Should “Black Lives Matter” Matter?

[photo credit: Rathkopf Photography]

If there were a contest for the most tasteless use of a slogan this summer, it would be hard to pick one out of several recent candidates reacting to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disallowal of  overnight camps in the state this year. 

Two of the slogans are featured on signs being held by chassidic children in a photo that appeared online and in at least one respectable Jewish print publication. One sign reads “Kids’ Live Matter” [sic] and the other, “No camps, no justice.” 

The third was part of a caricature in a Jewish magazine intended for young people.  It portrayed Mr. Cuomo dressed as a police officer with his knee holding down a child wearing a summer camp t-shirt and crying out “I can’t breathe.”

What were the creative minds who thought those lines clever thinking? Did they not realize that equating the cruel snuffing out of lives with depriving children of a summer camp experience is obscene?

Please don’t misunderstand. Overnight camps are a very important part of many Jewish children’s lives and educations.  Such camps provide some 41,000 young Jews with opportunities to grow physically, emotionally and religiously.  Camps are particularly needed this summer, after months of children attending classes remotely and being denied the camaraderie and human interaction so vital for human development.

I fully realize that.  And also that Mr. Cuomo’s edict was woefully wrongheaded. 

He ignored a 17-page safety plan provided to him by a consortium of Orthodox Jewish overnight camps, signed by no less than nine nationally-recognized infectious disease doctors and medical professionals. It explained how precautions could be taken at overnight camps to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of Covid-19 infections.  The experts contended that children in camp environments would actually be safer in the protective bubble of isolated camps than they will now be if the edict stands.

But the cogent case for overnight camps doesn’t deserve to be sullied by outrageous, offensive comparisons.

Did the sloganeers consider for a moment how a black citizen, anguished by the seemingly endless parade of killings of unarmed black men and women by police, would perceive the “borrowing” of chants used to protest such carnage in the cause of demanding that… summer camps be opened?

Leave aside how a black American would feel.  How should any thoughtful person feel?

And if it’s really necessary to bring the issue closer to home, how would any of us Jews feel if “Never Again!” was co-opted to describe some summer vacation resort’s pledge to not ever repeat the same entertainment experience? No need to even imagine. Just recall the howls of Jewish outrage last summer when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referred (not even inaccurately) to detention facilities on the southern border as “concentration camps.”

More disturbing than the tone deafness of the offensive borrowings is the lack of empathy it reveals.

The Torah teaches us to treat our fellow Jews in special ways.  We are family, after all, and family comes first.

But is the concept of tzelem Elokim limited to Jews?  Does the word brios in mechabed es habrios (Avos, 4:1) not, on its face, mean all people?  Did Dovid HaMelech not mean to include all human beings when he sang (Tehillim, 65:3) “You, Who hears prayer, to You all flesh will come”? Were korbanos not accepted from non-Jews in the Beis HaMikdash?

Is “darkei shalom,” for some reason, a lesser halachic ideal than others? Is not the goal of history, as our nevi’im prophesied, to bring all the earth’s inhabitants to recognize Hashem? Do we not then have to be concerned about them?

Back in 1964, Dr. Marvin Schick, a”h, writing in The Jewish Observer, asserted:

“It is our historical and religious heritage that compels us to sympathize with the plight of the Negro. It is unthinkable that a people so oppressed throughout history would not today rally to support the cause of the American Negro, now afflicted by the irrational forces of hatred and bigotry. Anything short of this by American Orthodox Jewry is to reject the principles that we have stood by through the millennia of persecution and to which we must remain equally faithful in a free society.”

Yes, there has been hatred for Jews among some blacks. I can testify to that from personal experience. Many experiences, in fact.

But I have also had enough interactions with black citizens of good will to know that the haters aren’t the norm. And all of us have witnessed more than enough in current events to know that being black in America remains a difficult, even dangerous, thing.

“Black Lives Matter” is a name that has been adopted by scores of organizations, some larger, most smaller. But Black Lives Matter is also an idea — essentially a reiteration of what was once known as the “civil rights movement.”  That movement qua movement, as Dr. Schick wrote more than 50 years ago, is one that should resonate with us.


The concept of darkei shalom, if nothing else, should compel us to show black Americans, and all people, that Jews committed to living Torah-faithful lives are fully committed to the safety and equal treatment by society of all human beings, no matter the color of their skins.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Gray Lady Swoons

James Bennet, who served as the editorial page editor of the New York Times for the past five years, was recently walked to the journalistic guillotine by the powers-that-be at that once-venerable institution. His sin? A controversial idea appeared on the paper’s opinion page on his watch.

Mr. Bennet’s figurative head rolled out of the Times’ glass doors onto 8th Avenue because of two sets of riots — those on the streets of many American cities and a more genteel but no less disconcerting one in the paper’s newsroom. 

The latter unrest followed the Times’ publication of the op-ed at issue, by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who made a case for the deployment of military forces and even, if necessary, the invocation of the Insurrection Act, to control attacks on police and looting of businesses that attended some of the recent public protests.

Mr. Cotton was, of course, echoing President Trump in that proposal. In his remarks at the White House before embarking on his trek across the street to pose with a Bible in front of a church, Mr. Trump called the street violence “domestic acts of terror” and pledged that “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

One can find that threat, for its incendiary nature, entirely objectionable. One can find the very idea of using the military domestically entirely objectionable. One can find even the president himself entirely objectionable.

But no less objectionable should be the barring of a citizen, much less a sitting Senator, from expressing his feelings otherwise. And just as objectionable is wailing a post facto mea culpa for not having prevented the expression of that opinion.

But with a considerable number of the Times’ black staff expressing their feeling that publishing Mr. Cotton’s piece had endangered their lives — who knew that Times employees rampage and loot in their spare time? — and other staffers concurring that the op-ed was an odious and perilous thing, the swooning Gray Lady had to pop a pill, and her gentlemen-in-waiting dutifully beat their breasts in remorse.

Although Mr. Bennet and the paper’s publisher Arthur Sulzberger had initially, and sanely, defended the op-ed’s publication on the grounds that it was the paper’s duty to present views at odds with its own opinions, the swell of anger in the newsroom (and, reportedly, a number of cancelled subscriptions) quickly convinced them that Mr. Cotton’s words constituted a veritable call to fascism. Mr. Bennet admitted, or at least claimed, that he hadn’t read the piece before its publication, which an assistant had green-lighted, and thus he became the plumpest sheep to offer the angry snowflake gods. He quickly offered his resignation.

Leave aside whether the idea of calling on the military to quell domestic crimes is a good one. It is not. And leave aside whether threatening to do so was a good idea. It was not. Focus only on the right of someone to feel otherwise.

It’s always been an essential part of liberal philosophy to allow people to profess, and others to consider, their opinions. To be sure, an op-ed advocating armed insurrection or the shooting of protesters on sight would arguably be worthy of rejection by a responsible medium. A business is entitled to its standards, indeed obligated to have some.

But is the very idea of invoking an established federal law, in this case the Insurrection Act, which dates to 1807 but was amended as recently as 2007, that empowers a president to deploy military and National Guard troops domestically in limited circumstances, so beyond the pale?

Even conceding — though it deserves no concession — that such deployment here to stop violence on the streets would somehow endanger innocents, would an op-ed advocating, say, the deployment of the military in a hostile foreign country to protect Americans — an act that could much more easily result in casualties — be equally unworthy of publication and discussion?

Someone should introduce the Times’ editorial board to the Talmud, where the concept of presenting a misguided view of a law’s implications for a situation is essential to the ferreting out of the true approach. Putting forth something illogical or unreasonable isn’t merely a stylistic diversion, it is a vital part of the process of getting to truth.

And so, the paper could have best served the public by simply soliciting an op-ed countering Mr. Cotton’s point of view. (Hey, I was available.)

The irony here, for those, presumably including members of the Times’ editorial board, who consider the president himself a danger to American society, is that the paper’s action handed Mr. Trump a golden opportunity on a silver platter to reiterate his contempt for the “lamestream” media. Look, he could say (and did), the “fake media” are afraid to countenance any point of view that differs from their own.

And, at least this time, at least one medium could have no reasonable rejoinder.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

To Err Is Vital

In a few days, astute students of Daf Yomi will encounter a hint to a hidden life lesson of indescribable worth.

If, that is, they look closely at the mishna on 103a in massechta Shabbos that concerns the melacha, or Shabbos-forbidden creative act, of “writing.”

Actions forbidden on Shabbos are determined by which operations were necessary for the building and use of the mishkan, or desert-tabernacle. 

Where was writing used? The mishna goes on to explain that the gilded wooden beams used for the structure – which was dismantled and rebuilt repeatedly – were inscribed with letters to indicate the placement of the beams. A similar system is used by many of us in building our sukkos.

What a keen mind will recall when reading about the definition of the melacha of writing is that, earlier in the tractate (73a), it was paired with its opposite number, “erasing,” 

And why is erasing a melacha? Rashi on 73a explains that its forbidden-on-Shabbos status derives from the need the builders of the mishkan had to correct errors when the wrong letters were mistakenly inscribed on beams.

Now, stop and think about that. The mishkan-builders likely took drinks of water during their labors. They may have washed their hands and occasionally stretched.  Yet drinking, washing hands and stretching aren’t thereby made into forbidden actions on the Sabbath. Why not? 

Obviously, because they are not intrinsic to the construction project. Only actions absolutely necessary for the construction of the mishkan are designated as prohibited on the Sabbath. 

And so, if removing mistakenly inscribed letters is the reason for the Sabbath-prohibition of “erasing,” then errors… must be… indispensable parts of the mishkan-building project.

That is the important truth hidden here: Erring is vital.

Mistakes are indispensable parts of every endeavor. No child walks until he first takes an uneasy step and falls; or learns to ride a bike without a minor mishap or two.  The successes don’t come despite the first unsuccessful attempts; they come as a result of them.

Errors are in fact essential parts of every successful project. Duke University civil engineering professor Henry Petroski wrote a book whose subtitle says it all: “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.” He makes the case that a successful feat of invention will always depend on a series of failures. Only the commission and analysis of errors, he elaborates, can propel any invention to perfection. “Failure,” Professor Petroski explains about engineering, “is what drives the field forward.”

That is no less true in the sciences. “An expert,” the famous Jewish physicist Neils Bohr once remarked, “is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”

And, most importantly, it’s true, too, in spiritual endeavors. When it comes to Torah-study thoughts, the Talmud (Gittin, 43a) teaches: “One does not stand on [i.e. understand] them unless one [first] stumbles over them.”  Every talmid of Talmud knows that well; there is no comprehension like that which brightly dawns after one has made and recognized a wrong assumption.

Errors, moreover, are part of the project of life itself, a fact intrinsic to the concept of teshuva.

Among the published collected letters of the late Rav Yitzchok Hutner, the revered Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin from 1940 into the 1970s, is one he wrote to a student who had shared his despondence and depression over personal spiritual failures.

What makes life meaningful, the Rosh Yeshiva explained in response to his student, is not basking in the sunshine of one’s “good inclination” but rather engaging, repeatedly and no matter the setbacks, in the battle against our inclination to sin.

Rabbi Hutner notes that Shlomo HaMelech, King Solomon, (Mishlei, 24:16) teaches us that “Seven times does the righteous one fall and get up.” That, wrote the Rosh Yeshiva, does not mean that “even after falling seven times, the righteous one manages to get up again.” What it really means, he explains, is that it is precisely through repeated falls that a person truly achieves righteousness. The struggles — including the failures — are inherent to the achievement of eventual, ultimate success. If we find ourselves flat on our backs, we must pick ourselves up and resume the fight. And, if need be, again. And again.

And so, if we ever find ourselves succumbing to despondency or depression born of mistakes we’ve made, what we need to do is stop and remind ourselves why erasing writing on Shabbos is forbidden.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Understanding the Sotah Ritual

The article below is from the website My Jewish Learning, and can be found at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/understanding-the-sotah-ritual/

BY RABBI AVI SHAFRAN

Each year, the Shabbat after Shavuot leaves some Jews who follow the day’s Torah reading puzzled, upset or embarrassed. A major element of the Torah portion Naso concerns the sotah, or “unfaithful wife,” and it entails something strange, and indeed unparalleled anywhere else in the Torah: an apparent trial by ordeal.

Many ancient cultures — and even less ancient ones, like the 17th-century Puritans who conducted the Salem witch trials — used ostensibly supernatural means to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. The accused was subjected to an unpleasant, or downright torturous, experience. Establishing innocence often meant just surviving the ordeal, but sometimes it meant not surviving it, in which case the verdict brought solace only to the accused’s survivors.

According to the Torah, the sotah law kicks in when a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful and warns her to not seclude herself with a particular other man. If it is established that she ignored the warning, she becomes subject to a ritual that involves her drinking a concoction of water, a bit of dirt from under the Temple’s marble floor, a bitter herb and the rubbed-off dried ink of the text of the Torah’s description of the sotah ritual, including God’s name.

If the woman is guilty, she and the man with whom she sinned will suffer a terrible death. The Talmud says that if the woman has great merit in fostering Torah study, she may not die immediately but only show symptoms at the time of a malady that will eventually take her life. But if she is innocent, she will not only suffer no ill effects, but will be blessed with children if she was childless and with healthy ones if previous ones were sickly.

The sotah drink ingredients are, if unpleasant, entirely innocuous. And so it would take a divine intervention to bring about the described punishment. Pondering those facts well is the beginning of understanding why the ritual exists and why, unlike every other law in the Torah, the sotah faces not a trial but an ordeal.

When a punishable Torah law was intentionally committed in ancient times, if witnesses attested to the violation, a court was empowered to mete out the prescribed punishment. If there were no qualified witnesses, then the crime was ignored by the court. In the Talmud’s words, “God has many messengers.” So if God chose to punish the violator, God could find a way to do so. So why is the sotah subjected to this ritual?

Well, actually, she isn’t subjected. If she chooses to simply dissolve her marriage and forfeit the financial support promised her, the husband is compelled to grant her a divorce and she suffers no other penalty. 

And therein lies the second key to understanding the strange law of sotah. The ritual is not intended to punish the woman if she is guilty. It is to absolve her if she is innocent, and preserve love and trust in her marriage.

The entire point of the sotah ritual, in other words, is to convince a husband who has every reason to be suspicious of his wife’s fidelity, since she secluded herself with another man. God is involved only to convince the husband that his wife is not adulterous. The husband’s jealousy will thus dissolve and allow him and his wife to resume their marriage in trust and love.
 The wife may have still done something wrong, but the husband’s worst suspicions have been divinely exploded.

One can imagine the reconciliation that would certainly follow. That is why the talmudic maxim most associated with the sotah law is, “So great is peace between a man and his wife that the Torah commands that the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, written in sanctity, should be erased onto the [sotah] water.”

(c) 2020 MyJewishLearning

Criminality in the Streets and in the Cloud

As sad as it is ironic, those who have seized the opportunity during protests over the killing of George Floyd to vandalize police vehicles and attack officers, deface buildings and loot stores are perpetuating racism.

Because, by their actions, they effectively reinforce the prejudices of people who view people of color as unbridled and lawless. Instead of images of black or brown scientists, doctors, lawyers, teachers or social workers, what the face of a nonwhite person conjures in their minds is a threat.

That’s what was perceived by the white woman who was firmly perched at the precipice of the news cycle until the killing of Mr. Floyd pushed her off. A black man who was bird-watching in New York’s Central Park politely asked her to restrain her unleashed dog and she responded by calling police, claiming that an “African-American” was threatening her. His words “Look, if you’re going to do what you want, I’m going to do what I want, but you’re not going to like it” probably wouldn’t have struck her as threatening had the bird watcher been Caucasian.

But he wasn’t and so they did.

And the looters of late have only empowered such prejudice. Of, course, thugs don’t give a first, much less second, thought to the impact of their actions on others. Their only concern is about what good stuff they might grab from violated stores. How unfortunate, though, that the national conversations about racial injustice and police misconduct have again been marred by mindless marauders.

As it happens, it wasn’t only on American streets that roguery reigned. As always these days, when chaos and stupidity blossom, the noxious pollen of Jew-hatred is released across the internet, particularly on social media.

And so it is that we have, on Twitter, a man (whose identifying graphic is a Hebrew declaration of fealty to Christianity) proclaiming that “Jewish whites were the most prolific slave owners in history. They practically created slavery in America,” and concluding that shuls are “free game” for vandalism.

Aside from his hogwash “history,” his conclusion is, to put it delicately, illogical. It takes a twisted mind to invoke something that didn’t happen in order to vilify distant descendants of those who didn’t do it.

There was further lunatic logic, too, from another Twitter twit, who explained that “Jewish Americans hold all the power in the country, thus you cannot be racist or anti-Semitic towards them.”

So, you see, since many Jews have been successful in their professions, in the public sphere and in public service, hatred and harm can be directed against them.

Interestingly, falsehoods propagated by social media became a recent major news item, too, right alongside the killing of George Floyd and its aftermath.

Twitter took the unprecedented step of placing a fact-check notice on a tweet by President Trump in which he asserted that mail-in ballots lead to voter fraud. The notice directed followers of the president’s tweets to a site offering facts showing otherwise.

And then, a day later, the social media company put a warning label on what it regarded as the president’s threat against protestors in Minneapolis, his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” — a sentence that has been used by racists in the past and that, Twitter said, “violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence [because of the sentence’s]… historical context… its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

In response, Mr. Trump accused Twitter of bias against him, and issued an executive order aimed at removing Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a move could change the status of social media giants from “platforms,” which absolves them of responsibility for things posted on them, to the equivalent of newspapers, leaving them open to lawsuits over anyone’s postings.

Although it’s safe to say that it wasn’t Mr. Trump’s intent, removing Section 230 would likely force the social media giants to disallow him to post on them — entailing a loss of eyeballs they will be anguished to suffer — and open the door for decentralized, under-the-radar alternatives to take their place. Some of those alternatives will be more than happy to host the president.

And they will be happy, too, to host people seeking to destabilize society. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Facebook hid a study it undertook that found that its algorithms exacerbate polarization — that 64% of all extremist group ‘joins’ produced by the platform “are due to our recommendation tools.”

And so, if Twitter’s attempts to correct misinformation is effectively undermined, we can expect a slew of new “post what you will” platforms that will become newly popular and eagerly employed by the always-ready-to-pounce anti-Semites on the extremes of the political spectrum.

Such actors will be itching to spread canards about Jews and to encourage violence against them. As itching as amoral rioters are to steal sneakers and luxury goods.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

De-Camping

At this point, no one knows if sleep-away or day camps, including Jewish ones, will be functioning this summer. And, if they will be, whether all children who want to attend them will be able to do so.

There are children, of course, who, because of home circumstances or other reasons, truly need a summer camp option, but here is a secret: Most kids don’t.

My intention is not, chalila, to dissuade any parents from sending their children to camp. Rather, it is to reassure those whose kids may not have camp options this summer that summer school-free weeks aren’t an obstacle but an opportunity.

It’s been a while – a very long one – since I was a child, and the world was very different in the 1960s from what it is today. But I never attended summer camp – by choice. I cherished my freedom and balked at regimentation, even of fun activities.

And yet, despite my spending childhood summers at home, they were wonderful times.

I studied Torah each day, both a little on my own and with an older chavrusa, a young talmid chochom who ended up becoming a stellar mesivta rebbe – a development I like to imagine was born of the considerable resources he was forced to summon to hold my attention.

But each day’s many hours also afforded me an abundance of other activities, unstructured and not always in a group setting, but no less enjoyable for their spontaneity or, at times, solitude.

One summer, on a lark, I taught myself (from a book) how to type, a skill that ended up coming in handy when I became a high school rebbe myself (and even more handy in my writing career). Yes, practice was tedious, but the daily progress was its own reward.

Another summer, I undertook origami, or Japanese paper-folding. Not so handy in the end – I don’t think I’ve ever been asked as an adult to fashion a paper swan or rabbit – but fun all the same. I collected and observed bees, and fired off model rockets I built from balsa-wood kits and painted. I took long bike rides and, in my teens, occasional part-time jobs. I mowed our lawn and hiked local trails. I played ball with other camp-shy or camp-deprived friends, read a lot, and then read some more. Some kids like science; some, history; some fiction. But all kids like something, and there are books on everything.

And unlike in my youth, today there is a wealth of reading material that meets every religious standard.

Did I learn as much Torah as I might have in a camp? Probably not. I didn’t visit any amusement parks or waterworks either, or attend any campfire kumsitzes. But somehow I survived those deprivations and emerged from each summer happy, refreshed, and, I think, grown a little as a person.

Although several of our children attended overnight summer camps one or two years here and there, my wife and I never considered the experience de rigeuer, or even necessarily in our kids’ best interest. That we generally couldn’t afford anything but, at most, neighborhood day camps made it easier to not feel a need to “keep up with the Katzenellenbogens.” We taught our children that expensive things are seldom important ones, and they accepted that truth – baruch Hashem, perpetuating it in their own families.

Not all parents can take the time in the summer to go on day trips with their children. But those who can should not discount how enjoyable and memorable even trips to local parks or scenic view spots can be. Nor do children lack for creative quarries to mine in their own figurative backyards (or literal ones). There are musical instruments to be mastered, artwork to be created, bugs to be unearthed, recipes to be tried (and created), clothing patterns to be cut and sewn, model cars and airplanes kits to be assembled and painted.

The complaint “I have nothing to do!” lovingly ignored, can yield all sorts of creative ideas, inventions mothered by necessity, on the part of the tragically bored. And, of course, chaburos, chavrusos and shiurim can, with a bit of effort, be arranged.

Yes, I know, today’s world is a very different one from the one I inhabited as a boy, even from the one in which our children, now adults with their own families, grew up. Children today confront unprecedented educational expectations, social norms, challenges, and dangers. I understand that the sort of long bike rides I took through unfamiliar neighborhoods in the 1960s would not be recommended for even a suburban ten-year-old today; and that a public library is no longer the generally healthy environment it once seemed to be.

And I know, too, that many ex-campers positively glow when reminiscing about their summer experiences. So the benefits of well-run camps can’t be overstated.

Still and all, and particularly if summer camp, for whatever reason, isn’t a viable option, we do ourselves and our young a favor by recognizing that camps are among the many once-luxuries that have somehow come to be seen as necessities.

For all their benefits, though, they aren’t. Summer, even without the “c” word following it, can be a time of wonder, fun and growth for a child.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran

The Real Story Behind the Vaccine Story

One of the Covid-19 vaccines being studied has yielded encouraging results. That good news should yield us something too: a sense of awe at the accomplishment.

Earlier this week, the biotech company Moderna, which partnered with the National Institutes of Health to develop the vaccine, announced that results of a Phase 1 clinical trial showed that eight study participants developed antibodies for the virus like those who have experienced and survived the disease. And lab experiments with mice showed that the vaccine prevented the virus from infecting cells.

The study hasn’t yet been peer reviewed, and Phase 2 trials, which will involve several hundred subjects, are yet to come. But even the achievement to date is impressive.

If our wonderment, however, is only at the amazing progress toward, hopefully, a successful vaccine, we will have missed the truly awe-inspiring story behind the story.

A vaccine, you likely know, works by stimulating immune cells called lymphocytes to produce antibodies, specialized protein molecules that counter the targeted antigen, or toxic invader, and thus prevent the disease it could cause from taking hold.

Vaccines are made of dead or weakened antigens that can’t cause an infection but nevertheless stimulate the immune system to produce the necessary antibodies. Although with time, the produced antibodies will break down, special “memory cells” remain in the body and, when the antigen is encountered again, even years later, the memory cells can produce new antibodies to fight it.

This happens within our bodies constantly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a healthy individual can produce millions of antibodies a day, fighting infections so efficiently that people never even know they were exposed to an antigen.

Last year, a team of scientists at Scripps Research Institute in San Diego published results of their antibody research in the respected journal Nature. Based on their findings, they estimated that the human body has the potential to make a quintillion — that’s one million trillion — unique antibodies.

Imagine for a moment if the workings of our immune systems were suddenly made visible to us.

We would be struck dumb.

“If the stars should appear,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, only “one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of G-d which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Our immune systems, like the stars, are usually and easily taken for granted; their very ubiquity makes it hard to fully appreciate them. But appreciating them is the privilege, indeed the duty, of every thinking, sensitive person.

Returning to this week’s happy news. Is what really amazes us the technological breakthrough that could lead to an effective vaccine? Or is the true object of our astonishment and wonder the suddenly focused-upon workings of our biological processes?

Once upon a time, after all, heart transplants, too, were flabbergasting. But, at least to thoughtful people, they were never remotely as amazing as hearts.

Back in 1996, a sheep named Dolly was successfully cloned, the first such triumph. I recall the admiration, wonder and dread that the accomplishment evoked around the world.

What exactly had scientists done? They had managed to transfer a cell from the mammary gland of an adult sheep into another sheep’s unfertilized egg cell whose nucleus had been removed; and the egg cell was then stimulated to develop, and eventually implanted in the womb of yet a third sheep, which bore Dolly.

I recall thinking at the time that, impressive as the experiment was, all that had essentially been achieved was the coaxing of already existent genetic material to do precisely what it does, well, all the time. The achievement of producing Dolly bas Dolly was, to be sure, a major one; myriad obstacles had to be overcome, and a single set of chromosomes, rather than the usual pair from two parents, had to be convinced to do the job.

But, still and all, other than the unusual means of bringing it about, what was witnessed was a natural process that takes place millions of times in millions of species each and every day without capturing anyone’s attention. A natural process that was, like all natural processes in the end, a miracle — no less one for its ubiquity.

Likewise, with all due recognition of the great and praiseworthy efforts to create an effective vaccine for Covid-19, may they be successful, what happened this week was, in the end, a cajoling of immune systems to do… what immune systems do billions of times daily.

So our proper appreciation of the scientific knowledge we have today, and our gratitude to the scientists that used that knowledge to advance the drive for an effective vaccine should be joined by — indeed, overwhelmed by — our ultimate awe for the immune systems with which our Creator endowed us.

Whether it’s manipulating the creation of a sheep fetus or of an immune response, the true marvel lies not in the manipulation but in the manipulated, in the myriad miracles Hashem implanted in the world He created.

© 2020 Rabbi Avi Shafran