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.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eshet Chayil

I had to give a dvar torah at a "shabbat kalah" meal. (Yes, really. My excuse is that I was a witness on the couple's prenuptial agreement, as was the other male invited.) Here is the non-personal part of the dvar torah, based on my notes from before shabbat (it took a long time to think of something appropriate to say)


There's a phrase that we use to describe a woman with great moral character, which is "eshet chayil". It's not a new phrase; in fact it's been in use for more than 3000 years by now.

The first recorded usage is in Megillat Ruth, where Boaz uses the phrase to refer to Ruth. When she meets him at night in the field, he says to her:

כי יודע כל שער עמי, כי אשת חיל את

You might wonder what the male equivalent of "eshet chayil" is. If you replace "isha" with "gever" you get "gever chayil", which is a phrase that nobody ever uses. But a very similar phrase is used to describe Boaz:

ולנעמי מידע (מודע) לאישה, איש גבור חיל ממשפחת אלימלך, ושמו בעז.

You might have thought that "gibor chayil" means being a great military hero, but that's probably not the case here. First of all, an "eshet chayil" is not fighting any wars, so why should a "gibor chayil" be any different? Chayil in Megillat Ruth does not seem to military stuff. Second of all, we never see Boaz fighting a war, but we do see him doing all sorts of nice and moral things, just like you would expect from an "eshet chayil". And it would be totally irrelevant to the plotline to say that Boaz is a soldier, but it's very relevant to say he's a moral person. For these reasons I think "gibor chayil" has a primarily non-military meaning, at least in this book.

So in summary, there is one place in the Megillah where Ruth is called an "eshet chayil", one place where Boaz is called a "gibor chayil". It is no accident that the "eshet chayil" ends up marrying the "gibor chayil".

(And hear I descended into mushiness...)

If you are unmarried and know me, please forget what you just read, I may someday want to use this at or around your wedding. :)

Thoughts on Eichah

This post does not aim to be as comprehensive as last year's post on Eichah.

The breath of our nostrils, the anointed of Hashem, was taken in their pits; of whom we said: "Under his shadow we shall live among the nations." (4:20)

This verse refers to a king of Judah, Yoshiyahu or Tzidkiyahu, who was captured and perhaps killed by enemy armies.

I wish I could tell you what "breath of our nostrils" means, but I have no idea and have no Mikraot Gedolot handy. Perhaps it refers to breathing quickly, which you might do when you were excited, which you might be when seeing your king. That explanation could be totally wrong though.

The end of the verse, while also confusing, can be more confidently explained. In Sefer Bamidbar, when the spies came back and the people were disheartened by their report, Yehoshua and Kalev tried to encourage them with the following line:

"Only rebel not against Hashem, and do not fear the people of the land; for they are our bread. Their shadow is removed from above them, and Hashem is with us; do not be afraid." (Bamidbar 14:9)

That line contains two memorable turns of phrase. The "bread" reference, of course, means that "we're going to totally eat them up in battle", to use a more contemporary expression. The "shadow" reference refers to protection. You are only in a shadow when standing behind something which is bigger than you, and which implicitly protects you. If the Canaanites' "shadow" has left them, it means that (with God's help) there is no longer anything to protect them from the invading Israelites.

Similarly, the "shadow" in Eichah (it's the same Hebrew word too) refers to military protection.

From the books of Shoftim and Shmuel, we see that the people did not ask for a king until their military situation got so desperate under the Judges that they wanted a permanent leader, always ready to go to war on their behalf. As they say: "Let there be a king over us; that we too may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles." (Shmuel Alef 8:19-20)

That line from Shmuel is very similar to our line, "Under his shadow we shall live among the nations." Both lines indicate that the king's primary task is to provide military protection, and that being "like the nations" (if perhaps only in the sense of having a standing army) is an important goal.

About 500 years after the monarchy was first instituted by Shmuel, it was effectively abolished by the capture of the Judean king. The political situation instantly reverted to the basically defenceless state the Jews had been in before the first king was appointed. Very soon afterwards, they were completely conquered and exiled from the land.

That is why the fate of a certain single person merits explicit discussion in Eichah, while the rest of the book is entirely anonymous and general in its descriptions.

The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music.
The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning.
The crown is fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned.
For this our heart is faint, for these things our eyes are dim:
For the mountain of Zion, which is desolate; foxes walk upon it.
You, Hashem, are enthroned forever; your throne is from generation to generation.
Why shall You forget us forever, and abandon us indefinitely?
Return us to You, Hashem, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.

After a long list of the physical afflictions the people is undergoing, there is a mention of the desolation of the destroyed Temple, before the request for a renewed relationship with God.

One possible reason the Temple is mentioned here is to positively represent the people's state of mind: While they are undergoing these horrible afflictions, they are primarily upset not by the physical pain, but by the fact that the Temple is destroyed. They were punished for not caring enough about spiritual matters, but the shock of the destruction has made them reevaluate their priorities.

Another possibility is hinted at by the verse that follows: "You, Hashem, are enthroned forever; your throne is from generation to generation." Right before mentioning God's eternal existence, Eichah mentions that the Temple is not in fact eternal.

Before the destruction of the First Temple, one of the major problems was people saying that God would never let the Temple get destroyed, so people in Jerusalem were safe no matter how evil their deeds. (See for example Yirmiyahu 7.) Now, by admitting that the Temple is destroyed, and yet hoping for a relationship with God outside the Temple, reparation is made for the mistaken attitudes that prevailed before the destruction.

Friday, August 08, 2008

GPS in Israel

According to the driver of the bus I was on earlier tonight: In every Egged bus there is a GPS device in constant communication with Egged headquarters. The people in headquarters have a computer system where they can see a map, with a little dots on it indicating the current positions of each bus in the city.

I wonder how long until this system is publicly accessible - let's say, until you can get a SMS automatically delivered to you once the bus comes within 500 meters of your bus stop, so you know to walk to the stop.

Speaking of GPS, a couple months ago I was in a taxi where the driver was totally Ignorant of any of the streets in town, but he had a GPS thing to direct him to my destination. Only problem was, for some reason he didn't use the GPS (perhaps he didn't know how to). So when he started going in the wrong direction, I had to give him directions myself (not so easy, as we were going to a friend of mine, at an address I'd never been to before, in a city I don't live in). Ridiculous!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Thoughts on Masei

They traveled from Kadesh, and encamped at Hor Hahar, at the edge of the land of Edom.
Aharon the priest went up to Hor Hahar on God'scommand, and died there, in the 40th year of the children of Israel's exit from the land of Egypt, in the fifth month, on the first of the month. Aharon was 123 years old when he died on Hor Hahar.

Why does the list of Israelite journeys in the desert digress to discuss Aharon's death in such detail?

I think it is because the journey's are originally introduced as being "beyad Moshe veAharon" (33:1). Now that Aharon is dead, they are no longer traveling "under his hand".

OK then - why were the journeys described as being under Aharon's hand in the first place? It makes sense that they are under Moshe's hand, but of what relevance is Aharon?

Perhaps this is related to the role of the Mishkan in their travels. When the cloud rested on the Mishkan they would encamp, when the cloud lifted they would travel, and when they traveled the Mishkan would have a defined place between their camps. Thus the Mishkan dictated their travels, and Aharon, who was in charge of the Mishkan, was (at least symbolically) in control just as much as Moshe was.


There are two kinds of political borders in the world: "Switzerland" borders and "Colorado" borders. The former kind is irregular and complex, and results from centuries of wars and political maneuvers which lead to innumerable, incremental border adjustments. The latter kind is simple to draw and remember, and occurs when new political powers come and wipe out the previous political order and need to make new borders from scratch.

The borders between Israel and its neighbors are generally in the second category, as they result from the imperial struggles of England, France, and the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s. Thus the Israel-Sinai border is a straight line (with a few kinks which actually result from errors made drawing that line), and the Israel-Jordan and pre-1967 Israel-Syria borders essentially follow the Jordan River and Arava.

The Israel-Lebanon border is different. It is surprisingly complex and seemingly arbitrary, given that it was the result of a simple partition treaty between Britain and France. What possessed the map-drawers to add so many bends and twists?

I think the answer can be found by looking carefully at a topographic map, and remembering several considerations which must have guided the mapmakers. In particular, there seem to be two critical locations at opposite ends of the border which determined the rest of the border: Rosh Hanikra and Dan.

Dan, and the whole "finger of Galilee" that it's at the end of, are important as a water source. It's known that the British wanted the Kineret's water sources, as much as possible, to be on their side of the border because without this water it would be hard for the state to be viable. The springs at Dan, and the rivers which descend towards Dan from the Hermon, form a large fraction of the Kineret's water sources. So the British made sure the border went just north of Dan.

Rosh Hanikra seems to be arbitrarily chosen as a boundary between the French and British. But it's such a notable geographic landmark that it's easy to see why they picked it, and not some other place nearby.

What about the long and squiggly border in between Dan and Rosh Hanikra? What I recently noticed, and which impelled me to write this post, is that the border very nearly follows the watershed between Israeli and Lebanese. rivers. Basically, for each piece of land, imagine where rain that fell there would eventually flow. If it would flow into the Mediterranean Sea at a point north of Rosh Hanikra, then the land is Lebanese. If it would flow into the Mediterranean south of Rosh Hanikra, or else would flow into the Kineret, the land is Israeli.

Now, if you actually try that, you'll find that the division line is close to the current border, but even squigglier. And so I believe that after basing the border on the watershed, the French and British went out and smoothed it out a bit just to make it a little more reasonable. The largest consequence was north of Metula, where the Iyun river (which flows in to the Jordan) became part of Lebanon. But there are other such adjustments all along the watershed line, in favor of both Israel and Lebanon.

But look at the sharp bend in the border just north of Tzefat, and look at the pattern of wadis in the same area, and the basic correspondence between border and geography will become perfectly clear.

Demography Shmography

According to the CIA, the Vatican has a population of 824 people and a growth rate of 0.003% per year.

That means that, in the last year, the Vatican's population increased by 0.025 people.

What the !@#$%^???