Category Archives: Science

Clear Lens, Clear Image

 I hadn’t planned to awaken at 3 a.m. on Wednesday night, even though it was the peak time for catching sight of meteors – commonly called “shooting stars” – born of the earth’s yearly passage through the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

But awaken I did, and so I decided to go out on the deck to scan the sky for evidence of what is called the Perseid meteor shower.  My wife had never seen a meteor, and so I woke her up, thinking she’d want to join me.  (Thankfully, I was right.)  And baruch Hashem, we spied a couple of the ephemeral streaks of light in the relatively dark Staten Island sky, and recited the brachah of oseh maaseh bereishis.

Not everyone finds such things exciting; many people find amusement parks, performances or miniature golf more to their liking.

That’s unfortunate, I think.  Firstly, because nature is really so much more of a thrill.  Watching a caterpillar weave a cocoon or the butterfly it turns into leave the structure; witnessing a spider spinning its web; planting a seed and observing it as it grows into a plant; staring at even a comet-less night sky and contemplating the unimaginable distances of the suns one is viewing – all such astounding realities are more viscerally compelling than anything man-made.

Secondly, though, and more ultimately important, the thrills that nature offers us pave a path from mindlessness toward a most important mitzvah: ahavas Hashem.

At least, that’s what the Rambam states in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (2:2):

“And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him?  When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem…”

Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos (Mitzvas Aseh 3), the Rambam seems to take a different tack:

“…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…”

So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His mitzvos?

The two seemingly different approaches to the mitzvah of  ahavas Hashem may not be what they seem.  As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the lens; the other, the view.  Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a mashal:

A visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases.  Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses.  The visitor is subsequently deeply impressed by the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning.  And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos.

Because doing so impresses on us the idea of right and wrong, forces us to confront a choice: to view our lives as meaningless or as a mandate.  And if they are a mandate, there must be a Mandator.

Then, through that clear lens, one can truly see, and appreciate, to the extent a mortal can, the unfathomable wisdom inherent in the wondrous world around us.

It’s unfortunate that “science,” as the word has come to be used, has become the perceived enemy of emunah.  In truth, though, it is Scientism – the conviction that nature is all that there is, and that the wonder it engenders has no further point – that stands in opposition to the truism that Creation has a Creator.

Genuine science, though, the Divine implication-sensitive observation of the world around us, and of the worlds light-years (both literally and figuratively) beyond our ken, is a key to the deepest, most genuine feeling a human being can attain.

When, thrice daily, we declare that Hashem satisfies “all living things” with their needs, there is no comparison between just comprehending the simple meaning of the words and pronouncing them with keen awareness of the number of distinct species on earth (10 million on land, and another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) and the astounding intricacy of the way they all are provided their species-specific nourishment.

Reciting Ashrei can lead one to“…immediately love and praise and extol and experience a great desire to know Hashem…”

© 2015 Hamodia

Spaced Out

“Are we alone?” asked the oversized headline of a full page ad in the New York Times last Tuesday.  “Now is the time to find out,” it answered itself.

The open letter that followed was signed by Russian-Jewish entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and more than a score of astronomers and other scientists.  The gist of the missive was that humanity has an obligation to launch “a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe” – presumably life other than the sort we know here on earth.  “As a civilization,” it continued, “we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.”

Among the resources, as a news story in the same paper and many others that very day explained, will be $100 million dollars of Mr. Milner’s fortune over the next decade.

Parochial a person as I am, I couldn’t help but think about what greater good – at least in my scheme of things –  so large a bag of dollars could do, how many yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and kollelim it could pull back from fiscal cliffs, how many chessed groups it could fund, how many impoverished Jews it could rescue from hardship.

But even from the perspective of a less sectarian observer, wouldn’t a hundred million (yes, yes, I know, $100 million isn’t what it used to be, but still) be better put to terrestrial use?

After all, another Jewish boy who did well for himself, social network creator and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, has bankrolled schools and hospitals in the U.S. and technological advances in the developing world. And Tesla founder and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk (whose maternal ancestry is not clear) created a foundation dedicated to providing solar-power energy systems in disaster areas.

And Bill Gates (Jewish only in the eyes of some anti-Semites, but he looks Jewish) has had astonishing success battling river blindness and other infectious diseases that afflict the world’s poor.

And George Soros… – well, okay, scratch that one.

One has to acknowledge the good in some billionaires’ dedication to the alleviation of poverty, illiteracy and disease. Seeking to decrease human suffering is a noble goal.  Casting about in the cosmos in the hope of finding other species, though… not so much.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against making the effort, as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been doing (fruitlessly, it must be added) for decades.  But to the tune of $100 million dollars that could do so much actual good on this planet?  Mr. Milner shouldn’t expect a check from me.

What interests me here, though, isn’t the quest itself to seek intelligent life out there but rather just what it is that motivates accomplished men and women like Mr. Milner and those who signed on to his letter to pursue that quest.

On one level, I suspect that they, or at least some of them, may be whistling intellectually past the beis olam, so to speak, seeking reassurance that we humans are really not so special, and thus that we have no higher purpose than to serve ourselves (and, of course, explore the cosmos).

As Professor Stephen Hawking – one of the letter’s signatories and who in a 2011 interview asserted that the idea of an afterlife is a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” – confidently proclaimed: “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.”

(A number of which civilizations, it might be presumed, have developed technologically well beyond where we are today and have been searching for us too, although we haven’t gotten the call.  Oh, never mind.)

But something else occurs, too, a more generous thought.  Maybe the compulsion to find intelligence outside our world is an expression – well disguised but present all the same – of a desire to find ultimate meaning to life.

Maybe, in other words, some of the alien-searchers have done what they could to paint over the innate human sense of the Divine, but have found that even the several coats of paint haven’t entirely obscured the sense that there is something more than this world. So they pursue extraterrestrials they imagine to reside in some faraway galaxy.

If enough of the paint chips away, they may yet come to realize that they were wrong but they were right.  Wrong about the little green men, but right that we are not alone.

We have a Creator and a purpose.

© 2015 Hamodia

Anybody Out There?

A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.

This search is nothing new.  Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project harnessing the computing power of five million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Tens of billions of hours of processing time were consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing.  No little green men.  Not even any green slime.

True, for 17 years, astrophysicists monitoring Australia’s Parkes telescope detected strange radio bursts signals, which were believed to come from another galaxy.  Recently, though, Emily Petroff, a PhD student working at the facility, showed that the signals were being generated by a microwave oven in its kitchen.

The prime candidate for rudimentary life in our own solar system, of course, is Mars.  Thus far, though, the four rovers that have been sent to the red planet haven’t discovered any of the molecules considered by scientists to be the “building blocks of life,” much less life itself.

Still, many scientists say there must be life out there.  Science doesn’t usually embrace beliefs unsupported by observations.  So, whence their conviction that there must be life elsewhere in the universe?  The answer is that it derives from a creed: that chance governs the universe – that randomness lies at the root of reality.

If probability, not design, is the loom on which the universe’s fabric is stretched, that creed’s canon proclaims, why should there be only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy where there is life?

The high priests of Scientism even believe in miracles, as in their contention that life on Earth arose by chance from inanimate matter, something that, of course, has never been accomplished despite valiant efforts, in the lab. And that the astounding diversity of life emerged randomly.  And so, the creed reasons, why shouldn’t countless other worlds have done any less?

We, of course, know that Creation, including life, was an act of Divine will, not the yield of randomness.  To be sure, were life to be discovered on some other planet, it wouldn’t challenge us any more than the fact that life was discovered here on earth in hot springs and deep-sea vents, long assumed to be devoid of living creatures.

But intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos?  Unlikely. One thing is certain: all efforts to detect it have come up empty.

The Torah (Devarim, 17:3) speaks of a false prophet who will “prostrate himself… to the sun or the moon or to any host of heaven, which I have not commanded.” Rashi explains that last phrase as meaning “which I have not commanded you to worship.”

Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev had a profound interpretation of that Rashi.

The reason one may not bow down to a heavenly body, he explained, is because they have not “been commanded” – they lack the free will necessary to accept or reject a Divine commandment.  One may, however, bow down in respect to a human being – because humans are singular, sublime creatures, beings who have been commanded, who uniquely possess the free will to accept and execute Hashem’s will.

So far, at least, such choosing beings are only known here on Earth.  Might there be intelligent extraterrestrials who have received their own Divine commandments?

I imagine some may “hear” such a possibility.

Personally, though, I think the silence out there speaks much more loudly.

© 2015 Hamodia

Handwriting Analysis Analyzed

The notion that one’s handwriting can evidence aspects of one’s character and predict likely behavior (“graphoanalysis”) is prevalent in some circles, including some Orthodox Jewish ones.

While I have no desire to interfere with the livelihoods of those who offers handwriting analysis services, I do feel a responsibility to offer accurate information to the public.

To that end, I feel it is worthwhile to share an article on the topic of “graphoanalysis” that I wrote for Ami Magazine back in 2011.  You can read it here.  Feel free to share the link with anyone you feel might find it thought-provoking.

Muddy Study

Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing?  He trained a flea to jump on command.  In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump.  The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap.  The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart.  After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data.  Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya.  The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates the pair’s investigation of the timing of Israeli military attacks against its enemies over an 11-year period.  The economists’ methodology was simple (and rather simple-minded).  They catalogued Israel’s military interventions from 2000 to 2011, and then compared them to what was going on in the news at the time – noting whether that news was “scheduled,” like a major sporting event, or “unscheduled,” like an earthquake or plane crash.

The scientists’ conclusion, in the synopsis of the MarketWatch article’s author, Brett Arends: “Israel habitually launches its most unpopular and, sometimes, deadly attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to coincide with big news events here in the U.S., so that they don’t get too much public attention.”

In Mr. Durante’s and Ms. Zhuravskaya’s own words: “Israeli attacks are more likely to occur prior to days with very high news pressure driven by clearly predictable events.”  There were statistically significant upticks, they assert, in Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before sporting events, but not before things that the Israeli military could not anticipate.

So here, presumably, is the picture: Israel’s Prime Minister and top generals are huddled in the war room, analyzing a current threat against the citizenry.  They pick apart intelligence data about enemy plans, track militants’ movements by aircraft and satellites, consult weather forecasts and, for nighttime operations, moon phases.  And they decide that a strike is necessary.  “No! Wait!” shouts the Prime Minster. “The Super Bowl’s not until next Sunday!”

A few minor problems here.  First of all, did the researchers factor in the Final Four?  And what about avoiding the attention of the rest of the world, which really doesn’t care much about American sports?  Did the economists take soccer’s World Cup into account?  Hockey’s Stanley Cup?

And if the Israeli military/political complex is in fact guilty of the nefarious machinations imagined by the economists, well, the plot doesn’t seem to have worked very well.  When was the last time Israel launched an attack on her enemies and the world’s residents, glued to their sports event of choice, uh, didn’t notice?

Besides, don’t the Elders of Zion control earthquakes and plane crashes too?

Okay, that last argument was facetious. But no less so than the economists’ study, which proffered a wealth of charts and formulae to try to demonstrate a “statistically significant” correlation between attention-getting events and Israeli military action.  How much of a correlation, though, and how much of it may just reflect chance or statistical static isn’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that cynicism, born of the stylish if smelly anti-Israel atmosphere these days, informed the study.

A mistaken conclusion about how a flea hears is a rather minor matter.  An accusation of underhanded tactics hurled at a country trying to protect its citizens from murderous attacks, quite another.

The noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed that scientists can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  It’s a truism that, in our understandable and usually merited respect for science, we can sometimes forget.

Scientists are people too; and if they harbor personal biases, their prejudices can inform their “science.”  That’s not just unfortunate but, particularly today, downright dangerous.

© 2015 Hamodia

 

 

 

Musing: Ebola and Metzitza Bipeh

Part of a message from the Medical Society of the State of New York to local physicians reads as follows:

“Strategies to limit the potential for [Ebola] transmission… should be based on the best available medical, scientific and epidemiological evidence; be proportional to the risk; balance the rights of individuals and the community…”

One has to wonder whether strategies to limit the potential of the transmission of other viruses, like New York City’s strategy of regulating ritual circumcision, are  similarly “proportional to the risk.”

Or do religious practices for some reason enjoy less protection than secular ones?

Moral Climate Change

My pre-Sukkos column about the furious, quasi-religious zeal of some environmental alarmists apparently generated some… well, furious, quasi-religious zeal.

In an editorial, the New Jersey Jewish Standard’s managing editor mocked my contention that the Creator is ultimately in charge of the universe He created; and the editor of the New Jersey Jewish News invoked the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins to berate me for my skepticism about scientific predictions.  (What’s with Jersey?  Has climate change done a number on its journalists’ equanimity?)

In my column, just to recall, I described my unease with the rage I heard at a large climate change rally, noted that the climate has changed in the past and, yes, contended that, in the end, the Creator is in charge, and our own charge is, above all, to heed His Torah.

I did not, though, call into question the reality of climate change, or in any way disparage measures aimed at trying to curb it. I readily stated that “we do well to explore alternate energy sources and pollute less.”  But my sin, alas, was too great to bear.

In addition to the two papers’ public proclamations of my heresy, several Jewish individuals wrote me privately.  One cited a  Midrash in Koheles Rabba (7:13), to buttress his faith in the threat global warming poses to the world and in our mandate to address it. The source, I discovered, is invoked by a host of Jewish environmentalist groups, and reads:

“When HaKodosh Boruch Hu created Adam Harishon, he took him and showed him all the trees of Gan Eden.  And He said to him ‘Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are.  All that I created I created for you.  Be consciously careful not to act destructively and destroy My world.  Because if you do act destructively, there is no one to set things straight after you’.”

The  Midrash is held aloft by those groups as a paean to “Tikkun Olam,” as their members like to characterize social or environmental activism.  Hashem, in other words, is commanding Adam to do no harm to the earth – and his descendants, presumably, to oppose strip-mining, fracking and the Keystone XL pipeline.

One website trumpeting the  Midrash includes “Suggested Discussion Questions” like: “What does this text teach us about the earth?” “What is our responsibility to the environment?” “What is G-d’s responsibility to the environment?”

The  Midrash, however, is in reality not concerned with any such real or imagined insults to the earth.  The destruction of the world that Hashem is charging Adam to avoid is that which can result from his sins – the clear meaning of the phrase “act destructively,” as the  Midrash’s continuation makes clear.  It is famously invoked by the Ramchal to that precise effect in the first perek of Mesillas Yesharim.

Destroying resources for no good reason is forbidden by the Torah.  But there are elements of the ultra-environmentalist agenda that go far beyond avoiding unnecessary wastage.  And the attempt to put a “classical Jewish” veneer on the entire enterprise of “green politics” by misappropriating Torah texts to support the belief that human beings are physically destroying the world Hashem has created for us is deeply objectionable.

Judaism is a faith system.  To some, so is environmentalism.  But they are not the same faith.

Yes, I believe that the climate is changing.  I believe, too, that there will be negative effects of the same (although likely some positive ones too).  I believe that it’s plausible, if not certain, that human activity contributes to global warming, and plausible as well, though far from certain, that human beings can arrest or reverse the changing climate.

But I do believe – and this belief is b’emunah shleimah – that, pace Dawkins and company, Hashem is in charge. And that, in the end, humanity’s moral and ethical actions, not its climate conferences and multi-national treaties, fine efforts though they may be, will ultimately determine our fate.

That is, as it happens, a rather timely thought, considering that just this past Shabbos, Jews the world over heard a public reading about a cataclysmic climate change.  It happened in Noach’s time. And it was caused, of course, not by strip-mining but by sin, something no stranger to our own day.

How deeply ironic that a fundamental Jewish truth – that human beings affect the world most powerfully by their moral and ethical climates, their mitzvos and, challilah, their aveiros – is utter anathema to some periodicals that proudly include the word “Jewish” in their names.

© 2014 Hamodia

Immoral “Morality”

In a good illustration of just how thick people who are intellectually gifted can be, the well-known biologist and militant atheist Richard Dawkins recently offered his opinion that Down syndrome children would best be prevented from being born. “It would be immoral,” he wrote, “to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

“It”?

The dehumanization says it all.

Professor Dawkins’ judgment of birthing a developmentally disabled child as “immoral” stems from his belief (shared by another famously mindless professor, Peter Singer, who also advocates euthanasia for severely handicapped infants and elderly) that an act’s morality should be gauged entirely by whether or not it increases happiness or suffering.

Mr. Dawkins’ comment drew considerable fire, as well it should have.  Some of those who assailed the professor for his – let’s here reclaim an important adjective – immoral stance focused on the factual error of his creepy calculus.  Two psychology researchers wrote, for example, in something of an understatement, that “individuals with Down syndrome can experience more happiness and potential for success than Mr. Dawkins seems to appreciate.”

In fact, 99% of respondents to a survey of those with Down syndrome (yes, 99%) report that they are happy with their lives.  Moreover, 88% of older siblings of people with Down syndrome reported feeling that they are better people for the fact.

Then there were those who addressed Mr. Dawkins not with statistics but with experience.  Like Sarah Palin, whose son has Down syndrome, and who generously offered to “let you meet my son if you promise to open your mind, your eyes, and your heart to a unique kind of absolute beauty.”

There is no question that families raising Down syndrome children face many challenges, medical, emotional, educational and societal.  But anyone who has embraced that privilege – and anyone, for that matter, who has experienced the delight of interacting with Down children or adults, whose guileless and endearing personalities can be overwhelming – understand how much more perceptive the much-maligned Mrs. Palin is than the much-celebrated Mr. Dawkins.

Truth be told, though, offering statistics or personal experience about the wonder and beauty of Down children is really beside the point – the most important point, that is, namely, the inherent folly of the Dawkinsian understanding of happiness.

Those of us who are naturally happy are very fortunate.  And all of us are indeed to aim at serving Hashem with happiness (Tehillim, 100:2).  But happiness is not tethered to tranquil or easy lives; many people who face adversities unimaginable to those of us who live relatively comfortable, untroubled lives are nevertheless happy.

Edifying is the famous story of Reb Zusha of Hanipoli, the impoverished, long-suffering but joyful Chassid who, according to the famous story, received two esteemed guests at his dilapidated home.  They told him that they had asked the Maggid of Mezeritch how one can bless Hashem as the Mishnah (Berachos 54a) directs, “for the bad just as for the good,” and that the Maggid had sent them to him.

Puzzled, he responded: “How would I know?  He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”

Happiness doesn’t happen; it is achieved.  And its achievement is not tied to ease or fun or lack of adversity.  It results from recognizing that life, ultimately, is about meaning.  True meaning, that is, not some imagined or invented meaning.  Life’s meaning that comes from serving the Divine.  That concept may be imponderable to atheists like Richard Dawkins or Peter Singer.  But it is the reason for human existence, for the bestowal of free will on the subset of creation we call men and women.

Down syndrome, as it happens and as we should always remember, is hardly the only condition “out there.”  There are other disabilities as well, some or all of whose sufferers Messrs. Dawkins and Singer may consider unworthy of the world as well.  Only they’re not.

Consider, for example, those who have “23 Chromosome Pair Syndrome,” which is invariably fatal.  Sufferers are susceptible to a host of maladies, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma and numerous forms of cancer, and are likely to suffer bouts of mild or more serious depression over the course of their lives.

They are also prone to headaches, nosebleeds, painful joints and broken bones.  And, at some point, they can become so disabled that they require others to care for them.

The syndrome happens to be quite common.

Indeed, it’s ubiquitous.

It’s what we call “normal” human life.

© 2014 Hamodia

Deathless

Odd that the Torah-portion about the death of Yaakov Avinu is called “Vayechi.”  After all, the word means “And he lived.”  And, differently voweled, the word can mean “And he will live.”  And especially odd, because Yaakov didn’t die.

At least that’s what Rabbi Yochanan (Taanis, 5b) asserts, although his listeners asked sarcastically, “Was it then for naught that the eulogizers eulogized him, the embalmers embalmed him and the gravediggers buried him?”

Unperturbed, Rabbi Yochanan responded with the prophet Yirmiyahu’s assurance, “And you, fear not, my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, and tremble not, Yisrael.  For behold I am your savior from afar and [that of] your descendants from their land of captivity.”  That verse, explained Rabbi Yochanan, juxtaposes Yaakov with his descendants.  And so, the sage concluded, “just as those descendants are alive, so, too, must he be.”

As abstruse Talmudic passages go, this one would seem a good example. Rabbi Yochanan’s proof is as unconvincing as his contention was bewildering.  And yet, the traditional word for dying (vayomos) is strangely absent from the account of Yaakov’s…  whatever.  Instead, an unusual and somewhat vague word (vayigva) is employed.  And there are Midrashic narratives, too, that imply Yaakov’s life after life.

What is more, the concept that Jewish tradition associates with the third of our forefathers is emes, or “truth.”  The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 1:3-4), albeit in a different context, explains emes as meaning, essentially, “permanence”.   Another indication that Yaakov, in some way, has transcended demise.

And, even with his embalming and burial, he has.  For while his parents and their parents – Yitzchak and Rivka, and Avrohom and Sarah – bore children who proved unworthy of being progenitors of the Jewish people, only Yaakov and his wives merited seeing all of their offspring become forbears of the nation.

And so, in a very real way, Yaakov didn’t die; he metamorphosed into Yisrael, into the Jewish people.  Which, when one thinks about it, may be precisely what Rabbi Yochanan was saying.  His proof of Yaakov’s eternalness, after all, lies in a comparison between the man and his progeny.  Perhaps it is more than a comparison.  Yaakov becomes the Jewish people; he is Klal Yisrael, and that is why he is deathless.

That Yaakov would sire the first exclusively Jewish family was heralded in his famous dream, of which we read several weeks ago.  There too, as in Yirmiyahu, Yaakov is juxtaposed with his descendants.  “To you shall I give [the Holy Land], and to your children.”  And: “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you, and through your children.”

Sometimes a thought can only be thought, or an observation observed, after a certain point in history.  A possible example has to do with the realization of the import of Yaakov becoming Yisrael – and the dream he dreamt after he left Be’er Sheva and set out on his journey to Charan.

Because the dream-image that accompanied that Divine message about his future was a connection between heaven and earth in the form of a sulam, or “ladder.”

Sulam” occurs only this once in the Torah, and its etymology is unclear.  But an Arabic cognate of the word refers to steps ascending a mountain.  The easiest way to ascend a mountain is a spiral path.  That fact, and the possibly related Aramaic word “mesalsel” – to twist into curls – might lead one to imagine Yaakov’s “ladder” as something more akin to a spiral staircase.

It is a poignant image.

For, beginning with Yaakov, Jewishness is finally bestowed by genealogy.

And a spiral ladder is what one might more technically call a double helix, a fitting vision to presage the destiny of the man who dreamed it.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran