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The Oil Spill
Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The Oil Spill

A good name is more precious than all the oil in the world.


If only the executives of BP, formerly known as British Petroleum, would have taken to heart the wise words of King Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes.

Far better is a good name, Solomon cautioned, than good oil.

The English translation hardly does justice to the beautiful play on words in the original Hebrew. The three letter Hebrew word for oil, shemen, has its first two letters spell the word shem, Hebrew for name. Oil, shemen, has always been a precious and highly prized commodity. But its very descriptive is meant to remind us of the primacy of shem, our name and our reputation.

Oil can offer us wealth. Only our good name can endow us with worth.

Oil can offer us wealth. Only our good name can endow us with worth. Yet so very often people make the mistake of trading their greatest asset, their moral character which has earned them communal respect, for the temporary benefits of riches improperly acquired.

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a catastrophe that President Obama has described as, “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced.” It has been responsible for horrific death to sea life for hundreds of miles in its wake, destroyed the livelihoods of thousands of fishermen and caused the closing of countless beaches normally enjoyed by vacationers and tourists. And the worst is far from over. The well has not yet been capped. Leaking oil continues to spew forth at an estimated 60,000 barrels a day, creating pollution whose long-term effects may well produce havoc for years to come.

Cleanup costs are estimated to be in the many billions of dollars and BP, held responsible for its negligence in allowing this to happen, is being talked of in some financial circles as a possible candidate for bankruptcy.

It is a veritable crisis almost beyond belief. And at a time such as this we should remind ourselves of the profound insight of Jawaharlal Nehru that “Crises and deadlocks when they occur have at least this advantage, that they force us to think.”

How could something like this have happened? And what is it that we can learn from this terrifying experience? To reflect on the true meaning of this story is to recognize that the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a true morality tale that captures the fundamental flaw of human beings responsible for their downfall.

BP has many years of experience successfully bringing oil to the surface even from the very depths of the sea. They've always known what to do and how to do it correctly. But they were a little behind schedule on this particular oil rig. Engineers had warned them that cutting corners might very well cost them dearly. Standards of safety required more time. But the bottom line of greater profits beckoned seductively. We’ll lose a little money, they reasoned, if we will delay and do it the right way. So they chose the opportunity for possible greater monetary rewards over the procedures their own scientists told them were necessary. We will make more money now, they decided, and let the more difficult path of correct behavior be put off to some undetermined future.

Sound familiar?

There is a very famous story told by Leo Tolstoy meant to serve as an allegory of the tragedy of the human condition. It has parallels in midrashic tales and beautifully conveys the idea of Hillel in the Ethics of the Fathers, "And if not now, then when?”

A noblemen, goes the story, wished to reward one of his feudal serfs. He told him that he would bestow great blessing upon him. He would give him the gift of a large piece of land, the exact size of which would be determined by the serf himself. Next morning he would grant him the opportunity to arise early. From sunrise to sunset he could walk and encircle a parcel of land. Whatever he would succeed in walking around would be his. There would be only one condition: he would have to return exactly to the starting point or he would forfeit everything.

How grateful the serf was for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His plan to fulfill the requirements was simple. He would walk in one direction until the sun was directly overhead. Then, knowing it was noon and obviously that half his time had elapsed, he would begin his return journey. In that way he could be certain to be back at the starting point by sunset. That would give him a great parcel of land that would allow him and his family to be rich beyond his wildest dreams.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow I will help you. Today I do not have the time."

But when noon arrived he couldn't bear the thought that this would mark the end of his opportunity for acquiring additional land. If he would only go a little further and then hasten his steps on the return journey he could become so much richer. And so he put off what he knew he should do. On his trek to accumulate his fortune there were people who stopped him for various urgent reasons. To each one he responded, "Tomorrow, tomorrow I will help you. Today I do not have the time." Even when he was told that his own son was hurt and needed him desperately, his answer was the same: "Tell my son that tomorrow I'll have time to spend with them. Tell him that today I'm too busy making my fortune."

Suddenly he realized that he had gone too far in one direction to readily make it back to the starting point. Now he would have to run. It became a race between the sun on the horizon and his frantic footsteps to reach his goal. Faster and faster and faster still he ran. His heart beat quicker, his legs felt as if they were caving beneath him. The sun had almost disappeared. The master was in the distance waiting at the prearranged spot. With one final lunge, the serf leaped to the required spot almost at the very last second, legally fulfilling the condition set upon him. He smiled the smile of the victor. But the smile froze on his face in a death mask as his soul departed, a result of the extreme exertion.

"Take this peasant and bury him in a plot six feet long, two feet wide," commanded the master. "Let him lie there. Let the land be his. That is all the ground he really ever needed."

Tolstoy called this story the race of life. It beautifully captures the foolishness of Everyman who pushes off the things he knows he ideally should do in his haste to acquire ever much more.

How remarkable that this quest for greater and greater riches without regard to the consequences could even define a corporation already in possession of billions of dollars. BP reasoned that it couldn't afford the loss of a few days of oil well production just for some safety precautions. And so they cut corners. They took unwarranted risk for the sake of what they expected to be greater immediate returns.

And the ultimate lesson? They ended up losing not only a considerable portion of what they already had but the one possession that is truly irreplaceable. Their reputation is now in tatters. Their good name is today a thing of the past. If only they would have lived by the credo of King Solomon that a good name is more precious than all the oil in the world.

The message may be too late for BP, but we can strive to incorporate it in our own lives.

June 26, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Dennis M FISHBEIN, July 1, 2010 11:54 AM

how very true

Greed is what caused this mess; not only with BP , but with corporations all over; ex: Toyota; Acura; Nissan; all rushing to turn out products without thinking the classic what if.

(10) Anonymous, June 29, 2010 5:24 PM

Cursory BP history

William Knox D'Arcy, British chap, started drilling oil in Iran over a hundred years ago- that was the beginning of BP. He bribed the Iranian government. The deal was to pay the Iranians 16% of royalties on any oil he found. This was in 1908. He was the only one allowed to drill. British government got involved and named it Anglo-Persian Oil Co. Up until 1950 the British standard of life was supported through this theft of oil. After WW2, nationalism started to take over and Iranians wanted a bigger share of the pie. When the British heard that the Iranians wanted more money they shut Iran off (trade embargo). Iranians only got more resolute. So the British got some help from the Americans: please overthrow the government in Iran so that we can have our oil back. It was easy to do: replace one leader with another. The new leader was Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi. It was called Operation Ajax. This ended so called democracy in Iran. The Shah regime was brutal and eventually it brought in the Ayatollah Khomeini. In the meantime, British Petroleum, went to BP Amoco and the finally in 2000 to BP. While in Iran it had as little regard as it still has in another Gulf- Gulf of Mexico. One has to wonder if BP really is not the enemy of Israel. One cannot but think that a democratic Iran would have behaved quite differently than the one ruled by religious zealots. BP made it all happen. As an aside, I often wonder how is it that a corporation can be defined as a person and yet not face the same penalties? Here you have a person (BP) which has killed thousands of creatures and I have yet to see the punishment exacted. Let us begin with pressing charges.

(9) Anonymous, June 29, 2010 12:06 PM

the author didnt mention that 11 people died when the rig exploded

lets not forget to mention those who perished. people keep talking about the pelicans but why does everyone forget the people?

(8) Beverly Kurtin, June 29, 2010 5:07 AM

BP = Bad People

BP has a long history of neglecting safety for the sake of making a few more bucks. Someone needs to be brought up on MURDER charges for killing those 11 men who were slaughtered in BP's quest for more and more money. The BP Chairman whined that he wanted to get his life back. I'm certain that the widows and orphans of the men who were killed in BP's rush to greed would like to have THEIR husbands and daddys lives back. The entire mess could have been prevented had they held off the project for another 45 minutes according to one of the survivors of the explosion. FOURTY-FIVE MINUTES would have cost BP some money. I do not urge people to boycott their local BP dealers because they're just small business owners and I believe it would be unethical to punish them and their families by not dealing with them. But BP as a whole? Oh you betcha. There are only two kinds of oil producers: Liars and Liars.

(7) Anonymous, June 29, 2010 1:34 AM

I BP has lost more than oil and money. It has lost the respect of all and makes one think so much haste and greed is going on. we and the environment are the ones to suffer The concept of waste, negligence and greed to earn a profit and make riches will always continue to the end of our days.

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