Friday, November 21, 2008

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

Whenever someone dies in Tanach, there is generally one line to explain how they died, at what age, and where they were buried. Sarah's death is unusual in that it is followed by a whole chapter telling every detail of the process by which her burial cave was purchased and her buried in it. Not only is this description very unusual in its length and subject matter, but most of the details in it seem rather superfluous. Why did they need to be mentioned?

Offhand, I can think of four lessons we learn from the long description.

1) This is the first time that Avraham buys land in Israel for his personal use. (He may or may not have bought the land his altars stood on, but even if he did, the land was probably considered like "Temple property" and not available for private use.) This indicates the permanence of his settlement in the land, and the fulfillment of the blessings related to the land. Burial caves were designed for use by many generations, so it indicates that his descendants would be buried (and live and die) in Israel as well.

2) The people of Hevron demonstrated their respect for Avraham: "Bury your dead in the choice of our graves". This respect is a fulfillment of the promises God made to Avraham, beginning with "I will bless you, and magnify your name" (12:2).

3) The people of Hevron called Avraham a "nasi elokim... betochenu" - a religious leader among them. Avraham's efforts in building altars everywhere, praying publicly, behaving morally towards other people, and so on were apparently not in vain. While the people did not reach the religious level of Avraham and his household, they were certainly better off than they were beforehand. They now recognized the good even if they did not live up to it.

4) The people of Hevron wanted Avraham to bury Sarah in their burial caves. But Avraham insisted on purchasing and using a separate cave. He was respectful to them, but kept himself distinct from them. He was not willing to dwell together with Canaanites in life (i.e. Yitzchak's wife) or death (in burial). At the same time, he bowed down to and showed respect for them. Perhaps this is a model for our interactions with people whose way of life we don't agree with, but which we cannot hope to quickly change.

To summarize: we learn that the promises to Avraham were fulfilled, and we gain more examples of Avraham's good behavior to learn from.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I do not yet have internet access in the building I moved into a week ago, thus the recent lack in posting.

Anyway, I heard the following joke recently. It relies on the fact that the Yiddish word "weiss", pronounced "vice", means "white" in English.

"So now that the elections are over, Obama will be the black president, and Biden will be the 'weiss' president."


Hazon Ish - Emuna Ubitachon

"Emuna Ubitachon" (by R' Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the "Hazon Ish") is a short book - just 71 rather small pages long. But it is difficult to read, even for Hebrew speakers, because its style and word choice are very different from what modern readers expect. I soon abandoned my idea of translating the book to English, and instead just summarized it, at a ration of roughly one sentence per page. Hopefully this summary can be useful, either for people who cannot read the book, or for people who are reading it and would like to see a broader overview at the same time.

The summary is divided according to the book's six chapters. Each chapter comprises between 3 and 30 subchapters, as indicated in brackets at the end of each sentence. And while I found many things to respect in the book, I do not agree with everything in it. Some sentences below are written according to the book's perspective even though it is not mine.

It's easier to read if you paste into a word processing file and increase the spacing between paragraphs to 6 points or so.

1) Belief
Belief in God is achieved through the following approaches:
- The wondrous characteristics of our bodies and the world indicate the existence of an intelligent designer. [1:1-7]
- The ecstatic and overpowering feeling one experiences upon realizing that God exists testifies to the truth of that realization. [1:8-9]
- Righteous people who have succeeded in refining their character traits believe that God exists, i.e. belief is a consequence of behavior which is universally regarded as praiseworthy. [1:10-15]

2) Trust
Trust (bitachon) does not mean believing that the future will undoubtedly be good - this cannot be known without prophecy. Rather, it means believing that every occurrence in the world is controlled by God rather than by random fate, and acting accordingly. Faith:thought::bitachon:action. [2:1-2]
An example of someone with "false" bitachon is an apparently religious shopowner who, when a rival store opens, takes hostile means against it with the intention of preserving his livelihood. [2:3-5]
Chazal condemn Yosef (in Egypt) for asking the butler for help. Asking for human help in itself is acceptable, since even though everything comes from God, we are not to rely on miracles. But in this case what Yosef asked for was unlikely to help and was like an act of desperation. As such it contradicted bitachon. [2:6]
A person can also be inspired to trust that God will in fact protect him. This happens in proportion to the person's spiritual level. [2:7]

3) Morality and halacha
Morality is defined by the limits of halacha. One's judgment of right and wrong in any situation should start with the relevant halachot rather than moral intuition, since when you have a personal stake in the matter, your moral intuition is unreliable. [3:1-4]
Obedience to halacha is developed through the following means:
- Discipline and removal of material pursuits from life,
- Study of "mussar", to scare you into doing what's right and into avoiding material comforts,
- General Torah study, to orient you to spiritual matters and increase sensitivity for the particular mitzvot you study and for the overall centrality of mitzvot in life. [3:5-7]
For mitzvot such as theft, piety without exact knowledge of halacha will not prevent sin, and can in fact lead to self-deception about one's intentions. [3:8-13]
All sustenance comes by Divine decree, but we are still required to put forth effort "for" this sustenance. But when halacha prohibits the effort, we revert to the original state of simply waiting for the Divine decree to take effect. [3:14-16]
Torah study is very important; to be at the highest religious level one must have extensive Torah knowledge as well as fear of heaven. At the same time, without fear of heaven one cannot reach true conclusions either. [3:17-29]
Emunat hachamim - one must believe that one's wise teachers rule honestly, because their psychological commitment to truth is stronger than to i.e. money. It is even forbidden to think that hachamim could have been biased but that this is not a discredit because all people have that weakness. The Torah's prohibitions on bribery are weaker than one would expect, because it assumes that hachamim are incorruptible. Rulings of the "gedolim" are purely intellectual, while normal people are driven by lusts. [3:30]

4) Character development
All good and evil character traits are consequences of one question: whether we see moral significance in natural life or not. Most people see this significance only sometimes, and are like wild animals at other times. [4:1-4]
Interpersonal and "bein adam lemakom" mitzvot are not independent - both are consequences of this one single question. [4:5-6]
One who successfully keeps all the myriad details of halacha will by necessity have achieved discipline over his emotions, as well as character traits such as patience and willingness to accept scorn when necessary. [4:7-8]
Keeping halachic details is the only way to "practice" good traits without taking unnecessary risks (i.e. walking near a brothel) [4:9]
One who knows his halachic knowledge is incomplete will become resigned to "unavoidable" laxity and will avoid precision in fulfilling his moral responsibilities. [4:10-11]
Study of "mussar" is only effective for thoughtful and delicate people; those qualities can be acquired through Torah study. [4:12]
Lying is extremely evil and, if habitual, prevents accepting criticism and having character growth. [4:13]
Honor and happiness in life are acceptable, but in truth they both consist solely of Torah wisdom and good character traits - and Torah leads to the character traits. [4:14-15]
A teacher with bad character traits transmits those flaws to his students. One whose teachers have neglected to sufficiently ground him in Torah study will use his intellect to create a new, false version of Judaism. [4:16-17]
These and other people who are religiously driven yet without Torah study will end up constantly violating laws - while still thinking themselves religiously perfect. [4:18-19]

5) Imagination and intellect
Today, people are seduced by modern technology into think that they are superior to any ancient people. [5:1]
But their success is material not spiritual, and anyway it only comes by building on the work of earlier generations, and for that matter ancient Jewish scientific knowledge in many subjects was advanced too. [5:2-5]

6) Prophecy
Humans by their nature cannot (fully) discover what is good and what evil, but they can prepare themselves for a prophetic encounter in which complete good and evil are revealed. [6:1-2]
Thus Adam, Cain, Noah, and Avraham received Divine commandments. In between them, people's moral level descended too low for prophecy to be possible. But since then Avraham's descendants have not stopped receiving and studying the Divine revelation which began with Avraham: the Torah. [6:3]
[This chapter is unfinished.]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Umatzbia lechol hai ratzon

It's election season in Israel too, and everywhere you see dozens of posters put up by candidates for mayor and the city council. There are candidates proud to represent a particular religious/ethnic constituency, candidates proud to represent a certain political party, candidates proud to non-partisan, candidates running on personal appeal, candidates whose names we don't even know since their party is all that matters, and everything in between.

Most of the posters are boring - some guy's face, name, party, and a superficial platform or cheesy slogan. But some of them go to the opposite extreme. One male candidate's posters show him in a tight T-shirt on a beach. That setting relates to the job he's running for how exactly? But it gets better. One female candidate's poster is a picture of herself with some writing on the side. But it's not a picture of all of her. In fact the picture is only of her legs. The top of the poster is somewhat above her knees, and her feet are near the bottom. So if you want a pair of attractive female legs on the city council, you know who to vote for! Certainly for some people that is a top priority. But I'm surprised that these people are old enough to vote in municipal rather than student government elections.

Girls have cooties


doesn't it feel good to be back in kindergarten again?