Gregor Mendel and Parshah Vayetze

A Drash by David Haymer

First, to echo comments made by Dan Bender and others, let me begin by saying that this Parshah is packed with dramatic events. In this one Parshah, we learn about (not in order): Jacob figuring out how to use a rock for a pillow, Jacob’s ladder (and other dreams), and Jacob looking for a wife but ending up having children with 4 different women. In this Parshah we also have Rachel taking her father’s idols and the mystery of the mandrakes. Mandrakes are flowers or plants of some sort. The word in Hebrew to describes these is a “Duda’im.” Here, some mandrakes were picked by Reuben for his mother Leah. The mandrakes are thought by many to be sexual stimulants, but Ibn Ezra cautions that they actually cause “nocturnal emissions.” Anyhow, it’s interesting that Rachel ends up getting the mandrakes, but they don’t work for her – it is Leah that gets pregnant again! Finally, as pointed out by Don Armstrong last week, we also have the continued use of deception in the interactions between the main players in these stories – more on this later. For this Drash, I want to focus on Jacob’s skill as a shepherd, specifically what he does in breeding the sheep and goats in his care. Why do I think this is important? First, I’m sure you all recall the name of Gregor Mendel, the Augustinian monk that is widely regarding to be the founder of modern genetics. I firmly believe that Mendel read about Jacob’s work with animal breeding in this Parshah, and that he benefitted from it for his own experiments (albeit with peas, not sheep).

Some background on Mendel:

As I said, Mendel was an Augustinian monk (Augustinians are a Catholic order that dates back to 1244).  He worked at a monastery in Bruun (or Brno), formerly part of Austria, now in the Czech Republic. The monastery exists today and is still a functioning Abbey for the Augustinians. Bea and I were able to visit there a couple of years ago, and it is absolutely amazing that it survived two world wars among other destructive events in history. Mendel eventually became the Abbot (head) of the monastery, and in this position, he certainly had to be familiar with the Bible. He is also known to have studied Hebrew – why else would he learn Hebrew, except to read the Bible? Mendel was also mentored in his religious work by another monk – Franz Cyril Napp, a noted Old Testament scholar. Napp himself was very interested in sheep breeding, in part because at that time it was the major industry in that region of Austria. In this capacity Napp was a member of the board of the local sheep breeder’s society, and they carried out a great deal of work on breeding different varieties of sheep. Napp also sponsored the building of Mendel’s greenhouse right on the grounds of the Abbey to allow him to pursue his scientific research.

I find it fascinating that this was a time (~1860s) when the church encouraged interaction with the scientific community. Mendel and his colleagues clearly did not see a divide between science and religion, instead they looked to both areas for interest and inspiration. OK, but what is my evidence that Mendel actually used the Bible in his work? Only a few of his sermons have survived, but one that he gave on Easter gives great insight into his use of material from the “Old Testament.” In the Christian world, Easter sermons usually focus on the resurrection of a Jewish guy that lived in the area of Eretz Israel during the Roman occupation of the region just over 2,000 years ago (hint:  First letter of his name is J). Mendel does refer to this J guy in the sermon – but as a gardener! He also talks about resurrection, of course, but here he uses the example of growing plants from seeds. To quote from the sermon “… Man must give every ounce of his work to this effort, and then God will give its flourishing. Our beloved God gives the seed, the talent, the grace, and man has only to work, to accept the seed…”

Speckled GoatsTo me, this strongly parallels the instructions given to Adam and Eve by God after they leave the Garden of Eden to do their own work with the soil to grow plants, and I don’t think it is a stretch to believe that Mendel saw it the same way. But what specifically in Vayetze would have interested Mendel? Here, I believe it is Jacob’s work in animal breeding. The Parshah describes how Lavan (Jacob’s uncle and his father-in-law) first agreed to give Jacob all the spotted and speckled animals from his flocks as compensation for his work. However, Lavan then immediately proceeds to give all the spotted and speckled ones to his sons and skips out of town. What was Jacob to do? Lavan’s deception left him only animals with solid colors, most likely sheep that were pure white and goats that were pure dark (black or brown). Jacob then uses various tricks to get these sheep and goats to breed, and lo and behold, they produced speckled and spotted offspring! What did this mean to Mendel? First, Jacob showed that the sheep and goats of solid colors carried “hidden” genetic material that could produce the spotted and speckled coat color patterns.  The recognition of this kind of hidden (or recessive) genetic variation later become one of Mendel’s most important contributions to genetics.

Second, in his work with peas, Mendel also first spent years establishing varieties of the plants that were pure breeding for various characteristics before he did his famous crossing experiments.  If he had not done this, and instead used impure strains of peas (like Jacob’s animals), he would have never been able to make sense out of his experiments. My intention now is to try and find more of Mendel’s sermons to see if they contain additional biblical references, even if we have to go all the way back to the monastery at Brunn to try and find them! In the meantime, thanks to all of you for encouraging me to explore this connection between science and religion that I find fascinating.

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