Monday, November 30, 2009

The two-minute quarterback

Have you ever seen a football game (NFL or college) that was low scoring, with the teams punting the ball back and forth, but in the last few minutes each team managed to score quickly and repeatedly, making for a very exciting finish? The Patriots-Giants Super Bowl a few years ago was one such game. In my experience, there are many others. Is it just chance that the games end this way so often? Do the teams just choose to stop trying on defense, or is there a better explanation for why this occurs?

I think this is because of the teams' choice of play calls. Each team has a few offensive plays, or sequences of plays, which they developed and which they think are especially effective and unlikely to be anticipated by the defense. If they use these plays at some unimportant point of the game, their effect is wasted. So they are saved for the closing minutes of close games. At this point, both teams run all their special plays, which do tend to be more effective than normal plays. Thus, both teams often manage to score quickly. The defenses are trying just as hard as they have all game, but their task is harder and they tend not to do as well.

One consequence of this theory is to diminish the value of the “two-minute drive quarterback”. Not only is it easier to score at that point with all the special plays at hand, but the choice of plays is likely to have been substantially planned ahead of time. In the middle of the game, when there is no such planning, running an offense may be more difficult, not less.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yaakov's sister marriage

If Yaakov Avinu kept the entire Torah, how could he have married two sisters, which the Torah forbids?

There are at least three explanations:

1) Hizkuni: When each sister married Yaakov they converted to "Judaism", and a convert is no longer considered to be part of his/her immediate family for these purposes.

2) Ramban: There are two reasons why to keep mitzvot. In general, we do so because God commanded us (the "rationalist" explanation). In the land of Israel (but only there, says the Ramban) we keep mitzvot because they have a special impact on the world (the "mystical" explanation). Before Sinai, God had not commanded anything. So only the second reason applied - and only in Israel. Therefore, Yaakov was free to break the Torah outside Israel, for example, by marrying Rachel. But once he returned to Israel this excuse ceased to apply - and Rachel died soon afterwards, in childbirth.

3) Since Yaakov was not commanded, but saw value in the mitzvot, he chose to keep them as a "chumra". But in Rachel's case, this chumra conflicted with a greater obligation. Rachel had waited seven years with the expectation of marrying Yaakov. To not marry her now would be a betrayal of her trust. Yaakov's "chumra" of not marrying two sisters was overridden by his preexisting obligation to Rachel. From this we learn that one may not take on chumras when they are at someone else's expense.

Some difficulties with this last explanation: 1) The halacha of marrying two sisters was likely instituted for the benefit of the sisters, so they not fight each other. So marrying Rachel now would actually not be in her interest. 2) In that society Rachel's marriage may have been Lavan's concern, not Rachel's, and perhaps Yaakov did not have the standing to insert himself into the other family's considerations.

...Still, the message is good.

Aliyah to India

Aliyah to India


There is a family of American olim I know called the Mendelsohns (name changed). Long ago they decided they didn't want their kids to ever return to the US, and their kids' names should ensure that that never happens.

Each kid has a normal Hebrew name, but their English name – never used except on their US passport – is absolutely bizarre. For example, one kid is named “Mendelsohn Mendelsohn”. Another can truthfully say that “Danger is my middle name”. A third is named “Just Mendelsohn”. So when people ask his name, and he says “Mendelsohn”, and they respond “No, your full name”, confusion ensues.

I've thought of some more names that they should give their next couple kids, if they have any more. First of all, “Who Mendelsohn”. That way they could reproduce ”Who's on First”.

Second of all, “Name Mendelsohn”. Then people would ask “What's your name”, and he would respond “Name”. And the asker would think that the kid misunderstood the question.

If you like this second idea, though, I shouldn't get the credit. Wasn't one of Noach's sons named “Shem”?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jerusalem and birkat hamazon

אמר רב יוסף תדע דהטוב והמטיב לאו דאורייתא שהרי פועלים עוקרים אותה

R' Yosef says (Brachot 46a) that the fourth blessing of birkat hamazon, “Hatov vehametiv”, must be rabbinic rather than required by the Torah. His argument is that all-day workers (who must not waste time while “on the clock”) omit this blessing from after their meals, and if the Torah required it, it could not be omitted even in this situation. After this, the gemara brings several other, similar, proofs why “Hatov vehametiv” is rabbinic.

The implication of all this is that all three of the previous blessings are from the Torah. This is hard to understand. In particular, the third blessing is about the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Jerusalem did not become the site of the Temple or national capital until hundreds of years after the Torah was given. For most of the interim period, the city Shiloh played the role we associate with Jerusalem. So how can the Torah require us to recite the blessing this way?

Let us look at the Torah's source for birkat hamazon, and see where each of the three blessings can possibly come from.

“You shall eat, and be sated, and bless Hashem you God for the good land which He has given you.” (Devarim 8:10)

The second blessing is easiest to justify. It is about the land, and we are explicitly told to thank God for the land.

The first blessing is about food. We are not told explicitly to bless about food. But the context of birkat hamazon is surely relevant. If we thank God for the land, but only after eating, then why is the land important to us? Clearly, it is important in that it provides us with food. And thus, we have a separate blessing which thanks God for food. Could this thanks not have been included in the “land” blessing? It could, and (according to some opinions) the bracha me'ein shalosh we say after eating cake is exactly such a “combined” blessing. But for birkat hamazon, the accepted text has the topics separated into multiple blessings.

Now to the third blessing. Where in Devarim 8:10 is there any hint of Jerusalem?

I think the answer is in the last few words of the verse, “which He has given you”. The second blessing thanks God for the land, the third blessing thanks God for our control of it. Only when we control the land can we enjoy its produce; if we are exiled or oppressed, we are not benefiting from it. Jerusalem is simply the current symbol of that control. Once God “has mercy on Israel... Jerusalem... Zion... the kingdom of the house of David... the Temple” (to quote the blessing), then we will be returned from exile, living peacefully with the land of Israel under our control.

The “kingdom of the house of David”, which seems to be the most peripheral item on the list I just quoted, may actually be the most important. According to the Shulchan Aruch, if you forget the phrase “kingdom of the house of David”, your entire birkat hamazon is invalid. Similarly, the Yemenite text of birkat hamazon has a very different third blessing from ours, which puts even more emphasis on the “kingdom of the house of David” than we do. I think we can explain this emphasis by saying that the blessing's basic theme is our control over the land, and if we leave this out the purpose of the blessing is not accomplished.

Now, for almost 2000 years we did not have control over the land of Israel. So, technically speaking, it was impossible to thank God for control. Instead, we have offered a prayer that control be returned to us. We still say this today, partly because changing established texts is difficult and fraught with danger, partly because our control of the land is still very incomplete.

Of course, we are forced to say that the third blessing did not always mention rebuilding Jerusalem. When the Temple was standing, it must have said something like “We thank you for preserving the kingdom of David in the holy city of Jerusalem”. Before the Temple was built, it must have said something similar about Shiloh. The exact wording would change from generation to generation. But the Biblically mandated idea – recognition that the land has been delivered into our control as a Divine gift – remains the same.

On a different note: Taking a broad look at birkat hamazon, we see the following rough pattern. In the three blessings we thank God for our food, for the farm which provided the food, and for the political circumstances which allow us to benefit from that farm. This list begins with the immediate and personal, and proceeds to the universal and abstract. In some ways, it reminds one of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, in which the lower needs must be satisfied before the higher ones.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Colorful names

Lavan, father-in-law of Yaakov, has quite an unusual name. Who, after all, names their kid after a color? One interpretation says that whenever Lavan wanted to trick someone, he would pretend to be “pure and white” in character, and having gained their confidence, would then proceed to rob them.

But interestingly enough, Lavan is not the only person in Breishit named after a color. The other person is none other than Yaakov's brother. Born with the name Esav, he later acquired the name “Edom”. One day Esav came in from the field hungry, found Yaakov cooking red lentils, and begged Yaakov to “give me some of that red, red stuff”. Yaakov agreed only in exchange for Esav's birthright. From then on Esav was called “Edom”, meaning “red”. One might assume that rather than being a compliment, this was a way of mocking Esav for his shortsighted desperateness in agreeing to the exchange. In any case, the name stuck and the nation descended from him is named Edom.

So Esav's “colorful” name is a result of his being tricked by Yaakov. My theory is that Lavan got his name the same way.

When the Torah describes how Lavan tried to trick Yaakov, it includes what looks like an amusing pun. “That day [Lavan] removed the streaked and spotted he-goats, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had white [“lavan”] in it, and all the dark ones among the sheep...” (30:35) Lavan agreed to give Yaakov the white-spotted goats in his flock, but he secretly removed and hid those goats to deprive Yaakov of his wages. But Yaakov had the last word in this story. He got the completely black goats to breed, and white-spotted goats were among their offspring. Then he used certain procedures to help his goats reproduce more than Lavan's. Eventually his white-spotted goats (and dark sheep) outnumbered the pure-colored ones. Yaakov outmaneuvered Lavan, and Lavan grew poor and frustrated, while Yaakov returned home wealthy and with a large family.

It is through the coloring of these goats and sheep that Lavan tried to trick Yaakov. But through the same coloring, Yaakov managed to not only protect but also enrich himself greatly. Perhaps, in memory of this, Lavan received the name “white”. He was born with a different name – one not recorded in the Torah. But he received his new and more “colorful” name, in memory of what he tried to do to Yaakov, and how Yaakov turned the tables on him. As with Edom, Lavan's misbegotten plans are preserved forever in the additional name that his contemporaries gave him.

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

[Avraham] spoke with them, saying: “If you are willing that I bury my dead from before me, hear me, and approach for me Ephron the son of Tzohar, that he may give me his cave of Machpelah, which is in the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me, in your midst, for a burial site.” Now Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, of all that entered the gate of his city, saying: “No, my lord, hear me. The field I give to you, and the cave that is in it, I give to you; before the eyes of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.” (23:8-11)

There is one hard-to-understand phrase here: ועפרון יושב בתוך בני חת - “Now Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth”. What does this mean and why is it mentioned?

One possibility is just to say that Ephron was already physically present and available to discuss the transaction. That's a very boring explanation but I can't rule it out. However, I also have a more interesting explanation. It relies on the following quote, regarding the prophet Elisha.

[The Shunamite woman] said unto her husband: "Look now, I have seen that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually. Let us make a little chamber in the attic; and let us set for him there a bed, table, stool, and candlestick; and whenever he comes to us, he will go there.” One day he came there, and he went to the upper chamber and lay there... [Then he asked the woman]: “Look, you have taken all this care for us; what is to be done for thee? Should you be mentioned to the king, or to the captain of the host?” And she answered: “I dwell among my people.” He said: “What then can be done for her?” Gehazi answered: “Indeed she has no son, and her husband is old.” (Melachim Bet 4:9-14)

At which point Elisha arranges for the woman to miraculously have a kid. But before that happened, Elisha offered to get the king and higher officials to help the woman out. She refused, with the explanation: “I dwell among my people.” Apparently this means that any special favors would make the people around her suspicious and jealous, and she valued her community more than whatever perks the king could give her.

Returning to the parsha. When it says that “Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth”, perhaps this means the same thing as the Shunamite's “I dwell among my people”. Ephron would have loved to take the large payment which Avraham just offered him. But his community insisted on Avraham being able to bury for free, and Ephron felt he could not go against this. Thus, Ephron offered Avraham the land as a gift. When Avraham continued to insist on paying, Ephron was able to take the money. But still, to keep up the impression that he didn't care about the money, he continued talking as if he were giving a gift: “Land worth 400 silver shekels, what is it between us?”

Ephron was not necessarily a sleazy Middle Eastern bazaar salesman, professing generosity while manipulating the customer into paying an exorbitant price. It's also possible that he preferred to be honest, but social pressure from his countrymen forced him to present himself as more generous than he actually was.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Four beautiful women

תנו רבנן: ארבע נשים יפיפיות היו בעולם: שרה <ואביגיל רחב> [רחב ואביגיל] ואסתר. ולמאן דאמר אסתר ירקרוקת היתה, מפיק אסתר ומעייל ושתי

The rabbis teach: There have been four super-beautiful women in the world: Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, and Esther. According to the opinion that Esther was sallow, [the list] would exclude Esther and include Vashti.
(Megillah 15a)

As you can see from the Hebrew, there is a difference of opinion as to how this teaching should be worded. The list of women, as it appears in normal gemaras, goes as following:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Esther.
But on the side of the page is a note saying צ"ל רחב אביגיל – "It should say Rahav, Avigayil”. Thus the order becomes:
    Sarah, Rahav, Avigayil, Esther.
Usually this kind of “it should say” correction appears when there is a relatively obvious and inconsequential error (let us say “typo”) in our printed gemara. Out of respect for the text (and humility regarding the certainty of our conclusions) we do not actually correct the typo. But we add the correction note so people know how to learn the gemara correctly, and don't puzzle for hours over a cryptic phrase that wasn't intended to have a deep meaning.

In our case, though, it's not obvious what the error is. In this list of names, how do we know, and why does it matter what order the names are in?

Let us try to understand the case by first looking at the “corrected” list. Here, the order is Sarah, Rahav, Avigayil, Esther. That corresponds to the chronological order in which the four women lived. In the “uncorrected” list, the names are out of chronological order. Evidently, whoever wrote the “correction” assumed that the list must be chronological, and reordered it accordingly.

In my mind, that is a rather reasonable assumption. (After all, the list is already mostly chronological, and one would hardly expect the names to be ordered randomly.) But there's another possibility.

After listing the four women, the gemara mentions that according to some opinions, Esther was actually rather ugly. If so, then what happens to our list of four beautiful women? The number four is preserved by replacing Esther with Vashti. Then, the “uncorrected” list becomes:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Vashti.
That list is not in chronological order – but it does make perfect sense without any correction. The first two women in the list are Jewish, and the last two are not.

Now let us return to the “uncorrected” list involving Esther:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Esther.
Perhaps, the list was intentionally ordered this way. In and of itself, the list has no logical order. But whoever wrote it also wrote the part about Vashti. They knew that later on they'd substitute Vashti for Esther in the list, so they wrote it with the Jewish/non-Jewish listing of women in mind.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anger and incomplete understanding

"Anger and unkindness arise when people's understanding is limited. The deeper their understanding the more their anger disappears, and kindness, love and peace spread."
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Eitzot.

In the comments to this post, I posted the following explanation to R' Nachman's insight:

Many issues are complex. People who cannot handle the complexity will choose a simpler explanation which is absolutely correct with regards to one aspect of the issue, but incorrect with regard to other aspects.* Imagine that two people chose different understandings of an issue, each of which is correct with regard to a different aspect of the issue. Each person will refuse to accept the other's criticism of their understanding, because that would mean giving up their understanding across the board - and they KNOW, correctly, that they shouldn't do that. So each person is forced to ignore rather than consider the other's arguments. Which leads to frustration, and from there to "Anger and unkindness".

The two incomplete understandings may both be intellectual. Or, as is common in debates about religion, one is philosophical and the other emotional or intuitive. Either way, the dynamic of the debate is the same.

*A good example is politics, where liberals and conservatives are both right SOMETIMES, but (partly due to incomplete information) nobody in the world fully understands the entire issue.