Monday, November 26, 2007

Shabbat Guard

A program which automatically shuts down your web site at different times for different people, based on the location of the person visiting the site.

As the site says, "When a visitor comes from a place that's already Shabbat - your web site will be closed for him, while for one that arrives from a place that it is not yet Shabbat - your web site will be opened."

The obvious question is: The only people likely to buy this are Orthodox Jews, and how can they be sure that it works? Wherever they go to test it, if they themselves aren't breaking Shabbat, there will be no indication that the software is running! (The obvious answer: learn to use SSH.)

Sometimes, Google ads are interesting enough to click on even when you know you won't buy anything. I clicked this time, and this is what I found.

Artscroll "translation"

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ezer Kenegdo

What does the phrase "ezer kenegdo" mean? Does it mean man and women are facing each other? Confronting one another? One serving the other?

We find the answer in parshat Vayishlach.

[Esav] said: "Let us go and travel, and I will walk lenegdecha." (33:12)

Esav is suggesting that he and Yaakov walk together, side by side, to a common destination. Not that one walks normally while the other awkwardly backpedals in front of him!

Similarly "ezer kenegdo" means that the husband and wife are walking side by side. Not coincidentally, that's the way that couples normally do walk. So when you next see a man and woman walking side by side, think: that is how God intended them to relate to one another, and how God defined their relationship.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


According to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (6:3), one should say "Hashem" and not "Adoshem" when using God's name in a non-ritual context.

However, R' Soloveitchik seems to have disagreed, as you can see for your self 52 minutes 28 seconds into this recording.

Isn't modern technology great?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Real Brisk

Real Briskers don't go to Gush. They get their shiurim here and here.

Thoughts on the Avot

May you grant truth to Yaakov, kindness to Avraham, as you swore to our fathers from ancient times. (Michah 7:20)

Jewish tradition has associated Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov with the qualities of chessed (kindness), gevurah (strength), and emet (truth) respectively. With Avraham this makes sense: we know from his early stories that he is extraordinarily hospitable and selfless and otherwise kind.

But it is hard to see how Yitzchak exemplifies strength, or Yaakov truth. Strength is perhaps the quality we see least from Yitzchak; he doesn't resist when his hundred-something-year-old father brings him as a sacrifice, and he refrains from purposeful action after Yaakov steals Esav's blessing. Similarly, Yaakov apparently lies to his father and deceives Lavan. How can we possibly say that he exemplifies truth?

Indeed, it's even hard to say that Avraham consistently behaves kindly. On separate occasions he expels his children - Yishmael and Keturah's sons - from his home, and he is willing to kill Yitzchak on God's command. These actions appear to reflect an extreme lack of kindness. It therefore seems that the actions of all three of the Avot contradict the attributes ascribed to them!

We are forced to say that chessed, gevurah, and emet represent not any particular deeds of the Avot, but rather their innate personality traits. Avraham, as we can see in the initial stories, possessed a powerful desire to be kind to everyone he met. We can similarly say that Yitzchak, by his constitution, was never willing to accept defeat or the triumph of evil. And Yaakov was indeed an "ish tam yoshev ohalim", who longed to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

If so, how do we explain the stories in which these qualities are not on display?

I think the answer is that the Torah does not tell us day-to-day stories of the Avot (or anyone else), but rather the most monumental and important events of their lives. Indeed, there were presumably many, many incidents in which Avraham demonstrated kindness, Yitzchak strength, and Yaakov truth. But these incidents were not the most important incidents in their lives, so the Torah does not mention most of them.

A person whose nature is kind will find it easy to perform kindness. But occasionally one is morally required to perform acts of apparent cruelty. Morality often requires that soldiers, surgeons, and politicians, for example, act in ways antithetical to the trait of kindness. A harsh or cruel person will find these deeds relatively easy, while having trouble with good deeds that require a more personal touch. For a kind person, things will be the other way round. Such is the case with every character trait, not just kindness.

For Avraham, the supremely kind person, the hardest conceivable moral challenge was to slaughter his son. For Yitzchak, whose personality would never allow him to submit to injustice, the hardest challenge was to allow himself to be slaughtered. And for Yaakov, who could never countenance falsehood, the hardest challenge was to deceive Yitzchak (or Lavan or Esav) when circumstances impelled it. In each case, the Avot's uniquely strong character traits were precisely those that had to be suppressed in order to carry out their most difficult missions.

Every person finds it easy to do good in some ways, according to the nature of their personality. But true spiritual greatness comes only when you are capable of overcoming your limitations, and do what is right even when it contradicts the inclinations of your character. This is where the Avot succeeded, and this is the ultimate goal that each of us should aspire to.

(Mostly taken from a shiur by R' Binyamin Tabory)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thoughts on Toldot

Let's compare Yitzchak's command to Esav (27:3-4), to Rivkah's recounting of that command to Yaakov (27:7).

יצחקלפי רבקה
ועתה שא נא כליך תליך וקשתך, וצא השדה, וצודה לי ציד.הביאה לי ציד
ועשה לי מטעמים כאשר אהבתיועשה לי מטעמים
והביאה לי ואכלה ואכלה
בעבור תברכך נפשיואברככה
לפני ה'
בטרם אמות.לפני מותי.

Rivkah's description is very accurate. Everything that Yitzchak said she repeats in more efficient language.

But there is also one thing she adds, which wasn't in Yitzchak's statement: the words "lifnei Hashem".

This change seems to reflect a deep misunderstanding between Yitzchak and Rivkah regarding the purpose of the blessing. Looking at the text of the blessing which Yitzchak thought he was giving to Esav, we see it is all about material success. The "consolation" blessing which Esav gets later is also about material success. In contrast, Yitzchak's blessing to Yaakov (28:3-4) speaks of Yaakov's receiving "the blessing of Avraham" - the spiritual inheritance which was passed down through the Avot and later through the Jewish people. Yitzchak never intended to bless Esav "before God". Both Esav and Yaakov were to be blessed, but only Yaakov's blessing was to be "before God".

Rivkah did not realize that this was Yitzchak's intention. She thought there would be only one blessing - which, by necessity, would be spiritual. And of course, only Yaakov could be the correct recipient for this blessing. Thus she inserted the words "lifnei Hashem" which Yitzchak had, in fact, purposefully refrained from using.

The misunderstanding between Yitzchak and Rivkah is part of a chain of events which resonates throughout Jewish history. Rivkah's misunderstanding led Yaakov to take Esav's blessing, which forced Yaakov to flee penniless to Haran, which allowed Lavan to trick Yaakov, which forced Yaakov to take two mutually antagonistic wives, which led to bitter conflict between Yaakov's children, which resulted in Yosef's sale to Egypt, which eventually caused the entire family to descend to Egypt and enter slavery.

I would like to extend this chain of causation in the other direction, back to God's promise to Avraham that "your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs, and shall serve them..." (15:13) In the immediate aftermath of the Akedah (22:19) we hear that "Avraham" returns to Beer Sheva. Presumably Yitzchak is with him, but the lack of mention hints at a disconnect between them. Perhaps we may say that Yitzchak was permanently traumatized by the Akedah. Having his trust in his father so violently betrayed, he was unable to fully trust in anyone else for the rest of his life. The most notable consequence of this lack of trust was the misunderstanding over Yaakov and Esav's blessings.

If so, then we can trace the prophecy's inexorable progression through the generations, from Avraham's lifetime until its eventual fulfillment centuries later. While none of the characters involved could have realized what they were doing, in the end each of them contributed to the fulfillment of the Divine plan.

As Yosef says to his brothers, "You planned to do evil to me, yet God planned that it be for good, so that I might now save the lives of many people." (45:5) But even Yosef perceived only one small fraction of his contribution: the temporary escape from famine, but not the eventual enslavement and redemption which would follow from his descending to Egypt.

This is the book of generations of man: When God created man, He made him in the image of God. Male and female he made them, and he called them Adam/Mankind when He created them. Adam lived 130 years... [begin genealogy] (Breishit 5:1-3)

These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak. Yitzchak was 40 years old when he took Rivkah - daughter of Betuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean - as his wife. Yitzchak entreated Hashem regarding his wife, since she was barren... (25:19-21)

What do these two selections have in common? 1) They are both "These-are-the-generations" formulas, indicating of the beginning of two of the sections of Sefer Breishit. 2) They both include a couple lines of background information, well-known from the previous stories, before the "real" story.

It seems that each "generations" section is intended to be self-contained. Therefore, each section begins with a brief summary of the necessary background information - the creation of man, and the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, respectively. Perhaps you have read the preceding chapters and know this information already. But stylistically, in order to make clear that it is distinct from the other sections, each section assumes that perhaps you haven't.

These are the generations of Yitzchak son of Avraham; Avraham begot Yitzchak. (25:19)

Why must Avraham be mentioned (twice!) as Yitzchak's father? I think this is because - contrary to all expectations, due to Avraham's importance to the story - there is no section of Sefer Breishit entitled "These are the generations of Avraham". To account for this "gap" in the section headers, Avraham is mentioned in the headers of his sons - Yitzchak here, and Yishmael in 25:12. (Other than Yishmael and Yitzchak, no person's "generations" in Sefer Breishit mention their father.)

Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother. He took Rivkah and she became his wife, and Yitzchak was comforted after his mother['s death]. (24:67)
Rivkah took the best clothes of Esav her older son, which were with her in the house, and dressed Yaakov her younger son. (27:15)

When she first married Yitzchak, Rivkah was living in a tent, like Avraham and Sarah had. But by the time Yitzchak grew old enough to bless his kids, she was now living in a house.

If we look throughout Sefer Breishit, the term "house of" is used many times to refer to a person's family. But as far as I know, verse 27:15 is the only time when it is used regarding a physical structure. Sefer Breishit mentions over and over that Avraham and Yaakov were living in tents. Here we see that, by the end of his life, Yitzchak was living in a not a tent but a house.

As R' Amnon Bazak explains in an incredible article, Yitzchak succeeded in several ways in which Avraham (and Yaakov) did not. One of these areas was in asserting his connection and right to the land of Israel. We see this in the fact that Yitzchak does not offer to divide the land with someone else (i.e. Lot), nor does he make a covenant with the land's non-Jewish inhabitants (i.e. Avimelech). We see further evidence here, where instead of moving from tent to tent like a nomad, Yitzchak builds an immovable and permanent "house" which demonstrates the strength of his connection to the land.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

News flash!!

The King of Spain told Hugo Chavez to shut up.

In other news, Vladimir Putin started crying after another head-of-state called him a "poopy-head".

Well, actually, I'm making that second one up. But not the first one. You'd think that the world's most influential politicians would have better things to do than hurl playground insults at each other. And the media would have better things to do than to breathlessly report it.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Blood money

Correlation does not *necessarily* indicate causation... but the correlation here is simply incredible.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

In the story in which Rivkah comes to marry Yitzchak, Avraham's servant (whom I'll call Eliezer) tells Rivkah's family about how he met Rivkah that day. Even though the Torah has just told us how it happened, it nevertheless gives us the entire text of Eliezer's explanation - telling us the exact same story, almost word-for-word, all over again.

There are a number of minor, incidental differences between the original story and Eliezer's retelling: changes in word choice and order, omission of irrelevant background information, and so on. Here are two differences that seem, in my mind, to be significant.

1) In the original story, Avraham tells Eliezer to go "to my land and heritage" to find Yitzchak a wife. In Eliezer's retelling, Avraham tells him to go "to my father's house and family".
2) In the original story, Eliezer gives Rivkah jewelry and then asks which family she belongs to. In his recounting, he mentions asking about her family, and only then mentions giving her jewelry.

These two difference apparently have the same cause. From Avraham's instructions, Eliezer did not conclude that Yitzchak's future wife had to be from any particular family. Avraham had only mentioned "my land and heritage" after all; literally, this criteria would be met by any woman in Haran. Indeed, upon arriving in Haran Eliezer made no effort to seek out the "Nachor family", which shouldn't have been hard, but rather went straight to the well to find a woman with good character traits.

But in the end, it "just so happened" that the woman was from Avraham's extended family. Eliezer must have realized that this was how God, and perhaps Avraham, had intended it the entire time. Thus he rephrased Avraham's statement to explicitly mention the woman's family.

Similarly, Eliezer had given Rivkah jewelry as soon as she had watered his camels. As far as he was concerned, the test was over and she had passed. All that was left was to convince her and her family that the marriage should take place, and the jewelry gift was part of that. But once she told him the family name, he realized there was more to the story. In the end, the destined wife was the woman who watered the camels AND who was from Avraham's family. In Eliezer's retelling, he does not give the jewelry until learning that both these conditions are fulfilled.

We need not say that Eliezer intentionally lied in either instance. On one hand, given his excitement at the miracle which had just occurred, he could have stumbled in his speech or erroneously remembered what the plan had been before the excitement began. On the other hand, Avraham's instructions might have alluded to the family (why should Eliezer look for a wife in Haran, but nowhere else, if the reason is the Canaanites' evil?). And regarding the jewelry giving, we should remember that Biblical narratives are often arranged partly thematically and partly chronologically, so Eliezer's speech could simply mean that he now saw the jewelry giving as a consequence of Rivkah's family identity.

Now, a third difference between the accounts which I think matters.

3) In the original story, Avraham release Eliezer from his oath in the case that "the woman does not desire to follow you". In Eliezer's retelling, the case is rather that "they [the family] do not give [the woman] to you".

It seems that Eliezer is just being polite here. He is discussing Rivkah's future with her family. Since they seem to be in charge of deciding whom she'll marry, Eliezer credits them with the ability to prevent her from going.

And yet, in the end Rivkah *is* asked whether she wants the marriage. Thus Avraham's statement, implying that the decision will depend on her, turns out to be correct. This is similar to Avraham's hint that the wife will come from his own family, which also turns out to be correct.

It's not obvious from a superficial reading, but in addition to his other qualities, Avraham appears to have been a pretty impressive prophet!