Most of the biological information in this article was taken from the book The Body A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson
If you want to see the live version of me, look me in the eyes. That’s pretty much the only part of me that you can see that is still alive, the rest of me is dead. It’s not that I’m dead, I’m glad to report that I’m Baruch Hashem very much alive at the time of writing, it’s just that everything of me that you can see is dead. When you look at me, you see my face, my skin, and my hair (or what’s left of it). The skin and hair you see is entirely dead.
Your skin is a wondrous organ. It is the largest of a humans organs, stretching out about twenty square feet and weighing somewhere between ten and fifteen pounds depending on how much rugelach you consume. It has multiple functions; it keeps the bad stuff away from your internal organs that are much more susceptible to sepsis, it helps remove waste materials through the millions of sweat glands, and sprouts hair through a few million other holes called follicles. All told, you have a couple million holes in you, which makes you a pretty holy Jew.
The skin also helps you keep in touch with the world, literally. It has a full suite of different receptors to help you feel the world around you. Concentrated in fingertips, lips, and a few other places, these receptors can detect the slightest touch or breeze. Pacinian corpuscles, the receptor that detects vibrations, can detect movement as slight as 0.000001 millimeters, which is almost no movement! Ruffini corpuscles keep you from leaving your hand on a hot plate, Merkel cells respond to constant pressure, and Meissner’s corpuscles detect light touch. People often say that women are much more sensitive than men, and while I’m not sure who is more emotionally reactive, it is scientifically recognized that women are more sensitive to tactile touch, although there is a rumor that Bubby’s have no Ruffini corpuscles which is why Bubby’s can take boiling hot pans out of the oven with no gloves.
However not all skin is created equal. The lower layer, called the dermis is hard at work, moving nutrients around, creating hair, aiding in sensation, and assisting in thermoregulation, among other jobs. All the life of the skin is supported in the dermis, because only the dermis has blood vessels and nerve endings.
The upper layer is called the epidermis, and it’s job is to create a waterproof barrier, (so that when you shower you don’t gain forty pounds) and to determine the color of the skin. Skin color is created by a tiny sliver of epidermis about a millimeter thick, which means that if you can just look past that millimeter, we all are exactly the same. But that millimeter is hard at work. There are over 120 genes involved in skin pigmentation, but far and away the most important one is a molecule known as eumelanin, and usually known just as melanin. Melanin doesn’t only color human skin, it determines our hair color, the beautiful plumage of bird’s feathers, the coloring and luminescence of the scales of fish, and even the purply black of a squid’s ink.
Melanin is produces in cells called melanocytes, and while all humans have the same number of melanocytes, they don’t all produce the same amount of melanin. The more melanin you produce, the darker your skin. While skin tone remains the same throughout one’s life, hair doesn’t. The production of melanin for your hair starts slowing at some point in life, which is why hair goes gray and eventually white.
But the most fascinating thing about skin is that it refreshes itself so frequently. The only life that the epidermis has is from it’s connection to the dermis, where all the blood vessels are (cells need blood to stay alive, as blood is the delivery system for oxygen and nutrients). So the bottom layer of the epidermis is the most alive, but as new epidermis cells are created, the older ones get pushed closer to the surface. Unmoored from their source of life, they die, and get pushed closer and closer to the surface by the new cells beneath them. Eventually, long after they are dead, they reach the surface of the skin, called the stratum corneum, where they hang on for a few days, and then dry out and get rubbed off the skin, and become dust. Literally. A significant percentage of the dust around us is made of dead human skin flakes. When you wipe the dust off a bookshelf, your cleaning away the vestiges of your former self.
As we walk, we leave a trail of skin fragments, known as squamae (from the Latin word for scales) behind us. The average person leaves about a pound of squamae behind each year. When Hashem told Adam (Genesis 3:19) “for dust you are, and to dust you will return,” not only does that happen after one passes from this world, even while we are alive, we are returning to dust! So when we look at one another, all we see are dead skin cells, and thank G-d for making dead skin look so good! Each month we go through a full renewal of our skin!
We are not the only species to undergo this sort of transformation. Many animals molt, which is the term that describes the process of shedding old skin, feathers, hair, a protective shell, or even an entire exoskeleton. For a long time, it was thought that the process was only done for the purpose of growing bigger, like a snake shedding its old skin so that it can grow bigger, or a crab shedding its exoskeleton so that it can grow a bigger one. But a recent study of whales provided a whole new understanding of the phenomenon.
Whales are prolific travelers. Many whales will migrate vast distances, ranging from 6,000 miles to 12,000 miles. Scientist were puzzled by this migration, because the view is pretty much the same in the Arctic Sea as it is in the Caribbean Ocean, so they couldn’t be sightseeing. For many years the assumption was that whales would “feed in the cold, breed in the warm,” meaning they would spend most of their time in the colder waters eating what they could find, but then move to the warmer waters to breed, away from predatory killer whales that could eat their young.
But the problem is that the killer whales also migrate about 6,000 miles a year, and they don’t need to fear anyone eating their babies. They have even been spotted having babies and caring for them in the colder waters, so what could be the purpose of their migration? Recent scientific papers are pointing to molting as their drive for their annual 12,000 mile round trip adventure (which they can complete in as few as 42 days!). It seems that while in the cold water of the Arctic Sea whales divert blood flow away from the skin to the internal organs to keep the body temperature warm enough. The slower blood flow to the skin doesn’t allow for the skin to reproduce quickly and molting cannot occur. So while in the colder waters, the skin just gets a bit thicker, which actually provides better insulation. The problem is that the skin just sticking around makes it a lot more susceptible to bacterial infections, which can kill off a giant whale.
So once a year, it travels to the warmer waters. Less blood is needed to heat the internal organs, more blood goes to the skin, the skin dramatically increases its production of new skin cells, and the old ones go sliding off, much like the squamae coming off of our skin! Which now brings us back to humans. Perhaps the reason that we shed so much skin is similar. We need a barrier to keep out all the bacteria and fungi floating around in the air around us. We don’t want to expose live cells to it, because they could get infected and pass the infection onto the rest of the body. So Hashem created a system, where only your dead cells interact with the outside world. But since they are dead, bacteria can start getting into them because they have no ability to fight disease, so Hashem made it that they are constantly being replaced. Fascinatingly, your eyes, which do face the world, and are alive, are constantly being washed with your tears that have antimicrobial chemicals in them to stop your eyes from being a vector of disease transmission!
“How great are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your possessions!”(Psalms 104:24)
I wish I could bottle up the wonder and amazement I’m feeling right now, and take it out whenever I’m having a bad day! I would pay at least $50 for a bottle of this kind of wonder. (And I’d even be OK with them tacking on $12 for shipping and handling!) But besides standing i wonder of how complex our biology is, and how full of miracles it is, we also have to ask ourselves, why? Hashem could have made a billion other miracles with our skin, so why did He choose to have us molt?
Perhaps Hashem is showing us an important message, the importance of hischadshus, renewal. The Torah in Deuteronomy (26:16) says, “This day, the Lord, your God, is commanding you to fulfill these statutes and ordinances, and you will observe and fulfill them with all your heart and with all your soul.” The obvious question is that the Lord our God commanded us to do the mitzvot forty years earlier at Sinai, so what is Moshe talking about? Rashi answers this by quoting the Midrash Tanchuma, “This suggests: each day they (God’s commandments) should be to you as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though you had received the commands that very day for the first time.” Moshe was telling the Jewish people that the way they will be successful at following the Torah is by always making it new, always looking for a new way to connect with Hashem, a new understanding of Shabbos, a new commentator to study, a new mitzvah to focus on.
The world around us is oxidizing, and if we just remain the same, we are going to be exposed to more and more toxicity and eventually it can take us down, creating soul sepsis. Rather what we need to do, is constantly recreate ourselves, constantly infuse new “skin” into our life, so that we can let all the old skin that has been exposed to the toxicity to just molt off of us. This way, we are always refreshed, always ready to take on a new challenge, and truly protected from the bacterial and fungal infections floating around us.
Far greater than the miracle of human skin, of the process of human molting, is the lesson we can learn from it; the importance of always refreshing ourselves, and almost monthly creating a new version of ourselves. The inside is always the same, my soul doesn’t change, but the world-facing me is constantly on the move, creating and recreating, growing, sloughing off any negativity, and moving ever closer to the best me!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s Parsha, we find Avraham trying to find a proper shidduch, a match, for his son, Yitzchak. Avraham’s trusted servant Eliezer is sent on this important mission. Soon after leaving, he meets Rivka, a girl from a good family who also happens to have the prerequisite character traits of kindness and humility that make her a prime candidate for the shidduch. She invites Eliezer to her home and he graciously accepts.
“ The man (Eliezer) came into the house and unmuzzled the camels. He gave the camels straw and fodder…Food was set before him,” (Gen 24:32-33) The commentators wonder
hy the Torah went out of its way to inform us that Eliezer fed his camels. Would we have thought that he starved his camels?
One answer is that this shows us that Eliezer was meticulous in a very important mitzvah that applies to many of us today. The Halacha says that a person is supposed to feed his animals before feeding himself. This is derived from a verse in the second paragraph of Shema “And I will provide grass in your field for your animals, and you will eat and be full.” (Deut 11:15). We see that Hashem concerns Himself with providing for our animals first, and then for us. If we want to emulate Hashem, we too must do the same. If we have a pet, we need to ensure that it is fed before we have our own meal.
The verses here regarding Eliezer indicate that he too followed this precept. It wasn’t enough for him to feed his animals, he needed to feed them before food was put before him. “He gave the camels straw and fodder…” and only after that “Food was set before him.”
Sensitivity to animals is not only a mitzvah, it is also a litmus test for Jewish leaders in many occasions. In this week we find that Eliezer devises a test to determine who would be a woman worthy of marrying Isaac. The test revolved around finding a girl who would not only be willing to give Eliezer a drink, but would be willing to water his thirsty camels as well. Moshe sees his vision of Hashem in the burning bush while running after a stray lamb to lead it back home. King David is busy tending sheep when Samuel comes to anoint him as king of the Jewish people.
Displaying kindness to all of Hashem’s creatures is the hallmark of someone who recognizes and respects their source. Let’s keep this important mitzvah in mind, and even if we don’t have a pet or any other animals, let’s learn from the Torah’s remarkable sensitivity to all creatures great and small!
This week’s Parsha begins with the passing of Sara, the first of the matriarchs. The Torah tells us about the difficulty that Avraham underwent trying to buy the proper burial place for his family. Avraham dealt with a person that would make a used car salesman look like a saint. The place was called Me’arat Hamachpela, where Adam and Eve were buried.. (Today, Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, and Jacob and Leah, are all buried there. You can still visit this holy site in Israel, although Arabs control Hebron where the Me’arat Hamachpela is located and you need a military escort.
Efron the Chiti, the owner of the aforementioned cave, pretends to want to give the field to Avraham for free, knowing that Avraham won’t take it. This prevents Avraham from bargaining when Efron says, “So let’s just get the deal over with. Here, just give me $40,000,000 which is nothing between friends, and you can go bury your deceased.” (The number wasn’t in USD; I’m using a little writer’s license.) Parenthetically, this was another challenge Avraham had to face, paying an exorbitant price for his wife’s burial place when Hashem had promised him the entire land! Avraham pays the money without complaint, realizing that the proper burial place for the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Jewish nation is priceless.
After burying Sara, Avraham immediately starts to work on finding a mate for his son. With the Akeida fresh in his mind, Avraham feels the urgency of continuing the line of his progeny and dispatches Eliezer to find a wife for his son. Avraham makes Eliezer swear before he leaves that he will make every attempt to find a wife from Avraham’s family and not from the Canaanites living in the land.
Eliezer asks Hashem to help him in finding the proper girl. He even devises a challenge that he asks Hashem to use as the litmus test to determine the future matriarch of the Jewish nation.
According to his plan, Eliezer would ask a number of girls for a drink as they drew water from the well for their families. The one that would say, “Not only will I give you a drink, but I will also water your camels,” would be the one to prove herself worthy of marrying Yitzchak.
Using this test, he quickly finds Rivkah, a daughter of Besuel, granddaughter of Avraham’s brother Haran . When Eliezer goes to meet the parents, he tells over the whole story of how he got there and the miracle of finding Rivka so quickly.
Rivka’s father and brother try to kill Eliezer so that they could steal the great wealth that he brought with him to give to the prospective bride. They put poison in Eliezer’s food but an angel miraculously switches the dishes, and Besuel, Rivka’s father, ends up dead instead. Lavan and his mother try to convince Rivka to stay but she declares that she wants to go with Eliezer to meet her future husband.
Rivka catches sight of her husband for the first time as he is returning from praying in the field and she is overwhelmed by his greatness. They soon marry and, as the Torah tells us, “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah. He married Rivkah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. Yitzchok was then consoled for the loss of his mother.” (Gen. 24:67) This shows us that the Torah’s view of love is something that comes after marriage,after one makes the ultimate commitment to a partner, not the infatuation people often feel and describe as “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels in love!”
The Torah then mentions some of the genealogy of Avraham, and Yishmael. It also describes the death of Avraham at the ripe old age of 175. He was buried with his wife in the Me’arat Hamachpela.
The Torah concludes the Parsha with a description of Yishmael’s genealogy, indicating that Avraham treated him as a true son, despite the fact that he had a child from his primary wife, Sara. That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week: A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle. – Benyamin Franklin
Random Fact of the Week: Shakespeare’s works contain first-ever recordings of 2,035 English words, including critical, frugal, excellent, barefaced, assassination, and countless.
Funny Line of the Week: War does not determine who is right, only who is left.
Have an Phenomenal Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham