Fiery Speeches

July 11, 2007

The basic history is true; embellishments have been made for your reading pleasure.

Two thousand years ago, deep in the Lanzhou Province of China, a crew of twelve men tended the rice fields of Siang Heung Toi fourteen kilometers from the nearest village. Toi was a ruthless feudal lord, and would not hesitate to lop off a few heads if the fields did not produce 70 kryimsat of rice over the rainy season. The men worked long, hard twelve- hour days in the merciless sun. But the toughest job clearly belonged to Bei Yeu Hiu, the field cook.

His most pressing problem was that all he had to serve was rice, rice, and more rice. He tried to be creative, serving Braised Rice in the Form of Supple Duckling, or Late Harvest Rice slow-cooked in mineral waters rich in potassium and quartz, or Filet of Rice served over a bed of rice-that-smells-like Foie Gras and Black Truffles, but no one was biting. The men were hungry for something else, and for the last five days he had heard some scary murmurs. “They say cooks taste like chicken,” or, “I wonder what Rice a la Bei Yeu tastes like!”

Hiu knew that it was only a matter of time before things would get ugly, and he was determined to make a better tasting dish. He fiddled desperately with the only spices he had, mixing the charcoal together with sulphur and saltpeter, when suddenly the whole mixture ignited into a strange colored flame. He immediately took the rest of the concoction and stuffed it into a bamboo tube afraid it would light his kitchen on fire! He threw the tube as far as he could, and lo and behold, upon landing the tube exploded with a great big bang! Little did Hiu know it, but he had just discovered gunpowder!

Gunpowder was used mostly as a novelty until sometime in the Song Dynasty (960-1290) when a monk named Li Tian discovered that you use it to create firecrackers. He would fill a rocket shaped tube with gunpowder, shoot it out of the mouth of a dragon, and watch it burst in a fiery explosion. To this day, the Chinese celebrate the invention of the firecracker every April 18th, by offering sacrifices in honor of Li Tian. During the Song Dynasty, the local people established a temple to worship Li Tian.

Since then, fireworks have spread to almost every corner of the globe, with people using them on July 4th in the US, Guy Fawkes Day in the UK, Diwali in India, Halloween in Ireland, and so on throughout the world. The Pyrotechnics Guild International has over 3,500 members, all professional pyrotechnicians who are trained to set off mega-firework displays. (Occasionally they go all out, and have a mega-super-ultra display. Those are my favorite.)

Why am I telling you this?

Why not?

No, because we need to pull back, and look at what developed after this powerful powder was discovered in China, a millennia-plus ago. Soon after its use as a firecracker was discovered, the Chinese developed fire arrows (bamboo firecrackers attached to regular arrows and shot at the enemy). After that came ‘Ground Rats’. These consisted of rats propelled from inside the bamboo fire crackers toward the enemy, creating a great psychological effect -scaring soldiers and causing horses to go wild.

Most claim that it was Marco Polo who brought the Chinese gunpowder back to Europe in the 13th century, although some accounts credit the Crusaders with bringing the black powder as they returned from their journeys. Once in Europe, the gunpowder was used for military purposes – first in rockets, then in canons and guns. To this day, that same powder that enthralls millions across the world with brilliant displays of light, color, and noise, also causes the deaths of millions worldwide. It is the powder that gives destructive power to bombs, rockets, katyushas, bullets, torpedoes, and suicide belts. Sometimes, I wonder, wouldn’t the world be much better off with no fireworks – and no bombs? I for one, would be willing to forgo the fireworks, but alas, that is not a choice we are given.

Words are gunpowder. They can lie inert in our mouths, they can come out in beautiful strings, inspiring everyone around us, or they can fuel rockets and bombs that we drop upon other people. We all know people whom we wish never received the power of speech, as so much of their speech consists of bombs. But we often forget to look at ourselves. It would be a very frightening experience for us if we spent a week tallying up every single firework we made with our words, and every bomb.

We are now in the Three Weeks, a time we mourn the destruction of the Temple. The Sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred and Lashon Hara, negative speech. If we want to reverse the destruction of the Temple, and bring ourselves on the path to redemption, we need to reverse the speech pattern from negative to positive. Let us focus during these Three Weeks (from July 3-25) to make sure that we drop no bombs, but instead illuminate the lives of everyone around us with Super-Mega-Ultra firework displays!

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.