The findings of a research project that came to light last week are mind-boggling:
Trillions Upon Trillions of Viruses Fall From the Sky Each Day
High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, an international team of researchers set out four buckets to gather a shower of viruses falling from the sky. Scientists have surmised there is a stream of viruses circling the planet, above the planet’s weather systems but below the level of airline travel. Very little is known about this realm, and that’s why the number of deposited viruses stunned the team in Spain. Each day, they calculated, some 800 million viruses cascade onto every square meter of the planet.
The study by Dr. Curtis Suttle, a marine virologist at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues, published earlier this year in the International Society of Microbial Ecology Journal, was the first to count the number of viruses falling onto the planet. The research, though, is not designed to study influenza or other illnesses, but to get a better sense of the “virosphere,” the world of viruses on the planet. Generally it’s assumed these viruses originate on the planet and are swept upward, but some researchers theorize that viruses actually may originate in the atmosphere. (There is a small group of researchers who believe viruses may even have come here from outer space, an idea known as panspermia.)
Mostly thought of as infectious agents, viruses are much more than that. It’s hard to overstate the central role that viruses play in the world: They’re essential to everything from our immune system to our gut microbiome, to the ecosystems on land and sea, to climate regulation and the evolution of all species. Viruses contain a vast diverse array of unknown genes — and spread them to other species. “Viruses modulate the function and evolution of all living things,” wrote Matthew B. Sullivan of Ohio State, Joshua Weitz of Georgia Tech, and Steven W. Wilhelm of the University of Tennessee. “But to what extent remains a mystery.” By Jim Robbins, April 13, 2018, The New York Times.
The discovery of the enormity and implication of the role of viruses in our planet’s ecology is astounding. How would Dr. Suttle react if I called to inquire, “Wow, that’s some research project you’ve got going! Can you please give me a quick lesson explaining everything there is to know about virology?” Understandably, he would politely demur and refer me to Biology 101 and suggest I work my way up from there.
In that context, we can have a better appreciation of a telling gemara in Shabbos 31a about a potential convert seemingly seeking a truncated Jewish education:
A certain non-Jew came before Shamai and said to him: “Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shamai responded by pushing him away with a builder’s measuring rod he was holding. The gentile then approached Hillel with the same request and he agreed to convert him. Hillel said to him, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a)
As explained by the 16th century Maharsha, the prospective convert was not seeking a short cut to study Torah. Rather, he was genuinely seeking to understand Judaism, albeit by one foundational principle (signified by standing on one foot), to become educated to live as a Jew. Shamai responded that it is impossible to understand all of Judaism from one principle. Why? As symbolized by the builder’s measuring rod, just as a building does not stand on one pillar, rather on a broad and deep foundation, so too the Torah. The mitzvot are numerous, have great depth and cannot be capsulated by one principle.
In contrast to Shamai, Hillel accepted the convert’s request, instructing him not to do to others anything that he himself would find unpleasant. It’s clear how Hillel’s principle is the bedrock of mitzvos that apply to interpersonal relationships (bein adam l’chaveiro). But can it also apply to mitzvot between man and G-d (bein adam l’Makom) such as eating kosher food and observing Shabbat? Hillel’s position is explained by the 11th century commentator, Rashi:
Hillel told the convert, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your friend.” The Hebrew term for friend that Hillel used is “re’echa.” But Rashi notes that Scripture also applies the term to G-d. Thus, Hillel also implies, whatever is hateful to you, you should not do to G-d. Were we to give our subordinates orders, we would be disturbed if they took them lightly and didn’t carry them out. Since G-d gave us the Torah, which expresses His will and instructs us how to act, we must therefore study it and observe it in its entirety.
The Maharsha also questions why Hillel’s response is phrased in the negative. Its message is essentially the same as that of the foundational mitzvah in Parshas Kedoshim written in the positive, “You shall love your fellow as you love yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). Why didn’t Hillel respond with that?
There are two ways of fulfilling ahavas Yisroel: either by 1) refraining from harming someone (as Hillel instructed) or 2) by a higher level of positive actions. The Maharsha explains that the verse can be understood only by reading it in its entirety: “Do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge against the members of your people, and you shall love your fellow as you love yourself; I am G-d.” The first two mitzvot in the verse are negative admonitions. The third mitzvah, “…love your fellow as you love yourself,” may be phrased in the positive, but there are two ways it can be fulfilled: either through positive actions or by refraining from causing harm to others. The context of the third mitzvah, following the two negative admonitions, reveals that the first level of ahavas Yisroel is to refrain from causing others harm.
In fact, the 13th century Sefer HaChinuch initially explains the mitzvah of loving one’s neighbor as a catch-all for several precepts not to cause harm to one’s fellow: not to steal his belongings, not to be unfaithful with his wife, not to defraud or insult him, not to trespass upon his property nor cause him damage in any way. Only afterwards does the Sefer HaChinuch describe a higher level of loving one’s neighbor through positive actions such as praising and respecting others.
Nevertheless, even Beit Hillel agrees that a short slogan is no substitute for profound Torah study. Just as there is no easy, simplistic way to understand the dynamics of earth’s viral ecology, all the more so when it comes to appreciating and integrating the breadth and depth of Torah. If we want Judaism to be truly understood and lived by our students, they need to recognize, at least for starters, that just as mastering anatomy and biochemistry enables medical students to become proficient doctors, it is Torah study that enables Jews to reach their potential as human beings.
Ultimately, infusing all our interactions and teaching with ahavas Yisroel can help our students forge a genuine connection to Judaism, as illustrated by the following incredible story about Rav Moshe Feinstein. It was shared by Rabbi Eytan Feiner in a July 2016 shiur to Olami rabbis and educators that he had previously heard from Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro.
One evening many years ago, a group of (around) eighth grade yeshiva students had a sleep-over party and decided they were going to make prank calls. But not to just ordinary people, but to Rosh HaYeshivas and Gedolei Yisroel between 12am – 1am! One boy, whom we’ll call Zvi, was assigned to call Rabbi Moshe Feinstein at 12:30am and ask a crazy, out of the world question. Now, it was known Rav Moshe would typically go to sleep at 11:00pm and wake up at 4:00am and learn before Shacharis. So on this night, at 12:30am Rebbitzen Feinstein gets a phone call.
The boy says, “Hi, I’d like to speak with Rabbi Feinstein.”
The Rebbitzen responds, “Well Rabbi Feinstein already went to sleep.”
“Well it’s urgent! It’s an emergency, you have to get Rabbi Feinstein on the phone.”
The Rebbitzen goes and wakes up her husband, the Gadol HaDor, and he comes to the phone! The boy starts asking a ridiculous question and Rav Moshe waits until the boy finishes and Rav Moshe in his astuteness immediately recognizes what is going on. In his loving, caring, concerned voice says, “Tell me, yeshiva bochur, what’s your name?”
Rav Moshe gets him into a conversation and asks him where he is learning and what he is learning. The boy tells him Baba Metziah.
“OK, Zvi, come let’s have a chavrusah – let’s learn together.”
Since Zvi is already on the phone, and Rav Moshe was speaking to him so gently, so soothingly, he decides to get a gemara.
“OK Zvi, lets learn the gemara.” And Zvi starts reading the gemara and Rav Moshe goes through the gemara with him and its already 1:00am, past 1:00am.
Rav Moshe says, “Zvi, do you chop (understand) the gemara?”
“No Rabbi Feinstein, no Rebbe, I don’t chop the gemara. Let’s do it again”
And they learn it again. They learn it three or four times until Rav Moshe is convinced Zvi understands. “Yes Rebbi, I chop the gemara.”
“OK Zvi let’s go to the Rashi.” Most likely, Rav Moshe didn’t have a gemara in front of him and he goes through the Rashi word by word on the sugiya with this wonderful boy.
“Zvi do you chop the Rashi?”
“No, Rebbe, I don’t chop.”
“OK, let’s do it again.” And they go through the Rashis three, four, five times until Rav Moshe is convinced the boy understands clearly.
Rav Moshe says, “OK, Zvi we’re going to do a Tosfos together.”
Zvi replies, “Rebbe, Rav Moshe, I don’t know how to learn a Tosfos.”
“Don’t worry Zvi, I’m going to learn it with you. Take a look at that Tosfos (so-and-so) on the page.” And Rav Moshe proceeds to learn through the Tosfos, line by line, word for word, painstakingly. And again they have to review and review until Rav Moshe is convinced that Zvi understands the Tosfos. By now already it’s 1:30 in the morning.
Rav Moshe says,
“Zvi, you understand the gemara, Rashi, Tosfos?”
“Yes, Rebbi, I got it! It’s unbelievable, yes I’ve got it!”
“OK, I’m going to give you a bomb kasha (question) on the Tosfos. It’s a question that I have and it’s one that the Rishonim and Achronim do not ask. And I want you to repeat it.”
Rav Moshe teaches it to him, and the same thing occurs: Rav Moshe teaches it once, twice, three times. “OK Zvi I want you to tell it over.”
It’s already 2:00 – 2:15 in the morning and the bochur finally has the kasha and Rav Moshe says, “Zvi, I’m so proud of you! I want you to go into shiur tomorrow and you’re going to say over this bomb kasha.”
Zvi is so excited. He finally has something to say in shiur! The next day Zvi goes to yeshiva and for the first time he knows what’s going on in the gemara. His rebbe teaches the class the gemara, and then teaches the Rashi and then he says, “OK bochorim, we’re going to learn a Tosfos now.” The rebbe teaches the Tosfos and Zvi raises his hand.
The rebbe thinks, Zvi? Zvi doesn’t have a kasha, Zvi doesn’t even understand the sugiya (the flow of the gemara).
“Rebbe, I have a kasha on the Tosfos!”
And Zvi proceeds to tell over the kasha that Rav Moshe taught him at 2:00-2:15 in the morning and the rebbe is falling out of his chair and he doesn’t know what to do with himself.
“Zvi that is the most amazing kasha! I looked around (at various commentaries) and didn’t see that anyone asks that question! Where in the world did you get such a bomb kasha?! Unbelievable!”
“What do you mean, I got it from my chavrusah, from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein last night at 2:00 in the morning.” By this time, the other bochurim are falling out of their chairs.
“You were learning with Rav Moshe?!”
“Yes we were learning the gemara between 1:00 to 2:15 in the morning, and reviewing it.”
The Rebbe was falling out of his chair; that experience gave Zvi such inspiration and confidence that it picked up him like never before. From then onward, he applied himself to his learning and is today a maggid shiur in a yeshiva.
If we strive to infuse our all our interactions and teaching with genuine ahavas Yisroel, BE”H, Torah study and observance can go viral.