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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Muhammad - A Biography of the Prophet, by Karen Armstrong

I bought Armstrong's book about Muhammad about a year ago, after reading her short book about the history of Islam. I liked that book, as it covered the main topics about Islam quite well, so I thought I would enjoy reading her previous, longer book about the founder of that religion: Muhammad - A biography of the Prophet.

In Muhammad Armstrong paints a loving and sympathetic picture of the man who created the world's second largest religion (soon probably to become the first largest). The prophet is described as a gentle and caring person who possessed charismatic skills and spiritual deepness, that succeeded to transform Arabia from pagan belief to monotheistic belief in a remarkably short period of time. Armstrong depicts Muhammad in glowing colours, even when she admits his wrongdoings. In the 8th chapter, "Holy War", Armstrong recounts the massacre and summary executions of the Jewish community in Qurayzah and apologetically describes them as "a reminder of the desparate conditions of Arabia during Muhammad's lifetime" (p. 208). She continually reminds the reader that the word "Islam" means peace and reconciliation, but some of the events described in the book (and the atrocities committed in the name of Islam in our times) leave us wondering about the application of these virtues by Muslims throughout history.

Prof. Emanual Sivan, one of Israel's leading historians of Islam, wrote a review about Muhammad in Ha'aretz a few months ago. He described Armstrong's book as "history soaked in rose water" and claims that the author shed all sense of criticism before writing the book and failed in distinguishing between historical facts and myths which evolved long after Muhammad died. I am no expert of Islam, but I tend to agree; I feel I know more about the life of Muhammad now, but I am left with a sense of an unbalanced view of this great man.

There was one observation in the book which I liked very much. When she starts describing Muhammad's rising success as a skilled and respected politician, Armstrong mentions that the Christian world has always judged this part of the prophet's life with distrust. The Western view has traditionally seen Muhammad's political success as proof that he was an impostor using religion as a means to power. To explain this attitude, Armstrong offers the following insight:

Because the Christian world is dominated by the image of the crucified Jesus, who said that his kingdom was not of this world, we tend to see failure and humiliation as the hallmark of a religious leader. We do not expect our spiritual heroes to achieve a dazzling success in mundane terms. (p. 164)

Monday, November 29, 2004

The Cost of Doing Business in Japan

A friend of mine, who owns a consulting company here (iLand6), publishes a monthly email about business in Japan.

Today I received the following email from him, in which he gives two good examples of the high cost of doing business in Japan:

The doorbell of my home rang early Saturday morning. It was the contractor doing renovations on flat 403, two stories above. They brought me a cake, to apologize for all the noise and inconvenience this past month.

My friend Yamano-san is an account manager at the Japan subsidiary of a U.S. bio-medical company. Last week she flew to a customer halfway across Japan. The sole purpose of the meeting was to personally apologize for the parent company missing its delivery schedule.

These two cases represent more than cultural nuance. They show a basic business philosophy, in which customer relationship comes first, and support needs to be in place before sales. It represents a cost of doing business in Japan, and explains why small, foreign companies are not immediately accepted here.

Of course, every country has its own peculiarities. In the U.S., a company might be sued for a late delivery, or for causing anguish to neighboring tenants. There are costs for legal retainers and liability insurance. Whats important is to keep an open mind, and to adapt to the country youre working in.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Japanese and Napping

One of the most enviable Japanese traits is the ability to doze off almost at will, in any position and at any time. It is a common sight here to see people sleeping on subway or train cars. Indeed, in early morning hours or on late trains most of the passengers will be fast asleep, some in funny positions. Yet somehow they all manage to get up just before their stop.

Less common, but not unusual, is the habit of business men to take short naps during meetings, especially if the forum is large. The meetings carry on uninterrupted, those awake respectfully ignoring those asleep.

Someone took pictures of sleeping Japanese, mostly men, in public places. Although some of these may not look genuine, they will not seem strange to anyone familiar with Japan.

Perhaps the Japanese take the "power naps" recommendations seriously. But they have a long way to go. One time, on a business trip to Taiwan, I entered an office building around 1pm, just after lunch-time. Every single employee in the large open-space working area (20-25 in total) was fast asleep at his/her desk, head resting on a pillow. I had to tiptoe quietly to the conference room at the end of the hall for my meeting, lest I woke anybody up...

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Textbook Disclaimer Stickers

Back in 2002, the Cobb County Board of Education (in Georgia) printed a sticker for schools to put on science books dealing with evolution. The sticker says:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Colin Purrington, associate professor of evolutionary biology at Swarthmore College (in Pennsylvania) liked it so much that he created a whole page of disclaimer stickers, warning readers to approach subjects such as gravity, the earth being round and God "with an open mind".

Quite entertaining.

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

Christopher is fifteen years old. He lives in Swindon, England, with his father. He knows all the prime numbers up to 7,057. He can name all the countries in the world, and their capital cities. He hates the colours yellow and brown. He loves animals and keeps a pet rat, Toby. Soon he's going to be sitting his Maths A-level.

But Christopher has behavioural problems: he does not like being touched; he smashes things and screams when he gets angry or confused; he never smiles; and he refuses to eat food if it is touching another sort of food. Christopher is autistic.

One night, Christopher discovers his neighbour's poodle, Wellington, lying dead in the garden. Christopher decides to become a detective and find the killer. This book is his story. Because he cannot comprehend figures of speech or use sarcasm or even imagine things which did not happen, Christopher writes this book as a series of faithfully recorded conversations and observations. A detailed diary of this thoughts and actions.

Haddon's debut novel is a disturbing book. Although it is funny in parts it is awfully sad in others. The author succeeds in exposing to the reader the world of an autistic child (Haddon worked with autistics) by avoiding the pitfalls of excessive sentimentalism or exploitation of a sensitive subject. It is easy to fall in love with Christopher, who needs to cope not only with his disability but also with a dysfunctional family that is breaking apart around him.

I can only hope that when the movie version of this book is made, it will not be a soppy schmaltz like "Rain Man".

Thursday, November 25, 2004

VaYishlach - The Voice of Dinah

ותצא דינה בת לאה, אשר ילדה ליעקב, לראות בבנות הארץ

(בראשית ל"ד, א')

The story of Dinah is one of the most difficult stories in Bereshit. Dinah "went out to see the daughters of the land", she is raped by Shechem who then falls in love with her and asks to marry her. Shimon and Levi, her brothers, trick the people of Shechem by asking them to circumcize themselves before the wedding can take place, and then come upon the city, kill all the men and capture all the women and property. The attitude of the Torah towards their deeds is summarized by the "blessing" their father, Ya'akov, awards them on his deathbed:

Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.

(Bereshit 49, 5-7; KJV)

Throughout the story of Dinah we hear the words and thoughts of her father Ya'akov, her brothers Shimon and Levi, her tormentor Shechem and his father Hamor. But we hear nothing from Dinah, not a single word. We know nothing of her thoughts, what she said, how she felt or what she wanted. Most of the traditional commentators attribute some responsibility to Dinah for what happened, basing their comments on the words "she went out" and implying this venturing outside was improper. This is in line with the traditional view of women: כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה, "The king's daughter is all glorious within" (Tehilim 45, 13).

In our times, several women have proposed a different reading of Dinah's story, by giving Dinah a voice she does not have in Bereshit. First and foremost among these new commentators is Anita Diamant, with her book The Red Tent, published in 1997 and becoming a worldwide bestseller.

I read the book a few years ago and I recall being very annoyed with it. Ms. Diamant takes the story far beyond the facts in the Bible and does so not only by giving Dinah a voice but by turning the Biblical story on its head. She portrays Ya'akov as a violent, lustful father and his sons mostly as inept fools. Joseph, who later becomes the de-facto ruler of Egypt, is described as illiterate. Amazingly, she even turns the rape into a love affair: Dinah's brothers did not resuce her; they snatched her away from the loving embrace of Shechem, with whom she was planning to elope.

Even the eponymous Red Tent is fiction. In the book, women were cast aside to a designated tent during their menstruation cycle. This has no basis in Jewish history or belief. True, the Torah commands us to refrain from contact with our wives during this time of the month, but banishing them to a separate dwelling?

My annoyance was with the "invention" of a new story rather than with the addition of Dinah's voice to the story. With the benefit of hindsight I an now less annoyed. Time heals all wounds. I understand that as a work of fiction, The Red Tent is a compelling read. Unfortunately, I fear that many of the millions who read it will form a distorted view of the Bible and of our forefathers.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Gifts of the Jews, by Thomas Cahill

Following How the Irish Saved Civilization, I read volume 2 of Thomas Cahill's Hinges of History series: The Gifts of the Jews.

In this bestselling book, Cahill sets out to show that the world we live in and everything we do and think, is purportedly a result of the Jewish "revolution" in history. The concepts expounded in the Bible were a dramatic break from the ancient religions and philosophies, that viewed the world as an endless cycle of birth and death in which human beings had no control over their lives. The Jews broke this way of thinking by defining time as continuous, as moving towards a better future through the decisions of men and women living here and now, in the present. Were it not for the Jews, argues Cahill, the world as we know it would not have come to be; we would have been unable to grasp concepts such as history, future, freedom, faith, hope, individual, justice and pretty much everything else.

What a wonderful theory and, as a Jew, I'm obviously all for it. But unfortunately Cahill devotes most of the book not to providing evidence to support this theory, but rather to a recounting of the major stories of the Bible from his perspective. The few profound points he makes about the contribution of the Jews to the world are lost in the endless quotes from the Bible and in Cahill's somewhat simplistic theories about what really happened. For example, do we really need to know that he believes the Red Sea was a marsh and not a sea, or that the Manna the Israelites ate in the desert was most likely some white plant secretion? Such details are numerous and do not contribute to the main idea offered by the author.

Cahill does not come through as a particularly believing person and he certainly does not view the Bible as the word of God. Therefore, it is interesting that he uses the following definition for the existence of God:

...the Jews developed a whole new way of experiencing reality, the only alternative to all ancient worldviews and all ancient religions. If one is ever to find the finger of God in human affairs, one must find it here. (p. 246)

I wonder if Cahill was aware that this very definition was given by Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Britain. When asked by Queen Victoria if he can provide proof that God exists, Disraeli (born Jewish himself) thought for a moment and replied: "The Jews, your Majesty".

As a believing Jew I particularly liked the way Cahill defines how each and every one of us hears the Voice of God:

Each reader must decide if the Voice that spoke to the patriarchs and prophets speaks to him, too. If it does, there is no question of needing proof, any more than we require proof of anyone we believe in... one does not believe that God exists, as one believes that Timbuktu or the constellation Andromeda exists. One believes in God, as one believes in a friend - or one believes nothing." (p.250)

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Locust and Poverty

In the past week, a locust swarm has hit southern Israel. Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, was reportedly smothered under millions of these migratory flying insects.

In Exodus, the plague of locusts was the eighth of ten plagues visited upon the Egyptians. At that time, it was Moses (through God) that commanded the east wind that brought the locusts. But what is the reason for this week's unwelcome arrival of the kosher insects?

Well, according to rabbi Yehuda Batzri, a rather well-known Israeli "mystical" rabbi, the reason is the "sorrow that Israel's government is causing to the poor" with its recent economic policies. He says it's a "well known fact" that countries that ignore their poor are visited by locusts. The rabbi bases his learned opinion on the following story he recounts: 400 years ago, a swarm of locusts was making its way towards the town of Tzfat (in northern Israel) and rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the "Ari") drew the town's attention to the fact that a local poor man was going hungry. The people of Tzfat quickly fed the man and the locusts changed their mind, took a turn and flew in another direction. The town was saved.

I cannot vouch for the historical truth of this story, but my question is: how does rabbi Batzri know with such confidence that it is specifically the disregard for the poor that draws locusts? I wonder.

Dog Shampoo Service

Walking in my neighbourhood today, I noticed a small, tall van with the curious label: "Coopoo - Dog Shampoo Service". And, surely enough, that's exactly what it was: a mobile shampoo station for dogs. Apparently, this is a Tokyo-wide service with vans in every ward.

I wish they had a similar service for children...

Dog Shampoo Service - The Van

Dog Shampoo Service - The Royal Treatment

Monday, November 22, 2004

Decolationed Cakes

No, there is no spelling mistake in the title. Well, not my spelling mistake anyway. My wife bought some cake decorations today. She showed me the label, and sure enough it read: Decolationed Cakes.

Which is a great opportunity to talk about English in Japan, or as it is more commonly known: Engrish (or Japlish).

The phenomenon of Japlish/Engrish has several aspects:

  1. The Japanese learn to spell English using their Katakana phonetic alphabet. This alphabet was created to deal with words that did not originate in Japanese, but because it mimicks the Japanese phonetic alphabet (Hiragana), it sounds like Japanese. For example, no sound ends in a consonant except for N and there is no V. So when you spell out an English word like "service", the Japanese spelling in Katakana is "sa-bi-su". The end result is that most Japanese pronounce English incorrectly (aside to the well-known confusion between L and R; surely you heard about the Japanese prime minister that asked a visiting counterpart whether there were erections in his country...).
  2. The structure of Japanese grammar is very different from that of English. For example, the verb comes at the end of the sentence. So the English sentence "yesterday I went to Kyoto" is "yesterday I Kyoto to went" in Japanese. As a result, when Japanese write English they sometimes structure the sentences as if they were Japanese sentences, i.e. upside down.
  3. As with any foreign language, trying to get a message across can be tricky. In Japan, this is especially true when it comes to marketing and advertising. There is a surprisingly large number of slogans, expressions and phrases written in English that make little or no sense. Some of them look like a few words were put together but with no sentence structure whatsoever. When the previous two aspects of Engrish/Japlish are combined with an effort to advertise in English, the result can be quite funny.

For a more detailed explanation of Engrish, see here. For a good laugh, check out

"Battleground God" - Is Religious Belief Rational?

The Philosopher's Magazine, an excellent publication, has an online quiz called "Battleground God".

The purpose of this quiz is to test whether your beliefs about religion are intellectually sound, by showing rational consistency. You need to answer 17 questions about God and religion with a "True" or "False" answer and avoid being inconsistent in your answers.

Try it here.

I took one direct hit and one bullet, which awarded me with their second highest award of distinction. Not bad for someone who thinks religious belief is irrational...

How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill

This weekend I finally got around to reading How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. This book, originally published in 1995, is the first in a series by Cahill called Hinges of History, books that examine "turning point" events in history.

This book tells the story of how Irish monks and scribes "saved civilization" by preserving Western literature during the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman empire (5th century) and before the rise of Charlemagne in France (8th century). Cahill depicts a lively and detailed picture of the fall of Rome in the hands of the Barbarians and then proceeds to paint with loving, vivid colours the person who made it all possible: Patrick, the man who almost single-handedly "created" Ireland.

This is not an academic book. Cahill writes for the general public, keeping his books short, his verse flowing and interspersed with humour ("How these people would have loved the batmobile!") and avoiding footnotes and lengthy appendixes. This approach is a mixed blessing; Cahill's brevity makes for a fast-paced read and a good grasp of the main facts, but the cost is oversimplification of historical processes and proneness to exaggeration.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Less Avodah, More Torah

Vered Kelner wrote an article in Ma'ariv this shabbat about the state of the Tzionut Datit (Religious Zionism) in Israel.

The article focuses on the ongoing trend among Israeli religious youth to become more "religious" and less committed to the ideal of Torah Va'Avoda, the combination of a religious way of life with involvement in all aspects of life in modern (and non-religious) Israel. Traditionally, religious Zionists in Israel defined themselves as fulfilling a commitment to three equally important values: Am Israel, Torat Israel and Eretz Israel (Jewish people, the Torah and the Land of Israel). Following the Six Day War in 1967, there was a shift of emphasis towards the value Land of Israel; now it seems the trend is towards emphasising the value of Torah, not unlike the charedi way of life.

In this now uneven triangle of values, the commitment to the Jewish people as a whole seems to be diminishing to a point of near oblivion.

The article (in Hebrew) is available on the NRG website.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

A Visitor to Japan

A good friend of mine visited Japan last week and stayed with us for a couple of days. It was his first trip to Japan and some of his comments about what he saw here took me back to my early days in Japan and made me smile.

One example is the level of customer service. Whether at the train station, in a convenience store, at the hotel or simply in the street, one of the things immediately apparent to a visitor here (especially to an Israeli) is the quality of service and the willingness of service providers to go out of their way to be helpful.

Customers are always greeted with an irrashaimase! (welcome!) cry when they enter the store and a similarly loud arigato gozaimasu (thank you) upon leaving it, often from all employees at once. A little disconcerting at first, this is standard practice.

Then there's the work discipline and the running around. Are you familiar with this scene: you walk up to an information desk and the girl there is on the phone chatting away with her friend, too busy to deign you with a glance? You will almost never catch a service provider here speaking on the phone or smoking a cigarette or indeed just staring idly into space. He or she will always be focused on the customer, attentive to his every need. It is not rare to see delivery men running to and from their truck, even if they are not in a rush. It is simply the way they carry out their jobs: in the best possible way. Walking instead of running means less customers served and hence a job badly done.

Politeness and respect for others is imbued in Japanese culture. Regardless of whether the customer got his wish or not, apologies are always offered. A business acquaintance of mine once told me that the first rule about doing business in Japan is: "always apologize". Even if the service you provided is flawless and the customer is more than satisfied, you should apologize. I have had a shop clerk apologize for the weather being so hot and humid in Tokyo, apparently because he found nothing concerning his service to be apologetic for.

Living here, one gets accustomed very quickly to this level of service and it becomes a way of life, something you expect. It is only when travelling abroad for a vacation that the gap between the quality of service in Japan and pretty much elsewhere becomes so painfully evident.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

VaYetze - The Duty of the Employee

ואתנה ידעתן, כי בכל כחי עבדתי את אביכן. ואביכן התל בי, והחליף את משכורתי עשרת מונים.

(בראשית ל"א, ו'-ז')

זה עשרים שנה אנכי עמך, רחליך ועזיך לא שכלו ואילי צאנך לא אכלתי. טרפה לא הבאתי אליך, אנכי אחטנה מידי תבקשנה, גנובתי יום וגנובתי לילה. הייתי ביום אכלני חרב וקרח בלילה, ותדד שנתי מעלי. זה לי עשרים שנה בביתך, עבדתיך ארבע עשרה שנה בשתי בנתיך, ושש שנים בצאנך; ותחלף את משכורתי עשרת מונים.

(בראשית ל"א, ל"ח-מ"א)

VaYetze is my Bar Mitzva parasha.

The parasha tells us about the twenty years Ya’akov spent at his father-in-law's house, employed as a shepherd. After God commands Ya’akov to leave and Ya’akov understands from changes in Lavan’s behaviour that the time has come to leave, he summons his wives, Rachel and Leah, and says:

And ye know that with all my power I have served your father. And your father hath deceived me, and changed my wages ten times; but God suffered him not to hurt me.

(Genesis 31, 7; KJV)

We know that Lavan was a master of deception and cruelty and was far from begin a fair employer. Indeed, when Lavan catches up with Ya'akov, he hears from Ya'akov the following accusations:

This twenty years have I been with thee; thy ewes and thy she goats have not cast their young, and the rams of thy flock have I not eaten. That which was torn of beasts I brought not unto thee; I bare the loss of it; of my hand didst thou require it, whether stolen by day, or stolen by night. Thus I was; in the day the drought consumed me, and the frost by night; and my sleep departed from mine eyes. Thus have I been twenty years in thy house; I served thee fourteen years for thy two daughters, and six years for thy cattle: and thou hast changed my wages ten times.

(Genesis 31, 38-41; KJV)

So we hear twice from Ya'akov that Lavan has cheated him out of his salary "tenfold". Yet despite all this, we learn that Ya'akov fulfilled his duty to work diligently and faithfully, "with all his power", throughout his long stay in Aram Nahara'im. We hear that he bore losses, worked through heat and cold, day and night. Surely, given Lavan being such a terrible employer, Ya'akov had every right to work for his master with less devotion?

The duty of the employee towards his employer is considered as a duty of the highest standing by the Halacha. In fact, Rambam quotes our parasha to state that an employee should work with "all his power", be very careful on not wasting time when working and be mindful of the employer's property. An employee is even exempt from certain prayers, such as the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, so as not to waste time during work (Hilchot Sechirut, 13, 7). Furthermore, when there is a conflict between a man's duty towards God and his duty towards his employer, we see the Halacha giving priority to the duty towards the employer.

Ya'akov's behaviour teaches us the importance of taking our work seriously, of respecting the person (or the company) that has provided us with the capability to work and make a living. This duty is regarded so highly that it binds the employee even if the employer is far from being a just and fair person, just as in Lavan's and Ya'akov's case. The fact that the employer might be a cheater and a scoundrel does not exempt the employee from performing his job in the best possible manner. It certainly does not give him the right to behave in the same manner.

Respecting One's Parents - Addendum

I asked Rabbi Yuval Sherlo about the Halacha of respecting one's father before the mother, and this is his answer (in Hebrew). As I suspected, for all practical purposes, one should respect both parents equally.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Respecting One's Parents - Who Comes First?

Last shabbat we had a siyum (end) for masechet Kretot. The last Mishna of this tractate refers to one of the well-known mitzvah and one of the Ten Commandments – respecting one’s parents:

האב קודם לאם בכל מקום. יכול מפני שכיבוד האב קודם על כיבוד האם? ת"ל: "איש אמו ואביו תיראו" (ויקרא י"ט, ג'), מלמד ששניהם שקולין. אבל אמרו חכמים: האב קודם לאם בכל מקום, מפני שהוא ואמו חייבין בכבוד אביו.

(כריתות כ"ח.)

The Mishna states that the father is mentioned before the mother almost everywhere in the Torah, and asks: should we learn from this fact that respecting your father comes before respecting your mother? Immediately the Mishna brings the single instance in the Torah where the mother is mentioned first (in Vayikra 19,3) and states: “this (exception to the rule) teaches us that they are equal”.

So far so good. But the Mishna then continues:

“But sages said: his father comes before his mother in every place (in the Torah), because both he and his mother have a duty to respect the father”.

In other words, we are taught that although the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em applies to both parents equally, the duty of a person to respect the father precedes his duty to respect the mother.

When I read this Mishna I asked myself: so, are they equal or are they not equal?

The Gemara in Kretot does not discuss this Mishna. We find the debate in masechet Kiddushin (31a), where Rabbi Eliezer is asked what should one do if one’s parents both ask for a glass of water at the same time; who should one serve first? Rabbi Eliezer replies: the father, because of the reason in our Mishna (both you and your mother have a duty to respect the father, therefore he comes first). So it would seem that the duty of a child is first and foremost to his/her father.

In our day and age, this Halacha will likely sound strange to most people. One is brought up to respect both parents equally and to teach one’s child to obey the father before the mother would be frowned upon in most social circles. Yet I believe that the Halacha does not conflict with our modern-day perception of kibbud av va’em. The circumstances described in Kiddushin are very rare circumstances; after all, a child can always bring two glasses of water and serve both parents at the same time... Therefore, becuase in most instances such rare circumstances do not occur, the very conflict does not exist.

It would seem as if this Halacha falls into the category of rules that are give only for extreme occasions. Only if all things being equal and there is no choice, then one should put kibbud av before kibbud em. A similar Halacha speaks about the duty of a person to his rabbi, which in certain circumstances supsedes his duty towards his father.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Pavlov's Brother

I am in the US this week. Every time I come here, I pick up a copy of The New Yorker at the airport.

In this week's edition, there is an entertaining short article that begins:

"Before Dr. Ivan Pavlov won worldwide fame for his experiment proving that dogs could be made to salivate at the ringing of a bell, he performed a nearly identical experiment on his younger brother, Nikolai. That experiment and its regrettable aftermath have only recently come to light, but they have already added fuel to the ongoing ethical debate over whether it is better to conduct scientific experiments on laboratory animals or on one's own relatives."

Click here to read the full article.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Arafat's Unholy Supporters

During the unending saga of Arafat's death, many of his supporters gathered outside Percy hospital in Paris to hold a vigil. They lit candles, read from the Koran and otherwise expressed their sympathy with whom they view as a leader.

Peot and a FlagAnd among the predominantly muslim crowd, the anti-Israel posters and the Palestinian flags, an unusual apparition: ultra-orthodox Jews clad in traditional chassidic garb, sticking out like sore thumbs.

These unholy supporters of Arafat are representatives of a small, fanatical sect called Neturei Karta (aramaic for "keepers of the city"), anti-zionist charedim who steadfastly oppose the State of Israel's right to exist and make it a point not to miss an opportunity to bash Israel. One of them is even on the payroll of the Palestinian Authority, acting as "Minister for Jewish Affairs" in the Palestinian cabinet.

A quick-eyed photographer managed to capture this anomaly: peot and a flag.

Toledot - Lama Ze Anochi?

ויתרוצצו הבנים בקרבה, ותאמר: אם כן למה זה אנוכי? ותלך לדרוש את ה'

(בראשית כ"ה, כ"ב)

This week’s parasha, Toledot, opens with the story of the birth of Ya'akov and Esav. Rivka, wife of Yitzhak is pregnant with the twins and we are told she feels them struggling within her:

And the children struggled together within her; and she said: if it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord.

(Genesis 25, 22; KJV)

Rashi explains that the struggle was a result of the different, opposing traits of the twins. Whenever Rivka would walk by a place of Torah study, Ya’akov would struggle to get out and join the learning. And when she walked by places of idolatry, Esav would struggle to get out and worship the idols. This midrash wishes to teach us that the future was already determined in the womb; Ya’akov and Esav were diametrically opposed to each other by their very own nature, even before birth.

Why does Rivka react to this struggle by crying out: lama ze anochi (why am I thus)? It seems that she is blaming herself (anochi) for this struggle. To understand this, we need to look back to the origins of Rivka and why she became Yitzchak's wife.

Last week, we read about Avraham’s efforts to secure the future of his son Yitzchak by making sure he gets married to a proper woman. Avraham sends his loyal servant to his own birthplace and family, to Aram Nahara’im, in order to bring back a wife for his son. He makes the servant swear that he Yitzchak will not marry a local, a Canaanite woman.

Many commentators explain that Avraham went to great lengths to avoid the Canaanites because they were idol worshippers by nature whereas his family back east was mistakengly worshipping idols because of their ill-founded ideas. In other words, whereas people from his birthplace could conceivable be taught that idolatry was wrong and converted to believe in one God, the Canaanites were inherently defective. It was as if the Canaanites were genetically predisposed to worship idols and were therefore incorrigible.

Avraham did not want Yitzchak to marry a "true" idolatress. He wished to avoid the risk of idolatry passing on to his grandchildren through the genes of their Canaanite mother. And this is why Rivka was chosen; she could get rid of her family's ways just like Avraham did.

Now we can turn back to Rivka to understand why she is blaming herself - lama ze anochi? She finds out, to her horror, that Esav her son is naturally attracted to places of idolatry. She is shocked by this finding and is worried that perhaps her family's wrong ideas were somehow transferred to her son through her. It was to avoid this outcome that she, and not a Canaanite woman, was chosen to be Yitzchak’s wife and now it looks like Avraham’s “trick” has failed. Somehow, the trait of idolatry seems to have passed from her to her son.

This is why she uses the expression anochi, blaming herself. It is as if she is saying: if Esav has turned out to be an idol worshipper, then there is no reason why I was chosen to be Yitzchak’s wife. Lama ze anochi meaning: I have failed my purpose.

It is interesting to note what Rivka does immediately after this realization: lidrosh et hashem, she goes to seek advice from God. The Torah teaches us what a person should do when the world seems to crumble around us, the future looks hopeless and we are at a loss as to our purpose in life: seek God!

I got the idea for this thought from זכות_שתיקה's post on the עצור כאן חושבים forum.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Le Sabotage Amoureux, by Amelie Nothomb

I just finished reading Le Sabotage Amoureux by Amelie Nothomb (English title: Loving Sabotage). This is the second book I've read by Nothomb. The first was Fear and Trembling.

Click here for reviews of Le Sabotage AmoureuxNothomb's writing is simple and flowing, yet she manages to surprise the reader with deep insights into everyday situations and happenings. In Le Sabotage Amoureux she writes from the perspective of a small girl, daughter to a Belgian diplomat, growing up in the early 70s in Beijing, China.

Based on her own experiences as a child, Nothomb succeeds to expose the intricacies of a child's mind and its charming imagination: skirmishes between children become an all-out war, a bicycle becomes a galloping horse and an infatuation with another girl becomes a dramatic love story.

Apparently, Nothomb has become somewhat of a cult figure among readers in francophone countries. It's easy to see why. Treat yourself to some enchanting moments with this short and delightful book.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Arts & Letters Daily

Click here for Arts & Letters Daily

This is one of my favourite websites. The best articles and essays published on the Web, as well as reviews of newly published books. The links sidebar is the best I've come across.

Updated daily, except Sundays (their motto is: Truth Hates Delay).

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Index to posts about places I visited:

Reading List

Now reading:

  • The Ask - Sam Lipsyte (Kindle)
  • ישו - דוד פלוסר
  • Letter from America - Alistair Cooke
  • מחקרים ועיונים: הגות יהודית בעבר ובהווה - אליעזר גולדמן

March 2010

  • עמו אנכי בצרה - אליעזר ברקוביץ
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John Le Carre' (audiobook)
  • 36 Arguments for the Existence of God - Rebecca Goldstein (Kindle)
  • The Bear and the Dragon - Tom Clancy (audiobook)
  • Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi - Geoff Dyer (Kindle)

February 2010

  • אחוזת דג'אני - אלון חילו
  • The Help - Kathryn Stockett (Kindle)
  • The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson
  • Game Change - John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

January 2010

  • אמונה לאחר השואה - אליעזר ברקוביץ
  • A Most Wanted Man - John le Carre
  • התפכחות - דן מרגלית
  • (רומנים קצרים - יהודית קציר (ספר אודיו
  • The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown (audiobook)
  • הרמב"ם - משה הלברטל
  • אלנבי - גדי טאוב
  • אדון בלומנטל והפיראט היהודי - דניאל שלם
  • הכלב היהודי - אשר קרביץ
  • What the Dog Saw - Malcolm Gladwell (audiobook)

December 2009

  • The Snow Cow: Ghost Stories for Skiers - Martin Kochanski
  • Lost City of Z - David Grann
  • The Warrior of Rome: Fire in the East - Harry Sidebottom
  • The Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
  • הדבר היה ככה - מאיר שלו

November 2009

  • The Associate - John Grisham
  • חידת מותי - אמנון ז'קונט
  • The Garden of Last Days - Andre Dubus III

October 2009

  • Rashi - Elie Wiesel
  • Predictably Irrational - Dan Ariely
  • No Time for Goodbye - Linwood Barclay
  • The Venetian Betrayal - Steve Berry
  • Prey - Michael Crichton
  • שיחות על מסילת ישרים לרמח"ל - ישעיהו ליבוביץ
  • Neither Here Nor There - Bill Bryson

September 2009

  • Saving Faith - David Baldacci
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - Stieg Larsson
  • Allo Specchio Dei Falascià - Emanuela Trevisan Semi
  • An Underachiever's Diary - Benjamin Anastas

August 2009

  • The Snapper - Roddy Doyle
  • Equal Rites - Terry Pratchett
  • בסמטאות - דודו בוסי
  • Exit Music - Ian Rankin
  • על האמונה - משה הלברטל, דוד קורצוויל, אבי שגיא
  • ישראל לאן - גדי בלום, ניר חפץ

July 2009

  • Erasure - Percival Everett
  • כצל ציפור - יאיר אנסבכר
  • מגילת איכה: פירוש - שלמה אבינר
  • Artemis Fowl: The Time Parados - Eoin Colfer
  • לימסול - ישי שריד
  • Artemis Fowl: The Lost Colony- Eoin Colfer
  • אורח נטה ללון - ש"י עגנון
  • האר"י - שרון שתיל

June 2009

  • The Ghost - Robert Harris
  • הרמב"ם, הגות וחדשנות - אביעזר רביצקי
  • The Light Fantastic - Terry Pratchett
  • The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett
  • Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire) - Vikas Swarup
  • Talk to the Hand - Lynne Truss
  • הרמב"ם, היסטוריה והלכה - אביעזר רביצקי

May 2009

  • שבע מידות רעות - מאיה ערד
  • מסע בחלל הפנוי - דב אלבוים
  • עיונים מיימוניים - אביעזר רביצקי
  • מות הנזיר - אלון חילו
  • דוד ובת-שבע: החטא, העונש והתיקון - יעקב מדן

April 2009

  • The Road - Cormac McCarthy
  • The Colour of Magic - Terry Pratchett
  • The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga
  • שלך, סנדרו - צבי ינאי
  • רבי יהודה הנשיא - אהרן אופנהיימר
  • חכמים, כרך ג': ימי גליל - בני לאו
  • Artemis Fowl: The Opal Deception - Eoin Colfer
  • פרא אציל - דודו בוסי
  • מנחם בגין, דיוקנו של מנהיג - עפר גרוזברד

March 2009

  • Artemis Fowl: The Eternity Code - Eoin Colfer
  • Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident - Eoin Colfer
  • תמיד פלורה - יובל אלבשן
  • Plato and Platypus Walk Into a Bar - Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein
  • World Without End - Ken Follett
  • Persepolis - Marjane Satrapi
  • On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan

February 2009

  • ג'מילה - צ'ינגיס אייטמטוב
  • זוגות בודדים - ישראל סגל
  • ש"י עגנון - דן לאור
  • Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA - Tim Weiner
  • The Secret History - Donna Tartt

January 2009

  • Artemis Fowl - Eoin Colfer
  • באמונתו, סיפורו של הרב יהודה עמיטל - אלישיב רייכנר
  • The Tales of Beetle the Bard - J.K. Rowling
  • ימיו ולילותיו של הדודה אווה - אמנון דנקנר
  • כל הסיפורים - א.ב. יהושע
  • Ant Farm - Simon Rich
  • בתו - יורם קניוק
  • מי צייר את הרקפת - מנחם בן

December 2008

November 2008

  • A Little History of the World - F. H. Gombrich
  • The Bourne Betrayal - Robert Ludlum
  • ירושלים, שגעון לדבר - עמוס אילון
  • לפיכך נתכנסנו - יוסי שריד
  • עד העונג הבא - אריאל להמן

October 2008

  • Let It Bleed - Ian Rankin
  • The Makioka Sisters - Junichiro Tanizaki
  • The Appeal - John Grisham
  • מלכים ג - יוכי ברנדס
  • עאידה - סמי מיכאל

September 2008

  • The Amnesiac - Sam Taylor
  • Eats, Shoots and Leaves - Lynne Truss
  • Stop Me If You've Heard This - Jim Holt
  • מאין באנו - ישראל קנוהל
  • הקתדרלה ליד הים - אילדפונסו פלקונס
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - John le Carre

August 2008

  • Whiteout - Ken Follett
  • ספר הכוזרי, פירוש - שמואל אבינר
  • Tu, Mio - Erri de Luca
  • אלהים לא מרשה - חנוך דאום
  • מעשה תמר - שלומית אברמסון
  • Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

July 2008

  • Uncertainty - Thomas Lindley
  • השביעי - יצחק קראוס

June 2008

  • בנות בראון - עירית לינור
  • הודו, יומן דרכים - עזריאל קרליבך
  • Knights of the Black and White - Jack Whyte

May 2008

  • נאחז בסבך - חיים נבון
  • Atonement - Ian McEwan
  • Shakespeare - Bill Bryson
  • The Yiddish Policemen's Union - Michael Chabon
  • לשם שמיים - יגאל אריאל

April 2008

  • The Discovery of Heaven - Harry Mulisch
  • The Cockroaches of Stay More - Donald Harrington

March 2008

  • ארבעה בתים וגעגוע - אשכול נבו
  • Espresso Tales - Alexander McCall Smith
  • לפני המקום - חיים באר
  • The Lemon Tree - Sandy Tolan
  • The Book of General Ignorance - John Lloyd and John Mitchinson

February 2008

  • The Interpretation of Murder - Jed Rubenfeld
  • חכמים, כרך ב': ימי יבנה עד מרד בר כוכבא - בנימין לאו
  • ארבעה בתים וגעגוע - אשכול נבו
  • The Good Husband of Zebra Drive - Alexander Mccall Smith
  • Constantine's Sword - James Carroll

January 2008

  • להיות יהודי - חיים כהן
  • כלים שבורים - הרב שג"ר

December 2007

November 2007

  • The World is Flat - Thomas Friedman
  • יראה ללבב - יובל שרלו

October 2007

  • שירה - ש"י עגנון
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid - Bill Bryson

September 2007

  • מקימי - נועה ירון-דיין
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini

August 2007

  • Paradise News - David Lodge
  • דניאל, גלות והתגלות - הרב יעקב מדן
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J. K. Rowling
  • A Short Histrory of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

July 2007

  • זכרון דברים - יעקב שבתאי
  • A Spot of Bother - Mark Haddon
  • כעוף החול, שמעון פרס-ביוגרפיה - מיכאל בר-זהר
  • לנצח את היטלר - אברהם בורג

June 2007

  • God, Man and History - Eliezer Berkovits
  • Blue Shoes and Happiness - Alexander McCall Smith
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran - Azar Nafisi
  • שיחות על פרקי אבות והרמב"ם - ישעיהו ליבוביץ
  • Notes from a Big Country - Bill Bryson

May 2007

  • The Camel Club - David Baldacci
  • Maimonides - Sherwin Nuland
  • סבא שלי היה רב - אורי אורבך
  • נרדף - רוני דונביץ
  • The Ambler Warning - Robert Ludlum
  • The Naming of the Dead - Ian Rankin
  • באור פניך יהלכון - הרב אהרן ליכטנשטיין

April 2007

  • A Long Way Down - Nick Hornby
  • Buddha - Karen Armstrong
  • Betraying Spinoza - Rebecca Goldstein
  • מטבח משפחתי - גיל חובב

March 2007

  • False Impressions - Jeffrey Archer
  • רב סעדיה גאון - ירחמיאל ברודי
  • American Vertigo - Bernard-Henri Levy
  • שיעורים בשמונה פרקים לרמב"ם - הרב שלמה אבינר

February 2007

  • The Innocent Man - John Grisham
  • חכמים, כרך א': ימי בית שני - בנימין לאו
  • מראות מצחיקות - עליזה אלראי
  • Consent to Kill - Vince Flynn

January 2007

  • The Templar Legacy - Steve Berry
  • Memorial Day - Vince Flynn
  • לחפור את התנ"ך - יצחק מייטליס
  • ר' יהודה החסיד - יוסף דן

December 2006

  • Dream Angus - Alexander McCall Smith
  • אמא מתגעגעת למילים - דודו בוסי
  • Saturday - Ian McEwan
  • The Dream of Scipio - Iain Pears
  • מלאכים כבני אדם - שמחה רז

November 2006

  • למלך אין בית - חגי דגן
  • The Afghan - Frederick Forsyth
  • The End - Lemony Snicket
  • The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins
  • The Grim Grotto - Lemony Snicket
  • The Penultimate Peril - Lemony Snicket

October 2006

  • The Portrait - Iain Pears
  • Imperium - Robert Harris
  • The Lazarus Vendetta - Robert Ludlum

September 2006

  • Tooth and Nail - Ian Rankin
  • יונה ונער - מאיר שלו
  • Hide and Seek - Ian Rankin
  • 1776 - David McCullough

August 2006

  • Until I Find You - John Irving
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling
  • רש"י - אברהם גרוסמן

July 2006

  • The Meaning of Tingo - Adam Jacot de Boinod
  • An Instance of the Fingerpost - Iain Pears
  • Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - Alexander McCall Smith
  • וכי נחש ממית - ישראל סגל

June 2006

  • Son of a Witch - Gregory McGuire
  • אלא משל היה - חננאל מאק
  • La Forza della Ragione - Oriana Fallaci

May 2006

  • אל תשלח ידך אל הנער - הרב ישראל מאיר לאו
  • Man in the Shadows - Efraim Halevy
  • Absolute Friends - John le Carre
  • Montedidio - Erri de Luca

April 2006

  • Antiquity - Norman Cantor
  • והארץ שינתה את פניה 1967 - תום שגב

March 2006

  • משה מנדלסון - שמואל פיינר
  • I am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe
  • Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders - John Mortimer
  • כתם, פרשת רמי דותן - צביקה קרוכמל
  • הצדוקים והלכתם: על דת וחברה בימי בית שני - איל רגב

February 2006

  • Ancestral Vices - Tom Sharpe
  • הרועה, סיפור חייו של אריאל שרון - גדי בלום, ניר חפץ

January 2006

  • The Narrows - Stephen Connelly
  • ממרן עד מרן: משנתו ההלכתית של הרב עובדיה יוסף - בני לאו

December 2005

  • The Sunday Philosophy Club - Alexander McCall Smith

November 2005

  • The Plot Against America - Philip Roth
  • Wicked - Gregory Maguire
  • דון יצחק אברבנאל, מדינאי והוגה דעות - בנציון נתניהו
  • The Broker - John Grisham
  • מבוא אישי, אוטוביוגרפיה - חיים כהן

October 2005

  • At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances - Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
  • Who Says Elephants Can't Dance - Louis Gerstner
  • In the Company of Cheerful Ladies - Alexander McCall Smith
  • Stalin, A Biography - Robert Service

September 2005

  • רודף העפיפונים - חאלד חוסייני
  • The Innocent - Harlan Coban

August 2005

  • The Slippery Slope - Lemony Snicket
  • Whiteout - Ken Follett
  • The Family Way - Tony Parsons
  • זיכרונות מהזונות העצובות שלי - גבריאל גרסיה מארקס

July 2005

  • הם מפחדים - צביה גרינפלד
  • אלטנוילנד - תיאודור הרצל
  • The Missionary and the Libertine - Ian Buruma
  • Hidden Prey - John Sanford

June 2005

  • The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs - Alexander McCall Smith
  • Tzizith, A Thread of Light - Aryeh Kaplan
  • Blink - Malcolm Gladwell
  • No Second Chance - Harlan Coben
  • Sabbath, Day of Eternity - Aryeh Kaplan
  • Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea - Thomas Cahill
  • Jerusalem, The Eye of the Universe - Aryeh Kaplan
  • משפטי מפתח - דפנה ברק-ארז
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs - Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Carnivorous Carnival - Lemony Snicket
  • Hiroshima - John Hersey
  • ר' עקיבא בן יוסף, חייו ומשנתו - שמואל ספראי

May 2005

  • Freakonomics - Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner
  • Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond
  • Nice Work - David Lodge
  • לא כך כתוב בתנ"ך - יאיר זקוביץ, אביגדור שנאן
  • The Full Cupboard of Life - Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Veteran - Frederick Forsyth
  • The Kalahari Typing School for Men - Alexander McCall Smith

April 2005

  • הזירה הלשונית - רוביק רוזנטל
  • The Earth is the Lord's - Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Morality for Beautiful Girls - Alexander McCall Smith
  • לא להאמין - אביעד קליינברג
  • כעפעפי שחר - חיים סבתו
  • Love and Terror in the God Encounter - David Hartman
  • אחי, היאקוזה - יעקב רז
  • The Last Juror - John Grisham
  • Tuesdays with Morrie - Mitch Albom
  • Down Under - Bill Bryson

March 2005

  • The Hostile Hospital - Lemony Snicket
  • Tears of the Giraffe - Alexander McCall Smith
  • Desire of the Everlasting Hills - Thomas Cahill
  • The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
  • The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
  • Thinks - David Lodge
  • The Vile Village - Lemony Snicket

February 2005

January 2005

December 2004

November 2004

October 2004

  • Changing Places - David Lodge
  • המטרה: תל אביב - רם אורן
  • The Ersatz Elevator (Book the Sixth) - Lemony Snicket
  • Archangel - Robert Harris
  • יסוד המשנה ועריכתה - ראובן מרגליות
  • Le Sabotage Amoureux - Amelie Nothombe


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