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Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Appreciating Divine Gifts
The opening verse of last week’s haftorah came to mind as we began a cruise up and down the Norwegian coast. Early in the cruise, we encountered the trans-Atlantic remnants of Hurricane Bertha, which had spared the US East Coast, but battered Great Britain and the nearby waters. Our ship was forced to reverse course and flee the path of the storm. Aniyah Soarah*, tempest tossed ship, seemed an appropriate image for our cruise. Fortunately, the stabilizers of the Prinsendam minimized the motion but not completely so: for a day the ship did rock back and forth, despite our detour. (Thank God we had a cabin towards the center.)
The result of this backtracking was that we had an extra, unplanned, day at sea, and missed out on one of the ports of call. We arrived a day late at each of our first two ports, Bergen and Geiranger. (After the skipped stop, we were back on schedule,) Bergen is a city with medieval roots and some nice museums. Geiranger, by contrast, is but a small town--it has all of 200 year round residents--, and so whereas one may visit Bergen for the views from the top of Mount Flossen (ascent via a funicular; we did walk down)--, but focus on its history, in Geiranger there is very little history: it is the scenery of the area and of the fjords that lead to it which are the attractions.
Indeed, the sail out was such a highlight that instead of an evening of entertainment, everyone was invited to watch our passage through these waters. And while one marveled at the indomitable spirit of some of the locals in past decades and centuries to farm remote hillside locations, the attractions were those of nature: the cliffs, the trees, the waterfalls; the fjords that have been carved out over time. One need not be a creationist to marvel at the magnificence of nature and to recite the appropriate blessing: Oseh Ma'asay Bereshit, we thank God for the wonders of Creation.
It was a blessing that we had repeated opportunities to pronounce as we sailed past magnificent and awe-inspiring scenery. (We also encountered some of this breath-taking scenery as we traveled from Flam to Myrdal on the railroad: a great excursion.) And yet along with this sense of wonder, we could not help but be struck by the efforts of man to conquer the wild and untamed, be it the road up the mountain from Geiranger which took 9 years to carve out or the one that led us to Nord Kapp, the northern most point of Europe. (Actually it isn't: a nearby peninsula juts out for almost another mile north; but North Cape is the northernmost point accessible by road.) And so perhaps a second blessing was in order, in which we thank God Shenatan Machamatoh l'Basar V'dam, “who has given of His knowledge to flesh and blood,” recognizing the efforts of those who carved out roads and even places of habitations in remote parts of Norway let alone to those who design ships that enable passengers to sail through storms in relative ease, as well as those who create the technology to advise the ships of storms that must be avoided.
A beautiful trip, reminding us of the gifts of Heaven.
*I recalled the phrase incorrectly. The prophet Isaiah (54:11) used the word “Aniyah”, but his word began with an “Ayin’, not an “Aleph.” It makes a significant difference. The prophetic word refers to someone afflicted (”unhappy, storm-tossed one”)—related to the word “Anee” a poor person--; whereas the word for ship begins with the Aleph. Of course, on the cruise without access to a Hebrew text, my confusion was understandable as a couple of verses earlier reference is made to Noah.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
Stem Cells Battle ALS
One of the most frightening diseases is ALS, more commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” Victims gradually lose the ability to stand and walk and then in time have difficulty breathing as the muscles of the respiratory system weaken. 90% of those diagnosed with the disease die within 3-5 years because of respiratory failure.
An Israeli company, based in Petach Tikva, BrainStorm Cell Therapeutics NurOwn Platform is moving into phase two trials of their treatment. Developed by Professors Daniel Offen and Eldad Melamed at Tel Aviv University, the treatment involves the growth and enhancement of stems cells harvested from the bone marrow of the patients. They are then injected into the patient. These enhanced cells secrete elevated levels of nerve-growth factors that protect existing motor neurons, as well as promote motor neuron growth and re-establish nerve-muscle interaction.
Two initials trial at Hadassah Medical Center showed promising results: there was a 60% beneficial response. 4 of the patients had advanced stages of the disease, including a rabbi in his 80’s. He was able to walk and speak after the injection and regained these abilities after a second injection. A former paratrooper in his 20’s also showed marked improvement and the injections appear to have halted the progression of the disease.
The next phase, to be conducted in the US, will involve 48 patients at three centers: Mass General, University of Massachusetts Memorial Hospital and the Mayo Clinic. The double-blind study will begin this fall and the hope is that in early 2016 the data will be analyzed for safety and efficacy.
BrainStorm CEO Dr. Tony Fiorino has noted “This is really a platform technology with applications outside of ALS… The cells can apply in any disease where neurons are dying,” such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The portion of Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18-18:5) is read this Saturday, August 30th.
17:17 And he [the king] shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.
He shall not have many wives. The criticism also is built on the portrait of Solomon, who reportedly had a thousand wives (I Kings 11:1-5), many of them foreigners with whom he made political marriages. Such marriages were common in the ancient world for their diplomatic benefits, for they worked to assure peaceful relations between the royal families and thus their countries. The fact that Israelite kings had foreign wives of royal lineage shows they were players on the international scene. The Bible is concerned with the importation of foreign wives, because it believed these wives introduced their own forms of foreign worship into the royal court, thereby “leading the people astray” with idolatrous practices. Jezebel stands out as prime example, for this Phoenician princess and wife of King Ahab worshipped Baal—and led her husband to do so as well (I Kings 16:31-33; 21:25-26). (Adele Berlin, “Shof’tim: Law and Order” in Eskenazi and Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Adele Berlin, now professor emerita, was the Robert H. Smith Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Maryland. Born in 1943, she attended the University of Pennsylvania where she earned her doctorate in 1976. Beginning in 1979, she taught at the University of Maryland in the Jewish Studies Program, the Hebrew Program, and the English Department. Her main interests are biblical narrative and poetry, and the interpretation of the Bible. While at Maryland, Professor Berlin served as Director of the Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Studies (1988-91), held the position of Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs (1994-97), and was Chair of the University Senate for the 2005-2006 academic year. Professor Berlin has written seven books and numerous articles and essays. Among her books are three commentaries: Zephaniah [Anchor Bible], Esther JPS], and Lamentations [Westminster John Knox Press]. The commentary on Esther was translated into Hebrew as part of the Miqra Le-yisra’el series. Her volume, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative, is seen as seminal. She co-edited with Marc Brettler The Jewish Study Bible, which received a National Jewish Book Award. She also served as editor-in-chief for the revised edition of The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion and was president of the Society of Biblical Literature. Currently, she is working on two new commentaries: one on Psalms and another on the Song of Songs.)