Archive for category Science and Nature

The Scent of Spirit

images“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” wrote William Shakespeare, arrange ten simple words into possibly the most famous aphorism in the English language.

And yet, for all the mystique and romance associated with the beauty of the rose, the greatest of all poets recognized fragrance, not visage, as the defining quality of the most admired flower.

Bonnie Blodgett would almost certainly agree. In Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing and Discovering the Primal Sense, Ms. Blodgett describes the emptiness and depression that took over her life when a zinc-based nasal spray disrupted the operation of her olfactory nerve and disfigured her sense of smell.

Gone were the familiar, reassuring fragrances of her garden, replaced by ceaseless aromas of rotting flesh and excrement, which Ms. Blodgett describes as nothing less than torture. But even when these “phantom smells” abated, the odorless existence that replaced them was only a marginal improvement.

“I had no way of knowing before what it would be like to not smell anything,” she told NPR. “When I woke up and sniffed and there was nothing there — I don’t know how to explain it — I felt completely disconnected. I truly felt as if colors were more flat. The voices in conversation felt like a TV soundtrack to me.”

Adding insult to injury was the lack of sympathy received from friends. Unlike blindness, deafness, illness, or injury, most of us cannot relate to an impaired sense of smell as especially debilitating. Of all our senses, it is the one we are most likely to take for granted.

Of course, not everyone fails to recognize the power of fragrance. From Cleopatra to Oprah Winfrey, the rich and powerful have scented themselves to augment their personas and project an image of potency, charisma, or sensuality. Today, the research, development, and production of perfume and cologne have created a $25 billion industry that markets, in the words of star perfumer Sophia Grojsman, “a promise in a bottle.”

imagesNational Geographic explains it this way:  “Memory and fragrance are intertwined, some biologists insist, because the sense of smell plugs smack into the limbic system, the seat of emotion in the brain. No other sense has such immediate access.”

The unique power of fragrance takes little time to assert itself in the chronicles of mankind. Immediately upon exiting the ark, Noach gave thanks for his salvation by building an altar and bringing offerings of thanksgiving. “And Hashem smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Hashem said to Himself, Never again will I curse the earth on account of man” (Bereishis 8:21).  According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, the Torah uses the language of “aroma” to describe direct contact over a great distance in the finest detail and in the most subtle ways.

The Hebrew words rayach (scent) and ruach (spirituality) derive from a common grammatical root, and the implied connection between them appears as early as the narrative of man’s formation, when the Almighty “breathed a living soul into his nostrils” (Ibid. 2:7).  The common derivation of the Hebrew words neshimah – “breath” – and neshomah – “soul” – suggests that our spiritual life force comes, literally and metaphorically, by way of air and respiration. By the same token, the spices we inhale as part of havdalah ease our transition from Shabbos, a day of heightened spiritual sensitivity, back to an existence defined by the physical and the mundane.

In the days of the Mishkan and the first Beis HaMikdash, the burning of incense made up the most intensely spiritual form of service: the only offering presented in the Kodesh HaKedoshim, once a year on Yom Kippur.  Here, explains Rav Hirsch, we find a symbol for the Jewish people’s total ascension before G-d through their commitment to His service. In the language of Chazal, smell is that which benefits the soul and not the body (Berachos 43b).

Just as smell is the most difficult sense to measure, quantify, and define, so too is our spiritual essence the least palpable and discernable facet of our existence.  Similarly, the interplay between one soul and another is the most elusive of human pleasures, but it is also the most rewarding.  As Shlomo HaMelech says, “Scented oil and incense gladden the heart, sweet as the sincere counsel of a kindred soul” (Mishlei 27:9).  Indeed, the smoky fragrance of incense wafting into the corners of our minds and rippling across the strings of our hearts is anything but smoke and mirrors; it stirs our memories and hopes and dreams the same way that true friendship and camaraderie arouse our spirit.  Truly, the faculty of smell provides the spice of life by adding texture and dimension to all our other senses.

Ask Bonnie Blodgett.  As suddenly as her sense of smell disappeared, just as suddenly it returned, and she will never take it for granted again. “I was going around smelling everything,” she says. “Being able to smell lilacs again was just — I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”

imagesBut it goes beyond mere olfactory pleasure. There is truth to common expressions like he has a good nose for business and something doesn’t smell right. Like our sense of smell, human intuition is our intangible moral compass, guiding us when we encounter something for the first time to quickly assess its value and authenticity.  When Yaakov Avinu, disguised as his brother, Eisav, entered his father’s tent, Yitzchok exclaims, “The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field blessed by G-d” (Bereishis 27, 27).  The sages elaborate, explaining that the fragrance of Gan Eden had entered with Yaakov, convincing Yitzchok to bestow his blessing (Rashi, ad. loc).

What was this “fragrance of Eden”?  It was nothing less than the soul’s eternal connection with the Almighty’s master plan, which began with the creation of a perfect world and will culminate in the rectification of the Sin of Adam signaled by the arrival of the messianic era.*  And throughout the long generations of chaos in between, the spiritual nature of our world can be scarcely perceived through sight, sound, touch, or taste.  But it can be smelled, if we pay attention to the subtle pleasures of life that are expressions of the human soul and contemplate the mysterious allegory of fragrance.

And so Chazal tell us that, when Moshiach comes, he will “smell and judge,” – determining complex truths through spiritual discernment (Sanhedrin 93b).  Thus we find, according to Chassidic tradition, the story of Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, the 18th Century Torah giant whose wife ran through the door one afternoon shouting, “Mendel, Mendel, there’s a man outside shouting that Moshiach has arrived!”

Immediately, Reb Menachem Mendel jumped up and ran to the window, took a long sniff of air, then shook his head and muttered, “Nonsense!” before returning to his studies.  Like Yitzchok Avinu, the rebbe knew that a world with Moshiach smells different from a world without Moshiach, and that if he could not detect the fragrance of Gan Eden then certainly Moshiach had not yet arrived.

Two generations later, Reb Yisroel of Rizhin asked why the illustrious rebbe had to run to the window – why could he not simply sniff the air in his own home?

The Rizhiner answered his own question.  So involved was the Rebbe with his own personal avodas Hashem, so intent was he upon hastening the arrival of Moshiach, so profoundly had he had already connected with the spiritual source of the universe that his own house had already acquired the fragrance of Gan Eden.  Consequently, he had to run to the window to discover what the rest of the world smelt like.

The more we focus on what we should be doing to bring Moshiach, the more our lives will acquire the fragrance of the messianic era.  And the more eagerly we await Moshiach’s arrival, the sooner we will enjoy a world in which we draw in the aroma of kedusha with every breath.

*Based on the Malbim, loc. cit.

Published in Iyan Magazine, 2 July 2014.  With thanks to Rabbi Shraga Simmons and Aish.com.

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Weighing in on Evolution

Teaching Jewish history and philosophy, I try to encapsulate for my students what I have heard and read from critics of evolutionary theory.   My purpose is not to disprove evolution per se, but to demonstrate that the theory of evolution is not as sacrosanct as the scientific community and conventional wisdom would have us believe.  Since I am not a scientist, I have to  sift though what evidence is available in layman’s terms and try to evaluate the often strident voices on each side of the argument.

Having recently revisited the issue, I remain confidant in my conclusion that evolution may have guided the formation of life, but that it could not have done so without divine guidance.  Despite the vehemence of those who reject Creationism or Intelligent Design, it seems to require a massive leap of faith to conclude that life could have developed into its present form without help from outside the world of nature.  Below I provide relevant quotes and links, which I hope interested and thoughtful readers will give the attention they deserve.  Civil rebuttals from articulate spokesmen are welcome.

“Among the structures that appeared in the Cambrian were limbs, claws, eyes with optically perfect lenses, intestines. These exploded into being with no underlying hint in the fossil record that they were coming. Below them in the rock strata (i.e., older than them) are fossils of one-celled bacteria, algae, protozoans, and clumps known as the essentially structureless Ediacaran fossils of uncertain identity. How such complexities could form suddenly by random processes is an unanswered question. It is no wonder that Darwin himself, at seven locations in The Origin of Species, urged the reader to ignore the fossil record if he or she wanted to believe his theory. Abrupt morphological changes are contrary to Darwin’s oft repeated statement that nature does not make jumps. Darwin based his theory on animal husbandry rather than fossils. If in a few generations of selective breeding a farmer could produce a robust sheep from a skinny one, then, Darwin reasoned, in a few million or billion generations a sponge might evolve into an ape. The fossil record did not then nor does it now support this theory…

“The abrupt appearance in the fossil record of new species is so common that the journal Science, the bastion of pure scientific thinking, featured the title, “Did Darwin get it all right?” And answered the question: no. The appearance of wings is a classic example. There is no hint in the fossil record that wings are about to come into existence. And they do, fully formed.”

Gerald SchroederRead the whole essay here.

“As I began to write this novel, I found myself returning unexpectedly to the concerns of my undergraduate studies thirty years ago. Back then, evolution was so controversial that one quickly learned to write cautiously, justifying even the mildest statement with scholarly footnotes. If anything, evolution is more controversial today. And in its modern formulations, evolutionary theory is forbiddingly difficult, and frequently counter-intuitive…
“I remain convinced that the world we are born into is a world of controversy, and that it behooves us to respect our adversaries, and to honor them as expressing another aspect of God’s will.
“Because in the end, evolution is a profound mystery. Life is a profound mystery. And we are fools if we forget that and think, even for a moment, that we know it all…

“Take bats, which have echolocation — they navigate by sound.  To do that, many things must evolve.  Bats need a specialized apparatus to make sounds, they need specialized ears to  hear echoes, they need specialized brains to interpret the sounds,  and they need specialized bodies to dive and swoop to catch insects.  If all these things don’t evolve simultaneously, there’s no advantage.   And to imagine that all these things happened purely by chance [is] very hard to believe.”

Michael Crichton

“Life as we know it is, among other things, dependent on at least 2000 different enzymes. How could the blind forces of the primal sea manage to put together the correct chemical elements to build enzymes?  The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein… I am at a loss to understand biologists’ widespread compulsion to deny what seems to me to be obvious.”

Sir Fred Hoyle (who estimated the odds of spontaneous generation as equivalent to rolling 50,000 consecutive sixes with a single die)

“Consequently, discussion often turns to vague and murky assertion. Starlings are said to have evolved to be the color of dirt so that hawks can’t see them to eat them. This is plausible. But guacamayos and cockatoos are gaudy enough to be seen from low-earth orbit. Is there a contradiction here? No, say evolutionists. Guacamayos are gaudy so they can find each other to mate. Always there is the pat explanation. But starlings seem to mate with great success, though invisible. If you have heard a guacamayo shriek, you can hardly doubt that another one could easily find it. Enthusiasts of evolution then told me that guacamayos were at the top of their food chain, and didn’t have predators. Or else that the predators were colorblind. On and on it goes. But…is any of this established?”

Fred Reed (linked by Rabbi Dovid Gottleib, former professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins) — Read the whole article here.

I have some doubts about including the following article, having no indication of the credibility of the author.  Nevertheless, he cites many compelling sources which, independent of his own expertise or lack thereof, are worth considering:

“Harmful mutations happen constantly.  Without repair mechanisms, life would be very short indeed and might not even get started because mutations often lead to disease, deformity, or death.  So even the earliest, “simple” creatures in the evolutionist’s primeval soup or tree of life would have needed a sophisticated repair system.  But the mechanisms not only remove harmful mutations from DNA, they would also remove mutations that evolutionists believe build new parts.  The evolutionist is stuck with imagining the evolution of mechanisms that prevent evolution, all the way back to the very origin of life.”

John Michael FischerRead the whole article here.

“However, on both theoretical and experimental grounds, the broad sweep of evolution cannot be based on random mutations. On theoretical grounds, the probability is just too small for random mutations, even with the filtering of natural selections, to lead to a new species.
“On experimental grounds, there are no known random mutations that have added any genetic information to the organism. This may seem surprising at first, but a list of the best examples of mutations offered by evolutionists shows that each of them loses genetic information rather than gains it.
“One of the examples where information is lost is the one often trotted out by evolutionists nowadays in an attempt to convince the public of the truth of evolution. That is the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.
“Clearly, if random mutations could account for the evolution of life, then those mutations must have added a vast amount of information to the genetic code. From the time of the first simple organism until the present profusion of life, billions of genetic changes would have to be built up by a long series of accumulated mutations and natural selection. It follows that each of these many billions of mutations must have added information. Yet in spite of all the molecular studies that have been done on mutations, not a single one has been found that adds any genetic information! They all lose information!”

Adapted from Dr. Lee Spetner’s Not By ChanceRead a more thorough synopsis here.

One of my favorite natural anomalies is the orb spider, which spins a web solely for the benefit of the wasp larvae that have been injected into it.  This must have taken a good few million years to happen by accident.

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Is Altruism a Programmed Response?

A study by Swiss researchers earlier this year revealed what, at first glance, appears to be an astounding phenomenon: Altruistic robots.

What does this tell us about ourselves?

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Noah Redux

With global warming threatening to submerge the world beneath melting polar ice, could it be time for another ark?

Somebody thinks so.

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The Natural Order

What the Asian carp crisis can teach us about physical and moral boundaries.

The Natural Order

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Disasters

About a century ago, Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan learned of a devastating earthquake that cause countless deaths in Japan. The sage was seen to turn white upon hearing the news and immediately declared a fast. When asked why he reacted so strongly to events on the other side of the world, the spiritual leader of European Jewry invoked the talmudic teaching that everything that happens in the world should be interpreted as a message to spur us on to self-reflection and inner change. The more dramatic the event, the more urgency we should give to our introspection.

With a 6.1 aftershock having rattled the ravaged survivors of Haiti, and with the first quake having occurred on the week of the same Torah portion as the Pacific Rim tsunami five years ago, it’s worth revisiting these former musings.

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Face Off

What Jewish tradition and human psychology tell us about the Mona Lisa’s smile.

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Tsunami Season

The recent Samoan tsunami brings back horrific memories of the far more catastrophic Pacific Rim Tsunami five years ago.

Here are some reflections from back then. May HaShem comfort those whose lives have been turned upside down by the unfathomable power of nature.

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Parshas Ki Seitzei — Darwin’s Appendix

No one understands everything. The problems begin when we think we do.

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The Betrayal of Experience

An adventurist’s primer offers a strategy for spiritual survival.

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