Lech Lecha 5782: Nobel Prize Surprise
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
GOOD MORNING! What is it about the Jewish nation that makes it so unique? Of course, there are many ways to approach this question and various people will interpret both the “whats” and the “whys” differently. In truth, to really understand what Judaism and the Jewish nation are all about one must go back and examine its origins.
This week's Torah portion opens with the Almighty speaking to Abraham. While the Torah introduced Abraham at the end of last week’s Torah reading, the first conversation between the Almighty and Abraham takes place in this week’s reading.
It is interesting to note that, while there were many others prior to Abraham with whom God spoke, Abraham alone is considered the first Jew. Why is Abraham considered the first Jew?
Abraham’s focus was different from those who preceded him – he made it his mission to spread the message to the world that there is a compassionate and immanent God who is the driving force behind everything in existence.
Abraham, whose original name was Abram, was born into an idol worshipping family. Not only that, the family business was selling idols! According to our sages, even at a young age Abram recognized the truth of a monotheistic God. Eventually, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham in recognition of his having taken on the responsibility of spreading his understanding and knowledge of God to the rest of the world.
This week’s Torah reading begins with: “God said to Abram, ‘Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing […] All the families of the earth will be blessed through you’” (Genesis 12:1-3).
In honor of this week’s Torah reading I have decided to compile a partial list of “blessings” that have come to the world through the Jewish people.
In 1888 Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist most famously known for the invention of dynamite, was quite astonished to read his own obituary titled “The Merchant of Death is Dead” in a French newspaper. It was actually Alfred’s brother Ludvig who had died, but it triggered a deep concern as to how he would be remembered. He therefore specified in his will that his fortune be used to create a series of prizes for those who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind” in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace (the prize for economics was added in 1968). Upon his death in 1896, the “Nobel Prize” was born. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901.
The Nobel Prize is significant; aside from instant worldwide recognition and professional acclaim, the cash prize is worth almost $1,200,000.
(As I am writing this column, I just got a pop-up on my screen that the 2021 winners are being announced and I am once again reminded that nothing in life is a coincidence.)
By way of introduction and as a broad overview, I will begin by pointing out that between 1901 and 2020, 209 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to those of Jewish descent (though in a handful of cases only the father was Jewish). This accounts for about 23% of all Nobels awarded, far more than any other ethnicity.
(This does not include this year’s winners because as of the writing of this column the complete list of winners has not yet been revealed. Of the names that have been announced at least one is Jewish – David Julius – co-winner in the category Physiology or Medicine).
When one considers that the Jewish nation makes up only about one quarter of one percent of the world’s population it becomes an even more startling figure. In other words, Jews outperform their population ratio by a multiple of almost one hundred times.
By no means is the Nobel Prize the final word on personal achievement or proper recognition for the “greatest benefit to mankind.” There have been many “whiffs.” Albert Einstein never received recognition for his theory of relativity even though he had been nominated many times (though he later received one for his explanation of the “photoelectric effect” – which introduced the concept of photons).
Doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin (both Jews) never received a Nobel Prize for one of the greatest contributions to medicine in the 20th century – their development of the vaccine for polio. They were nominated twice and lost both times. It has been said that when they were nominated a third time they asked that their names be withdrawn from consideration. (Though Jonas Salk never won, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies has trained five Nobel Laureates.)
There are several other shocking blunders – something is obviously very wrong when Yasser Arafat wins the Nobel Prize for Peace, especially when one considers that the 20th century’s greatest icon for the pursuit of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, never won. The fact that he was nominated five times and lost each time merely magnifies this stupefying omission. Leo Tolstoy, regarded as one of the greatest authors ever, also never won.
Two other Jews, Edwin Teller, considered the father of the hydrogen bomb, and Robert Oppenheimer, often referred to as the father of the atomic bomb, also never won a Nobel Prize. Whatever one thinks of those bombs, just consider what might have happened had Russia (or, of course, Germany) discovered them first.
The fact that only about 5% of the Nobel Prize winners have been women also indicates a longstanding bias of the Nobel Committee. There have been many glaring omissions of worthy women including Lise Meitner (born Jewish) who was one of the discoverers of nuclear fission. Though she was nominated 19 times she never won. She does, however, have an element on the Periodic Table named after her – 109 known as Meitnerium.
Of course, there are many Jews who have contributed to the betterment of humanity who don’t fit into the narrow criteria needed for a Nobel Prize. Here again, I present a very partial (and very subjective) list of notable Jewish contributors:
Laszlo Biro, a Hungarian Jew, invented the ball point pen; Sigmund Freud and Victor Frankl must be recognized for their breakthroughs in psychoanalysis and psychology. Siegfried Marcus invented the gas driven car. The famous actress Hedy Lamarr patented spread spectrum, which is what allows for wireless communication. Arthur Eichengrün invented aspirin (though the German company Bayer has yet to recognize it). Claude Levi-Strauss (not the guy who invented jeans – though he probably wished he had) is considered the father of modern anthropology.
More recently, Sergey Brin and Larry Page (co-founders of Google) are both Jewish. Michael Bloomberg, who was estimated by the NY Times as contributing over $700 million of his own money to the city of New York during his tenure as mayor, is also Jewish. WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum and Oracle founder Larry Ellison are also Jewish. (Try as I might I cannot add Mark Zuckerberg to this list, as I does not consider Facebook, on the whole, much of a net contribution to society. Ben and Jerry’s founders who have prominently and shamefully supported their former company’s BDS stance on Israel are also off my list.)
In fashion, Estée Lauder, Revlon, Fabergé, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Guess, Gap, Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, and many others were all founded by Jews. So were toy companies Hasbro, Mattel, and Toys “R” Us. Morris Michtom invented the Teddy Bear and Ruth Handler created the Barbie Doll.
Perhaps most importantly, Häagen-Dazs, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks are all brought to us by Jews.
Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
The Almighty commands Abram (later renamed Abraham) to leave Haran and go to “the place that I will show you” (which turned out to be the land of Canaan – later renamed the Land of Israel). The Almighty then gives Abram an eternal message to the Jewish people and to the nations of the world, “I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you I will curse.” Finding a famine, Abram travels to Egypt asking Sarai (later renamed Sarah) to say she is his sister so they won’t kill him to marry her (the Egyptians were particular not to commit adultery...so they would kill the husband instead).
Pharaoh evicts Abram from Egypt after attempting to take Sarai for a wife. They settle in Hebron (also known as Kiryat Arba) and his nephew Lot settles in Sodom. Abram rescues Lot – who was taken captive – in the Battle of the Four Kings against the Five Kings.
Entering into a covenant with the Almighty (all covenants with the Almighty are eternal, never to be abrogated or replaced by new covenants), Abram is told that his descendants will be enslaved for 400 years and that his descendants (via Isaac not Ishmael, “through Isaac will offspring be considered yours” (Genesis 21:8)) will be given the land “from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.”
Sarai, childless, gives her handmaid Hagar to Abram for a wife so that he will have children. Ishmael (the grandfather of our Arab cousins) is born. The covenant of brit mila, religious circumcision, is made (17:3-8), God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah and tells them that Sarah will give birth to Yitzchak (Isaac). Abraham circumcises all the males of his household.
“The human brain is the only natural resource that Israel possesses.”
— Dr. Aaron Ciechanover, 2005 Nobel Prize co-winner (chemistry) and Israeli citizen