It’s Not Just Grammar That Saves Lives

The story of creation at the beginning of the Torah is one of the greatest gifts that Hashem gave to mankind. It tells us that Creation is purposeful! The universe it not here as an act of violence and it is not here as a side effect of an act of incest.  The universe is here because the Creator wants it, in general concepts and in specific ideas, to be here.  And it is orderly! The universe is not just a random collection of atoms but it was elegantly designed to be just so.  Mankind is part of that Creation, has a responsibility for that Creation, and is uniquely equipped for it’s mission.  What could be a greater gift to mankind  than to know it is here on purpose.

This week’s Torah reading has also inspired many a student’s question during an Ask The Rabbi session. How could it be that the world was created blah, blah and evolution and biology and so on and so forth.  I work in a school that not just allows, but encourages the students to ask these questions and we are so proud of them for it.  We embrace the questions.  In summary, here’s our answer.  The Torah and science can’t be in contradiction because they both come from the same Creator. When there appears to be contradiction either science hasn’t caught up yet or you’re learning the Torah wrong. Sure, sometimes in the details of that answer there is a tightrope to walk. But that’s the gist of it.

You see, science is the study of the What and How of the beautiful and complex universe we were gifted. Torah is the study of Therefore What. It’s obvious to every Torah scholar that the story of Creation is not a cookbook detailing How to Create a Universe.  Even the most fundamentalist of my coreligionists will have to agree that the written Torah didn’t detail every aspect of creation.  (For example, Tzimtzum, the mystical “withdrawing of the creator to make space for other beings to exist” is not mentioned in the first chapter of Bereishit  – Genesis.) If the Torah doesn’t reveal the details of how Hashem made the universe then obviously it’s points is NOT TO REVEAL THE DETAILS OF HOW HASHEM MADE THE UNIVERSE. So I offer for you this idea; the first chapter of Breishit is to teach us the big ideas mentioned above. Creation is purposeful, orderly, we have a place in it, and we are responsible for it.  Science is about How the creation works.  Torah is about what that means for me.

When it comes to studying subjects, be they science, math, literature, or world history, that are outside the strict definition of the “Torah Curriculum” there are several approaches that are common in the Orthodox world right now. Some see it as a necessary evil. People have to work for a living. To do that they need basic proficiency in the sciences and maybe, maybe in some Liberal arts. This is the Torah Im Derech Eretz camp. (Torah + earning a living.) The Torah U’madah (rough translation -Torah + knowledge) camp thinks that to really appreciate the Torah a person needs to understand all the full depth of the knowledge available in this world.  Geometry, physics, poetry, art, and so forth are all part of the creation, and as such they all contain aspects of holiness, and can be leveraged to understand and apply Torah more accurately and to enhance my relationship with the Creator.

And then there is the Torah Only camp. They believe that anything that pulls our minds and our attention away from real study of Torah is a literal waste of time. Torah is an aspect of the wisdom of the Creator, some would say an aspect of the Creator himself. It is what connects us to Him and to each other. It is the lifeblood of the Universe, the purpose of creation itself.  Every moment is precious and to dedicate hours and hours of the time, attention, and bandwidth of young impressionable minds is a horrific sacrifice that needs to be avoided at all cost.

And there is some truth to the idea that a lot of what we learn in school seems pointless.  Who hasn’t heard a teen ask when in real life they were going to use the quadratic equation? And to a teenager it hardly seems critical to know how many lines are in a sonnet or how to identify Trochaic Tetrameter. One argument is that, in fact, 15 year old you doesn’t really know what he’s going to need later on.

There is a great T-shirt out there that points out the importance difference between the sentence, “Let’s eat, Grandma!” and the sentence, “Let’s eat Grandma!” by suggesting that the one little comma there saved good old granny.  Grammar saves lives. (It’s ok, mom! You’re safe.) And it’s not just grammar that’s saving lives.

It is entirely plausible that it’s not just English Composition that is responsible for saving lives.  I think excellent science education is responsible for that as well.  I know I don’t live in NY and I know that the state and city government is quite possibly being unfair.  But I can tell you that in a weekly magazine for the Orthodox and Hassidic community, this past summer the editor wrote a letter about how life in Brooklyn looks like it has mostly returned to normal. You could walk down the street she said, and do your shopping, and almost no one was wearing a mask!  She said it as praise of the resilience of the community. But we were horrified to hear about the casting off of the most common sense, low cost/high reward safeguard in such a flippant manner . I personally was in a frum grocery store in the Catskills (the target consumer was Brooklyn Jews in the Upstate for the summer) and not one customer and not one employee was wearing a mask. (Thought I did see plenty of Hassidic Jews wearing masks in Walmart. Baruch Hashem.)  The same people that don’t learn science, and worse, don’t APPRECIATE the sciences as an aspect of wisdom, are seeing a spike in infections and retaliation by the government.

To be clear, there are probably other communities that are violators. And the Governor probably is overly focused on these areas in Brooklyn.  And there are anti-Semitic overtones.  And I know that it’s hard to imagine that taking 9th grade biology seriously would have had a real impact on the many lives lost.  And I know that it’s not just science that’s being ignored.  These people are also ignoring the many rabbonim that have pleaded with the community to abide by the laws and wear mask.    But I can’t help but notice that in the same communities where secular education is eschewed this disease has had the biggest impact. Maybe it’s correlation and not causation. But I hope you’re wearing your mask so we can eat more, Grandma!



About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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