Sunday, December 31, 2006


I don't have time to make a thoughtful post of my own, so I'll just post an insightful link. Please ignore the hypothetical possibility that I might have had ample time to find and read that link.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

On the twelfth day of Chanukah, Achira ben Enan gave to me...

On Chanukah we read what may be the most boring part of the Torah: the list of the twelve princes and the gifts they presented at the dedication of the Mishkan (Bamidbar 7). Though all twelve princes give exactly the same gift, the exact description of the gift is repeated almost verbatim for each of the twelve. Describing each gift takes more than 150 words (in my English translation) - so the overall passage comes out to 89 verses and more than 1900 words, with about 1600 of those words being exact repetitions of what was previously stated. Unless you have an an extremely good baal koreh, it's almost impossible to pay attention to the whole thing.

Hoping to explain why the repetition is necessary, I dredged my memory and came up with recollections from my college graduation, which took place 1.5 years ago. My college included about 10 different "schools" for different subjects, which wore different-colored skirt-thingies at graduation and, in some technical sense, graduated separately. As a result, the "formal" part of graduation took quite some time to finish. Here's my best recollection of what the university president said during that part of the ceremony.

"My greetings to the students of the School of Arts and Sciences. [One or two cheesy lines which I don't remember.] I hereby ordain you as graduates of the University of ************, and confer upon you all the rights and privileges which that status entails." (Cheering)

And next:
"My greetings to the students of the School of Business. [A different one or two cheesy lines which I don't remember.] I hereby ordain you as graduates of the University of ************, and confer upon you all the rights and privileges which that status entails." (Cheering)

And after that:
"My greetings to the students of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. [More cheesy lines which I don't remember.] I hereby ordain you as graduates of the University of ************, and confer upon you all the rights and privileges which that status entails." (Cheering)

And so on and so on, until the graduates of each of the ten or so schools had their status conferred upon them. (By the way, I have yet to see any rights or privileges as a result of graduation. Except for the right to receive fundraising emails and the privilege of trying to recover financially from $160000 in tuition bills. Thank God for the right and privilege of having my parents.)

Why didn't the university president simply lump all the statements together? As in: "Hey Business, Engineering, Nursing, Med School, Dentistry, and Arts and Crafts students - you guys are all graduated now. Now go home and get drunk. But pleeeaase, don't forget to finish your incomplete Jewish Studies papers, I'm begging you!" That would have saved her at least ten minutes which could have been productively spent looking for suicide bombers to take pictures with.

Well, it was important not only that we all received degrees, but that it was publicly and formally announced that we had received them, from the president specifically. And part of being a formal announcement means that you go over the details unnecessarily. One one hand, these were "magic words" which (like signatures on legal documents and the diploma itself) cause a change in status without any physical action, but only if the correct formula is recited. On the other hand, the very fact that they were said in an abnormal manner emphasized that this was not just another lecture or pep rally, but was instead an extraordinary event with extraordinary meaning.

I think both explanations apply to the dedication of the Mishkan, which like graduation was a formal ceremony to commemorate a change in status. First of all, the dedication was a very unusual event, and describing it in a different style makes clear that it was unusual. Secondly, the gifts of the princes were qualitatively different from other gifts to the Mishkan - from the "terumah" used to build it, and from the "hekdesh" and voluntary sacrifices contributed after it began functioning. Instead, I think the gifts served to connect each tribe to the Mishkan. The Mishkan was not meant to be a disembodied shrine, but rather a means by which God would dwell amongst Israel. In order for this to occur, each tribe of Israel had to individually and formally connect to the Mishkan through a gift. (This may be the deeper meaning of the midrash that each prince's gift was different from the others.) The point of the gift was not the "bottom line", the weight of gold or number of animals, which could be summarized. Rather, the important thing was the gesture that a gift was given, and summarizing the gift would impair the gesture.

A third possible reason for the repetition is to increase our tension and anticipation as we get to the climactic last verse-and-a-half of the chapter: "...This is the dedication of the altar after its anointing. And when Moshe entered the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], he heard the voice speak to him from above the cover of the ark of testimony, between the two keruvim - and he/it spoke to it/him." Finally, after all the delay, the the Mishkan is complete and God can communicate with Israel (and/or vice versa, depending how you translate the last phrase). This is a historic moment in Jewish history, and by reading a very long "lead-up" to it, we anticipate it and hopefully realize its importance when it comes.

Useful references sites

Want to translate a technical term which does not appear in your dictionary? Go to Wikipedia, find the term, and click on the side bar to get the equivalent page in a different language. And if you need a good dictionary, look here.

Need the Israeli equivalent of Google-Maps? Try Mapa. (No Google Maps API though, I asked them, although if you pay for a subscription you can get a partial equivalent.)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Return? Right...

It's time to replace the phrase "right of return". By using the phrase (which is likely to become much more common the next few years), you implicitly accept two weighty but false Palestinian claims. The "right of return" is in fact not a "right", because international law does not guarantee refugees the right to return home, but only the right to humanitarian accommodations which do not cause political instability. Nor for the vast majority of Palestinian "refugees" would it be "return", because not they, but rather their uncles or second cousins or grandparents, left Israel in 1948. And nowhere in international law is there the idea that the descendants of refugees have the same status as refugees themselves. There needs to be a phrase which will allow discussion of Palestinian "refugees", without immediately prejudging the issue in the most extreme and destructive direction.

How about "demand of displacement"? "Demand" is a much more accurate description than "right", and "displacement" correctly focuses attention on what both Israelis and Palestinians know is the real point at issue - whether or not the Jewish state will be demographically overwhelmed by Arabs. You wouldn't even have to give up the alliteration.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Imagine you're Bashar Assad

Goal: You want to start a war and defeat Israel.

Complication: Israel's army is way, way stronger than yours and would quickly destroy your army without expending too much effort.

Solution: Build civilian villages along the border, in the middle of the projected battlefield. When war comes you'll be able to hide behind the newly settled civilians. Israel will have moral qualms about attacking with so many civilians around, but you won't, so you'll gain the advantage.

But of course, only Israel commits war crimes in the Middle East.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

You want to inspect what?

If you go here you can see the Google Maps aerial photograph of the Dimona umm.. textile facility. It's the darkish gridlike thing right in the middle with a road around it. If you want, zoom out to verify that the location is more or less correct (Google Maps doesn't have actual maps for Israel yet so you'll have to trust me at some level). And notice the very oddly-shaped lake to the lower right.

Next, check out the Israeli equivalent map site. The same oddly shaped lake is there, now much clearer because of the higher image quality. But where on earth has the textile factile gone?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Chanukah song

With apologies to Chad Gadya

Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya

Soo-oo-oof-ganya, soo-oo-oo-oo-oof-ganya
Dezavin abba bitrei zuzei, soofganya, soofganya,
Soofganya soofganya...
Dezavin abba bitrei zuzei, soofganya, soofganya,
Soofganya soofgan-

Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya
Soof-ganya, soof-ganya

Veata hutra, vehika lekalva
Denashach leshunra, deachal lesoofganya
Dezavin abba bitrei zuzei, soofganya, soofganya,
Soofganya soofganya.

and so on.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dreidels are Chukat Hagoyim

Or so it would seem from here.

I don't know how reliable that is, but at the very least it's quite interesting.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

REALLY only in Israel

can you find a spring-semester freshman physics textbook with an appendix, written by the campus rabbi, on "How to clean your dorm room in preparation for Pesach".

Or do the two secular-looking guys sitting behind you in the computer lab argue with each other over whether to light Shabbat or Chanukah candles first, and come to the correct conclusion for the correct reason - a conclusion which your yeshiva-educated self didn't know off the top of his head and had to go read up on afterwards.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Best vending machine ever

You know those vending machines that sell hot coffee? Yesterday I ran in the coolest such machine in the world. It sold a number of varieties of coffee, of course. It also offered various other drinks, such as carbonated apple cider. But, best of all, you could buy CHICKEN SOUP. Only in Israel. Only in Hadar.

Monday, December 11, 2006

And you think I'm joking

I wonder if this article sheds light on the Jewish-articulated idea of women's "bina yeterah".

Friday, December 08, 2006

Hadran alach, masechet dark-field fotolitografia

You know you're taking your engineering classes too seriously when you look at a street sign and think, "Oh look, a schematic of polysilicon channels on an implanted diffusion substrate!"

Or when you read the words "kibul hadam" in shacharit (korbanot) and think, "Capacitance of the blood? How many picofarads would that be?"

Seriously though, it feels like the first few weeks of yeshiva all over again: meeting a gigantic, diverse yet coherent body of knowledge with which you're barely familiar at first; struggling to reach levels of background and language proficiency which are second nature for everyone else; and finding long textbooks which you know are interesting and useful but which you can't get to because you're so busy with other textbooks. Now, if only I had a good "chavruta" to study with. And a hot mehadrin kosher lunch every day.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Only in northern Israel

On a clear day recently, I was looking at the view towards the east, and saw a small, white, cumulus cloud on the horizon.

But soon, I noticed that this cloud was more than a little strange. For one thing, it was the only cloud in the sky. And when I looked back a little later, its position and shape were exactly the same as before. Furthermore, it had a weird shape for a cloud. Its upper edge was jagged and well-defined. But its lower edge was perfect straight, but fuzzy, as if the cloud were gradually thinning out of existence instead of ending at a certain point in space.

Suddenly, I realized that this was no cloud. I was looking at the snowy peak of the Hermon mountain, 100 kilometers away, rising above and through the haze on the horizon.


"From the perspective of his two wives, Yaacov’s burial has an ironic twist. During their lives, Rachel and Leah each longed for what the other had. Rachel longed for children, and Leah longed for the attention of her husband.

In their deaths and burial, they each received what they lacked in their lives. Leah lies side by side with her husband, while “our mother” Rachel lies on the road waiting to welcome her children, the exiled of Israel, when they return to their land."