Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Fantastic midrashes

I'm posting an original link mostly for my own benefit. Hopefully I'll remember to look it up again this year before leil haseder.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thoughts on Beshalach

[Pharoah] called to Moshe and Aharon at night and said to them, "Go depart from my people, you and the descendants of Israel, and go worship Hashem as you spoke." (12:31)
It was told to the king of Egypt that the people [of Israel] had fled, and the hearts of Pharoah and his servants changed in regards to the people, and they said: "What have we done, for we have discharged them from our service!" (14:5)

Why would the Egyptians be angry at Israel for fleeing, when they themselves told Israel to leave in the first place?

Contrary to popular impression, Moshe never asked Pharoah to leave Egypt permanently. Though many of the requests were ambiguous (and Pharoah undoubtedly suspected they wanted total freedom), Moshe technically only requested to leave Egypt for three days to "worship God in the desert". (See R' Yisrael Rozen's recent article in Shabbat Beshabbato.) When Egypt told them to leave, they did not mean to leave permanently, but only for as long as was needed to appease God and stop the plagues. Thus the Egyptians felt tricked upon realizing that the Israelites had not stopped at a three-day-journey distance. Instead the Israelites kept going, and this was the "fleeing" which Egypt was angry about.

This may be the reason why the splitting of the sea is traditionally held to have happened on the 7th day of Pesach. Israel left Egypt on the first night of Pesach. If they had traveled three days into the desert, spent some time sacrificing animals, and returned - as the Egyptians expected - they probably would have arrived back in Egypt on the 6th or 7th day of Pesach. Only at this point, when no Israelites showed up, did the Egyptians realize that they had been deceived. They then sent chariots to attack Israel (chariots travel much faster than Israelite civilians), and the rest is history.

UPDATE: Verse 14:3 shows that the chronology is more complicated than what I just presented. Nevertheless, the 7th day is still a reasonable guess as to when the splitting of the sea took place. And a reasonably guess is all I'm looking for - obviously there won't be any proof.

The special tune for Az Yashir

Which lines of Az Yashir get sung in the special tune and which don't?

I'm convinced the criterion is the presence of God's name. If God's name is part of a verse, that verse gets the special tune. If God's name is near the beginning of a verse, the last few words of the previous verse get the tune too.

We may gain further insight by examining which name of God gets the special tune. God is referred to by a variety of names in the Torah. At first glance this seems redundant and confusing. But God's names fundamentally do not refer to God as an entity, but rather to certain patterns of behavior manifested by God. A good example is the expression "know my name", which does not mean "remember what's on my nametag", but rather "recognize me and my power". When God says, "The Egyptians will know that I am Hashem, when I honor myself by [destroying] Pharoah and his chariots" (14:18), it does not mean that the Egyptians get a vocabulary lesson. It means they get to experience the miraculously destructive "personality" which the name Hashem represents.

There are two "basic" names for God in the Torah - Elokim and Hashem - with the other names mostly derivatives of these two. Generally, the name Elokim generally represents God as manifest through the natural workings of the world, while Hashem represents God's miraculous or particularistic interference with the natural order. It is easy to see (and this is stated explicitly several times, including verse 14:18 quoted above) that Yetziat Mitzraim is the quintessential example of the "Hashem" aspect of God's activity. Within Yetziat Mitzraim, the splitting of the sea is the best example of all.

Not surprisingly, then, the name of God used in Az Yashir is almost exclusively Hashem. By singing all the verses which include Hashem (and almost no other verses), we are not only accepting God and offering praise for the miracle, but also specifically acknowledging the "Hashem" aspect of God's activity, which is clearer here than at any other point in Jewish history. The point is to demonstrate that we, no less than the Egyptians, have "learned" Hashem's "name".

And Amalek came...

For the first time ever I will post a link to a relevant post I made in the past. I think it is possibly my most insightful post so far, though perhaps not the best stylistically. (By the way, the last sentence of that post was misleading and wrong until I recently revised it.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

City on a hill II

I recently went down from hilly Haifa to Hutzot Hamifratz, a gigantic new American-style shopping mall on the coastal plain a few miles away. While walking outside a huge Office Depot store I had the feeling that I was not in Israel anymore. I've all but stopped noticing the difference between Hebrew and English, and in every other way Hutzot Hamifratz basically resembles Los Angeles.

I realized that one of the things which attracts me to Israel is the terrain. In most places where people live in America, you go five or ten miles in any direction, and things look exactly like where you came from. The same shopping malls, the same subdivisions, the same roads, the same chains of gas stations and restaurants. The same people too, it must be admitted, no matter how deep is your high school's rivalry with next high school down. In my opinion, this uniformity affects how Americans feel about their communities. Where everything is interchangeable, you can never truly feel at home.

Most of Israel is different. This is partly attributable to the greater density and variety in urban areas (similar to Europe), and to the unique historical/religious significance of almost every location. But I think an equally important factor is topography. Jerusalem, Haifa, and many smaller Israeli cities are built in mountainous areas. Every neighborhood is on a particular hill or in a well-known valley. From any place in the city, you can look up, down, or around, and see almost any other place in the city; walk a few blocks, and from your new angle everything will look different. The terrain and thus the design of every neighborhood (and often every street corner) are unique. There is never a sense of suburban interchangeability. Wherever you go, you are aware of and feel connected to your surroundings. I've only lived in Israel for three or so years up to this point, yet nowhere else in the world do I feel as rooted as I do here.

Only in Israel (Ruach haKodesh)

So last summer I posted on one of my university's message boards "Looking for a religious [male] roommate". (I add the brackets because I used the male grammatical form for "roommate" but otherwise did not specify the gender.) A couple days later this girl with a trendy-new-Israeli-girl-name-that-I-can't-even-pronounce emails me, using a flowery purple font, to say that she is interested in being our roommate, and she "is not religious but could keep kosher". Ummm... right. I sent back a polite email explaining why it would not work.

Fast forward to today. The same girl emails me. After scrolling through about 4 layers of forwards I reach the actual message. Apparently "Rabbi Abuchatzeira" (if that's who I think it is, didn't he die recently?) had a dream, and in his dream an important man told him a 2000-year old secret. What was this secret? Well, within 3 hours from when you read the email, you will receive a phone call. If you forward the email to 20 people, the phone call will "make your week". If not, then it will be the worst week of your entire life.

Now this girl, who had my email in her address book from 4 months ago, thought it worthwhile to forward the chain mail to me, apparently so that the 2000-year-old rabbinic prediction of a make-your-week phone call would come true.

Israelis are so interesting.

Shofar and Lulav

There are many commonalities between the commandments of shofar and lulav. This year we did not blow the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah or shake the lulav on the first day of Sukkot. This was due to parallel rabbinic enactments to prevent illegal carry of shofars and lulavs on Shabbat. Furthermore, Rambam puts shofar together with sukkah/lulav in the same section of the Mishneh Torah. For Rambam to combine the two, when the other holidays receives their own sections, indicates that they have something important in common, even if it's not immediately clear what.

But the most interesting similarity may be the way each mitzvah is performed. Specifically, both mitzvot are performed twice in different manners. We first blow the shofar before mussaf. But in the middle of mussaf we blow it again, during the chazzan's repetition of mussaf. Lulav is extremely similar: first we shake the lulav right after the shacharit amidah, and then we shake it again in the middle of Hallel.

Both shofar and lulav can be explained by using R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's distinction between the "maaseh" (physical action) and "kiyum" (fulfillment) of a mitzvah. Many mitzvot contain both a physical action which must be performed, as well as an emotional or existential "purpose" to the mitzvah. For example, the commandment to pray includes both the requirement to recite a certain prayer text, as well as the requirement to form an emotional connection with and dependance on God. If you mumble your prayers half-heartedly, you have technically performed the "maaseh" and thus are not required to repeat the prayer, but you have certainly missed the point of prayer, the "kiyum". Many other mitzvot function in the same way.

For shofar and lulav, it seems clear that the two times you perform each mitzvah represent the "maaseh" and "kiyum" of the mitzvah respectively. First you make the blessing and listen to the shofar or shake the lulav the necessary number of times. This completes the "maaseh" - once you have done this there is technically no requirement to listen or shake again. The second performance is needed to accomplish the "kiyum", the "point" of the mitzvah.

What exactly is the "kiyum" of each of these mitzvot? For shofar the answer is clear. The "kiyum" of shofar occurs in Mussaf, when you read 30 verses relating to kingship, remembrance, and shofars. These verses are meant to induce an emotion appropriate to those themes of Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps the best example is the verse Shemot 19:16: "On the third day [at Mt. Sinai]... the shofar sound was very strong, and all the people trembled in the camp." When you read this verse during Mussaf, and hear the shofar shortly afterwards (remember, the mitzvah is hearing not blowing), you yourself should tremble while contemplating the formidableness of God, the authority of the Torah over us, and the special relevance of these themes on the day of judgment.

Similarly, shaking the lulav during Hallel is intended to induce an emotional experience related to Hallel. But what exactly is the theme of Hallel? Certainly the main thrust of Hallel, as expressed in its name, is to give thanks to God for His deliverance. But this is not the only theme. We also say "Ana hashem hoshia na" (118:25) - expressing the idea that we have not yet been delivered and are still in need of God's assistance. This second theme receives much less of the space of Hallel. In fact 118:25 is the only verse which seems to be a full-out request for future help. But it so happens that this verse is especially relevant to the shaking of the lulav.

There is a disagreement in the mishnah (Sukkah 3:8) over exactly when in Hallel to shake the lulav. According to Beit Hillel, we shake when we get to two points in Hallel. One is the verse "Hodu lashem ki tov ki leolam hasdo", and the other "Ana hashem hoshia na". Beit Shammai adds a third occasion: the words "Ana hashem hatzlicha na".

Of these three verses, the first clearly consists of thanks for past deliverance. But both "Ana hashem" lines seem to be prayers regarding the future, though with somewhat different emphasis. "Ana hashem hatzlicha na" is a request for success - hatzlacha. It is the most straightforward prayer for the future one can imagine. But "Ana hashem hoshia na" is more complicated. Its starting point is a situation of crisis, from which salvation is needed. It is not only a request, but also a statement of faith that God is the appropriate power to turn to in time of crisis, implicitly alluding to the God's past deliverances which are a model for what we expect now. And if "salvation" is taken in the teleological/messianic sense, then it is a request not just for a change in circumstance, but also for a resumption of our relationship with God. Thus, "Ana hashem hoshia na" contains aspects of recognition of the past, as well as of prayer for the future.

In the mishnah, Beit Hillel holds that one should shake the lulav at "Ana hashem hoshia na" but not at "Ana hashem hatzlicha na". Apparently Beit Hillel thinks the "kiyum" of lulav does not relate to requests for the future, but only to recognition of and thanks for the past. In contrast, Beit Shammai thinks the the "kiyum" relates to both the future and the past, and thus mandates shaking at "Ana hashem hatzlicha na" as well.

Similarly, the gemara brings a disagreement as to why we shake the lulav in the manner we do. "Rabbi Yochanan said: one extends and brings close [the lulav, in honor] of He who the four directions belong to, and raises and lowers [the lulav, in honor] of He who the sky and earth belong to. In the west they taught... Rabbi Yossi said: one extends and brings close to prevent harmful winds, and raises and lowers to prevent harmful dew." (Sukkah 37b)

Here two reasons are given for the custom for shaking in different directions: recognition of God's power, and protection from harmful natural forces. It is clear that this disagreement is very similar to the disagreement of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. Rabbi Yochanan, like Beit Hillel, sees the "kiyum" of lulav as relating only to the past, to thanking God for what God has already done. Meanwhile, according to Rabbi Yossi the "kiyum" relates less to the past than to prayer regarding the future.

It is always interesting to try and find support for your "chakiras" in the Biblical text (this is essentially what R' Shimoni Gerti has tried to do systematically). Unfortunately, our past/future chakira cannot be convincingly read into the verse "You shall take for yourselves on the first day 'hadar'-tree fruit and palm branches and boughs of thick trees and stream willows, and you shall rejoice before God seven days." But when we look at Sukkot as a whole the picture changes. It is clear from Tanach that the "new year" is not what we call Rosh Hashanah, but rather the entire period between Rosh Hashanah and Shemini Atzeret (see article by R' Yoel Bin Nun in "Berosh Hashanah Yikatevun", Michlelet Hertzog). Therefore Sukkot can be considered part of both the outgoing and incoming years. This may be hinted to in the mussaf offerings whose quantities are roughly double that of the other pilgrimage holidays. And from here it is logical to say that the lulav, as a central aspect of the holiday, relates both to the past year and to the year to come. Its "kiyum" can consist of giving thanks for the fruitfulness of the past year, and of prayer for rain in the year to come. Thus, the Biblical text seems to fit with Beit Shammai's more comprehensive approach in the mishnah, and to synthesize the two approaches brought in the gemara.

The question, then, is what about Beit Hillel's opinion that we only shake the lulav for verses which give thanks for the past? Our halacha is according to Beit Hillel, but Tanach seems to disagree. What gives?

It could be that even Beit Hillel recognized prayer for the future as an important part of the "kiyum" of lulav. However, unlike Beit Shammai, they did not think that this particular "kiyum" should be accomplished during Hallel. Since Hallel overwhelmingly relates to the past, for Beit Hillel the "kiyum" of lulav in Hallel would relate only to the past. The "kiyum" of prayer for the future would still occur, but at a different point - right after shemoneh esreh, which is indeed as logical a place for prayer as you can find. For Beit Hillel, then, the two shakings of the lulav are opportunities to perform the two "kiyums" separately. Unlike in Beit Shammai's view and unlike the mitzvah of shofar, there would be no shaking of the lulav intended solely for the technical performance of the "maaseh".

In summary: (shofar is included for comparison even though the column headers are inappropriate)
 After shemoneh esrehDuring hallel
Beit HillelMaaseh; Kiyum of prayerKiyum of thanks
Beit ShammaiMaasehKiyum (of thanks and of prayer)

There is room to speculate on the implications of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai's views (are Beit Hillel metaphysical dualists? Are Beit Shammai monists? Is their machkolet the same as the machloket of Plato and Aristotle? etc. etc. - not to mention less presumptuous and unlikely possibilities) but I'll leave this line of inquiry for some other time. In any case, hopefully this post will lead the reader to a better understanding of the commandments of shofar and lulav, and just as importantly to a more meaningful performance of them.

Sederot, the obstacle to peace

Sederot threatens our existence as a Jewish, democratic state, weakens the security of Israel, drains our economic resources and prevents Israel from reaching peace with the Palestinians. As such, Sederot today poses an existential threat to the future of Israel.

Sederot weaken our security because each Sederot resident, each school, and each supermarket requires protection by the Israeli military.

Beyond stretching Israel’s defense capabilities, Sederot costs Israeli taxpayers many millions of dollars in extra nonmilitary spending each year.

The cost of sustaining and protecting Sederot is draining Israel's resources; it limits Israel's ability to provide vital social services, build a stable economy, and ensure peaceful coexistence between the Jews and the Arabs of Israel.

Sederot is located on land that many Palestinians regard as part of their future state. While some past Palestinian leaders have stated they might not insist on the removal of every resident of Sederot as a precondition for peace, Palestinian public opinion holds that the existence of Sederot in any form prevents the full realization of justice for wronged Palestinians.

While the existence of Sederot does not justify terrorism, it is important to recognize that terrorism is directed at Sederot due to legitimate Palestinian grievances related to the existence of Sederot, and the removal of Sederot would contribute to the the removal of those grievances.

How long can we tolerate the whole of Israel being held hostage to the demands of Sederot?

It is time to consider the dismantlement of Sederot and the transfer of the land it is on to Palestinian control.

And if anyone thinks that replacing the word "Sederot" with "settlements" would transform this argument from outrageous to fully legitimate, then I suggest they examine on what moral basis they are willing to discriminate between one group of civilians and another.

Thoughts on Bo

If you're having trouble remembering how many plagues are in parshat Vaera and how many in Bo, use the following mnemonic. The gematria of Bo is 3, and it contains 3 plagues. The gematria of the first two letters of Vaera is 7, and there are 7 plagues in Vaera.

Zecher Leytziat Mitzraim

There are lots of cool internal structures in the 10 plagues, which are well explained in this week's VBM articles by Ravs Bazak, Spiegelman, and Granot. One of them is the division of the first nine plagues into sets of three consecutive plagues each, with each set having a different purpose. The purposes are reflected in the content of the plagues, and are also explicitly indicated at the beginning of each set:

  • Before the 1st plague: "By this you shall know that I am the Lord" (7:17) - to prove that God exists, by showing that the world's best magicians can only do part of what God's envoy does.
  • Before the 4th plague: "In order that you may know that I am the Lord in the midst of the land" (8:18) - to prove God's involvement in human affairs, by making the plagues affect Egypt and not Israel.
  • Before the 7th plague: "In order that you may know that there is none like Me in all the earth" (9:14) - to prove God's uniqueness, through plagues whose destructiveness is unique in history.

Interestingly, these three purposes are very similar to the themes of the first 3 brachot of shemoneh esreh. The point of the first bracha of shemoneh esreh is to "make prayer possible" by recognizing God's existence and initiating a relationship with God (the Avot provide models for this relationship; see here). The second bracha details God's involvement in the world, as shown through both mundane (rain) and miraculous (resurrection) events. The third bracha recognizes God as qualitatively different ("kadosh") from everything else in existence.

We say the bracha "gaal yisrael" partly to fulfill the Biblical commandment of remembering the Exodus. Clearly, though, remembering the Exodus does not end with "gaal yisrael", but rather continues into shemoneh esreh. We connect "redemption" to "prayer" not only because redemption necessitates praise and allows for prayer, but also because the specific prayer we recite alludes to the specific redemption we are commemorating.

Alternatively, the plague/bracha parallel reminds us how deeply religious the significance of the Exodus from Egypt was. Yes, the exodus ended the exploitation of Israel, and is an appropriate model for the ending of exploitation today and in all of history. But while most of the exodus story is peripheral to the ending of slavery, nearly every event in the story has a clear religious purpose. The concepts that are important for us to invoke in prayer are the same concepts that God felt the need to demonstrate through the plagues. If the Exodus is the story of the birth of the people of Israel, then let us not forget Israel's imperative from birth - to be a moral people, walking with and loyal to God.

God will pass over the paschal offering ("Upasach hashem al hapesach") (12:23)

A reasonable verse, right? Because of the paschal offering, God - the agent of destruction - will stay away from the houses "protected" by the offering?

Unfortunately this is one of those times where Ashkenazi pronunciation leads not only to general ignorance regarding the Hebrew language, but to a specific and glaring misunderstanding of the text. Because, as anyone with a more sensible accent would realize, the word "pesach" does NOT occur twice in the verse. The second time it's actually "PETACH" - door - and the verse really means "God will pass over the doorway". If you grew up with an Ashkenazi accent, though, you'd never know the difference.

Even religious texts from Ashkenazi communities contain this particular error. (Don't blame the authors, who no doubt knew what they were talking about, but rather the copyists and printers.) See for example Rashi to Zevachim 115a ("yachol sheani"). I remember seeing a Metzudat Tzion on Divrei Hayamim with the same error, but couldn't find it this time around. There are probably other examples, and I would be interested in hearing about them.

Shortstop is still shortstop

Israeli baseball vocabulary

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Only in Soviet Russia

We had no lecture today because the professor was on strike. If only I'd known, I could have gone on strike myself and not stayed up until 4:30am doing homework. It's funny that the only people who can get away with striking are those who already have guaranteed lifetime high-income jobs.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Capitol offense

Many questions have been asked about Bush's plan to increase the number of soldiers in Iraq, and I don't want to discuss the plan's merits or lack thereof. I do want to ask one question which (to my knowledge) has not been asked elsewhere. Why did Bush come up with the plan now? The situation in Iraq is not much different now than it was six months, or two years, ago. So why is there suddenly the need for a new plan? A year ago, didn't Iraq need extra troops just as much as today?

Less than two months ago, there was an election in which Republicans were rather unexpectedly trounced due to dissatisfaction over Iraq. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the new plan is a response to the election results.

But what does Bush hope to accomplish with the new plan? One would expect that, now that the Democrats have done so well and the country is apparently so anti-war, Bush would make some concession: decreasing the number of soldiers, for example, or giving more responsibility to the Iraqi government. In fact the new plan is very close to the opposite of this. One could imagine him resisting pressure for change, but it's amazing that he felt impelled to change policy, but in the direction opposite what he was pressured to do. What could Bush hope to accomplish with this kind of reaction to the election?

I think the answer is psychological. Until two months ago Bush had many reasons to think that everything he was doing was correct. He had been elected to a second term by a larger margin that for his first term (hehe); his party controlled Congress; the economy was doing well; the violence in Iraq was perhaps being brought under control, but at least not apparently getting worse, and so on. If some annoying congressmen dared to criticize the war, well they were just conniving Democrats willing to tell any lie that would help their political careers. And so Bush became arrogant, dismissing all criticism, and skirting legal and constitutional issues with disdain because it was all for the right cause, and all his policies seemed to be working.

The recent elections were a violent dose of reality. No, not every policy of Bush's was in fact a success. No, Americans do not unconditionally support military adventures no matter how badly they go. If presidential elections had been held this year, they might have ended the Bush administration altogether. Bush was chastened and forced to develop a sense of humility. For the first time in years he took a honest look at the situation in Iraq, realized the depth of the problem, and came up with a plan for a solution. Bush's new plan is in fact not so new; for years now, some politicians and generals have called for an increase in troop levels. Until now Bush had ignored them because, in his mind, he knew better than anyone else. But now he took a serious look at their argument for the first time, and came away convinced.

Whether the new plan is in fact well-advised will probably not be conclusively known for a while (or ever, if it doesn't get carried out). In the meantime, other politicians need to avoid the trap that Bush repeatedly fell into. There seems to be a tendency among Democrats to criticize Bush's new plan without articulating a coherent alternative policy to address Iraq's problems. This in itself is understandable since they themselves do not have to make foreign policy. But it raises the possibility that they are making the same fundamental mistake Bush made - thinking that's enough to appear "anti-war", since that's what the public wants, without seriously considering the effects of their proposed policies. It is a difficult challenge to feel popular for who you are, and nevertheless to try to judge ideas based on what they have to offer. Bush failed at this challenge for several years. Let's hope that his newly empowered opposition does not fail at it now.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

One last thought on Shemot

[Pharaoh] said: "You people are lazy. Lazy! That is why you say 'Let us go sacrifice to God'." (5:17)
"I'm shocked - shocked! - to find that gambling is going on in here!" (Casablanca)

This line of Pharaoh's reminds me of a famous cinematic line which uses the same literary effect. In each case the speaker, an authority figure, could have left out one word, and thus made a grammatically correct sentence saying what he wanted to say. But both times, the speaker instead repeats the key word representing his feelings about the situation. This has two effects: 1) the emotion is intensified, and 2) the speaker expresses scorn towards the subject. You can imagine Pharaoh saying the word "lazy", and then repeating it, slowly and condescendingly, while Moshe absorbs the resulting humiliation. By adding just one word, the laconic story of the demand's rejection is transformed into a vivid scene which shows exactly what Pharaoh and Moshe were thinking at the time.

This is the sort of cool little narrative touch which is easy to miss, but which makes the biblical story much more vivid and fun if you get it. Of course, though, Sefer Shemot does not have the funny punchline which reveals that the Captain Renault's outrage is in fact hypocritical and feigned.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thoughts on Vaera

God said to Moshe: "Look, I have made you a god to Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother will be your prophet." (7:1)

This line is easier to understand if you remember that in Egypt, Pharaohs were considered to be gods. To Pharaoh, being a god did not mean living in heaven and doing miracles. Pharaoh undoubtedly performed religious charades to exemplify his supposed godliness, but from a practical point of view, the main consequence of being a "god" was that he had temporal power over other humans. Now Moshe, through the plagues, was going to take Pharaoh's temporal authority away from him. Moshe of course was not technically a god. But he would soon become a "god to Pharaoh", lording it over Pharaoh the way Pharaoh had previously lorded over the Egyptians.

Monday, January 15, 2007

More thoughts on Shemot

In the merit of righteous women of that generation, Israel were redeemed from Egypt. (Midrash Rabba 1:12)

What is the textual basis for this midrash?

The redemption from Egypt occurred under Moshe's leadership. But Moshe would never have accomplished what he did, were it not for a number of righteous women who protected him at each stage of his early life. Yocheved hid Moshe from the Egyptians; Miriam guarded him on the river and made the crucial suggestion which allowed Moshe a Jewish upbringing; Pharoah's daughter protected and raised Moshe in spite of her society's expectations; and Tziporah was quick to circumcise their son and save Moshe from whatever sudden illness he had contracted. Were it not for the righteousness of these four women, the redemption could not have happened the in way it eventually did.

So far this is a practical argument. Due to the righteous deeds of these four women, Moshe was able to lead the departure from Egypt. But if God had wanted, couldn't the redemption have happened without Moshe? If these four particular women had been evil, and all the other women righteous, would this have prevented the redemption? I don't think so. So what is the importance of their personal righteousness?

From a literary perspective, the fact that all four women in the story show exceptional courage and resourcefulness cannot be an accident. We could have expected one or two heroines - but for every single female character to be a heroine is extraordinary. This is especially striking in light of the way Israelite men (four of them) are depicted in the story. Amram comes off as pretty remote from the story; he is not recorded as having helped save his son Moshe. Another Israelite was beaten or killed by the Egyptians, but that's all we know of him. The last two Israelites depicted get in an fistfight with each other. Amid this pretty mediocre behavior by the men, the constant heroism of the women is all the more surprising. It's hard to believe these four examples of righteousness are exceptions and not the rule (especially because three of them are not named). These four women say something not just about themselves, but about the behavior of women of the time in general.

(I hear the core of this explanation from R' Yaakov Medan.)

Update: I forgot the midwives, who would have made the argument even stronger.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

It's too easy to feel proud

...or patriotic, or jingoistic.

You know those lists of Israel's amazing economic, cultural, and technological achievements, high-tech companies, mathematicians per capita, making the desert green, blah blah blah?

Well, there's one accomplishment that probably hasn't made it onto a list yet. Until now.

The highest quality Wikipedia, with the exception of English, is the Hebrew one.

For further amusement, compare it to the Arabic one.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Thoughts on Shemot

These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Yaakov, each coming with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. (1:1-4)

An interesting discussion of this paragraph can be found here. Meanwhile, R' Amnon Bazak presents a rather incompatible understanding in this week's Shabbat Beshabbato.

[Pharaoh] said to his nation: "Behold, the nation of the descendants of Israel is too numerous and powerful for us." (1:9)

This is the first time Israel is referred to as a nation, not just as a family or collection of individuals. Perhaps there is a reason for the change in language beyond the simple numerical growth of Yaakov's descendants. Just two words before this word, we find a reference to another nation, the Egyptian nation. The juxtaposition of the two nations in the text may hint to a deeper meaning.

It may be that Pharoah felt threatened by the Jewish growth, but the people were less worried. If there was a war in the ancient world, one could expect the losing king and his dynasty to be defeated and exterminated, but from the perspective of the average peasant not much would change. Perhaps taxes would go up a little, or down a little, but as long as the disruption of war ended it didn't matter too much who ended up winning. Thus Pharoah himself must have felt threatened by increased Jewish power (which presumably would lead to demands for the same authority the Jews had in Yosef's lifetime), but the common people would have less reason to worry.

Pharoah's comment may have been intended to frame the brewing conflict, not in terms of a royal struggle for power, but specifically in terms of a threat to the Egyptian nation. As he presented it, the Jews were a pernicious cancer within the Egyptian people. The destinies of the Egyptian and Jewish peoples were mutually exclusive, only the fittest would survive, and it was the average Egyptian's job to protect himself from the enemy which, in some vague way, was supposed to threaten him and his people. Pharoah was the thus first social Darwinist and the first Nazi. If his ultimate aims were to protect himself and his rule, he nevertheless tried to convince the entire people that the real threat was towards them.

Pharoah's specific fear is that "when war approaches, [Israel] will gather with our enemies, fight against us, and rise up from the land". This last, cryptic, phrase can be explained in a way that supports the previous hypothesis. The Jewish lived in "the land of Goshen", which was part of the Nile delta and thus the lowest part of Egypt. By "rise up from the land", Pharoah may have meant the Jews would leave Goshen and take over the entire country. ("Land" would refer to Goshen, not Egypt as a whole.) Whether or not this threat was realistic, it was what Pharaoh wanted the people to believe. And Pharoah's use of the word "nation" regarding Israel, accentuated by the Sefer Shemot's adjacent reference to the "nation" of Egypt, hints that he exploited this possibility in his propaganda.


My usual way of resolving grammatical uncertainties is to plug the two options into Google and see which comes up with more hints. But what do you do when the options have the exact same number of hits? And seriously, what are the chances of that happening?

UPDATE: the first time I tried it, I got the same number of hits for both; now the number is slightly different.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Random mikdash-related thoughts

1. In Divrei Hayamim Alef 23-26 we read that King David assigned the tribe of Levi to tasks in the new (not-yet-built) Temple, particularly singing songs, and serving as guards. Why were these additional tasks necessary, and why specifically at this moment?

From Bamidbar 4 it is clear that the Levites' only task was to carry parts of the Mishkan. This task made lots of sense in the desert, when Israel was wandering and the Mishkan was carried wherever they went. It was less necessary after entering Eretz Yisrael, when the Mishkan was mostly settled in one place, but still could theoretically be moved; on several occasions it was in fact moved. But when David declared that Jerusalem would be the site of a permanent unmovable Temple, he permanently prevented the Levites from doing the only work which had ever been required of them. So as to keep them as a separate tribe actually filling some functional purpose, David had to find new things for them to do. Because the Temple was going to be bigger and cooler that the Mishkan, there was a functional need for new workers (guards). Also, David's own background as a religious musician made him the right person to introduce music into the service (at least more formally than had been the case previously).

2. Question: did the kohanim in the Mishkan and Temple wear tefillin (and/or tzitzit)? The Rambam says yes (Hilchot Klei Hamikdash 10:2). But do you ever see tefillin being worn in the beit hamikdash picture books? I don't think so. (Perhaps other authorities disagree with the Rambam, I haven't checked.)

From a philosophical perspective, what is the purpose of tefillin/tzitzit? What is the purpose of the Temple garments? Do the answers to these two questions influence our opinion on whether both were to be worn simultaneously? Does the halacha of priests wearing tefillin affect our understanding of the purposes of tefillin and Temple garments? I have no conclusions. Just food for thought.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Thoughts on Vayechi

Vayechi is the only parsha in the Torah which starts in the middle of a line and not at a parshiyah break. This is understandable because the only nearby parshiyah break is pretty depressing and not something you would want to focus on, but it obscures what is going on in the parshiyah. So it's useful to ignore the parsha break and dissect the parshiyah on its own merits. Here are the parshiyah's sections as I see them:
  • 1. Yaakov arrives
  • 2. Yaakov sees Yosef, says he can now die
  • 3. Sons presented to Pharoah
  • 4. Yaakov presented to Pharoah
  • 5. Yaakov etc. sustained with best of land
  • 6. The Egyptians are hungry; they sell everything to Yosef for food. All of them except the priests are subjugated to Pharoah
  • 7. Yaakov lives richly in Egypt
  • 8. Yaakov is close to death, has Yosef swear to bury him in Hevron (this last section is the only one in parshat Vayechi)

It is clear that the parshiyah covers a long time (close to 17 years) and thus is diverse in terms of the stories covered. However, I think it can be divided among two distinct themes. Thematically they perhaps belong in separate parshiyot, but because they are chronologically interwoven they are presented together. The themes are:
  • (5, 6, 7) The juxtaposition of Egypt descending into poverty and subjugation with the prosperity of the priests, of Yosef (who was part of a priestly family), and of Yaakov. On one hand this is a natural result and reflects God's protection of Yaakov's family. On the other hand its morality is dubious and it is a clear motivation for the Jewish enslavement which follows. Therefore, it sheds light on what comes both before and after it.
  • (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8) The personal story of Yaakov coming to Egypt. He has had a very difficult life; this is evident from previous stories but is reemphasized here in section 2 and 4. But finally, this parshiyah tells us, the story ends happily and Yaakov gets to live comfortably with his entire family. (Sections 3 and 4, where Yaakov's sons and then Yaakov are presented to Pharoah, are slightly weird. Perhaps section 3 is just there to provide context for section 4, which is obviously relevant to Yaakov's story.)

Sefer Breishit has several main "theses" which are emphasized in story after story. These are: God's authority over the world; the existence of reward and punishment; God's fulfillment of promises, and how and why the Jewish people came to exist (and to be in Egypt). The first three theses are evident in the story of Egypt's poverty and Yaakov's family's wealth. And all four them are evident in the satisfaction Yaakov receives at the end of his life. The common element of the stories of Yaakov in Egypt is that all of them help prove that Yaakov was rewarded in the end. This conclusion, which attests to three of the theses of Sefer Breishit, is sufficient reason for the various stories to be presented in one parshiyah.

There is one loose end to this understanding. The rewards pictured in Sefer Breishit, and certainly the promises and covenants God made, are implicitly set in Eretz Yisrael. But Yaakov and his family, who we are now supposed to picture as being rewarded, have been exiled to Egypt. Their story reminds us of Yishmael, who was exiled from Eretz Yisrael and married an Egyptian woman. Has Yaakov in fact been excluded from Jewish destiny as Yishmael was?

The last section of the parshiyah comes to answer this question. Yaakov is rich and successful in Egypt. But he has not cut off his connections with his ancestors or with Eretz Yisrael, and in his final moments he acts to ensure his return to both of them. This is an important correction to the personal story of Yaakov, so it belongs in this parshiyah, and not with the other stories of his death in the chapters that follow.

When Yosef saw that his father was laying his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him. He raised his father's hand, to move it from Ephraim's head to Menashe's head. Yosef said to his father: "Not so, my father, for this is the first-born; put your right hand upon his head." (48:17-18)

This scene is very reminiscent of Breishit chapter 27, when Yaakov took Esav's blessing. In both cases the aging patriarch, near death and unable to see, wants to bless his descendants. In both, there is debate over whether the older or younger son should receive the primary blessing. And in both, a parent of the two kids tries to maneuver this blessing to the "right" son when the patriarch seems to be getting it "wrong".

But at the same time, the manner of the blessing is very different, and so are its results. It is hard not to see this blessing as a "tikkun" or reparation for the deception regarding Yitzchak's blessing, and also for the favoritism Yaakov had shown to Yosef before his kidnapping. The mistakes which had been made in the previous two generations, leading to bitter and violent conflict between Yaakov and Yosef and their respective brothers, are repaired in the blessing of Yosef's sons. Here both brothers get the same blessing, and only in passing does Yaakov mention that Efraim's blessing is more substantive. Also, in contrast to the exclusion of Rivka and Yaakov's wives from the blessing process, here Yosef is present and can argue the details of the blessings until he is convinced that they are acceptable. And perhaps most importantly, both brothers are present when each other's blessings are given. This seems like a minor point, but I think it leads to a degree of understanding and acceptance which was sadly missing among the previous sets of siblings.

In later Jewish history we find many conflicts between Israel and Edom, and between various alignments of the tribes of Israel. But there was never a tradition of conflict between the tribes of Efraim and Menashe, despite their proximity and power. The thoughtfulness of Yaakov's final blessing may be one reason why.

They sent a message to Yosef, saying: "Your father did command before he died, saying: 'Say thus to Yosef: Please forgive your brothers' transgression, and their sin, in that they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of your father's God."
And Yosef wept when they spoke to him.
And his brethren went and fell down before his face, and said: "Behold, we are your slaves."

I have two questions here, which I think are related. First, why does Yosef cry in the middle of the brothers' plea for forgiveness, making it seem like the end of the plea - where they put themselves at his mercy - would not induce him to cry? Secondly, if Yaakov wanted to ask Yosef to forgive the brothers, wouldn't he have asked Yosef directly, instead of having the brothers quote his words? Yaakov and Yosef certainly had plenty of opportunity to talk before Yaakov's death!

I suspect that the brother's quoting Yaakov is a bad lie - Yaakov never actually said what the brothers quote him as saying - and Yosef knows it. Our story has an interesting parallel in the previous generation, when Esav postpones his plan to murder Yaakov until after their father dies. It seems the brothers assume Yosef will do the same, and the only way to save themselves is to invent a story which makes Yaakov's opinion relevant after he is physically gone. As unlikely as it is that Yaakov would have made the statement to the brothers and not to Yosef, the brothers are so desperate that they feel forced to tell this particular lie. Yosef is shocked to learn that they are so terrified of his imagined vengeance and will go to such extremes to try to escape it. There is a gigantic gap between their conception of him and his real intentions, and Yosef cries upon learning that the divide between them is so deep. He learns of this gap not from their request for forgiveness, which he could reasonably have expected from them, but from the lie which they felt forced to tell and which he detects.

UPDATE: Two insightful articles.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ve'erastich le betzedek uvemishpat uvechesed uverachamim

Last night I went to the wedding of someone I know from, um, college. The word had gotten out that people who knew the couple, but were not formally invited, were welcome to come anyway. And indeed, when we got there, on the name-card table there was a sign which said something like "Anyone who doesn't have a card - feel welcome to come in and sit at one of the open tables!" These open tables turned out to be something like a third of the wedding hall, and they were mostly full.

I don't know if this was typical for Israeli weddings (this is the first one I've been to), but it left me with a very good feeling. The chupah is shaped like a tent without walls. As such is bears a striking resemblance to Avraham and Sarah's tent according to the midrash, which was also open on all four sides, so as to encourage guests to visit and partake in their hospitality. By implicitly welcoming and invitating anyone who might come along, the couple gave us a nice reminder of the behavior of Avraham and Sarah. I can't imagine a more auspicious beginning to one's married life.

Monday, January 01, 2007

When "rats with wings" doesn't mean pigeons

Sometimes I wish I had a digital camera, and this afternoon was one of those times. I was walking along and happened across a 6-inch-long bat laying motionless on the sidewalk. It had probably been living in one of the caves in the Carmel and, um, drank antifreeze or something. Anyway, it was the first bat I can ever remember seeing, and probably the coolest animal I've seen since my last trip to the zoo. And now, I will now add the obligatory relevant cool link.