This Week’s Torah Portion – comments by GTJ’s Guy of the Year

 

Dr. Uri Manor is the 2010 Jewish Guy of the Year and a research biologist by day.

Parshah Chayei Sarah

This parsha opens with Abraham coming home to find his wife Sarah is dead. In case you forgot, last week’s parsha ends on the joyous note of G-d making His covenant with Abraham after Abraham was ready to sacrifce Isaac. I believe that the lesson here is that even Abraham was unable to enjoy constant happiness, and he was the greatest tzaddik in our history. Thus, how can we expect (at least relatively) wicked people such as ourselves to enjoy constant happiness?

Next, we learn that Abraham went to buy the cave of Machpaila to bury Sarah in. The Midrash says that this is a cave Abraham discovered when chasing the sacrificial lamb that “replaced” Isaac. This cave is full of the shechina (the divine presence) , and also happens to be the burial place of Adam.

Next Abraham sends his servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son Isaac. He meets Rebecca, who demonstrates to us the concept of “midda-keneged-midda” (“measure opposite measure”, literally, but it means “what goes around, comes around”). She treats Eliezer kindly and generously by giving him and all of his camels all the water they want, and she is repaid with beautiful jewelry and is also repaid with Abraham’s son as a husband! The lesson here is that it can pay off to be kind to strangers.

One interesting note the Midrash makes is that Rebecca grew up in a wicked town. The reason is that G-d wanted Isaac’s wife to be someone who grew up surrounded by wickedness, but was still able to remain virtuous. That way He knew that the descendants of Isaac (e.g. us Jews!) would have the genetic background necessary to maintain virtue throughout the ages, no matter how wicked the world became. It appears to me that G-d was thinking like an evolutionary biologist, or even a molecular biologist that “selects” for colonies with the properties necessary for their experiment to run as planned. Or maybe it is the other way around? Either way, I think that if we look deeply enough, we can find that there is no contradiction between the theory of evolution and the Torah. After all, is nature not meant to lead us closer to G-d?

In fact, the Midrash says that Abraham discovered G-d through the study of nature. At first, Abraham worshipped the Earth, because its production is that which sustains life, but then he realized the Earth isn’t all powerful since it depends on the heavens for rain (let’s ignore the irrelevant scientifc inaccuracy for a moment), so he worshipped the heavens, in particular the Sun, since that was what he perceived to be the ruling power of the firmament. But then when the Sun set, he figured that the Moon must be divine, but then he abandoned that thought when he saw that the Moon only shone by night. Finally, by observing the regular rhythm of day/night, the seasons, and all the natural laws, Abraham inferred the presence of a wise creator. I don’t see any significant difference between hypothesizing a single “wise creator” who controls all of the universe and a “grand unified theory of everything”, which is of course the Holy Grail of modern physics.

Thus, nature and the study of it, including the “E word”, should bring us closer to G-d.

2 replies
  1. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    I appreciate your thoughts — last Jewish year was my year for reading (and writing on) the Torah, so I haven’t been reading along this year. It’s nice to get a non-rabinical update.

    To your points:

    1) How can we expect constant happiness? You’re right; we can’t. But does anyone dispute this? Everyone knows there is death in this world, and I don’t think anyone expects to be happy his best friend/dad/mom whatever dies.

    2) Par. 3. “The lesson here is that it can pay off to be kind to strangers.” Agreed. But let’s not be so telological. In (the few… I am a mediocre person…) instances that I am nice to strangers, I do so not because one of them might wind up being a millionare and I would derive personal material benefit. I do so because it’s the right thing to do.

    3) Par. 4. “Rebecca grew up in a wicked town.” If I remember correctly, the root of the town’s wickedness is its polytheism. And that’s just ridiculous. If, however, we substitute a town of polytheism for a town of rape and murder, then I’m right with you on the rest of the paragraph.

    4) The main point of this email, if I read it correctly (unlikely?), is to offer another reconciliation of science and God. This practice is now pretty popular. Francis Collins is probably the most prominent. But I think it’s all pretty absurd. In attempting to reconcile the two, the scientists stretch their logic so far that they are no longer being scientists.

    Occam’s Razor. If the Torah seemingly violates many scientific principles (and the literal text does this flagrantly and frequently), then what would Occam’s Razor suggest? That the Torah had a very imprecise and faulty understaning of science. But noooooooo. Some scientists are now determined to ignore Occam’s Razor and instead interpret “the world was made in seven days” not in a straightforward light (that the Torah was wrong in this instance), but instead the most logically ass backwards light: “Seven days doesn’t really mean seven days.” These scientists keep drawing more logically circumspect arguments until they get to what they set out to prove: That science and Torah are 100% compatible. I think your last paragraph is guilty of forcing reconciliation where there is none without a good deal of gymnastiscs. If it did it to a larger extent, it would be no less offensive than the post-modernist literary analysts who take a text that says nothing about sex and then tell how the text is meant to be read as one big sexual orgy. It’s an offensive distortion of logic.

    So, when the text of Torah violates our ever-developing and ever improving understanding of science, I’ll take the simple and logical route: the two contradict each other because the Torah didn’t know much about science.

    I think that this scientists — including the celebrated Francis Collins — are usually guilting of ceasing to be men of science when they go on these quixotic analyses to reconcile Torah and science.

    SIR

    Reply
  2. Uri
    Uri says:

    Thank you for the awesomely thoughtful reading and response to my relatively coarse Dvar – I honestly wrote the thing in 10 minutes while at work, and it always felt unrefined and incomplete, so now I’m glad to be able to articulate some open-ended things I left unexplained.

    1) The “happiness lesson” was taken from the Midrash – it is not my own interpretation (in this Dvar I think I completely failed to articulate when I was speaking my own thoughts vs. paraphrasing the Midrash). The lesson appears to be in response to people who complain that they are trying so hard to be good people, but they still seem to be suffering unfairly.

    2) Again, the “midda-keneged-midda” lesson is paraphrasing the Midrash. I (and the Midrash) totally agree that one should be good for its own sake, and not for any type of reward (be it in this world or in any conceived future worlds). That said, the idea I think is that you never know who a stranger might be, and that the way you treat strangers can come back to you – for better or for worse.

    3) Actually, again I’m paraphrasing the Midrash in terms of the wickedness of the town. I am not sure where you got the polytheism thing from, but from what I read, the town was quite wicked and even Rebecca’s brother Laban wanted to murder and rob Eliezer, and her father, Besuel, was known for claiming first right to every girl in the country who was about to be married.

    4) The final, and most important point I was trying (probably unsuccessfully) to make was that science and Torah need not be at odds with one another. I totally agree with your assessment of scientists’ attempts to reconcile Torah and science to be blatant (aka “offensive”) violations of Occam’s razor. However…

    Occam’s razor applies only to a limit. As Einstein said, “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” In other words, ‘Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.’

    As you might have noticed, the Torah is almost NEVER interpreted in the simplest manner possible, and thus we cannot apply Occam’s razor. That said, I do agree that doing scientific gymnastics to reconcile Torah and science is futile and in most cases “offensive”. However, I’m not sure if the converse is true. In fact, Jewish tradition is replete with examples of scholars (Rambam, for example) making great leaps in reinterpretations and even non-literal interpretations of the Torah in order to reconcile logical inconsistencies. It was Rambam who actually said that the seven days of creation weren’t days as we know them, and that was of course long before we know anything about the actual age of the Earth, universe, etc.

    I have lots more, but will cut it short here for now…

    Reply

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