In April of 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick published an article in the journal Nature describing the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. This molecule of life was arranged in a double helix structure comprised of four nucleotides symbolized by the letters A, T, C and G. Aided by the photographs and analysis of a Jewish scientist named Rosalind Franklin, Watson and Crick explained how the four letters are arranged in pairs—A with T, C with G—and in their arrangement along the strands of DNA, how they form a genetic code from which proteins are created, and all organisms are formed. They are the letters of life. Each nucleotide is indispensable, but in isolation, they are powerless. Only in their combination do the components of DNA assume their great ability to fashion life in all of its diversity and wonder.
What scientists spent much of the twentieth century discovering and describing was similar in a sense to the intuition of our ancient Sages of blessed memory. They too believed that life was formed from building blocks, and that these could be identified with a letter code, specifically with the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. In the Talmud at Brakhot 55a, Rav Yehudah says in the name of Rav that Bezalel, the architect of the tabernacle in Exodus, knew how to combine the letters used by God to create the world. Continue reading
The Mishnah famously proclaims that one must not stand to pray unless they have first focused their mind (M. Brakhot 5:1). Curiously, the Talmud pairs this instruction with a similar rule not to separate from a friend except with the proper focus of mind (B. Brakhot 31a). The Sages daringly compare the encounter of a person praying to God to the encounter between two friends. And just as one owes God the respect of proper intention when standing in prayer, so too do we owe one another proper respect when parting ways—we want to remember each other well, and to view each other not just as acquaintances but as a cherished friends and teachers. For this reason, the Sages say that when parting, one ought to share a teaching of halakhah, literally a guide for walking, so that their friend will remember them on their way. As we complete this academic year then, here is a word of halakhah that also relates to the mitzvah of counting the Omer of which we read in Parashat Emor.
Each night of the Omer season it is our custom to recite Leviticus 23:15 as an intention (כוונה) before the counting: “הנני מוכן ומזומן–Here I am, prepared and ready to fulfill a positive command, as it is written: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” In this way we signal our serious intention to count the Omer and to connect the counting to its biblical source. We are very careful about the count, even though the original context for this mitzvah is a sacrificial rite which has been dormant for two millennia. The Torah’s intention seems to have been to remind the farmer of his or her dependence on God as a way of motivating the sharing of produce with the poor (see 23: 22), but the mitzvah today has evolved into a meditation on theology. Continue reading
If you want my nomination for the top phrase of the Torah, it would clearly be Leviticus 19:18b, “Love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.” The Torah’s core message is that we are responsible for one another because we share one Creator. God brings us into being, and God demands that we take care of the other. Does “love” mean tender emotions, or perhaps fair treatment? A bit of both. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch calls this “the intended climax of humanity,” when people transcend their selfish instincts and instead identify with God’s love of all. So much follows from this command, which is the foundation of social ethics and law, and yet what literally follows, the prohibition on mixing seeds, is quite a puzzle.
Leviticus 19:19 follows the command to love your neighbor “like yourself” with a demand to keep everything in God’s world in order—plants and animals and even clothes are all to be kept in neat categories. A plausible link between verses 18 and 19 is some sort of species loyalty—people should take extra care to love other people, and only other people. So too with other animals and plants—they should “love” only their own kind. God commands people to love each other, and as God’s custodians, people must likewise keep God’s other creatures in species purity and distinction. Continue reading