Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Just one comment on the fighting ongoing in Israel's south.

It's all over the news that France proposed a 48-hour cease-fire, and the Israeli government considered the proposal, but then rejected it.

This seem to me to be a mistake. In fact, it was more than one mistake, since the offer should never have been considered at face value, and then should never have been rejected outright.

In my opinion you should never, ever just say no to a cease-fire. Rather, you always say that you want a cease-fire, under conditions of your own choice.

Hamas understands this principle. Right now they are saying that they want a cease-fire, with the condition that the border is opened. We can't accept this because it will allow them to freely import weapons. But when we reject the proposal, the condition is mostly forgotten, and it comes off like Hamas wants peace and Israel wants to keep killing people.

Instead, we need to offer a cease-fire under the conditions that rocket fire is totally ended (during the previous "cease-fire" it continued at a lower rate), and that certain Hamas leaders responsible for past terrorist attacks are extradited to Israel for trial, and perhaps that Gilad Shalit is returned... and so on, the exact list does not matter.

On the off chance that such conditions are met, then we will have got what we want without fighting. And even if they aren't, just making the offer public will have a dual benefit. One one hand, it makes clear that we want peace and Hamas is rejecting it, not the other way around. And on the other hand, it puts the spotlight on the various ways in which we are are being wronged. Whenever we are asked "Why haven't you agreed to a cease-fire", we can answer with "We offered a cease-fire, but Hamas is still 'firing' by doing X, Y, and Z" - thus shifting the focus to X, Y, and Z and the necessity of ending them.

Perhaps it is Israeli leaders' moral innocence and naivete (relative to their enemies) that prevents them from engaging in the kind of cynical analysis I performed above. Indeed I doubt any Israeli politician has the evil genius of a Nasrallah or Mashaal, who manipulate Israeli parents for years with televised suggestions that their kidnapped sons are alive or dead, healthy or unhealthy, in order to mock and humiliate Israel. It's a credit to our society that it produces leaders who do not know how to manipulate people so cruelly.

But practically speaking, such innocence is not a desirable trait for those in power. Just like soldiers must on occasion overcome their natural instincts and kill people, politicians must be ready to cynically manipulate diplomatic processes to advance their national interests. In war, not to do so means to risk your citizens' lives through your incompetence. We saw the consequences of incompetent leadership two years ago. Right now the military/political situation is very similar, the leaders only slight different, and remains to be seen if they have learned anything.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Thoughts on Vayeshev

What does this week's haftarah have to do with the parsha?

It is accepted to say that the connection is in the haftarah's first line. Here the prophet Amos begins a list of the sins Israel commits, and the first is "selling the righteous for silver". This may not be literally be referring to the selling of Yosef, but it certainly brings that sale to mind.

Less well known is that an equally good connection exists in the next verse. Here Amos lists another sin the people committed: "a man and his father would go to [the same] girl, thereby desecrating My holy name". And indeed, in the middle of parshat Vayeshev we see Yehudah hiring a prostitute who turns out to be his son's widow. Thus he sleeps with the same woman his son did, and of course, the whole episode turns into a big "hilul hashem". Amos is presumably talking about a different form of licentiousness, but still, the similarity with what Yehudah did is striking.

We therefore see that the haftarah contains apparent allusions to both of the stories in our parshah (those of Yosef and Yehudah). No wonder it was chosen for this week in particular.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

Whenever someone dies in Tanach, there is generally one line to explain how they died, at what age, and where they were buried. Sarah's death is unusual in that it is followed by a whole chapter telling every detail of the process by which her burial cave was purchased and her buried in it. Not only is this description very unusual in its length and subject matter, but most of the details in it seem rather superfluous. Why did they need to be mentioned?

Offhand, I can think of four lessons we learn from the long description.

1) This is the first time that Avraham buys land in Israel for his personal use. (He may or may not have bought the land his altars stood on, but even if he did, the land was probably considered like "Temple property" and not available for private use.) This indicates the permanence of his settlement in the land, and the fulfillment of the blessings related to the land. Burial caves were designed for use by many generations, so it indicates that his descendants would be buried (and live and die) in Israel as well.

2) The people of Hevron demonstrated their respect for Avraham: "Bury your dead in the choice of our graves". This respect is a fulfillment of the promises God made to Avraham, beginning with "I will bless you, and magnify your name" (12:2).

3) The people of Hevron called Avraham a "nasi elokim... betochenu" - a religious leader among them. Avraham's efforts in building altars everywhere, praying publicly, behaving morally towards other people, and so on were apparently not in vain. While the people did not reach the religious level of Avraham and his household, they were certainly better off than they were beforehand. They now recognized the good even if they did not live up to it.

4) The people of Hevron wanted Avraham to bury Sarah in their burial caves. But Avraham insisted on purchasing and using a separate cave. He was respectful to them, but kept himself distinct from them. He was not willing to dwell together with Canaanites in life (i.e. Yitzchak's wife) or death (in burial). At the same time, he bowed down to and showed respect for them. Perhaps this is a model for our interactions with people whose way of life we don't agree with, but which we cannot hope to quickly change.

To summarize: we learn that the promises to Avraham were fulfilled, and we gain more examples of Avraham's good behavior to learn from.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


I do not yet have internet access in the building I moved into a week ago, thus the recent lack in posting.

Anyway, I heard the following joke recently. It relies on the fact that the Yiddish word "weiss", pronounced "vice", means "white" in English.

"So now that the elections are over, Obama will be the black president, and Biden will be the 'weiss' president."


Hazon Ish - Emuna Ubitachon

"Emuna Ubitachon" (by R' Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, the "Hazon Ish") is a short book - just 71 rather small pages long. But it is difficult to read, even for Hebrew speakers, because its style and word choice are very different from what modern readers expect. I soon abandoned my idea of translating the book to English, and instead just summarized it, at a ration of roughly one sentence per page. Hopefully this summary can be useful, either for people who cannot read the book, or for people who are reading it and would like to see a broader overview at the same time.

The summary is divided according to the book's six chapters. Each chapter comprises between 3 and 30 subchapters, as indicated in brackets at the end of each sentence. And while I found many things to respect in the book, I do not agree with everything in it. Some sentences below are written according to the book's perspective even though it is not mine.

It's easier to read if you paste into a word processing file and increase the spacing between paragraphs to 6 points or so.

1) Belief
Belief in God is achieved through the following approaches:
- The wondrous characteristics of our bodies and the world indicate the existence of an intelligent designer. [1:1-7]
- The ecstatic and overpowering feeling one experiences upon realizing that God exists testifies to the truth of that realization. [1:8-9]
- Righteous people who have succeeded in refining their character traits believe that God exists, i.e. belief is a consequence of behavior which is universally regarded as praiseworthy. [1:10-15]

2) Trust
Trust (bitachon) does not mean believing that the future will undoubtedly be good - this cannot be known without prophecy. Rather, it means believing that every occurrence in the world is controlled by God rather than by random fate, and acting accordingly. Faith:thought::bitachon:action. [2:1-2]
An example of someone with "false" bitachon is an apparently religious shopowner who, when a rival store opens, takes hostile means against it with the intention of preserving his livelihood. [2:3-5]
Chazal condemn Yosef (in Egypt) for asking the butler for help. Asking for human help in itself is acceptable, since even though everything comes from God, we are not to rely on miracles. But in this case what Yosef asked for was unlikely to help and was like an act of desperation. As such it contradicted bitachon. [2:6]
A person can also be inspired to trust that God will in fact protect him. This happens in proportion to the person's spiritual level. [2:7]

3) Morality and halacha
Morality is defined by the limits of halacha. One's judgment of right and wrong in any situation should start with the relevant halachot rather than moral intuition, since when you have a personal stake in the matter, your moral intuition is unreliable. [3:1-4]
Obedience to halacha is developed through the following means:
- Discipline and removal of material pursuits from life,
- Study of "mussar", to scare you into doing what's right and into avoiding material comforts,
- General Torah study, to orient you to spiritual matters and increase sensitivity for the particular mitzvot you study and for the overall centrality of mitzvot in life. [3:5-7]
For mitzvot such as theft, piety without exact knowledge of halacha will not prevent sin, and can in fact lead to self-deception about one's intentions. [3:8-13]
All sustenance comes by Divine decree, but we are still required to put forth effort "for" this sustenance. But when halacha prohibits the effort, we revert to the original state of simply waiting for the Divine decree to take effect. [3:14-16]
Torah study is very important; to be at the highest religious level one must have extensive Torah knowledge as well as fear of heaven. At the same time, without fear of heaven one cannot reach true conclusions either. [3:17-29]
Emunat hachamim - one must believe that one's wise teachers rule honestly, because their psychological commitment to truth is stronger than to i.e. money. It is even forbidden to think that hachamim could have been biased but that this is not a discredit because all people have that weakness. The Torah's prohibitions on bribery are weaker than one would expect, because it assumes that hachamim are incorruptible. Rulings of the "gedolim" are purely intellectual, while normal people are driven by lusts. [3:30]

4) Character development
All good and evil character traits are consequences of one question: whether we see moral significance in natural life or not. Most people see this significance only sometimes, and are like wild animals at other times. [4:1-4]
Interpersonal and "bein adam lemakom" mitzvot are not independent - both are consequences of this one single question. [4:5-6]
One who successfully keeps all the myriad details of halacha will by necessity have achieved discipline over his emotions, as well as character traits such as patience and willingness to accept scorn when necessary. [4:7-8]
Keeping halachic details is the only way to "practice" good traits without taking unnecessary risks (i.e. walking near a brothel) [4:9]
One who knows his halachic knowledge is incomplete will become resigned to "unavoidable" laxity and will avoid precision in fulfilling his moral responsibilities. [4:10-11]
Study of "mussar" is only effective for thoughtful and delicate people; those qualities can be acquired through Torah study. [4:12]
Lying is extremely evil and, if habitual, prevents accepting criticism and having character growth. [4:13]
Honor and happiness in life are acceptable, but in truth they both consist solely of Torah wisdom and good character traits - and Torah leads to the character traits. [4:14-15]
A teacher with bad character traits transmits those flaws to his students. One whose teachers have neglected to sufficiently ground him in Torah study will use his intellect to create a new, false version of Judaism. [4:16-17]
These and other people who are religiously driven yet without Torah study will end up constantly violating laws - while still thinking themselves religiously perfect. [4:18-19]

5) Imagination and intellect
Today, people are seduced by modern technology into think that they are superior to any ancient people. [5:1]
But their success is material not spiritual, and anyway it only comes by building on the work of earlier generations, and for that matter ancient Jewish scientific knowledge in many subjects was advanced too. [5:2-5]

6) Prophecy
Humans by their nature cannot (fully) discover what is good and what evil, but they can prepare themselves for a prophetic encounter in which complete good and evil are revealed. [6:1-2]
Thus Adam, Cain, Noah, and Avraham received Divine commandments. In between them, people's moral level descended too low for prophecy to be possible. But since then Avraham's descendants have not stopped receiving and studying the Divine revelation which began with Avraham: the Torah. [6:3]
[This chapter is unfinished.]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Umatzbia lechol hai ratzon

It's election season in Israel too, and everywhere you see dozens of posters put up by candidates for mayor and the city council. There are candidates proud to represent a particular religious/ethnic constituency, candidates proud to represent a certain political party, candidates proud to non-partisan, candidates running on personal appeal, candidates whose names we don't even know since their party is all that matters, and everything in between.

Most of the posters are boring - some guy's face, name, party, and a superficial platform or cheesy slogan. But some of them go to the opposite extreme. One male candidate's posters show him in a tight T-shirt on a beach. That setting relates to the job he's running for how exactly? But it gets better. One female candidate's poster is a picture of herself with some writing on the side. But it's not a picture of all of her. In fact the picture is only of her legs. The top of the poster is somewhat above her knees, and her feet are near the bottom. So if you want a pair of attractive female legs on the city council, you know who to vote for! Certainly for some people that is a top priority. But I'm surprised that these people are old enough to vote in municipal rather than student government elections.

Girls have cooties


doesn't it feel good to be back in kindergarten again?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Early cell phones

According to a textbook I'm reading for work, the first cell phone system was created in 1946 in St. Louis. The receiver was so heavy that you couldn't carry it, so it was only really used while sitting in a car. There was only capacity for 15 users in the entire city, so it was extremely expensive, but there was still plenty of demand.

Despite those limitations, how amazing is it that they had a kind of cell phone in... 1946?

Thoughts on Breishit

Last year (Simchat Torah to Simchat Torah), for the first time I read Rashi's commentary on chumash from start to finish. It was maddening at times (Siftei Hachamim only sometimes gave background for Rashi's more "totally out of the blue" comments), but in the end much worth it.

My overall impression: When Rashi does "pshat", as he does for long segments of Shemot and Devarim, he does an incredible job - similar in style and usefulness to his commentary on the gemara. When Rashi quotes "midrash", whether aggadic or halachic, it's often hard to figure out the logic and reasons for the interpretation (because midrash rarely explains itself the way we'd like it to). The first step towards understanding a given Rashi is decide whether it belongs in the "pshat" or "midrash" category. Then you can analyze it with the methods appropriate for that category. If you analyze the midrash as if it were pshat, you'll quickly get confused and/or lose all respect for Rashi. So don't try it.

This year I decided to learn the Ramban instead of Rashi.

One thought after studying a parsha's worth of Ramban: It's interesting how much effort he spends working on a reconciliation between Breishit and science, much as we do nowadays. The only problem is - the science he talks about is medieval, and now outdated. For example, he reads Breishit 1:2 as a description of how the four basic elements (earth, water, air, fire) were formed, immediately after the creation of the world. It's a clever explanation - much cooler than any explanation I'd ever seen for that verse. But since we don't believe in four basic elements any more, we can no longer accept the explanation.

Anyway, now some thoughts on specific verses, formatted in my usual style.

- These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created, in the day that Hashem God made earth and heaven. No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up;
- for Hashem God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.
- But a mist rose from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then Hashem God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
- And Hashem God planted a garden eastward, in Eden...

Let me rephrase these lines in a way which makes their point clear, keeping in mind that "shrub of the field" and "herb of the field" likely refer to plants in cultivated fields, not wild plants.

"- This is the story of the world. At first, no agriculture was taking place.
- This was because: 1) there was no rain, 2) there were no people to do farming.
- God fixed these problems by: 1) making rain, 2) making people.
- The people's first task was to farm the Garden of Eden..."

Of course, the people failed do perform this task correctly. And Adam's punishment is that he continue to farm - but under much harsher conditions. Throughout the chapter, it seems, the central focus is on agriculture.

There are two lines of thought I want to develop starting with this insight.

1. Men and Women: There are significant implications for the chapter's portrayal of the relationship between men and women. (In the following discussion I take the following psychological statement as a premise: Women tend to be better than men at interpersonal relationships, while men tend do be better than women at most functional tasks.)

The relationship between earth and man is parallel to that between man and woman. Earth is incomplete without man (no agriculture), so man must be created from the earth. Man is incomplete without woman (alone), so woman must be created from man. The parallel is strengthened by the fact that as punishment for the sin, man reverts to the control of the earth, while woman reverts to the control of man. One might conclude from all this that women are inherently better than men, just as men are inherently better than earth.

At the same time, there an undeniable aspect of the chapter which seems to privilege men. It is Adam who gives names to the animals, and Adam who God approaches first after the sin.

So which is it, is the chapter biased in favor of women, or in favor of men?

I think the answer is that man and woman are each favored in one sphere of life. When it comes to human relationships, woman is privileged. When it comes to confronting the difficulties of the surrounding world, man is privileged. There is no value judgment, just an acknowledgment of psychological facts that hold true for most of the world's population.

2. Human frailty: Perhaps the centrality of agriculture in this chapter is designed to teach us humility. Not only are humans originally created from the earth, and destined to return to the earth, but they are continually dependent on the earth for sustenance. As the focus of Sefer Breishit shifts* from nature (creation) to human relationships (beginning with Adam and Eve), the character of the relationship between nature and human beings must be made clear.

* The first chapter, dealing with creation, calls God "Elokim". The third and fourth chapters (and most of the rest of the Torah) which deal with human destiny, call God "Hashem". Since this chapter is a transition between the two, both names are used: "Hashem Elokim".

And Hashem God said: "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever." (3:22)

Here one asks: God is just now realizing the danger of this? Shouldn't God have foreseen that this might be a problem and, say, located the Tree of Life ahead of time in a more secure location? And did God simply get lucky that Adam and Eve never ate from the Tree of Life at some previous time?

I think the answers are no, no, and no, for the following reason.

In my opinion, Adam and Eve were eating from the Tree of Life the entire time they were living in the garden. After all, verse 2:16 says they were allowed to eat from any tree except the Tree of Knowledge. In fact, Adam and Eve's immortality in the garden was a result of continually eating from the Tree of Life! Their punishment for eating from the Tree of Knowledge was to die. And being distanced from the Tree of Life is the very means by which this punishment was carried out.

God could not have "planned ahead" by putting the Tree of Life elsewhere, because then Adam and Eve would have died, rather than living forever (were it not for their sin).

Kayin said to Hashem: "My sin is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have expelled me today from the face of the land; and from Your face I will be hidden; and I will be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth; and it will happen that whoever finds me will kill me." ...And Hashem set a sign for Kayin, lest anyone finding him should strike him. (4:13-15)

The usual Biblical punishment for murder is death. Yet here, after murdering his brother Hevel, Kayin is punished with exile rather than death. Why doesn't Kayin get the death penalty for his deed? And why does he get the punishment he does get?

I think the answer is that originally, Kayin was given the death penalty. Yet before it could be carried out, he repented from his sin and the punishment was commuted.

Kayin's complaint to God is that wandering the earth alone is dangerous and is likely to get him killed. But he starts off by mentioning not the danger, but his sin. A moment beforehand he had told God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - implying that yes, his brother was dead, but that he didn't care. Now he tries to repair the damage from that ill-advised comment. The very first thing he says is that, yes, killing Hevel was a sin - a great sin. The first step in repentance is confession and acknowledgment of the sin, and here Kayin takes that step. Only after that does he say that he would like the punishment changed.

It seems that if Kayin had not approached God in this way, then the sentence would not have been commuted. Kayin would have remained without his "sign", and at some point he would have been killed, and the death penalty for murder would have been carried out. This punishment would not be immediate, but Divine punishments often are not immediate.

How then do we explain the lesser punishment which Kayin gets in response to his request?

If we remember from the the recently occurring Yamim Noraim, there are two kinds of repentance: teshuva me-yirah, and teshuva me-ahavah. The gemara (Yoma 86b) explains the differing Divine responses to these kinds of repentance. If you repent out of fear of punishment, then your intentional sins are treated like unintentional sins. But if you repent out of love for God and the Torah and the moral life you're capable of living, then your intentional sins are treated like merits.

Kayin's repentance, coming only after he receives a punishment he cannot deal with, falls squarely into the category of repentance out of fear. It should therefore be sufficient to transform his intentional sin (murder) into an unintentional sin (manslaughter) for purposes of punishment. In fact, the Torah's punishment for manslaughter is exile (to a city of refuge). Kayin's post-repentance punishment is exile as well (though not to a city of refuge; none existed at the time).

It follows that Kayin received the same punishment he would have deserved as an unintentional murderer. And before his repentance, his punishment was that of an intentional murderer. Both punishments are exactly what you would expect, given the nature of his crime, and given the degree of repentance evident from his statement to God.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Klei hamas mecheroteihem

If you need any more proof of the great heroic deeds of the Jews of Hevron, and the sacrifices they continually make for the good of the Jewish people, then look here.

Oh wait. Maybe that link isn't such a good example.

I think expelling a few of these Hevron Jews to Gaza would be a good next move. With their attitudes towards Israel, they should fit in fine there. Perhaps they can even cooperate with Hamas to launch a few well-deserved terrorist attacks on Israel? Launch some rockets at the leftists in Sderot and Ashkelon? Or maybe go to Iran and help out with their nuclear weapons program. Because as we all know, being "killed and slaughtered" is exactly what Israel deserves.

Oh, and "retaliating" against the Israeli army by vandalizing a Palestinian graveyard is probably the most cowardly tactic used since the Palestinians started transporting suicide bombers in ambulances.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


While visiting my (Chabad) cousins for the first day of Sukkot I had the opportunity to read that week's issue of Mishpacha magazine - whose audience is the English-speaking charedi community.

To my amazement, one of the articles quoted a rabbi from "Yeshivas Har Etzion".

In this non-messianic Chabad home, I discovered that perhaps the mashiach is coming after all.

Uncanny valley

Computer graphics people like to talk about the uncanny valley - the idea that making an animation character look sufficiently realistic can make people dislike the character - because suddenly they see it as a flawed human, rather than as a fictional character skillfully evoking a human. Thus the reaction quickly becomes negative, not positive.

I think the same effect occurs with actual humans - specifically teenagers.

There are basically three kinds of humans: adults, kids, and teenagers. Adults are useful to other adults - they "speak" a common psychological language, which makes it easy to communicate with them and easy to get things done together with them.

Kids, on the other hand, are pretty much useless to adults, but they are cute. The "cuteness" factor is not exclusive to kids - we also find many animals to be either cute or just entertaining. Apparently with both kids and animals, we recognize them as different from us, and accept them as fine examples of whatever they are, and thus end up liking them.

Teenagers have neither advantage. They are sufficiently different from us that they are rarely useful. But they are too similar for us to appreciate them as different. And thus we, the adults, simply find them annoying.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Moshe's eye

Moshe was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not darkened, nor his moisture ceased. (Devarim 34:7)

Rashi and Ibn Ezra understand "moisture" as referring to the youthful appearance of the skin: Moshe's skin did not become dry and wrinkled as generally happens with old people.

The darkening of the eye, which also did not happen to Moshe, might seem to refer to blindness. This is slightly difficult because if so, you might expect the verse to refer to Moshe's eyes, not to a single eye. That does not seem like an insurmountable difficulty, but in any case I want to propose a different understanding of the word "eye", or rather, the Hebrew word "ayin" which is used here.

In some other places, we see that "ayin" means not "eye", but "appearance". (For example, here. And of course the concepts of "eye" and "appearance" are related so it makes sense that they would share a word.) Perhaps the same is true in our verse: it was not Moshe's eye that did not darken, but rather his appearance that did not darken (or become worse).

[I wanted to say that the same was true of Leah - that not Leah's eyes but her appearance was "weak", making the contrast between her and Rachel crystal-clear. But Leah's eyes are mentioned in the plural, so the meaning of "ayin" there is probably not "appearance". It was in the process of researching this possibility that I found the idea for my last post.]

If "ayin" in fact means "appearance" here, the descriptions of Moshe's "ayin" and "moisture" would be referring to exactly the same thing: the youthful quality of his skin. You can see such redundancy as a problem, or else as an advantage, because literary parts of Tanach often use parallelism. I'm undecided which possibility is more likely, and undecided whether blindness or bad skin is a likelier explanation overall.

As for why Moshe's face would have special healthy qualities even at age 120, I think it's impossible to avoid mentioning Shemot 34, where Moshe comes down from Mt. Sinai and his face is shining with some kind of special light, and as a result he has to put a mask over his face. It's not clear how long this shining lasted (it could be for the rest of his life, but I'm not convinced that's necessarily the case) but in any case, I think this shining quality is somehow linked to the special appearance Moshe's face had at the time of his death.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

World's first Yo Mama insult

ועיני לאה רכות אמוראי דר' יוחנן תרגם קודמוי ועיני לאה הוו רכיכין א"ל עינוהי דאימך הוו רכיכין ומהו רכות רכות מבכיה

"And Leah's eyes were 'rakot'" - one of R' Yochanan's interpreters translated this [to Aramaic] before him as "And Leah's eyes were [naturally] weak".
He [R' Yochanan] said to him: "Your mother's eyes were naturally weak. And what does 'rakot' mean? They were weak from crying [out of unhappiness that she was expected to marry Esav]."

(From Breishit Rabbah)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Sukkah and lulav

There are two unique mitzvot on Sukkot - sukkah and lulav. At first glance they seem to have little to do with each other. But it may be possible to discover a connection.

Here is a picture of the top of my neighbor's palm tree.

[BTW: Yes, I do have a stunning view from my apartment window. To those I can't stop mentioning it to, sorry. For more pictures see here.]

Growing out of the top, one can see a single long straight spiky thing. That is the lulav. It seems to me that there is never more than one lulav per palm tree. It first grows as a lulav, and then its leaves fall towards the sides and it becomes a regular palm leaf, at which point a new lulav grows to take its place. We are required to use the leaf in its early lulav stage - if we wait too long it becomes an invalid regular leaf. The lulav looks rugged, but for the purposes of the mitzvah it is very transient.

In this respect, the lulav is similar to at least 2 of the other 3 species. The etrog is a very easily damaged fruit, and the aravah goes dry and falls apart after just a few days after being picked. We see that (at least) 3 of the 4 species share the attributes of fragility and temporariness.

Of course, the sukkah too is fragile and temporary. And it seems this common theme is at the heart of the Sukkot holiday.

The abundant agricultural harvest, which historically happened around Sukkot, poses a theological dilemma. If we ascribe too much importance to our material possessions, it is easy to become proud, callous and corrupt. But on the other hand, it is wrong to become ascetics and deny the significant of the world we live in. There is a tension between these two dangers, and it is resolved by recognizing our prosperity as real, but transient. God has given us prosperity, but God is not guaranteed to do so in the future.

Therefore on Sukkot we celebrate by eating and drinking and singing songs and displaying the fruits we have just harvested. But we do so while living in a temporary home, and using fruits which are chosen for their temporariness. Thus we recognize the bounty which God has given us, while also recognizing our continued fragility and dependence on God.

During Hallel we shake the lulav during the following two verses:

הודו לה' כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו
אנא ה' הושיעה נא

One verse thanks God for the past; the other is a prayer for deliverance. A religious person will generally find it easy to do one or the other of these, depending on the circumstances. The hallmark of Sukkot is that we simultaneously do both.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


[Roughly the first half of this was written while Obama and Clinton were still battling for the nomination.]

I dislike[d] the emptiness of the Democratic primary, both aesthetically, and in terms of the quality of democracy it represents. (This is in contrast to the Republican primary in which McCain, Huckabee, Romney, Giuliani all have very different platforms. Meanwhile Obama and Clinton differ mostly in personality and physical appearance.) But of course, it is not the first presidential primary ever to have be conducted at a less-than-ideal level. What are the consequences of these flawed choices for America?

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that in the US, more than other countries, it matters relatively little which individual is president. That seems counterintuitive, since the US has a stronger executive branch than any other Western country, but let me explain. No matter who wins the Republican nomination, it is a safe bet that he will support policies which are within the Republican consensus. If he is elected president, then his cabinet, Supreme Court nominees, and other appointments will all follow that consensus. The same would be true, in reverse, if a Democrat wins. Even if the president himself has odd policy quirks, much of the executive power is split among a large number of his subordinates. These on average will follow the party line more closely than he does, and the government as a whole will mostly follow the consensus of the president's party.

This means that, in general, the party in power in Washington does an excellent job of pursuing its agenda for four years. This is something I don't think can be appreciated unless you leave America. In my experience Israel (and, I strongly suspect, most of Europe) has a constant governmental semi-paralysis, as each decision must be debated in parliament and a fragile consensus re-created before anything can be done. Decisions which are more than moderately complicated/controversial are simply ignored because there is no way of obtaining the necessarily consensus. Only in crisis situations are they revisited and some attempt at a solution proposed for them.

In the past few years the US has sent 150000 soldiers to the other side of the world, and conquered two countries there, simply because the Bush administration wanted it. Most of the rest of America was between undecided and passively acceptive about these wars, yet despite the incredible scope of commitment they demanded, the Bush administration was able to make them happen. I don't think any European country could have gotten the political focus needed to do that in a million years. This "ability to get things done" seems to be unique to the US.

Therefore US elections are of much greater import than any other country's elections. But the importance is not so much in the particular candidates as in the choice of party. And even there, despite the differences between the parties, the long-term effect might not so great. This is more speculative, but examine the following argument.

Inevitably, people get sick of any president's policies. Since World War II no party has held the presidency for longer than three consecutive terms. After 2 terms Bush is widely hated and McCain only has a reasonable shot at the presidency due to disassociating himself from Bush. Sooner or later the Democrats will win an election, if not this year, then in another 4 or 8 years. Then they will retain the presidency just long enough for most of the country to start hating them. And so the cycle will continue indefinitely. Winning one election may be less of a long-term gain for your party than in Europe. It certainly helps more in the short term, but in the next few elections it may rebound against you. In the long term, I suspect the "average" US policy will inevitably be close to the median position of American voters, and no party has figured out how to change that "average".

For the record, next to my computer right now is a completed absentee ballot, ready to be mailed. I voted McCain for president (how I wish that option existed 8 years ago...), but Democratic for congress, and IIRC for local offices too, to the extent that I voted for them. I chose McCain based on one reason alone. All the Israeli/Arab conflicts so far, ever, have killed a few tens of thousands of people. An Iranian nuclear weapon could kill many times that instantaneously. Until a few years ago Iranian leaders used to boast onenly about how once they got a nuclear weapon, Israel would then cease to exist. All the debates over peace processes, terrorism, settlements, and whatever else regarding Israel are completely irrelevant compared to this one issue. And all the debates over Iraq, the economy, and so on are irrelevant compared to the prospect of nuclear war.

And I think that only McCain has a coherent approach to the situation. Those who call for a diplomatic solution ignore the fact that negotiations and diplomacy ARE being tried, and have been for years now, and the situation has gone steadily downhill the whole time. The justification offered for continuing this path is essentially wishful thinking: perhaps if we are a little nicer to them, they will suddenly love us and abandon everything that's important to them but which we don't like.

Meanwhile military action has NOT been used or even seriously considered. And there is nothing like a honest threat of military action to get what you want without having to fire a shot. But only one candidate can provide that threat.

And if McCain can take care of this (urgent) situation, yet people are so sickened by 12 years of Republican rule that starting in 2012 they vote in a series of Democrats - then as alluded to above, that may be my preferred outcome, both short- and long-term. :)

Friday, October 10, 2008


This evening I invented a new Hebrew word.


It means "more or less right now". Like, for example, an answer when people ask you when the bus is coming.

Eating on Yom Kippur

The Shulchan Aruch (O.H. 618, based on Yoma 82a,83a) lists rules for when a sick person should eat and not eat on Yom Kippur, judging by his and his doctors' judgment of whether the sickness is life-threatening. If I correctly understood what was written*, then the following six rules emerge from the discussion.

Should you break the fast ("yes") or not ("no")?
1. Doctor says yes, patient says no -> yes
2. Doctors disagree (except when one says yes and more than one says no), patient indifferent -> yes
3. Doctor uncertain, patient says no -> yes
4. Doctors disagree, patient says no -> no
5. Doctor says no, patient says yes -> yes
6. Doctor says no, patient uncertain -> no

It is clear that rules 1-4 are intended to determine the medical reality as accurately as possible. We try to figure out the situation, and if we end up unsure, we generally break the fast to avoid any chance of killing the patient.

Rules 5 and 6 however seem to operate on a different premise. In these rules the doctors are sure that there is no danger, so based on a purely medical evaluation, there is no basis to break the fast. If so, why in rule 5 does the patient's opinion override the doctor's and dictate that we violate the fast?

I think reason is psychological. If the patient is convinced that his life is in danger, he will find it extremely distressing to not eat. He will think that we are killing him by telling him not to eat. If he was sick but not in real danger before, this distress might put him in real danger. Thus we feed him, on the presumption that psychological factors can affect medical outcomes.

Of course if a totally healthy person became unreasonably convinced that they were about to die unless fed food, the psychological impact of not feeding them could be ignored. But if they are already sick enough that doctors had to be consulted about the possibility of breaking their Yom Kippur, then the psychological effect might be very significant.

In rule 6, by contrast, the patient does not have an opinion on whether he should break the fast. So telling him to eat will not distress him, and there is no reason not to follow the doctors' opinion that he should keep fasting.

I find it interesting that this kind of psychological factor is included in the halachic decision making process for this situation. The medical ethics people should have a field day with this one.

* This is not guaranteed. I'm pretty exhausted right now - it's post-fast, and it wasn't an easy fast. And the buses I've written this on have been full of distractions - bad conversation and bad music.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Not a strike this time

For the third consecutive year, the academic year here will be disrupted. This time it's not a strike, but rather the administration locking the students out. The ultimate reason is, as before, cuts in the government funding which the universities need to run on (seeing as tuition is so ridiculously low).

Despite the difficulty this will cause for many people, I am inclined to sympathize with this move, as it really is an important cause. (In all honesty, it must be mentioned that I personally have no more classes to take and little desire to teach and grade them, so it works in my favor, but still.)

Here is a partial translation from the email I just received.

Unfortunately, under conditions created in light of negotiations with the Treasury Ministry, we will not be able to open this academic year.

The higher education system has suffered in the last eight years from budget cuts that do not permit its proper operation.

It is superfluous to name the difficult consequences stemming from the budget cuts and their influence on students' conditions: a decrease in courses offered, canceling of optional courses, crowded classrooms, shortage of faculty and coursework checkers - and these are only a few examples.

The higher education and research system is in a gradual decline. Neglect of higher education and particularly universities is a direct blow to the nation's strength which is founded on creation of knowledge and transfer of it to the next generation, encourages "brain drain" abroad and strangles the excellence that was built through the labor of many years....

Moshe's five prohibitions

While I am on the topic of coming up with reasons for the Yom Kippur prohibitions, I should certainly mention the following idea.

YK commemorates the day when Moshe finished praying for the Jewish people after the golden calf sin, and having achieved forgiveness, descended the mountain. On this day we too pray nonstop for forgiveness.

Furthermore, each of the five prohibitions we observe on YK was also, in all likelihood, observed by Moshe while on Mt. Sinai:

1) Moshe did not eat or drink on the mountain: "I fell before Hashem as before, 40 days and 40 nights - bread I did not eat and water I did not drink - over all your sins..." (Devarim 9:18)

2) He was alone and could not have had marital relations.

3) He was on a mountaintop in the desert, and would probably not have had the opportunity to bathe, even if he wanted to.

4) Nor did he most likely bring oil with him, so he could not have anointed himself.

5) On his first trip to Mt. Sinai, when Moshe encountered the burning bush, God had to tell him to take his shoes off, since the ground was holy. (Shemot 3:5) Presumably the ground was still holy on Moshe's later trips to Mt. Sinai. If so, he probably would not have been allowed to wear shoes (leather or otherwise) while on the mountain.

Given these similarities between Moshe's behavior and our prohibitions, as well as the thematic similarities and the fact that they happened on the same day of the year, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the prohibitions are intended to remind us of Moshe's behavior.

Rather, or perhaps in addition to seeing ourselves as like angels on YK, we can see ourselves as like Moshe on the mountain, begging for forgiveness, receiving the 13 attributes, and at the end of the day descending, having concluded a renewed covenant with God.

Etrog pricing

The Mishna (Meilah 6:4) assumes that an etrog costs 1 perutah, roughly equal to 1 US cent.

The average etrog nowadays in Israel seems to cost about $10. Of course it's more in the US.

Thus, etrogs are about 1000 times as expensive now as in the time of the mishna.

That seems exorbitant. But a 100000% price increase over 1800 years corresponds to an annual inflation rate of just 0.38%. Which as any economist will tell you, is extremely low.

So maybe we are not getting ripped off after all.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Zachor et Yom Hakipurim lekadsho

The Shulchan Aruch (OH 611:2) lists two surprising leniencies regarding the laws of Yom Kippur:

1) On the afternoon of YK, one may prepare vegetables and crack nuts in preparation for the meal after the fast. (Note: this was the original halacha, but the Shulchan Aruch also says our current custom to prohibit it.)
2) If a fire breaks out on YK, one may rescue enough food from it in order to suffice for one meal after the fast. (By comparison, on Shabbat one could rescue enough food for each of the remaining Shabbat meals.)

Both of these seem to contradict the principle that you cannot prepare on Yom Tov for after Yom Tov. So why are they permitted?

I think they can best be understood using an explanation borrowed from the laws of Shabbat.

The Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat 24:12) points out that the purpose of Shabbat would be lost if all that was prohibited was technical 'melacha'. People would still be able to go about most of their business like on every other day, and the idea of resting on Shabbat would be lost. Therefore the prophets and/or rabbis added a bunch of laws, for example muktza, and honoring and enjoying Shabbat, in order to make the day different and "restful" compared to the remainder of the week. They even added halachot which are not performed on Shabbat, but which contrast with Shabbat and thus make the day more special. Among these are havdalah; preparation for Shabbat; and the prohibition on eating a meal late Friday afternoon. By having to work before and after Shabbat, and by not eating before Shabbat, the resting and eating on Shabbat itself stand out in greater contrast.

The Torah's prohibition of work on YK seems to allude to a similar idea.

No 'melacha' shall be done on this day, for it is a day of atonement, to atone for you before Hashem your God. (Vayikra 23:28)

There is no obvious connection between work and atonement. So why is atonement mentioned here as the reason for not working? The connection is hard to understand.

I think the explanation is that atonement is what makes the day special and unusual. And like all other special days, we refrain from work on it, in order to distinguish the day from normal days. Atonement causes specialness, which in turn causes the prohibition on work. There is a connection between work and atonement, but it is through the intermediate concept of making the day distinguished and unique.

This concept of specialness seems to be exactly what we have seen regarding Shabbat. Just as we are commanded to work before and after Shabbat, it seems we are supposed to eat before and after YK. The requirement to eat before YK is well known. The permission to prepare (in certain ways) on YK for a post-fast meal indicates that this meal is integral to the day, even if it is not technically required.

Perhaps this suggests that the purpose of fasting on YK is not to make us unhappy (as might be the case with Tisha Beav). The importance of eating immediately before and after the fast contradicts the idea of maximizing discomfort. At the same time, it increases the sense of unusualness, as the contrast between how we live on YK and on "normal" days is heightened. It seems to me that we fast to create a sense of urgency, a feeling that we cannot go about our lives as we have until now. When the time comes to change ourselves, it is easiest to do so when the circumstances we are living in change drastically as well.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Office assistant

Deep inside a long email thread I am having with my co-workers (yes I am now seeing university research as a "job"), somebody wrote the following sentence to somebody else: "Please join us on Monday at 9:30."

And lo and behold, GMail puts the following suggestion on the sidebar:

Would you like to...
Add to calendar
Mon Oct 6, 2008 9:30am

It feels like Microsoft's Clippy, except a thousand times more sophisticated and useful. (Even though I don't use the GMail calendar.)

By the way, that would be tomorrow morning at 9:30am when I give a long presentation to a leading Israeli defense contractor about the device I've been developing. Wish me luck...

UPDATE: My part, at least, of the presentation went quite well. Whew.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Holidays and Egypt

ותתן לנו ה' אלקינו באהבה את יום הזכרון הזה, יום תרועה, מקרא קודש, זכר ליציאת מצרים

Every major Jewish holiday includes the phrase "zecher litziat mitzraim" in its prayers and kiddush. In most cases the reason is clear, or at least understandable. For Pesach, the reason is beyond obvious. Sukkot commemorates our dwelling in the desert after leaving Egypt; Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah which happened shortly after leaving Egypt, and Yom Kippur is the day Moshe descended with the second tablets a few months after that original Shavuot. Of all the holidays, Rosh Hashana alone is left without an explanation for why it is a "remembrance of leaving Egypt".

This question bothered me a little the past few days, and at Rosh Hashana dinner Wednesday - sitting next to a bunch of people I'd just met in the Gush dining room - I decided to ask them what they thought. After receiving the following answer, I felt no need to ask further.

The Ramban, commenting on Masechet Beitzah, explains the difference between the work prohibitions on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Shabbat, all creative activity - "melacha" - is prohibited. This is to commemorate God's creation of the world, and as we say in the prayers, Shabbat is a "zecher lemaaseh breishit". On Yom Tov, the prohibition is different. In the Torah's language, what is prohibited is not "melacha" but "melechet avodah" - creative work. The purpose is not to commemorate creation, but to commemorate work - specifically, the work we had to do in Egypt until we were freed from there. Instead of serving Pharoah, we now serve God. We do this all year round, but particularly on holidays, when we visit Jerusalem and take part in the Temple "avodah". So it is then that the phrase "zecher litziat mitzraim" is most appropriate.

If so, then we should not expect to find any connection between Rosh Hashana and leaving Egypt. The connection is rather between leaving Egypt and holidays, regardless of each holiday's particular theme. A conclusive proof of this comes from Shabbat kiddush, which calls Shabbat a "yom techila lemikraei kodesh, zecher litziat mitzraim". Shabbat itself may not involve Egypt, but Shabbat does determine the character [?] of holidays (mikraei kodesh), and all mikraei kodesh by their very definition apparently involve Egypt.

I thought this such a good answer that I wanted to quote it here with the name of the person who told it to me. But he told me that this Ramban is "famous" and "everyone" now at Gush knows it, implying that there is no reason to quote him as the author. Wow. If that's common knowledge, then I wonder what went wrong with my own education. All I know is that this Rosh Hashana, I chose a pretty good place to be commemorating leaving Egypt.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Speaking Russian in Israel

Living in a neighborhood with many Russian immigrants and bilingual Russian/Hebrew signs everywhere, I decided it was worth my while to try and learn some Russian this last year. By now I know the alphabet, can read words reasonably well, and know the meaning of a few common words.

It seems to me that Russian speakers learning Hebrew, and vice versa, have a special advantage because those languages share more interesting characteristics than would be expected given their disparate origins. For example:

-The letter for "sh" looks exactly like a Hebrew "shin".
-The alphabet is derived from Greek, making it much more similar to Hebrew than the alphabets used in Western countries.
-The letter "B" by itself is a prefix meaning "in", just like in Hebrew.

In addition, there are many words in modern Hebrew, for example "protektziya" and the name "Netanya", that have a -ya ending. It seems to me that in pre-modern Hebrew this ending was much less common (except when referring to God's name, for example at the end of people's names). But it is very common ending in Russian.

I suspect that when the first Zionists came here from the Russian Empire, starting kibbutzim and formulating the modern Hebrew language, the new words they invented used the "-ya" ending because that was what they were familiar with. Indeed I wonder how many words like "protektziya" sound roughly like the English equivalent, but sound exactly like the Russian equivalent. I have no way of knowing, but suspect it's more than a few.

Early Reform Jews declared that the German language was the best language in which to express spiritual and moral ideas. Whatever the truth of that claim, it does seem that Russian was the most convenient language from which to begin the project of secular Zionism.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Shabbat and the Temple

From Birkat Hamazon:

רחם נא ה' אלוהינו, על ישראל עמך, ועל ירושלים עירך, ועל ציון משכן כבודך, ועל מלכות בית דוד משיחך, ועל הבית הגדול והקדוש, שנקרא שמך עליו.
"Please have mercy Hashem our God, on Israel Your people, on Jerusalem Your city, on Zion the dwelling place of Your honor, on the kingdom of the dynasty of David Your servant, and on the great and holy Temple which your name is attached to."

On Shabbat:
רצה והחליצנו ה' אלקינו במצוותיך ובמצות יום השביעי השבת הגדול והקדוש הזה.
"May you strengthen us Hashem our God in your mitzvot, and in the mitzvah of the seventh day, this great and holy Sabbath."

[I make no pretense that these are great translations. My blogging philosophy right now is "quantity not quality".]

It is interesting that the same phrase, "great and holy", is used to describe both Shabbat and the Temple in the same blessing. Indeed, there is a precedent in the Torah for linking Shabbat to the Temple:
את שבתתי תשמרו, ומקדשי תיראו, אני ה'.
"You shall guard my Sabbaths, and revere my Temple - I am Hashem." (Vayikra 19:30)

In other contexts we see additional connections between Shabbat and the Temple. For example, the words "kidush" and "hilul", sanctification and desecration, are obviously applicable to the Temple, and are used many times when the Torah discusses the Temple. But they also appear in the context of Shabbat. The performance of work on Shabbat is called "hilul Shabbat", rather than something like "aveirah al mitzvat shabbat". And there is a positive mitzvah to be "mekadesh" Shabbat, not just to remember it. This Temple-like language in relation to Shabbat (and holidays) is second nature to us, but the basic observance of Shabbat could easily be described without it, so we must ask ourselves why it is there.

What is the meaning of the linkage between Shabbat and the Temple? To understand it, we can rely on R' Soloveitchik's explanation of how Shabbat and holidays are similar yet different (in Shiurim Lezecher Abba Mori, Kivud veOneg Shabbat).

Basically, on Shabbat God visits us (לכה דודי לקראת כלה), while on holidays we visit God, at the Temple (שלוש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני ה' אלקיך במקום אשר יבחר). Both Shabbat and Temple visits are encounters with God; the only difference is who is traveling to encounter whom.

Thus they are mentioned together in Vayikra 19:30, and are described the same way in birkat hamazon.

Thoughts on Vayelech

[Moshe] said to them: "I am a hundred and twenty years old this day; I can no longer go out and come in; and Hashem has said to me: 'You will not pass over this Jordan.' Hashem your God, He will pass over before you, He will destroy these nations from before thee, and you shall dispossess them; and Yehoshua, he will pass over before you, as Hashem has said." (31:2-3)

What does it mean to "go out and come in"? Moshe has just been giving long speeches to the entire people, so it cannot mean that at age 120 he is incapacitated and bedridden!

In fact, we see from many other places in Tanach that "to go out and come in" has a specific meaning: to go out to battle, and to come in from battle. With this understanding, the continuation of our passage follows logically: Moshe cannot go to battle, so Yehoshua and figuratively God will have to lead the conquest of Canaan.

From where do we know that "to go out and come in" generally refers to battle? Here are some sources. The first one is the most explicit.

Kalev ben Yefuneh arguing why he should be the one to conquer and inherit Hevron:
"As my strength was then, so is my strength now, for war, and to go out and to come in." (Yehoshua 14:11)

David fighting the Philistines:
"The Philistine princes went out, and it happened that whenever they went out, David did better than all of Shaul's servants." (Shmuel Alef 18:30)

Shaul stops sending his army to capture/kill David, because he does not know where David has fled to:
"Then David and his roughly 600 men rose and left Keilah, and went wherever they could go. It was told to Shaul that David had fled Keilah, and he stopped going out [after David]." (Shmuel Alef 23:13)

Achish king of Gat explains to David why he must leave the Philistine camp as they go to fight Israel, because the other Philistines think David will betray the Philistine side. Background: David has lived with Achish and launched periodic raids against Amalek, but told Achish that the raids were actually against Israel.
"You have been upright, and your going out and coming in with me in the army is good in my sight; for I have not found evil in you, from the day of your coming to me unto this day. Nevertheless, the [other] lords do not like you. Now go, depart in peace." (Shmuel Alef 29:6-7)

When Shlomo first became king he was not confident in his ability to conduct royal affairs, unlike David his father.
"And now Hashem my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, but I am a young lad, I do not know about going out and coming in." (Melachim Alef 3:7)

And last, a well-known verse. This *could* be another example, but it also makes perfect sense even if the subject is not limited to war.
"May Hashem guard your going out and coming in, from now and forever." (Tehilim 121:8)

Friday, September 26, 2008

It's raining!

And it's not even Rosh Hashana yet.

Either we added one too many leap months, or for the first time in however long we are going to have a non-drought year.

Hopefully the latter.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thoughts on Ki Tavo and Nitzavim

It's been a while since I've done a "Thoughts on ____" post. Or rather - since I've finished such a post. I have started but not finished several such posts in the meantime.

Sefer Devarim has the following structure, with the numbers referring to chapters:

1-4 - Initial speech
5-26 - Really long speech with a zillion mitzvot in it
27 - Instructions for ceremony on Mt. Eval
28 - Blessings and curses
29 - "Nitzavim" speech
30 - Teshuva etc.
31-34 "The last day" - stuff Moshe has to do before he dies

(Parshat Nitzavim consists of chapters 29 and 30, minus the beginning of chapter 29.)

I separated chapters 27, 28, 29 and 30 the way I did because chapters 27 and 29 address Israel in the plural, while 28 and 30 address Israel in the singular. Chapter 28 is the text of a covenant, to which chapter 30 is apparently an appendix. In contrast, chapters 27 and 29 are speeches given by Moshe. [I wrote about this structure for DBH way back in 2003, for some reason it does not appear in the archives.]

What should bother you about this structure is that chapters 28 and 29 have very similar content. First we have a covenant in which we are promised blessings if we obey and curses if we disobey. Immediately after this in chapter 29, we have a speech saying the exact same thing: if you disobey, you will suffer! Why the repetition?

The answer is that Chapter 28, like most promises of reward and punishment in Tanach, talks about the behavior of the entire people. If we all obey, we will collectively be rewarded, and similarly if we disobey. The chapter begins by saying: "And it will be, if you obey Hashem your God, to carefully perform all his commandments which I command you today - then Hashem your God will make you ascendant over all the peoples of the earth." An individual cannot "become ascendant" relative to a nation - only another nation can. Evidently this line - and it seems all the blessings and curses which follow it - are talking about collective reward and punishment, naturally for collective good and bad behavior.

In contrast, chapter 29 talks about the behavior of individuals: "Lest there is among you a man or woman or family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God" (29:17). What do these individuals do? "...And when he hears the words of this curse, he will bless himself in his heart to say 'I will have peace when I follow the arbitrariness of my heart' " (29:18). Evidently, he assumes that the curses talk about communal behavior. But he is simply an individual sinner, insignificant compared to the rest of the community. So he thinks the curses do not apply to him personally, and he can get away with his misbehavior.

Right after that, Moshe corrects this misimpression, by describing how the deviant individuals or tribe will indeed be punished.

However, Moshe then describes the results of this punishment: exile, and the destruction of the land the exiles used to live on. We are still in the speech of chapter 29, but suddenly this looks much more like a collective than an individual punishment!

I can think of two explanations for this change, one of which is my own, one which appeared in a recent issue of "Daf Kesher" (which I can't find now).

The first explanation is that we have simply gone from talking about individual people to individual tribes, and a whole tribe can be (and was on occasion) punished and exiled while the rest of the people remains unpunished.

The second explanation is that an individual sinner, if left unpunished, will influence others to do the same until the entire people is involved - שורש פורה ראש ולענה. As a result, we are obligated to punish individual sinners to prevent the misdeeds from spreading. Thus the last line of chapter 29 states that "The secrets belong to Hashem our God; but the revealed things belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah." If a person sins in secret, there is nothing the rest of us can do about it. But if their sins become revealed, then our duty to punish them, and to prevent more sins in the future, comes into play.

Yaakov and divorce

When Yaakov was tricked into marrying Leah, whom he never wanted to marry, why didn't he then divorce her? Moreover, how did Lavan know ahead of time that he wouldn't divorce her (because if not, his trickery would have been futile and not worth doing)?

One might be tempted to conclude from this that divorce was impossible, or at least extremely frowned upon, before the giving of the Torah. The Mishna discusses (Gittin 9:10) whether divorce can be "no-fault" or should only come as a result of adultery. If the latter was the case, at least before the giving of the Torah, then Yaakov might have been stuck with Leah, lest he severely dishonor both of them by implying that adultery had taken place. And if divorce was nonexistent, then Yaakov would have been even more stuck.

There is however a verse which might indicate otherwise, that divorce was acceptable at the time.

"Esav saw that the daughters of Canaan were displeasing to Yitzchak his father, so Esav went to Yishmael, and married Machalat daughter of Yishmael Avraham's son, the sister of Nevayot, in addition to his [existing] wives." (28:8-9)

What is the point of saying "in addition to his wives"? We already know he has wives (they were the motivation for Yitzchak's displeasure), so what does this phrase add to the verse?

It could just be redundant, since we know that genealogies and similar passages in the Torah do often include redundancy, and this passage is in a relatively similar style.

But it is also possible that the phrase is teaching something new: that Esav could and should have divorced his Canaanite wives, but chose not to. Thematically, this seems likely: the influence of Canaanite idolatry in the household would not be removed by marrying a righteous wife, but by removing the evil ones. At the same time, divorcing a wife whom you still love is no easy task. Esav recognized the problem but was not willing to sacrifice in order to solve it. Rather, he took the easy way out and applied a band-aid solution, marrying a new wife instead of divorcing the old ones.

If the latter approach is correct, we must ask why Yaakov too did not divorce his wife when he had the option. It seems to me that the fact Yaakov chose this way, and Lavan knew he would chose that way, indicates something positive about Yaakov's character.

In the ancient Near East, divorced women would have been at a large disadvantage on the marriage market - they were no longer virgins, and may have suffered the previously mentioned suspicion of past adultery. And Leah was unattractive to start out with. Why would Lavan arrange a trick marriage for Leah unless he despaired of finding a regular marriage? In addition, in a society where men did the farming and trading, a woman of any status had little purely economic value. If Yaakov divorced her, Leah would likely live the rest of her live single, lonely, and resented as a financial burden on her family. It is to Yaakov's credit that he spared her this fate, remaining married to her when he had no desire to marry her in the first place.

Indeed, Yaakov's considerations seem to be the original moral justification for allowing polygamy (a justification which, clearly, would not exist in modern society). But while polygamy permitted a man to marry a second wife whom he desired, in a way that was beneficial to both of them, Yaakov's decision was not mutually beneficial. It did nothing for himself, but a great deal for Leah.

Lavan knew ahead of time that Yaakov would probably act this way. He surely felt that he was getting the best of the deal, by taking advantage of Yaakov's foolish piety. But in the historical record, it is he who comes off as beneath contempt, while Yaakov more than succeeds in retaining his moral dignity.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Most amazing invention

The most amazing invention of the 20th century is undoubtedly GPS.

Think about the technology needed to make it work:
- Space flight - putting satellites in orbit around the earth
- Computer - a tiny piece of silicon, relying on quantum mechanics to work, that can do a billion calculations a second.
- Wireless communications - by which pieces of electronics thousands of miles apart can invisibly send information between them
- The theory of relativity - without it the GPS calculations would be way off

And all of this to solve a problem which has affected people for thousands of years, inspiring the development of the compass, astrolabe, much of astronomy, and the development of precise clocks.

If the price of GPS receivers ever drops much lower, and they become much smaller (and both are likely to occur), we will see GPS used in all sorts of devices. For example, your keychain. If you ever lose your keys, you'll be able to go to your computer, type in "where are my keys". It will send a wireless internet signal to the keys, the keys will respond with their GPS data, and the computer will tell you "on the floor of the upstairs bedroom, along the north wall, 2 feet from the window". How cool will that be?


Ever see the word "livesContentsk" before?

Apparently Microsoft Word, or some version of it, is stupid enough to think that every occurrence of the letter sequence "toc" must refer to a table of contents.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The structure of selichot

At the beginning of selichot is a section entitled "Shomea tefilah" which consists of 47 mostly Biblical verses, one after the other in a very long paragraph.

To understand what is going on in this paragraph, we must note what the verses have in common with one another. Thematically, all the verses seem more or less appropriate for a prayer service such as selichot. But there is significant variation between them, and one would be hard pressed to find any consistent pattern based on their content alone.

There is, however, a clear pattern by which we can organize the paragraph; it is linguistic rather than thematic. Each of the first seven verses in the paragraph contains a variation of the verb "lavo", "to come". In five out of seven verses, the verb "lavo" is the first word in the verse. In all seven verses, that verb is arguably the most important word. In this section, "lavo" is a "guiding word" (מילה מנחה), which appears multiple times and is intended to emphasize the linkage between the verses.

This kind of pattern is not limited to the first seven verses. In fact, if you examine the entire paragraph, you will find that every verse includes an important "guiding word" which is shared with the verse before or after. The whole paragraph is a series of units, each of which is defined by its guiding word. That is the basic structure, which unifies the disparate themes which appear throughout the paragraph.

Here is a list of the guiding words found in each verse, along with a count of consecutive verses that include that word.
Yavo'u, yavo, yavo'u, bo'u, navo'ah, bo'u, navo (7)
Barchu, barchu (2)
Romemu, romemu (2)
Vehishtachavu, vehishtachavu, hishtachavu, nishtachaveh (4)
Mi, mi (2)
Gadol, gadol, gadol, gadol, gadol (5)
Mi, mi (2)
Me'ein kamocha, me'ein kamocha (2)
Lecha, lecha, lo (3)
Gevurot, gevurah (2)
Lecha, lecha (2)
Atah, atah, atah, atah, atah (5)
Kodsho, kedoshim, kedoshim (3)
Nekadma, yekadmu (2)
Asher, asher, asher (3)
Haneshama, haneshama (2)
Shimcha, shimcha, shimcha (3)

[Note: Add together the numbers in parenthesis and you will get 51 not 47 verses. This is because 4 verses include two guiding words each, one from the set before, one from the set after.]

In order to understand the larger structure of the paragraph, we can translate the guiding words and list them in order. Then, looking back at the original text to verify that the context is correct, it seems we can divide them into the following three categories:

- Come, bless, exalt, bow
- Who, great, who, unique, yours, greatness, yours, you
- Holy, come, about, soul, name

The first group is an initiation of prayer, the second group discusses God's power and special attributes, the third group discusses God's holy status and "name" as a result of worship by angels and humans. Quite obviously, these three groups parallel the first three brachot of Shemoneh Esreh.

As has been pointed out elsewhere (I heard it from R' Moshe Aberman), the entire structure of selichot - ashrei, kaddish, the stuff in the middle, tachanun, kaddish - is very similar to the structure of a prayer service. We see now that the parallels go much further, since the "stuff in the middle" of selichot parallels Shemoneh Esreh. As discussed above, the long "Shomea tefilah" paragraph at the beginning closely resembles the first three brachot. The repeated sets of 13 attributes in the middle of selichot, each preceded by a complex poetic paragraph, parallel the intermediate brachot of Shemoneh Esreh. The end of slichot, before the tachanun part, consists of a "shma koleinu" paragraph, as well as a "zachor" paragraph requesting the rebuilding of the Temple like in the "retzeh" blessing (granted, "zachor" precedes "shma koleinu" in selichot, while in Shemoneh Esreh the opposite is true).

There is no clear parallel in selichot to the Modim and Sim Shalom blessings. But except for that, the structures of selichot and Shemoneh Esreh are virtually identical.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Moral hazard

Watching the business news over the last couple weeks has given me a feeling I have rarely felt before in my life. The news is bad, but more than that, it is so vast and unimaginable that it is hard to comprehend its impact. It's like missing the newspapers for a couple days, and the next time you sit down to read them, you find out that the Germans have occupied France.

It is hard to comprehend that the entire profession that many people I know went into, may soon cease to exist.

The main argument against the government protecting banks like AIG from failure is the existence of "moral hazard", that investors will know that the government will save them in the event of a crisis, so they will not have to bear the full extent of their risks. With this implicit guarantee, they will be willing to make unjustifiably risky investments which they shouldn't make. I am not an economist, but I'm not sure the "moral hazard" argument is applicable to the current crisis.

The people buying complex derivatives, who would be on the hook for most of the losses, did not understand what they were buying. For that matter, the people who made them in the first place didn't always understand them! And home-buyers who took out unreasonable mortgages certainly had no way of knowing that the lenders were irresponsible.

People did not make bad decisions assuming that the government would bail them out. People made bad decisions because they mistakenly thought a bailout situation would never arise.

The "moral hazard" theory presumes that people will rationally decided that investments which are bad for society are nevertheless worthwhile for themselves. In the current crisis, we had no such rational thinking, only irrational thinking based on misunderstandings. Moral hazard did not create this crisis, and will not create a future crisis of the same nature (though it could contribute somewhat to a preexisting crisis, including this one).

I know of at least one financial services person who reads this blog, any comments?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

If only they knew

In the news today: "Many Arabs envy Israel because of our ability to topple serving prime minister."

Ha! Almost since the day Olmert took office 2+ years ago, the vast majority of Israelis have wanted to topple him. If only we were able to!

The file

On my computer I have a file full of unfinished blog posts. Right now, includes 91 posts-in-progress totaling 24,000 words. Some of the in-progress posts have not been touched in a year or two; some were begun as recently as last week.

Where is my motivation to finish these posts?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

David's flight from Shaul

David's flight from Shaul, according to Sefer Shmuel (Alef chapter 19 - Bet chapter 2). David starts in Beit Lechem (his family home), and finishes in Hevron, after Shaul has died and he has become king.

Some speculative place identifications are based on shiurim from R' Yaakov Medan. Original map is from Koren Tanach.

Here is what David did in each place:

Ramah, Nayot be-Ramah - chased by Shaul
Givah - meets Yonatan, who shoots arrows as a signal
Nov - hides, city later massacred by Shaul
Gat - pretends to be insane, leaves
Adulam cave - hides, collects fellow rebels
Mitzpeh Moav - stays under Moav's protection
Forest of Heret - returns from Moav
Keilah - defeats Philistines, then chased away by Shaul
Zif, Maon - chased by Shaul
Ein Gedi - hides with his men
Midbar Paran - hides with his men. Sends messengers to Naval who refuses to help. Marries Avigail when Naval dies.
Givat Hahachila - penetrates Shaul's camp at night
Gat - stays with Philistines, fights Amalekites, is given Tziklag by Philistines
Afek - joins Philistine camp going to fight Israel in Yizrael, but they doubt his loyalty and send him home
Tziklag - city sacked by Amalekites, David avenges it
Hevron - Philistines have killed Shaul so David returns to Israel and becomes king

Nefesh Benefesh

Nefesh Benefesh does a number of great things to help new olim from the US and other English speaking countries.

There is just one thing they've done wrong, and it was the very first thing they did - choosing their organization's name.

You see, when the phrase "nefesh benefesh" is used in the Torah, it refers to the death penalty for bearing false witness in a murder case!

I wonder if they chose the name knowing this, or if it just got by their name screening committee and since then nobody has had the heart to point it out.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Truth from Shalom Carmy

(Tradition 33:2 p.32)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The H-Bomb

It's said that Harvard students are reluctant to name their college in conversation, instead resorting to euphemisms such as "a college in the Northeast" or "in Boston". Why? Because of the extraordinary mixture of awe and envy that most people feel towards that school in Cambridge. Once the student mentions "Harvard", the inevitable response is a knowing "Oh, Harvard..." and the student is no longer simply a student, but the object of every preconception and attitude the other person possesses regarding that one university. All the stereotypes of intelligence and achievement, of arrogance and sense of entitlement, immediately come to the fore, and it's difficult to continue the conversation on the same footing with which it began. This phenomenon is known colloquially as dropping the H-Bomb, and to avoid it Harvard students often obscure the details of where they really go.

I feel that a similar situation exists regarding my academic program - a master's degree in electrical engineering in Haifa's engineering university. Before even arriving I had to deal with people calling me a "gaon" just for getting in here, and once here, EE has a well deserved reputation as the hardest subject in the university. But once I've named my university and subject, things get even worse. I am inevitably asked how far along in my bachelor's degree I am, to which I must reply that I'm in the master program. At this point, I get something very nearly approximating the "Oh, Harvard" response.

You see, there are about 2000 undergrads and 300 grad students in the EE department here. That basically means that only the top 15% of undergrads qualify for graduate study. Entering the Technion is an achievement, surviving the undergrad EE curriculum is an achievement, and qualifying for the masters program is the biggest achievement of all. So in everyone's mind, I form part of the elite of the elite of the elite. Once mentioned, my status can make people relate perceptibly different to me, at least temporarily.

Of course, this status is misleading. Unlike nearly all grad students here, my undergrad degree was obtained in the US. The EE program at my American university was much inferior to the undergrad program here. The admission standards here are apparently significantly lower for foreign students, because our presence helps the university to market itself as part of the international academic community. When I came I had an incredible amount of catchup to do, and two years later my total research accomplishments are little to be proud of.

When I explain this, people do understand. All I have to say is, "It's not like that. I got my bachelors degree abroad. It was a lot easier for me than for my peers here." And just like that, I revert to being a normal human being.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Torah and Medicine

I always find it weird how obsessed Modern Orthodox Jews are with medical ethics topics. I mean, why do so many people care about the exact halachic definition of death, who don't care about the exact halachic definition of intent while performing a mitzvah? Why is the halachic discussion about terminating pregnancy more interesting than the halachic discussion about terminating a business partnership? Why are these shiurim and others like them so heavily advertised, while I have yet to hear about a lecture series entitled "Topics in Sefeikot" or a shiur on "Shitat haRambam on Edut Shebichtav"?

The obvious explanation is that so many MO Jews are going to be doctors, and not only for financial reasons, but also due to a bit of idealism that medicine is a religiously valuable profession. So they naturally prefer topics which they know about, and which make their practice a little bit more religiously valuable. All of which is perfectly logical.

But still, for us outsiders, it's weird. Personally, I'm waiting for a shiur on lossy dielectrics. Failing that, I will settle for a discussion of the hashkafic implications of cascode differential amplifiers. If I were to give a chaburah on either of those topics, which of you wouldn't come?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Trivia question

Q: Which Israeli community has numbered, parallel streets going all the way up to 67th street?

A: Kiryat Chaim, a suburb of Haifa. Many of the streets have apparently received "real" names over the years, but many others are still called by their numbers, written out in the Hebrew-letter numbering system.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Heard in pre-maariv shiur tonight

In 1967 the Israeli government predicted that they would win the war, but at the cost of around 60,000 deaths. There were not enough spots in all of Israel's cemeteries for 60,000 corpses, so they took all the public parks and prepared to use them as cemeteries. There wasn't anyone to dig the graves, though, because all the men were in the army. So they took all the yeshiva students in the country and prepared to have them dig graves. God did not want those yeshiva students to have their Torah study interrupted, so He made sure the war would end quickly with a minimum of Israeli casualties.

Um... right. And I thought I liked that synagogue.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The four-entrance tent

You know the midrash about how Avraham Avinu had openings on all four sides of his tent, so as to be able to more easily greet visitors coming from any direction? I wonder if that wasn't the only reason there were four openings. This suspicion is based on what I'm experiencing right now.

I have windows on both the east and west sides of my apartment. Normally a strong wind blows through one window and out the other, making it pleasant in the apartment despite the August heat and no air conditioning.

Today, however, there is no breeze and I'm sweating away just sitting in front of the computer. Annoyed at the situation, I happened to go into my bedroom, which has an open window facing north. There I encountered an extremely strong breeze! Clearly it would be best if the apartment had windows facing in all four directions. Then I would benefit from the east-west breezes, when those existed, and from the north-south breezes the rest of the time.

We know that Avraham was "yoshev petach haohel kechom hayom" - in the hot part of the day. That is exactly the time he would most have appreciated a breeze from whatever direction it might come. And so it makes perfect sense that he would have had openings on all four sides of the tent, if only for that reason, not just for reasons of hospitality.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Forgiven loans

This is an awesome idea. I love the people who come up with these ideas.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Israelite politics

It is interesting to what extent executive and judicial power were connected in ancient Israel.

Early on, "Judges" such as Devorah and Gideon gained their repute primarily as political and military leaders.

Later on, kings such as Shlomo were expected to serve as the highest judicial authority, most famously with the two mothers and the splitting of the baby. This unification of judicial and executive functions seems therefore to have survived the political transition from a loose tribal confederation to a centralized kingdom.

Indeed, R' Eliezer Berkowitz argues that the word "lishpot" in Tanach did not have the same connotation of impartiality that it carries in modern society. I would think its meaning is closer to "to protect one who is in the right from one who threatens to do him harm". The moral judgments from which the judge's attitude proceeds must be impartial, but once it's clear who is in the wrong, the judge's main task is to take the side of the victim and ensure that the injustice is prevented or redressed. This can mean fighting wars, or it can mean enforcing a legal ruling. Either way it is called "judging", and either way the focus is on action not intellectual contemplation.

I may idly speculate that unifying judicial and executive power increased the standing and power of the judicial authority, while simultaneously increasing the risks if the judge/ruler was corrupt. I think the necessary safeguard in the Shoftim period was provided by the judge's dependence on public approval. Once the monarchy was established this method became ineffective. Therefore the prophet had to assume a more significant and constant public role.

Aggadot hachurban

Out of all the stories of the destruction of the Temple brought in Gittin 55-59, I think the following story - of the woman and her seven martyred sons - is the most powerful.

They brought the first before Caesar and said to him, "Serve the idol." He said to them: "It is written in the Torah: I am Hashem your God." So they led him away and killed him.
They then brought the second before Caesar and said to him, "Serve the idol." He replied: "It is written in the Torah: You shall have no other gods before me." So they led him away and killed him.

[And so on for all the sons, each son quoting a different verse, until the last son.]
They brought the [last] and said to him, "Serve the idol." He replied: "It is written in the Torah, 'You have designated Hashem this day... and Hashem has designated you this day.' We have long ago sworn to the Holy One, blessed be He, that we will not exchange Him for any other god, and He also has sworn to us that He will not change us for any other people."
Caesar said: "I will throw down my seal before you and you can stoop down and pick it up, so that they will say of you that you have accepted the king's command."
He replied: "Poor Caesar, poor Caesar; if your own honor is so important, how much more the honor of the Holy One, blessed be He!"
They were leading him away to kill him when his mother said: Give him to me that I may kiss him a little. She said to him: "My son, go and say to your father Avraham, You bound one [son to the] altar, but I have bound seven altars."
Then she also went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed.
A voice then came forth from heaven saying, "A joyful mother of children."

(Gittin 57b)

The entire story is a poignant example of our continued commitment to God in trying circumstances. But I think the most moving part is at the end. Why does the mother herself not go to Avraham and say that she has outdone him? Surely she knows she is about to die too, after all it is her decision to die! I think the answer is that she knows suicide is unacceptable in Judaism. She is in so much pain that she cannot keep herself from it, but she presumes her share in olam haba will be lost as a result.

As it is, God does not blamed her for a decision made under such duress. Thus, the last line of the story is a confirmation that she will in fact inherit olam haba.

In a story in which Jews have suffered so incredibly for their faith, when the Divine protection which characterized earlier eras has so glaringly disappeared, the last word is a quiet but clear response by God to their sacrifices. The last son's claim ("He also has sworn to us that He will not change us for any other people") has, despite the extreme circumstances, been reaffirmed.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A blog-collage

1. There is a water fountain in my department whose water is so cold, that it frequently comes out as frozen slush rather than water.

2. In my thoughts, I recently found myself mixing up Philadelphia and Haifa when thinking of the place I currently live in. Guess it's easy to get those obscure college towns confused with one another.

3. Today I visited Har Eival and Yehoshua's altar there. It is quite an amazing site, and I believe that were it not for politics (we had to drive just a few hundred meters north of Shechem) it would be one of the country's most visited national parks.

As for the question of "so why is the altar in a place you can't see Har Gerizim from", the tour guide suggested that the blessings-and-curses ceremony (between Har Gerizim and Har Eival) was separate from the sacrificial ceremony. (And indeed, the Torah discusses the two ceremonies in separate passages.) The guide also pointed out the part of Har Gerizim and Eival where the hills form a natural bowl-like shape, creating a sort of natural amphitheater where the voice of one or a few people could be heard by many, many others.

I found it interesting that the Har Eival altar, like the holy places in Shiloh and Jerusalem, is on a hill which is not the highest hill in the area. It is as if the intention is always to be above and respected by the people, but not above and transcending nature as Canaanite altars were. The theological implications are interesting.

From the site we could see Arab villages which are associated in Israelite pottery inscriptions or village names with the ancient families of Tirtzah, Hoglah, and (IIRC) Machlah. These families were evidently descended from three of the five daughters of Tzelafchad as discussed in Sefer Bamidbar, and their inherited territory was around and slightly north of Shechem. (The remaining two daughters presumably inherited land nearby, but no record of it has yet been found.)

UPDATE: Palestinians have a history of quite methodically destroying Jewish historical and religious sites, including the palaces and synagogue in Jericho, Kever Yosef in Shechem, the ruins under the Temple Mount, and so on. So it is a matter of concern that a site as important as this one is totally exposed in such an unfriendly neighborhood. Luckily, the Palestinians don't seem to know what the site consists of. Looking on Wikimapia, the only Arabic commentator left a note which I translated online to mean "Usurper army was expelled from the mountains and these are no longer settlement". So this guy, at least, thinks the altar was destroyed in the disengagement!

4. On the way back from Har Eival (the tour let us off at the remote settlement of Shavei Shomron), I waited an hour in vain for a hitchhike to anywhere outside the West Bank and Jerusalem, before a bus finally arrived. The thought passed through my mind that "Gush Katif was destroyed because not enough people from there drove to Haifa." It sounds ridiculous, but on reflection I found it to be quite true. For social and religious reasons, the people in settlements associate with people in other settlements, in Jerusalem, and to a lesser extent in parts of the Tel Aviv area. They have little association with the large mass of secular people in the rest of Israel (and the religious people living elsewhere in Israel seem to me to be quite different in outlook from the settlers). Thus secular people rarely meet settlers. Each group gets to thinking that it represents all of Israel and thus deserves to get everything it wants politically. When these mutual delusions are translated into policy debate, the results are ugly and traumatic events like the disengagement result.