Parshiyot Acharei Mot - Kedoshim 5759 "After the Death - Be Holy" Rabbi Berel Wein, Shlit"a, would remark occasionally that he'd learned an important lesson from one of his Eastern European "rebbes," or teachers of Torah, at the Chicago Yeshivah in which he'd studied - how to read a newspaper! Sometimes, an entire "shiur," or lesson, would be devoted to an analysis of the paper's content, because the rebbe felt that the newspaper was, in a sense, equivalent to a "Sefer Mussar," one of the classic Jewish texts on ethics and morality.
That is by way of introduction to and, to some extent apology for using, for the second week in a row, the New York Times as a source text (perhaps that explains why this column is called "Second Opinion").
Recently, the Times reported that a group of scientists had announced major progress towards slowing, on a cellular level, the aging process in laboratory animals, by inhibiting, somehow, the gene responsible for aging. The effect they claimed was to have doubled the life-span of these animals, with youthful vigor retained well into "old age." They speculated that the application of this bio-technology to human beings could, not long into the next century, lengthen the average life-span to 120 or 130 years, with exceptional individuals surviving (in relatively good health) to the age of 200!
Now the Bible does record life-spans of those lengths, and far beyond those, up till a maximum of 969 years, which was the age of Mesushelach, or Methuselah, as recorded in Bereshit (5,27), at the time that he departed this world. And the numbers do seem to be "in the ballpark" of 120 years, which is what the Torah says is the new "maximum" age in postdiluvian (after the "Mabul," the Great Flood) times.
One doesn't know what to say, whether to congratulate the scientists on their genius, or to be fearful that the manipulation of our own genes in this manner may be equivalent to the "Eitz HaChayim," the Tree of Life, in a modern setting. To eat from that tree, in order to increase the length of their lives, was prohibited to Original Man and Original Woman at the very beginning of human history. The Jewish People were also given a very different kind of "Eitz HaChayim," namely, the Torah, which is called "Eitz Chayim he LaMachazikim bah." It is a tree of life for those who grasp it!
"Adam HaRishon," Original Man, was commanded to "conquer" the earth. This "conquest" included the geographical exploration of the entire planet and productive, protective and beneficial use of all its resources.
In that spirit, the Twentieth Century has been a period of unprecedented intellectual advancement for Mankind. Its development, in the earlier part of the century, of the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, later the unraveling of the structure of DNA, finding evidence of the Big Bang, the engineering mastery involved in the manned flight to the Moon, and unmanned exploration of the inner and outer planets, all bear this out. The Hubble Telescope has been mounted in outer space, to peer to the end of the known universe, nearly back to the "beginning of time."
But modern man must be wary of arrogance, of falling into the trap of Ozymandias, whose ruined statue, presiding headless over a desolate wilderness, bears the inscription, "I am Ozymandias, king of kings, look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
The second parshah we read this Shabbat is "Kedoshim," which advises man to "be holy," in emulation of G-d. And one of the descriptions of Hashem is that provided by Rabbi Yochanan, which we recite at the end of each Shabbat, the Day invested with holiness by G-d, "Every place we find the greatness of the Holy One, Blessed be He, there also do we find His humility. This matter is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets and repeated yet a third time in the sacred writings."
"It is written in the Torah, 'For Hashem your G-d is the G-d above all gods, and the Master over all masters, the Omnipotent One Who is Great and Mighty and Awesome, Who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe' (Devarim 10:17). And it is written immediately thereafter, 'He performs justice for the orphan and the widow, and He loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing' (Devarim 10:18).
Now, as Werner Wolf would say, "Back to the newspapers!" About a year ago, the Sunday Times announced a possible breakthrough in the treatment of cancer, a scourge of the human race throughout history.
Two drugs had been discovered which had the remarkable effect of totally eradicating cancer-related tumors of all kinds in laboratory animals, a feat which had never been achieved before! (Of course, the following week, the Times editor printed not a retraction, but a slight apology and back-off from the original enthusiasm, because the newspaper had been besieged by hundreds of cancer patients who thought that a cure was at hand. One learns from this that in general, enthusiastic newspaper accounts should be taken with a grain of salt.)
However, I did confirm last week with a friend who works for a company engaged in this type of research, using this methodology, that the results were indeed very promising.
The possible cancer cure is elegant in its simplicity, in that the pharmaceutical agents are exquisitely targeted not on the tumors themselves, but on their blood supply. They seem to cut that off, leaving everything else intact, causing the tumors to shrink into nothingness.
Our Sages say that for every punishment that G-d has visited upon Man, He first created the "refuah," the means of its healing. The headline of the article in the Times had said that other scientists were in "awe" of the achievement by one of their colleagues. This awe was based upon the possible realization of a lifelong dream for many of them, the discovery of a cure for this dreaded and multi-faceted disease. But who said that a cure existed, that they should spend a lifetime pursuing that dream? If not for an unconscious and unacknowledged faith in the goodness of the Creator, and in the intellectual powers granted by Him to this piece of "dust and ash?" Would that the scientists would probe the source and root of their awe!
"Blessed are You, O L-rd, King of the Universe, for You have granted from Your wisdom to flesh-and-blood!"
"All my bones say 'G-d, Who is like You?' "
Indeed, "From my very flesh, I perceive G-d!"
"Blessed are You, O L-rd, Who heals all flesh, and does wonders!"
Rabbi Pinchas Frankel
Rabbi Frankel is an Educational Coordinator at the OU