By Tuesday afternoon I knew that I was in real trouble. What started out as a regular stomachache on Sunday morning, was now a constant searing pain inside my gut. Originally, I assumed it was the herring I ate on Shabbos morning, which definitely was a bit off, but this was not the standard “I shouldn’t have eaten that fish…” type of stomachache. This was the “I think there is an angry alien with shark teeth growing in my belly…” type of stomachache. I didn’t even feel comfortable taking myself to an urgent care as waves of pain and nausea were rolling over me, temporarily paralyzing me, so I called Hatzolah and they rushed me to the Beaumont Urgent Care on Woodward and 13 Mile.
Upon seeing my face they rushed me to the back, where they started with an ultrasound. It’s never great when the doctor makes a few phone calls before coming back to talk with you, and when he tells you he wants you to rush over to the main hospital building for an MRI, it doesn’t make you feel any more confident, but I did exactly that. They had an MRI room open and ready for me as soon as I got there, and within minutes I was being slid into this massive humming donut of a machine. They kept sliding me in and out, as if they weren’t quite sure what they were seeing, and then sent a tech in to take blood samples. By the time I got out, there were three doctors looking over the images and a few more who were Zooming in to discuss the results. I was exhausted, in pain, but more than anything terrified that my case was so extreme that it needed a team of doctors to diagnose.
The doctors finally came over to me, a ghostly shadow of a man, laying in a hospital gown, shivering from the cold and writhing in pain, with anxiety and fear carved all over my face. The lead doctor shifted uncomfortably on his feet, “Yehuda, we’ve done a number of tests, and you are presenting something we’ve never seen before. We checked in with colleagues from all over and not one of them has ever seen this before, so we don’t have a medical term to describe what’s going on. But basically, it’s like you have an angry alien with shark teeth inside of you.”
“Of course, the organisms we see in you that are alien to the human body are tiny, but they are attacking you at a really fast rate and simply chewing through your body tissue, and we have no idea how to stop them. Right now they seem to be localized to your stomach and intestines, but they seem to be moving closer to your heart and lungs. If they get there, or even worse if some of them get into your head and brain, we don’t see any way for you to survive the next few days. You can stay here and we’ll continue to run tests on you and make sure you’re comfortable. You really should reach out to your family and have them come and see you.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. My thoughts were racing, the room was spinning, I was in total shock. The doctors were basically telling me that I was done! They were going to “make sure I’m comfortable” but “I should have my family come and see me” and that they don’t see a way for me to survive a few days? NOOOOOO!!! I was way too young to go out! This couldn’t be happening! I just got up, grabbed my clothing and started running. The whole medical team was yelling at me to come back, there were more tests they wanted to run, but I was done being a medical anomaly, I just wanted to be home. I yelled over my should, “I’m leaving AMA, I’m leaving against medical advice, it’s my right! Leave me alone!!” They stopped following me, I ducked into a restroom changed back into my clothing, and Ubered home.
My wife was still at work, the kids still at school and I decided I had to do something drastic if I wanted to ever survive this. My body was diseased, it was riddled with parasites, and if they ever got to my brain, I was truly done for. It was time to jettison this body. Of course I would need enormous amoounts of energy to grow a new body, but if I didn’t have a body to go out and get food and turn it into energy how would that work. I ran to my backyard and stared at the tree in the back corner by the fence. It was a vibrant tree; when we moved in fifteen years ago, it was barely six feet tall, now it was thirty feet or more. It was covered in tens thousands of vibrant leaves and each one of those was able to convert sunlight into energy all day long. What I was about to do was radical, never tried before by a human being, but I didn’t see any alternatives that would leave me alive for more than a week.
I cut away the bark of the tree about a foot off the ground. Then I sunk my teeth into the exposed soft wood just beneath the bark, and soon I could feel the sap of the tree filling my mouth. Confident that I now had a source of nutrients and energy to grow back a new body, I cut off my body from the neck down. All that remained was my head, clinging to that tree, sucking in every bit of energy from the sap of the tree. I passed out… I woke up from what seemed like a coma, three weeks later, and I was still not much more than a head attached to a tree, but if I looked down, I could see what looked like a tiny fresh body growing just below my neck! It had worked! Give it a few more weeks and I would be as good as new!!!
Most of you are surely thinking, “That never happened! It’s impossible to decapitate yourself and grow a new body!!!” and you’re mostly correct. That story never happened, and it’s not possible to decapitate yourself and grow a new body if you are a human. But if you are a sea slug from the family known as Sacoglossans, it’s actually quite routine. Scientists in Japan had been studying these particular slugs when one of them noticed that one of their slugs was suddenly headless! Not only that, its head and neck were slithering around its old body, poking at it like you would poke at a plate of day old cholent when you were already full.
They were sure it was only a matter of time before the slug was dead, but amazingly the head simply started growing back a new body, including a beating heart that was easily visible in the new baby body! About three weeks later, the slug was back to full strength! Equally as strange was the fact that the body continued to move in response to stimuli as much as a month after it was without a head. Eventually, the body died, but the newly bodied slug thrived!
This was such a surprising find that they launched a full study into the behavior of these slugs, and they made some additional findings that were just as shocking. Growing back a full body takes a tremendous amount of energy. If it takes a human being 2,000 calories a day just to maintain it’s body weight, think about how much energy it takes to build a new human being in a few weeks! Obviously, the slug is considerably smaller, but so is its caloric intake, so how does it build a whole new body in a few weeks?
The slug has another trick up its sleeve, known as kleptoplasty, or the theft of chloroplasts. The slug eats algae and then hijacks the chloroplasts from the algae cells. Chloroplasts are one of the key differentiations between animal and plant cells, as chloroplasts are what enable plant cells to convert sunlight into energy. The slug is able to use the chloroplasts from the algae it eats to create energy from sunlight to build its new body. While the chloroplasts don’t last long in their new host body, the slug simply eats more algae, gets fresh chloroplasts.
Scientists still aren’t quite sure why the Sacoglossans decapitate themselves and grow back new bodies (if you asked me, I would say they do it because they can!), but the dominant theory is that it is done to jettison a body riddled with parasites it can’t otherwise remove. They have also noticed that only young slugs can regenerate new bodies, once slugs are older, they can remove their bodies and occasionally they do, but their heads just hang around, they don’t eat and grow new bodies, so you can grow a new body, or even two, but just make sure to get started young!
In review, there is a species alive today, that can separate its head from its body, losing its heart and most of it gills in the process. It continues to live bodyless for weeks, and even hijacks plant cells to get their chloroplasts so that it can grow a new body using energy from sunlight, a power usually reserved for the plant kingdom. Imagine humans could do that! Imagine every time someone had cancer, advanced kidney disease, or lung failure, they could just drop off their body at a local clinic, turn into a plant for a few months, grow a new body, and go on its merry way!
In a way, we can. We may not be able to do this (yet!) to our physical bodies, but we can do it spiritually, and that is one of the great messages of Judaism to the world. This Shabbos, we read a special portion in Shul called Parshas Hachodesh, which talks about the first mitzvah ever given to the Jewish people as a nation, the commandment to use the lunar calendar, to measure our time on this earth by the moon, not the sun. This may sound anti-climactic mitzvah for the first mitzvah ever, especially when we know that Kabbalistically the first unit of anything is deeply indicative of the entire series, but the reality is that this Mitzvah was radical and shocking when it was given, and is just as radical and shocking today.
Let’s take some context over here. The Jews lived in Egypt, a place that worshipped many gods, but chief among them was Ra, the sun god. The reason they worshipped the sun god was because the sun is never changing, rising in the east setting in the west, always the same size. Egyptian life was also structured that way, there was no mobility whatsoever. If you were born a slave, a slave you would be to the day you died. Your children would be slaves too and you never even wondered what your grandchildren would be. The same thing went for a merchant, who would always be a merchant, or the royal who would always be a royal no matter what they did.
The first mitzvah given to the Jews was a mitzvah that told them to be like the ever-changing moon. They were capable of radical transformation, even complete regeneration. Just because someone grew up with a bad temper their whole life doesn’t mean that they are incapable of calm, just because someone grew up righteous and kind doesn’t mean that they are incapable of falling into cruelty and selfishness. Just because the Jews in Egypt grew up as slaves, both physically, but also slaves to the idolatrous culture all around them, didn’t mean that they would be that forever. G-d was offering them a chance to cut off the parasitic body and start anew with a new body, a new heart that serves G-d, a new set of hands and feet that engage in mitzvos and acts of kindness instead of slave labor and idolatry.
To this day, society around us wants us to believe that we are born a certain way, and we should just accept it, embrace it, even celebrate it. Any sense of calling for a higher morality, for faithfulness and adherence to religious values is mocked as backwards while the high priests of modern culture, the professors and PhDs tell us that human nature doesn’t have the capacity for radical transformation. If you want X, go for it. If you want Y, go for it. If you want X and Y and Z, go for it. If you’re a lazy person, it’s not your fault, if you’re an angry person, or an alcoholic, your DNA coded for it. Just express whatever you’re feeling because you can’t curb yourself, you can’t recreate yourself into a person with a morality stronger than your desires.
The battle between the never changers and the ever changers was first expressed with the mitzvah to follow the lunar calendar, and followed immediately by the mitzvah to slaughter the Pesach sacrifice, to slaughter another god of the Egyptian, the sheep god, which represented the Egyptian ethos for just going with the flow like the sheep. If we want to experience the redemption of Pesach we must preface it with the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, of counting by the lunar calendar, or marking our time in this world by the ever changing moon. Only after we believe that we can decapitate our former self, and slowly grow back a new me, with a new heart and body, new desires and new actions can we experience the redemption of Pesach.
Pesach is just a bit over two weeks away, let’s start regenerating!!!!
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And every wise hearted person among you shall come and make everything that the Lord has commanded” (Exodus 35:10)
W ith these words, Moses calls upon the people to step forward and begin building the Tabernacle. Rabbi Eliezer Man Shach of blessed memory (1898-2001, Lithuania-Israel) notes that wisdom is usually associated with the brain, not the heart. What exactly, he asks, is the meaning of this verse that refers to wise hearted people?
He bases his answer on something we see in Ethics of Our Fathers, which famously proclaims, “Who is the wise man? He who learns from every person.” (Ethics, 4:1). Rabbenu Yona of Gerona (13th Century, Spain) points out that it doesn’t say, “he who learned from everyone” in the past tense, but rather, “he who learns from everyone” in the present tense. This is because being wise is not as much measured by what you know or what you’ve learned, but by your attitude to learning.
If a person has an enormous amount of knowledge but disregards the significance of continued learning and growth, he is not a wise person, but a fool – comparable to a pack of donkeys carrying hundreds of books on dozens of subjects. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t possess much knowledge, but recognizes the value of knowledge and spends his time in its pursuit, he is a wise man, one who truly knows what is valuable and what is not.
For this reason, the mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers says that a wise person is someone who learns from every person in the present, because that is a person in pursuit of knowledge. Someone who already learned from people, but is on hiatus from learning now, is not what we would call a chacham (a wise person).
Based on this, Rabbi Shach explains what Moses was looking for when building the Tabernacle. He wasn’t looking for people who were head-smart, people with lots of knowledge in their heads, but rather he was looking for people who were heart-smart, people who were looking to expand their knowledge, people thirsty for learning. Even if they were not yet proficient in every field, Moses had full confidence that they would become so.
We see a similar idea in a famous story from the Talmud. Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest Tannaim (authors of the mishna), was a simple shepherd, working for Ben Kalba Savua, one of the richest Jews in Israel. At the age of forty he was uneducated and didn’t even know the Aleph Bet. To make matters worse, he had a fierce hatred for Torah scholars. He had an epiphany one day after observing how slowly dripping water bored a hole right through a boulder. It convinced him that the Torah could likewise penetrate his hardened heart – even at such a late stage in life.
Ben Kalba Savua’s daughter, Rachel, saw that Akiva was now a man on a mission; a person in pursuit of knowledge. She told him she would marry him if he went to study in Yeshiva, and they secretly wed. When Ben Kalba Savua heard that his daughter, who could have married anyone she wished to, was married to an ignorant shepherd, he angrily vowed that neither of them would ever benefit from anything of his.
Twenty four years later, Rabbi Akiva returned home as one of the leading Torah sages of his time, accompanied by 24,000 students. Ben Kalba Savua, not realizing that Rabbi Akiva was his son-in-law, came to him to try to annul the vow he made years ago, that had estranged him from his daughter and her family. Rabbi Akiva asked him if he would have made the vow had he thought that the shepherd would become a learned man, and Ben Kalba Savua said that he wouldn’t have. Rabbi Akiva then revealed his identity, and annulled the vow. Ben Kalba Savua hugged him and kissed him, and gave Rabbi Akiva half his possessions.
But Tosafot has a problem with this story. One of the laws of annulling vows is that you cannot annul a vow based on something that, at the time of the vow, had not yet occurred, and Akiva only became great after the vow. Thus the vow should have been unbreakable. Tosafot answers that since Rabbi Akiva had already committed to learning, since he had already acquired the wisdom of the heart, he was already considered a learned person (albeit one with some learning to do!). Wisdom as defined by the Torah is not about what we know; it’s about what we want to know!
This week we will take out two scrolls from the Aron Kodesh. From the first we will read Vayakel and Pekudei, the two final portions of the Book of Exodus. If you’ve been following the parsha all the way through, give yourself a big pat on the back, an extra red star sticker, or whatever else you do to celebrate an accomplishment.
Vayakel begins with Moshe gathering all the Jewish people and telling them about the laws of Shabbat. Moshe goes on to tell them about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. (In the previous portions, Teruma and Titzaveh, Ha-shem commanded Moshe about the building of the Mishkan; now Moshe tells the people, and the people actually build it.) The two concepts are connected in that one is not allowed to desecrate Shabbos for the purpose of building the Mishkan. We don’t break G-d’s special time (Shabbos) to build Him a special place (the Mishkan); it would defeat the purpose.
The Torah describes the donations needed which included gold, silver, and copper (these were the days before titanium-palladium alloys were all the rage), the different colored wools, goat skins, herbs, spices, and, most important, the volunteering of time by the craftsmen to build the Mishkan. Two people were appointed to be the managers of this colossal and divine endeavor, Betzalel, from the tribe Yehuda, which was considered the most royal of the tribes, and Oholiab, from Dan, which was considered the lowliest of the tribes, thus indicating that when it comes to building a dwelling place for G-d, everyone is equal.
The Parsha then describes in detail the making of the curtains, covering cloths, partitions, and walls of the Tabernacle. Next it depicts the creation of the Holy Ark with its cover, the Table, the Menorah, the Incense Altar, the outdoor Offering Altar, the Laver (a special vessel used by the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before Temple service), and the courtyard posts which had cloth sheets that wrapped around them, used to enclose the Temple courtyard. Vayakel ends. One down, one to go!
Pekudei begins with the Torah enumerating the exact amounts of gold, silver, and copper that weredonated. (Quick lesson: no matter how great you are, if you are using public funds there should be a level of accountability. Listen up Department of Defense!!!) It then describes in detail the making of the vestments worn by the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol (the priests and the High Priest). The Parsha ends with the commandment to set up the Mishkan, and its erection. The Parsha (and for that matter the entire Book of Exodus) closes with the climactic moment when G-d’s glory comes down from on High and rests in the Mishkan that was built for him!
From the second scroll, we read Parshat Hachodesh, in which G-d commands the Jewish people to set their calendar by the moon, the celestial being that goes through constant renewal. May we combine the lesson of renewal with that of humans creating a resting place for the Divine Glory on this earth, and may we energize ourselves and build within ourselves and our homes a place fitting for G-d’s glory to rest!
Quote of the Week: Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing. ~ J.C.F. Von Schiller
Random Fact of the Week: There are 461 stations in the New York City subway system.
Funny Line of the Week: I like when good things happen to me, but I wait two weeks to tell anyone because I like to use the word ‘fortnight.”
Have a Rambunctious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham