Sunday, February 28, 2010

Commentary on Esther- תש"ע

I hope you are all enjoying your Purim, friends. Usually I have ideas about the Megillah but forget them by the time I get around to writing them down, but this year I remembered a lot more, so I want to get this done before I forget. I did write a bit last year though, but not as much as I would have liked to. As it happens I was even able to read the Megillah tonight in a limited assembly, so I guess that might have jogged my memory a bit.

I've got a few things to say on almost every chapter:

Chapter 1: "הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד-כּוּשׁ"- I don't know why it didn't seem as obvious to me in the past, but now it's quite obvious to me (not to mention it's well known by now) that this is a response to a confusion by the part of the reader when hearing "אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ"; the natural question is "Which אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ are you speaking of?", since the book of Ezra also mentions an "אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ" (it seems Xerxes (חְשָׁיָארְשָׁ) and Artaxerxes (אַרְתַּחְשַׁשְׂתָּא) were called by the same name in ancient Hebrew, although in Aramaic it mentions the latter by his actual name). To that it responds "the one who was the great emperor over all these lands".

"בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלוֹשׁ, לְמָלְכוֹ"- Since the destruction of the Judean kingdom, the Tanach counts years according to the Babylonian kings, and then according to the Persian kings. This change is evidenced clearly in the book of Daniel, which occurs before and after the twelve year Ahasuerus-reign of the book of Esther, but can also be seen in Ezra and "Tobit".

"וְהַשְּׁתִיָּה כַדָּת"
"כָּל-יֹדְעֵי דָּת וָדִין"
"כְּדָת, מַה-לַּעֲשׂוֹת"
"אַחַת דָּתוֹ לְהָמִית" etc etc- It's well known that the book of Esther uses the word "דת" a disproportionately large amount of times. Many commentators say that in this context it's simply just another word for "law" or "royal law", but I'm starting to think it does have what to do with religion. With the rise of Persian prominence worldwide the Zoroastrian religion gained unprecedented renown and it's priests had much more political influence than they once did, considering that the emperor had to abide by their rulings. It seems to me that a lot of this "דת" in the megillah is speaking of religious decrees enacted by the Zoroastrian priests onto the monarchy. From the decision about what to do with a queen who doesn't show when summoned to the death penalty for someone who approaches the emperor without having been summoned. I use the word "emperor" by the way, and not "king", since he was, in fact, an emperor, it's just that there's no word for "emperor" in Hebrew, so it uses the same word for the ruler of a city state as for an emperor.

Chapter 2: "וַיֶּאֱהַב הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶת-אֶסְתֵּר מִכָּל-הַנָּשִׁים, וַתִּשָּׂא-חֵן וָחֶסֶד לְפָנָיו מִכָּל-הַבְּתוּלוֹת"- The "One Night with the King" movie (which, I feel, has been a very successful attempt of the Evangelical community to create top notch entertainment that doesn't sacrifice Christian values in the process) portrays a romantic love between the emperor and Esther. I think anyone would agree that it's unlikely that they had an emotional attachment. He did want her to be the queen, but it was extremely uncommon back then for there to be anything but a political connection between king and queen.

Chapter 3: "הָמָן בֶּן-הַמְּדָתָא הָאֲגָגִי"- As if it would be possible to verify if he was some long-lost descendant of Agag. I think it might be saying that since he was so gung-ho about killing the entire nation of Mordecai, it must be he's from the seed of Amalek, i.e. a descendant of Agag (but it's hard to believe he went parading that fact in a nation who didn't know from such things).

"וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ; וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל-עָם, וְאֶת דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים, וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם. אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם; וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים כִּכַּר-כֶּסֶף, אֶשְׁקוֹל עַל-יְדֵי עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה, לְהָבִיא, אֶל-גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ."- I was thinking of making a post out of this and calling it "What Haman can teach us about Blogging"(!), but I'll just stick with this format. To me it seems that Haman has been reading his Dale Carnegie, and is being a very efficient public speaker. Now, notice that in the previous verse we're told that this is the twelfth year of Ahasuerus's reign, in other words four entire years since he was thinking about killing Mordecai and his people, and it was still on his mind. So he was probably looking for a way to carry it out for years, and he ends up accomplishing it in a couple of seconds by a very witty use of words. First, he takes advantage of the fact that the emperor is probably just as interested in hearing a twenty hour lesson on the history of the Jews, and about all their kings and how they ended up in Persia as Bush was interested in hearing the history of Iraq and what the deposition of Saddam Husein would do to it's infrastructure. He doesn't mention them by name and quickly demonizes them. Then he promises loads of cash if Ahasuerus lets him go through with it. So he's basically saying "There's some lawless group of anarchists throughout the empire that aren't willing to comply with us; you're better off without them. If it pleases the king, I'll rid you of them, aaaaand add ten thousand gold bars to the treasury". And viola, the signet ring is suddenly on his finger.

The connection to blogging is that people need quick sound bytes and can't be bothered to listen or think to much. If you want someone to be swayed by your words, they have to be biast, unclear, sweet and powerful!

Chapter 4: "כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת--רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר"-I think this is one of the most theologically significant points in the megillah; what would happen if Esther did nothing, would everything turn out the same for the Jews. Or, more importantly, what if Esther only fasted two days, or what if she said one less prayer? In other words: what exactly did any given spiritual activity affect in the world. Perhaps a Jewish community in some Persian occupied city on the North African coast heard about it; how much did the particularly fervent prayer of a young Jewish boy in that community affect the emperor's decision? What if he never did pray?....

Of less theological significance to me is the fact that Mordecai knew that salvation would come to the Jews no matter what, since there's some sort of biblical pact between G-d and Israel in the Tanach, that he would never destroy them.

"וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ--אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת"- To us readers it seems quite obvious that she became queen for this reason, and he very fact that Mordecai finds it necessary to say this is indicative of the fact that Esther wasn't Evangelically quick in attributing Providence to everything in her life. After all, for a second it seemed like she was going to turn her back on her people since "כָּל-אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה אֲשֶׁר יָבוֹא-אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-הֶחָצֵר הַפְּנִימִית אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יִקָּרֵא אַחַת דָּתוֹ לְהָמִית". Even Mordecai seems to be mention the prospect of Divine intervention in very theoretical terms ("Who knows")....

"וּבְכֵן אָבוֹא אֶל-הַמֶּלֶךְ"- The funny thing is that after Mordecai's little speech, she seems to have gone 360 degrees and even be willing to show up by the king after having fasted for three days (which can't be the best thing from a cosmetic perspective), thus leaving the possibility of success entirely upon Divine Providence.

Chapter 5: "יָבוֹא הַמֶּלֶךְ וְהָמָן, אֶל-הַמִּשְׁתֶּה אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱשֶׂה לָהֶם"- Esther understood the importance of mystery and mystique. Which is something people are attracted to. Which is the same reason people are attracted to the anonymity of having an online personality.

Chapter 9: "וְהָרוֹג בְּשֹׂנְאֵיהֶם, חֲמִשָּׁה וְשִׁבְעִים אָלֶף"- It seems the exiled Judeans were still war-ready if they could kill 75,000 armed soldiers at the tip of a hat. This was well before the "ultra-urbanization" of the Jew...

"לְקַיֵּם אֶת-יְמֵי הַפֻּרִים הָאֵלֶּה בִּזְמַנֵּיהֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר קִיַּם עֲלֵיהֶם מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי וְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה, וְכַאֲשֶׁר קִיְּמוּ עַל-נַפְשָׁם, וְעַל-זַרְעָם: דִּבְרֵי הַצּוֹמוֹת, וְזַעֲקָתָם"- It seems that Ta'anit Esther is considered one of "the days of Purim".

Chapter 10: "וְרָצוּי לְרֹב אֶחָיו"- Again, in a more tribe-oriented reading of the text, it's possible that the Judaite Zealots were wary of a Benjaminite finding favor with the emperor, since he might have wanted to become a new monarch over Judea and have founded a new non-Judaite dynasty...

Another important point is the chronology, since the Megillah seems to span from the third year of Xerxes' reign to at least the twelfth, which is a pretty long timespan for a story to come together, especially considering that Xerxes' reign lasted only twenty years altogether...

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chaimle's Kavana


I have a thought about "the Halocaust" (in quotes since I find that an iffy term to use) that came to me this past Tish'a B'Av, and that I get reminded of every time I stroll around the Traditionalist Eastern European Jewish enclave in which I reside (the Borough Park section of Brooklyn). Believe it or not, life here is far more reminiscent of Polish Jewish life before World War II than any other part of America. Thus, every time I walk around here my mind is taken back in time to 1930's Warsaw. Anyway, the thought is as follows:

In general, the 20th Century was somewhat miraculous in all the groundbreaking events and breakthroughs that came to define it, but there was one event which was so logic-defying that it came to be seen in purely theological terms and become the stuff of legends. I'm speaking of course friends of the liquidation of Jews from Eastern and Western Europe halfway through the century. Although it proved to be an extremely sobering experience for those involved, I think we have developed the tendency to look back at them as something almost supernatural, and rightfully so. I mean, in the midst of a World War, while the empires of the world are in an epic war to end all wars, why should it make any difference to anyone if Chaim'l in some unheard of village in the Ukraine wants to daven Shachris b'kavana? It's a huge enigma, and to an extent we're forced to say it is, in fact, because the Germans knew just how important Chaim'l's kavana was to the world. Proof being that they would stop at no ends to prevent Chaim'l from davening his Shachris. And, more than anything, I think this is what the Hasidim got out of the Holocaust; what we do is of endless importance. So important, in fact, that they tried to kiss us because of it. The fact that they were killed proves their importance and even fills their hearts with a true pride and purposefulness in their Judaism. I think this concept can be found on every corner in Borough Park: they tried to kill us yet despite them we grow. "וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ, כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ". Some individual Holocaust survivors have gone so fae as to have spawned fifty descendants in fifty years, only to prove that the Nazis did not succeed.

So, while the Germans thought they were showing how insignificant Jews were, they were actually fueling the Hasidic psyche far more than anyone else could, and, while people earlier this century predicted the demise of Orthodoxy and certainly of Hasidism by the end of the century, our enemies were responsible for a rejuvenation of Hasidism that is still taking place, and which doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon, but rather is taking the Hasidim into a new century of unfathomed growth, prosperity and influence.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mussar from the Opympics

Last night I was watching a few minutes of a male alpine skiing competition of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The first competitor was Bode Miller of America, and after him the Norwegian A. L. Svindal. They both finished at exactly a minute and thirty seconds, but Svindal was about a half a second faster than Miller. Commenting on the result, one of the announcers said "He beat him by only half a second, but half a second is an eternity in alpine skiing".

"Half a second is an eternity"...

It's a funny thing to think about when doing something like watching a two hour movie...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

'מלכים ג: Revisited

I mentioned a while ago that I was "interested" in reading a book called "מלכים ג" by Yochi Brandes; now I'm actually reading it. As I suspected, it's a very interesting story, and is written in a very interesting perspective that, so far, has made me think differently about such concepts as "שבטיות", "גירות" and the woman's place in love in the Tanach.

"שבטִיוּת": By that I mean the tribal divisions that had a major place in our nation even during the Unification Period of the First Commonwealth until it's end. The author understands every event in the Tanach in terms of the tribal differences. The protagonist of the story comes from the land of Ephraim (Samaria) and was raised in a very Ephraim-oriented viewpoint. They're upset the Temple was built in Jerusalem (in the portion of Judah) and that their Temple in Shiloh was destroyed (an event that's spoken of in the 78th psalm. Which, as I recently found out, is actually the source for such famous verses as "וְהוּא רַחוּם" that we say every night and "יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ" that we say at the seder). They see the Judeans as conquerors who want all the tribes to subdue themselves to them. They also don't like Judah because, as sons of Joseph, they prefer the Rachel tribes (Joseph and Benjamin, or Ephraim, Menashe and Benjamin) over the sons of Leah (including Judah) and especially over the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. According to the author, the tribe of Ephraim feels that many of the episodes that we view as history were actually fabrications of the Judahites to engender spite towars the Rachel tribes. For example the famous story of the "Pilegesh B'Giv'ah" in the end of the book of Shoftim was not totally honest, but was made to make the Benjaminites out to look worse then they were, and to make their capital, Giv'ah, look worse than it was. Especially considering that right after the book of Shoftim, in the beginning of the book of Shmuel, we find Saul coming from Giv'ah and it becoming the capital of the first Israelite monarchy.

As far as the traditional viewpoint goes; it is correct to some extent (I mean, most of it is pretty spelled-out in that psalm I quoted) but some of it is a bit heretical, for example suggesting that some of the events related in Shoftim and Shmuel are either untrue or very one-sided.

"גירות": This word might be translated as "conversion", but I'm using the word in the biblical sense, and it's the biblical understanding of the word and it's meaning that I always find a bit elusive. Even from the beginning I did have a greater understanding of it's biblical context than just "conversion". I knew that it had more of a Talmudic "גר תושב" connotation, which means that it's not usually speaking of someone who accepts only the G-d of Israel and follows His Laws, but any foreigner who is residing in the land and accepts the basic premise of Israelite beliefs and respects the Israelite people (though there are of course full-fledged conversions in the Tanach, such as that of Ruth the Moabite). One, therefore, supposes that there is not much similarity between the ancient Ger and the modern Ger, since the first is geographical and cultural and the second is religious, but the story made me start thinking the stronger connection modern Gerim have with the biblical "stranger"; for besides for the religious changes, the modern Ger also has to become a stranger in a strange land, adopt new cultural customs, and hope to be accepted by her new neighbors.

"אהבה": Since the book was written by a woman, some of it discusses love from the perspective of the woman, as opposed to how it's related in the Tanach, as the woman being only the "חפץ" in a man's love. The funny thing is that the Tanach itself is actually replete with descriptions of love from the female perspective. Shir Hashirim is famous for taking an uncommonly feminist viewpoint on love, in that much of it is written from a woman's viewpoint. Ruth as well obviously. Even the very episode of Rachel and Leah's wedding switch has unmistakable Gossip Girl elements at play. So, looking at it in that light, it's really nothing new to the Tanach.

Anyway, if you read Hebrew, and you haven't read it, you should look into it. Bible-based stories is a novel genre for the Hebrew market, and hopefully with enough support the concept will take off.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Thoughts on a First Date!

A new male blogger who writes about "female friendly" topics, "Bored Jewish Guy" (inspiring name, right?) wrote a post relating his impressions on first dates he's been on which has inspired many other bloggers to do the same. The candid results of this experiment have proved to be surprising and informative.

Now, although the brevity of my dating history goes beyond laughable to downright sad, reading all those accounts has got me interested in expressing some of my own experiences with first dates. I don't have enough patience to go into too great detail, but I feel there is still information I can share that is no less helpful than the insights of those female bloggers who would be hard-pressed to remember whether or not they've been out with a certain individual in the past.

I'm girlishly vain yet perpetually unkempt. There is little I can do about my appearance, even on a date, though I do of course take the time to make the most essential preparations.

Pick up:
I'm generally mortally afraid of being late, since I usually am.

Other than that, I have a low opinion of myself, and therefore feel extremely awkward picking up a girl from her home, since I usually don't feel 'fit' be be taking their pride and joy, who they've raised for 20 years to some undisclosed location. It's too much in the spotlight for me. In fact it kind of feels like they turned the spotlight from the charismatic actors and turned it on the dude who just came in to use the bathroom. Aaaanyways...

The Meet:
My philosophy in all awkward meeting situations is to jump right into it and talk to them as if they're your best bud and see what type of response you get. I'm terrible at hellos and terrible at goodbyes, which is why I try to avoid both...

The Date:
From what I understand the Starbucks/Barnes and Noble setup is far more popular than I once imagined it to be. I've had a few problems with bookstores though, since differences in reading interests lead to discussing differences in philosophies and can create a rift between you early in the date.

In regards to conversation, I saw some of the females say that it usually leaves them bored and uninterested. As a result of a concern for that scenario, having conversation topics is very worrisome for me. In reality though I don't recall a date without interesting conversation. I pride myself in finding everything interesting, hopefully sucking them in with some of my enthusiasm. If that's not working though, both my teaching experiences and dating experiences have proven that one thing I absolutely hate is talking without being listened to. So I'm usually quickly asking or answering a question, or listening, since the prospect of boring the hell out of a girl is the worst case scenario as far as I'm concerned.

I also saw the girls mention that they turn off if they see no potential in the guy and/or the conversation is going nowhere. My own philosophy is that if i can see that we're certainly not meant to be, I start speaking to them more platonicly than romantically, and give them life advice based on what they tell me! Unfortunately, I'm waaay too fascinated by people, so as long as they're interested in talking, I'm always happy to oblige. I usually find what most people have to say to be relatively interesting.

"Erachet" suggests more activity oriented first dates to get around this problem. I think the setup is fine as it is; the first thing you want to do is engage someone verbally. It's obviously your opportunity to verify if you're on the same plain. If so then an activity-oriented second date is surely the way to go. The more involving the task the better.

The Drop Off:
As I said, I'm terrible at goodbyes, which can be a problem when it's time to say goodbye.

The Decision:
I've never been at all conflicted about whether or not I wanted to date someone a second time. Besides once; my very first date. I ended it early and didn't go on a second date. Looking back on it though, I think I should have married that girl...

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentines Day, Nimrod, Purim, and a crap-load of nonsense

[Pic- Artists rendition of ancient Lupercalia.]

I wanted to write a bit of a follow-up post regarding what I wrote about Valentines Day two years ago. I know I'm a bit late, and not that it's a topic that fascinates me to no end, but I was reading today of an unlikely connection between Valentines Day and Nimrod. As it happens, I first came upon this information on Wikipedia, and when I returned to the page a few minutes later, lo and behold that information was gone (a phenomenon which, if having occurred in a paper encyclopedia, might be representative of an over-indulgence in psychedelic activities on the part of the reader and not molestation to the tome). I did happen to find similar bits of information on fundamentalist Christian sites though, which gave me the impression that it was them who were probably at fault for tampering with Wikipedia in the first place, and not the moderators for having removed it.

Nonetheless, I'd like to give a basic summary of what they were getting at, backwards (my mind works better backwards, as those who are already aquainted with me already know). Though I admit this information is quite fluffy, but I can't possibly research it all:

We have many traditions regarding Nimrod, but we fail to remember that most of them are Midrashic in origin and represent very little about the historical Nimrod. As it happens though, Nimrod is not much of a historical character to start with. In the bible he is called a "great hunter". He is also seen as being founder of Akkad (the early Babylonian Empire) and builder of the tower of Babylon. Whether or not he actually existed, he was accepted into the Near Eastern pantheon as Pan Baul, or Baal in Canaanite, Pan in Greek and Lupercus in Latin, all of whom are the god of flocks, mountain wilds and hunting. Thus the deified Nimrod is synonymous with Lupercus, for whom the entire Lupercalia (fertility festival) was celebrated. The name Valentine (synonymous with the English word Valiant) was also attributed to Lupercus (which basically means "wolf man"), since tradition has it that he was a great hunter of wolves, and that he took refuge in the very cave in the Apenine mountains upon which Rome was founded. Yet supposedly Nimrod was also associated with Saturn, which is a Latinized version of the name of the Babylonian G-d "Ishtar", which has to do with the word "seter", or "hidden", since he once fled his pursuers into a cave. Which cave you ask? Why, the very same cave we were just discussing, the Founding Cave (hence the ancient name of Rome being Saturnia). Thus Lupercus, Saturn, Baal and Nimrod are all the same man, and Lupercalia, if it wasn't Pagan enough already, is also a celebration of Nimrod, builder of the tower of Babel and defyer of the L-rd G-d.

The name of this very month, Adar, is a Babylonian G-d of strength; the same type of idea the Nimrod-based G-ds evoked. Yet the protagonist of the story of the book of Esther, ...Esther, was named after Ishtar. But her bearing that unholy name was a manifestation of her hiding, as the name also suggests, the presence of G-d in her affairs, so that she would be enabled to attain a position of influence, from which she could serve as a vehicle of G-d's Will to save His nation.

Valentines Day was celebrated on February 14th by the way, because Nimrod/Baal was supposedly born on the solstice, and according to the Law of Moses a woman is to be purified 40 days after the birth of a son, hence the 14-15th of February was the celebration. In fact this very month was named after the februum (purification) performed at the Lupercalia). And of course the early Christian emperors and Popes wanted to abolish the Lupercalia, but couldn't, so it was was Baptized as is, like all the other Christianized Paganisms.

So essentially, not only is Valentines Day a glorification of the archenemy of the founder of our religion, it's also glorifying the founding of the capital city of our greatest enemies (Rome), and is representative of an epic struggle between ethical monotheists and pagan heathens, which this month and this upcoming (Jewish) holiday are very indicative of. I said, most of what I'm saying here is extremely misleading, but it's still worth pondering...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Art of the Pen

I've been looking back at some of my past writing recently (mostly emails). was pretty bad. Even some stuff from less than two years ago is simply embarrassing. Fifteen years olds, and not even the most educated ones, would put that writing to shame (I even wonder if it would be intellectually dishonest for me to got back and correct some of my earlier posts here).

I started writing on this blog (and at all) in 2006, and it seems my writing hasn't become even reasonably acceptable in regards to grammar and syntax until a year and a half ago. ...though the truth is I only have 26 posts from '06, and most of them are just articles I found online. And I only wrote 10 short posts in '07. So it's not unbelievable that my writing has only started to improve recently. Pretty much coinciding with my attendance at Touro I guess.

It's kind of sad though; I had a lot of interesting ideas between the ages of 18 and 22 that it would have been nice to have written down. Now I barely remember how I felt about things then. Knowing how to properly record your thoughts is a great benefit. Which is partially why our ancestors in Spain attached religious importance to topics which seem so secular, such as grammar, syntax, poetry and oration. I say, if I the only thinע I would have gained from this blog is improving my writing, it would have been worth it.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

מכ"ת המו"ת

I've unfortunately been exposed, friends, to a few death-oriented experiences the past week or so, but, to my confusion, I find myself to be too numb to have proper emotional/theological reactions.

In the past, if a compartiot of mine died, I would reflect upon every aspect of my daily life as upon a miracle. Take even walking in the cold as an example: naturally you would think "this is pretty unpleasant", but when considering that others are experiencing a total absence of life itself, even being able to breathe in the cold fresh air of today, now, as a living, healthy (בע"ה) being seems to be a novelty worth appreciation. The fact that we had childhoods. The fact that we made it through birth!, I reflected upon. I once felt very appreciative, and took nothing for granted. Mundane matters seemed childish to me, considering they all concerned matters of the living, and if one is already alive, what could they complain about.

Yet now I find it more difficult for me to reflect on these matters. Although I'm aware of our good fortune for having been chosen by the Divine for a good life, it's still difficult to translate that into constant appreciation for life, which in turn mandates a pious lifestyle. It doesn't come naturally. Sometimes our minds to not let us come to the most logical conclusions.

Though essentially this has been the responsibility of authors of mussar works, such as Ibn Paquda (in his Al Hidayah ila Faraid al-Qulub, "Duties of the Hearts"), whom Rabbi Avigdor Miller was wont to quote, whom I was wont to hear. What's known as "Sha'ar Habechina" is his guide on how to arouse within our slumbered selves these feelings (that should be natural to us, but which the Satan blocks our hearts from feeling). Therefore if a deep appreciation for life is, in fact, not natural to us, what better place to turn that the חובות הלבבות...

Friday, February 5, 2010

American Infrastructure

The Americans keep creating unsustainable infrastructures: first they base their economy on the displacement and enslavement of millions of Africans in an era when slavery had become obsolete, then they design thousands of miles of roads which pre-suppose an inexhaustible supply of petrol for automobiles...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lost: Jack and John

As some of you may know, friends, "Lost", the popular television production about plane-crash survivors stranded on a mysterious island, started it's anticipated sixth and final season last night. For die-hard Lost fanatics the premiere had a semi-Super Bowl Sunday status. I myself only see it online so I had to wait till tonight to see it. I started watching Lost not long ago as a sort of project, to spot out the theological overtones in the secular media. For the most part it's far from as educational as I thought it might have been, but when listening to the hour-long recap of the previous seasons, the narrator said something which rekindled my original perceptions a bit. And I quote:

"Most believe that what's done is done, you cannot change fate, no matter how hard you try. And those who challenge what is destined will always be met with disappointment, for fate has a way of charting it's own course.

But before one surrenders to the hands of destiny, one might consider the power of the human spirit, and the force that lies in ones own free will."

To me these two paragraphs represent two differing viewpoints, and it is precisely this ideological difference which splits the two main characters for most of the shows duration. The leader of the group, Jack, is a young agnostic surgeon, who judges things only by their physical realities. His rival is an older fate-driven cripple who recovered upon landing on the island. One big way their differences are manifested is that Jack's main concern is to get everyone off the island and back home, while John does all that's within his power to keep them all on the island (again, since he sees their arrival upon the island as their fate.

Personally, I don't think either of them are necessarily harbor heretical notions in the subject of Divine Providence. These are two theologically legitimate ways to view life. Obviously John's is the more orthodox approach, the "Boy does G-d have something in store for you!" approach, which supposes that belief in Providence suggests that G-d micro-manages every individual, to lead them to the future that's most suitable for them.

But Jack's approach is also religiously sound; it is the opinion of the religious philosophers, who say that our duty is only to fulfill G-d's will on this earth, and that we must do all that is within our power to do what's right, even when it seems to us that the Divine would have us do otherwise. For example Jack could have said, like John, that if G-d brought us all to this island it's a sign he wants us to be here, but instead he felt that his duty to G-d to save his fellow man from peril superseded any speculations as to G-d's hand in their fate. We see that this is a very legitimate approach in Talmudic Judaism, as in the passage about the תנור של עכנאי.

Even so, I've still found John's approach to be a lot more helpful. Just doing what's right doesn't cut it sometimes. Sometimes we need to feel that G-d put us where we are for a very specific reason, and that we have some sort of earth-shatteringly important mission to fulfill in our lifetimes. John himself is often plagued by doubt, frantically praying to G-d to show him a sign that he's going in the right direction. And many times there is none, or he misunderstood them. The irony of it is that John dies in the fifth season alone and confused. Is it true then? That G-d is leading us to our destinies? It's hard to say, but if thinking in those terms is helpful to us then I think we should.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Wein Blog

Favorable tidings friends: Rabbi Berel Wein has started a blog in his old age (which I discovered by becoming a fan of his Facebook page). The only blog to whom I can imagine this might prove even slightly threatening is the Jewish history blog of Joel Davidi.

Anyway, Rabbi Wein's inaugural post speaks of the importance of reflecting upon the past, and in particular the past of our people. He mentions that Heinrich Graetz was a wayward student of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, but doesn't speak much of their disagreements. As it happens Hirsch himself was sympathetic, at least, to Jews who had no interest in history. He once stated it's no surprise European Jews weren't avid history fans, for all the pages of their history is stained with the blood of their ancestors. Besides for a retelling of the slaughter of Jews, Jewish history didn't comprise of much back then.

Graetz, though, saw much more significance in the retelling of Jewish history. He saw it as having earth-shattering importance even, and after having left Hirsch, went on to create the greatest compendium of Jewish history penned till his day, nay, penned till this day. While it's true that Graetz's history is ludicrously biast, and that all our heroes he marks as villains, all our scholars he marks as ignoramuses, and the more a Rabbi is open to secularism the more he is praised, still, it must be agreed that there is honestly no work like his. I've always found it amusing that his history ends in the 1880's though. He thought that was where Jewish history ended. In the meantime the main bulk of modern Jewish history happened between his life and ours. Just goes to show you how fluid and dynamic our people and our history really are.

Come to think of it, I should like to write about the differences between Hirsch and Graetz actually (considering that they are the founders of Modern Orthodoxy and Conservatism respectively), but I shall leave that for a later date.

Also, he said of the written history found in works preceding Graetz as "ancillary to the main purpose of those works, which was to transmit the traditions of Torah. They were not history books in the modern sense of scholarship, but were recordings of oral traditions passed down through the ages". I think that statement might be a bit misleading. There were many works that had a journalistic nature to them, like the works of the Spanish exiles which described the times they lived in, the works describing the Chmielnicki massacres, the works of Benjamin of Tudela etc. These are not recounting some oral history, but are recording events as they happened, and they serve as great historical resources for those times.