VaYetse - Weekly Torah Portion

“VaYetse”, the part of the Torah we read on this Shabbat, tells among others the famous story of Jacob’s dream. In his dream, “a ladder was set up on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” Today I would like not begin the talk about our founding father Jacob but rather of another Jacob who was my teacher, professor Jacob (Yaakov) Ziv. I attended one of his classes while studying at the Technion in Haifa. It was not the most important lesson I received from him, and I will speak abut that shortly. I dedicate these words to professor Ziv who already won in the past other awards and recognitions such Israel’s prize for contributions of defense, the Israel Prize for exact sciences, the Shannon Award, and more. Now he was awarded an “honorary medal of the IEEE that is awarded every year since 2017 to an individual for a unique contribution or an outstanding g career in the areas of interest of the IEEE and it is considered to be the highest honor bestowed in the field of electrical engineering. Ziv, one of the most important persons in the world of information and inventor of the Lempel-Ziv and Wyner-Ziv algorithms, will receive the medal for ‘an overwhelming contribution to information theory and data compression technology, and outstanding scientific leadership’.” (freely translated from the announcement of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering).

Most of my encounters with this distinguished teacher occurred not so much in the meeting of taught equations or academic research. Rather, I spent time with him from a totally different perspective. At the time of my studies at the Technion he was the provost of the Technion, the vice president of academic affairs of the then president retired general Amos Horev. I was elected to be the chair of the Technion’s students’ organization and as such solving academic problems of students was often enough on my table. The meetings with professor Ziv was special because he gave an undivided attention to each and every case brought to him, regardless of their academic excellence or chances of receiving the Nobel Prize. From his perspective, in those years after the 1973 war it was essential to do the utmost to ensure the success of every student. He was there for them with an unprecedent combination of wisdom and soul. From my perspective he epitomized that which the prophet Hosea notes in the Haftarah of this week, “Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; Whoever is discerning, let him know them.” We all enjoy his academic achievements, even those who have not heard of him at all. I do hope that from what I have learned from him others also benefit. My sincere congratulations and respect go today to professor Ziv.

Learning from our teachers, and recognizing the fact that we have learned from them, is part of the process of learning. It is the understanding that we stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, enjoying their wisdom and trying to add something to the body of knowledge. I was so lucky to have in my professional and personal life several such teachers and I owe my thanks to them. The ladder in Jacob’s dream is special because if it said that, “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.” It is peculiar because one would expect the angels of God to first descend and ascend not vice versa. In this context may I suggest that Jacob is dreaming of ascending up the ladder of knowledge, becoming wiser with each step. Then, once reaching the top of the ladder he does not stay there with all of the accumulated knowledge. Rather, he finds the way to descend bringing the newly gather knowledge down to earth where it can be integrated into the daily life. He receives a vision, “the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” It is a vision that can be seen only from the top of the ladder, from high up in heaven. In order to make it into a reality it is necessary to descend and build it on solid ground.

The prophet Hosea is not satisfied from the people’s behavior, “now they sin more and more, And make for themselves cast metal images, Idols skillfully made from their silver, All of them the work of craftsmen. They say of them, ‘Let the people who sacrifice kiss the calves!’ Therefore they will be like the morning cloud. And like dew which soon disappears, Like chaff which is blown away from the threshing floor, And like smoke from a chimney.” Most of my adulthood years were devoted to science and engineering, and it is therefore easy to understand the reasons for the prophet’s anger seeing people believe in nonsense. There is a built-in tension between that which is belief-based and that which is science-based. For me Judaism, through its moral teachings, balances between the two as it takes the belief and weighs it against the moral fabric on both a personal and societal basis. The task of knowledge and science is to explain things as they are, the task of religion is to give them the social-moral context. This is so as to put knowledge and science restrained into applications of good use, social advancement, forwarding of justice and law. Only those who do not want to deal with facts and truths find a contradiction between the two and possibly prefer one over the other. We seek the truth that can be repeated in properly conducted experiments and expect the results predicted by theory. It is the combination I have learned from my professor, uncompromising science, belief in the human spirit, combined with passion and justice that brings to science its truce context.

Shabbat Shalom and wishes for Good Health.

Reuven Marko, 27 November 2020, 12 Kislev, 5781

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