Return of the Pirate

hero image

imageFor all of us who thought pirates were a thing of the past, relegated to cartoon characters and Disney movies, the past months have been a rude awakening. One of the most recent made headlines over Pesach when a small group of Somali pirates in a few speedboats captured the U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama. The captain was taken hostage and three Somali pirates were killed in the US Navy rescue.

Among their many other hijackings, on November 15th, Somali pirates seized the largest vessel to have ever been hijacked in all of history. Their prize was the MV Sirius Star, a 1,090 foot long supertanker, carrying two million barrels of crude oil worth over $100 million. Launched in March 2008, the Sirius Star has about three times the tonnage of an aircraft carrier, and is worth over $140 million dollars.

This attack was in the wake of another hijacking, this time of a Ukrainian cargo freighter, MV Faina, carrying thirty three T-72 tanks and millions of dollars in weapons. There are currently more than a dozen ships with more than 300 crew members moored along the Somali coast waiting for negotiations between the pirates and their owners to come to a close. Invariably, the negotiations will end with an agreed sum of cash which is then dropped from helicopters in burlap sacks or put on rubber rafts and floated to the pirates. In 2008 alone the pirates received $30 million in ransoms, and this doesn’t take into account the boats still being held for ransom.

The menacing thing about Somali pirates is that it is nearly impossible to stop them. The MV Sirius Star attack shows that their range is much greater than was previously thought. Although there is a 13-nation Maritime Task force patrolling the area with dozens of warships, it’s not nearly enough for the 2.9 million square kilometers in which the pirates operate. And lately, as pirates have been able to secure tens of millions in ransoms, the attacks have become more frequent and bolder. The International Maritime Bureau’s piracy reporting center in Kuala Lumpur reported that in the first quarter of this year alone 102 hijack attempts have been made. Ships were boarded in 34 cases and nine vessels were hijacked, with 178 crew taken hostage, nine injured and two killed, it said in its quarterly report. In most cases, pirates were heavily armed with guns or knives and violence against crew members continued to rise, it said. Many shipping companies have pulled all their ships from the area, and directed them on much longer routes to avoid the risks.

Although the price of crude oil has dropped dramatically, it actually rose slightly after the MV Sirius Star hijacking, not only because that ship carried one quarter of Saudi Arabia’s daily output, but also out of fear of what hijacking will mean to the future of oil shipping. Until this year, over 20,000 oil tankers passed through the Gulf of Aden annually on their way to the Suez Canal, the fastest route to Europe and Eastern US from the oil-rich Mideast. The Gulf of Aden is the worst area in terms of piracy, and there is the possibility of these shipping lanes becoming a thing of the past.

What is perhaps most striking about the situation with the Somali pirates is that tiny little speedboats with 5-8 people and a few primitive weapons are bringing the global shipping community to its knees. Boats that cost hundreds of millions are being attacked by boats worth hundreds, ships are being subdued by boats that weigh a millionth of their tonnage, and the millions of dollars of sophisticated technology on modern ships can’t stop an AK-47 toting teenager. Thirteen navies from the most advanced countries in the world can’t control a bunch of disgruntled former fisherman from one of the most primitive countries in the world!

But then as Jews we should not be surprised by this, because the Torah has told us numerous times that it is often the smallest things that make the biggest difference. In Parshat Eikev we find Moshe giving his final message to his people, in which he told them the recipe for success, the recipe that would ensure a peaceful, prosperous, and propitious stay in the Land of Israel which they were about to inhabit. Rashi comments on the use of the word “eikev,” which means heel, to teach us that Moshe was telling us that the key to success lies in our taking note of the “little” mitzvos that people tread over with their heels, the ones they treat as insignificant. Moshe was telling us that the trick to holding on to our country and our faith is to recognize the importance of every small action.

In Ethics of Our Fathers, we find this idea reiterated in the beginning of the second chapter, “And be careful in performing a ’minor’ mitzvah as in a ’major’ mitzvah, for you do not know the reward given for the respective mitzvos.” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:1).There can be mitzvos that seem very large and difficult, but often the most important one are the “minor” mitzvos, the daily regulars that shape who we are and how we live. It is interesting to note that most divorces don’t come as a result of some major problem, but due to a gradual buildup of years and years of little petty problems that eventually grow too large to bear. They may seem small when you put each one up to the light, but left unchecked they have the power to bring the most powerful union in the world, a marriage, to a grinding halt.

A few years ago there was a man who walked across the US, from California to Maine. He had to walk through blizzards, desserts, mountains, and miles of wasteland. Upon completion he was asked by reporters what his biggest challenge had been. He told them that without a doubt it was the little pebbles that got caught in his shoes. Little pebbles were big problems.

If the little things can be so destructive, it goes without saying that the little things can be so empowering. An extra smile and compliment to our spouse or children before heading to work, a few moments concentrating on a blessing as we are about to chow down our lunch, a few moments reading an insight on the parsha at our dinner table, these things have unimaginable power. Making five little moves each day can build us into supertankers filled with fuel to power our lives through any rocky straits.

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.