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Can I Get Some Embryonic Stem Cells with That?
Parshat BeHalotcha 5779

One of the great advantages of spending a vacation in the idyllic town of Chesterfield , MO, as opposed to my usual time in frenzied NY, was that I had significantly more time to spend with my family. I conjured fantastical stories for my children, nieces, and nephews, helped them put together puzzles, took walks with them, and built Tinker Toy houses for the first time in a couple of decades. One highlight of our trip was a day at the St. Louis Science Center, one of Parents Magazine’s 10 Best Science Centers for Families.

I was able to keep up with all the lil’ ones until they spotted a bloody Triceratops, sprawled on its back, breathing its last breaths under the feet of a proudly roaring Tyrannosaurus Rex. Off they ran, and I soon found myself left far behind with my four- month-old baby, a carriage filled with diapers and juice boxes, and an assortment of blankies. I decided to do a bit of scientific discovery of my own, and began perusing the exhibits.

I came across a five minute film on EMC (embryonic stem cell research), a scientific issue that has been a hot button issue across the nation for quite some time. There have been dozens of polls determining the public’s opinion on whether we should allow EMC research, with a consistent 30-40% of the country against it. That represents 90-120 million Americans who are opposed to this research since they view it as destroying human life.

I am personally a big fan of EMC research, as is the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinic Council of America (They even sent a letter a decade ago to President George W. Bush encouraging him to allow it). However, what interested me was to see how a publically funded science center designed to educate children would present the issue. Would they present both sides of the picture? Would they ignore the 90-120 million Americans who are dead set against embryonic stem cell research, or would they address their concerns in a coherent fashion? In a world where words like “meaningful discussion” and “open dialogue” are some of the most abused buzz words, where discussing any and all points objectively is claimed to be one of the highest values of modern society, how would the science center present this issue?

The film started with a few shots of embryonic stem cells under a microscope, and a voice explaining that they are very tiny cells that can differentiate into many different types of cells. Next there was a minute of two scientists watching a mouse with a big bald spot on its back walk around a tabletop. One scientist explained to the other that this mouse was one of many who had a broken back and spinal cord. (Obviously, they didn’t explain how so many mice got broken backs and spinal cords, but I would surmise that it wasn’t a football game gone bad.) Some of the mice received back surgery, but this mouse was one of those that only got injections of embryonic stem cells. Amazingly, it had recovered better than many of the mice who had received surgery. The scientists marveled at how EMC seems to be a miracle cure.

The screen faded to a collage of pictures of elderly people in wheelchairs surrounded by their loving families, young children in oncology wards, and people escorting their family members into the hospital. The voice over begin, “Do you know anyone who has cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinsons, or heart disease? EMC research might have the keys to ending all those terrible illnesses! Imagine a world where people didn’t have to suffer the terrible ravages of illness. That is the goal of EMC research.”

Then, as the last image of the smiling, waving grandfather faded away, another voice said these exact words, nothing more nothing less: “Some people are opposed to EMC research because they believe the origin of life occurs even before the blastula. However, other people encourage EMC research, because they believe the origin of life is only after the blastula.”

The movie then scrolled through quotes by the National Institute of Health, the National Academy of Sciences, and a list of about ten other prominent health organizations all demanding the use of EMC research, and detailing its importance. Finally, the movie panned back to the Miracle Mouse, and the narrator poses the million dollar question: “So, what do you think about using EMC research?”

This final question was the straw that broke the camels back. It’s one thing if you want to show a totally one sided video which leaves the average kid believing that besides Mashiach, nothing can do more for the world than embryonic stem cell research. But to ask at the end, “So, what do you think about using EMC research?”?! That is pure chutzpah. To make it sound like you have been presented all the necessary information to make an informed decision is ludicrous.

The only nod given to the third of our country which is ardently against the research and have numerous ethical concerns and alternative research possibilities, tells children that some people believe the origin of life is before the blastula. You basically tell museumgoers that EMC can heal cancer, Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and heart disease, show them a mouse that is walking due to stem cell research and then ask them how they feel about it?

Did you mention that there are alternatives to embryonic stem cells that also work? Did you mention that according to one third of the country, an embryo is a tiny baby, and people feel that harvesting them for research is akin to stopping human life before it can begin? And even though I agree that EMC research is good, I was appalled by the pathetic attempt to claim that people are being given both sides of the story and have the necessary knowledge to make an informed decision. I give that film a F in the clarity section (even most adults don’t know what a blastula is), an F for equal representation, and an F in the “open dialogue” category.

The film reminded me of what the Anshei Knesses Hagdolah, the Men of the Great Assembly told us in the very first adage in Pirkei Avos. “Be deliberate in judgment.” Although Pirkei Avos contains hundreds of pieces of advice, wisdom to carry us through the ages, it begins with a reminder to be deliberate in judgment, as what you see is not always what you get. Pirkei Avos is filled with advice and suggestions to living an ethical life, but if you don’t really understand what is going on, you can’t know when to apply what. The first mishna needs to lay the groundwork by telling us to be deliberate in judgment.

Our politicians are of no help to us in the honesty arena. On the left, we have Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio Cortes telling us that the US government is operating concentration camps at the border, #NeverAgain! And on the right, we have President Trump telling us that he is the all-time favorite president of the US, and that his administration is the most open and transparent ever.

Unfortunately, our media doesn’t help us out much either. Talk radio is biased in one direction, print media in the other. Each one offers us loads of free information, but only information as seen through their eyes. (Honest Reporting, a media watchdog, did a broad one-year analysis of the New York Times and proves that bias against Israel is rife and blatant.) Stats are twisted, facts stretched or contorted, and opinions presented as fact. We need to be able to get beyond the blastula.

Another mishna in Pirkei Avos is instructive in this area. “Shimon ben Shetach says: interrogate the witnesses extensively…” There are many people testifying before us on a daily basis, giving us what is supposed to be factual accounts of what occurs in the world around us. We need to ask the right questions. Does this source consistently portray only one group favorably? What percentage of this story is fact and what percentage is opinion? Has this source ever intentionally misled us in the past?

This idea goes beyond politics to one of the most important areas of interpersonal relationships – the area of lashon hara. How often do we hear things about someone from our acquaintances and simply accept them as fact? We don’t bother to find out how this person knows it (which often is really just through a friend who knew someone who used to be neighbors with the uncle of the victim of the gossip), if they looked into the circumstances leading up to the event, or if they are exaggerating with poetic license. We can hear one piece of juicy gossip about somebody, and never again look at that person the same way. But how much verification did we demand on that tidbit of gossip?

In 2016, the Oxford dictionary crowned the words “post-truth” as the words of the year. It defines post-truth as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This means that the current milieu has moved on from seeking truth, and is currently simply looking for the validation of what they already believe to be true. Call it confirmation bias, call it post truth, call it whatever you want, the indications are that we are not being, “very deliberate in judgment.”

If we want to have a society based on truth, we need to bring back the value that Ethics of Our Fathers started with. We need to stop taking information we are fed, and rather become picky consumers of information. We need to start having real conversations with people we disagree with in a respectful manner so that we can learn what other people think and perhaps learn something new. I had a thirty minute conversation this Sunday morning with someone who has a very different worldview than I, and it was informative, enlightening, enjoyable.

Only when we became responsible consumers of truth, deliberate and careful in what we believe and what we espouse can we hope to see a world where the Ethics of Our Fathers, the old-school values of civility, respectful discourse, and common courtesy start gaining traction our world!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s Parsha starts off with G-d telling Moshe to tell Aaron the exact procedure for lighting the Menorah. Rashi explains why the Torah juxtaposed this topic to last week’s Parsha which ended with the sacrifices the princes of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration ceremonies of the Tabernacle. When Aaron, the High Priest saw all the princes bringing their inauguration sacrifices and he had none, he became very disturbed and troubled. G-d sent him a message saying “I swear by your life, yours is greater than theirs because you will prepare and light the menorah.” What does this mean? How is the lighting of the Menora better that inaugurating the Tabernacle?

In order to understand this let us look at the very next Rashi which explains the Torah’s use of the word be’haloscha to describe the lighting of the menorah. This word literally translated means raise up, while figuratively it means to light. Anytime the Torah uses a word that has a literal meaning that is distinct from its current usage, it warrants an explanation. Rahsi’s explanation in our case is that while lighting the menorah the Kohen was required to hold the candle close to the wick until the flame of the wick would “rise up” on its own. What does this answer mean on a deeper level and what can we learn from this to apply to our own lives?

The menorah is the vessel in the Temple that represents knowledge, intellectual depth, and understanding. The symbolism is clear, as it is the one vessel whose primary function is to illuminate, which is what knowledge does. As a matter of fact the Sages tell us that if one wishes to become wiser, he should face slightly southward while praying the Amidah, because the menorah was on the southern wall of the Temple. Parenthetically one who wishes to become wealthier should face slightly northward, as the Table which represented wealth was on the northern wall of the Temple. (It is always interesting to see who faces northward and who southward, who wants wisdom and who wants $$$!)

Knowing this, we can understand a deeper level in the Torah’s message that when lighting the candles one has to keep the flame near the wick until the flame rises on the wick on its own. When we impart knowledge onto someone else, and teach them intellectual discernment, it is not enough that we simply dump our insights onto them, but rather we have to teach them how to use knowledge until they are able to understand things on their own. We have to kindle the flame until it rises on its own! A great teacher is not one whose students rely on him for all their understanding, but one who produces great thinkers each able of creating understanding for themselves as well as for others. This is the secret of lighting the menorah, of keeping the flame there until it rises on its own.

This can help us understand the message G-d was telling Aaron. The princes indeed had a very special job to inaugurate the Tabernacle, but Aaron’s job is greater. The prince’s job was to turn the key in the ignition and start the engine going, but Aaron’s job is brining the wisdom of Torah and spirituality into the world in a way that will produce people who will carry the torch on to the next generation and the next all the way until the Messiah! Additionally, this helps us understand the Mishna in Avos that says “be among the students of Aaron” as the students of Aaron are the ones who understand the value of not just knowing the right things but of helping train others to perceive the right things!

 

Parsha Summary

As seen above the Parsha starts off with the owners manual for the menorah telling you when to change the oil and how to light it properly. Following that is the Consecration of the Levites. In previous weeks we discussed how the Levites were given some of the holy jobs originally reserved for the firstborns. Here the Torah describes the procedure that the Levites underwent to begin their service. As most Temple procedures went, it included bringing specific sacrifices but it deviated a little in that it included shaving all of one’s hair, and Aaron picking up and waving each and every one of the 22K+ Levites. (No, Aaron, unlike some MLB did not use steroids, he was miraculously given the strength to pick them all up.) The Torah then tells us that the Levites would begin their apprenticeship at 25, begin working at 30, and retire at 50. (Where do I sign?)

The next part of the Parsha deals with the Pesach offering brought during the second year that the Jews were in the desert (the only year they brought a Pesach offering in the desert, the next one they would bring would be when they got to the Promised Land, 40 years later). It also talks about the people who couldn’t bring the offering due to ritual impurity who came to Moshe with a complaint “why should we be left out?” to which G-d replied with the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni which is a makeup date a month later for all those who couldn’t make it on the regular date.

Being that the Jews were about to embark on their first journey since encamping at Sinai, the Torah teaches about the Jewish travels in the desert. It talks about the signs of G-d that were omnipresent (cloud by day, pillar of fire at night), the frequency of their travels (totally random, ranging from once in 19 years to a day apart), the trumpets that were used to tell the Jews that they were about to pull out of their current parking spot (also used to call the elders together for meetings with Moshe), and the order of the people while marching. Moshe at this point invites Jethro his father-in-law to stay with the Jews, but he says that he has to go back to try to convert the people of the land from which he came.

I would like to preface the next part of the Parsha with the following explanation. The Jews who were in the desert were on an exceedingly high spiritual level after seeing G-d reveal Himself at Sinai and after witnessing the miracles in Egypt and at the Reed Sea. Therefore, as we read in the coming weeks the mistakes they made and the punishments meted out, we need to understand that when someone is so close to G-d, the judgment is so much more strict, much the way a top official in the government is scrutinized so much more than an average Joe. Additionally, a lot of the mistakes have deeper meaning that explain that they were not the large mistakes they appear to be, rather they were judgment calls which were made in the wrong direction, but with good intentions.

Soon after the Jews first travels, some of the evil people amongst the Jews began to complain about their fate in the desert. G-d responded by sending down a heavenly flame that devoured some of the complainers. Moshe prayed to G-d and the fire stopped. Soon after that the people began to complain about the manna which was a spiritual food that came down from heaven daily. One cannot imagine a better food. It tasted like whatever you wanted it to be (think prime rib for breakfast every day!!), it produced no waste products, it didn’t cause you to gain weight, and was delivered to the ground where you just had to pick it and eat it! (Imagine the cover of the 1312 B.C.E. Readers Digest: New Diet! Eat whatever you want and never gain a pound!)

Most of these complaints were initiated by the mixed multitude a group of people who joined the Jews as they left Egypt, many of whom were insincere converts, and didn’t have the tools to appreciate true spirituality. This bothered Moshe to the point where he asked G-d how he was supposed to deal with such a difficult nation alone. “Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?” (Numbers 11:12) In response to this G-d told Moshe to appoint seventy Elders to be the Great Sanhedrin, a group charged with helping Moshe lead the nation. (I think I need seventy people just to help me with my two daughters!) After this G-d responded to the complainers by sending flocks of quail to the camp, which were lethal to anyone who ate them. (Most people didn’t eat them because they were more than happy with G-d’s spiritual food.)

The Torah also talks about how when Moshe called together the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, G-d increased the spirit of prophecy of Moshe to extend onto all the others. The Sages compare it to a candle which can light another flame without losing any of its light. (If you are still reading, thank you, and please email me back, I’m trying to get a feel for how many people read this part of the email.) After this event, Miraim, Moshe’s sister was talking to her brother Aaron, and she discussed the fact that Moshe left his wife (this was done because he spoke to G-d so frequently and with such clarity, that he wasn’t allowed to have any distraction). She talked in a slightly negative way, and she was immediately punished with tzara’as the spiritual affliction of the skin reserved for people who speak lashon hara, negative speech about others. Because of her greatness, the entire Jewish people waited seven day until she was healed before moving. This was a reward for her waiting at the riverbanks when Moshe’s cradle was cast in the water in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. This shows us that every act we do, no matter how natural it seems to us (as a sister guarding her brother in the water), is evaluated, appreciated and rewarded. Well that’s about all for this week folks.

Quote of the Week: Today was once the future from which you expected so much in the past. ~ Samuel Fremont

Random Fact of the Week: Black whales are born white.

Funny Line of the Week: Free cheese only in mouse catching machine! – Russian teen on application for school in the US

Have a Glorious Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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