Friday, December 18, 2009

Thoughts on Miketz

Reuven spoke to his father, saying: "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Binyamin] to you. Deliver him to my hand, and I will bring him back to you. (42:37)

Yehudah said to Yisrael his father: "Send the youth with me, and let us rise and go, and we will live and not die, us and you and our children. I will be the guarantor for him [Binyamin], from my hand you may demand him, and if I do not bring him before you and display him before you, then I will be guilty before you forever." (43:8-9)

Yaakov rejects Reuven's offer, but accepts Yehudah's. What difference between the offers justifies Yaakov's differing reactions? Here are three possibilities. Only the first is well known, but the second and especially the third may be equally important.

1. What they said: There is much room for (speculative) analysis here, and I will just give one idea.

At first glance, Reuven's offer might seem better than Yehudah's. It is measure for measure: as punishment for losing his father's son, he will have to lose his own sons. His offer of two sons in return for Binyamin recalls the Torah's double punishment for theft, or else, alludes to Rachel's loss of two sons. All of this is evidence of Reuven's sensitivity and willingness to take on responsibility.

But Reuven's proposal also contains fatal flaws. Killing his sons would clearly be a case of two wrongs not equaling a right - Yaakov will hardly be appeased about the loss of a son by also losing grandsons. And, of course, the killing would be unjust because Reuven's sons have done nothing to deserve death. (Reuven could not offer that he himself be killed, because that would deprive Yaakov of yet another son - exactly what the offer is trying to avoid.) Capital punishment is appropriate in certain situations, but in return for losing Binyamin it is morally unacceptable. Reuven tries hard, but his offer severely misjudges the moral issues of the situation.

In contrast, Yehudah offers an moral consequence for losing Binyamin - that he be considered guilty, but that nobody should be killed as a result.
Perhaps Yehudah is alluding to Reuven's offer when he says "we will live and not die, us and you and our children". Unlike Reuven, he says, he does not contemplate any of Yaakov's grandsons ("our children") dying as a result of failure on the trip to Egypt. Having specifically rejected the problematic aspect of Reuven's offer, it's no wonder his own offer is accepted.

2. Who said it. When Reuven disgraced himself with his father's wife Bilhah (35:22), he likely lost not only his birthright, but his father's trust as well. Yehudah had no comparable scandal (the Tamar case was likely less serious, and anyway Yehudah took full responsibility for it in the end). So Yaakov was more willing to rely on Yehudah for such an important mission.

3. When they said it. When Reuven made his proposal, the brothers had just come back from Egypt and had plenty of food. Yaakov's rejection may have just meant that he intended to wait for as long as possible before returning to Egypt. Perhaps the famine would end and no trip would be necessary? But by the time Yehudah made his proposal, all the food had been eaten (43:2), and Yaakov had no alternative but to let the brothers go.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Stupid dvar torah of the week

Yosef, in this week's parsha, is like Jonathan Pollard. Both are righteous people who get falsely accused by an evil, anti-Semitic government and placed in prison. Hopefully the US will realize the wisdom of listening to Pollard before they are punished with famine, suffering and destruction, like Egypt was.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Potifar's wife

Why was Potifar's wife attracted to Yosef? Obvious reasons include the fact that Yosef was beautiful, and that through his success running the household he must have demonstrated intelligence and people skills.

There is one more possible reason which is often overlooked. Sefer Breishit describes Potifar as a “saris” (37:36,39:1). Literally, this word means “eunuch”. Now, it could be that since royal servants were often castrated, the term “saris” came to be used even for those who weren't. But it's also possible that Potifar was in fact a eunuch, and he married his wife due to social expectations , not out of sexual desire.

If so, then it's perfectly understandable why Potifar's wife would be unsatisfied with her husband and looking for someone to have an affair with.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Etrog in honey

My roommate suggests the following post-Sukkot etrog recipe, which he says actually tastes good (unlike the others I've experienced).

Cut into cubes. Put in water and bring to boil. Add honey and lots of sugar. Cook for 1-3 hours, it takes a really long time to cook through.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Hostage situations

Today, Israeli soldiers killed an Israeli to prevent him from entering the Gaza Strip. Army policy is to kill Israelis in this situation, on the assumption that if they end up being held hostage, the resulting exchange of hostage for terrorists will result in the deaths of many more Israelis.

Now, I wonder: why exactly does this logic apply to anonymous Israelis, but suddenly disappear when Gilad Shalit is concerned?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Thoughts on Vayeshev

They took him [Yosef], and threw him in the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. (37:24)

Why does the verse say that the pit was empty, and also that there was no water in it? Isn't this redundant?

Rashi's answer is that “there was no water” implies that there WAS something else in it: snakes and scorpions.

The weaknesses of this explanation include: 1) there is no clear source that it was snakes and scorpions, not some other animal or object, 2) the presence of snakes and scorpions would be irrelevant to the rest of the story. So I want to take a different approach, which is closer to the pshat.

I think the “pit” under discussion was a cistern, a large hewn underground tank meant to hold water. (In many of the more obscure archeology sites across Israel you can see such cisterns.) Such a pit would fill with water during the winter rains, and the water would be preserved and used through the summer. As far as Yosef was concerned, there were three possible states for such a pit. It could be: 1) Mostly or totally full, in which case he would drown upon being thrown in, 2) Empty except for a little water remaining at the bottom, in which case he could live for a long time, drinking the water, and maybe be rescued, 3) Totally empty and dry, in which case he would soon die of thirst.

I think the repetition in the verse is needed to specify exactly what state the pit was in. “The pit was empty” rules out state 1, while “there was no water in it” rules out state 2. Thus, we know that the pit was in state 3, which also best fits the brothers' intentions regarding Yosef.

There is external evidence suggesting that the pit was in state 3. The brothers, who lived in Hebron, had gone to Shechem and from there to Dotan (near modern Jenin) to herd their sheep. What made them travel so far away from home? The answer is likely that it was a very dry year, and they had trouble finding plants for their flocks to eat. Thus, they went further and further north (north is wetter in Israel) until they were able to sufficiently graze their flocks. If the weather was so dry, then the cisterns would almost certainly be dry, as we have assumed.

(As is often the case, thanks to my havruta D.L., for pushing me on the question of this redundancy until I was forced to come up with an answer.)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thoughts on Vayishlach

God said to Yaakov: “Rise and go up to Beit El and dwell there, and make there an altar to the God who appeared to you when you fled Esav your brother.”
Yaakov said to his household: “Remove the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your clothes.”

How is it possible that among Yaakov's family some people chose to have idols? That Yaakov suspected or knew about them previously, but only now told his family to discard them? That he did not express any anger at the thought his family members might be worshiping idols?

(These are theological problems, but are equally textual problems, since in other places the text presents Yaakov as exclusively devoted to God, and the examples of Avraham and Yitzchak suggest that Yaakov would not tolerate such deviation in his family.)

I think the answers can be found by looking at Parshat Matot.

There, the Jewish people sends an army to fight Midyan. They kill a bunch of people, and return with spoils – both human and material. Moshe then commands them as follows:

“Park yourselves outside the camp seven days, whoever killed a person and whoever touched a corpse, and purify yourselves on the third and seventh days – you and your captives. And every garment, and every leather garment, and every goat fabric, and every wood utensil – you shall purify.” (Bamidbar 31:19-20)

The story there includes the following elements (among others):
1) A bloody war
2) The taking of spoils
3) Purification of people
4) Purification of clothing

Now looking at Yaakov's story, it includes the same four elements:
1) A bloody war – Yaakov's command is right after the Shechem/Dina slaughter (Breishit 34)
2) The taking of spoils: “That which was in the city, and that which was in the field, they [Yaakov's sons] took.” (34:28)
3) Purification of people: “purify yourselves” (35:2)
4) Purification of clothing: “and change your clothes (35:2)

It seems that the whole purification thing was simply the same purification that Moshe's warriors underwent after the war (maybe the technical details differed, since the Torah wasn't given yet). Similarly, it seems there is an obvious and non-controversial source for the idols. If Yaakov's sons really took everything from the city as spoils, as the verse seems to say, surely idols were among the spoils. There is no need to assume that Yaakov's family possessed idols before the war.

The Torah later commands that we destroy captured idols:

“The idols of their gods you shall burn in fire. You shall not appropriate silver and gold from them, and take for yourself – lest you be ensnared by it [by worshiping them]” (Devarim 7:25)

It warns specifically against silver and gold idols, since people will naturally want to hold on to that wealth, even if they don't plan to worship the idols. Yaakov didn't fault his sons too much for wanting the gold and silver. But because the presence of idols is incompatible with building an altar in Beit-El and worshiping God there, Yaakov still had to tell his sons to get rid of the idols.

Parsha joke

Q: How do we know Yaakov Avinu was an environmentalist?

"[Yaakov] took his two wives, his two handmaids, and his eleven sons and he crossed the ford of Yabbok. And he took them and brought them across the stream, and brought across that which was his. [But afterwards] Yaakov was left alone..." (Genesis 32:23-25)

"—[Why did Yaakov stay behind?] He forgot PACHIM KETANIM and returned to pick them up" (Rashi)

"Pachim" means "cans" in modern Hebrew, so clearly was picking up the trash he had left behind the first time!

Monday, November 30, 2009

The two-minute quarterback

Have you ever seen a football game (NFL or college) that was low scoring, with the teams punting the ball back and forth, but in the last few minutes each team managed to score quickly and repeatedly, making for a very exciting finish? The Patriots-Giants Super Bowl a few years ago was one such game. In my experience, there are many others. Is it just chance that the games end this way so often? Do the teams just choose to stop trying on defense, or is there a better explanation for why this occurs?

I think this is because of the teams' choice of play calls. Each team has a few offensive plays, or sequences of plays, which they developed and which they think are especially effective and unlikely to be anticipated by the defense. If they use these plays at some unimportant point of the game, their effect is wasted. So they are saved for the closing minutes of close games. At this point, both teams run all their special plays, which do tend to be more effective than normal plays. Thus, both teams often manage to score quickly. The defenses are trying just as hard as they have all game, but their task is harder and they tend not to do as well.

One consequence of this theory is to diminish the value of the “two-minute drive quarterback”. Not only is it easier to score at that point with all the special plays at hand, but the choice of plays is likely to have been substantially planned ahead of time. In the middle of the game, when there is no such planning, running an offense may be more difficult, not less.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yaakov's sister marriage

If Yaakov Avinu kept the entire Torah, how could he have married two sisters, which the Torah forbids?

There are at least three explanations:

1) Hizkuni: When each sister married Yaakov they converted to "Judaism", and a convert is no longer considered to be part of his/her immediate family for these purposes.

2) Ramban: There are two reasons why to keep mitzvot. In general, we do so because God commanded us (the "rationalist" explanation). In the land of Israel (but only there, says the Ramban) we keep mitzvot because they have a special impact on the world (the "mystical" explanation). Before Sinai, God had not commanded anything. So only the second reason applied - and only in Israel. Therefore, Yaakov was free to break the Torah outside Israel, for example, by marrying Rachel. But once he returned to Israel this excuse ceased to apply - and Rachel died soon afterwards, in childbirth.

3) Since Yaakov was not commanded, but saw value in the mitzvot, he chose to keep them as a "chumra". But in Rachel's case, this chumra conflicted with a greater obligation. Rachel had waited seven years with the expectation of marrying Yaakov. To not marry her now would be a betrayal of her trust. Yaakov's "chumra" of not marrying two sisters was overridden by his preexisting obligation to Rachel. From this we learn that one may not take on chumras when they are at someone else's expense.

Some difficulties with this last explanation: 1) The halacha of marrying two sisters was likely instituted for the benefit of the sisters, so they not fight each other. So marrying Rachel now would actually not be in her interest. 2) In that society Rachel's marriage may have been Lavan's concern, not Rachel's, and perhaps Yaakov did not have the standing to insert himself into the other family's considerations.

...Still, the message is good.

Aliyah to India

Aliyah to India


There is a family of American olim I know called the Mendelsohns (name changed). Long ago they decided they didn't want their kids to ever return to the US, and their kids' names should ensure that that never happens.

Each kid has a normal Hebrew name, but their English name – never used except on their US passport – is absolutely bizarre. For example, one kid is named “Mendelsohn Mendelsohn”. Another can truthfully say that “Danger is my middle name”. A third is named “Just Mendelsohn”. So when people ask his name, and he says “Mendelsohn”, and they respond “No, your full name”, confusion ensues.

I've thought of some more names that they should give their next couple kids, if they have any more. First of all, “Who Mendelsohn”. That way they could reproduce ”Who's on First”.

Second of all, “Name Mendelsohn”. Then people would ask “What's your name”, and he would respond “Name”. And the asker would think that the kid misunderstood the question.

If you like this second idea, though, I shouldn't get the credit. Wasn't one of Noach's sons named “Shem”?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jerusalem and birkat hamazon

אמר רב יוסף תדע דהטוב והמטיב לאו דאורייתא שהרי פועלים עוקרים אותה

R' Yosef says (Brachot 46a) that the fourth blessing of birkat hamazon, “Hatov vehametiv”, must be rabbinic rather than required by the Torah. His argument is that all-day workers (who must not waste time while “on the clock”) omit this blessing from after their meals, and if the Torah required it, it could not be omitted even in this situation. After this, the gemara brings several other, similar, proofs why “Hatov vehametiv” is rabbinic.

The implication of all this is that all three of the previous blessings are from the Torah. This is hard to understand. In particular, the third blessing is about the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Jerusalem did not become the site of the Temple or national capital until hundreds of years after the Torah was given. For most of the interim period, the city Shiloh played the role we associate with Jerusalem. So how can the Torah require us to recite the blessing this way?

Let us look at the Torah's source for birkat hamazon, and see where each of the three blessings can possibly come from.

“You shall eat, and be sated, and bless Hashem you God for the good land which He has given you.” (Devarim 8:10)

The second blessing is easiest to justify. It is about the land, and we are explicitly told to thank God for the land.

The first blessing is about food. We are not told explicitly to bless about food. But the context of birkat hamazon is surely relevant. If we thank God for the land, but only after eating, then why is the land important to us? Clearly, it is important in that it provides us with food. And thus, we have a separate blessing which thanks God for food. Could this thanks not have been included in the “land” blessing? It could, and (according to some opinions) the bracha me'ein shalosh we say after eating cake is exactly such a “combined” blessing. But for birkat hamazon, the accepted text has the topics separated into multiple blessings.

Now to the third blessing. Where in Devarim 8:10 is there any hint of Jerusalem?

I think the answer is in the last few words of the verse, “which He has given you”. The second blessing thanks God for the land, the third blessing thanks God for our control of it. Only when we control the land can we enjoy its produce; if we are exiled or oppressed, we are not benefiting from it. Jerusalem is simply the current symbol of that control. Once God “has mercy on Israel... Jerusalem... Zion... the kingdom of the house of David... the Temple” (to quote the blessing), then we will be returned from exile, living peacefully with the land of Israel under our control.

The “kingdom of the house of David”, which seems to be the most peripheral item on the list I just quoted, may actually be the most important. According to the Shulchan Aruch, if you forget the phrase “kingdom of the house of David”, your entire birkat hamazon is invalid. Similarly, the Yemenite text of birkat hamazon has a very different third blessing from ours, which puts even more emphasis on the “kingdom of the house of David” than we do. I think we can explain this emphasis by saying that the blessing's basic theme is our control over the land, and if we leave this out the purpose of the blessing is not accomplished.

Now, for almost 2000 years we did not have control over the land of Israel. So, technically speaking, it was impossible to thank God for control. Instead, we have offered a prayer that control be returned to us. We still say this today, partly because changing established texts is difficult and fraught with danger, partly because our control of the land is still very incomplete.

Of course, we are forced to say that the third blessing did not always mention rebuilding Jerusalem. When the Temple was standing, it must have said something like “We thank you for preserving the kingdom of David in the holy city of Jerusalem”. Before the Temple was built, it must have said something similar about Shiloh. The exact wording would change from generation to generation. But the Biblically mandated idea – recognition that the land has been delivered into our control as a Divine gift – remains the same.

On a different note: Taking a broad look at birkat hamazon, we see the following rough pattern. In the three blessings we thank God for our food, for the farm which provided the food, and for the political circumstances which allow us to benefit from that farm. This list begins with the immediate and personal, and proceeds to the universal and abstract. In some ways, it reminds one of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, in which the lower needs must be satisfied before the higher ones.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Colorful names

Lavan, father-in-law of Yaakov, has quite an unusual name. Who, after all, names their kid after a color? One interpretation says that whenever Lavan wanted to trick someone, he would pretend to be “pure and white” in character, and having gained their confidence, would then proceed to rob them.

But interestingly enough, Lavan is not the only person in Breishit named after a color. The other person is none other than Yaakov's brother. Born with the name Esav, he later acquired the name “Edom”. One day Esav came in from the field hungry, found Yaakov cooking red lentils, and begged Yaakov to “give me some of that red, red stuff”. Yaakov agreed only in exchange for Esav's birthright. From then on Esav was called “Edom”, meaning “red”. One might assume that rather than being a compliment, this was a way of mocking Esav for his shortsighted desperateness in agreeing to the exchange. In any case, the name stuck and the nation descended from him is named Edom.

So Esav's “colorful” name is a result of his being tricked by Yaakov. My theory is that Lavan got his name the same way.

When the Torah describes how Lavan tried to trick Yaakov, it includes what looks like an amusing pun. “That day [Lavan] removed the streaked and spotted he-goats, and all the speckled and spotted she-goats, every one that had white [“lavan”] in it, and all the dark ones among the sheep...” (30:35) Lavan agreed to give Yaakov the white-spotted goats in his flock, but he secretly removed and hid those goats to deprive Yaakov of his wages. But Yaakov had the last word in this story. He got the completely black goats to breed, and white-spotted goats were among their offspring. Then he used certain procedures to help his goats reproduce more than Lavan's. Eventually his white-spotted goats (and dark sheep) outnumbered the pure-colored ones. Yaakov outmaneuvered Lavan, and Lavan grew poor and frustrated, while Yaakov returned home wealthy and with a large family.

It is through the coloring of these goats and sheep that Lavan tried to trick Yaakov. But through the same coloring, Yaakov managed to not only protect but also enrich himself greatly. Perhaps, in memory of this, Lavan received the name “white”. He was born with a different name – one not recorded in the Torah. But he received his new and more “colorful” name, in memory of what he tried to do to Yaakov, and how Yaakov turned the tables on him. As with Edom, Lavan's misbegotten plans are preserved forever in the additional name that his contemporaries gave him.

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

[Avraham] spoke with them, saying: “If you are willing that I bury my dead from before me, hear me, and approach for me Ephron the son of Tzohar, that he may give me his cave of Machpelah, which is in the end of his field. For the full price let him give it to me, in your midst, for a burial site.” Now Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the children of Heth, of all that entered the gate of his city, saying: “No, my lord, hear me. The field I give to you, and the cave that is in it, I give to you; before the eyes of my people I give it to you; bury your dead.” (23:8-11)

There is one hard-to-understand phrase here: ועפרון יושב בתוך בני חת - “Now Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth”. What does this mean and why is it mentioned?

One possibility is just to say that Ephron was already physically present and available to discuss the transaction. That's a very boring explanation but I can't rule it out. However, I also have a more interesting explanation. It relies on the following quote, regarding the prophet Elisha.

[The Shunamite woman] said unto her husband: "Look now, I have seen that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us continually. Let us make a little chamber in the attic; and let us set for him there a bed, table, stool, and candlestick; and whenever he comes to us, he will go there.” One day he came there, and he went to the upper chamber and lay there... [Then he asked the woman]: “Look, you have taken all this care for us; what is to be done for thee? Should you be mentioned to the king, or to the captain of the host?” And she answered: “I dwell among my people.” He said: “What then can be done for her?” Gehazi answered: “Indeed she has no son, and her husband is old.” (Melachim Bet 4:9-14)

At which point Elisha arranges for the woman to miraculously have a kid. But before that happened, Elisha offered to get the king and higher officials to help the woman out. She refused, with the explanation: “I dwell among my people.” Apparently this means that any special favors would make the people around her suspicious and jealous, and she valued her community more than whatever perks the king could give her.

Returning to the parsha. When it says that “Ephron dwelt/sat among the children of Heth”, perhaps this means the same thing as the Shunamite's “I dwell among my people”. Ephron would have loved to take the large payment which Avraham just offered him. But his community insisted on Avraham being able to bury for free, and Ephron felt he could not go against this. Thus, Ephron offered Avraham the land as a gift. When Avraham continued to insist on paying, Ephron was able to take the money. But still, to keep up the impression that he didn't care about the money, he continued talking as if he were giving a gift: “Land worth 400 silver shekels, what is it between us?”

Ephron was not necessarily a sleazy Middle Eastern bazaar salesman, professing generosity while manipulating the customer into paying an exorbitant price. It's also possible that he preferred to be honest, but social pressure from his countrymen forced him to present himself as more generous than he actually was.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Four beautiful women

תנו רבנן: ארבע נשים יפיפיות היו בעולם: שרה <ואביגיל רחב> [רחב ואביגיל] ואסתר. ולמאן דאמר אסתר ירקרוקת היתה, מפיק אסתר ומעייל ושתי

The rabbis teach: There have been four super-beautiful women in the world: Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, and Esther. According to the opinion that Esther was sallow, [the list] would exclude Esther and include Vashti.
(Megillah 15a)

As you can see from the Hebrew, there is a difference of opinion as to how this teaching should be worded. The list of women, as it appears in normal gemaras, goes as following:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Esther.
But on the side of the page is a note saying צ"ל רחב אביגיל – "It should say Rahav, Avigayil”. Thus the order becomes:
    Sarah, Rahav, Avigayil, Esther.
Usually this kind of “it should say” correction appears when there is a relatively obvious and inconsequential error (let us say “typo”) in our printed gemara. Out of respect for the text (and humility regarding the certainty of our conclusions) we do not actually correct the typo. But we add the correction note so people know how to learn the gemara correctly, and don't puzzle for hours over a cryptic phrase that wasn't intended to have a deep meaning.

In our case, though, it's not obvious what the error is. In this list of names, how do we know, and why does it matter what order the names are in?

Let us try to understand the case by first looking at the “corrected” list. Here, the order is Sarah, Rahav, Avigayil, Esther. That corresponds to the chronological order in which the four women lived. In the “uncorrected” list, the names are out of chronological order. Evidently, whoever wrote the “correction” assumed that the list must be chronological, and reordered it accordingly.

In my mind, that is a rather reasonable assumption. (After all, the list is already mostly chronological, and one would hardly expect the names to be ordered randomly.) But there's another possibility.

After listing the four women, the gemara mentions that according to some opinions, Esther was actually rather ugly. If so, then what happens to our list of four beautiful women? The number four is preserved by replacing Esther with Vashti. Then, the “uncorrected” list becomes:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Vashti.
That list is not in chronological order – but it does make perfect sense without any correction. The first two women in the list are Jewish, and the last two are not.

Now let us return to the “uncorrected” list involving Esther:
    Sarah, Avigayil, Rahav, Esther.
Perhaps, the list was intentionally ordered this way. In and of itself, the list has no logical order. But whoever wrote it also wrote the part about Vashti. They knew that later on they'd substitute Vashti for Esther in the list, so they wrote it with the Jewish/non-Jewish listing of women in mind.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Anger and incomplete understanding

"Anger and unkindness arise when people's understanding is limited. The deeper their understanding the more their anger disappears, and kindness, love and peace spread."
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Eitzot.

In the comments to this post, I posted the following explanation to R' Nachman's insight:

Many issues are complex. People who cannot handle the complexity will choose a simpler explanation which is absolutely correct with regards to one aspect of the issue, but incorrect with regard to other aspects.* Imagine that two people chose different understandings of an issue, each of which is correct with regard to a different aspect of the issue. Each person will refuse to accept the other's criticism of their understanding, because that would mean giving up their understanding across the board - and they KNOW, correctly, that they shouldn't do that. So each person is forced to ignore rather than consider the other's arguments. Which leads to frustration, and from there to "Anger and unkindness".

The two incomplete understandings may both be intellectual. Or, as is common in debates about religion, one is philosophical and the other emotional or intuitive. Either way, the dynamic of the debate is the same.

*A good example is politics, where liberals and conservatives are both right SOMETIMES, but (partly due to incomplete information) nobody in the world fully understands the entire issue.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Teacher industrial complex

No longer will one person teach his fellow and brother saying "Know Hashem". For they all will know me, from their smallest to greatest, says Hashem. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will no longer remember. (Yirmiyahu 31:33)

Given the obvious benefit to everyone of doing teshuva, it is surprising that so few people manage to do it. There is only one possible explanation for this fact. Clearly, there must be powerful forces in society have an interest in our not doing teshuva.

The above verse from Yirmiyahu makes clear why. There are more than 100,000 teachers in Israel, and a similar number teaching Jews in the rest of the world. The verse makes clear that when the mashiach comes, and we all due teshuva, teaching will no longer take place.

Obviously, this represents a severe threat to the job prospects of all those teachers. The stated goal of teachers, particularly in religious schools, is that students emerge with the knowledge and ethical commitments that will allow them to fill positive and productive roles in society. This goal is broadly accepted, and few people would dare to publicly question it.

But one cannot discount the powerful incentive, in terms of job security, for teachers to encourage precisely the opposite characteristics in their students. In addition, teachers are uniquely and worryingly positioned to have influence, whether positive or negative, over their students. While certainly many teachers have pure intentions, it is inevitable that many others do not.

The effects of these teachers' negative influence cannot be known with certainty, but are undoubtedly vast. It is certainly difficult to confront entrenched interests with so much power, but perhaps the following steps can help in taking back our society. First, we need an immediate moratorium on the hiring of new teachers and building of new schools. Also, a watchdog organization must be set up to monitor contacts between teachers and the gambling, weapons, and pornography industries, all of which have a shared financial interest in the misbehaviour of our children.

Only thus can the effects of the teacher-industrial complex, unseen yet with such a hegemonic influence on our society, be countered.

Tower of Babel

An interesting article about languages.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

For the record

Shortly after acquiring my first ever digital camera last fall, I brought it with me on a hike (to the southwest part of the Carmel). I had the usual reasons for taking a camera with me. But I did not envision what the camera would take away from me.

Quickly I found myself doing pretty much nothing but snapping photographs. Instead of appreciating the sights around me, I was treating them in a purely functional manner. As I walked along, I constantly evaluated whether or not what I saw was worth recording. The pictures I ended up with were great. But I missed out on all the other reasons for hiking: the calmness of a landscape undistracted by modern development; the in-your-face beauty of forests, springs, and wildlife; the anticipation of never knowing which unique archaeological site or strange flower awaited me around the next bend. I returned from the hike with plenty of JPGs, but not nearly enough memories.

Of course I am not the first person to act this way. It is said that some tourists spend so much time and effort on taking pictures, that they never get around to actually experiencing the place they are in. They succeed in using their surroundings, as photo opportunities, at the expense of enjoying them. I had heard of this attitude, but it was a surprise how naturally I started doing the same thing.

My experience with the camera reminded me of the novel "The Famished Road", by Nigerian writer Ben Okri, which I had read in college a few years previously. One of the novel's main characters (Jeremiah) owns a camera and, in addition to taking family pictures and the like, he photographs riots and other events to support the poor in their fight for political standing. But the camera's usefulness soon turns into an unhealthy dependence. Rather than rely directly on their perceptions, people prefer to consult the photographic record for their facts, and are helpless when it is taken away from them.

Jeremiah's camera has great significance in the novel, as it is implicitly compared to the author's pen. A major theme of the novel is the challenge of converting a dynamic oral tradition (of folklore and legends) into a static form (the written novel) while not losing all that is vital and valuable in the process. The photographer Jeremiah failed at this. The author, through the novel's unusual choice of structure, tries to do better.

This challenge was not unique to West Africans like Ben Okri. The Jewish people had to face it too, nearly 2000 years ago when the Oral Torah first began to be written down. It was advantageous, and perhaps inevitable, to convert all that knowledge into a form that could survive the death of any individual. But presumably it was not done earlier because along with the advantages came costs. As the centuries pass and successive layers of commentary build up, it becomes progressively easier to focus on the minutiae of the uppermost layer, rather than on the broad ideas which underlie the entire system.

Returning to my camera: Soon enough I realized what the camera was doing to my hiking experience. With a little effort, I trained myself to keep the camera way in the back of my mind. Now, only if I see something striking do I consider whether it's worth a picture. At other times I try to ignore the camera entirely. I have struck a balance between use of the camera and use of myself. Now I think I get the optimal usage out of both of them.

The same balance can be achieved in regard to Jewish tradition. A person's Torah study often tends to the extreme of being either emotional and inspired, or technical and withdrawn. The same imbalance can carry over into how one lives their life. Ideally, of course, a person will achieve both aspects simultaneously. It is certainly a challenge to unite the Torah's logical and emotional aspects. But if you ever meet someone who has succeeded at it, or to some degree succeed in doing it yourself, you intuitively realize that you could never choose to live your life in any other manner.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The status of animals

The simple meaning of parshat Breishit indicates that before the flood, animals had a much higher status than at present. They had many characteristics and much of the same role that human beings now have.

Evidence for this assertion includes the following facts:

- Animals could speak, for example the snake.
- Animals could listen to speech: “God blessed them, saying: Be fruitful and multiply...” (1:22)
- Animals were potential spouses for mankind: “God formed from the earth every animal of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man... but the man did not find a helpmate for himself.” (2:19-20)
- Man was not allowed to kill animals for food. (1:29)
- Animals too were not allowed to eat animals, but had to eat plants instead. (1:30)

This depiction is surprising. Our first impulse is to explain away each of the above examples as being metaphorical. But putting them together, it is hard to escape the conclusion that they form, at least, a single and more daring metaphor.

It is equally surprising to see an extremely similar depiction in a different context.

ÅgThe wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and the calf and lion and cattle together; and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze; their young ones shall will down together; and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The baby will play on the hole of the asp, and the child will put his hand on the basilisk's den.” (Yeshayahu 11:6-8)

Here we have many of the same elements as at the beginning of Breishit: Animals and humans coexist. All animals are vegetarian. Humans and snakes are friends, not enemies.

As hard as it is for us to understand the role of animals described here, the similarity between Breishit and Yeshayahu cannot be accidental. Apparently, we are being told, when God first created the world animals had a much higher status than they do today. Due to some kind of sin, the world had to be destroyed and remade with a different role for animals. But someday, in the messianic era, the world and animals will return to their original state.

When did the change in animals' role occur? Clearly a big change occurred at the time of the flood. The flood is justified by the judgment that “all flesh had corrupted its way on earth” - all flesh, apparently including animals. While Adam and Eve had a task in the Garden of Eden, Noach had to make the world he lived in, saving the animals in the flood and planting grapes after leaving the ark. Furthermore, right after the flood humans are allowed to eat animals and animals may eat each other. From this point on, animals' lives are no longer holy, and humans now rule over animals by force. Granted, even Adam and Eve were told to “have dominion” (1:28) over the animals. But perhaps this expression has less forceful and hostile connotations than what Noach was told - “Your fear and dread will be upon [all animals]... and they are delivered into your hand.” (9:2)

Besides the flood, there is at least one other event in which animals are punished. The snake's behavior in the Garden of Eden earns it a lower status and more hostile relations with humans. This seems similar to the punishment all animals received in the flood. Perhaps snakes lost their status at this point, and other animals lost their status at some later point prior to the flood. In the messianic era, when all these sins and punishments are repaired, perhaps the last to be repaired will be that of the snake. In this final stage of redemption – the final words of Yeshayahu's description, in which humans and snakes once more coexist peacefully – we will truly have returned to the Garden of Eden.

(Heard from R' Baruch Gigi. Possibly derived from R' Kook's writings on vegetarianism.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The snake

It is strange that humans in the Garden of Eden are tempted by a snake. The strangest part, of course, is imagining how an animal could approach humans as an apparent equal. (I plan to partly address that question in a future post.) Another interesting question is: why a snake? Why not a different animal?

To possibly answer this, let's look at some background information about the sin in the Garden of Eden:

1. Eating from the tree makes humans aware of the their nakedness, and the first baby is born afterwards
2. The tree of “knowledge” may be related to “knowledge in a biblical sense”
3. The “fruit” may allude to “being fruitful and multiplying”
4. The fruit is described as very attractive looking ("a desire to the eyes, and beautiful to perceive"), which is why the woman has trouble keeping herself from eating it.
5. The woman's punishment apparently relates to her desires and their consequences.

It is clear from all this that the sin is very closely related to sexuality.

With that background, let me mention the following idea:

6. In popular culture, the word “snake” is sometimes used as a euphemism for a body part.

As support for this interpretation, note that 1) The woman is tempted by the snake, not the man. 2) The snake begins the story standing (which real snakes can't do) and is punished by no longer being able to stand.

So the image of the snake may be chosen to further develop the role of sexuality in the story. And this not the place to elaborate.

The midrash that the snake wanted to mate with the woman probably flows from these considerations (as well as the fact that the man too tried mating with animals).

In order to uphold my reputation, please forget that I ever said what I just said. But I do think this idea explains some things pretty well. Even if you can't repeat it at the Shabbat table.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Knowing good and evil

Since in light of modern science it's hard to take literally a description of 2 original humans alone in the world, here is how I understand the meaning of the Adam and Eve story.

Animals of a single species are essentially interchangeable with one another. As time passes some die and new ones take their place. But this transformation is of little significance; what matters is the species not individuals, and the species is effectively immortal. Within an animal's body cells continually die and are replaced by new cells; within a species animals die and are replaced by new animals. Both forms of death are insignificant, except from a biologist's perspective.

What is true of animals was also true of early humans, until they developed moral awareness. From the moment on, it was no longer possible to speak of individual humans as interchangeable, like cells in a body. Along with moral awareness comes a unique identity and personality - a soul. When a person dies, there is no identical, interchangeable person to take their place. Someone else takes their physical place, living in the same house, or working in the same profession. But morally speaking, this is a completely different person.

At the moment that he/she was tempted to eat from the Tree of Knowing Good and Evil, the immortal Adam - meaning Adam the species - ceased to be relevant. Adam the individual - and his children, their descendants, and all the other individual humans - became the focus of attention instead. Each of these people has their own unique identity, and each has a finite lifespan. The death introduced into the world by "knowledge of good and evil" was not physical death, but the death of moral identities. And the new sexuality which accompanies the "knowledge" is not the mating urge, which always existed, but rather the new ability to create new and unique moral identities.

Once Adam and Eve were confronted with the choice to obey or disobey, even before they chose wrongly, they had already made the transition from an immortal "species" to morally-aware "individuals". Had they chosen correctly, they would have stayed in the Garden as immortal individuals.

Such a state should not be so hard to imagine. It is well known and accepted that our inner identities - our souls - can themselves be immortal. Indeed we speak of them returning to the Garden of Eden, the place of immortality, after death. That is exactly what Adam and Eve would have achieved immediately had they not sinned.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

R' Nachman and R' Soloveitchik

Here is an excerpt from R' Nachman of Breslov's tale "Seven Beggars":
At the far end of the world there is a mountain, on the mountain top is a rock, and a fountain of water gushes from the rock.

This you know: that everything in the world possesses a heart, and the world itself has a great heart. The heart of the world is complete, for it has a face, and hands, and breasts, and toes, and the littlest toe of the world's heart is more worthy than any human heart. So at one end of the earth there is the fountain that flows from the rock on the mountain top, and at the other end is the earth's heart.

And the heart desires the mountain spring; it remains in its place far at the other end of the earth, but it is filled with an unutterable longing, it burns with an endless desire for the distant fountain of water...

Because of its great longing, it sometimes tries to go to the fountain, but if it goes nearer to the foot of the mountain it can no longer see the spring on the top of the mountain, and so it must remain far away, for only from a distance may a mountain peak be seen. And if it were for an instant to lose sight of the spring, the heart would die, and then all the world would die, for the life of the world and everything in it is in the life of its heart.

So the heart remains longing at the other end of the earth, longing for the spring that cannot come toward it, for the spring has no share in Time, but lives on a mountain peak far above the time that is on earth. And the mountain spring could not be of the earth at all, since it has no share in the earth's time but for the earth's heart, which gives the spring its day.

And as the day draws to its close, and time is ended, the heart becomes dark with grief, for when the day is done the mountain spring will be gone from the earth, and then the earth's heart will die of longing, and when the heart is dead all the earth and all the creatures upon the earth will die.

And so, as the day draws to a close, the heart begins to sing farewell to the fountain; it sings its grief in wildly beautiful melody, and the mountain spring sings farewell to the heart, and their songs are filled with love and eternal longing.

But the Truly Godly Man keeps watch over them, and in that last moment before the day is done, and the spring is gone, and the heart is dead, and the world is ended, the good man comes and gives a new day to the heart; then the heart gives the day to the spring, and so they live again.

The symbolism seems clear to me. The "heart of the world", and the spring issuing from the mountain, represent the human soul and God. It is not obvious which is which, but my inclination is to identify God with the spring. This is because water symbolizes Torah; Mt. Sinai had a spring issuing from it (Shemot 17:6, 32:20, Devarim 9:21); and the spring "could not be of the earth at all... but for the earth's heart" - that is to say, God is transcendent and absent from the world, except in the human soul, while the human is fundamentally part of the "earth" or physical world.

The soul and God sense each other and try to meet one another. But exactly at the moment of closest approach, the line of sight between "heart" and "spring" (man and God) is blocked. The "heart" and spring sing love songs, but can no longer approach one another. Eventually the day ends: the failure of man and God to meet results in frustration and eventual abandonment of the task. But when all seems lost, another day begins, and God and man's struggles to meet each other begin again from scratch.

The dynamic here is very similar to what R' Soloveitchik describes in his book "Uvikashtem Misham". There, drawing on the metaphor of Shir Hashirim, God is the male lover and humanity the female. God knocks on our door, but we are lying in bed and at first do not have the energy to get up and answer. When we finally get to the door, God has already stopped waiting. We then go out and search the streets for God, who is presumably only a short way off, but without success. Then, it is implied, we return home and the story repeats itself. Both sides passionately desire a meeting, but at no point does the meeting ever occur.

Both of these stories seem overly pessimistic, as the cycle repeats itself without God and humanity ever managing to meet. I can think of two responses to this criticism. First, at least in R' Soloveitchik's metaphor, it is possible that despite all the failures so far, the two sides will someday succeed in meeting. Second, eventual failure is not necessarily a pessimistic conclusion. All human lives are destined to fail, through death. But that eventual failure does not erase the value of efforts performed beforehand. Similarly in our stories, the effort is valuable and "on the record", even if the desired conclusion is not obtained.

When reading a religious parable as complex and poignant as these two are, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the author is describing their personal experience in all its depth and detail. Perhaps no two Jewish leaders have inspired more dissimilar followers than did R' Nachman and R' Soloveitchik. For that reason, it's interesting how the two rabbis' religious experiences were so very similar.

Of course, the explanation may be that the kind of experience R' Nachman identified and tried to steer his followers away from, R' Soloveitchik identified and saw as ideal.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ibn Ezra on creation

"In my opinion, this paragraph [3rd day of creation] is connected [i.e. overlaps in time] with the previous paragraph [2nd day]. For the rakia [“firmament”/sky] was not made until the earth became dry... behold, on one day they [sky+earth] were created." -Ibn Ezra, Breishit 1:9

By implying here that what was listed on one day of creation was NOT all created on one physical day, Ibn Ezra can be added to the list of commentators who believe the first chapter of Breishit may be interpreted non-literally. This, of course, is important as it allows for compatibility with modern science.

Ibn Ezra's view on this issue is much more significant than that of Rambam or modern commentators, because their conclusions were heavily influenced by knowledge of contemporary scientific theories, while Ibn Ezra's opinion seems to derive solely from textual factors.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Secret sauce

There is a commonly used electronic device called a transistor. Among its parts are a "source" and a "drain".

Funnily enough, at least sixteen different people have received patents in which they described the transistor source as a "sauce" rather than a "source".

After finding one of those patents by accident, I decided to look for another, more famous misspelling. Sure enough, two people have received patents related to "nucular" power plants.

I can imagine making this kind of mistake in an email or blog post. But to make it in your final patent application - and then to have the patent office approve it - is just incredible.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Sukkot note

At dinner on Friday night, this lady guest mentioned how special the sukkah was, being the only mitzvah that a person is "surrounded by" and "inside".

I was tempted, but refrained from replying that there is another such mitzvah: yishuv eretz yisrael.

Later on, the same woman proudly mentioned how great her community was for refusing to sleep in the sukkah, because it was "too holy" for anything as mundane as sleeping.

This time I really should have replied, saying "That may have been true in Eastern Europe. But here in Israel there is holiness everywhere, not just in the sukkah. If holiness was a reason not to sleep then we couldn't sleep anywhere in Israel. So clearly it is not an impediment." And maybe, for good measure, I should have mentioned Shmuel Alef 3:3 where it says that Shmuel was sleeping in the Temple. Since the sukkah is so closely related to the Temple (think "ananei hakavod", "sukkat david hanofalet"), that should have proved the case that sleeping in the sukkah is OK.

But again, partly out of politeness and partly out of lack of confidence in my Hebrew (or both together - it's easier to simply make yourself understood than to do so politely), I refrained from commenting.

It's great to be able to refute people on their terms as well as on objective terms. But it's a little frustrating when such a chance comes up and for whatever reason you don't take it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yom Ke-Purim

If vowelized differently, the holiday name "Yom Kippurim" would spell out "Yom ke-Purim" - "A day like Purim". There is a well-known idea, with this textual basis, that Yom Kippur is a day "like Purim", with the same importance or significance as Purim.

This is hard to take at face value. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year, while Purim is a minor rabbinic holiday. How can the two be compared? Moreover, why is Yom Kippur compared to Purim, not Purim to Yom Kippur? Even if the comparison between Yom Kippur and Purim is valid, its order should be reversed!

Here are three possible understandings of the Ke-Purim idea. To me the first is the most meaningful.

1. Release of inhibitions

It seems clear to me that the link between Purim and Yom Kippur is the unique release of inhibitions that can occur on both. Normally, there are many legitimate actions which we do not let ourselves perform, because we worry how other people will react to them. We do not want to embarrass ourselves or get too emotional in public, so we set artificial boundaries to prevent that from happening. On only two days each year do we escape these boundaries - on Purim and on Yom Kippur.

The release of inhibitions on Purim is trivial to achieve - all you have to do is drink a lot. On Yom Kippur, it is much harder. Since this is the last chance to ask forgiveness for our misdeeds, the last opportunity to reform our actions, there is a feeling of urgency and desperation not present at any other time of year. There is a sense of "If not now, when", which can spur you to do to things you never would have contemplated on another date. Sometimes, your religious expression can become as spontaneous and natural as when you are drunk. It is not that the boundaries cease to exist, like on Purim, but that you through your efforts overcome them.

We can see an example of this in Sefer Shmuel, where Hannah prays and Eli accuses her of being drunk. Eli thought Hannah was, in a sense, celebrating Purim. But in fact, she was celebrating Yom Kippur.

This idea also explains why Yom Kippur is compared to Purim and not vice versa. The Yom Kippur experience may be more meaningful than that of Purim. But Purim is the more convenient yardstick by which to measure such experiences.

2. Acceptance of the Torah

On Shavuot, many years ago at Sinai, we accepted the Torah for the first time. On both Yom Kippur and Purim, we re-accepted it. Remember that after the Golden Calf incident, it was on Yom Kippur that Moshe returned with a new set of tablets. This day marks the second, and more permanent, acceptance of the Torah.

Purim marks a third acceptance ("kiyemu vekiblu"), which seems much more similar to the second acceptance than to the first. On Shavuot we accepted the Torah amid incredible miracles, but our acceptance lasted no longer than did the miracles. On both Yom Kippur and Purim there were no such open miracles, yet our acceptance of the Torah was much longer enduring. In this way, the historical significance of Yom Kippur and Purim is very similar.

3. Yonah and Esther

On Yom Kippur we read Sefer Yonah, in which Yonah spends "three days and three nights" in the fish's belly before delivering his message to Nineveh. Here he (presumably) does not eat or drink, and we know that he takes the opportunity to pray to God for his deliverance.

This fish episode resembles part of Megillat Esther, read on Purim. There Esther, too, meets an Eastern monarch after three days of fasting. And while not explicitly mentioned, it is very likely that she spent the three days praying to God, just as Yonah did. And Esther, like Yonah, seems hesitant to carry out her mission before finally agreeing to do so.

The Esther and Yonah stories are unusual in that in both, the story revolves around the behavior of non-Jews. In Yonah, God is principally concerned with the repentance of the Assyrians. Yonah is the instrument of this repentance, but his concern for himself, and possibly for his people (whom Assyria later conquered) are deemed irrelevant. Similarly, in the megillah, it is only the Persians who can make evil decisions, and only the Persians who can rescind them. The Jewish people will be saved somehow or other (רוח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר), and if this will be accomplished through Esther's plea to Achashverosh, then Esther is just as much an instrument as Yonah was.

We, of course, focus on the "Jewish" angle of Megillat Esther. But the Persians, and not just Achashverosh and Haman, have a quite important moral role throughout the story. The residents of Shushan clearly expressed their feelings about the situation (sympathizing each time with the Jews), and many other Persians chose to either fight the Jews or convert to Judaism. It is not inconceivable that these public attitudes, particularly the pro-Jewish ones of Shushan, influenced Achashverosh's final decision to side with Esther over Haman.

How would the Jews have been saved, had not Esther managed to get the decree nullified? The answer may be that the Persian empire would lose its power to enforce decrees. Perhaps it would have been conquered like Assyria and Babylon before it. Or perhaps civil war might have broken out between the Persians and Medes (two peoples who jointly ruled the empire) or between some of the 127 diverse provinces. Either way, the capital city Shushan could have suffered mightily. As with Nineveh, Shushan through its good behavior may thereby have escaped destruction.

We read Sefer Yonah during Mincha of Yom Kippur, by which time we have had plenty of chances to repent yet our accomplishments in that regard are often meager. Perhaps the purpose is to remind ourselves not to become resigned to such a state. It is hard to imagine a group of people more physically and spiritually distant from God than the Assyrians (renowned in the ancient world for their cruelty), yet in their moment of crisis they were able to repent. We, who have been brought much closer to God, are no less capable of repentance. This message is similar to that of Megillat Esther. Even at a time of "hester panim", the leading minister of the far-off Persian empire is not beyond Divine justice, and people of Shushan - both Jewish and non-Jewish - are not beyond Divine mercy.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ledavid, hashem ori veyishi

Psalm 27 ("Ledavid, hashem ori veyishi") is recited twice daily from the first of Elul until after Sukkot. There are two customs as to when it is recited. According to Nusach Ashkenaz, it is recited after shacharit and after maariv. According to Nusach Sefarad and Sefardi practice, the second recitation is after mincha not maariv.

The logic behind the Ashkenazi custom is straightforward: once during the day, once at night. That's also when we say the shema, and the purpose appears to be the same: it's constantly on your mind, even if you are not literally saying it for 24 hours nonstop. (See from Shabbat Kedusha: ערב ובוקר בכל יום תמיד, פעמיים באהבה שמע אומרים)

The Sefardi custom, that you recite the psalm at shacharit and mincha, is harder to explain. That means reciting it twice during the day, and zero times at night. The ideal of constant repetition is lost. Why then recite it at these particular times?

The obvious association with these two times is that of sacrifices. In the Temple there are two daily sacrifices, in morning and afternoon. As a consequence, nowadays there are two fully obligatory prayers - shacharit and mincha (maariv is at a lower level). The Sefardi custom appears to view Psalm 27 as a prayer to God. This is distinct from the Ashenazi custom, which views the psalm as a declaration about God.

Where do these two perspectives on Psalm 27 - as prayer and declaration - come from? In fact, both perspectives are already present in the psalm itself.

In the middle of the psalm, there is a section which addresses God in the second person. "Hear, Hashem, when I call with my voice, and be gracious to me, and answer me," it begins. This is quite obviously a prayer. Also, at the very end, is a line addressed at a human being. "Hope for Hashem; be strong and courageous of heart, and hope for Hashem." This is clearly some sort of declaration, not prayer.

Having shown that part of the psalm is declaration and part prayer, the question remains what the rest of the psalm consists of. My instinct is that the rest is a kind of declaration. But for the purposes of the custom we were discussing, it doesn't really matter. The Sefardi custom is based on the example of the prayer found in psalm's middle, while the Ashkenazi custom follows the declaration found in other parts of the psalm.

In the gemara's discussion of prayer one finds (Brachot 28b) the following statement: "One who makes his prayer fixed - his prayer does not consist of tahanunim [entreaties, pleas]." This is a strange formulation. Based on the first half of the statement, you would expect a clear value judgment in the second half, something like "his prayer is accepted" or "his prayer is invalid". Hearing "his prayer does not consist of tahanunim" confuses as much as it teaches. We learn here that a prayer cannot be both fixed and consist of tahanunim. If it is one, it cannot be the other. But then, which of the two should it be? Which one is preferable?

Perhaps the answer is that neither is preferable; both are necessary. There is value in an intimate and personal prayer, and there is also value in a clear and considered declaration of intent. But in practice, it's hard to have both at the same time. All year long, the Sefardi tendency to chant prayers aloud as a community seems to emphasize the "declaration" side of prayer, while the Ashkenazi tendency to say everything in a whisper encourages the personal side. With Psalm 27, the respective emphases of the two communities are reversed. It is Sefardim who emphasize the personal aspect, while Ashkenazim read the psalm as if it were a declaration.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

True story: the Netivot

At one point, Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum (aka "The Netivot", after his commentary Netivot Hamishpat) got divorced. At the time, it was such a scandal for a prominent rabbi to get divorced that he was fired by his congregants. He was forced to make a living elsewhere and went into business. One day, he became involved in a dispute with another businessman and the matter was brought to Jewish court. The judge, who happened not to recognize the Netivot, eventually ruled against him. He then asked the judge what sources were used in the ruling. The judge replied, "Well, I mainly based myself on the comments in a quite good recently published book..." As it turned out, a book authored by none other than the Netivot himself! Yet the Netivot had completely forgotten the relevant law.

In his Pirkei Avot shiur last Shabbat, R' Herschel Shechter used this story (which he said had been recently rediscovered from old documents) to illustrate how when one has a personal stake in a matter, even a great person will find it impossible to be objective.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My name

My roommate told me I have "the name of an ars from Bat Yam"...

Tehilim 115 and 116

When you can't find your keys, often it is not because they are in an obscure place you can't think of, but because they are in such an obvious place that you think it unnecessary to look there. Something similar applies to certain parts of Tanach. We see so often in one specific context that we effectively train ourselves not to look at them from any perspective other than the usual one.

Tehillim 115 and 116 are good examples. We recite them regularly in Hallel. But in Hallel each chapter is split into two paragraphs which are said separately (and often, one half is not even said). This makes it hard for us to notice connections between the halves which would be obvious if the chapter were said all at once. In this post I would like to examine several such connections.

O Israel, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
O house of Aharon, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
You that fear Hashem, trust Hashem! He is their help and their shield.
Hashem has remembered us, He will bless:
He will bless the house of Israel; He will bless the house of Aharon.
He will bless them that fear Hashem, both small and great.

Here we have a list of divisions of the Jewish people: "Israel", "the house of Aharon", and "those that fear Hashem". This list first appears in verses 9-11, where each division is asked to trust God. In the very next two verses (but in a totally separate paragraph in Hallel), the list of divisions appears again, as a list of those who God will bless.

In Hallel, we see these lists of divisions as totally separate. But reading the chapter as a whole, we see they come one after another, and the connection between them is clear. When and because we trust God, God will notice it ("Hashem has remembered us"), and bless us. Not only does the chapter discuss human behavior and Divine favor, but it connects them, thereby introducing another very important concept: that of reward and punishment.

They have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; nor do they speak with their throat.
They that make them will become like them; as will all who trust in them.
The dead do not praise Hashem, nor do any that go down into silence;
But we will bless Hashem from now and forever.

There is a certain tension in last two lines. How can you contrast righteous people with dead people, when righteous people eventually die too?

An answer may perhaps be found in the first two lines, which further explain the "death" and "silence" of verse 17. Idols are dead and silent, and idol worshippers eventually become dead and silent too. So it is not all people, but only idol worshippers who are considered "dead". In contrast, God worshippers are considered "alive" forever.

Perhaps these verses are a reference to olam haba, which for those who get it is a form of perpetual life, while other people do not get it and "die". Alternatively, the verses refer to our physical lives. Every individual must die, but the Jewish people as a whole lives and worships God forever. While idol worship may similarly persist for many generations, idolatrous life is empty of meaning, so idolaters can well be considered "dead" like their idols even while physically alive.

I said in my haste: All men are deceitful. (116:11)
My vows to Hashem I will keep, opposite His entire people. (116:14)
My vows to Hashem I will keep, opposite His entire people. (116:18)

These lines contradict each other. The speaker here has just said that all men are deceitful. By implication this includes himself. But if so, what meaning can his commitment to keep his vows have?

It seems that the resolution goes as follows. Humans by their nature are dishonest. The speaker makes an effort to leave normal human behavior by being honest.

In effect, he chooses to part company with humans and their typical ways, and associate with God and His ways instead. (This does not make the speaker a sociopath; the "entire people" makes the same choice along with him.) On the spectrum between human corruption and Divine virtue, the speaker has chosen to shift in one particular direction. We see the distancing from human weakness in one verse, and the approaching of God in another. Only by looking at both verses together can we see that these are two different ways of describing the exact same movement.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Rest and Torah study

On one hand, Shabbat is a time for rest and enjoyment - "menucha vesimcha or layehudim". On the other hand, according to the Yerushalmi "Shabbat and holidays were only given to Israel in order to do Torah study." So what is the purpose of Shabbat - to enjoy and refresh ourselves, or to learn Torah?

This article tries to reconcile the sources by saying that Torah study itself should constitute enjoyment. While true, this answer solves only half the problem at most. For while Torah study may be enjoyable, it is not restful. One who learns Torah all week long cannot "rest" by pursuing the same routine on Shabbat. And deep Torah study is considered strenuous rather than restful: " 'This is the Torah: when a person dies in a tent' - words of Torah are preserved only by one who kills himself over them." (Brachot 43b). How can Shabbat be a time for both rest and this kind of extreme effort?

Before solving the difficulty, let's extend it with the help of a cute gemara in Eruvin 56a. "R' Yehudah said: Night was created only for sleep. R' Shimon ben Lakish said: The moon was created only for study."* Each rabbi points to an aspect of nature (darkness and the moon) which makes possible their preferred nighttime activity (sleep and Torah study). Apparently nighttime, like Shabbat, is a time when we should be both resting and learning Torah. Yet R' Yehudah and Reish Lakish disagree, because is impossible for a person to do both simultaneously.

Perhaps this tension between rest and Torah study is not unique to night, or to Shabbat, but occurs whenever one has the opportunity to rest. If so, then the gemara in Brachot 64b suggests itself as a resolution to our question. "R' Chiya bar Ashi says in the name of Rav: Torah scholars have no rest, neither in this world nor in the world to come, as it says: 'They will go from strength to strength, they will appear before God in Zion'."

Here we find the answer to our question: what is required of Torah scholars may not be suitable for normal people. It seems that "rest", including that of nighttime and Shabbat, is an accepted part of life that most people can and should partake in. But Torah scholars are not "most people". One who aspires to be not only a good person but a leader must sacrifice some legitimate elements of his personal life. The responsibility a Torah scholar takes upon himself, in transmitting Jewish tradition from one generation to the next and supplying spiritual guidance for the rest of his generation, means that one will not be able to rest at every time he finds it desirable.

Of course, even the most righteous human being remains human. It is not possible to refrain entirely from sleeping at night, and even one who constantly learns Torah must differentiate in some way between Shabbat and weekdays. There are physical and psychological limits on what any person can accomplish. But up to these limits, comforts that are legitimate and even Torah-encouraged in one's personal life must sometimes be sacrificed for the common good.

*Based on this, the Rambam (Hilchot talmud torah 3:13) says that a person learns most of his Torah wisdom at night. The Rambam goes further then the gemara in saying that night is not just a time for Torah, but MORE of a time than the day is. Presumably, this reflects the Rambam's expectation that a person work during the day.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Who are these frummies?

Guesses welcome in the comment section. I'll probably post the answer in a week or two (does anyone come here more often than that?)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thoughts on Shelach

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sefer Bamidbar (and perhaps Vayikra too) is that it alternates between stories and laws, several chapters of each at a time. While often no historical or chronological connection between adjacent stories and laws is apparent, it is accepted that there is a usually a clear thematic connection.

The most commonly cited case is in our parsha, which describes the spies who "tour" Israel, and the people's punishment for wanting to return to Egypt based on their report. These stories are followed by the mitzvah of tzitzit, which warns us not to "tour" with our evil inclinations, and reminds us that God "took us out of the land of Egypt to be our God" - implying that returning to Egypt means rejecting God.

Before the mitzvah of tzitzit are several other mitzvot - the "mincha" and libation offerings which much accompany animal sacrifices, and the separation of "hallah" - whose connection to the spies story is less clear. Admittedly, each of these laws is prefaced by "When you come to the land [of Israel]", and as Ibn Ezra and Ramban explain, this is an implied comforting promise that the next generation at least will reach the land. But is this preface really sufficient reason for all the laws to appear next to the spies story? To ask the question differently, what is the connection between the preface and the laws being prefaced?

Based on the preface, Chazal conclude that mincha and libations were not offered in the desert (at least by individuals). I would like to argue that beyond this textual reason, there is a clear practical reason why the laws could not have applied.

In the desert the Israelites had relatively many domestic animals. The tribes of Reuven and Gad had "many cattle" and chose their inheritance based on its pasture land (Bamidbar 32). Other tribes had fewer, but presumably not zero animals. Perhaps these animals were not enough to supply a sustainable diet of meat, hence the complaints in Behaalotecha. But they sufficed for slaughter and consumption on special occasions, or for a few sacrifices in the Mishkan.

While the people possessed some amount of meat, they apparently had no access to grain or wine. There is no indication that they performed any farming in the desert. Their main sustenance came from manna. Little rain falls where they were, watering crops with well or spring water would have been difficult, and planted crops might have to be abandoned at any time for an unannounced journey. If the Israelites had any wheat or wine, it likely came from trading with neighboring peoples. But the quantities that could reasonably be traded for were small.

In these circumstances, it makes sense that no mincha or libation offerings were required with sacrifices. It would be reasonable to ask Israelites to bring animal offerings. But they would find it almost impossible to bring wheat or grape products at the same time. Thus the mincha and libation laws did not apply in the desert. Hallah, too, depends on grain and could not have been separated in the desert.

Only upon reaching the land of Israel, where wheat and grapes were staple foods, would the laws take effect. As punishment for the spies episode, the people could not enter the land of Israel. But by studying and teaching these laws, they could prepare for the entry in the next generation. People who fail at a task often obtain some consolation when their children succeed at the same task. This is the comfort offered to the people by these laws, and the reason for their placement immediately after the story of the spies.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Uncovering nakedness

The Torah frequently used the expression "gilui ervah", "uncovering nakedness", to describe sexual encounters. Literally, this refers only to the removal of clothing, and physical contact is implied rather than stated. One assumes that this is a euphemism, used to ensure modesty when discussing immodest matters.

But there are problems with this understanding. In other places, such as Devarim 28:30, the Torah uses more explicit language. Why could the same language not have been used in the sexual laws, particularly when there is the danger of misunderstand the laws to prohibit stripping as well as actual intercourse?

An alternative suggested itself to me on Shavuot morning while hearing Ruth 4:4. There appears the phrase "gilui ozen", "uncovering an ear". From a concordance I learned that the phrase means to inform or command someone. This usage too departs from the literal meaning of "uncovering". You might assume that "uncovering" an ear means to get someone's attention, to make them receptive to speech which might come in the future. But here it means not only that the ear is exposed, but that words enter it and implant some idea in the listener's mind, causing the listener to act differently in the future.

Perhaps "uncovering" has the same additional connotations - penetration and implantation - when used to describe "nakedness". If so, then "uncovering nakedness" is not a euphemism, but a quite exact reference to sexual intercourse. It becomes clear that only the full sexual act is forbidden. Simply disrobing, while inappropriate, does not incur the death penalty.

This understanding of "uncovering" is perhaps supported by Vayikra 18:10: "Do not uncover the nakedness of your [granddaughters], for they are your nakedness." From this verse it appears there is something wrong with uncovering your own nakedness. People see themselves naked whenever they bathe and the Torah permits bathing. So the phrase "your nakedness" only makes sense, even as a metaphor, if "uncovering" means more than exposure.

More support comes from the fact that the phrase "gilui ervah" is used only regarding women. ("Uncovering your father's nakedness" in Vayikra 18:8 means to uncover your father's wife's nakedness, on the principle that married people "become one flesh", Breishit 2:24.) The only verse to mention a man's nakedness - Vayikra 20:17 - says that his nakedness is seen rather than uncovered. Meanwhile, his incestuous female partner's nakedness is both "seen" and "uncovered". Since the man is not penetrated, it appears that "uncovering" cannot be applied to him.

What is the practical difference between "seeing" and "uncovering"? To uncover something means to necessarily see it, and also implies an action performed by the observer to the observed. It is this active role that the phrases "uncovering ears" and "uncovering nakedness" both allude to.

You will undoubtedly accuse me of having a dirty mind, for basing this post on a comparison between the ear and female genitalia. But it is not me doing the comparison, it is the Hebrew language which used the same metaphor for both. And it is not dirty, in the sense that when I needed a metaphor for ears, genitals came to mind. Rather, when metaphors for both ears and genitals were needed, the same third option came to mind. Having cleared myself of the accusation of crudeness, hopefully you will appreciate the interpretation that I have now uncovered.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

770 jerusalem

In the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of northern Jerusalem, there is a duplicate copy of "770" - the central Chabad shrine in Crown Heights.

The building's location was very carefully chosen. It is on "Lubavitcher Rebbe St." and the house number is 36 - double chai. Surely neither street name nor number is a coincidence.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Gemara is kefira?

"There are three types who deny [kofer] the Torah: 1) One who says the Torah is not from God - even one verse, even one word, if he said that Moshe said it of his own volition [amro mipi atzmo], behold he denies the Torah..."
(Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 3:8)

"These [the curses in Vayikra 26] are written in plural language and Moshe repeated God's words [mipi hagevurah amran]; while these [the curses in Devarim 28] are written in singular language and Moshe said them of his own volition [mipi atzmo amran]."
(Gemara, Megillah 31b)

Though it is more likely that the Rambam is choosing one gemara (Sanhedrin 79) over another, or else that "mipi atzmo" means different things in Rambam and gemara, the idea that the Rambam considered the gemara to be heresy is slightly amusing. At least to me.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cross pollination

"Do you search for what is highest and greatest? Every plant can teach it to you."
-Schiller (1759-1805)

"Know that each and every plant has its own song... How beautiful and pleasant it is when we hear their song. It is very good to pray between them and to happily serve God."
-R' Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt

When I was in preschool, in between my digging tunnels to China, they taught me the song "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt". Only much later did I realize that this is basically a racist song making fun of German names and the German language in general.

To get a sense of how times have changed (or how the sensitivities of some ethnic groups matter more than those of others) let's change the name in the song to something more appropriate for a a 21st-century immigrant.

"Ching Chi Po Foo, that's my name too!
Whenever I go out, people always shout: Long live Ching Chi Po Foo! Dadadadadadada!"

Imagine the outcry if they started teaching that song to kids.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A tunnel to China

Like every other little kid in the US, I once tried to dig a hole to China. Not having a globe and assuming at China was on the exact opposite side of the world, I tried to dig straight down through the center of the earth to China. Of course, recess always ended before I got more than a foot or two underground.

At a later age, I realized how incredibly useful such a hole would be if it could actually be built. Rather than flying or sailing around the world, you could just step into the hole and start falling. You would continuously accelerate until reaching the center of the earth, at which point you would decelerate until reaching a halt right at the surface of China. (Then you'd have to leave the hole quickly, lest you fall back down to America again.) Thus, there would be very quick transportation between the US and China, expending no energy whatsoever. Also, a hole like this would not have to go through the exact center of the earth. You could dig a hole from New York to Los Angeles and put train tracks in it. The train would accelerate "downhill" for 2000 miles, then decelerate "uphill" until stopping automatically at its destination. All extremely fast and totally free once the tunnel was built.

I wondered how long exactly it would take to make such a trip. But it took many years until I learned how to do this calculation. Since the acceleration of gravity varies with depth, the solution requires the use of calculus and differential equations. Not until my sophomore year of college did I learn how to solve the problem. And not until last night did I fully solve it, including the case when the tunnel does not go through the earth's center. I assumed of course that the earth is perfectly spherical, with uniform density, and that there's no friction.

It turns out that it takes 42 minutes to make the trip through such a tunnel. Amazingly, if my calculations are right, this time does not depend on the tunnel's path. Falling through the earth's center to China, or tunneling on a diagonal from NY to LA, or simply digging a perfectly horizontal and frictionless tunnel through the hill you live next to - no matter what tunnel you build, it will take 42 minutes for gravity to pull you from one end to the other.

Obviously you will fall faster when going to China. You will reach a speed of 18000 miles per hour at the center of the earth, while as for the hill next door, the 42 minutes spend sliding through that short frictionless tunnel would pass agonizingly slowly. If there was a slight breeze, it would overcome gravity and push you in the opposite direction.

Of course, the center of the earth is hot enough to melt rocks, not to mention metal, making a tunnel to China very short lasting even if it could somehow be built. And it's hard to imagine a vehicle surviving a trip at 18000mph. If you collided with someone at the center of the earth, both of you would instantly be vaporized. So really, this tunnel idea is totally impractical. But if it could somehow be built... well, the idea has given me something to think about now for roughly 20 years and counting.

[Technical note: 42min = pi*sqrt(g/R), 18000mph = sqrt(g*R). Equation of motion: X=R*cos(t*sqrt(g/R)). For tunnel not through the earth's center, replace the first R with half the tunnel length. R=earth's radius, g=acceleration at earth's surface. ]

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Reactions to terrorism

Likud: How dare they kill our children!
Yisrael Beitenu: Let's [bleep bleep] them for killing our children.
Kadima: How dare they kill our children! But what can we do about it, since international opinion says there's nothing wrong with it?
Labor: The positive side of our children dying is that it demonstrates our commitment to a two-state-solution and goodwill towards the PA chairman.
Ichud Leumi: How dare they kill our children! Only we have the right to kill children!
Meretz: How dare we kill our children!

Sunday, May 03, 2009


Imagine you were walking peacefully down the street, when suddenly a man burst out of his house and ran up to the border of his property while waving a weapon and yelling nasty threats at you. What would you do?

After getting the hell out of there, you would likely call the police and have the man arrested for assault, or at least for disturbing the peace.

So why is it perfectly legal and OK when a dog behaves the same way towards you?

Recently I set out to try and do something about this situation. I purchased an ultrasound device that people cannot hear but which is supposedly unbearable to dogs. The idea is that whenever they bark at me I'll give them a quick dose of ultrasound and they'll quickly learn that it's in their interest to remain quiet. Results have been mixed. The first dog I tried it on, a large German shepherd, immediately froze and dropped to the floor as if electrocuted. Another couple incidents like that and I'm sure the neighbors would never hear it again. But today I tried the ultrasound on two small dogs and it barely made them flinch.

Therefore a different strategy is needed for next time. I now want to purchase some kind of tear gas which, while potentially causing problems at security checks, will be an effective dog deterrent whenever needed.

Go ahead and accuse me of cruelty to animals. But I like to think that not only dogs, but humans possess rights as well. And I intend to exercise mine.

P.S. I am not anti-dog. Some of my best friends are dogs. It is just the dogs that bark at me I don't like. Oh yeah, and the ones that use the sidewalk as their bathroom, but that is more a deficiency in the owner than in the animal.

Friday, May 01, 2009


In almost every nature reserve in northern Israel there are herds of cows walking around and grazing.

I used to think how nice it would be to be one of those cows, living all your life in such beautiful and interesting surroundings. (Bear with my anthropomorphism for the moment.)

But then I realized why it is better to be human. The cow spends its entire life in one beautiful location. I, as a person, can eventually see every such location.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thoughts on Kedoshim

You shall not do wrong in judgment - in length, weight, or volume. Fair balances, fair weights, a fair efah, and a fair hin you shall have; I am Hashem your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt. (19:35-36)

The first verse mentions three types of measurement in which we must not cheat people. The second verse gives examples, with the efah and hin being units of volume, or rather containers with volume equal those units.

The second verse follows the order of the first verse: weight measurement, then volume measurement. Length measurement, however, is conspicuously absent. Shouldn't a fair yardstick and tape measure have been mentioned before the fair balance, weights, efah, and hin?

Here are two possible explanations for why they are not mentioned.

1) Dishonest length measuring tools could be immediately detected by placing them next to fair tools, while with weight and volume measures the deception would be less obvious. Thus, perhaps, dishonesty was less common in length than in volume or weight measurements, so they did not need to be mentioned multiple times for emphasis.

2) Perhaps length was normally measured not with tools but with body parts. We are familiar with halachic measurements such as cubits and thumb-breadths, and secular measurements such as "feet" and paces, which derive from the human body. It is certainly possibly to cheat somebody in a length measurement, by bending a body part or changing your pace length. But this cheating was not normally done using a dishonest tool.

The first verse bans cheating. The second verse bans tools whose only possible use is unacceptable (like skeleton keys and "assault weapons" nowadays). Since body parts cannot be outlawed, they are omitted from the second verse.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thoughts on Metzora

Parshat Metzora ends with the laws of impurity of bodily emissions (15:1-32), which are presented in the following order:

1. Zav
2. Seminal emission
3. Menstruation
4. Zava

It can readily be seen that these four laws form a chiastic structure:

1. Unnatural male emission
2. Natural male emission
3. Natural female emission
4. Unnatural female emission

The underlying logic is clear. The laws are divided into those of males and females, while the male and female sections are each divided into natural and unnatural emissions. The order of laws in the female section is reversed, so that as we go from the male to the female section, the subtopic (natural emissions) remains the same.

Like all ancient texts, originally the Torah was most often recited and heard rather than read by individuals. One can skip from page to page while reading a book, but not while hearing an oral recitation. Thus smooth continuity, in addition to logical structure, is a compelling factor in the Torah's organization. A chiastic structure was inevitable in this chapter, because no other ordering is continuous between its sections as well as logically clear.

It is on the basis of unambiguous passages like this that people think that the Torah uses chiastic structures. The key question is to what extent such structures are present in cases when the structure is less apparent and its utility less clear. That is one debate between the "literary Tanach" enthusiasts, and between those who think literary methods are sometimes overused to discover patterns that do not really exist.

Lashon hakodesh

One of the likable traits of some Israelis is that despite their not being at all religious, their conversations are sprinkled with idioms from Tanach and Jewish tradition.

I once went to a one-day class, taught by a secular-looking engineer, which did a good job of exemplifying this. At one point the teacher explained a complicated topic, and upon finishing, showed two other results that were trivial to derive from the initial conclusion. These additional results, he said, were "yotzim hinam ein kesef". Then, near the end of the class, he said "Now that kulanu hachamim, kulanu nivonim..." and began to describe a task we could do with our just-acquired knowledge. These phrases stick in my mind more than two years after I attended the class.

I recently found out that the use of these idioms is not "natural", but rather, was deliberately cultivated by Israeli education. An official Israeli school curriculum guide published in 1954 includes the following directive: "The teacher should nourish in the heart of the pupils a love for the Oral Torah... and should consciously endeavor in his instruction that the pupils absorb the specific idioms and ways of expression of the Mishnah and the Aggadah." (quoted in Tradition 2:2:249)

Those instructions were for the secular, not religious, schools.

In recent years, the secular education system seems to have abandoned this goal. From the experience with student and other young people I have met, it seems clear that they don't make secular Israelis like they used to.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thoughts on Shmini

In parshat Shemini we read about the death of Nadav and Avihu. In parshat Acharei Mot we read the follow-up to this story:

Hashem spoke to Moshe, after the death of the two sons of Aharon, when they approached Hashem, and died. Hashem said to Moshe: "Speak to Aharon your brother, that he not approach the holy place at all times..." (16:1-2)

Not only is Acharei Mot introduced by a reference to Shemini, but the Yom Kippur sacrifices specified in Acharei Mot are the same as those offered on the 8th day of the Mishkan's inauguration.

It would seem natural for Acharei Mot to immediately follow the story in Shemini. But there are five chapters of apparently unrelated material in between. What is this material doing there?

Looking at this material, we see it consists of four sections:

1. Kashrut of food
2. Impurity of a woman who has given birth
3. Leprosy
4. Bodily emissions

The common element between them is the centrality of purity and impurity. Sections 2 and 4 deal exclusively with such laws. And purity is the central theme in sections 1 and 3: non-kosher animal species are called "impure" species and it is emphasized that one who touches their carcass becomes impure; while to be diagnosed with leprosy is to be declared "impure".

It seems that the purpose of these laws is to establish ritual boundaries in different aspects of life. Nadav and Avihu's sin involved ignoring necessary behavioural boundaries in the Mishkan. The laws of purity and impurity, which establish such boundaries throughout life, are training to sensitize ourselves to such boundaries. Only after learning, practicing, and internalizing these laws can we be ready to return to the Mishkan. Acharei Mot, which teaches us how to properly enter the Mishkan as far as the Holy of Holies, must wait until we have prepared ourselves and there is no chance that Nadav and Avihu's mistake will recur.

Now, there are many laws of purity in the Torah and not all of them appear in our passage. Why where these particular laws chosen and others not? To answer this, let us look at a clear pattern in the themes of the laws that were chosen:

1. Substances entering the body
2. Birth
3. Death*
4. Substances leaving the body

*A leper is regarded as somewhat dead; see for example the description of Miriam's leprosy: "Let her not be like a dead person" (Bamidbar 12:12).

Sections 2 and 3 represent a person, from the beginning to the end of life. Sections 1 and 4 represent the limits between that person and the outside world. These four sections serve to define human existence in the dimensions of space and time. These are not the only laws of purity in existence. But they are sufficient to symbolize a system of purity and impurity which encompasses every aspect of our lives.