Would You Like Ice With That?
Parshat Naso 5779
This essay combines reality and futuristic predictions. Anything described as happening in 2019 or earlier is true, anything from 2020 and forward is a futuristic prediction. Obviously.
The boarding team was dressed in the blue camouflage fatigues of the Seven Nations Navy and was armed to the teeth. From the time they boarded the tugboat until they walked into the wheelhouse they didn’t utter a word, didn’t crack a smile, and didn’t take their fingers off the trigger of their rail guns. These guys took their jobs seriously.
“License and registration please!”
Dateshi held out the biopad on his arm and the lead officer scanned it. In a moment all of his data was scrolling down the visor on the officers helmet. “Dateshi Vokacs, captain of the HMS Aqualore, 43 years old, been an iceberg driver for the last 17 years and you still don’t know how to stay in your lane?”
Dateshi, exhausted from fighting a 190 million ton iceberg for almost two days with no sleep, just let it all loose. “Look officer, I get it, us icebergers don’t have the best reputation out there, people think that we’re profiteering off the worst drought in human history. But I’ve been lugging icebergs around the globe since 2026, and I’m still barely feeding my family. This is tough and unrewarding work, with enormous risk from ice pirates, ocean storms, and wild currents. I’ve never had this much trouble moving ice from the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the Benguela Current in all my years doing this, and I’ve got the country of Tanzania to keep alive. So, either take me in, and let five million people die, or get off my boat and let me do what I do best. I’ll try to stay out of the Seven Nations Naval Lane, but I can’t promise anything in these waters.”
The naval officers left the bridge to confer with their headquarters, and a few minutes later they were back, their attitude visibly softened. “Mr. Vokacs, we’re sorry for the instrusion. We’ve been given orders to escort you all the way to Tanzania and keep all other maritime traffic out of your way. The people of Tanzania are literally dying for you to arrive, and we will do anything we can to expedite your voyage.” They rapidly left the wheelhouse, deboarded the boat and headed back to their cruiser a few hundred yards away.
Dateshi watched them leave and then turned towards the stern of his tugboat and looked at the iceberg he was towing, watching it loll calmly in the water for the first time in forty hours. The Naval Police didn’t scare him much, this iceberg did. It was the largest he’d ever harvested and the added weight changed the whole dynamic. He only committed to pulling a berg this big because the president of Tanzania had personally called him and begged. People were dying of thirst in the streets, and the only solution was the iceberg now trailing three thousand feet behind his super tugboat.
The most dangerous part of any iceberg tow was when switching from one current to another, the miles in between two reliable currents were anything but dependable. For now, things seemed to have quieted, but he still had six hundred miles to the Benguela Current, and it was going to take everything he had to make it there.
The early days of iceberg towing were the glory days. The trips were always short, from Antarctica to South Africa. The bergs they were towing were smaller, usually in the 115-130 million ton range, and there was a fleet available on hand, two tankers and two tugboats per trip. The extreme rationing of water in Cape Town in 2018 and the fact that they almost had to shut off their water supply altogether, got the world searching for creative ways to get fresh water to South Africa. Desalination was too expensive, energy hungry, and pumped more brackish chemical brine back into the oceans than the water it produced. Besides, the water tasted and smelled terrible.
Iceberg towing wasn’t a new thing. In the 1800’s, Chilean breweries would tow small bergs and use them for refrigeration. Oil companies had been pulling icebergs whose course was leading them toward a collision with oil rigs since the 1960’s, and in the 70’s, the US Army, Rand Corporation and Prince Mohamed al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia all poured millions into research to figure out how to tow much larger bergs around the globe. They were entirely unsuccessful, and funding dried up. In the early twent-first century “iceberg cowboys” could be hired to hack off and tow tiny bergs from the Arctic circle to be used in specialty bottled water or premium vodka, but it wasn’t until 2019 that iceberg towing was looked at again in a serious way.
Nicholas Sloane, a marine salvage expert from South Africa, assembled a team of world class scientists and designed the first setup. First they designed a custom net, two miles long and sixty feet high. It was made of 5-inch diameter ropes of Dyneema, a supermaterial that is significantly lighter and stronger than steel cables. That alone cost about $25 million to make. They would pull the net from one tugboat, around an iceberg, and then pull it in a U shape. They would use two tanker ships as the main pulling power, and two tugboats to finesse the steering of the tankers as tankers are not know for being nimble on the waters.
Once they would get their iceberg to Cape Town, they would anchor it to the ocean floor about twenty-five miles offshore so that it could remain in the Benguela Current which is made up of relatively cooler water coming from Antarctica, thus slowing down the melt rate. A $22 Million, 800-ton geotextile skirt would have to be wrapped around the bottom of the iceberg to slow the melting further and deflect damaging waves. The ice would be harvested using massive earthmoving machines, grading and milling machines, and then shipped to shore on a revolving fleet of container ships cleansed to be able to hold potable water. In 2019, it was an audacious plan, but if successful, one iceberg could give Cape Town the water it needed for a year!
The maiden iceberg towing trip in 2021 ended in failure, but by 2022 the world’s first successful massive iceberg tow was completed, and from there on, it just got busier and crazier. Pirates would often swoop in when a tow project was just a hundred miles out, hoping to steal a berg that people spent months slowly pulling to land. A whole new class of tugboats started being built. Until the 2020’s the largest tugboats were designed to pull 150,000 tons, now they were pulling hundreds of millions of tons! By 2036, the first solo-tugboat pull occurred using advanced computer navigation and a slew of remotely controlled fins attached to the underbody of the iceberg. By 2040, thirty percent of the world relied at least in part on iceberg water to stay alive. The good news is that each year Antarctica sets 100,000 large icebergs adrift, so while it may not be easy to extract, there should be enough water for the planet for many centuries to come. L’chaim.
Water is one of the most important molecules in the world, at least as far as human life is concerned. Up to 60% of the human adult body is made of water. According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even bones, the hard stuff that gives us our shape, is made of 31% water! Everything we eat requires water as well, from plants to cattle, fish to fowl. Ancient human civilizations were usually built around water sources, and those that were not, were distinguished by their ingenious methods of transporting water over long distances. The remains of Roman and Incan aqueducts still stand today, a testament to how seriously those civilizations took their need to procure and transport water.
According to a report released in July 2017 by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, 2.1 billion people today lack safe drinking water at home. Every twenty seconds a child dies due to lack of access to clean water, and every day, the women of the world spend a collective 200 million hours working to get water to their families. Billions of dollars are spent yearly researching new ways to get clean water to people in water-starved regions of the world. Iceberg harvesting is not at all the most farfetched, there are scientists studying the viability of bringin water from meteorites in outer space as well!
But this doesn’t usually concern you or me. Why? Because when I’m thirsty, I simply turn some knobs on a counter and clean deliciously fresh water tumbles out into my glass. No one in my family has to shlepp it in buckets from the village well, I don’t even have to pay a water-carrier to do that, it just happens. Unlike friends of mine in Israel or California, we have so much of that water here in Michigan that we can take guilt-free long showers and water our lawns without getting dirty looks from the neighbors. Our water is also delicious, literally. It is crystal clear, crisp, and mostly chemical free, a perfect pairing with a hot summer day or cool fall evening.
No one needed to tug it here from Antarctica, no one had to pump it out of rapidly depleting aquifers, it just came down from the sky, life itself raining down from heaven, a kiss from G-d in every drop. But because it’s been that way our entire lives, we never recognize the blessing of water.
The biggest blessings in our lives are not the ones we celebrate. It’s not the graduation from college, the landing of a great business deal, or even the birth of the child. The biggest blessings in our lives are the millions of things that happen in the background all the time that make those big things possible. And the more we focus on the wonders and miracles that run in the background, the more appreciative we are for every moment of our lives.
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabba, 14:9) tells us that on every breath that we draw we should be giving thanks and praise to G-d for the air that we breathe. And while that is a bit tough to do as we breathe between 17,000-23,000 breaths a day, we can put a bit more focus on appreciating the next most abundant and necessary element in our lives, water. The Sages already instituted that we make the blessing of Shehakol every time we drink water, and if we are not doing so yet, adding that to our lives will make a huge difference. But even if we are already making the blessing, pausing a moment before making the blessing and spending ten seconds contemplating what a gift the water we are about to drink is, will also make our lives significantly better.
It’s not that we’ll have new gifts, it’s simply that we will recognize how incredible the gifts we already have are. It’s not a given, it’s a gift. Billions around the planet don’t have what we have, we are the fortunate blessed ones. Let’s use water, the life force that keeps us alive, to also be the force that makes us feel blessed, gifted, and loved. Let’s use water to tug us back to the One Above who gives us that water every day.
Parsha Dvar Torah
Last week’s Torah portion described the census that was taken of the tribe of Levi, starting with those 1 month and older. This week’s parsha continues with another census of the members of the tribe of Levi, this one only of males between the ages of 30-50. In both countings, we find a surprisingly low number: 22,273 in last week’s portion, 8,580 in this week’s – far fewer in number than any other tribe.
What makes this even stranger is the fact that Levi was the only tribe that was not forced into labor in Egypt. The Medrash records that the slave labor in Egypt was started by a massive public works campaign, one in which Pharaoh himself participated. But soon afterwards, the Egyptians slipped away and forced the Jews to remain. The tribe of Levi, who were preoccupied with Torah study, never joined the labor, and were thus never forced to remain. Knowing this, one would think that they should have been the largest tribe.
Nachmonides explains that it was precisely the fact that they were not subjugated that led to their small numbers. He explains that G-d gave a special blessing to the Jewish people that the “the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied, and so did they gain strength” (Exodus 1:12). Thus it was the tribes that were oppressed that grew with prodigious blessing, while the tribe of Levi only grew at a normal rate, and consequently had the comparatively lower numbers they had. Oppression, though something few would welcome, can sometimes be the harbinger of special blessing.
This message is reinforced in a verse in Psalms. The Psalmist praises G-d by saying, “He covers the heavens with clouds, He prepares rain for the land,” (Psalms 147:8). Rav Tzadok HaCohen explains that we often go through difficult times – times in which the horizon appears dark and cloudy – but what is really happening is that G-d is preparing for an outpouring of rain, and blessing. We see this in the germination of seeds, as well, the process that allows for all life on earth. At first, the seed disintegrates, seemingly beaten to nothingness. But then a new life sprouts forth. G-d’s miraculous nature has a way of showing us the light when all we can see is darkness.
A friend shared the following slice of life that underscores this point. Growing up, he had two classmates who were stepbrothers. The mother of one was a divorcee who married a successful attorney who had two children of his own. The woman indulged her child, taking care of all his expenses, providing him with a nice car, and not requiring him to work. The father, who achieved his success through hard work, treated his children much differently. He made them work hard for everything they received. That classmate constantly worked odd jobs, earning low wages in order to buy the things he wanted.
Ironically, the indulged son of the woman is today a baggage handler in a local airport. The husband’s son is a world renowned psychiatrist, who has published dozens of articles, written two books, and is frequently featured on CNN. The hard work, the stress, and the difficulty he went through as a teen certainly paid off. In a similar vein, people with physical handicaps, or who have undergone a serious illness, surprisingly tend to score much higher than others on tests that measure levels of happiness.
Many people are facing new challenges today, due to the economic climate and the market meltdown. This week’s counting of the tribe of Levi gives us a perspective that may help us see the silver lining behind those challenges. That silver lining may come in the form of some bountiful rain about to be showered upon them, or it may come in the form of us developing a deeper appreciation for our family, our health, or other aspects of our life that we may have neglected to appreciate.
This week’s Parsha starts off where the the last Parsha finished, namely, the jobs given to different families within the tribe of Levi. Here, the Torah describes the parts of the Tabernacle that the families of Gershon and Merari carried when the Jews moved from place to place in the Desert.
The Torah then commands us to treat our camp with holiness. In order to do so, people with specific levels of ritual impurity are not allowed into different parts of the camp based on the severity of their impurity. (It is interesting to note that the only group that has to leave the entire camp and sit alone is the people who contracted Tzara’as through speaking badly about others and alienating them. What goes around comes around!) After that, the Torah tells us what to do if someone steals, swears falsely to deny it, and then admits. OK, I won’t keep you in suspense; he pays an extra fifth and brings a special sacrifice for atonement. If the victim dies and leaves no heirs, the money goes to the Kohanim.
The next law discussed, is that of the Sotah. This is a wayward woman, who secludes herself with a specific man, despite having been warned not to do so by her husband. In order to determine if she committed a sin while in seclusion, she is brought to the Temple where a procedure is done to determine if she is as innocent as she professes to be. (If, at any point, she admits to being guilty, she goes home without doing the procedure.) The procedure includes a Kohen reading her the passage regarding the Sotah, and dissolving the parchment into water. She then drinks the mixture after bringing a meal offering. If she is guilty, she immediately dies a difficult death, (as does the adulterer wherever he is at the time), but if she is innocent, she is rewarded with an easier birthing in the future, and great children. (Even though she shouldn’t have secluded herself with someone her husband asked her not to, since the procedure was a difficult one she is rewarded for being innocent.)
The parchment which was dissolved contains G-d’s name. If G-d considers marital harmony to be of such import that he allows His name to be erased (for if the wife lives past this procedure, the husband will be placated and no longer think that she betrayed him), how much more should we be willing to go out of our way to keep our marriages peaceful even if it occasionally costs us a bruised ego. After these laws, the Torah discusses the nazir, whom we discussed above. The two are juxtaposed because when one sees the sotah in her degradation, he should be inspired to take measures to insure that he never fall in that way.
After the laws of the nazir, the Torah tells the Kohanim how to bless the people, a practice still done daily in Israel and on the festivals here in the Diaspora. The final art of the Parsha deals with special offerings the leaders of the Twelve Tribes brought to inaugurate the Tabernacle. The first thing they brought was six sturdy wagons and twelve oxen to pull them. These were to be used in the transportation of the Tabernacle, and were divided amongst the tribe of Levi.
The Kehas family didn’t get any wagons, because their job was to carry the holiest vessels and it would be inappropriate for them to relegate such vessels to wagons. In addition to the wagons, the tribal leaders each brought a number of sacrifices during the first twelve days that the Tabernacle was in service. Although the Torah never uses an extra word, in our Parsha, it spends over seventy verses repeating the sacrifices that the leaders brought even thought they were exactly identical. The Torah is telling us that although on the outside the sacrifices were the same, each leader had unique intentions and meaning in his sacrifice, thus making them different. This underscores the idea that even though we may all pray the same prayers, and do the same mitzvoth, each one of us can have an incredibly unique and individual relationship with G-d based on our intentions and thoughts. Let us all continue to develop that relationship, and grow closer with our Father in heaven!
Quote of the Week: Plan for this world as if you expect to live forever, plan for the hereafter as if you expect to die tomorrow. – Ibn Gabirol
Random Fact of the Week: Wood frogs freeze solid in the winter, and then thaw back to life in the spring.
Funny Line of the Week: Money may not buy you happiness, but I would rather cry in a Bentley than on a public bus.
Have a Chic Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham