Torah Weekly

For the week ending 3 January 2015 / 12 Tevet 5775

Parshat Vayechi

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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After 17 years in Egypt, Yaakov senses his days drawing to a close and summons Yosef. He has Yosef swear to bury him in the Machpela Cave, the burial place of Adam and Chava, Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka. Yaakov falls ill and Yosef brings to him his two sons, Ephraim and Menashe. Yaakov elevates Ephraim and Menashe to the status of his own sons, thus giving Yosef a double portion that removes the status of firstborn from Reuven. As Yaakov is blind from old age, Yosef leads his sons close to their grandfather. Yaakov kisses and hugs them. He had not thought to see his son Yosef again, let alone Yosef's children. Yaakov begins to bless them, giving precedence to Ephraim, the younger, but Yosef interrupts him and indicates that Menashe is the elder. Yaakov explains that he intends to bless Ephraim with his strong hand because Yehoshua will descend from him, and Yehoshua will be both the conqueror of Eretz Yisrael and the teacher of Torah to the Jewish People. Yaakov summons the rest of his sons in order to bless them as well. Yaakov's blessing reflects the unique character and ability of each tribe, directing each one in its unique mission in serving G-d. Yaakov passes from this world at age 147. A tremendous procession accompanies his funeral cortege up from Egypt to his resting place in the Cave of Machpela in Chevron. After Yaakov's passing, the brothers are concerned that Yosef will now take revenge on them. Yosef reassures them, even promising to support them and their families. Yosef lives out the rest of his years in Egypt, seeing Efraim's great-grandchildren. Before his death, Yosef foretells to his brothers that G-d will redeem them from Egypt. He makes them swear to bring his bones out of Egypt with them at that time. Yosef passes away at the age of 110 and is embalmed. Thus ends Sefer Bereishet, the first of the five Books of the Torah. Chazak


The Understanding Heart

“And Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt…” (13:17)

Rashi comments: “Why is this passage ‘closed’? Because once our forefather Yaakov passed away, the eyes and heart of Yisrael were closed.”

The “understanding of the heart” (binat halev) is one of the forty-eight ways to acquire Torah. The Torah enjoins us to love G-d “… with all our heart…” and not to “stray after our hearts.” King Solomon says,“My heart saw much wisdom” (Kohelet 1:15)”, and “The wise of heart will accept mitzvot (Mishlei 10:8).” The list of examples where the Torah and our Sages refer to the heart as a seat of cognition is extensive.

It’s easy to think of the Torah’s use of the heart as an organ of understanding as merely poetic. However, David Robson in an article for the BBC writes, “We often talk about ‘following the heart’, but it is only recently that scientists have begun to show that there is literal truth in the cliché; the heaving lump of muscle contributes to our emotions and the mysterious feelings of ‘intuition’ in a very real way.”

Robson reports that neuroscientist Agustin Ibanez met a patient — let’s call him Carlos — who had a small mechanical pump inserted in his chest to relieve the burden on his failing cardiac muscles. Apart from Carlos’ complaints that the beat of the machine seemed to replace his pulse, a sensation that warped his body image, Ibanez however suspected even odder effects were to come. By changing the man’s heart, Ibanez thought, the doctors might have also changed their patient’s mind. Perhaps Carlos would now think, feel and act differently as a result of the implant.

And the man who feels two hearts offered Ibanez, who is based at Favaloro University in Buenos Aires, a unique opportunity to test those ideas.

Ibanez’s work echoes Judaism’s view of the heart’s role in cognition — that the heart is a vital organ of perception which sometimes supersedes the brain’s ability.

It’s all too easy when reading something in the Torah or the words of our Sages that is contradicted by conventional wisdom to reach for the apologist’s lexicon and explain it away as not to be taken literally.

Another example was the ‘Big Bang’.

When Bell Labs built a giant antenna in Holmdel, New Jersey, in 1960, it was part of a very early satellite transmission system called Echo.

However, two employees of Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, had their eye on the Holmdel antenna for quite a different purpose. They realized that it would make a superb radio-telescope.

At first they were disappointed. When they started their research they couldn’t get rid of a background ‘noise’. It was like trying to tune into your favorite radio program and it being obscured with static. This annoyance was a uniform signal in the microwave range which seemed to come from all directions. Everyone assumed it came from the telescope itself.

They checked out everything, trying to find the source of this excess radiation. They even pointed the antenna right at New York City — there’s no bigger urban radio ‘noise’ than the Big Apple. It wasn't urban interference. It wasn't radiation from our galaxy or extraterrestrial radio sources. It wasn't even the pigeons. Penzias and Wilson kicked them out of the big horn-shaped antenna and swept out all their droppings.

The source remained constant throughout the four seasons, so it couldn't have come from the solar system. Nor could it be the product of a 1962 above-ground nuclear test, because within a year that fallout would have shown a decrease. They had to conclude it was not the machine and it was not random noise causing the radiation.

What was it then that they were hearing?

Eventually they came to the staggering conclusion that what they were hearing was the very first moments of the creation of the universe.

In the 1950s there were two theories about the origin of the universe. The first was called the Steady State Theory. It had been put forward by Hermann Bondi, Thomas Gold and Fred Hoyle and held that the universe was homogeneous in space and time and had remained like that forever — in "a steady state". This was essentially what Greek culture had posited: the universe was kadmon and it had always existed.

The rival and, at the time, more controversial theory sought to incorporate the expansion of the universe into its framework. Edwin Hubble had shown in 1929 that galaxies are moving away from one another at remarkable speeds, implying that the space between galaxies is constantly expanding. A few physicists, led by George Gamow, had taken this notion and argued that the separation between galaxies must have been smaller in the past.

If one extrapolated this idea to its logical conclusion, it meant that at one point in time the universe had been infinitely dense. Using the laws of physics Gamow and his colleagues were able to show that this point — which was also infinitely hot — corresponded to the moment of creation. Everything in the universe had emerged from this incredibly dense and hot state in a cataclysmic event astronomers call the ‘Big Bang’.

In 1965, Penzias and Wilson discovered that the mysterious radio signal was cosmic radiation that had survived from the first moments of the universe. It was proof of the ‘Big Bang’.

We know when that ‘Big Bang’ happened. In the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana we find “Says Rabbi Eliezer, the world was created in Tishrei.” As we say in the prayers of Rosh Hashana: “This is the day of the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day.”

Judaism is not fundamentalist, but it is rooted in the fundamentals.

And even when conventional wisdom seems to be at odds with the Torah, if you wait patiently you will see that the un-conventional wisdom of the Torah turns out to be the truth.

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