The historical information in this essay is mostly culled from Bill Bryson’s book on human anatomy and physiology, The Body.
For most of human history, scratching your arm on a rusty nail could be a death sentence. The scratch wasn’t the danger, the rusty nail wasn’t the danger, it was the microscopic bacteria Clostridium tetani, that would hop into the hole in the skin that was the real killer. One bacterium is all that it takes, in 24 hours, a bacteria can create 72 generations of offspring, and if all of them survived and reproduced that would mean going from one bacterium to 121,029,087,867,608,368,146,015 bacteria in twenty four hours! Mind you, if they could keep going, in two more days, the bacteria pool would weigh more than the observable universe!
The good news is that the growth of bacteria is reliant on six different factors known as FAT TOM– food, acidity, time, temperature, oxygen and moisture, and reliably one of those factors comes up short and the bacteria stops or slows its replicating. A fever is believed to be the body heating itself up so that invading pathogens can’t replicate rapidly. But even with a fever, and white blood cell armies numbering in the hundreds of billions, a bacterial infection can be quite deadly to a person. Before the invention of antibiotics, people would frequently die from a strep throat, pneumonia, tuberculosis, or even an ear infection.
So how did we invent antibiotics? For starters, it should be argued that we didn’t, Alexander Fleming and a number of other scientists did, but how did they invent antibiotics? Before penicillin, the closest thing to an antibiotic was a drug called Salvarsan, which was a nasty substance made of arsenic. A pint of it had to be injected into the patients arm once a week for a year or more. It often had drastic side effects, including but not limited to partial paralysis, persistent penetrating pain, and/or amputation. Alexander was a celebrated physician, both as a lab researcher (he discovered a number of digestive enzymes) and as a practitioner of medicine, where he was highly sought after for his adroit Salvarsan administrations.
One weekend in the summer of 1928, Alexander Fleming left for the countryside, and forgot to tidy up his lab before leaving. He left the windows open, papers everywhere, and petri dishes used for cultivating various bacteria lying uncovered on the tables. A mold named Penicillium notatum made floated into the lab and landed on a Petri dish. It happened to be an unseasonably cool summer, which helped the spores of the mold grow, and by the time Fleming came back from his countryside respite, he noticed something strange in the petri dishes. Wherever the Penicillium mold was growing, the bacteria was not. It was the first time that humans had found something that could simply stop bacteria in its tracks. He noticed it, recognized the possible applications as a medicine, and immediately wrote an article about his discovery in a respectable journal. He tried to make it into a medicine, but he simply couldn’t find a way to produce it in any meaningful quantities, so he went back to studying saliva.
In the 1930’s a team of English researchers continued where Fleming left off, working under Howard Florey, an Australian-born researcher with the connections and charisma to get very generous funding from the British Government and Oxford University. The lead investigator was Ernst Chain, a brilliant but temperamental scientist from a wealthy Jewish family that had to flee Berlin to England with the rise of Hitler YS”V and his Nazi Party. He discovered that not only did Penicillin kill bacteria, it did so with no side effects, it was indeed a wonder drug. But Chain was also stymied by his inability to produce it in a meaningful quantity.
After years of work, in early 1941, Chain finally felt like he had enough medicine to administer it to one test subject, and the perfect subject was available. Albert Alexander, a policeman in the prime of his life, had scratched his face while pruning a rosebush in his garden. He developed a bacterial infection and was wasting away. He had already lost and eye and was delirious and close to death when Chain administered to him the first penicillin ever given to a human. His recovery was remarkable, in two days he was sitting up and almost back to normal. But there was not enough to continue the medication for the full term that was required, and as soon as the drug ran out, the infection came back virulently and a few days later Alexander passed.
As WWII made it more difficult for any earnest research to be done in England, the quest for an anti-biotic moved to a US government research facility in Peoria, IL. Suspecting that the mold could be found in soil samples, they secretly asked scientists all over the Allied world to send soil and mold samples. Hundreds were sent in from all over the world, but nothing yielded a proper mold in the quantities needed to be able to create the medicine, and the lab spent two years of frustrated research with nothing to show for it.
Then, Mary Hunt, a research assistant brought in a cantaloupe she had bought at a local grocery store for lunch. She happily shared the cantaloupe with her colleagues, and they all noticed a “pretty golden mold” on the bottom of the melon. Since they were in the business of testing molds, they ran a test on it, and were shocked to discover a mold two hundred times more potent than anything ever tested before! To this day every single penicillin pill produced in the world is a direct grandchild of the original mold on Mary Hunt’s cantaloupe. Production was ramped up with incredible speed, and twelve months later, pharmaceutical companies were producing 100 billion units of penicillin a month. The invention of penicillin and the antibiotics that came from it, is to this day counted as one of the top five most important scientific discoveries of all time.
The 1945 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain, and Howard Florey for their roles in penicillin to the masses, and saving tens of millions of lives in the process. No honorable mention was made for He who sent the proper mold onto a Pertri dish in Flemings’ lab, no recognition was given to He who made the whole summer of 1928 a cooler summer so that the spores would thrive in that Petri dish, and no honor or accolade was heaped upon He who sent the cantaloupe mold directly into the lab of people searching fruitlessly for years.
Human ingenuity is great, and indeed G-d created us in His image, which gives us the ability to create new things like He does, but even with all of our resourcefulness and intelligence, G-d has a way of showing us that He stands behind our greatest successes. Not only in the discovery of penicillin, but in the discoveries of vulcanized rubber, microwaves, plastics, X-rays, artificial sweetners (some of which come from coal tar!!!), Velcro, matches, Teflon, nuclear fission, super glue, insulin, and corn flakes, the discoveries were all made by “accident,” something unexpected “showed up” and scientist studied it and discovered that they could make helpful products through it.
In this week’s parsha we read about the creation of the world, and at the end of the entire creation, the Torah says (Genesis, 2:3), “And God blessed the seventh day and He made it holy, for on it He abstained from all His work that God created to do.” Now, if you’re into your grammar, you might be wondering how the words “to do” got stuck at the end of that verse, couldn’t the Torah just tell us, “And God blessed the seventh day and He made it holy, for on it He abstained from all His work that God created.”
But our Rabbis tell us that with that phrase “to do,” G-d is telling us why he created the world, so that we should do, so that we should create, so that we should become partners with Him in building a better world. Humanity certainly has the ability and the imperative to create, but we have to recognize that we do it in partnership with the greatest Creator of all. All of the greatest scientists, the Nobel Prize winners, were helpless at finding a medicine until Hashem sent it walking into a lab in Peoria that had been searching for it for years!
When Moshe is warning the Jewish people not to get haughty off of their successes he tells them, (Deut, 8:14-18)
“beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage; who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock; who fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end— and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case.”
Onkelos, the primary translator of the Torah, in translating the words, “remember that it is the Lord your G-d who gives you the power to get wealth” as “remember the Lord your G-d because he gives you the counsel to acquire possessions in order to fulfill the covenant He made with your fathers…” Onkelos is directly telling us that G-d plants ideas into our mind in order to make us successful. He not only makes us want to buy that building that doubled in value in two years, or to buy Amazon at $200 a share, but he also tells us, “look at that Petri dish, notice that the bacteria is not growing on it, look into that!” or “look at that mold on the canteloups, what a nice color, why don’t you put it under your microscope?” We can enter into partnerships with G-d “to do,” to build this world with Him, but we have to remember what role each participant plays in this relationship.
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed “G-d is dead,” in a collection of philosophy essays. While we can let the philosophy majors spend their time deciphering what he meant, many in the scientific community have taken it literally, and have openly claimed that science can take care of the world, G-d is a crutch needed by the feeble minded who can’t figure things out themselves, and the scientist should be the new High Priests of society, the ones with the answers, the ones with the moral compass, the ones to take of humanity.
COVID-19 certainly changed that for many. A coronavirus (COVID-19 is just one of many known coronaviruses) is significantly smaller than a bacterium. You could fit about 50 bacteria on the width of a human hair, but you could fit about 500 coronaviruses. But no matter its smallness, it has brought the entire world to its knees. During the early days of the pandemic, when it was devastating European countries, the prime ministers of both Italy and Spain came out on Twitter asking people to pray to G-d to save their country, thus reinforcing the Foxhole:Atheist ratio. Even the president of the US, arguably the most powerful man in the world, recently said openly that there were many things needed to be done to combat COVID-19, but “you still need help from the Boss,” as he pointed up to Heaven.
We can hope that humanity gets a healthy dose of humility from this experience, especially because as far as humbling experiences this has been a relatively mild one. There have been 39 million confirmed cases worldwide, with 1.1 million deaths, which is quite horrific, but when compared to the Spanish Flu it is mild. During the Spanish Flu, 50 million people died which was about 5% of the world population, which would be the equivalent of 2.5 billion people dying from COVID-19. If the COVID-19 had been more transmissible, more deadly to all age groups, or had a longer asymptomatic incubation period when people could spread the disease, the numbers of ill and dead would be higher by orders of magnitude.
That being said, let’s end of a high note. No one could cure any bacterial infections for millennia until G-d send a mold floating through an open window into a Petri dish, and a cantaloupe covered in medicine into a lab looking for medicine. If G-d wants, he could send us a cure tomorrow. And just like US pharmaceutical companies were churning out 100 billion units of penicillin a month within a year of the discovery, if G-d sends us the cure, we can “to do” with Him and use the ingenuity He gave us to scale up production in a speed the world has never seen.
Let’s bring back the “to do” partnership. Let’s openly recognize G-d for all that He has already given us, let’s ask Him to send us the cure to this wretched disease, let’s do everything we can with the wisdom He gave us to curb and treat this disease and let’s come out of this saga stronger, with more faith, more appreciation, more humility, and more openness to our greatest mandate, to join with G-d and “to do” this world a better place.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This Parsha is the most fundamental of all Parshios. Just as every physical trait a person has is coded in his DNA at the moment of conception, so too, the summation of the human experience is coded in this week’s Parsha, Bereishit. One could spend an entire year studying this Parsha and its copious commentary, and still not finish even a fraction of what it contains. In it we find; Creation, the first man and woman, the first sin, the first Repentance, the first murder, the first degeneration of society as a whole, and much more. But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this Parsha is the first sin.
G-d put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and gave them everything they could possibly need (it was always spring weather, food grew ready to be eaten on trees, there was no sickness…). G-d spoke to them (an incredible experience in its own right), and requested only one thing of them: Don’t eat from the fruit of one tree. Yet, before their first day was over, they disobeyed G-d! How can we understand this original error which impacted the world more fundamentally than any other single action in history?
One way to understand Adam’s mistake is to realize that he thought he knew a better way to serve G-d, even though G-d indicated otherwise. Adam felt that to serve G-d simply by not eating a single species of fruit, in a place where G-d’s presence was palpable, was not the most he could do. He was capable of sacrificing so much more for G-d! He was willing and able to serve G-d in a world shrouded in darkness, where it would be much more difficult to see G-d and appreciate the importance of serving Him. Adam knew that if he ate from the fruit of the tree, it would be like turning off a celestial light switch, and G-d’s presence in the world would become much more hidden as a result of sin which had entered the universe. Certain that he could still serve G-d in such a difficult world, and confident that it would result in a far greater glorification of G-d, Adam ate the forbidden fruit.
But this was a colossal error, one that until today continues to challenge us! The truth is that when a person thinks like that, he is using his ego and believing that he know better than G-d. G-d said serve me by doing X, but I say that I can serve you better by doing Y. The truth is that there can be no greater service of G-d than doing exactly what He asks from us!
Today, we find this idea particularly difficult. We try to tell ourselves that G-d didn’t really mean that we should do everything he asked of us in the Torah, or that if He would see the modern world, He would certainly cancel a number of the “outdated” mitzvot. We feel like we can decipher what He really wants of us. The truth is that if we want to serve G-d, and not ourselves, we have to lower our ego, trust that He knows best, and realize that the best way to serve Him is to follow what He asks, not what we think He should have asked! If we do that, we will be able to reverse the effects of the primordial sin and bring the world back to the utopia it was before sin arrived on the scene!
Breishit starts off with the Creation of the Universe and all that is in it. G-d completed all His work in six days (this was way before zoning laws and building codes). Here is a quick rundown on the daily creating schedule for those first six days. On the first day He created light and darkness. On the second He created the heavens and separated the lower waters (oceans, which at that time covered the globe), from the upper waters i.e. the water found in the atmosphere.
On the third day G-d pulled the waters back to reveal dry land and created all vegetation (yup, Tuesday is when cauliflower, sprouts, and lima beans appeared on Mother Earth). On the fourth day G-d created all the celestial bodies, including the sun, moon, and all the stars. On day five G-d created all the flying creatures and water-based creatures. He even blessed them that they should multiply and be fruitful.
The sixth day of creation is special because not only did G-d create all animals of the land on that day, He also created mankind in His image. This special gift gives us an infinite amount of abilities that are unique to man, such as the ability to create, to give to strangers (generally, animals only take care of their own), and the power of speech. On the seventh day G-d ceased from all the work that He had done, and in order to emulate G-d we also rest on the Shabbos, and spend that time evaluating our week and seeing how we can grow in the coming one.
G-d obviously didn’t need the rest, He didn’t feel worn out from a week of creation, but rather for us he ceased to work to help us understand the concept that there are two distinct modalities, working toward a goal, and experiencing the goal. Shabbos is a time where we experience the arrival at the spiritual locus of our week, and we can experience it fully, while still engaged in the creative process.
When G-d created Adam (the first human being), He gave him everything he needed and only asked one thing of him – that he not eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Man gave names to all the beasts and found no mate. After this experience, which taught man that without women he is totally lost, G-d created Eve (the first woman) out of one of Adam’s ribs. G-d didn’t create woman out of Adam’s head, lest she feel she could dominate him, nor out of his feet, lest he feel he could trample her. Instead, He created her out of his rib, right next to his heart, so that he would protect her, love her, and treat her with equality.
While still enjoying their honeymoon, Adam and Eve were led into sin by the serpent, which was the external representation of evil at that time. Through a manipulation technique still used by sleazy salesmen today, the snake enticed both Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. G-d punished them by making humans mortal, by giving women birthing pains and by forcing men to work for their sustenance (prior to that fully prepared pastries would grow on trees! Weight Watchers would have had a real crisis!)
Adam and Eve gave birth to two children, Cain and Abel. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. They both decided to give gifts to G-d but, while Cain gave inferior fruit, Abel gave the best of his flocks. G-d accepted only Abel’s gift. (Quick lesson: G-d wants you to mean it when you give to Him, so save your week-old pancakes for your brother, and give to G-d with all your heart. He doesn’t need a lot, but He wants to see you putting up your best effort!).
Cain got angry and jealous, and quickly became the world’s first murderer by killing his brother. Back then there were no good trial lawyers, and Cain had to deal directly with G-d, who didn’t take his excuses but rather told him that there are two paths one can take after sin – repent and be forgiven or don’t improve yourself and sin will constantly hound you.
The Torah then goes on to mention the ten generations of mankind from Adam until Noah. After that description, the Torah tells us how human beings lost all morality, and people did whatever they pleased. It got so bad that soon only Noah was righteous from his whole generation. Next week, will tell us more about where the world went (hint: think underwater) and more about Noah (hint: think above water), but before we stop, one last tidbit about Noah: he invented the plow, thus saving mankind billions of man-hours in the field planting by hand!
Quote of the Week: The future is only the past again, entered through another gate. ~ Arthur Wing Pinero
Random Fact of the Week: Your thumbnail grows slower than any other fingernail!
Funny line of the week: A bargain is something you don’t need at a price you can’t resist.
Have a Stupendous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham