Sunday, April 29, 2007

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

The much-hyped closing of campus turned out to be a lot of sound and not much fury. Things look exactly as they did last week. I didn't even get the opportunity to cross a picket line.

At Gush, they ask me when I will decide to go back there for the duration of the strike.

And yes, my previous post alluded to the fact that a minority of strikers are recklessly causing trouble for everyone else, like the rebels against Rome who got the Second Temple destroyed. Any guesses as to what this post's symbolism is?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Give me Yavneh and its students

The strike continues, and gets worse. After a semi-violent protest today in which a number of people were injured, the student organization is threatening to close down the campus entirely beginning next week.

(That site also has a few choice lines on a matter I was wondering about. If factory workers go on strike the factory loses lots of money, but what leverage do striking students have? The only people they hurt by striking are themselves! Well, apparently the answer is that all the students will be unable to graduate or finish our projects on time, and our future employers will be slightly inconvenienced by the temporary lack of new workers. That sounds like a resounding victory for the students, if you ask me.)

Saturday, April 21, 2007


My roommate speaking:
"When I read Catch-22 in high school, I thought it was extremely funny. Then I read it again when I was in the army. And I thought: What's funny about it? There's nothing funny about it! It just describes what the army is actually like!"

Friday, April 20, 2007

Thoughts on Tazria-Metzora

1) I argued here that the excessive length given to describing the Mishkan is a necessary consequence of the attitude we should have towards it. As was pointed out in a comment, the same applies to the laws of sacrifices which are extensively discussed later on. But while this explanation works for the highly elaborated laws all the way through parshat Shemini, it seems to fail with the laws of leprosy.

I had to wait for an answer to this difficulty until the very end of this week's double parsha. The laws of bodily emissions end with the line "You shall separate the children of Israel from their impurity; that they die not in their impurity, by contaminating My tabernacle which is in their midst." (15:31) If there weren't enough hints already, this unambiguously confirms that a central purpose of impurity laws is to extend awareness of the Temple into our everyday lives. This being the case, it is reasonable for any law concerning impurity to include the detail one would expect from laws dealing with the Temple.

2) A number of sacrifices in Vayikra consist of two animals, one a "chatat" (sin-offering) and one an "olah" (entirely burnt offering). Why these two?

It seems that the "chatat" is functional. The only reason you are bringing a sacrifice in the first place is because you want expiation for a sin or for impurity. This function is accomplished, as would be expected, through the "chatat" or sin-offering.

But it is wrong to see the Temple as purely functional, like a supermarket where you go, do the necessary errands, and then leave. You must also see your visit as an encounter with God. And therefore one of your offerings must not be made with a specific purpose in mind, but simply as an indication that you are approaching God, a situation in which it's appropriate to bring an offering.

3) The strike continues, but I'm absolutely sick of it by now. My roommate says that four years ago, a similar strike lasted two months and an entire semester was lost. In any case, the strike on my blog (if it ever existed) is hereby declared to be over.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Notes from above ground

By the way, the strike is now in its 9th day with no end in site.

One thing you notice after a while in Israel is that there are LOTS of Russian-language bookstores. Ex-Soviet immigrants are less than 20% of the population, and yet my experience is that about half of all bookstores have Russian as the first language. (I think it's not just in the immigrant neighborhoods of Haifa. In the Jerusalem central bus station, for example, one of the two bookstores is Russian.)

If that observation is not surprising enough, there are several other factors which make it even more amazing. First of all, most of the Russians you meet are security guards and cab drivers; while there are undoubtedly many Russian professionals who work in less public locations, the initial impression is not of an "intellectual" population.

Second, many Russian speakers, especially young ones, presumably patronize Hebrew-language bookstores. But it's hard to imagine the reverse. So Russians must purchase books at an even higher rate than you'd guess from the number of bookstores.

Third and most surprisingly, I remember reading (can't find the source right now) that Israel as a whole has one of the highest rates of book consumption in the world. That of course refers to the average consumption by Israel's entire population. As we have seen, it appears that the consumption by Russian immigrants appears to be several times higher.

It therefore seems that these Russian immigrants are far and away the most literate population group anywhere in the world.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Llama llama llama

It's a little hard to picture, but there could have been WILD LLAMAS in my backyard when I was growing up.

Or so says Wikipedia:
"25,000 years ago, llamas would have been a common sight in modern-day California, Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Missouri, and Florida."

As you can see, in protest of my university's student strike (now in its 6th day), this blog is also on strike and is refraining from making any serious posts.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Az tishbat haaretz

For the third day now, the undergrads at all Israeli universities are striking. That means all undergrad classes are cancelled (including the mixed grad/undergrad classes I'm in, since we grad students have decided to boycott them in sympathy with the undergrads). It gives me some free time, although grad-only classes, assignments, and research projects go on as normal.

Apparently the complaint is that tuition is too high. Seeing as average tuitions in the U.S. are literally 15 times higher than here, I find it just a little hard to sympathize. There was an editorial in Haaretz calling for a raise in tuition along with government loans for those who have trouble affording it. That sounds reasonable. But then again, this country was never known for its reasonableness.

I am your doctor

Today, the 24th of Nisan, is an important historic anniversary. On this day, three days after the splitting of the sea, the Israelites were in the desert without water. They complained to Moshe, who threw a stick into a pool of salty water and made it drinkable. (Shemot 15:22-26)

Such an important event deserves to be memorialized by a custom. I suggest that everyone either: 1) Walk around all day holding a twig and/or throwing it at people 2) Drink (doesn't matter what) 3) Find someone you don't like and want to annoy, and start complaining. Vechol hamarbeh - harei ze meshubach.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Zemirot for Pesach

Near the end of the Seder, after Hallel, we say "The Seder has ended..." followed by "Next year in (rebuilt) Jerusalem". But strangely enough, the Seder does not end here. It continues with a bunch of random songs with no apparent order or common theme.

At the same time, unlike at Shabbat and some holiday meals, during the "Shulchan Orech" part of the Seder, nobody I know has ever sung any kind of zemirot.

Perhaps you could avoid both of these weirdnesses by singing the songs of Nirtzah as zemirot during the meal...

If I'm ever in charge of running a Seder (probably not for several years at least) I might just try it.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Random pesach connection

Perhaps spurious, but I'll say it anyway.

According to many opinions, one is required to wait six hours between eating milk and meat. This is either so that the meat can be digested and its taste dissipate, or for fragments of meat in your mouth to disintegrate and disappear.

On Erev Pesach we are Biblically forbidden to eat chametz for six hours, starting at midday. (Later on, the rabbis added another hour or two to these six.) Perhaps the reason for these six hours is like the reason for the above six hours. In each case, the food could require six hours to be digested and/or disappear. Before eating dairy we must make sure that no meat remains in our digestive system, and similarly, before beginning Pesach we must make sure that no chametz remains in our digestive system.

Chag sameach!