Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Jews and 2020

On Rosh Hashana eve 2007, late night comic, David Letterman, quipped, “It’s Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year 5768, and I’m still writing 5767 on my checks.”

As Jews worldwide woke up this morning, it remains 5780, according to our Jewish calendar, but, last night at midnight, the world ushered in the year 2020.

In addition to being a new decade, “2020” also references eyesight. Jewish Treats would like to begin the year 2020 with a discussion of vision and the Jews.

On four occasions, the Torah describes the eyesight of four Biblical characters, and according to renowned ophthalmologist Rabbi Dr. Benjamin I. Rubin, there are medical inferences that can be made from all.

The first mention of vision challenges is to be found regarding the patriarch Isaac, whose eyes are described as “dim,” prior to when Jacob dressed up like Esau and received the blessing of the firstborn from Isaac’s father (Genesis 27:1). Rashi offers three reasons, aside from old age, why Isaac’s vision was impaired. First, the incense of the pagan offerings of Esau’s wives caused Isaac’s eyes to be cloudy, second, the tears of the weeping angels fell into Isaac’s eyes when he was bound on the altar during the Akeida on Mount Moriah, and third, Isaac’s poor eyesight was part of a Divine scheme so that Jacob would be able to acquire the blessing of the firstborn. Dr. Rubin notes that if angel tears are similar to human tears, they would be considered an antigen, or foreign protein, in the eye, which would cause an individual to mount an autoimmune response. Doctors identify autoimmune responses in the eye by looking for cells and flare. Flare, looks like smoke, which conforms with two of Rashi’s rationales for Isaac’s blindness.

Dr. Rubin found an interesting physiological component to Rashi’s third answer. People with impaired vision often have a sixth sense; Isaac should have perceived Jacob’s presence even without being able to see. However, if he suddenly lost his vision, even after a long history of vision decline, such as glaucoma, he would not have yet developed that extra sharp perception in his other senses. 

Second, the eyes of Leah are described as “soft” as compared to Rachel, her sister, whom the Torah designates as “beautiful and well favored.” (Genesis 29) Rashi comments that people would often approach Leah and assume that she would marry her cousin Esau, just as the two younger cousins, Jacob and Rachel, would be destined to marry. This caused Leah to cry excessively, hence her soft eyes. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra cites an opinion that claims that the Hebrew word for soft, “rakot” was really meant to be “arukot,” meaning long. When one squints, the eyes seem long. Perhaps, advances Dr. Rubin, Leah suffered from myopia. Without glasses, she would be constantly squinting. Interestingly, a Midrash (Seder Olam Rabbah 2) claims that Leah and Rachel were twins (similar to Esau and Jacob). Science has shown that it is possible for one twin to be myopic while the other twin is not. Perhaps this is why Leah’s eyesight, which led to constant squinting, is contrasted with Rachel’s beauty.

Finally, Jacob and Moses’ eyes are described in opposite ways. Prior to blessing his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe, Jacob’s vision is described as “dim from age” (Genesis 48:10), yet Moses’ eyesight, at the age of 120 “did not dim.” (Deuteronomy 34:7) Dr. Rubin pointed out that cataracts make people very near-sighted and dim one’s eyesight. Prior to the description of Moses’ eyesight, he is brought up upon a mountain to see the entire world. (Deuteronomy 34:1) He was obviously not myopic, since he could see the whole world.

Happy 2020! May it be a year of enhanced vision!

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