Naked Mole Rat, Darwin And King David [Parshat Re’eh By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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But you shall not eat … the camel, the hyrax, and the hare, for they chew the cud, but do not have split hooves; they are unclean for you – Deut 14:7

The Midrash relates a fascinating story about a young man named David, who would eventually become King David, leader of the Jewish nation. David is fleeing for his life, chased by the henchmen of King Saul, and takes refuge in a small cave. It is too late to find a safer place to hide and David realises that he is trapped; with no way out of his situation … he will soon be caught and killed.

David sits in the dark, awaiting capture, and he hears the footsteps of soldiers approaching, yet they do not enter the cave – they talk for a while and then move on. Inexplicably, David’s obvious hideaway has not been discovered and his life has been spared. Only when he moves to the front of the cave does he understand what has happened; a large spider’s web stretches unbroken across the entrance, showing without a doubt that no one had entered recently.  David thinks back to a recent question he had voiced to himself, “For what purpose has G-d created spiders?” Now he had his answer.

Our sages tell us that we can learn many lessons from the animals we see around us; for example we can learn modesty from the cat and a strong work ethic from the ant. King David tried to figure out the purpose of each creature, but remained puzzled by the spider and the wasp. The spider saved his life in the cave, and the wasp on another occasion. He realised that everything G-d created has its very own unique task and purpose.

In the parsha today we get a recap of the kosher laws, which animals, fish and fowl are kosher and which are not. Kashrut is a “chok,” meaning a mitzva without a clear reason given in the Torah; it is one of the commandments we do simply with blind faith. Yet often that is not enough for the less affiliated, tempted by fresh seafood, or a sizzling rasher … why should I deprive myself of a delicacy without being given a good reason? “Because G-d said so,” is not enough for many people. They want clear and empirical proof that keeping kosher has a reason.

Like King David, we want to understand the purpose behind the mitzvot … the reason why cow is kosher but horse is not; why chicken is kosher but ostrich is not; why salmon is kosher but lobster is not.  But like King David, we are not going to figure everything out, as we simply know so little about the physical world we live in, and even less about the spiritual forces which drive it. The laws of kosher have spiritual reasons, not revealed to us; some of them may have physical reasons too … as science discovers from time to time.

Until fairly recently, scientists and doctors concurred that the appendix was a useless appendage, following Darwin’s theory that it was simply a remnant from a distant ancestor, with no current function. Contemporary biologists, however, have begun refuting that theory, as they identify the appendix as having a very useful function indeed. According to current medical theory, the appendix may be a storehouse for good bacteria, a “safety tank” which can repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria after an infection. (To further debunk Darwin’s theory, they have identified the appendix as appearing in so many mammals, that it would have had to evolve independently at least 32 times for all the different species.)

Many cutting-edge technologies and medicines are currently being produced by studying and mimicking animal and plant behaviour, and we are really still only scratching the surface. Spider silk alone, which has a tensile strength of high grade alloy steel, is being studied intensively to try to mimic its properties. The US Navy is investing heavily in the study of piriform, the spider silk which remains strongly adhesive even underwater.

The Naked Mole Rat, native to the plains of East Africa, is a strange looking creature, which spends all its life underground. Recent research has shown that not only does this rodent live twenty times as long as similar rodents, but they also seem to be immune to cancer. Scientists researching this underground creature are now attempting to discover the recipe for these two elusive secrets – longevity and cancer resistance.

This, and thousands of other fascinating studies, are constantly ongoing in man’s effort to make the world we live in a better one for all. We need to remember that there is so little we do not understand, even about the items we use, or the creatures we see every single day. Only with G-d’s help are we able to slowly discover new cures and new insights on a daily basis. King David was saved by a spider, and realised that truly everything that exists was created by G-d for a purpose. We, thousands of years later, are still trying to understand the strength and adhesive ability of that same spider.

So, when people ask why we keep kosher, and why frogs’ legs are off the menu, but chopped liver is on … we simply need to tell them a story about King David, and how we really know so little about the world G-d created, and gave us to inhabit. The instruction book we were given is the Torah, and if we stick to that we can be sure that we are being the very best that we can be. One day, we may understand the reasons why. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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