Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thoughts on Chukat

Various explanations of what Moshe and Aharon did wrong to get punished, along with the name of someone who said them. As collected by R' Yosef Tzvi Rimon.
  • Disobeyed by hitting the rock, not speaking to it (Rashi)
  • Got angry - when God was not angry. (Rambam) [Maharal: Anger, by definition, indicates a lack of faith in God]
  • Said "will we produce water" - we not God (Ramban)
  • Hit the rock twice, not once (Rabbenu Bachya)
  • Created doubt in God by asking "Can we produce water from the rock" - as if it were not guaranteed that God could do this (R' Moshe Hacohen Hasefaradi - quoted in Ibn Ezra)
  • They appeared to be fleeing "from before the people" - apparently since they chose physical action and not a public verbal declaration, they abdicated their leadership (HaIkarim)
  • Striking the rock to get water did not look like a miracle since the people had seen it done before (and well-known processes do not appear miraculous - for example the telephone) (Meshech Chochma)
  • As they approach Israel, the people should be introduced to hidden not obvious miracles, such as they will receive in Israel. Using the rod is an obvious miracle; speaking is a hidden miracle. (R' Hirsch)
  • As they approach Israel, the people should be introduced to praying for water (rain) before they receive it. Moshe neglects to introduce this. (Netziv)

It should be noted that these explanations are not mutually exclusive - Moshe could have erred in more than one way. In fact this seems very likely, given that no single reason seems serious enough to justify the severe punishment.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Baby moon

It looks like the moon now has a moon of its own. Looking up right now, I see the crescent moon, and right next to it a super-bright star like thing. Further investigation seems to indicate that the "baby moon" is in fact Venus, not a brand-new planetary body, and not an orbiting spaceship or UFO. Oh well. Still, pretty cool.

This might not be visible at locations far from Haifa.

UPDATE: Picture here. And I like when the link at the bottom of the post says "1 comments".

Friday, June 15, 2007

Three states for three peoples

When the "disengagement" from Gaza was carried out two years ago, there were many claims about how it was going to help Israel's security. All of them, of course, turned out to be delusional.

There was also a claim from the Palestinian side about how the disengagement was really a conspiracy to somehow "deepen the occupation" in the West Bank. Israelis of course ridiculed this claim, because the withdrawal included part of the West Bank, and because the Israeli government is too confused and discordant to carry out sophisticated conspiracies.

But in retrospect, the Palestinians were right. In the last few months, and most dramatically in the last few days, we have seen the emergence of one significant and tangible benefit from disengagement. It is unintended, but it is real. This is the separation of Gaza from the West Bank.

The total withdrawal from Gaza, accompanied by Israel's relative control over the West Bank, allowed the two to go in different political directions. In the West Bank, where Israel has security control, the competition between Fatah and Hamas is mostly economic and social. Meanwhile, in Gaza the competition is military. This has quite logically allowed Fatah to remain in control of the West Bank (due to its political primacy and Western funding), while Hamas has conquered Gaza (thanks to its military advantage).

The establishment of two separate governments is in Israel's interest. In the short term, it may allow Israel to pursue policies in Gaza unencumbered by the political situation in the West Bank, and vice versa. It will lessen the chances of Kassam rockets and other such weapons reaching the West Bank. And it will provide some international legitimacy for harsher action against Hamas in Gaza, since it will be clear that Israel is not attacking "the Palestinians", but rather a particular organization with which it is at at war.

The long-term benefits are much greater. West Bank residents will want less and less to do with Gaza as it self-destructs. Already they have begun to direct their political aspirations eastward, towards union with Jordan, and not west towards Israel and Gaza. The Gazan civil war have shaken their confidence in likelihood of building a stable Palestinian society anywhere.

Even more significantly, the fundamental assumption of Palestinian peoplehood is being challenged. This is extremely important, because Palestinian and Israeli nationalism are to a large extent mutually exclusive. If you look at "Palestine" on a map (West Bank and Gaza), you immediately notice the big space in the middle - Israel. You realize that "Palestine"'s current borders are unnatural, than all of Israel "should" have been part of Palestine, and would have been, were it not for Jewish conquests in 1948. If you sympathize with "Palestine", you will unwittingly or wittingly speculate about somehow reattaching Israel to "Palestine", thus forming natural and reasonable boundaries for the Palestinian state. Thus, the existence of a Palestinian collective is a constant challenge to Israel's legitimacy. This challenge is decades-old, heavily exploited in both Arab countries and the West, but it appears to be ending. What remains are two separate boundary disputes, one east of Israel and one to the west. And the chance of resolving each of these individually (by whatever solution you prefer) is much higher.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Global warming... on Mars

Help! The polar ice caps on Mars are melting!

Someone needs to tell the Martians to use more compact fluorescent light bulbs and to stop driving SUVs.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Thoughts on Korach/Chukat

"Behold, we die, we perish, we are all perishing! Everyone who approaches the sanctuary of God dies; have we stopped dying?" (17:27-28)

This complaint seems trivial. If the Mishkan is killing people who approach it, then just stay away from it. It's that simple! So why do the people bother complaining, why does the Torah mention it, and why does it (as we will see) receive a very long response?

Rewind to the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar. Excluding several "mitzvot for the generations", the first 10 chapters of Bamidbar contain the following stories:

1) Census of 12 tribes
2) Census of Levi and its role in the Mishkan
3) Gifts by princes at Mishkan inauguration
4) Aharon's role in lighting the menorah
5) Levites consecrated to serve in Mishkan
6) Pesach sacrifice performed
7) A Divine cloud covers the Mishkan, dictating when they travel or wait
8) The journey begins
9) Moshe asks Hovav to go with them; they travel, led by the Ark
10) What Moshe says when the ark stops/starts

These can be more or less divided into 3 sections:
1) Census in preparation for departure
2) Initiation of Mishkan
3) Journey, led by the Mishkan.

It is clear that at every stage, the Israelites are expected to follow the lead of the Mishkan in their travels. Whether they go or stop is determined by the presence of a cloud over the Mishkan. Which direction they go seems to be determined by the progress of the Ark. Physically the Mishkan is in the center of the camp. The departure from Sinai is delayed until the initiation of the Mishkan is completed.

It therefore seems that the Israelites have a very good reason for their complaint about dying whenever they approach the Mishkan. They have been trained to look towards the Mishkan as a source for guidance and an indicator of protection. But the death occasioned by Korach's rebellion associates the Mishkan with terror and punishment. How can the Jewish people be guided by something so apparently hostile to it?

As is usual in Sefer Bamidbar, these stories are followed by laws which relate to the stories. In this case, the ensuing laws include chapters 18 and 19. (The next story, and thus the next textual unit, begins with chapter 20.) Chapters 18 and 19, respectively, relate to the two stories in parshat Korach - 1) the long, multifaceted rebellion began by Korach which continues even after his death, and 2) the two-line complaint discussed above.

1) Korach's rebellion challenged the authority of Moshe and Aharon the priest. Chapter 18 reacts to this story by detailing the status and privileges of Kohanim and Leviim and the relation between the two groups.

2) The complaint indicates that the Mishkan had acquired a strongly negative association - with death and punishment. This complicated its role as the focus and guide of the traveling Jewish people. Chapter 19 - parah adumah - is designed to oppose this association. Through parah adumah, we learn to view the Mishkan not as a source of death, but as a source of purification from death. The negative association is replaced with a corresponding positive association, and the Mishkan can once again play its central role among the Jewish people.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Lech lecha

An extremely powerful song.
Link and download

The song is based on the phrase on the phrase "Lech lecha" which only appears twice in Tanach - in God's commands to Avraham to move to Israel and to sacrifice Yitzchak. In the song, these challenges become a metaphor for all of Jewish history.

Ignore the ethnocentrism of the site as a whole. Along those lines, I wish they'd chosen a different display for the very last frame of the video. What they use there misrepresents the song as a whole. This is not the jingoistic anthem they imagine to to be.

Some lyrics are admittedly cheesy, but others aren't.

Translated lyrics:

To begin in Aram Naharaim
To pass through the fiery furnace
And to set out on the journey of eternity
With water and dry bread

To bind the son, the child
As if uprooting the last hope
And to bring down the knife upon him
Year after year

And to hear from above
The voice which says:
"Lech lecha, lech
Lech lecha, lech
You, the 'other' (?); you, alone."
"Lech lecha, lech lecha" - meaning: to become Jewish.

To descend from here to Egypt
And to exit from Egypt to here
Without knowing if in Jerusalem
The journey will reach its end

To be both prince and king
And officer in the courts of Spain
But always to feel a knife
Resting on your neck

And to hear from above...

To always wait for the coming of
The voice which calls also to you
To know that your father's house
Will not always be your house

To wander from country to country
But to carry like a seal and oath
The memory of that land
Whose pillars are seven [not sure what this refers to]

And to hear from above...

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thoughts on Shelach

Actually, none come to mind. But I came across a brilliant chiddush and wanted to link to it.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Hebrew speaking goyim

I just heard that they rescheduled this semester's final exams to be RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HOLIDAYS this fall. That's right, exams start 3 days before Rosh Hashana and end a week after Simchat Torah.

This is supposedly because of the strike, although I fail to see a connection between the delayed semester and moving exams to an arbitrary period more than a month after the last day of class.

I always thought that one of the advantages of living in a Jewish state was that you could focus on celebrating Jewish holidays, and not go insane because all your normal work has to be done in less time while the holidays themselves add extra responsibilities. I still think this is true. It just turns out that there's a long way to go before this state becomes Jewish.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Thoughts on Behaalotcha

Why was the section on the Menorah put next to the section on the princes [the end of parshat Naso]? Because when Aharon saw the inauguration by the princes he became unhappy, because neither he nor his tribe participated. God said to him: 'I promise your lot will be better than theirs, since you light and prepare the [Menorah] lights.' " (Rashi to 8:1)

Why, in this story, is Aharon in particular upset at being left out? Why not Moshe, or Miriam, or Korach, or anyone else from the tribe of Levi?

I think the clear answer is that Aharon was the prince of the tribe of Levi. All of his fellow princes participated in the inauguration, and so far he is the only one left out.

(It is also helpful in other places to say that Aharon was the prince of Levi. For example, after the Golden Calf sin in which Aharon participated, you'd think he would be the very last person to be chosen as high priest. It seems therefore that he is not chosen on his own merits, but rather in his role as leader of the tribe of Levi. Also, he is older than Moshe and thus would seem to have priority over him in terms of tribal leadership.)

I am inclined (despite parshablog's probable condemnation) to take this midrash non-literally, as a "teaching tool" designed to explain why these particular laws of the Menorah are located where they are. Immediately after the Menorah laws, we have the ceremony in which the tribe of Levi is consecrated. It seems that the lighting of the Menorah, and this consecration of the Levites, together represent a 13th offering from Levi, similar to the other 12 tribes' offerings in parshat Naso. Conceivable, the whole Levi ceremony even took place on the 13th day after the erection of the Mishkan.

Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: "Make yourself two silver trumpets; of hammered work you shall make them. You shall use them for calling the congregation together, and for causing the camps to travel. When they blow [VETAK'U] with them, all the congregation shall gather themselves to you, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting... And when you blow an 'alarm' [TERUAH], the camps that lie on the east side shall travel..." (10:1-2)

These lines indicates the two purposes of the trumpets in the desert. The first purpose - gathering the entire people at the Mishkan - is accomplished by blowing a "tekiah". The second purpose - signaling the beginning of a journey - is accomplished by blowing a "teruah".

Next, we have instructions for using trumpets after entering the land of Israel. Once again, two purposes are listed. When we go to war, we are to blow a "teruah", and on holidays we are to blow a "tekiah" while offering sacrifices in the Temple.

Going to war, and celebrating a holiday in the Temple, are very similar to the two purposes listed in the desert: causing the camps to travel, and gathering the people at the Mishkan. And it's no coincidence that both war and travel require a "teruah", while gathering and holidays each require a "tekiah".

The parallel between these two sets of trumpet-blowings is intriguing. There is also a distinction which may shed light on the relation between them. In the desert, the trumpets were purely functional - there were a couple million people in the camp, and if God suddenly informed Moshe that it was time to travel or receive prophecy, there had to be some way of informing everyone. In contrast, use of the trumpets in Israel is purely symbolic. In both cases in the land of Israel (war and holidays), there is no practical consequence, but rather God promises to "remember" Israel.

What exactly is being remembered? And why was there no "remembering" when the trumpets were blown, on very similar occasions, in the desert? I think that both questions can be answered by saying that God remembers Israel's desert experience. As the prophet Yirmiyahu later wrote, "Thus says Hashem: 'I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of your wedlock; how you followed Me in the desert, in an unsown land." (2:2) Our willingness to follow God in the desert, whether to battle or to a prophetic encounter, is remembered in our favor when we blow trumpets in similar circumstances in the land of Israel.

Later in our parsha, we find the well-known lines of "Vayhi binsoa ha'aron": "When the Ark travelled, Moshe would say: 'Arise Hashem and scatter your enemies; may those who hate you flee from before you.' And when it rested he would say: 'Return Hashem [to/with] the myriad thousands of Israel'." (10:35-36) Here too, travel is a time for Divine assistance in war, and stopping is a time for encounter with God. This is the idealized picture of our desert experience, even if in practice we were not always able to live up to it.

Hashem said to Moshe: "If her father had spit in her face, would she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut out from the camp seven days, and after that she shall be brought in." Miriam was shut out from the camp seven days; and the people did not travel until Miriam was brought in. (12:14-15)

The Miriam/tzaraat story takes a weird twist here. Moshe has just prayed that she be healed. God answers that she indeed will be healed, but she must be nevertheless "shamed" for one week. The connection between tzaraat and shame is not obvious. Also, while Miriam is outside the camp the entire people is prevented from traveling. Why didn't they simply travel and Miriam keep up with them, as was most likely the case whenever any other person got tzaraat and had to leave the camp? (See Bamidbar 5:1-4 where lepers must leave the camp - seemingly as a preparation for the journey.)

I think the answer is that Miriam's real punishment was not tzaraat, but "shame". By "shame", I mean embarrassment. The halting of the camp for seven days is a unique punishment designed to embarrass her, with tzaraat merely an technical justification for halting the camp. The entire people is forced to wait for a week for no practical reason but only, as they presumably find out, "because Miriam sinned". This is in fact poetic justice; her offense was defaming Moshe, and now she herself is defamed in front of the entire people.

It has been claimed that the punishment here is unfair, in that both Miriam and Aharon sinned but only Miriam seems to be punished. There are a number of possible answers to this. For example, the text seems to indicate that Miriam was the main offender, or perhaps that only Miriam spoke lashon hara and Aharon just listened. Alternatively, tzaraat must be diagnosed by a priest, and if Aharon the priest got tzaraat it's not clear who would diagnose him.

If the real punishment was not tzaraat but embarrassment, we can provide another answer to this claim. We said that the people found out that the delay was caused by Miriam's sin. But we can equally say that they found out that Miriam AND Aharon had sinned. Only Miriam was physically punished, but the intense embarrassment which was the real punishment would have affected them equally.