You are not one, you are many. You are trillions. There are somewhere between ten and forty trillion little copies of you in this universe, each one as unique as you are. The trillions of you are found in your DNA, which is found in every one of the trillions of cells in your body.
You DNA is no simple matter either. Imagine your DNA as twenty-three skyscrapers clustered into one community, each one being millions of stories tall, and each one made of different arrangements of molecules, known as base pairs. Each skyscraper is really two buildings, one contributed by your father and one by your mother, and the two buildings are connected by bridges. Skyscraper #1 is the tallest, almost 250 million stories high, while skyscraper #21 is the shortest, about 48 million stories tall.
When the body wants to know how to build you, it looks to the arrangements set up in the skyscrapers for direction. Skyscrapers #15 or #19 tells your body what color eyes you should have. If you’re a redhead, that is because of directions sent from skyscraper #4. Your skin color is mostly determined by directions from skyscraper #16. Your height is controlled by instructions from skyscraper #17 and #5.
There is no one else in the world who has the same skyscraper community as you, which is how your DNA makes you unique. But while your skyscraper community is unique to you, it is not the only one in the world. Every cell in your body has basically the same skyscraper community, so that if even one cell in your body is found, your entire physical body can be deciphered through it.
Unfortunately, some of the instructions being sent out by your DNA skyscrapers are pretty dark. Skyscraper #5 sends instructions for Parkinsons, #1 for glaucoma and Alzheimers, #3 for lung cancer, #6 for diabetes and epilepsy, and if you struggle with obesity even though you eat healthy, blame it on #7.
The good news is that not every instruction is always listened to by the body. There are over 35,000 genes, and many of them can sit quietly for your whole life and never make enough noise to get followed out by the body. Your DNA (your skyscrapers) will not change throughout your life, but the instructions that get listened to might.
This brings us to a field called epigenetics, which studies the changes to a person (or plant, animal, etc) that are caused by how genes are expressed, not by the actual code. Imagine that some of the floors on some of those skyscrapers have cannons that shoot their instructions out to the body, and some don’t. The floors with the cannons are much more likely to have their voices heard than those without. So while your body may have over 35,000 genes, it is the ones with the cannons that are going to have the greatest effect on your body and your life!
(Geek Paragraph, feel free to skip unless you love science! The cannons are called methyl groups. A methyl group is a molecule made of one carbon atoms and three hydrogen atoms. When a methyl group attaches itself to a part of the DNA, a process called methylation, it makes that gene’s expression much stronger, and more likely to be felt throughout the body.)
Recent studies have shown the early months of a child’s life often determine which genes get the cannons. The study looked specifically at one of the most important functions of the body, inflammation, which is the way the body responds to infections and wounds. The inflammatory response is like the fire engines of the body. When a fire breaks out in a house, you want a perfectly measured response from the fire department. You don’t want them to flood the whole house with a deluge of water, but you also don’t want them to come with a few buckets.
If a person has proper inflammatory response, they will generally get sick less often, heal quicker, and live a longer life. Improper inflammatory response, is not only a problem when it underdelivers, and people stay sick longer, but also when it overdelivers and hurts healthy tissue in the process.
In the Philippines, a large study was started in 1983, tracking 3,000 pregnant women from all walks of life; some lived in poor villages with barely a roof over their heads, some were wealthy urban dwellers, some married, some raising their child without a father, etc. Multiple blood samples were taken throughout their pregnancies, their environments were carefully recorded, and then the offspring was tracked for decades, with a final blood sample drawn from each child when they turned twenty-one.
The study found that the environment children were in during their infancy had a large effect on what genes got the cannons. If there were stressors in the home such as unsanitary conditions, prolonged absence of a parent, pervasive lack of marital peace, and economic insecurity, the children did not get the right cannons and had worse health outcomes. If the child felt very safe as an infant, if the baby was nursed for a long time, and was properly cared for, the cannons were delivered to the right genes, and the children had better health outcomes for the rest of their life.
It turns out that the genes that you are born with are not the only thing that determines what your life looks like, but almost as important is the environment you were in for the first few months of life, when your body was deciding which genes would get the power.
You are not one, you are thousands. This coming year, you will be making thousands of micro-choices; whether to smile at the person who passes us in the hall, how to respond when our teenager walks out of the room while we’re in middle of talking to them, whether to get off the couch and go to a Jewish program or just hang back and chill, how much we will invest in our marriages, how will we respond when someone makes fun of another person while in conversation with us, and the list goes on endlessly.
Rosh Hashana means the Head of the Year. We may have a DNA makeup coming in to the year, we may have a lot of genes that have coded for certain activities until now, but Rosh Hashana is the time when we decide which genes will get the cannons for this coming year. It is the infancy stage of the year, when epigenetics decide what genes will get the most expression in the coming year. Will it be the genes that code for positivity and openness, or the genes that code for cynicism and rigidity? The genes that code for putting in the effort to make ourselves great, or the genes that code for “just chillin’?” The genes that code for patience and understanding, or irritability and judgement?
How we act on Rosh Hashana has a major effect on our life. There is an ancient custom (already brought down in the Talmud which was written 1500 years ago), to eat various foods and make prayers for our year to be similar to what those foods represent. We eat apples and honey and pray for a sweet new year, we eat pomegranates and pray that we should have many merits like the seeds of a pomegranate, we eat leek (karti Hebrew) and ask that our enemies should be cut off (yikartu in Hebrew). The purpose of this is to show us how powerful this day is, that even small prayers over food can influence the whole year. This is only possible because we are at the epigenetic moment of the year when our cannons are being placed for the year.
Similarly, the Sages warn us not to get angry on Rosh Hashana, to look at everyone with thoughts of love and acceptance, and to be extra careful not speak any gossip. We don’t want our cannon being places in those corners.
But most importantly, we can spend some time during the long prayer service asking ourselves, “where do I want to put my cannons this year?” I may have a lot of different emotions, habits, and attitudes in my DNA, but I get to decide now, which ones will be active and which ones will be passive! We can ask G-d to help us in lugging over the cannons from the cynical corner to the positive corner, and He will!
The DNA that coded your life until now, does not have total power over you, in the first few moments of the year, you get to decide where your energy will go, what genes will get expressed. May G-d give us the strength to maximize this amazing opportunity, and give ourselves on this Rosh Hashana the greatest gift, a sweet New Year!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parshios, Nitzavim and Vayelech, contain the last discourse that Moshe gave the Jewish people on the day he died. At the end of Parshas Nitzavim Moshe tells the Jewish people the following, “I invoke as witnesses against you this day, heaven and earth: Life and death have I placed before you, blessing and curse. choose life in order that you live, you and your descendants, to love Ha-shem, your G-d, to obey Him and to cling to Him; for He is your life and the length of your days, to live on the soil that G-d swore to your forefathers- to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Yaakov- to give them.” (Duet. 30:19-20)
While this is a very powerful statement designed to remind Jews that a spiritual life and a relationship with G-d is imperative for life, there seems to be some redundancy in Moshe’s statement, “For He is your life and the length of your day.” Isn’t your life the same thing as the length of your days?
Rav Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, (1765–1827), one of the leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland, gives the following answer in his work, Kol Simchah. When we look at the world we usually see two types of people. There are those that take great pains to stay in top form and prime health. They don’t smoke, drink, or overindulge in food. They exercise regularly, floss every night and ensure that they get enough sleep. They are usually blessed with “length of days” as a result of all the pain and effort they invested in their lifestyle. Others, however, follow the maxim, “Live Hard, Die Fast, and Leave a Good Looking Corpse!” They smoke, drink, eat whatever they want, and stay up to all hours of the night partying (yeah, just like me, sitting at 1:37 AM writing this email to the soft sound of elevator music!!!). Many would say that those folk live “the life,” but usually they don’t get to experience the length of days. (We all know that the better something tastes, the less healthy it probably is!)
But here Moshe is telling the Jewish people that the spiritual life, the one imbued with Torah and a relationship with G-d, is not like that. Within it, one will find both “the life,” an exciting dynamic life, and “length of days.” Torah is what gives us the ability to Live Hard, Die Late and Leave a Good Looking Legacy!
This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation, from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai. But this covenant contained one key difference. It included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities, loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.
If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being. Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!
Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than this, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove My protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.
Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way He rejoiced with out forefathers.
Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.
The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be learned from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, theheaven and earth fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.
Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point. Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I’m a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!
Quote of the Week: If you don’t risk anything, you risk even more. ~ Erica Jong
Random Fact of the Week: In England, the Speaker of the House is not allowed to speak.
Funny Line of the Week: All my life I thought air was free, until I bought a bag of chips.
Have a Dynamite Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham