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Life Giving Germs

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

I’m writing this on 7 Iyar, the 12th yahrtzeit of my beloved father, Reb Mordechai ben Reb Yoseif Chaim Eliezer z”l. Reflecting back on his life, it’s clear to me that no matter how skilled a parent is in imparting lessons to us in word and even deed, there just isn’t anything quite as powerful and lasting as what his essence does for us, what we get by simple osmosis. Abba was a wonderful and wise teacher, a natural, who devoted his life to that calling; his true love was teaching Jewish children, but later in life, circumstances saw to it that public school kids were his lucky beneficiaries.

He could and would use anything to help him make a point. One story we tell in our house is of the time he was in class, a steaming cup of coffee on his desk to help him get through the six teaching periods that he’d mirthfully call his “six shows a day,” when in walked his department chairman for a surprise evaluation visit. Pivoting agilely, Abba launched into an impromptu science lesson built entirely around the contraband coffee. First, he introduced to the class the term “exothermic,” or heat-emitting, pointing to the cup of coffee, the steam rising from it. The companion term, he continued, is “endothermic,” or heat-absorbing, which, he said “is what happens when I do this” — as he lifted the “visual aid” to his lips and took a sip of coffee. Needless to say, he got an excellent evaluation.

But with all his teaching gifts, the most important things I got from my father were seemingly transmitted through the air itself as if they were germs — healthy, life-giving ones. Notice how we speak of someone’s “infectious” joy or love of something, because that’s exactly what happens: unbeknownst to us, and assuming we haven’t been “inoculated” by cynicism, we get infected with the wonderful attitudes of a parent or teacher or friend.

I have a vivid early memory of my father returning home from his weekly visit to my big brother away at his Brooklyn yeshivah high school, and telling me how he’d dropped by the nearby pizza shop, whose Yemenite proprietor would regale him with pshatim andmidrashim galore on the parshah, which he’d then share with me. The fellow was malei v’gadush (full and overflowing), Abba would enthuse; that was the phrase he’d use as the highest compliment for a talmid chacham, and to this day my neshamah tingles when I hear someone use it.

Although I never met the man who served up pizza with a side of pshat, as my father spoke, I could see in my mind’s eye a broadly smiling, apron-bedecked Teimani, his curled peyos and beard flecked white with flour, sharing his bounty with Abba, two Jews swimming together delightfully in the Torah’s sea — and, silently, the microbe of geshmak for Torah, all of Torah, had been passed to me.

My father wasn’t animated when he learned, but the image of him sitting at the table, puffing on his pipe as he looked into the sefer in front of him, is seared into my memory — not just because that scene repeated itself thousands of times, but because when I saw it, it was clear to me there wasn’t anywhere in the universe he’d rather be than right there.

I’m not my father; I don’t think I’ll ever reach that high. But I’m hoping I can pass his “germs” along to the next generation and beyond.


NOTHING TO LAUGH AT Lawrence Krauss is a physicist who often writes about science for popular consumption. He’s also a bright Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and he wants to make sure you’re not bothered by questions like how a material world could have come into being out of nothingness.

Toward that end, he recently wrote a book entitled A Universe from Nothing, claiming the latest physics proves that G-d is not necessary to explain the universe’s existence and features. Krauss argues that, scientifically, something can come from nothing, since a quantum vacuum is “nothing,” yet particles can pop into and out of existence in that vacuum, so — voilà — “something from nothing.” But David Albert, a physicist and philosopher of science at Columbia, in a scathing New York Times review, was having none of Krauss’ attempt at eliminating G-d as the universe’s necessary Creator:

Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that….


But Albert’s more important point is that Krauss’s “nothing” is nothing other than something:

Relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states — no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems — are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff…. And the fact that particles can pop in and out of existence, over time, as those fields rearrange themselves [doesn’t] … amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.


How it is that such a bright fellow can get things so wrong, and write an entire book about it, to boot? I think I have a clue.

Dr. Krauss is a long-time friend of another Jewish boy from Brooklyn whose name doesn’t belong in this magazine. Suffice it to say he’s a billionaire wealth manager — and also a predator who uses his wealth to victimize defenseless young people, for which he’s served time in prison and paid millions to settle dozens of civil suits. But Krauss adamantly defends his friend, jumping through mental hoops to deny the obvious. Why? Well, this billionaire criminal is also a “science philanthropist,” funding the work of numerous scientists, including Lawrence Krauss. The latter recently organized a conference in the Caribbean, funded by his friend, at which 21 renowned scientists pondered the definition of gravity.

Behold the power of shochad, bribery, to “blind the eyes of the wise.” And as shochad goes, the need to answer the unanswerable about how the world began, even if one looks foolish doing so, makes a Caribbean junket look like chump change. 


IT’S ABOUT TIME Around Chanukah time, Mishpacha’s opinion columns all addressed the topic of kana’us — zealotry — and my contribution included a story I thought I’d read about Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l that seemed to capture well the importance of intellectual honesty in one’s zealotry. In it, Rav Aharon told his talmidim of his intention (never realized) to lob a stone through the plate-glass window of a Jewish organization that was stonewalling his hatzalah efforts on behalf of Jews trapped in wartime Europe. The students excitedly volunteered to come along, rocks in hand, but the Rosh Yeshivah demurred, saying that one stone was adequate to the purpose.

I generally try to verify the anecdotes I use, but I didn’t in this case, and soon enough, I learned that the story was almost surely a fiction. It wasn’t just something Rav Aharon hadn’t said, but worse, wouldn’t have said. One of Rav Aharon’s oldest talmidim told me he couldn’t say for sure, but everything he knew of his rebbi told him it never happened, and I heard second-hand that others had flatly contested its veracity.

Obviously, the thing to do was to tell readers the story wasn’t true, right? And I told myself I’d do so … next week. But “next week” came and went, as did many more weeks, and no mea culpa appeared in this space. This, despite that it didn’t seem hard to me to own up to what was, after all, just an innocent mistake. Okay, a somewhat understandable lapse of judgment. Fine, a flat-out unpardonable blunder.

True, I could perhaps partially ascribe my inaction to being qualified for membership in Procrastinators Anonymous (although, not having gotten around to remitting my dues, I’m not an actual PA member). Yet, over the months, I had marveled to myself, and to others too, about the ongoing mystery of my failure to publicly acknowledge my mistake despite the supposed ease of doing so. And somehow, that very expression of wonderment at not doing so became the substitute for doing so.

But at a wedding last week, I met a talmid chacham who told me that an illustrious grandson of Rav Aharon had told him the story wasn’t true. I decided to take the hint I felt was being sent my way, hence this retraction — and my commitment to try to be more careful.

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