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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sayonara Japan, Shalom Israel

Last Friday we landed in Israel, back home after more than four years of living in Japan.

When I signed the contract to relocate to Tokyo, the expectation was that we would be in Japan for two, maybe three, years. At the time, despite me being familiar with Tokyo from several years of regular business trips there, living in the Land of the Rising Sun seemed like something we would never get really used to. We did not think it would become possible for us to call Japan "home". After all, it is so far away from Israel, geographically and culturally. How wrong we were.

Almost four and a half years have gone by and alarmingly fast. Not only did we get used to living in this foreign land, but we actually grew to love it. It is true that it would never be "home" in the deeper sense of the word - after all, a gaijin is a foreigner for life - but for us it did become a place we could call "home". A place we will terribly miss.

So it is with these mixed feelings that we start a new chapter in our lives, this time in our real "home".

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Chayey Sarah - Overcoming Our Self-Interest

ויאמר אליו העבד: אולי לא תאבה האשה ללכת אחרי אל הארץ הזאת. ההשב אשיב את בנך אל הארץ הזאת אשר יצאת משם?

(בראשית כ"ד, ה')

Avraham's servant, Damasek Eliezer, is mostly described in rosy colours by our sages. They tell us that although he was Canaanite, his knowledge of the Torah was wide and deep. They tell us that he was not only a faithful servant that carried out his master's wishes, but he was also very smart and intelligent. The slight changes he makes in describing his duties to Rivka's parents and brother are brought as an example of his diplomatic (and selling) skills. So much so that the Midrash states: "the talk of servants is more beautiful than the Torah of the sons", alluding to the Torah's lengthy recounting of Eliezer's story.

It is therefore somewhat surprising to read, in the same Midrash, that Eliezer's intentions were not always entirely faithful to Avraham. In fact, he had a daughter and wished for her to be the chosen one for Yitzhak; he could not comprehend why Avraham would go to such lengths to find a wife for his beloved son when a most suitable woman was available right there in his household. The Midrash goes as far as to alter a word in the Torah to express the extent of Eliezer's wishes:

And the servant said to him: what if the woman will not be willing to follow me to this land? Should I bring your son back to the land you came from?

(Bereshit 24, 6)

"What if" in Hebrew reads "אולי", and the Midrash tells us to read this word as a similar sounding work: "הלוואי", meaning "hopefully", thus revealing Eliezer's true intentions. He was not asking a legitimate question about the possibility of the woman not wanting to follow him back to Canaan; he was expressing his innermost wishes that this would indeed happen, so that Avraham would have no choice but give Yitzhak to his daughter. The Midrash goes even further. When Eliezer recounts the story to Rivka's household, the word "what if" in Hebrew is written with the ommission of the letter Vav - "אלי" - implying that Eliezer was telling them that he wishes Rivka not to go back with him to Canaan.

Why does the Midrash go to such lengths to find wrongs in Eliezer's behaviour and to put blemish on his otherwise impeccable loyalty to Avraham?

The Midrash teaches us something here about human nature. Even sages, even the most holy of men, cannot escape the basic human trait of self-serving interest. No matter how much Eliezer was loyal to Avraham, deep inside him, perhaps even at a sub-conscious level, he had a different agenda. He wanted his own daughter to marry the son of his master. Nobody is exempt from the occasional slip, from the urge to overlook what's right and act out of pure self-interest.

And yet Eliezer accomplishes his task. He brings back Rivka to marry Yitzhak, thus giving up his hopes and those of his flesh and blood. Why? It is here that the Torah teaches us a great lesson. True: one cannot entirely escape one's yetzer ha'ra, one's evil inclination, and avoid harbouring secret desires. But we have a choice. We can choose between what is right and what is wrong. Either we let our yetzer ha'ra overcome us, or we do everything in our power to overcome it.

Eliezer proves he can overcome. He realises that deep inside he wishes his mission to fail, but does everything in his power to make it successful, because it is the right thing to do. He hurries to give Rivka the presents, even before she says yes; he refuses to eat at Betuel's house until he tell them his wishes; and the following morning he rejects the suggestion that Rivka stay home for another week or so before leaving and insists on leaving immediately. He makes sure he does not allow himself to make any mistakes by hurrying through his mission to assure it is ends successfully.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Ronen Neurwirth.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Eat What You Like, Pay What You Wish

I spent the last few days in Singapore. I've been here once before and it was a pleasure being back. Despite the rather annoying weather - always hot, often raining - it is a very pleasant place.

Last night I asked the concierge whether he knew of any vegetarian Indian restaurants. He sent me to the Annalakshmi restaurant at the Excelsior hotel. Quite an experience. The setting and the food were pretty standard for Indian restaurants, but what was not standard was the price. Or rather, the lack thereof.

It turns out the restaurant is operated by a cultural organization called The Temple of Fine Arts, a volunteer-based group that teaches music and dance for free. To finance themselves, these people set up a chain of restaurants where food is offered for a price determined by the diners. You order from a priceless menu and when you're done, you pay what you feel is appropriate. Certainly a different kind of experience.

How much did we pay? Well, as money is not the point here, I won't tell.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Bereshit - A Constant Challenger

ויאמר ה' אל קין: למה חרה לך ולמה נפלו פניך? לוא אם תיטיב, שאת, ואם לא תיטיב, לפתח חטאת רבץ; ואליך תשוקתו ואתה תמשל בו.

(בראשית ד', ו'-ז')

With Bereshit we start the Torah from the beginning. This parasha has a lot of beginnings, the obvious one being the creation of the world. But this is also a first for many other things: the first sin, the first murder, the first excuse. In many ways Bereshit is the foundation for many of our traits as human beings. One of these is our propensity to sin.

The two sons of Adam make an offering to God. Abel brings the firstlings of his flock and Cain brings the fruit of the ground. After God rejects Cain's offering He tells him:

Why are you angry and why is your countenance fallen? If you improve yourself, shall it not be lifted up? And if you do not improve yourself, sin crouches at the doorstep, and its desire is towards you, but you may rule over it.

(Bereshit 4, 6-7)

So our yetzer ha'ra, our evil inclination, is always there, always lurking. It is at the doorstep, willing us to fulfill our desires and commit a sin. But it does not have full control over us, we may yet "rule over it" if we only so desire. There is an evil force blocking the doorway, but we may conquer it and get past it.

Here is a story that may help us understand the meaning of yetzer ha'ra and the significance of overcoming its desire. The head of a yeshiva noticed that one of the students missed classes on Sunday and Monday. This was a very good student who never missed class, so the rabbi approached him on Tuesday asking what happened. After some hesitation, the student replied that the rabbi would not understand. "Try me", said the rabbi. So the student explained that he went to watch the finals of an important soccer tournament and that, in fact, he would probably be away also tomorrow as it was the final day of the tournament.

The rabbi smiled and asked the student to explain more about this soccer game. "How does one win this game?", he enquired. The student explained that there are 11 players and the idea is to kick the ball into a large goal. The rabbi frowned and said: "So what's the problem? Kick the ball into the goal and come back to study!". The student laughed and explained that there is an opposing team of 11 players, and they have a goalkeeper that stops the ball from going into the goal. The rabbi asked: "Surely the other team does not sleep at the soccer grounds. So why don't you just slip out at night, put the ball into their goal, and declare victory the next morning?". The student, perplexed at this bizarre suggestion, answered: "But that wouldn't be a challenge. If there's no goalkeeper trying to stop you, then there's no point in winning!".

At this point the rabbi gave the student a large smile and said: "Listen to yourself. You're a good student and it's no big deal for you to come to yeshiva when there is nothing holding you back. But when the urge to skip class is there, when the yetzer ha'ra is the goalkeeper keeping you from entering the classroom, then it becomes a real challenge. This is when you score the real points in the game."

The Torah tells us not only about the nature of the yetzer ha'ra as an adversary, but also as a challenger. It challenges us to overcome our desire and to do the right thing. It is always crouching at the doorstep, ready to block us. Our job is to realize that we must overcome it at the point when the urge is the greatest. When it is difficult to do the right thing, it is up to us to make the effort to score the goal.

The idea for this week's Torah thought is from R. Mordechai Kamenetzky.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Ray of Hope

Tonight it is Rosh HaShana and we enter a new year, 5766. Time for teshuva, time for collecting one's thoughts about the past and making new resolutions for the future.

Rosh HaShana is the day on which we make God king over the world. It is also Yom HaDin, the day of judgement, the day when all creation passes before God and is judged for the coming year. In ten days' time it will be Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and atonement, the day on which we confess our sins before God and ask for forgiveness.

One wonders about the order of things here. Surely the order needs to be reversed: we should first detail our sins and ask for forgiveness and only then be judged and accept God's rule as king. How dare we we come before God and make him our king while still not being purified from our sins?

The reason for this requires a look into the human psyche and may be illustrated using the following story. One important gentleman was a source of pride to his family and his community. He was intelligent and wealthy and dedicated his time and money to help others. But he had one fault: he was an alcoholic. Every now and then he would get completely drunk and bring disgrace upon himself and his family. To try and make him realise his bad ways, his sons took him for a ride in the street and showed him a homeless drunk who was sprawled on the sidewalk, knocked out from too much alcohol. They told their father: see, this is what you look like when you get drunk. The man looked at the drunk, got off the car, approached him and whispered a few words in his ear. The drunk looked up and answered. Upon returning to the car, the man's sons were curious about this exchange. Their father smiled and said: I asked him where he got the good stuff that made him this superbly drunk...

The morale from this story is the following. For us to be able to repent for our sins in a serious manner we need first to have a ray of light, a beacon of hope. One cannot fight against a bad reality without any hope, when still mired and lost in sin. If we are not shown an alternative of good, it is difficult for us to extricate ourselves from the bad. The man was not shown an alternative; he was shown only bad, therefore he was unable to pull himself up and improve.

In Rosh HaShana we are shown the alternative. God is made king and we see the light of his kingdom. After this uplifting experience, after we are shown the alternative of good, we are more prepared to come before Him and ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur. God, in His infinite wisdom, understands that for us human beings to be able to help ourselves, we need to have some hope in order to be able to truly repent and mend our ways. This hope is given to us in the form of Rosh HaShana.

Shana Tova to all.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Apropos Air Travel

This is my first ever post from 33,000 feet, somwhere over Siberia.

I may be travelling on a crappy A340 - with cramped seating arrangements, a global screen for entertainment (3 movies, seen them all) and Stogel for kosher food - but at least Lufthansa is one of the first airlines to offer internet access.

What I need now is one of those aircraft power cords for my laptop to make sure I can stay online for all 11 hours of the flight...

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Air Travel Questions

Travels over the past couple of weeks have brought me to six different airports, on four different airlines and seven different flights. The inevitable long waits in airport lounges and during taxiing gave me an opportunity to think about several questions concerning air travel. Perhpas someone out there can help me answer some of them.

  1. Why does the business class line (before security or check-in) almost always move slower than the economy class one?
  2. Why does the laptop need to go through the security x-ray machine separately? Will the machine not scan the laptop if it's in the bag? And what's the deal with removing your shoes?!
  3. And on the same subject, why do most European countries require you to remove the laptop but the Brits don't?
  4. Exit row seats are coveted by many, and for a good reason (extra leg room). But why on earth can't one lift the arm-rests in these rows?
  5. When the flight attendants dispsense that all-important security information to passengers ("the seat belt can be unfastened by lifting this buckle"), do they get offended by the fact that nobody pays them the least attention?
  6. Why is the kosher food distributed to passengers before the regular food? Could it be because it takes the average person almost half an hour to wrestle with those impenetrable plastic wrappings?
  7. Why does every airline on the planet air episodes of "Everybody Loves Raymond"?
  8. Why do pilots always promise to try and make up for lost time after a delayed departure? One would think they would go as fast as they can in any case, no?

There's more, but these will do for now.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Years ago, when I started doing business in Japan, I was working on a rather large deal with one of the largest Japanese insurance companies. They thought our price increase was way too high and had no real justification. Negotiations were tough. At a certain point, after having exahusted all possible avenues of persuasion, I was beginning to lose hope of convincing the customer to continue working with us. It was then that a colleauge of mine, with decades of experience of working in Japan, told me it was time to use the ultimate weapon: shikata-ga-nai.

Translated into English, Shikata-ga-nai means "it cannot be helped" or "it is hopeless". What my friend was recommending was to tell the customer that there was no more room for negotiations. It was a "hopeless" situation and that was that. Apparently, once shikata-ga-nai is uttered under such circumstances, the other party understands you have reached the limit of your bargaining leeway; it is now decision time, a sort of "take it or leave it" situation. My friend added that shikata-ga-nai should be used only in extreme situations - "once a year at most" I recall him saying - otherwise one loses his credibility very quickly. With trepidation, I followed my friend's advice. It worked and we got the deal.

Shikata-ga-nai is a word you hear often in Japan although almost never in a business context. Its more informal version - sho-ga-nai - is used in daily conversations and is usually accompanied by a light shrug, an expression of hopelessness. People use it to tell you that they tried everything, but "it just cannot be helped". In a sense it conveys the opposite message of ganbatte, another popular Japanese expression meaning "do your best".

Sometimes the use of shikata-ga-nai is a chilling expression used by someone coming to terms with a bitter reality. I recently read "Hiroshima" by John Hersey, a book about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima city on August 6, 1945. In his first-hand account of six survivors, Hersey provides a unique glimpse into the state of mind of the people of Hiroshima in the hours and days following the bombing. One expression by survivors which is mentioned several times throughout the book is shikata-ga-nai, but here it has a different meaning. Injured by the bomb, separated from their families, left with no possessions, these survivors answer the journalist's questions by a final shikata-ga-nai, here truly meaning there is no more hope.

Friday, September 02, 2005

To Become a Superhero!

Just as Japanese love their anime, so do they love their mascots. As mentioned earlier, even the police have their own mascot...

Today, I came across Kutan, the new mascot for Tokyo's international airport, Narita. His job is quite straightforward: keep everybody using the airport happy. But this is no ordinary mascot. He has a dream: to become a superhero!

Words fail me...

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Some Girls

During a brief visit to London last week I managed to go see a play at the West End: Some Girls by Neil LaBute, starring David Schwimmer (a.k.a Ross Geller from Friends). I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the cramped seating of the Gielgud theatre.

This is David Schwimmer's debut in the West End. He plays a man who is about to get married and decides to visit four of his ex-girlfriends. Just before taking the plunge to the other side, he wants to make sure that he is making the right choice. He also wants to make amends for some of the hurt he has caused in the past, such as going to the prom with another girl or running away from an illicit affair with a married woman. As the dialogue with each woman progresses, he finds out how little he actually knows about what they felt, and indeed still feel, about him.

The play is funny, but at the same time it touches on some of the finer points in the relationship between man and woman, of couples who have been very close to each other and in hindsight are surprised to discover new things about themselves.

If you get a chance to visit London (and the tickets for The Death of a Salesman are sold out...) this play is well worth watching.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Magdeburg, Germany

I was in Germany last week on business and spent a night in Magdeburg, a medium-sized city (population ~210,000) in former Eastern Germany. It was my first time ever beyond the old “iron curtain” and I was curious to see if I would note any differences from the Germany I know on the Western side.

The differences were minimal. Indeed, had I not known Magdeburg used to be part of Eastern Germany I would not have been able to tell the difference from any other German city. There are almost no remnants from those days. Communist street names have been all changed, I did not see any Trabant cars (I was really hoping to get a glimpse of one) and even the socialist-looking buildings from the FDR era were mostly renovated and blended in with the new architecture. Perhaps only the wide avenues , once grounds for May Day parades, gave an indication this city was part of the Communist Block a mere 16 years ago. Oh, and the fact that hardly anybody spoke or understood English.

Over dinner, our hosts told us more about the city. Apparently, when the Berlin wall came down the population of Magdeburg was almost 300,000. Local industry was mostly composed of mom & pop factories, producing widgets that nobody had use to once the old regime collapsed. Over the course of the 90s the population dwindles by almost a third and unemployment rose to the highest level in Germany, about 20%. In the past few years the authorities are trying to redefine the city as an academic center. There are two universities, a conservatorium and several research institutes.

After dinner we were taken for a short drive around Magdeburg, which this year is celebrating its 1,200 anniversary. The cathedral is an imposing structure, built by the Catholics but used, soon after its completion and to this day, by the Reformists. The Americans spared this magnificent piece of medieval architecture when they bombed the city in January 1945. REM recently gave an open-air concert in the square facing the cathedral. The river Elbe crosses the city and the numerous bridges provide pleasant views of this tranquil city.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Orange vs. Blue

We are in Israel for a month or so for a summer vacation. These are exciting times in Israel, less than a month away from the Gaza disengagement, the first time an Israeli government will displace Jews from their homes. The Knesset voted today against the motions calling for a delay in the plan execution, and all seems set for the big showdown in mid August.

One of the most striking public displays of this buildup, at least the one which immediately drew my attention upon arriving here earlier this week, is the orange vs. blue "ribbon war". Those against the disengagement have long ago chosen orange as the colour symbolising their opposition: orange t-shirts, orange flags, orange banners and, most prominently, orange ribbons attached to car antennas. In a somewhat late response, the other side chose blue as their colour. So while driving around one gets to see many ribbons flapping in the wind.

Most of these ribbons are, I hate to admit, orange. But my wife says that the cars with no ribbon at all (i.e. most cars) represent the "silent majority", those who are in favour of the disengagement plan but are too lazy or cannot be bothered to "flap" their opinion in public. I hope she's right.

I am now looking for a blue ribbon for my rental car...

Saturday, July 09, 2005

France - The Malaise Continues

I was in Paris last week for a couple of days, arriving a few hours before the announcement of the Olympic Games Committee that London would host the 2012 Olympic Games. On my way from the airport the news on the radio were almost exclusively focused on the imminent decision, with live reports from Singapore on the French presentation, the highlights of which were a film about Paris directed by Luc Besson and an emotional speech given by Jacques Chirac about the merits of the French capital.

During my morning meetings the tension was palpable. By lunchtime, the shortlist was down to London and Paris, and the conversation around the table touched on the generations-old rivalry between the two countries straddling the English Channel. Needless to say, the obvious clichés about the gaps in food quality and esprit de corps were the main course.

By early afternoon, when the announcement was made, the mood changed. Some shrugged the whole thing off as being unimportant and said they opposed the whole thing from the beginning anyway (“who wants all those foreigners invading Paris and creating traffic jams in the height of summer?”). Others blamed the whole thing on politics; this was nothing but a way to get back at France for rejecting the referendum on the EU constitution last month. Yet others said this was all too predictable, another milestone in the long string of French failures on the global stage in recent years. After all, this is the third consecutive time Paris has competed and lost for the bid to host the Olympic Games.

To me, this whole story is yet another symptom of the sickness France has been suffering from in the past decade or so, a general air of malaise the roots of which are hard to pinpoint but which everyone agrees is clearly there. The general sentiment is that anything that can go wrong, will indeed go wrong. The feeling that no matter what France does or says, the world will, at best, misunderstand or in the worst case shrug off as irrelevant. The list is long: France’s stance on the Iraq war, its hesitant position regarding the enlargement of the EU community and Turkey’s candidacy, the awkward balance between a “social” economic policy and the required “capitalist” measures so sorely needed to revive the economy and the belated and hotly contested steps taken against the Muslim minority (the so-called “Chador law”). The feeling is that everything is breaking down and the country is not going anywhere.

My personal experience this week (although it can hardly be representative), confirms this last feeling. I took two taxis during my short stay, and both could not find their way to the destination without problems. The first driver, once we finally arrived, also could not get the credit card machine to work. Both blamed everything but themselves for not doing their job properly: the road signs, the bad advice of other drivers, the non-functioning GPS system... A Swedish colleague of mine, who was unfortunate enough to share one of these rides with me, said this was a “known thing” in Europe: French taxi drivers simply do not know their way around. As far as I’m concerned, at least one of the systems in France is most definitely broken down.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Legacy of the Settlers

I usually refrain from writing about politics in Israel, avoiding in particular the current debate regarding the Gaza disengagement plan. But after last week's lynching of a Palestinian by Jewish teenagers, the "high point" of a week of daily violence from the "orange" side of the spectrum, I feel compelled to post here an op-ed piece Uzi Benziman in Ha'aretz. Benziman simply tells it the way it is.

Not an isolated spectacle

By Uzi Benziman (Ha'aretz July 3, 2005)

The recent events in Gush Katif are a clear reflection of the settlers' grasp of Judaism: First you take over an abandoned Palestinian house, then set a mezuzah in it and declare it as Jewish property. Then you hold prayer sessions and Hasidic dancing in it. Later you provoke the Palestinian neighbors - an act that leads to stone throwing and ends with attempts by Jewish youths to stone to death an unconscious Palestinian teen.

This, in a nutshell, is the story of the Israeli takeover of the territories since 1967: seizing foreign lands, vindicating the robbery in the name of halakha and the right of the forefathers, creating friction and causing violent confrontations with the Palestinian neighbors, using force to ensure the hold on the new properties and relying on the state's powerful security apparatuses to eliminate the Palestinians' resistance to the injustice inflicted on them.

The sanctimonious rhetoric accompanying last Wednesday's attempted lynch at the Tal Yam outpost is typical of the entire settlement project. (Pasting Hebrew names, usually biblical, on outposts and communities in the territories, is part of the process of converting them to Judaism.) MK Shaul Yahalom called on the public in Israel and the world to believe that the thugs who stoned Hilal Ziyad Majaida were not religious Jews, they were only dressed up that way. Other settler leaders, some of whom sounded sincerely shocked by what they had seen, also said things to that effect.

We may assume that at least some of the settlers' leaders, rabbis and political representatives are sincerely disgusted with the murderous behavior of the hilltop youth and the Kahane youth who gathered in the hotel in Neveh Dekalim. If this is so, a few truths should be made clear to them: The settlement project has turned into an institute for contemporary Judaism. This is the assembly line that produces the neo-Jew or the neo-Israeli believer.

The settlers came to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and forced their view on the feeble Israeli governments (throughout the generations) in the name of a primordial right, taking over territories that were not theirs and usurping the Palestinian residents of their rights and lands. The state, after being dragged into this manipulation, retroactively backed it. It then found itself painted into a
corner from which it was obliged to support the project with quasi-legal military and security tricks. This is how the Jewish enclave in Hebron was established in `68, followed by most of the 122 settlements and 105 illegal outposts. The process, a fundamentally distorted act of government, was politically stupid, immoral and inhumane, and it created dynamics whose inevitable results are, among other things, along the lines of the spectacle that shocked Yahalom last week.

From the outstart, deranged and radical people accumulated in a few communities in the territories. The violent friction with the Palestinians created conditions that unleashed the animal in man. Whether or not these were the causes, the outburst of the skinheads in Gush Katif last Wednesday was not a rare spectacle. The history of the settlements is full of killing and robbery, disgraceful violations of the rights of the Palestinian neighbors and trampling on their dignity.

The Talia Sasson report is filled with examples of law violations on the part of the settlers, their collaborators in the state and the politicians above it. This air of lawlessness derives from the original sin - the urge to settle in the territories - and provides the petri dish for murderous urges, as displayed in the Machpela Cave massacre, the murder of innocent farmers, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the attempted lynch in Gush Katif.

The settlers reject this description. They see their settlement in the West Bank and Gaza as an implementation of the Jewish nation's right to its forefathers' land. They justify the contradiction between their motives and the fatal, corrupting consequences as the isolated acts of "wild weeds." This is their mistake. Even taking into consideration the Palestinians' contribution to the conflict, even taking care not to generalize and being aware of the humaneness of many settlers, there is no escape from the conclusion. The settlement project has created the circumstances that generate the terrible acts carried out by the state and by individuals, in the name of the Jews' right to a national home.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Shelach - Two Stories, One Will of God

ויאמר משה: למה זה אתם עוברים את פי ה', והיא לא תצלח. אל תעלו, כי אין ה' בקרבכם, ולא תנגפו לפני אויביכם

(במדבר י"ד,מ"א-מ"ב)

Every year, in countless synagogues around the world, this week's parasha seemingly serves as an injection of encouragement to those whose spirits are low in face of the continuous struggle between Israelis and Palestinians over control of parts of Israel. Zionist Rabbis will use the story of the meragelim, the spies that Moshe sent across the Jordan to gather information in preparation for entering the promised land, in order to "prove" that the "Jewish way" is not to give up in face of presssure and certainly not offer any compromises to the other side.

Against the majority opinion of their ten counterparts, Yehoshua and Kalev insisted that the Land is conquerable and that the people should not fear the inhabitants of Canaan. They should place their trust in God, who promised them they will conquer the Land. The rest, as we know, is history: the people wailed all night, God got angry, and promised these people will not live to see the Promised Land. So instead of entering Canaan bnei Israel turned back and wandered around the desert for another 38 years. The Midrash marked this night as a terrible night for generations; both Temples were destroyed on that same day, the 9th of Av.

The morale of this story, the rabbis will intone, is relevant to us today more than ever. Those who speak of withdrawal from the Gaza strip and other "conquered territories" are to be likened to the ten spies who had no faith in God and convinced the people they cannot win this war. We who know better, will conclude the rabbis, are like Yehoshua and Kalev; we place our trust in God and will not give back one inch of land, come what may.

Very few rabbis will urge us to read on further in the parasha, lest we encounter another less famous story, the one of the ma'apilim (literally: the ones who go up). Immediately after that fateful night of weeping, a few brave souls decide that despite God's words they should climb the mountains lying between them and the Land of Israel, and fight the natives. Moshe warns them:

And Moses said: 'Why now do you transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that you be not smitten down before your enemies.

(BaMidbar 14, 41-21)

The ma'apilim thought they knew better. After all, was not the Land promised to them by God? Did not Yehoshua and Kalev say that they should go forward and conquer it? Surely God will be on their side and help them win, despite Him being angry right now. It turned out exactly as Moses has predicted: they were slaughetered by the Canaanites and the Amalekites. God was not "among them" and they lost.

>The morale from these two stories - the meragelim and the ma'apilim - is that the Land of Israel holds no value in and of itself. Conquering the Land is not an automatic outcome of God's eternal promise to His people. What matters is what God is telling us to do and whether God is "among us". That, and only that, is the absolute truth we must adhere to. If God says: "go forward and conquer the Land", as He did with the meragelim, we should do so. But when He says: "do not go", we should also listen and hold back. The underlying assumption of the vast majority of Zionist religious Jews in Israel is that God is telling us today to "go!", and on this assumption they base their beliefs and urge us to imitate the spirit of Yehoshua and Kalev.

But how valid is this assumption? In our age of hester panim, when God does not reveal Himself to us neither directly nor indirectly (through prophets), can we be 100% sure that this is indeed His will? What if it happens to be a "no go" instruction, just as with the ma'apilim? Wouldn't we be going against God's will?

This is a big question and it merits a lengthy study. Not wanting to create unnecessary polemics, suffice it to say at this point that it is far from certain, in my opinion, that we can determine with no doubts that we live in an age of "go". Reading the Prophets and analysing the realities facing Israeli society today (which are the only valid tools we have for tackling this question) may indeed lead to a conclusion that we live in an age of "no go" and in such case we would be going against God's will by insisting to oppose every peace initiative. I heartily wish that more caution and restraint were used by Zionist religious rabbis in Israel when addressing such matters.

I gave this devar Torah last year, based on an article by R. Amnon Bazak from Gush Etzion.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

My IQ is Higher Than Yours

What did Sigumnd Freud, Albert Einstein and Gustav Mahler have in common?

Obviously they were all geniuses, brilliant men that rose above everyone else in their field of competence. But they were also Ashkenazi Jews. In an upcoming scientific paper, scientist Gregory Cochran and two of his colleagues claim that this is no coincidence: Ashkenazi Jews are, on average, more intelligent than others.

The notion that ethnicity determined intelligence might sound like a preposterous idea in our politically correct day and age. But Cochran backs his theory with hard facts and claims that a DNA failure commonly found in Ashkenazi society (that leads to a high incidence of diseases such as Tay-Zachs) is associated with the same genes that enhance intelligence. The argument is somewhat complicated but was summarised neatly by The Economist a couple of weeks ago.

Few would dispute the fact that Jews have fared above average throughout history in areas where intelligence mattered, making significant contributions to recent Western society in Europe and the US as well as to other civilizations in the more distant past. Whether this is a result of nature (DNA) or nurture (societal factors), or more likely a combination of both, is, in my opinion, less relevant.

On a side note, having grown up mostly in Israel I cannot help but wonder whether this natural advantage of Ashkenazi Jews works well only when the competition is mostly made up of gentiles but is much less effective when the competition is made up of other Jews, Ashkenazi or not...

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Hester Panim - The Hidden God

Here is a shi'ur I prepared for the study session of Shavu'ot tonight.

The references mentioned in the shi'ur can be found here.



Hester Panim – The Hidden God
(שבועות תשס"ה)


Our generation, and countless generations before ours, has been living in a reality that is devoid of a direct and evident presence of God. Since the days of the Second Temple and the end of the age of Prophecy, we have no means of witnessing God first-hand (or even second-hand). This state of affairs leads to the fundamental difference between religious belief and scientific knowledge: we believe there is a God but we have no way to prove His existence. The rise of modern science in the 16th and 17th centuries, together with the inability to prove God’s existence due to His transcendental nature, has led many to abandon their beliefs. “What you see is what there is” is how people expect to lead their lives in the modern age.

A few weeks ago, a work colleague of mine (an Israeli currently living in the US), visited Japan on business and came to our place for Shabbat dinner. The conversation turned to religion and he asked me: “Is it possible that God was present at one time in history, created the world and all that, but then had enough and went away, leaving us to our fate?” He did not dispute the existence of God. He merely wanted me to concede that although there may be a God, He no longer intervenes world and is in essence a “Hidden God”. My friend was asking the age-old question posed to the prophet Yekhezkel – see ref. 1: Does God not see us? Has God abandoned the world?

This conversation prompted me to take a look into the concept of Hester Panim, the “Hidden Face” of God.

The Double Language of Hiding

God promised us in the Torah that there would come a time when He would hide His face from us – see ref. 2. Verse 17 in Devarim 31 says so explicitly: as a result of us turning to other gods, and as a result of God not being “among us”, God will hide His face. And Rashi explains – see ref. 3 – that this hiding means that God will make it “as if” He does not see his people’s plight. It is not that He does not see us or care about us; He only makes it look “as if” He does not.

The “hiding of the face” is repeated again in the next verse (18), using a double expression in Hebrew – haster astir – for which there is no ready equivalent in English (hence the English translation: “I will surely hide My face”). This duality in the language of the Torah was explained in different ways by different commentators:

§ Even Ezrasee ref. 4 – explains haster astir as a standard linguistic expression: this is the way the language is used, speaking in double terms. This explanation is resonant of R. Yishmael’s method in the Talmud: dibera Torah bilshon bnei-adam, the Torah speaks in the language of the people.
§ R. Bechayeisee ref. 5 – explains the two hidings as alluding to two different hidings. The first hiding was in the time of the exile to Babylon (after the destruction of the First Temple) and lasted only a short time (about 50 years). The second hiding is the current hiding, which started with the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.).
§ Rambansee ref. 6 – also explains that there are two hidings. The first hiding was a result of the people abandoning God in favour of avoda zarah (idolatry), and this hiding was complete; God did not help and there was no hashgacha (Divine Providence). The second hiding was after the people repented and abandoned avoda zarah; the hiding continues but it is subtler, as now the ways of God are hidden but there is hashgacha. This is the state we are in today: God is looking after us, but he is hiding the ge’ulah itself, the redemption, waiting for us to repent in a full way and make full teshuvah.
§ R. Nachman from Braslevsee ref. 7 – also explains the double language of the Torah as alluding to there being two hidings. But these hidings are ensconced one inside the other, “a hiding within a hiding”. The first hiding is the hiding of God Himself. However there is a second hiding: the hiding of the first hiding itself, i.e. the fact that God is hidden is in itself a hidden fact. God had hidden His own hiding therefore man cannot even start looking for Him as man is not aware that there is a God that needs to be sought out. Modern man, according to this view, is devoid of any spiritual belief and God for him is not only hidden but practically non-existent.

Punishment or Test?

As we saw, the reason for God’s hiding of His face is given in the Torah: because the people have abandoned Him and turned to other gods. Yet we must ask ourselves whether this reason is enough for such a severe punishment. Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud – see ref. 8 - mentions that the moment that God uttered these words – haster astir – was the single most difficult moment in the history of mankind. Rashi quotes this view when explaining a verse in Yeshayahu (adding a positive note about God promising, on that very same day, that the Torah will help the people of Israel out through the ages, despite this punishment of hiding – see ref. 9.)

Some commentators saw this hiding not as a punishment but as a test. God is hiding from us not in order to punish us for our sins, but in order to see whether we can be strong in our faith and continue to follow His ways even in a reality of hester panim and not only in a reality of full revelation and obvious hashgacha.

Indeed this idea is also expressed in the Torah – see ref. 10 – and expounded later in the Midrash – see ref. 11 - using a parable about a king that sits in his castle, behind a wall of steel, and challenges his slaves to climb over that wall and come to him. Those who make the effort and climb the wall prove that they love the king and fear him; those who don’t, prove the opposite. And the king loves the ones who are close to him. Just as God tested his people throughout the generations, so he is testing our generation with hester panim.

Hidden Providence and Purim

Megillat Ester tells the story of the plot to exterminate the Jews and how Ester succeeded to persuade the king to overturn Haman’s decree and spare the Jews. Perhaps the most astonishing fact about the megillah is that the name of God is not mentioned even once! The Sages have learnt from this fact that God is indeed in hester, but despite this hiding he is intervening in the world, performing miracles and helping his people survive. The Talmud brings R. Matana’s answer to “where was God in the story of Ester” – see ref. 12: he quotes the original verse from Devarim to find God in the similar words astir and Ester. But the idea linking the miracle of Purim and hester panim is much deeper than mere word play.

The Talmud tells us – see ref. 13 - that in the days of Ester, the Jews accepted the Torah the second time. The first time was obviously in Har Sinai, but at that time the Jews had “no choice” and God practically forced it upon them (some commentators point out that a people witnessing God first-hand and seeing Him in full glory as bnei Israel did, indeed had “no choice” but to accept His words at the absolute truth). The second time was in the days of Achashverosh, when the Jews re-accepted the Torah, but this time out of their own free will.

As the Sefat Emet explains – see ref. 14 – the people realised that God was saving them although the events that led to the happy ending were all “natural” events. They understood that natural events were the hester and that God’s hand was working behind the scenes. This deep understanding of Divine Providence manifesting itself in the natural course of history gave that particular generation the zechut (privilege) to seal the unification between the Jewish people and the Torah and make it complete.

The same idea is found in the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s sichot – see ref. 15. He explains that in the times of the Temple, the miracles were open and clear and God’s revelation was there for all to see. However in our times of hester we live in the “night of exile”, and just as at night one cannot see as clearly as during the day, so we are unable to clearly see the miracles. They are there, but they are hard to see.

Dealing With a Hidden God

If the reality of a hidden God has been the reality of the Jewish people for almost two millennia, how did generations of believers deal with it? We find a multitude of theological, moral and practical remedies that have been offered as an explanation to help deal with this harsh reality.

It started in the days of the Prophets. When the prophet Yehsayahu speaks to the exiled Jews in Babylon, he asks those of lowly faith why they keep complaining that their ways are “hidden from God” and that “God does not judge them properly” – see ref. 16. His remedy to their plight is somewhat surprising. He tells them to look at Creation and understand that God does not relent, does not get faint or weary and that you cannot understand His ways.

(This advice immediately brings to mind the famous answer of God to Iyov (Job). After the monologues of Iyov and the discussions with his peers, when God finally answers Iyov – “the reply from the storm” in ch. 38 - He tells him to look at Creation and asks rhetorically: Who laid the foundations of the Earth? Who created the oceans? Who causes the sun to rise in the morning? And who is the father of rain?)

How does looking at Creation help with hester panim? Rashi explains – see ref.17 – that the hester panim was a result of God seemingly ignoring the positive acts of the people. Despite the fact that they worshipped God, He put them to the mercy of those who do not worship Him (i.e. the gentiles). But if you look at Creation you come to realise that somebody with the power and wisdom to create the world surely knows what is best for you, and the reason He puts you through these hardships is “to finish off sins by means of affliction”.

Rashi’s explanation lays the foundation for the concept of yisurim me’ahava, loving faith through hardship and suffering. He does not deny that there is suffering and that it might seem unjust in our eyes, but he begs us to understand that through this suffering God is cleansing us from our sins and we should trust his infinite wisdom and intelligence. The same concept is obviously a major theme in the book of Iyov.

Rambam on Hester and Divine Providence

Rashi’s explanation of yisurim me’ahava - accepting the hardships and sufferings with loving faith - is rejected by Rambam – see ref. 18 – who writes that this concept has no mention in the Torah. This is in line with Rambam’s understanding of the concept of Divine Providence and how this hashgacha is related to hester panim.

Rambam distinguishes between “hashgacha kelalit” and “hashgacha peratit”. The former is present for both humans and animals, but the latter is present only for humans. General Providence relates to the entire species, God making sure that the entire species is not wiped out but individual specimens may. Private Providence pertains to each person individually. It is not our purpose here to go deeper into this distinction, but rather find the significance of “hashgacha peratit” in the age of hester panim according to the Rambam.

The common view is that each person enjoys a “personal hashgacha” from God, as a result of the bond between the Creator and His creations. However, Rambam explains that hashgacha peratit is not a one-way street; one is not automatically guaranteed this private Providence and it is up to humans to make sure they enjoy this privilege. Rambam explains – see ref. 19 – that only a person who is constantly “with God” and following His ways is under the hashgacha peratit, but when a person allows his thinking to “be devoid” of God this hashgacha is removed. Then Rambam quotes the verse from Devarim and concludes that we, and only we, are the reason for this hester panim.

(The title of this shi’ur is “The Hidden God” and not “The Hiding God” as a result of Rambam’s view. It is not God that is doing the hiding; it is us that make Him hidden from us.)

It is important to note that many Sages did not agree with the Rambam on this point and interpreted his words to reach a different conclusion. For example, Ha’Ari Ha’Kadosh says – see ref. 20 – that indeed man is subject to nature, but hester panim does not mean there is no hashgacha peratit. It exists, but it is manifested in hidden ways.

Never Losing Hope

One continuous line throughout the ages has been not to lose hope. The Jewish people have survived in a reality of hester panim and have found ways to deal with it both theologically and practically.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin – see ref. 21 – comments on the status of widowhood of Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple, as we read in Meggilat Eicha, and comments that this is a temporary situation. Jerusalem is likened to a woman whose husband has gone overseas and has an intention to come back. The same analogy is made in the Midrash in Kohellet Rabasee ref. 22 - using a parable about a woman who makes herself beautiful even in the absence of her husband, telling her neighbours that she must be ready for his imminent return. Thus, concludes the Midrash, should people beautify themselves with Mitzvot and good deeds in anticipation of the return of God.

In conclusion, there are two major points to be made about living in an age of hester panim:

§ The hiding of God is in large measure a result of our actions. Not only does the Torah say so explicitly, but also many commentators and Sages have linked our actions with this hiding. Although nobody likes to be punished, we need to focus our thoughts not on why we are punished (as we will never be able to understand the ways of God), but rather on what we can do in order to follow the ways of God and overcome the hardships of worshipping a hidden God.
§ There is always hope. In countless places God promised us that He will never forsake us forever. Even when promising that He will hide His face, He also promised that He will be with us even though we are unable to see Him, hear Him or comprehend His ways. The biggest risk lies in the “hiding of the hiding”; we must be careful not to fall asleep and forget that God is with us. We need to remember that we are capable of “climbing the steel wall” and getting closer to God.

On this night, as we re-affirm our acceptance of the Torah by staying up all night and learning, let us pray that we will live to witness the removal of the barrier, the end of the age of hester panim, soon in our days. Amen.

Hester Panim - The Hidden God (References)

Here are the references for the shi'ur I prepared for Shavu'ot: "Hester Panim - The Hidden God":


Hester Panim – The Hidden God (References)
(שבועות תשס"ה)


יחזקאל פרק ח', י"ב
(יב) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי הֲרָאִיתָ בֶן אָדָם אֲשֶׁר זִקְנֵי בֵית יִשְׂרָאֵל עֹשִׂים בַּחֹשֶׁךְ אִישׁ בְּחַדְרֵי מַשְׂכִּיתוֹ כִּי אֹמְרִים אֵין יְדֹוָד רֹאֶה אֹתָנוּ עָזַב יְדֹוָד אֶת הָאָרֶץ:

Ezekiel 8, 12
Then said He unto me: 'Son of man, hast thou seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in his chambers of imagery? for they say: The LORD sees us not, the LORD hath forsaken the land.'


דברים ל"א
(יז) וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה: (יח) וְאָנֹכִי הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא עַל כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כִּי פָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים:

Deuteronomy 31
17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.


רש"י, דברים ל"א, י"ז
והסתרתי פני - כמו שאיני רואה בצרתם.

Rashi, Deuteronomy 31, 17
And I will hide My face - As if I don't notice their suffering.


אבן עזרא, דברים ל"א, י"ח
וטעם הסתר אסתיר - שאם יקראו אלי לא אענה. והמשל כאדם שלא יראה ולא ידע מה יעשה, וכן מנהג לשון לדבר בכפל. ובעלי הדקדוק יבינו זה.


רבינו בחיי, דברים פרק ל"א, י"ח
"ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא" - כבר הזכיר למעלה "והסתרתי פני מהם" והוא הסתר פנים של גלות בבל, ועתה יחזור הסתר פנים פעם אחרת ובלשון כפול, למען הודיעך כי לא יהיה ההסתר הזה זמן מועט כראשון אך יהיו זמן רב בהסתר פנים, וירמוז לגלותנו זה שאנחנו עומדים בו בהסתר פנים כפול.


רמב"ן דברים פרק לא, י"ז-י"ח
... כי על כל הרעה הגדולה שעשו לבטוח בע"ז יסתיר עוד פנים מהם, לא כמסתר פנים הראשון שהסתיר פני רחמיו ומצאום רעות רבות וצרות, רק שיהיו בהסתר פני הגאולה, ויעמדו בהבטחת פני רחמיו (ויקרא כ"ו, מ"ד): "ואף גם זאת בהיותם בארץ אויביהם לא מאסתים ולא געלתים וגו'" עד שיוסיפו על החרטה הנזכרת וידוי גמור ותשובה שלימה, כמו שנזכר למעלה (דברים ל', ב'): "ושבת עד ה' אלהיך וגו'".


ר' נחמן מברסלב, ליקוטי מוהר"ן, ח"א, נ"ו, ג'
כי יש שתי הסתרות. וכשה' יתברך נסתר בהסתרה אחת, גם כן קשה מאוד למוצאו. אך אף על פי כן, כשהוא נסתר בהסתרה אחת, אפשר לייגע ולחתור עד שימצא אותו יתברך, מאחר שיודע שהשם יתברך נסתר ממנו. אבל כשה' יתברך נסתר בהסתרה בתוך הסתרה, דהיינו שההסתרה עצמה נסתרת ממנו, אזי אי אפשר כלל למצוא אותו, מאחר שאינו יודע כלל מה' יתברך. וזה בחינת (דברים ל"א) 'ואנוכי הסתר אסתיר', דהיינו שאסתיר את ההסתרה, שלא ידעו כלל שה' יתברך נסתר. ואזי בוודאי אינו יכול למצוא אותו יתברך, מאחר שאינו יודע כלל שצריך לבקש אותו יתברך, כי אינו יודע כלל שה' יתברך נסתר ממנו, כי ההסתרה עצמה נסתרת כנ"ל.


תלמוד ירושלמי, מסכת סנהדרין, נ"א.
רבי יעקב בר אביי בשם רבי אחא מייתי לה מן הדא: "וחכיתי לה' המסתיר פניו מבית יעקב וקויתי לו" (ישעיה ח', י"ז). אין לך שעה קשה בעולם מאותה שעה שאמר לו הקב"ה למשה: "ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא" (דברים ל"א, י"ח). מאותה השעה "וקויתי לו" שאמר לו בסיני: "כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו" (דברים ל"א, כ"א)...


רש"י ישעיה ח', י"ז
"וחכיתי לה' המסתיר פניו מבית יעקב וקויתי לו" - אין לך נבואה קשה כאותה שעה שאמר משה (דברים ל"א): "ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא" ואף בו ביום הבטיחם: "וענתה השירה הזאת לפניו לעד כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו (דברים ל"א, כ"א).


דברים ל"ב, כ'
וַיֹּאמֶר אַסְתִּירָה פָנַי מֵהֶם אֶרְאֶה מָה אַחֲרִיתָם כִּי דוֹר תַּהְפֻּכֹת הֵמָּה בָּנִים לֹא אֵמֻן בָּם:

Deuteronomy 32, 20
And He said: 'I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; for they are a very forward generation, children in whom is no faithfulness.


תנא דבי אליהו זוטא פרק י"ב
משלו משל למה"ד, למלך שהיו לו עבדים והיו יושבין מעבר לחומה של ברזל והיה המלך מכריז עליהם ואומר: כל מי שירא אותי והוא אוהב אותי יעלה על החומה של ברזל ויבא אצלי. וכל מי שהוא עולה על החומה של ברזל בודאי הוא ירא את המלך והוא אוהב את המלך, וכל מי שאינו עולה בוודאי הוא אינו ירא את המלך והוא אינו אוהב את המלך. מאותן שעלו על החומה לאותן שלא עלו איזה מהן חביב? הוי אומר אותן שעלו על החומה.


חולין קל"ט:
אמרי ליה פפונאי [אנשי העיר פפוניא] לרב מתנה: ... אסתר מן התורה מניין? אמר להו: "ואנוכי הסתר אסתיר"


בבלי שבת פ"ח.
"ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" (שמות י"ט, י"ז) - אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא: מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית, ואמר להם: אם אתם מקבלים התורה - מוטב, ואם לאו - שם תהא קבורתכם. אמר רב אחא בר יעקב: מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא. אמר רבא: אף על פי כן, הדור קבלוה בימי אחשורוש, דכתיב: "קימו וקבלו היהודים" (אסתר ט', כ"ז) - קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.


"שפת אמת" שבועות
[במעמד הר סיני] ראו בני ישראל בחוש ממש שאי אפשר לסור מעם השם יתברך שהוא חיי החיים... [אבל בימי אחשוורוש] ראו הנס בתוך הטבע, והבינו כי הטבע הוא רק הסתר, אבל בפנימיות הוא רק חיות התורה.


הרבי מליובאויטש, שיחות לפורים, התשכ"ט
ומבואר בהדרושים, שכללות החילוק בין זמן הגלות לזמן שבית המקדש הי` קיים, הוא, שבזמן שבית המקדש הי` קיים היו רואים נסים בגלוי... מה שאין כן בזמן הגלות נעשה מעמד ומצב של העלם והסתר, וכמאמר רבותינו ז"ל אסתר מן התורה מניין, שנאמר ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא, שלכן נקרא הגלות בשם לילה, היפך זמן הגאולה (ועל דרך זה בזמן שבית המקדש הי` קיים), שעל זה נאמר והי` לך הוי` לאור עולם, שזהו מעמד ומצב של אור ויום. והרי החילוק שבין לילה ויום הוא, שגם בלילה ישנם כל עניני המציאות כמו ביום, אלא שאין רואים אותם.


ישעיהו מ', כ"ז-כ"ח
לָמָּה תֹאמַר יַעֲקֹב וּתְדַבֵּר יִשְׂרָאֵל נִסְתְּרָה דַרְכִּי מֵיְדֹוָד וּמֵאֱלֹהַי מִשְׁפָּטִי יַעֲבוֹר:
הֲלוֹא יָדַעְתָּ אִם לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ אֱלֹהֵי עוֹלָם יְדֹוָד בּוֹרֵא קְצוֹת הָאָרֶץ לֹא יִיעַף וְלֹא יִיגָע אֵין חֵקֶר לִתְבוּנָתוֹ:

Yeshayahu 40, 27-28
27 Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel: 'My way is hid from the LORD, and my right is passed over from my God'? 28 Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? His discernment is past searching out.


רש"י, ישעיהו מ', כ"ח
נסתרה דרכי מה' - העלים מנגד עיניו כל מה שעבדנוהו והמשיל עלינו אותם שלא ידעוהו:
בורא קצות הארץ וגו' אין חקר לתבונתו - ומי שיש לו כח כזה וחכמה כזו הוא יודע את המחשבות למה הוא מאחר טובתכם אלא כדי לכלות את הפשע ולהתם את החטאת ע"י היסורין:


רמב"ם, מורה נבוכים, חלק ג',פרק י"ז
כן מופיעה בדברי החכמים תוספת שאינה מופיעה בגוף התורה, והיא שחלקם אמרו: ייסורין של אהבה. כי לפי דעה זאת יש שפוגעים באדם פגעים לא בגלל חטא שֶקָּדַם, אלא כדי שירבה שׂכרו. זאת היא גם שיטת המעתזלה. אך אין כתוב בתורה לעניין זה.

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Ch. 17
The same principle is expressed in all sayings of our Sages. But they contain an additional doctrine which is not found in the Law; viz., the doctrine of" afflictions of love," as taught by some of our Sages. According to this doctrine it is possible that a person be afflicted without having previously committed any sin, in order that his future reward may be increased; a view which is held by the Mu'tazilites, but is not supported by any Scriptural text.


רמב"ם, מורה נבוכים, חלק ג',פרק נ"א
עלה בדעתי עכשיו היבט נפלא מאוד של עיון שעל-ידו נפתרים ספקות ומתגלים סודות אלוהיים. כי כבר הסברנו בפרקי ההשגחה שלפי מידת שׂכלו של כל בעל שׂכל תהיה ההשגחה בו, לכן האדם שהשׂגתו שלמה, ששׂכלו ממשיך להיות עם האל תמיד, תהיה ההשגחה עליו תמיד. אך האדם שהשׂגתו שלמה שבמשך זמן-מה התרוקנה מחשבתו מהאל, ההשגחה עליו תהיה רק בשעה שהוא חושב על האל, ותסור ממנו בשעה שהוא עסוק... אמונה זאת נכונה, לדעתי, גם על סמך לשון התורה. הוא יתעלה אמר: "והסתרתי פָנַי מהם והיה לאכֹל ומצאֻהו רעות רבות וצרות" (דברים ל"א, י"ז). ברור שאנחנו הסיבה להסתרת הפנים הזאת ואנחנו עושׂים את החציצה הזאת. זה דברו: ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא על כל הרעה אשר עשֹה (שם, י"ח). ואין ספק שדין היחיד כדין הציבור.

Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, Part 3, Ch. 51
An excellent idea presents itself here to me, which may serve to remove many doubts, and may help to solve many difficult problems in metaphysics. We have already stated in the chapters which treat of Divine Providence, that Providence watches over every rational being according to the amount of intellect which that being possesses. Those who are perfect in their perception of God, whose mind is never separated from Him, enjoy always the influence of Providence. But those who, perfect in their knowledge of God, turn their mind sometimes away from God, enjoy the presence of Divine Providence only when they meditate on God; when their thoughts are engaged in other matters, divine Providence departs from them… This principle I find also expressed in the Law. Comp." And I will hide my face them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall betall them: so that they will say in that day, Are not these evils come upon us, because our God is not among us ?" (Deut. 31, 17). It is dear that we ourselves are the cause of this hiding of the face, and that the screen that separates us from God is of our own creation. This is the meaning of the words:" And I will surely hide my face in that day, for all the evils which they shall have wrought" (ibid. 31, 18). There is undoubtedly no difference in this regard between one single person and a whole community.


האר"י הקדוש
אך ככלל אין זו כוונת הרמב"ם. ודאי שהאדם נמסר בידי הטבע, אך אין זה שולל השגחה פרטית, אלא שהיא מסתתרת בתוך הטבע. "אכן אתה אל מסתתר…" (ישעיה מה טו). "הסתר פנים" -אין פירושו שחס וחלילה "עזב ד' את הארץ" (יחזקאל ח יב. ט ט). הוא יתברך נמצא, אך מסתתר, "הנה זה עומד אחר כתלנו, משגיח מן החלונות מציץ מן החרכים" (שיר השירים ב ט). ההשגחה הכללית חודרת דרך כל הפרטים.


תלמוד בבלי, סנהדרין ק"ד.
"היתה כאלמנה" (איכה א'). אמר רב יהודה אמר רב: כאלמנה, ולא אלמנה ממש. אלא כאשה שהלך בעלה למדינת הים, ודעתו לחזור אליה.


קהלת רבה פרשה ט'
בר קפרא ור' יצחק בר קפרא אמרי: לאשתו של בולדריס (=מושל) שהיתה מקשטת עצמה בפני שכינותיה. אמרו לה שכינותיה: בעלך אינו כאן, בפני מי את מקשטת עצמך? אמרה להון: בעלי מלח הוא. אם יזדמן לו מעט רוח תכף יבא ונמצא עומד למעלה מראשי. לא מוטב שיראה אותי בכבודי ולא בניוולי? כך "בכל עת יהיו בגדיך לבנים מן העבירות ושמן על ראשך אל יחסר" (קהלת ט', ח') ממצוות ומעשים טובים.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Cool Biz - A "Tie Break"?

Suits and ties are the standard dress code for business in Japan. The crowd of commuters at train stations during rush hour looks like it came out of a factory production line: dark suits (black, grey, blue), white shirts and black shoes. One rarely walks into an office in Tokyo and sees a man without a tie; only at factories or research and engineering departments the dress code is a little less formal.

Using "global warming" as a pretext, the Japanese government launched the "Cool Biz" campaign last week. The Prime Minister, Koizumi, and his Environment Minister, Koike, were both seen walking around - horror! - wearing no jacket and no tie. The idea is that if civil servants loosen up their dress code, the air-conditioners can be set at a higher temperature (28c), thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The PM called businesses to follow the government's lead and leave jackets and ties at home (hence the "Cool Biz" moniker for this initiative).

Koizumi: "follow my lead..."

I say: fat chance! Although I immediately took advantage of this piece of news and used it as an excuse to turn up in a short-sleeved shirt at the office the next day, I am not the typical Japanese businessman. It is a safe bet that the response to Koizumi's call will be marginal and hardly felt in business circles. A 40-year-old businessman was quoted in one newspaper as saying: "I will never take off my tie unless I get arrested". And while discussing this new "government directive" with a colleague at work, he remarked wryly to me: "Koizumi is just too advanced for us". And this guy is barely 30 years old...

Monday, June 06, 2005

Yom Yerushalaim - Jerusalem Day

אם אשכחך ירושלים, תשכח ימיני. תדבק לשוני לחכי אם לא אזכרכי, אם לא אעלה את ירושלים על ראש שמחתי

(תהילים קל"ז, ה'-ו')

Today, 28th of Iyar, is Yom Yerushalaim - Jerusalem Day. On this day 38 years ago (June 7, 1967), during the six-day war, eastern Jerusalem and the Western Wall were liberated by the Israeli army. The Israeli parliament passed a law in 1968 designating this day as an official holiday (though, sadly, not a day off work) and the Chief Rabbinate instituted special prayers to be added to the regular prayers, inlcuding Hallel, just like on Yom HaAtsmaut (Independence Day).

Jersusalem became the focal point of the Jewish people since it was dedicated by King David almost 3,000 years ago, in the 9th century B.C.E. According to Jewish law, certain things could be accomplished only by going to Jerusalem in the days of the Temple: the Passover sacrifice, various tithes, the First Fruits, etc. This led to the view in the Mishna that Jerusalem is more holy than the rest of the Land of Israel (Kelim 1, 8). In the Talmud there is a debate about the enduring holiness of Jerusalem and whether this holiness exists today or not. Without going into the various facets of this discussion, there is no argument that Jerusalem is central to Jewish thought and history. We mention it in our daily prayers; every synagogue in the world is built facing Jerusalem; and in one of our happiest moments, during the wedding ceremony, we recite the following verse:

If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I remember you not, if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.

(Psalms 137, 5-6)

And yet Jerusalem today is not as we imagine it, not as we would like it to be. The Israeli-Arab conflict and the religious-secular divide are evident everywhere. It is one of the poorest cities in Israel and many neighbourhoods look like they are still stuck in the 19th century (and not in a positive way). It is a united city only in government brochures and nationalistic propaganda; few Israeli Jews would dare wander alone at night in east Jerusalem neighbourhoods. Every year the media reports the number of graduating Israeli school students that have never been to Jerusalem. More and more Israelis choose not to visit their capital city unless they have to. And many secular Israelis who were born and raised in Jerusalem move out to the surrounding suburbs or to Tel Aviv.

Despite all these problems, I love Jerusalem. I lived there for four years, during my studies at the Hebrew University, and to this day I remember those years with very fond memories. There is a lot of work to be done to improve life in Jerusalem and perhaps this work will never be truly complete. But to me the words of the Talmud ring true every time I remember Jerusalem and every time I visit it: "Ten measures of beauty descended on the world - nine were taken by Jerusalem, one by the rest of the world. There is no beauty like the beauty of Jerusalem." (Kidushin, 49:2).

Friday, June 03, 2005

BaMidbar - Unity Through Individuality

איש על דגלו באתת לבית אבתם יחנו בני ישראל, מנגד, סביב לאהל מועד יחנו

(במדבר ב', ב')

New parasha, new book.

BaMidbar opens with the counting of the people of Israel, on the second year of their travels in the desert. Hence its English name: The Book of Numbers. In this parasha we read that God commands His people to pitch their tents around the central place of worship, in a special arrangement, by tribe, raising a flag showing the tribe's colours:

The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers' houses; every man with his own flag, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.

(BaMidbar 2, 2)

The Midrash tells us that it was the people themselves who asked to have their own flags and camp under their own banner. The idea came to them in Sinai, where they witnessed the angels (no less than 240,000 says the Midrash) descending upon the mountain, arranged in tidy groups, each group bearing its own flag. God, upon hearing the wish of the people to be arranged in a similar way, promised He would fulfill that wish and hence this command to Moshe to arrange the tribes according to their flags.

Why the importance of flags? Why the wish of Bnei Israel to be like the angels?

Commentators explain that one of the main differences between angels and humans is that each angel (or group of angels) is given one specific task to perform and is not allowed (indeed, is not capable) to perform any other tasks. There is a perfect division of labour between the angels, each knowing his place in the kingdom of heaven. Thus, there is no rivalry and no envy between angels. Humans, on the other hand, have free choice and can perform many tasks. By nature, human beings are competitive and jealous of each other and perfect harmony and unity, such as is present among the angels, is impossible.

Bnei Israel saw the perfect unity of the angels and were, well, envious (as befits human beings). God could not change the nature of humanity and turn them into angels. But he could at least give them some order and sense of purpose, imitating the tidy groupings of the angels by organizing the tribes by flags. This division symbolises a duality. On one hand, the people of Israel are one under God. On the other, they are individuals, each with his own tasks and duties to fulfill in the world.

It is impossible for us to be like angels. But we can at least try and imitate the unity and harmony of the angels, whilst keeping our individuality and unique sense of purpose at the same time.

The idea for this week's Thought is from Y. Lapian from Kerem B'Yavneh.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Usually I don't give books with a title like Freakonomics a second look. With a horrid name like that they are probably not worth the effort. But following a link on Arts & Letters Daily about a couple of months ago I read a glowing review about this new book (it was not yet available at the time), which ended with the words: "one of the decade's most intelligent and provocative books". Well, that sounded like something worth reading, freakish title notwithstanding.

Worth reading? Yes. Intelligent? Maybe. Provocative? Hardly.

What Steven Levitt, a young economics professor from the University of Chicago, does, is ask some good questions about things happening in the world and then he plays around intelligently with numbers to see if he can come up with a good explanation for why these things happen. The "freakish" part comes from the fact that Levitt tries to find non-standard, sometimes counter-intuitive, explanations and back them with his number-crunching acrobatics. There is nothing provocative about this, only commonsense use of statistics backed by a bright skeptical mind that does not trust conventional wisdom.

The book contains numerous subjects to which a "freaky" answer is found by looking carefully at the numbers: Why do Sumo wrestlers cheat? Why do drug dealers still live at home? How much does the parent contribute to the development of the child? Why do real-estate agents sell your house for less than it is worth? For each of these questions Levitt proposes an answer and proceeds to show why the numbers prove his hypothesis.

Perhaps the best analysis in the book (and the most widely known by now) is the one dealing with the decline in crime in the United States during the late 1990s. After dismissing the common explanations for this decline - better police work, more policemen, economic welfare, etc. - Levitt suggests that the drop in crime is attributed to the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973. The argument goes like this: criminals come from bad families and are mostly a result of unwanted pregnancies. The legalisation of abortion enabled many women from bad backgrounds to avoid giving birth to unwanted children. These "unborn children" would have entered their prime criminal years in the 1990s. Less problematic children around means less crime. Neat explanation, backed with numbers. (Needless to say, in the short time the book has been around, there have been numerous attacks on this theory).

The book is mostly intelligent and entertaining and provides a good read. But it has two flaws. Levitt's co-author, the journalist Stephen Dubner, sprinkled the book with excerpts from a piece he wrote in 2003 in The New York Times about Levitt. The endless praise about Levitt (did we mention he was young? and brilliant? and freaky?) seems a touch awkward in a book supposedly written by the very same person. The second flaw is one which is sadly too common in popular books written by academics: it pounds a point to death. Just when you thought you got the point and are to move on, there comes yet another explanation of the very same point. The book could have been written in half as many pages.

In the preface to the book, the authors write:

It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first observation. As for the redefining the way we view the world... Well, I think it depends on the level of skepticism the reader has in the first place with regards to conventional wisdom.

Education for Manners on the Train

Any person reading a reference book about Japan, be it a guide book for tourists or a "how to" book for business people, will most likely come across a section entitled "Japanese Manners" or "Japanese Etiquette". This section is there to teach the ignorant peasant from the West how to behave around the superiorly well-behaved Japanese. Depending on the diligence of the author, this list of rules can easily run up to hundreds of entries, from the basics - how (not) to shake hands; how to present and receive a business card; how to use your chopsticks - to the more advanced: how to behave at a funeral; how to avoid confusion between tatemae and honne; how to fill your colleagues' beer glasses.

Some gaijin (foreigners) may get the false impression that Japanese people are naturally well-mannered. Somehow we are led to believe it's all in the blood, or at least in the ancient culture, a remnant of the bushido code of conduct of the Samurai so cheaply rendered in Hollywood films. But it is not so. Anyone living in Tokyo is bewildered by the inordinate amount of efforts undertaken by the government and public organizations to educate the masses on proper behaviour. This is especially evident in the public transportation system.

Japan leads the world in the business of moving people around. A country with almost half the population of the U.S. inhabiting a landmass about the size of California has no other choice. The public transportation system of Tokyo moves tens of millions of people daily and to do that it must rely not only on its superb infrastructure but also on the cooperation of its customers. I have often commented to Israeli friends who expressed their wishes to have a subway system like Tokyo's in Israel, that it takes two to tango; the system works here not only because it is efficiently constructed, but also because the masses are educated to use it in a proper way. One cannot expect a station like Shinjuku for example, through which about 2 million people pass through each day, to function properly (or, indeed, at all) if the crowds do not adhere to certain rules.

To ensure this adherence, passengers are constantly reminded how to behave. Here are a few examples, taken from posters in Tokyo subway stations:

1. Never rush onto a departing train:

2. Don't take up too much space when sitting down:

3. Don't speak on the mobile phone:

4. Following a sharp rise in "groping" cases, especially during rush hours when people are crammed together like sardines, a campaign for speaking up against offenders:

And this is only a sample. People are asked not to eat or drink on the train, to fold the newspaper they are reading so it doesn't take up too much space, to stand to the side of the doors so that people can get out before stepping onto the train, etc.

The younger generation seems to flaunt some of these rules. It is no longer unusual to see a youngster speaking on the mobile phone on the train, or having a quick bite. Indeed, Tokyo has seen its first case of "mascara rage" last month, when a teenage girl pushed an elderly lady on the platform and the lady was hit a moving train and required hospitalisation. Why did the girl push her? Because the lady made a comment that putting make-up on in the train station is impolite...

Friday, May 27, 2005

BeChukotay - Reward and Punishment

ואם תלכו עמי קרי, ולא תאבו לשמע לי, ויספתי עליכם מכה שבע כחטאתיכם

(ויקרא כ"ו, כ"א)

BeChukotay, the last parasha in the book of VaYikra, is one of the two parshiot in the Torah in which we find in detail the consequences of not following God's ways, also known as the tochecha, or rebuke (the second one is in VaYelech, at the end of Devarim). After spelling out the blessings that we will attain by following the laws of God, the Torah goes on to describe, in excruciating detail (more than 30 verses!), the curses that will fall upon us for not doing so.

Reading the tochecha we find a word which repeats itself several times - keri:

And if you walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me, I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins

(VaYikra 26, 21)

The English translation of keri as "contrary", i.e. purposely going against God's ways, is not universally acceptable. Rashi explains the above verse by saying that keri means "impermanent", thus describing a reality in which the people of Israel fulfill the mitzvot only partially and not in a consistent manner.

But the word keri shares the same root in Hebrew as the word mikre, which means a coincidence or something that happens as if by accident. And indeed Rabenu Bechayei explains the verse using a psychological analysis of human behaviour. When people are successful and good things happen to them, they tend to attribute this success to themselves. However, when things go wrong and bad things happen, people tend to attribute this failure to chance or bad luck. The Torah here teaches us that a person should not interpret life as a coincidence, as a mikre, but rather should know that everything comes from God. If bad things come our way we should interpret it as a sign from God to repent and renounce our bad ways. Hence the use of the word keri; God says: if you think it's only keri, only bad luck, I will punish you in a way that will make you understand it is me and not chance that struck you.

Rambam expands this idea and, true to his philosophy, puts the burden of responsibility on man. He urges us to understand that there is cause and effect; that the way we behave determines the outcome. Rambam uses our parasha to prove the existence of reward and punishment in God's ways.

This view of the world poses a great dilemma. On the one hand we are encouraged to draw direct conclusions between what we do and how God rewards or punishes us. On the other hand, by doing so, we run the risk of misinterpretation of God's ways, or worse, of deluding ourselves that we understand his rules of engagement. How to solve this conflict? There seems to be no easy answer. It is our task to pave a golden path between an existence of reward and punishment ("I will do X, therefore God will do Y") and an existence that presupposes our inability to comprehend the ways of God ("I will do what God told me to do, and it is up to him to decide how to respond"). Human nature pulls us in the first direction but deeper belief in God pull us in the other. Balancing both is a never-ending task.

The idea for this week's Thought is from R. Aharon Lichtenstein