Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hebrew Codepage Convertor

Does the Hebrew text you see on a web page or in an email look like this: àéæä éåôé ääîøä äöìéçä?

If so, then you probably want to fix it at the site I just wrote.

I was getting important emails with the text messed up like this, and decided to do something about it.

Chametz and Machshirin

What is the thematic meaning of the prohibition of chametz on Pesach? I mean, besides the fact that it's puffy and we want to avoid an over-inflated self image.

With perhaps one exception, matzah is mentioned in Tanach in only two contexts: the Pesach holiday, and various Temple offerings which must be matzah rather than chametz. Perhaps then, the meaning of chametz is related to some concept which appears in the Temple service.

The most relevant such concept is a law of purity and impurity known as "hachshara". Basically, food which touches an impure object does not itself become impure. But if the food comes in contact with water (or certain other liquids), the food is "made susceptible" ("muchshar") to impurity. From then on, if the food touches an impure object, it DOES become impure.

This is similar to chametz, which also is transformed to an undesirable state by contact with water.

Of course, the criteria for chametz and hachshara differ somewhat. To take one example, flour which is mixed with water immediately becomes susceptible to impurity, while it does not become chametz for at least 18 minutes. But the basic idea, that food must be kept away from water to ensure that it remains acceptable, is of course common to both.

The symbolism may be that in order to separate ourselves from the impurity of Egypt, we have to separate ourselves from the possibility of impurity in our food, by keeping the grain away from water until the last stage of the baking process.

At the same time, you cannot make bread without using water at some point. If you can get through the dangerous potential-impurity period and end up eating food which has remained pure, that is the best situation of all. Perhaps that is what we aspire to on Shavuot, when in contrast to Pesach we not only eat chametz, but are required to offer a Temple sacrifice made from chametz.

And the Omer, which is a critical and potentially dangerous period in the agricultural year (this seems to have been its original significance), represents the period (after "hachsharah" and before eating) in which we must carefully watch our food to ensure that it remains pure.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

A true story

Last night, I got into bed and closed my eyes. After a couple minutes I had not fallen asleep, but that was OK. I was pretty tired and it would come soon.

My eyes were closed, but at one point I blinked. I saw someone standing next to my bed, looking at me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep, as I hoped to be soon enough. But then I blinked again. This time there was no denying it.

"I saw that", he said. "He's awake", he called out to two other people I knew who were across the room. They came over and began a discussion. After a couple minutes they convinced me to sit up, and soon enough I had begrudgingly gotten out of bed entirely and came along with them as they continued the discussion outside the room.

Finally I managed to extricate myself from the conversation and make my way back to bed. But I was not yet asleep when another set of people came along. Talking loudly, they prevented me from sleeping and forced me to listen to their argument until they too left.

One last time I tried to go back to sleep. And then I was suddenly disturbed by a third group of people. This group came with a specific purpose in mind. They informed me that I was suspected of committing a murder a few months back. I had been at a baseball game and someone had fallen from the upper deck. Originally it was called an accident, but now they had decided that I had in fact pushed the guy. They roughly roused me from bed and brought me with them as they left - for the police station, I'm guessing, though they weren't policemen.

At this point I realized that none of the people I had encountered in the last 15 minutes were real people. The sequence of events was just too fantastic to be true. The events and people were elements of a schizophrenic hallucination I was suddenly undergoing. Not that this was much of a comfort, and I was still in this hallucination and the characters were still bothering me. I had never before had a schizophrenic experience, but wasn't the early 20s when this disorder usually began?

I realized that my only escape from the hallucination-world would be to form a connection with the real world. I began fumbling in my pocket for my cell phone. The characters realized what I was doing and how it threatened them. They tried to forcibly restrain me and I tried to break free. I fell to the ground as they piled on above me. From under the pile I managed to extricate the cell phone. I pressed the unlock code, or tried to, and scrolled through the list of names until I got to my home phone number. They were pressing down and pinning my arm against the ground, but so far I was succeeding. I pressed "call". Nothing happened. Apparently I had mis-entered the unlock code. The pressure from above grew greater. An arm reached out, searching for the phone and trying to take it away from me. I only had a couple moments left. I was breathing quickly and heavily. The weight on me increased.

And suddenly the characters disappeared. Instead of being under them, I was under my blanket. It was as if I had woken up from a dream. And yet it seemed to me beforehand that I had never fallen asleep. I looked at the clock on my (previously mentioned) cell phone. Just over an hour had passed since I had first gotten into bed. I heard my roommate opening his door and walking to and using the bathroom. What was real? Did the roommate exist or was he too a hallucination?

Now it seems clear to me that I had woken up from a dream in which I was schizophrenic. What is especially terrifying about such a dream is that you cannot ever be sure it has ended. Because in the schizophrenic's world, as in the real world, everything seems logical. Maybe the regular life I am living is also a delusion? In the hours since the vigilante policemen abandoned me, everything in my surroundings has seemed compatible with the way it was before I first got into bed. That is the best standard I can think of for knowing that my current life is real. But, at the very least from a philosophical perspective, how can I ever know for sure?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Absolutely shameless

1) A certain publishing house (unnamed for now). In their parsha sheet advertisement for this week, they wrote something like: "We have a custom of visiting the graves of tzaddikim and praying to them to intercede with us for health, or our kids, or financial help. But do we ever stop to think what we are doing for the tzaddikim in return for what they do for us? Therefore you should give us a donation so we can help the tzaddikim by publishing their books." I don't know whether to be more appalled by the theology they encourage, or by the manipulation they use in order to raise funds.

2) This organization circulated a letter calling on people who were expelled from Gush Katif to confess and apologize for their sin in not violently resisting the expulsion, and thus allowing it to take place. That's right, the people who were EXPELLED are supposed to confess for THEIR sin. And then to mail the signed confession to this organization. I, too, had to read the letter several times before being able to believe that it was saying what it was saying. Admittedly, their website makes them look like a handful of crackpots, but they seem to have been distributing their pamphlets throughout Israel (I got them all the way up here in Red Haifa). As far as I could tell, they represent a well respected contingent of the right-wing community.

Now, I long ago chose to participate in the broadly defined "Modern Orthodox" group identification, as have the aformentioned parties, and that is not likely to change. But there are moments when I crawl with disgust, thinking: Who have I associated myself with?

Blast from the past

At lunch today, I had a 99-year-old woman telling me stories about World War I.

That was pretty cool.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Salaam Salami

I have a new favorite song for the week. It may not be the best musically but the message is right on. Every line is an allusion to the Israeli political situation of the last 13+ years. Video is here...

Salaam Salami

I eat a sandwich with hummus and sausage
Some guy comes up and asks for a little
"I don't know you," I said, "Don't bother me."
"I'm the son of the grocer," he said,
"Who sold you that sandwich."
I gave him a bite, he ran off with the piece,
Chewing the sandwich while running away.

Salaam Salami, that isn't funny,
One wants peace, and the other a sausage.
Salaam Salami, that's so funny,
One wants peace...

The next day I returned with a sandwich wrapped in plastic
He said "Give me a piece", I answered "No way."
"If your dad is a grocer, my granddad is a butcher.
He killed the cow (So don't bother me)
which is now the sausage between the bread slices."
Thinking I was boss, I let him take a bite
Again he ran off with my sandwich as if hijacking an airplane.

Salaam Salami, that isn't funny,
One wants peace, and the other a sausage.
Salaam Salami, that's so funny,
One wants peace...

I prepare a sandwich at home in the kitchen
The door is locked, there's artillery in the yard
From across the fence he yells "Give me a piece"
"My mom baked the bread," he said
"Which surrounds that sausage."
I let him in and let him taste
He takes the piece, and I'm left with (only) the dream!

Salaam Salami, that isn't funny,
One wants peace, and the other a sausage.
Salaam Salami, that's so funny,
One wants peace, and the other a sausage.
Salaam Salami, that's so funny,
Not everyone wants peace, so maybe we've had enough already???

(Translated from Hebrew)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Solelim to Kfar Hasidim

Since I had no class today, and exams are over, and the weather was beautiful, I went on an approximately 18-kilometer hike today between the above towns. Some of the highlights were:

  • 1 peacock
  • 1 insect-eating plant (I think)
  • Wildflowers in every color of the rainbow except orange
  • 1 conversation with an Arab boy named Ahjemyad (I'm SURE I got that wrong)
  • 1 decomposing goat carcass (no smell)
  • 2 decomposing motor vehicle "carcasses"
  • The jawbone of an ass (or some other animal, who knows), and other impressive looking bones
  • 1 steep hill with trees growing out of it perpendicularly. It really looked like the world had been rotated by 45 degrees.
  • The world's best-trained guard dogs. They sidled up to me, nicely with tails wagging, and hung out next to me while I stood still. Then I took a step towards the cows they were guarding. There was a soft but unmistakable growl. I stopped and went in the other direction. They remained where I had been as I walked away. If only half the people I know could communicate as clearly and politely as these dogs did.

On the down side, there were way too many cows, and I wasted lots of time avoiding other not-so-nice guard dogs, and watching for cow excrement in my path when I could have been watching the scenery.

All in all though, a pretty fun day.

Thoughts on Vayikra

How pleasant it is to see order being made out of parshat Vayikra.

I.  KORBAN NEDAVA - Voluntary offerings
A. Ola (entire korban burnt on the altar) (Chap. 1)
1. 'bakar' - from cattle
2. 'tzon' - from sheep
3. 'of' - from fowl

B. Mincha (a flour offering) (Chapter 2)
1. 'solet' - plain flour mixed with oil and 'levona'
2. 'ma'afeh tanur' - baked in the oven
3. 'al machvat' - on a griddle
4. 'marcheshet' - on a pan (+ misc. general laws)
5. 'bikkurim' - from wheat of the early harvest

C. Shlamim (peace offering, partly eaten by owners) (Chap. 3)
1. bakar - from cattle
2. tzon - from sheep
3. 'ez' - from goats

[Note the key phrase repeated many times in this unit:
"isheh reiach nichoach l-Hashem."]

A. * CHATAT (4:1-5:13)
1. for a general transgression
[laws organized according to violator]
a. 'par kohen mashiach' (High Priest) - a bull
b. 'par he'elem davar' (bet din) - a bull
c. 'se'ir nassi' (a king) - a male goat
d. 'nefesh' (layman) a female goat or female lamb
2. for specific transgressions ('oleh ve-yored')
a. a rich person - a female goat or lamb
b. a poor person - two birds
c. a very poor person - a plain flour offering

B. * ASHAM (5:14-5:26) - animal is always an 'ayil' (ram)
1. 'asham me'ilot' - taking from Temple property
2. 'asham talui' - unsure if he sinned
3. * 'asham gezeilot' - stealing from another

[Note the key phrase repeated numerous times in this unit:
"ve-chiper alav... ve-nislach lo."]

Now, a quick thought of my own. In category II/A/1, "chatat for general transgressions", there are four possibilities, depending on who is bringing the offering: priest, rabbi, king, or commoner.

These four categories have a parallel in a statement from Pirkei Avot (4:17):

"R' Shimon says: There are three crowns - the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty - and the crown of a good name is greater than [all of] them."

The four "chatat" categories correspond to the four crowns R' Shimon ends up mentioning. You might think that the first three crowns, since they seem to have all the glory as well as the biggest sacrifices, are the most important ones. But in fact, the crown of the "good name", which is accessible to all, is the most important. It appears more humble, but it in fact has greater significance than all the others.


The korban oleh veyored (5:1-13) is unique among the sin-offerings in that it requires confession (5:5). This offering was reserved for a special set of unintentional sins - failure to give testimony, false oaths, and some types of impurity. Why does only this sacrifice require confession and not the others?

Based solely on these verses (ignoring later halachic developments which I don't have time to look up) it seems that this confession was not part of the repentance process. Rather, it had the practical purpose of protecting people from the consequences of the sin. False oaths, ungiven testimony, and impurity all potentially affect other people, and the sinner was required to rectify this damage before offering the sacrifice. This is similar to the person who stole (5:20-26) who had to return the stolen item before bringing a sin-offering.

It seems that the confession we do as part of the repentance process is a separate issue. In practice, then, for these sins you'd have "confess" (or "admit" to the sin) twice. Once to God, and once to the people you may have hurt.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Physicists are funny, but cruel

Here is more or less what my physics professor said at one point in class today. I didn't hear perfectly but I think it captures the main idea.

"Let's assume that 'epsilon' is infinitely large..." (calculations)... "Now let's assume 'epsilon' is zero..." (calculations)... "Are you guys following me?" (clearly we weren't, as indicated by the quietness of our response) "That's a very small 'yes'... Now let's assume that the 'yes' is large......."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thoughts on Moed Kattan Dapim 2-4

The last few days of Daf Yomi have dealt with the "beit hashalchin" or irrigated field and when you are allowed or not allowed to irrigate it. Unfortunately, most of us today have no idea what a "beit hashalchin" is or how you might water it. This it makes it hard to understand some of the Gemara's considerations, for example what is considered excessive labor and what is not.

Fortunately, I have been privileged to visit a real live "beit hashalchin" in Israel, and had its operation explained by an expert in these kinds of matters, and can thus explain how it works. This was in the Palestinian village of Battir (picture of fields here), on a well-armed field trip organized by Gush.

Basically, you start with a source of water (river, aqueduct or spring), and a field. Then you dig shallow, closely spaced channels in the field, all connected to the source of water. In between the channels you plant rows of vegetables. Each vegetable has to be close enough to a channel that the earth it is growing from stays moist, even though the vegetable is above water level. The field has to be extremely flat, or else all the water will flow down to the bottom and the highest channels or parts of channels will dry up. Here is a good example of a modern "beit hashalchin" in California:

This Californian "beit hashalchin" distributes water using plastic siphons which draw water from the main channel. In the olden days they used a less high-tech method: they would kick out the dirt wall blocking one channel from another, thus allowing the channels to meet. This is the method of "irrigation with your feet" which the Torah describes:

"For the land which you are coming to in order to possess, is not like the land of Egypt which you left, where one plants seed and irrigate with his feet like in a vegetable garden. Rather, the land which you are going to in order to possess is a land of hills and valleys; where one drinks water from the rain of the sky." (Devarim 11:10-11)

The Torah here is contrasting the typical agricultural practices in Egypt and Israel. In Egypt, the entire country was covered by "batei shalchin", fed by canals from the Nile. In Israel this would not be possible. The only constant water sources in Israel are springs. These are relatively rare and mostly found in mountainous areas which do not have much flat area. Thus "batei shalchin" were (and still are) uncommon in Israel. But in some areas they do exist, and are therefore discussed in the Mishnah. Of course, the Torah knows that for most of our agriculture we would have to rely on rain.

Back to the Gemara: I'm pretty sure that the "irrigation" discussed in Moed Kattan meant not carrying buckets of water to wherever your plants were, but rather "irrigation with your feet" - opening and closing the "gates" of dirt so as to distribute water into the different channels as necessary. This explanation is especially helpful on page 4a. There you find a prohibition to water your field on Chol Hamoed from a pool of water, because it might become "interrupted" and cause you to do extra work. The "interruption" apparently occurs when so much water flows into the channels that the pool's water level drops until it reaches the level of the channels. Then no water can flow, and the only ways to irrigate are to dig the channels deeper, or use buckets. Both options require huge amounts of work, and are thus prohibited on Chol Hamoed even though the crops need them.

Near the bottom of 4a, the Gemara prohibits drawing a bucketful of water from a low channel to an adjacent high channel. This is clear evidence that the normal irrigation which is allowed is done not by carrying water, but by a less strenuous activity: opening and closing the "gates" of the various channels. The Gemara is telling us that sometimes, depending on the circumstances, even this can be prohibited on Chol Hamoed.

Let's hope for the day when we all live in circumstances that will not require us to do annoying labor, agricultural or otherwise, on Chol Hamoed so make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah make aliyah!!!!!

Thoughts on Terumah through Pekudei

Almost a month has passed since we started reading about the construction details of the Mishkan. I'm sure that more that a few people are sick of the topic. Why is the Mishkan described in such excruciating detail? There are many other complicated halachic topics which receive only a line or two in the written Torah, with everything else being part of the oral tradition. Whereas with the Mishkan, all the technical details are included in the written Torah. Why is this? A friend of mine asked me this, and it bothered me until I came up with not one, but two possible answers.

1) The "practical" answer. One reason we need an "oral Torah" in addition to the written Torah is that written texts are inherently insufficient as halachic sources. They fail to cover every situation that might arise, and only with difficulty can they provide guidance in situations which do not call for a "yes or no" answer. Therefore, at least some halachic details must be transmitted orally. In practice, many mitzvot - for example lulav, divorce, and shechita - have just a single "placeholder" verse in the written Torah, along with an extensive body of oral law which does the real explaining.

But this explanation for the oral law does not apply to mitzvot such as the Mishkan. The Mishkan was built once, in the past, and will never be built again. Uncertainty as to how to perform the command is not a problem when there will never be another performance. Furthermore, there is a historical consequence to this lack of relevance. It is doubtful whether the laws with no practical consequence would be extensively studied; most likely they would be forgotten and disappear entirely (this has already happened to much more relevant laws). For these reasons, there is no advantage, and in fact a disadvantage, to the laws of the Mishkan being included in the oral Torah.

But the laws of the Mishkan are still laws. If they are not in the oral Torah, they must be recorded somewhere else. And there is only one option for the "something else". Thus, these laws must appear in all their gory detail in the written Torah.

2) The "hashkafic" answer. Many, perhaps most, of the mitzvot we do are not mechanical observances, but rather call for initiative and creativity on the part of the mitzvah-doer. If you want to give tzedakah, for example, there are many possible options. You could give cash to the guy on the street corner, or you could volunteer at a soup kitchen, or you could start a job-training program to help poor people support themselves. There is no verse in the Torah that tells you which of these to do. There is only a general goal, which is up to you to meet in the best way you can think of. Judaism encourages you to invest yourself not only in the performance, but also in the understanding and planning of mitzvot. This is an all-encompassing challenge and opportunity limited only by the final destination, "tikkun olam bemalchut Shaddai", which we have not yet succeeded in reaching. Anyway, the oral law, which is transmitted and applied only by virtue of human creativity, is the appropriate means of transmission for these mitzvot. (See "Halachic Man" for a fuller and clearer explanation.)

But there is one kind of mitzvah which works differently. The Mishkan represents the encounter between God and humanity. And when God and humans meet, humans must be aware of the asymmetry of the encounter. Basically, God is everything, and we are nothing. All of human creativity is meaningless when compared to the fact of God's existence. The Mishkan is therefore the site not of human initiative, but of human awe. There can be no freedom of choice, no personalization, and no oral Torah when it comes to the Mishkan. Unlike with other mitzvot, every tiny detail of the Mishkan is dictated by God, and therefore must be recorded as such in the Torah's written text.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Thoughts on Vayakhel

1) There is lots of gold, silver, and bronze being discussed in the plans for the Mishkan. It looks confusing, but there is a very simple pattern for determining which materials everything is made from.
  • The Mishkan, and the furniture inside it, is gold (or wooden and coated with gold).
  • Furniture outside the Mishkan is bronze.
  • Various connective materials, both inside and outside the Mishkan, are silver.

(As a physics major, I speculated that silver might be stronger than gold or bronze, and was therefore chosen to connect things. Looking online, I found that silver is slightly stronger than gold but weaker than bronze. So this does not seem to be the main reason for the choice of silver.)

2) A little chemistry, history and linguistics. "Bronze" and "brass" are both copper with other metals mixed in (tin and zinc respectively), which makes them stronger. By the time of the Torah the manufacture of bronze (at least) was well known and much preferable to just using copper. So even though the Biblical word "nachoshet" means "copper" in modern Hebrew, the substance used in the Mishkan was almost certainly bronze.

3) The parts of the Mishkan are listed in different orders in God's command (parshat Terumah) and in the work description (Vayakhel and Pekudei). But there's a simple, logical reason why in each case the text uses the order that it does.
  • In God's command, the parts are listed thematically. For the most part, this means from most to least important - the ark, then the other items within the Mishkan structure, then the structure itself, then the items located outside. (See here for an explanation of exceptions to this rule.)
  • In the work description, the parts are listed in the order they were made - the structure first, then the items inside it, then the items outside it. The structure had to be made first, because you needed a place to store the ark etc. once they were made.

Beware the crazy dog

I have a serious post coming up (if I can ever figure out how to formulate one of the main concepts... been struggling with that. Lots of editing and re-editing.) In the mean time, it's less than 30 days until Pesach, which means worrying about what to eat and when to clean and if and where to go on vacation... and which also means it's time to discuss the laws of Pesach. In lieu of serious discussion, which I'm sure you can get from other sources, this is just a cute story found here and elsewhere.

Person: Do you need kosher for Pesach toothpaste?
Rabbi: No, toothpaste is not fit for a dog's consumption.
Person: But my dog eats toothpaste.
Rabbi: I can't help it if you have a crazy dog.

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Whenever I visit GMail from my apartment, my internet connection goes down. I have disconnect, wait a couple minutes, and reconnect. Really, really, really, annoying.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Mini-Temple

Why is it that basically every synagogue in the world has a menorah? One explanation is that on Chanukah there is a mitzvah to light candles in the synagogue as well as at home. But this explanation is problematic. Often the menorahs in synagogues have electric lights, or not the right number of lights. Thus they cannot be used for Chanukah.

A better answer may come from the parshiyot of the last few weeks. We read that there are exactly four items in the mishkan (and later the Temple): the ark containing tablets, the incense altar, the table with "showbread" on it, and the menorah. Three of these have close parallels in the synagogue. The ark, of course, is at the front of the synagogue, and like the Biblical ark it has holy texts in it and is separated from everything else by a curtain. There is no incense altar, but there is a square platform at the center of synagogue from which prayers are led and the Torah is read. And as previously mentioned, there is a menorah. I don't know why there is no "showbread" in the synagogue (understandable, since I don't know what the point of showbread in the Temple is either). But other than that, it seems there is a conscious effort to replicate the atmosphere of the Temple by putting all the "furniture" of the Temple into the synagogue. And for that reason synagogues tend to have otherwise functionless menorahs.

When I was about 8 years old it bothered me why, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the ark was opened for the most important parts of prayers. Was God located inside the ark? Were we praying to the Torah scrolls? I didn't receive a good answer, but as often happens with these things, I forgot my question and unconsciously accepted the ark-opening as "just the way things are". Until this last year, when my question suddenly came back to me for some reason. I asked a number of people and did not receive a satisfactory answer. But looking online, I found a source which gave me the first hints towards a solution.

It is indeed hard to justify opening the ark in a synagogue, if we regard it as simply a synagogue. But if the synagogue is a stand-in for the Temple, it makes much more sense. As my online source says, opening the ark is supposed to remind us of the Kohen Gadol's Yom Kippur entry to the innermost and holiest Temple chamber, where the ark was located. On the days on which we hope to approach closest to God, we reenact the historical occasion on which we came closest to God. Furthermore, the innermost chamber was not just a passive repository of holy documents. It was also the location from which God would "speak" and issue commands and prophecies (see Shemot 25:22). By exposing ourselves to the symbolic equivalent of the inner Temple chamber, we signal our receptiveness to these and other Divine messages.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Purim Kiddush

For best effect, say the whole thing without stopping, pausing only in the middle of the lines for breath. It is all one sentence.

Yom hashishi vayechulu hashamayim
...shamayim lahashem, vehaaretz natan livnei adam
...tzefardea kinim arov dever shchin barad arbeh hoshech
...legaresh, lekulanu or vaesh, kol echad
...mi yodea, echad ani yodea, echad elokeinu
...velokei avoteinu, elokei avraham, elokei yitzchak, velokei yaakov
...vechol zaro ito, banav uvnei banav ito, benotav uvnot banav vechol
...haolam kulo gesher tzar meod, vehaikar lo lepached klal
...ufrat uklal, ee ata dan ela ke'ein
...adir ka-hashem, ein baruch keben
...zoma haya omer, eizehu hacham, halomed mikol adam
...betzalmo betzelem demut tavnito, vehitkin lo mimenu binyan adei ad
...delo yada bein arur haman lebaruch
...hamakom baruch hu, baruch shenatan torah leamo yisrael
...batach bashem, ezram umaginam hu, anachnu
...korim umishtachavim umodim lifnei melech kol haaretz, mekadesh yisrael veyom hapurim.

Baruch ata hashem, elokenu melech haolam, shehakol nishma beit pharaoh.

Baruch ata adonai, elohenu melech haolam, shehakol nihyeh bidvaro.
(and drink...)


"There are two approaches to the humanity of the Avot, that of Rav Aharon Kotler and that of Hazal."
-Rav Lichtenstein

Friday, March 02, 2007

To all the Jews, near and far

The question everyone asks about the Megillah is: Where is God? Now, on a certain level this question is improper. A fundamental Jewish belief is that God keeps a close eye on the world and interferes when necessary (even if this is not always obvious). To assume that God does not have a say in the natural world, that without a deus ex machina there cannot be a deus, is heresy (the "charedi" heresy, I might add, if I wanted to be political). And so even if there are no miracles and no speeches by God or a prophet, Megillat Esther could still be a completely religious story, with God simply the clear actor behind the scenes.

But while you could have a religious story without miracles, it's harder to say that you have a religious story without religion. And Megillat Esther is missing not only God's name, but almost any religious content whatsoever. To summarize the Megillah: The Persians have parties; one Persian decides to exterminate the Jews; two Jews get courageous and prevent the extermination; the Jews are safe. Where exactly is the religious content here? Why does the Megillah deserve to be part of the Bible more than Michael Oren's "Six Days of War"?

There have been at least two clear Jewish responses to this issue. The "midrashic" response focuses on the phrase "kiyemu vekiblu". Its simple meaning is that the Jews agreed to celebrate the new holiday of Purim for all generations. According to the midrash, though, it refers not to the holiday of Purim alone, but to the entire Torah. While at Mount Sinai the Jewish people accepted the Torah under the "coercion" of that unique set of circumstances, in the Megillah they accepted the Torah willingly,"kadat ein ones", as a response to the events of the time. Thus, historically, the Megillah story was the impetus to repentance and religious change. As such, it certainly merits being called a religious story. This interpretation is beautiful; its main deficiency is that it has only a limited basis in the text of the Megillah.

The "satirical" response, made explicit by recent Tanach commentators but with much earlier roots in Jewish tradition, says that the Megillah in fact does have a clear religious message. According to this theory, the Megillah includes pointed allusions to the land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple, and to certain prophetic books of the Bible. In addition to the "superficial", historical meaning of the story, there is also a clear polemical message: Why did you adopt Persian culture? Why didn't you return to Israel? Why do you regard Ahashverosh instead of God as "the" king? Presumably, though it takes an expert to notice this message today, it would have been immediately obvious to anyone in Mordechai and Esther's era.

I think that, without denigrating either of these responses, you can still hold that the "main" theme of the Megillah is national, not religious. The central story is about physical survival, and there is nothing wrong with that. The holiday of Purim is of course a mitzvah - but it may be primarily a mitzvah bein adam lechavero, a holiday of friendship and mutual solidarity, more than a ritual observance or mitzvah bein adam lemakom. Clearly, there is necessarily still some religious aspect to the holiday. The Jews were after all saved by God through a miracle - whether it was hidden or not is irrelevant. And of course, the continued existence and activity of the Jewish people by definition has religious significance. But at the same time, it seems there is a distinct aspect of the holiday which does not depend on religiousness. Hopefully, this aspect can form a basis for relating to the many Jews who, while not religious, nevertheless enthusiastically celebrate Purim and holidays like it such as Chanukah.

Thoughts on Megillat Esther

Memuchan answered before the king and the princes: "Vashti the queen has wronged not only the king, but also all the princes, and all the peoples in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh. The story of the queen will reach all women, making their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not." (1:16-17)

Is there really a danger that feminists will rise up all across the empire and overthrow their husbands? That doesn't seem realistic. We're talking about the ancient Persian Empire after all, not the 1970s. More likely, Achashverosh and his advisors at this drinking party are not quite sober, and in their mentally unbalanced state they come up with all sorts of ridiculous worries and equally ridiculous plans for dealing with them. In this case, the incoherent decree "Let every man rule over his household, and speak the language of his people" (1:22) is the result of drunken policy-making.

Verse 2:1 states that "...when the wrath of king Ahasuerus was assuaged, he remembered Vashti, and what she had done, and what was decreed against her." It seems that not only his wrath, but also his inebriation had passed. But Vashti could not be reinstated ("that which the king says cannot be taken back", as with Haman's decree), so a new queen had to be found.

This whole story is only peripherally related to the storyline of the Megillah, but it gives us a good understanding of the rational considerations, or lack thereof, which will go into Ahashverosh's later decrees.

The king's servants in the king's gate said to Mordechai: "Why do you transgress the king's command [to bow to Haman]?" And when they said this to him day after day and he did not listen, they told Haman, to see if Mordechai's words would stand, for he had told them that he was a Jew. (3:3-4)

Most people neglect these verses, but on close inspection they seem to be extremely, extremely important. This is the real beginning of the Megillah story. Beforehand, Mordechai or others could obey or disobey, at the possible risk of personal consequences at most. Only when the servants decide to tell Haman, does the chain of action begin which will lead to Haman's decree. If they had not told Haman, we would not have had a story.

But they didn't go to Haman for the simple reason we might have expected. Since Mordechai had already disobeyed for several days without consequences, it seems that the servants were not conscientious policemen in the NYPD "broken windows" style. On the contrary, their motives were less than pure. It is specifically mentioned that Mordechai "had told them that he was a Jew"; without this motivation, it seems Haman would never have found out. Evidently there was an element of antisemitism here, at the lowest level of officialdom, as well as in Haman's household. As for the servants' specific goals, it says that they wanted "to see if Mordechai's words would stand". I am not at all sure how to interpret this phrase; perhaps someone can help me. This might be the key to understanding the entire Megillah.

Then Esther spoke to Hatach, and gave him a message for Mordechai: "All the king's servants, and the people of the king's provinces, know that any man or woman who comes to the king into the inner court without being called, there is one law for him, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out the golden sceptre, that he may live..." (4:10-11)

Ancient emperors such as Achashverosh were terrified of being assassinated. The "no-go" zone was a security measure to prevent a possible assassin from approaching.

A similar situation is depicted in Nechemiah 2:2: "And the king said unto me [Nechemiah]: 'Why is your face sad, but you are not sick? This must be a sorrow of the heart.' Then I was extremely afraid." That king would examine the faces of visitors to see if they were unusually anxious, and thus perhaps plotting against him. Nechemiah was frightened at the possibility of being suspected of such a conspiracy. (Source: Some shiur at Gush I think)

"If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another source, but you and your family will perish. Who knows if you became queen because of such a crisis?" (4:14)

This is one of the most climatic moments in the book. The decree of annihilation is published and Mordechai is in despair. Esther is the only possible source of help, and Mordechai turns to her. But at first she refuses. What is Mordechai to do? Is this the same adopted daughter who Mordechai raised to be moral, loving, and loyal to her people - now abandoning them without a second thought to be killed by Haman? Esther is remote from him and from the suffering of the Jews. He cannot even see her face to face, but has to communicate by messengers. Will Esther decide not to send another messenger, retreat to the security of her chambers and be rid of her Jewish past forever?

Some commentators have tried to identify the "other source" which Mordechai says will save the Jews. They say it is either the royal officers, who were unhappy with Haman's seizure of power, or else the Jews in Eretz Yisrael who were supposed to do I'm-not-sure-what to prevent the genocide. On the contrary, I think it's clear that there was NOT another clear source of relief. If one existed, wouldn't Mordechai use it before having his adopted daughter risk her life by approaching the king? And wouldn't Esther tell him to use the alternate source instead of endangering her? Mordechai's statement is a bluff, backed up by only the Torah's promise that the Jewish people will not cease to exist.

[CORRECTION: A mistaken interpretation of the phrase "et kazot", which I wrote here, has been deleted. Next time, I should probably read the verses before making up commentaries on them.]

As for translating "et" as "crisis", it makes things clearer and there are strong precedents for such a translation. (Source: VBM)

Even in this moment of despair, Mordechai is smart about what he says. He wields a large "stick", threatening that Esther will be killed if she does not act. But he throws in an unusual "carrot" as well. Esther became queen in preparation for one future occasion, Mordechai says, and now she should rise to that occasion. If Esther is paralyzed about choosing between the dangers to herself and to her people, then this positive motivational factor may induce her to make the right decision. By shifting Esther's focus from fear of external dangers (whichever is in fact greater) to her positive desire to self-actualize, hopefully Mordechai can provide an additional inducement for Esther to act for her people.

Esther rose, and stood before the king and said: 'If it pleases the king, and if I have found favor in his sight, and the thing seems right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the decrees devised by Haman..." (8:4-5)

A pretty dirty emotional trick by Esther here. "If you don't do what I want, that shows that you must not love me!" When, of course, Ahashverosh does love her and probably pretty desperately. But when so much is at stake, even this kind of mind game is acceptable. On that note, if you don't post a comment to this blog, it shows that you don't love me. Hahahahaha. Happy Purim.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

No Easy-Off needed

Hashem, Hashem, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in goodness and truth, preserving mercy until the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and not cleansing the guilty ["venakeh lo yenakeh"]... (Shemot 34:6-7 - next week's parsha)

We usually cut off the list of God's 13 attributes two words earlier than is grammatically correct (and 14 words before the end of the Biblical sentence). Thus we get to say that God "cleanses" us of sin, undoubtedly a good thing. But isn't it slightly disturbing that the original text says that God does NOT "cleanse" us?

It turns out that to "cleanse" sin, in the original sense in which Tanach uses it, is not all what we mean today. As proof, see Yirmiyahu 46:28 (the last line of the haftarah for parshat Bo). It reads: "Fear not, my servant Yaakov, says God, for I am with you. I will fully destroy the nations to which I have dispersed you, but I will not fully destroy you; I will punish you by measure, but I will not cleanse you ['nakeh lo enakecha']". Exactly the same expression, and here "cleansing" clearly means annihilation, as in the modern term "ethnic cleansing".

So "not cleansing" is the merciful trait after all, and the verse in Shemot makes perfect sense. Though we perhaps deserve to be annihilated, we will in fact not be. Does that mean that during Selichot, we're reciting a NON-merciful trait? Well, if you go by the literal Biblical meaning, then yes. If you go by the modern meaning of "cleansing" (and by modern I mean last 2000 years or so), then no. As we recite it, "cleansing" refers to our sin and not to us. It is true that we have abandoned the Biblical dictionary definition for our own definition, but of course the thematic meaning is pretty close to the same.

See also my last post about the 13 attributes.

And by the way, I think I did somewhat better than the mean on my exam. Not quite the grade I needed or hoped for, but not a total disaster either. I might not even need to retake as part of Moed Bet.

And everyone have an easy fast.