I open my eyes and am greeted by the image of a woman. I think I know her from somewhere, she seems very familiar. I’m in a bathroom, and she is there as well. The edges of my vision seem hazy, the lights near the mirror seem ill-defined. But she is there. She’s sharply defined.
She’s sitting on the edge of the tub. Do we have a tub? She’s wearing a half smile that seems unconnected to the darkness in her eyes.
And she’s looking through me.
I know her. I know her.
“Where am I?” I ask myself, confused. And then I remember the real question, “When am I?”
It has been this way for as long as I remember. I’ve been pulled through time, closing my eyes – even just to blink – in one time and awakening in another. But it seems to have gotten more frequent. It seems to have accelerated. I want desperately to return to the present, but I can’t seem to find when it is.
“Beth?” I ask, not entirely certain. The woman is so beautiful, she could be Beth, couldn’t she?
The woman on the edge of the tub looks up. “Jacob,” she says, her voice flat. It is a voice somewhere beyond bitterness, like all the anger and resentment has been spent and there is no more to give.
I’ve been here before, in this place.
No, in this time.
“Beth,” I say, “What are you doing?”
She reaches to her side and I see it then. A small box. A plastic box. She has medication? I watch her open the box, slowly and deliberately. And I realize that I’ve been here before. But I can’t remember what happens next. It, like the lights near the mirrors, is just beyond my understanding.
I watch Beth open the box. There’s a syringe there. It has a twister on the side, so different dosages can be provided. I see her take a needle from the box and place it on the top of the syringe. And then I see her twist and twist the selector, choosing the maximum possible dose.
And then I know what is in the needle.
And I know what is about to happen. She pushes the needle into her arm and she places her finger over the depressor. I lurch forward to stop her. I can’t allow her to kill herself. I have to stop it.
And then I blink. And I’m someplace else.
Some time else.
And I know I failed.
The world comes into focus again. A hospital room this time. This is more familiar. A child is about to be born. I see the mother, a woman whose face is pale with the challenge of labor. She’s sweating and angry and worn-out. A doctor is there. “PUSH” the doctor says. And the woman bears down, her whole body tensing in determination. And then, moments later, there is a child. A baby.
I look at the child – a boy – and I see he is beautiful. The doctor shows him to me, smiling. And then she brings the baby to her mother. The woman. Beth? But the mother, Beth, looks away. She does not want to see this child. Something is wrong with this child.
But he looks so beautiful to me.
I step towards the doctor. I step towards the baby. He is new to this world. He needs reassurance. He needs love. And I, at least, have love to give. I take the baby in my arms. I blink back a tear of joy.
And then, I am gone.
Now I know when I am. The man in front of me is my brother. We’re at our parents. There’s a party. A party for him. Why?
I see people milling around me. Some are familiar. But I’m just a child. I’m maybe ten. My brother is much older. He’s in his twenties.
I feel like an unwanted extra.
Did he graduate from college? Win a game? Does he play football?
He’s standing next to something. A cupboard of some sort. It is tall, taller than he is. He calls the crowd and they come. Gathering near. My parents are there. Scientists. They are all scientists.
They gather closer. There’s excitement in the air. My brother has created something.
Then, as the tension crescendos, he pulls open the doors on the cupboard. The little crowd surges forward. Somehow, I’m at the front of them. I look up at the now open box. It has a glass front with small perforations. And inside? Inside there is a person. He looks like my brother. Exactly like my brother. But he is just standing there, locked in the box.
And then the person – is it a person? – opens its eyes. I see them and I know they are empty.
The man in the box has no soul. I feel myself turning. And then running. I’m fleeing between the feet of the scientists as they ooh and aah at my brother’s masterpiece.
And I remember what it is.
It is a clone, with no brain.
“No higher mental function.”
That’s what they called it.
He, it, is for spare parts.
I’m in the garden now. I’m angry, sad, revolted. Tears flood my eyes for reasons I can’t understand. They don’t help. And then, in a moment, I know what can.
I blink away the tears.
And then, again, I am gone.
When I open my eyes, I’m standing on a freeway onramp. I look down at my clothes and realize they are old and unwashed. I smell terrible. I’m holding a sign, begging for money. When am I?
I reach into my pocket and find a wallet. It has almost nothing in it. But it has an ID, my ID. The young man in the photo is maybe 20-years-old. How did I get here? I look at my sign, expecting it to ask for money. But instead it says “FIGHT CRISPR?”
CRISPR? Is it a misspelling?
No, it isn’t a misspelling.
As I think about it, the word fills me with anger. I know I must fight CRISPR. But I have no idea what it is.
Then I feel something, in my other pocket. I reach in and pull out a flyer. “FIGHT CRISPR” it says in bold lettering. Then as a sub-title, “Humanity must have boundaries.”
Then, I understand. CRISPR is “Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.” It is a tool for editing genomes, including the human genome. It was what my brother used to create his spare parts. It is why I am on a street corner. I’ve been fighting CRISPR.
I’ve been driven from my parents’ house, and I’ve been driven from every job I tried to hold.
I’ve been fighting CRISPR. But CRISPR has been destroying me.
The traffic rolling off the freeway, comes to a stop at the light. Most people leave their windows up. But some take the time to rolls their windows down. To give me the finger or spit in my direction. In the back of these cars are children. They all look beautiful. Perfect. I can tell their ages by their appearances. Their coloring and features follow the fads, fashion statements and social trends that dominated the years of their births.
“Editors,” I realize, “Everybody has become a gene editor.”
And I have achieved nothing but my own suffering.
I see a marker pen sticking out the side of a small backpack at my feet.
I turn over my sign and scrawl out, “ANYTHING WILL HELP.”
And then, as the traffic rolls away, I hold up the new message.
A minute later, it comes to a stop again. No one rolls down their windows to spit. But one window does roll down. A hand reaches out, with money. I step towards it.
I look in the window. A woman is there. She too is beautiful. But something is different. And then I see it. It is a flaw. Her mouth is pulled up on one side, unwillingly. She turns away from me as I look.
She is ashamed of herself.
But she is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
I blink, and all of it is gone.
Now, I am in a darkened room. It is huge and almost empty. I don’t remember this place.
Am I back in the present?
There’s a man in front of me, and a child.
The man is my son. I know that. I look at him, admiring him. He seems beautiful and perfect. But I know he is cursed. How? I cannot remember how he is cursed.
“You must keep fighting,” I say to the young man. “You have inherited my mission.”
And then I am pulled back again, and out of the present world.
I open my eyes in a clinic. There are soft colors all around. She’s there. The beautiful woman from the freeway offramp.
But she’s angry now.
Something is wrong.
I look down at my hand. I’m holding a report. A genetics report.
Stamped at the top is FETAL AGE: 6 WEEKS.
I scan it quickly. There are two sections: “Susceptibility” and “Possibility”. Low intelligence, low-fitness, a range of diseases – all are marked “Low Susceptibility.” On the other side of the ledger, possibilities abound. Only one item breaks the trend. Diabetes. Our son’s susceptibility is high.
I see Beth’s face again, screwed up in rage.
“I TOLD YOU!” she shouts at me as the clinicians look on.
And I know what she told me.
She told me to design this fetus. She told me not to let nature take its course.
She screams, “HE WILL BE CURSED!”
But she is not talking about the diabetes. She is talking about the increased risk of Bell’s Palsy. She is talking about her own ‘imperfection.’ She is speaking of her own flawed humanity.
But she is not flawed.
Even as she shouts, I smile at the paper before me.
“Am I G-d?” I ask.
She looks at me, uncomprehending.
She doesn’t understand. I accept that I do not know what perfection is.
Perhaps the child’s perfection will be what we think of as a flaw.
With that thought burrowing through my mind, I close my eyes in joy.
When I open them, I am back in the massive and empty room. I am in the present day. I can feel it. Time is unfolding slowly before me. Like it used to, long ago.
And the man and the child have returned. I know the man. He is my son. My imperfect son.
He is beautiful. I look at him as if I haven’t seen him in years. Perhaps, in a way, I haven’t.
And a child is there as well. But I do not know him.
As I watch, the boy comes close to me. He looks at me, staring into my eyes. He has such powerful eyes. I feel myself reaching out to touch his face.
And then, once again, I leave the present. But instead of being thrown back into the past, the future rushes towards me. He is my grandchild. I see his future and that of his children and his children’s children. I see attempts to hijack my legacy. I see weakness and anger. I see a lack of self-control. I see leadership with the risk of perversion. And then I see a change. Bit by bit a change. A people knit together. Rules taking hold in them. And then a surge forward; an attack on a world edited beyond understanding. And then I see satisfaction, and I see beauty. And I see the ever-prowling guards that keep it safe.
I open my eyes and I see the child. My grandson.
I smile at him, happily.
And then I close my eyes and I am no more.
The Grandson’s Story
I must have been five years old when I saw my grandfather die.
My father had raised me to always look forward and never back. He’d raised me to always learn from regrets and mistakes, but not to dwell on them. He taught me to focus on a mission greater than my own life or my own talents and weaknesses, whatever that mission might be.
He taught me all of this. And I had it all in mind as I entered the ward and I looked up at its sole resident.
My grandfather was sitting in a wheelchair. His eyes were open. But he was mumbling incoherently. I drew close and I heard him speaking of Beth – my grandmother. I heard him speaking of her death. Of their union. Of their child. And I listened to the ravings of a man who was no longer truly there.
I was filled with loss. I can’t remember ever being filled with such tremendous suffering. Such tremendous regret. It almost overpowered me. I was filled with the suffering he no longer even knew existed.
And then I thought that perhaps the others were right.
After all, my grandfather was alone on the ward. All who would have been here were euthanized. Some voluntarily, some volunteered by others. Perhaps my grandfather should have been among them. Perhaps it was better that we no longer locked up those who were slowly melting away.
But my grandfather would not accept the alternatives. He embraced imperfection. And he insisted on it.
His life was an imposition and a criticism of the world.
He loved to argue that killing those who suffer was not the same as eliminating suffering.
Except I was suffering and my father was suffering. And, perhaps, my grandfather was not.
I drew closer to the old man, I don’t know why. Perhaps I wanted to embrace him, to place my own will over my resentment.
But then he reached out and he touched me.
And then his eyes opened wide. And he began to speak about the future.
He began to speak of my future.
I watched him, somehow held in the palm of his hand.
And I listened.
And I learned.
And I found myself overwhelmed by his wisdom; the wisdom of a demented old man.
And then his hand withdrew.
And he smiled at me.
And I watched him close his eyes for the last time.
Yosef (Joseph) grows to be a man who motivates others by instilling them with purpose. Pharaoh follows him because Yosef tells him that he can rescue the land. He pours himself into his purpose; travelling constantly to carry out his own mission. He focuses so clearly on his purpose that he is willing to overlook the past to create a better future. He seems to marry the daughter of his old master; the master who had him jailed. He is willing to walk away from his own family and their competitive struggles. When his brothers show up he does not kill them or deny them food, he builds up their character and the leadership of his brother Yehuda.
Finally, he feeds and cares for his brothers’ families – even after the death of their father.
I believe Yosef and his wife Asnat raised their children with those same values.
As Rabbi Sachs points out, Ephraim and Menashe are the first two children in the Torah who do not fight. When Yaacov is blessing them and their primacy is switched and then switched back, neither complains nor struggles with the other. They have their eyes not on competition, but on the greater picture. They are looking to their shared purpose in the world.
When we come to the opening of Parshat Vayechi, we see Yaacov as an old man mentally weakened by his age. He drifts between the present and the past. He seems to relive his wife’s burial. Then he is overjoyed at seeing his son, as if he had not seen him since he disappeared. But he does not recognize his grandsons. He seems to be drifting through time.
It all changes when he touches his grandchildren. It is almost as if their focus on the future pulls him into that future. In a Torah consumed with the idea of converting the physical into the timeless, this is one of the most tangible examples.
A member of my community described wisdom as the perspective of the experienced. Yaacov is experienced and wise. But it is only with the inspiration of a child that he enters the realm of prophecy. The physical touch of a child living in the future opens up the future for a man who seems to be living in his own past. It is the perspective of the old, combined with the focus on the future, that unlocks the realm of prophecy.
The vision Yaacov sees is not all joy and beauty. Instead, it is a story that unfolds. He sees attempts to hijack his legacy (Reuvan). He sees weakness, anger and lack of self-control (Shimon and Levi). With Yehuda’s blood of grapes and bathing in future-giving milk, he sees leadership stained with the risk of perversion. And then he sees a change. Gad lives surrounded by his brothers on the edge of Ani or self-identity. And Issachar is a chomer (which can mean mortar) of garem (which can mean sinew): a mortar sinew linking the nation together. They are glue. Dan, a nachash (a snake tool of Hashem) strikes war-like horses on paths. The presence of these horses on back paths suggests a nefarious invasion. Those who invade, are warlike and sneaky will be cast backwards by Hashem. And then there is a surge forward. Gad is an attacker, aggressive, not defensive. He pushes back against the enemy, creating space for Yisrael (Israel). Then he sees satisfaction with Asher and his deeply pleasurable bread. And he sees beauty brought to a functional people, illustrated by Yosef’s jewel on an ox. And he sees that people hated (as the archers aim at Yosef), but strong and blessed.
Finally, he sees the ever-prowling guards of Benyamin that keep his people safe.
He sees a future that is still unfolding. And his prophecy continues to inspire us.
In our modern world, we often define what is worthy in humanity. We quantify productivity, intelligence and skill. We measure everything we can. And we tune ourselves to these values. How difficult is it to imagine genetically massaging our children so they reflect these values.
But perhaps some humility is in order.
Perhaps we can’t know – perhaps it is beyond us to know – what values are really worth maximizing. Perhaps we cannot truly measure beauty or wisdom or holiness.
When the Torah describes the king the nation should choose, wisdom is not listed. Instead, the emphasis is on care for his people and fear of G-d. As Yosef’s own long-term failures demonstrate, although we can be successful on a tactical level, we are not gods. There is a reality we cannot measure. And there are aspects of reality we should not seek to change.
At the end of Bereshit (Genesis), the Torah shows us a man brought low by age. It does not do this to embarrass Yaacov. It does it to educate us. The weakness of Yaacov does not diminish what we can learn from him.
Perhaps, just maybe, the opposite is true.
Image: Mr. Nixter, Flickr CC