is concerned, strategy #1 works just fine for most people, and for that reason most people live their lives without a constant, urgent drive to change.
But what does the evil inclination do when he bumps up against those individuals that are really bent on change? He changes gears, does a 180, makes a U-turn, flips a turn about, or if you have French in your blood, pulls a volte-face, but I think you get the point. Now he comes to that same person and tries to minimize him, put him down, and tell him that he is a nobody, he is weak, he can’t possibly change anyway so why try. Or he tells the person that they are so insignificant that what they do make no difference to G-d or to the world.
After a review of the two possible thought patterns that can deter a person from change, we understand what the cedar wood is doing in the metzorah’spurification process. He has two items (hyssop and crimson wool) to remind him to be humble, as arrogance led him to gossip and slander in the first place, and it is clear that he saw himself as above others. But there is still a fear that he will swing to the other extreme, and begin to say, “I’m just a nobody; my words don’t make a difference to anyone,” or, “I’m such a bad person, so steeped in my ego that I will never be able to really change for the better!” To counteract this, there is also a piece of a towering tree involved in his purification to remind him that he has unlimited potential, that he can grow and soar and ascend to heights he never fathomed reaching!
Parshat Metzora begins with the sacrifices brought by the metzora upon the completion of his isolation and repentance process. He brings two birds to remind him that his excessive chirping like birds caused him to get tzara’at. (P.S. If you know of any metzoras, please send them to my house, we have a few birds that wake me up real early and I wouldn’t mind donating them to any local metzoras!) He also brings a piece of cedar wood (a very tall tree) to remind him of what his haughtiness caused, a hyssop (low bush) and a tongue of crimson wool (in Hebrew this translates into a word that also means worm) to remind him that he can remedy it by being humble like the hyssop and the worm. The metzora then waits another week, and brings a second round of sacrifices to the Temple, after which he is finally clean and pure, and he can go back to rejoin society – hopefully, a transformed man.
The torah next discusses how tzara’at can afflict a house. Although we explained above that tzara’at of the house was the first step to awakening someone to change, the commentators note that affliction of the house was actually a gift from G-d. When the Cannanites saw the Jews coming to conquer their land, they hid their money in the walls of their homes. Since part of the purification of a house with tzara’at involves cutting out the afflicted parts of the wall, the occupants would then discover the hidden treasures! If you are wondering why someone seems to get rewarded for sinning, I’m glad. A. Because you’re still reading, B. because you’re thinking critically about what your reading. Please go out, get an answer and email me back with it, or email me that you’ve given up, and I will send you the answer!
The last part of the Parsha deals with different kinds of discharges from the human body that are spiritually contaminating to different degrees, and the various purification processes used to rectify the contaminations. Being that today there is no tzara’at to keep us in check, let us try to be more vigilant of the way we talk about others, and ensure that our tongue is never a weapon, only a tool!
Quote of the Week: The time is always right to do what’s right. – Martin Luther King Jr.
Random Fact of the Week: The country of Andorra has a zero percent unemployment rate.
Funny Quip of the Week: Human beings use only 10% of their brains. Could you imagine how much we could accomplish if we used the other 60%?
Have a Marvelous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham