By Rabbi Shay Schachter
“I am most proud of being a direct descendant of the Ba’al Shem Tov,” were the words of the highly accomplished Professor Gheona M. Altarescu.
Altarescu is the director of the awe-inspiring PGD laboratory in Shaare Zedek Hospital, and is directly responsible for the birth of over 1,000 healthy children over the past 15 years. Altarescu is board certified in internal medicine and clinical genetics, and took a leadership role in the breakthrough scientific research of the BRCA gene. A humble and unassuming Polish Jewish woman, Altarescu agreed to open her lab to a small group of young American rabbanim and give them a glimpse of the exceptional work that she does.
Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is a miraculous reality that I knew very little about before my visit to Shaare Zedek. Many couples are carriers of genetic disorders and are at high risk for transmitting them to their children. Through either an amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling, they can detect whether their unborn child has inherited these debilitating disorders. However, they can then be faced with the impossible and extremely delicate she’eilah of pregnancy termination. Through the modern advances in science of IVF and PGD, we can microscopically determine the condition of an embryo, and implant only the unaffected embryo back into the mother.
Adorned in scrubs, we entered the lab and were completely overwhelmed by this unfamiliar new world. Seeing embryos develop under a microscope, and watching the technicians carefully separate the healthy genes, was truly humbling. But then came the penetrating question from one of the female technicians. “I come to work every day, but rarely do I have the opportunity to speak openly with a rav. My days are spent editing genes, and I feel as if I am playing G-d!”
“What right does a doctor ever have to treat a sick patient? After all, they, too, are playing G-d! If one was destined to be sick, then who are we to change that painful reality?” Rav Asher Weiss, posek of Shaare Zedek, responded.
Rav Weiss then turned to our small group of rabbanim and asked, “So, does anyone have any further thoughts on the matter?” It took me some time to clearly formulate a perspective, but with Pesach approaching perhaps it is worth sharing.
When reading the Haggadah, one can mistakenly think that the 10 makkos took place in a short span of time. But in truth, this was a lengthy process that developed over the course of at least a year. Klal Yisrael experienced the most dramatic scenes, culminating in the phenomenal experience of Kriyas Yam Suf.
On leil haSeder, my father, Rav Hershel Schachter, once told us that not once in the course of that year is there any mention of Klal Yisrael singing shirah! How shocking that “Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael” was only sung on the occasion of Kriyas Yam Suf! Were there no feelings of gratitude until that very last moment? One would at least expect a minimal level of recognition, a word of thanks, or a brief expression of song after experiencing the power of Makkas Bechoros! So what was unique about Kriyas Yam Suf and why was the reaction then so different?
“Lo al yedei malach, v’lo al yedei shaliach, elah Hakadosh Baruch Hu B’chvodo U’v’atzmo”—until this point, the Ribbono shel Olam did everything for us; we watched as the incredible story of our geulah unfolded. This is what we all expected at the Yam Suf as well. But Moshe Rabbeinu is told, “Mah titz’ak Eilai? Daber el Bnei Yisrael v’yisa’u”! Now it is time for human beings to partner with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and trigger this chapter of their own geulah. Until Nachshon ben Aminadav effectuated the miracle, nothing would have happened.
There are special times in history when we, as human beings, are invited to participate and collaborate with the Ribbono shel Olam in the process of our own geulah. It is those moments that are the most fulfilling and gratifying ones of our lives. It is only when we are engaged in the process that we feel a most overwhelming sense of gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and indeed it was on that occasion that Klal Yisrael began to sing.
What greater privilege and honor can we be given than to know that the Ribbono shel Olam puts His trust in us and believes in our ability to make a major difference in the events that happen in our world?
I was awed when visiting the IVF-PGD lab because it is one of the rare opportunities where human beings are entrusted to partake, facilitate, and collaborate with the Ribbono shel Olam in the process of personal geulah. It was an overwhelming feeling to be in the presence of such righteous shluchuim, but I have been troubled ever since. Is there an area of my own life where the Ribbono shel Olam invests in me the privilege of enabling a personal geulah for others?