Sheldon, the brilliant Aspergers character on Big Bang Theory has decided to study humor and tells his roommate Leonard:
I used science to create the perfect joke.
So, a sandwich, a rabbi and yo mama walk into a bar.
If science is always part of the plot-line in Big Bang Theory, it’s not often referenced as such in the Torah. Yet in our portion, Jacob finds himself attempting to breed animals using the largely discredited science of Acquired Characteristics.
Jacob has worked for his father in law Lavan for 20 some years and, having paid off the bride prices for the two daughters, Leah and Rachel, is ready to go home to Canaan. God has told him it’s time. So Jacob tells to Lavan to give him all the animals that are a little unusual in coloring, spotted or mottled and keep the rest. Lavan agrees and then gets his sons to steal all the animals that would be Jacob’s far away so that Jacob is fooled again by his father-in-law and unable to support his growing family to make a trip back home.
He fashions sticks with lines near where the animals mate and eat and their offspring become spotted as well, replacing those Lavan stole.
The problem is that, scientifically, animals don’t acquire characteristics that way. The dispute between Darwin and Lamarck in the 19th century went Darwin’s way: most of our physical characteristics are determined by the mechanism of natural selection eventually understood as genetics.
Most scientists today, based on the famous Twin studies and anecdotaly on parents raising natural and adoptive children, believe this is as true as well for behavior and psychological disfunction as for physical traits.
The main things most scientists believe CAN be influenced by nurture over nature are drinking (alcohol), smoking and how we treat a waitress at a restaurant. Extra curricular activities and tutoring to improve an SAT score may have been for naught.
So it’s perhaps more important than his successful genetic engineering, later attributed in a dream to God’s will, that Jacob felt the need to consult with his wives and get their go-ahead for the trip even though, by the patriarchal norms of the time and the fact that God told him to go, he could have simply announced his decision and expected obedience.
Whether his children witnessed this consultation or not, such interaction doesn’t take place in a vacuum. One would hope that although he could not teach his kids to be smarter or more attractive than their genetic predispositions would allow, he might have influenced how they include the most important people in their lives with the most significant decisions they will make.
As for the scientifically best joke ever: Sheldon never finishes it. His roommate Leonard is going through an emotional turmoil to which Sheldon is oblivious. When Sheldon apologizes for Leonard’s distraction, we have this inner hope that he’s noticed the anguish but no, he’s only concerned he forgot to mention that the sandwich in the joke is promiscuous.
Even the most scientifically effective joke will fall flat if the intended audience is emotionally unavailable to hear it.
Shabbat is an attempt to remind us to pay attention to one another in a serious way as we’re fully capable of ignoring the emotional signals of those we love even if we don’t have Sheldon’s excuse.
And that’s no joke.