Friday, October 20, 2006


I've been in the US for 4 days now, and I don't think I've seen the sun yet. What kind of country is this? (answer: a depressing one)

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Why is the growth of the Jewish people compared to the reproduction of fish (veyidgu lerov), and why do we "feed sins to fish" at Tashlich? One reason given is the idea that the "evil eye" does not apply to fish. But why should that be the case? The usual explanation is that they are underwater and are not seen.

This explanation has an interesting Biblical parallel. In Breishit 2:19 every animal is given a name by Adam except for the fish. Because fish are "anonymous", even if they are seen by people, presumably they are not reckoned and are thus free from the evil eye.

I don't really know what the evil eye is supposed to represent or whether it really exists today. But it is nice to see a clear Biblical source for one of its supposed characteristics, which otherwise would seem to be completely arbitrary.


I recently received an email which included the following line (paraphrased):

"If you are not receiving this email, here is how to get onto our mailing list..."

There is really no need to comment; the line speaks for itself.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

I don't understand

I keep getting ads on Gmail for education for learning-disabled kids. Why? How could this possibly be relevant to me or what I have written?

Possibly I have a learning disability which is preventing me from realizing the answer...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hineh mah tov...

The verse says, "basukkot teshvu shivat yamim, kol haezrach beyisrael yeshu basukot". It is a little surprising that the word "sukkot" as well as the verbs are all in the plural, especially in the second half of the verse, where a single "ezrach" is discussed. (Clearly there is no mitzvah for each individual to sit in multiple sukkot.)

Perhaps the verse is hinting that there is a communal aspect to being in the sukkah. Since, ideally, everyone makes aliyah leregel and celebrates Sukkot in Jerusalem, thus Jerusalem should be absolutely crammed with sukkot. And since people are forced to leave their sukkot every once in a while (to go to the bathroom, clean dishes, etc., just to a mention a few required exits from the sukkah), they are guaranteed to see everyone else's sukkot as well as some of the people living in them. Thus, living in the sukkah is an experience you share with the whole Jewish people. This is in contrast to the rest of the year when you are likely to regularly see only your next-door neighbors, if you have any, as well as whoever lives in the nearby town.

This communal experience on Sukkot is similar to the communal experience on Pesach, when everyone after finishing their Seder in Jerusalem would go up to the roof and sing Hallel along with the people on every other roof. The thematic meaning of each communal experience is clear. On Pesach, we commemorate that the entire people left slavery and became God's servants together. On Sukkot, we commemorate that not just individuals but the entire Jewish people are under God's protection.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


The highlight of the the Yom Kippur Temple service is the entry of the Kohel Gadol into the innermost chamber of the Temple, first to create a cloud of incense (symbolically causing God's presence to appear), and then to sprinkle the blood of the bull and goat sin-offerings (as with every sin-offering, sprinkling blood is what causes or symbolizes the atonement; the unique part of the Yom Kippur sprinkling is its location). Through the sprinkling, atonement is achieved for the Kohen Gadol himself (through the bull, which belongs to him), and for the Jewish people (through the goat, which is taken on behalf of the entire people).

It is interesting that exactly one action is performed to the bull, and one to the goat, before their slaughter and blood-sprinkling. Regarding the bull, the Kohen Gadol must confess his sins. Regarding the goat, there is no confession. The only action performed is the drawing of lots, which distinguishes the goat which will be offered as a sacrifice from the goat which will be sent to the desert.

The sin-offerings of the Kohen Gadol and the people represent the different methods by which individuals and the Jewish people achieve atonement. The Kohen Gadol, like every individual, must confess his sins and repent in order for his sins to be atoned. But for the Jewish people as a whole, this is not necessary. The goat becomes a valid sin-offering simply by the fact that the lots chose it over the other goat. And our collective atonement is achieved simply by the fact that God has chosen the Jewish people.

Of course, the Temple service achieves atonement - "kapparah", as is mentioned repeatedly. This consists of God's renouncement of the right to punish us. But there is another purpose to Yom Kippur: "taharah", moral purification. Kapparah is repeatedly mentioned throughout the description of the Temple service. Taharah is mentioned mainly at the end of the chapter, in conjunction with the command to "afflict your soul" on Yom Kippur. The Temple service spares us from punishment, but only through soul-searching and repentance can we become better people.

Brotherly Love

According to the famous midrash which I used a while back as the basis for a joke, the spot of the Temple in Jerusalem was that on which two brothers, each worried about the other's livelihood, had met while secretly giving grain to each other.

On one hand, you can categorically state that historically, this story never actually occurred. (That, however, takes away none of its significance. The details of fiction are MORE important than the details of nonfiction, because they were chosen for specific thematic reasons and don't just reflect the oddities of historical reality.) On the other hand, it is clear what the names of the brothers were.

The brother with a large family was named Yehudah. The single brother was named Binyamin. This has to be the case, because the two brothers in the midrash are fictional representations of two tribes. Yehudah was the large and powerful tribe whose territory stretched from Jerusalem to southern Israel. Binyamin was the small tribe located just north of Jerusalem. The two tribes had fought several wars with each other by David's time. When David chose a spot for the Temple, he intentionally avoided his own tribe (Yehudah) and chose Jerusalem, which was right on the border between the two tribes. He did this in order to unify and create peace between the two neighboring tribes. He succeeded, as Yehudah and Binyamin remained united for the rest of Jewish history. When the more northern tribes - which had family ties to Binyamin - split off to form their own kingdom, Binyamin did not follow.

Given this historical background, the midrash becomes almost predictable. David chose a spot which would foster love between the tribes (whose ancestors Yehudah and Binyamin were brothers); in the midrash the spot was chosen because of the love demonstrated between two brothers. The midrash is just trying to shed light on the moral motivations behind the choice of the Temple location.

Reading Tanach, you find the story of David's choice of the location, but his motivations are obscure. Reading the midrash, the history of the tribes is obscure, but the moral significance of David's choice could not be clearer. Nowadays we would put this piece of Tanach interpretation into a shiur. The midrash chose to present the same interpretation as a beautiful story.

This is a good example of a general rule which helps to explain many midrashim, perhaps most of them. Taken literally, they often seem improbable (though this one is plausible, just unverifiable). But often they are in fact allegories, or else very clearly emphasize themes from Tanach. The challenge for thoughtful readers is to identify how exactly each midrash functions as a commentary on Tanach. This can be difficult. But even if you don't succeed, the surface meaning of the midrash is often informative or inspiring, so the midrash can be appreciated even without fully understanding the logic behind it.

Leaving yeshiva

Yeshiva is like being at Mount Sinai. You spend a year there in order to get religion, in preparation for what comes after. Leaving yeshiva like leaving Mount Sinai. You can't be eager to do it. Witness the midrash which castigates Israel for running away from Sinai like kids from school.

Your life's purpose is fundamentally in Israel not in the desert, and once you are ready for Israel, you have to go. But you take an aron and luchot with you. A little bit of Sinai remains physically close with the Jewish people, and a little bit of yeshiva must remain with you. Not only do you try do implement the ideas you learned in yeshiva, but a certain level you must feel that you never left.