Category Archives: Science

“Is Anybody There?”

“Is anyone there? Can you hear me?” You shout at the rubble of a collapsed building. No reply, but then… was that tapping?

You have an idea. “If you can understand me,” you yell, “tap once.” A single tap. “If you’re injured,” you then say, “tap twice.” Two taps. There’s someone there.

An apt metaphor for something very important. To read what, please click here.

Parshas V’zos Habracha – Spacewarps

A Roman emperor, according to a Midrashic account (Sifri, Devarim 357), sent two army units to find Moshe Rabbeinu’s burial site. When they stood above it on a hill, they saw it below. When they descended the hill, they saw it above them.

“So, they split up, half above and half below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.” But neither group could reach the grave.

Which reflects the Torah’s text “No one knows his burial place to this day” (Devarim 34:6).

The space warping recalls that of the aron in which Moshe’s luchos lay.

Rabi Levi (Yoma 21a) notes a mesorah that “the place of the aron is not included in the measurement” – that the kodesh hakadashim measured twenty amos by twenty amos, yet a beraisa states that there were ten amos of space on either side of the aron.

It was there, to be sure, but took up no space.

And Moshe’s grave exists but flips in and out of space.

The idea that space is a given, and cannot be interrupted or bent in any way, was the dominant scientific assumption… until Einstein. Today we know that space, like time, is not a simple unchangeable grid. It can be warped, even torn. And the fact that the assigned place of the Law and the final resting place of the G-d-sent human Lawgiver don’t “fit” space as we know it may mean to telegraph the truth that the Torah, while it was given us in our cozy, seemingly three- (or four, counting time) dimensional universe, encompasses it but exists outside it.

It’s a fitting thought as we transition to the beginning of the Torah, where the first pasuk states that “heaven and earth” were brought into being. Or, as a modern astrophysicist might put it, that space and time themselves came to be, expanding from an unknowable singularity into what we call our universe.

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Parshas Vayikra – A Most Meaningful Mineral

The word “sacrifices” used for korbanos, the mainstay topic of parshas Vayikra, is a misnomer. Korban doesn’t carry the meaning of “giving up something.” Its most accurate, if awkward, translation would be “bringer of closeness.”

How closeness is effected by korbanos may have to do, at least in a simple sense, with the hierarchy of creation noted in many Jewish sources, domeim, tzomei’ach, chai, medaber: “still” (mineral), “growing” (vegetation), “living” (animal) and “speaking” (human). 

By establishing the korban-bringer as subjugating and employing the lower realms (which are all represented in korbanos), he is placing himself closer to Hashem, in Whose image he was created.

Interestingly, the “still,” or mineral component of korbanos, is a necessary component of all korbanos, both animal and vegetable (i.e. menachos, or flour offerings): salt.   “On your every offering shall you offer salt” — Vayikra 2:13).

Rishonim like Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, who assert that salt is a combination of water and fire may have based that description on the simple observation of the fact that salt can be obtained through saltwater and that salt can “burn” vegetation and skin. Or maybe the description is meant as symbolic and is part of a mystical mesorah.

But whatever the source of their assertion, they see salt as representing a combination of opposites, of antagonists, which informs the use in parshas Vayikra of the word bris, or “covenant,” in the pasuk quoted above, to refer to the mineral.

The Kli Yakar explains that the “covenant [of opposites]” that salt represents conveys the idea that Dualist philosophies like Manichaeism are false. Hashem is King over all; what may seem like irreconcilable opposites are all ultimately under His control. 

I find it intriguing that, in the paradigm of contemporary physics, salt is indeed a compound of two disparate (if not “opposite,” whatever that might mean in the periodic table) elements: sodium and chlorine.  Both are highly reactive. (Countless chemistry teachers got the attention of their students by dropping a piece of sodium into a container of water.) 

And each is invariably fatal if ingested. Both, in other words, are poisons.

And yet, the ionic compound that results from the two elements’ “covenant” is a mineral that is necessary for life, that flavors our food, that preserves perishables… and that must be part of every korban

© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Plumbing the Meaning of the Torah’s First Word

The Torah’s first verse is purposely unclear.  As the Ramban, Nachmanides, points out, the deepest truths of how the universe was created are unfathomable and inscrutable, hidden, ultimately, in the realm of mysticism, not physical science.

It is intriguing, though, that the Torah’s first word, “Bereishis,” implies, as the Seforno explicitly states, that time itself is a creation – a notion that comports with traditional cosmological physics (if not with scientists who, terrified at the notion of a “beginning,” postulate a “multiverse” of universes, conveniently beyond observation).

Likewise intriguing is that, according to the Talmud, the Torah’s first word can be split into two words, “bara” and “shis.”  While the Gemara sees in “shis” a hint to an Aramaic word meaning “conduit,” hinting to an underground channel into which liquid poured on the mizbe’ach would descend (a channel created at the beginning of time – Sukkah, 49a), the word can also, most simply, mean “six.”

As in the six types of quarks, currently believed to be the fundamental particles of which all matter is, ultimately, comprised.

“He created six”? 

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

Plagues Past and Present

It’s been some 700 years since the bubonic plague ravaged central Asia, killing millions of people. A decade or two later, in October, 1347, a ship from the Crimea docked in Messina, Sicily. Rats in its hold were infested with fleas that harbored the bacterium that causes the sickness.

That marked the beginning of the era known as the Black Death. Over the next 50 years, it is estimated that at least 25 million people died, between 25% and 60% of the continent’s population.

Yes, that disaster is recalled here because of the coronavirus, or Covid-19, currently spreading around the world. Not, though, in order to raise great alarm, because, at least at this point, it is not warranted. Rather to note, firstly, the stark contrasts between the bubonic plague and the current viral outbreak; secondly, to remind readers of the Jewish angle of the Black Death years; and, thirdly, to convey a lesson from that plague to the current medical challenge.

The contrast lies in several things. For starters, no one at the time of the Black Plague had any idea of what was causing it. At a time of deep ignorance, fueled by Christian lore and superstition, all sorts of theories abounded, none of which did anything to slow the disease. Today, we know what is causing the current pandemic, and, hopefully, modern science can develop the means of protecting the vulnerable from the Covid19 virus’ worst effects.

And, unlike the bubonic plague, baruch Hashem, Covid-19 does not harm the vast majority of those who contract it. It is particularly dangerous to the elderly and infirm, and to smokers and others with less than optimum lung function. But to most people not in any of those categories, the infection results in either no symptoms at all or in flu-like experiences – fever, cough and headache.

Finally, as the eminent and wonderfully readable late historian Barbara Tuchman recounted in her book A Distant Mirror, the Middle Ages plague brought people to turn on one another rather than work together to deal with the challenge.

Christian religious leaders abandoned their flocks, parents deserted children; and children, their parents. “Charity,” she wrote, “was dead.”

Today, nations and scientists and health workers are working hard to educate people about the current virus, to create a vaccine against it and to find the most effective therapies for the stricken, if not an actual cure. People might be quarantined, for their or others’ benefit, but no one is being deserted.

The Jewish angle to the Black Death was the pointing (as usual) of fingers of blame at our forebears.

The plague, it was widely declared, was punishment for Christian society’s allowing Jews to live in their midst as Jews. Although Jews, too, perished in the plague, only in much smaller numbers, it was said. The resulting “logic” had it that ending the epidemic lay in converting, exiling or murdering Jews. Despite the declarations of several popes that the Jews were not at fault for the plague, people on the street were sure they knew better.

Then the populace came up with a better reason to blame Jews – the stubborn rejecters of Christianity were poisoning the drinking wells of communities, the better to harm Christians. Some Jews even confessed to such crimes – after being forced to do so in order to end their horrific torture.

On February 14, 1349, a day on which Christians venerate a third-century clergyman named Valentine, a contemporary observer of events recorded, some 2000 Jews were forced onto a wooden platform in the Holy Roman Empire city of Strasbourg’s Jewish cemetery and burned to death. Parents held tightly to their children when citizens tried to take them away for baptism.

The Jewish communities in Antwerp and Brussels were entirely exterminated in 1350. From 1349 until about 1390, the Jewish communities of France and Germany were decimated by angry mobs. In 1350, Frankfurt had over 19,000 Jews. By 1400, not a minyan was left.

Historians tend to take seriously the contention that Jewish communities were less affected by the plague itself, if not from the hatred it unleashed. And that brings us to the lesson to be learned from events seven centuries in the past.

The ostensible reason that the Black Death may have affected Jews to a lesser degree than Christians lies, the historical consensus has it, in the fact that Jews frequently wash their hands.

Upon arising in the morning, before tefillos, before saying Asher Yatzar, before bread meals (which were most, if not all, meals over most of history), Jews poured water over their hands. And, what’s more, they bathed – a luxury back in the Middle Ages – every week in honor of Shabbos.

We Jews still wash our hands a lot. But today most of us live in environments where every doorknob, subway pole and bus passenger is a vector for the transmission of germs.

Although it is likely that the spread of Covid-19 will intensify before it, b’ezras Hashem, soon, abates, we would do well, especially the elderly and health-compromised among us, to do the equivalent of netilas yadayim through the day, ideally, thoroughly and with soap.

That will not only help protect us from the current and other infections, but be a worthy reminder of the mesirus nefesh of, and kiddush Hashem created by, our ancestors in Europe.

© 2020 Hamodia

Pathologized Problems

It seems that a good part of my youth was spent in a mental asylum without walls.

At least that’s how some mental health professionals might characterize it.

Among the boys in my neighborhood more than a half century ago was one who would today be called obsessive-compulsive, and another was firmly on the autism spectrum. Yet another seemed chronically depressed, and anxiety plagued another. Yet another would have been diagnosed as ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disordered, for anyone unfamiliar with the acronym) – had the diagnosis existed at the time.

I’m not exaggerating. The boys displayed classic symptoms of their respective “disorders.” But the rest of us kids somehow didn’t see the actions or moods or attitudes as emotional disorders, certainly not as mental illnesses, but only as quirks.

And the quirky kids were not medicated; they were integrated.

In fact, appreciated.

Yes, we were kids, occasionally mocking one another, and the quirky ones were occasional targets for joking. But so were the math prodigies, clumsy kids, sloppy kids or sports-obsessed ones. We all had our idiosyncrasies. But no one was treated meanly and everyone was accepted by everyone.

The memory of the “different” boys – all of whom, I suspect (and in some cases know), went on to live productive lives – came back to me when I read of the recent death of Dr. Bonnie Burstow, a Jewish psychotherapist and University of Toronto professor who was known as a major proponent of “anti-psychiatry.”

Conventional psychiatry holds that things like chemical imbalances, sometimes paired with social factors or traumas, are what lead to mental illnesses. Professor Burstow was famous for her claim that “There is not a single proof of a single chemical imbalance of a single so-called mental illness.”

“Do I believe people have anxiety?” she once challenged listeners. “Do I believe that people feel compulsions? Of course. But I believe these feelings are a normal human way of experiencing reality.”

Now, she targeted not only minor emotional or behavioral peculiarities but things like schizophrenia as well. That would seem to be an overreach. Anyone walking on a Manhattan sidewalk knows that there are people who are well beyond quirky, who are seriously mentally impaired and in need of treatment or, at least, supervision.

That said, though, Dr. Burstow’s view on the over-medicalization of emotional illness is a worthy spur to further thought.

Not every oddity of behavior is a sickness. Should our first reaction to a child with a facial tic be to create a “persistent minor spasm malady” and seek drug treatment? Should a kid who is disobedient and rebellious be labeled with a diagnosis of – oh, I don’t know – “oppositional defiant disorder”?

Oh, scratch that. The disorder actually exists, at least in the view of the ever-changing and usually expanding “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” or DSM.

That American Psychiatric Association publication is considered authoritative and is used by clinicians, researchers, psychiatric drug regulation agencies, health insurance companies, drug companies and lawyers. (And it’s not delusional to wonder whether those last two categories might have some less-than-humanistic stake in the over-medicalization of emotional challenges.)

Too often missing, as well, from our conception of mental or emotional illness, I think, is the fact that, when it comes to attitudes and behaviors, there are spectra.

There is, for instance, a paranoia spectrum, at one end of which sits a person who is convinced that the CIA has tapped his phones, bugged his home and implanted a computer chip in his brain. At the other, though, is a person with a nagging suspicion that a particular other person or people are ill-disposed toward him. The suspicion may be wrong and unreasonable, but that doesn’t render the uneasy fellow a mental invalid. What’s more, he may be right. As a character in a work of fiction once observed, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

And aren’t many, if not most, of us somewhat obsessive or compulsive, at least in certain areas? We may not wash our hands fifty times a day, but we might regularly, just as we’ve closed the door to our homes behind us, turn back and go in to make sure we hadn’t left the oven on. And even the regular hand-washer isn’t necessarily in need of treatment. (In fact, he likely doesn’t often catch colds.)

And between the poles on each spectrum are many gradations. As the Rambam at the beginning of Hilchos Dei’os explains, people are born with certain sets of “default” middos at or between two extremes: Constantly angry, or never moved to anger; excessively prideful or exceptionally humble; ruled by physical appetites or undesirous of even legitimate needs; very greedy or reluctant to pursue even what he lacks; miserly or very generous; jocular or depressed; cruel or softhearted, cowardly or rash… And there is an entire scale of notches between each set of extremes.

While the Rambam, famously, does employ a medical mashal to characterize “off-balance” middos, he considers them normative human states treatable by contemplation, consultation with wise people and willpower.

Again, to be sure, there are mental disorders that require intervention, perhaps even including the use of chemicals.

But we do no one a service by ignoring some realities: “Normal” encompasses much more than some may think; psychological states exist on spectra; and people’s natural middos can, sans drugs, be changed.

© 2020 Hamodia