The Lesson of the Psyllid

For generations, orange juice has been a standard part of an American breakfast. Some 80 percent of juice consumed in the United States comes from oranges grown in sunny Florida, a region that is only second in the world, behind Brazil, in the number of juice oranges it produces. With citrus fruits fueling a very significant part of the state’s economy, it is little wonder that oranges are also Florida’s state fruit and that the orange blossom is the state flower.

Throughout the decades, citrus has stood strong and has survived freezing winters, hurricanes and rampant land development. But now the $9 billion industry is facing its biggest threat yet, putting the state’s economy at risk.

The surprising villain is a tiny mottled brown bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, and a devastating disease the Chinese call huanglongbing and the Floridians refer to as “greening.” This tiny, invasive creature feeds on a citrus tree’s foliage and leaves behind bacteria that infect the tree. The tree continues to produce useable fruit, but eventually disease clogs its vascular system. Fruit begins to fall and the tree slowly dies.

The bug was first spotted in Florida in 1998, and some think it then spread on the winds of hurricanes. Greening showed up in 2005.

Since 2008, $90 million has been spent in Florida on greening research, much of that money raised by growers from a tax they pay on every box of citrus that’s picked. Growers are also taking matters into their own hands. Some have tried putting giant tents over their trees and using the sun’s heat in an attempt to kill the greening.

But so far no cure has been discovered. Experts say that if a solution isn’t found, Florida’s entire citrus industry could collapse. There is real concern that some packing houses and processing plants will have to close because of a lack of fruit, with thousands at risk of losing their jobs.

As citrus growers and researchers scramble to find a solution — and we wish them success in their efforts — there is much that we can learn from this crisis.

In our day-to-day lives, we must constantly be on the alert for malicious “bugs” that spread terrible destruction. The wrong word uttered when describing someone else, a hurtful comment on what is supposedly an inoffensive blog, or even a dismissive shake of a hand or the raising of an eyebrow in response to a question about the capabilities of another, can have devastating repercussions.

False rumors and vicious gossip have plagued humanity for thousands of years, and numerous instances of this ravaging affliction can be found in Tanach. But with the advent of modern technology, conversations that would have taken place over a period of months can now occur in mere moments with a single press of a button.

As we enter Chodesh Elul, a period of time dedicated to introspection and self-improvement, it is an ideal time to rededicate ourselves to battling the sins of lashon hara and motzi sheim ra that destroy the lives of so many and fan the flames of machlokes in our midst.

The Midrash tells of the peddler who frequented the towns near the city of Tzippori, proclaiming, “Who wants to purchase the elixir of life?” On one occasion he came to the hometown of Rabi Yannai, and after making his announcement was besieged by local residents clamoring to buy this wonderful item. Rabi Yannai, sitting and learning in his nearby residence, overheard the commotion and asked the peddler to come to him, as he, too, wished to purchase the elixir.

“You don’t need it,” the peddler told him, “nor do those who are like you.”

When Rabi Yannai pressured him, the peddler agreed to show him the elixir. He opened up a sefer Tehillim to the verses “Who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.”

“All my life I knew this passuk, but did not know its meaning, until this peddler came and told it to me!” Rabi Yannai exclaimed.

All the peddler did was show him the pesukim. How did he add to Rabi Yannai’s understanding of the words? Certainly Rabi Yannai was aware of the literal translation.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe, zy”a, explains that this peddler, who is called in the Midrash a “rochel,” was actually someone who had previously committed the sin of rechilus. Now that he had done teshuvah, he merited a deep understanding of the words of this passuk, and found sweetness in them. He had stumbled in a particular issue and then repented, meriting a singular connection with the passuk relating to the issue.

Rabi Yannai had never uttered a word of rechilus and so was unable to relate to the passuk the way this individual did. He was grateful to the peddler for sharing his understanding and his connection to this passuk.

We can’t the fathom the lofty level of a Tanna like Rabi Yannai, but doing teshuvah for the spreading of rechilus — by regretting the past and desisting from doing so in the future — is something that all of us can relate to.