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  Chapter 34 from
Our Wondrous World

By Rabbi Avrohom Katz 


Other Available Chapters
30  31  33 


The Pony Express

You might have heard of a gentleman by the name of Buffalo Bill. Besides his expertise with a six-gun, and his unpopularity amongst the American Indian fraternity, he was in fact a postman. During the year 1860, William Cody (alias “Buffalo Bill”) delivered letters between two cities in America; St. Joseph in Missouri and Sacramento in California for the famous Pony Express. The route covered 1,838 miles and included 157 stations, which lay from seven to 20 miles apart. The expert riders were chosen to ride fast horses which were changed six to eight times on the scheduled ride. The time schedule for the run was 10 days, but this was only occasionally achieved.

The Pony Express might not have been the fastest service in the world (it was actually discontinued in October 1861 when the completion of the transcontinental telegraph ended its usefulness), but it was certainly more reliable than the earlier method of sending messages, which was by carrier pigeon. People who used this method of communication had to send a duplicate letter by a different pigeon in case the first bird met a hawk on the way! Sending out wedding invitations must have presented a nightmare. Prospective guests either received two invitations or none, and if the pigeon could not read your writing (or ran out of birdseed halfway through the journey) you really were in a pickle.

Things have improved somewhat since those hazardous days. Today, the postal services of the world combine to make a planet-sized brain of stupendous complexity. Most of the world’s 6.5 billion people could communicate with almost anyone else by mail within a few days, if they wish. The quantity of mail handled by the world’s 654,000 post offices is staggering. On any one day, almost one billion items pass through the international postal system. Apart from complications like weekends and holidays, ungainly parcels and illegible envelopes, strikes and breakdowns, and other factors that often combine to force delays, every delivery is a minor tribute to human ingenuity and cooperation.

But even the best that human ingenuity can provide, whether through pigeons, ponies or postmen, pales into insignificance when compared to the distribution system of your own body in the manner in which food is placed into the mouth and then distributed to a trillion addresses. The fascinating thing is that the distribution system of the mail begins when the sender puts a letter into the mailbox. What happens if the sender does not feel like writing his letter and mailing it? How will the would-be recipient inform his friend that he is longing for some communication? Using this analogy in the created world, how does the body inform itself that some food is required? There is an answer -- and it might be calling you right now -- it’s called hunger.

It is a remarkable thing. When you drive a car, or any motor-driven vehicle, the fuel gauge informs the driver how much fuel there is in the tank. As fuel is burned on a journey, the indicator approaches the zero marker. If the driver is trained to keep a careful watch on his fuel consumption, he will know that he has to refuel before he runs out of fuel. If he is careless, or new to the pleasures of driving, it is possible that he might ignore the fuel gauge, or be ignorant of its message. The sad plight of a car stranded in the middle of nowhere with an empty tank is not unknown! Such an occurrence could never happen with people or with animals. Hunger is the feeling that guarantees the survival of us all.

If you come home late from davening, quickly swallow a gulp of coffee and a piece of cake for your breakfast before rushing out to learn, teach or work, the alarm bells will begin ringing in your stomach approximately halfway through the morning informing you in an unmistakable manner that you need to take on more fuel. Imagine if you never felt hungry. Busy people would skip their meals, rush around expending energy until they collapsed due to lack of food and drink. When children come home from school and race into the kitchen with an agonized cry, “I’m starving!”, there is a clear indication that their fuel gauge is not only registering empty, but it is actually informing them of the fact in a most remarkable manner.

Like everything in the created world, hunger is anything but simple. A complex system of nerves in the digestive tract, together with chemical sensors, send urgent messages to the hypothalumus (the brain stem) which the brain interprets as hunger. Your stomach feels the hunger, but it is your brain that delivers the information. The message is unmistakable. Find food. It’s time to mail the letter.

Ever seen a man on the prowl for food? He comes into the kitchen with a distracted look on his face. His wife might want to tell him of the latest antics of their infant, or of the exemplary middos of their teenager -- he is not interested. Cupboards open and slam shut. The refrigerator is turned upside down. The husband becomes frantic. The cake is located ... contents ingested ... now you can talk.

When you put a letter into the mailbox, you are initiating a complex process that ultimately will bring the posted item safely to its destination. You do not have to be an expert in your knowledge of all the details; it is sufficient to rely on the efficiency of the postal system. When you swallow a morsel of food, the distribution system is even more complex, and ever a superficial understanding of its complexity will lead to an enhanced appreciation of the Creator of the magnificent system.

When the piece of food vanishes into the mouth, it is beginning a journey that is almost 30 feet long. Each section of the digestive system has its own definitive role. The gullet is a transfer tube linking the mouth to the stomach. The stomach is a food squasher and chemical bath. (In addition to enzymes, the stomach lining makes corrosive hydrochloric acid. This eats away at the food and helps to kill germs that have entered the body in the food. To stop itself from being digested by its own enzymes and acid, the stomach lining produces a thick layer of slimy mucus. As the stomach contents ooze along to the small intestine, they encounter pancreatic juices which contain an alkali. This counteracts the stomach acid, so that it does not harm the rest of the digestive tract.) The small intestine finishes food breakdown and carries out absorption. The large intestine, like the best recycling factory, re-absorbs valuable leftovers of the digestive process into the body, such as minerals from the digestive juices and water. The end of the large intestine stores leftovers, and awaits a convenient time to expel them.

The process is aided by the teeth that cut and chew the food; by the tongue that moves the food around for thorough chewing and mixing with saliva; by the liver that processes and stores nutrients, and produces bile salts; by the gall bladder that stores bile salts -- used to break up fats and oils -- and empties them into the intestine; and by the pancreas that makes pancreatic juices containing digestive enzymes.

Each section of the system is a wonder of design, and the more one investigates, the more one discovers. To an observer, the digestive system might seem one of the easier body systems to understand. In fact, it was not until the 19th century that the chemistry of the digestive process was understood in detail. The whole process of digestion is like dismantling a building brick by brick -- including the doors, windows, floorboards, and roof tiles -- and then putting these parts back together according to another set of plans, to make a completely different building. In this comparison, the first building is the food, while the second building is your body tissue.

Food contains not only energy, but also the raw materials needed for the body’s growth, maintenance, and repair. It is as if you put gasoline into a car’s tank, and then watched the car convert the gasoline into replacement bearings, nuts and bolts, and new tires for itself! To carry out its maintenance and repair processes, the body needs a selection of nutrients, such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats and oils, minerals and vitamins. The huge molecules of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids are too big to pass through the lining of the intestines and become absorbed into the body. Digestion breaks these large food substances into their subunits, so that they are small enough to pass through. With digestion, proteins are split into amino acids, carbohydrates into sugars, and lipids into fatty acids. These subunits are carried around the body in both blood and lymph, and supplied to each and every cell. In each cell, the nutrients are used according to the cell’s needs -- perhaps to provide energy or to make new substances.

In the postal system, you pay a lot of money for a special service that guarantees delivery on the next day. To carry your package across continents, can take many days. In your body’s superb operation, you mail your letter in the morning, and by lunchtime every particle of it has been distributed through the thousands of miles of the internal transport system to every one of the body’s trillions of individual cells. No system could be more complex and as efficient. No system could be better planned. Think of the postal system and think of your stomach. There you see the greatness of the Creator.

 
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