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Showing posts from August, 2016

Thought for the Day: Learning from the יצר רע to Survive Adversity (Maybe Even Thrive)

For those of you who have never experienced a hangover, let me just note that even parts of one's body that are barely alive -- such as toenails -- become vibrantly alive with pain.  One would think, therefore, that one hangover would be enough to cure one forever of overindulging.  I can, to my shame, testify that it ain't so.  We seem to have this amazing ability to completely forget the pain and suffering for the anticipated ever so slight pleasure of indulging once again.

What's with that?  Why would HaShem makes things so hard for us?  Wouldn't it be better to easily remember the pain therefore be able to make a rational assessment of the loss versus the gain to come to the obvious conclusion?  Instead, I set loss to "well, gee... I can't seem to remember any real loss" and the anticipated gain to "amazing, as I recall"; let's go for it!

I heard a story about a gadol who was thrown into prison.  The first morning he started to say shach…

Thought for the Day: אין שליח לדבר עבירה -- Why not?

And now for another in the "obviously because it's bad! oh yeah, sez who?!" series.  (The rest of the series -- all one of them -- is אין לבטל איסור לכתחילה -- Why Not?)

Clearly it just seem wrong to designate a  שליח לדבר עבירה/agent to sin for you.  None the less, Chazal (TB Bava Metzia 10b) were interested enough to explore the issue.  To understand the discussion, we need to be more precise about what Chazal intended when the told us not to do that.  Moreover, just being a bad idea is no reason to enact a rabbinic decree.  It must be something that people would otherwise want to do and would also rationalize it is "ok, even though it smells bad".

In fact, is is a mistranslation of אין שליח לדבר עבירה to render: one is not allowed to assign an agent to transgress a sin.  An accurate translation is just what it says, "there is no such thing as an agent to commit a sin".  In the vernacular, "I was only following orders" is not a valid defen…

Thought for the Day: אין לבטל איסור לכתחילה -- Why Not?

My manager at work (as opposed to all my managers at home, who range in age from one to 60) has been bringing in treats for the first few weeks of a new product launch (as a thank you for doing double duty as developers and support staff).  She was bringing cookies and doughnuts and whatnot; which I, of course, did not eat.  This engendered a discussion about what makes things kosher.  (I warned everyone, btw, that it was much each easier to get me started on this topic than to stop me.)  So I talked about ingredients and packaged food production and finally sent them a list of acceptable hechsherim.  The next morning yogurt covered pretzels and chocolate covered peanuts -- but with O-K Dairy designation -- appeared in the team room.  The next week, one of my coworkers said, "Hey, man, like I noticed there are kosher wines... I thought kosher just had to do with ingredients.  What could be, like, you know, non-kosher in the wine?"  (He is not a beatnik time traveler from the…

Thought for the Day: שהחיינו and סוכות

A sizeable hurdle to transitioning from non-Torah religions with the name "Judaism" in them (such as Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) to Orthodox Judaism is יום טוב שני של גלויות/second day yontif.
Quick review: The new moon should really only be declared by the Sanhedrin in Yerushalayim.  When we had the Beis HaMikdash, that's precisely how it was done.  The Sanhedrin (based on eyewitness testimony) would at some point declare the new moon.  They would then send out messengers to inform the nation.  It could take more than two weeks to reach the farthest communities, but they needed to know when Rosh Chodesh Nissan and Tishrei were in order to celebrate Pesach and Sukkos, respectively.  Since we knew it had to be one of two days, Chazal mandated observance of both days for all communities outside of Eretz Yisrael.   I mean, come on... certainly it is understandable in pre-internet/telephone/telegraph days why you needed those two days, but HELLO...we do hav…

Thought for the Day: Making Things Fair, HaShem's Way

There are a very few things I was told by my parents that I have resolved not to repeat to my children.  One of them is, "Well, if that's the worst thing that ever happens to you, then you are very lucky."  While I was usually able to appreciate the logic of that statement, I don't remember it ever making me feel comforted nor understood.  The other statement I vow, bli neder, not to repeat is to answer a child's complaint of "It's not fair!!" with "Life's not fair."  Besides all the other things wrong with that answer (see previous avowal to not say), I refuse to make that statement because it simply is not true; it is, in fact, fair.

When I say the world is fair, I do not mean that I subscribe to some Pollyanna philosophy that everything works out in the end and we should just smile through it.  I mean that reality is fundamentally and profoundly fair.  In fact, it is an open verse in our Holy Writ (Devarim 32:4):
4The deeds of the [M…

Thought for the Day: Treating Spiritual Illnesses With Physical Suffering

I am one of the better fasters in my home, so I often get the job of keeping the children occupied for some portion of the day.  My go-to is the Museum of Science and Industry.  The downside for me, of course, is that my mind is more on watching the kids (and, frankly, the cool exhibits) than on the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.  Given to whence my unoccupied mind wanders, though, I am probably better off on balance than siting at home whining about my stomach.

On the way home, my six year old granddaughter asked -- out of the blue, pretty much de rigour for her -- if Jews were ever born blind.  I answered that, unfortunately, yes.  She then asked, "Is that a punishment for them?"  I obviously told her that being born blind is not a punishment since they were born that way.  (No, I did not think this was the time nor venue for introducing the topic of gilgulim.)  She wasn't finished, though (also de rigour for her); "But they can't see.  It will be so hard …

Thought for the Day: ביטול for Mixtures of Both Similar and Dissimilar Ingredients

We are all familiar with בטל בששים/nullified in 60 when it comes to nullifying forbidden substances (or milk in meat or meat in milk) in mixtures.  I didn't realize just how familiar that concept really is until I saw that Google translated בטל בששים as simply "insignificant".  There is an important detail, however regarding whether the mixture is מין במינו (comprised of similar ingredients) or מין באינו מינו (comprised of dissimilar ingredients).  When it comes to מין באינו מינו, the nullification is needed at a Torah level, whereas when the mixture is מין במינו, the nullification is a Rabbinic stringency.  That, of course, is important for any cases of doubt whether there is actually 60 times the volume in the permitted substance to nullify the forbidden one.  We'll call the forbidden substance (hoped to be small volume) the "solute", and the majority component of permitted substance the "solvent".  This both saves typing and also takes on an ai…

Thought for the Day: Making the Bracha of שהחיינו on a New Fruit Nowadays

I had a friend in graduate school who was getting his masters in orchestral conducting.  He told me that the music theorists say that Beethoven's 5th Symphony is essentially defined by the first five notes.  I asked (I was a physicist, after all) if that meant I could give him any five notes and he could give me back a symphony.  Of course the answer was "no"; what he really meant was that one can hear the theme defined by those first five notes throughout the entire symphony.

Understanding Chazal is something like that.  We know, for example, that Chazal instituted brachos before benefiting from this world.  However, not all pleasures have an associated bracha.  That doesn't mean there are no rules.  It only means that we sometimes have to "reverse engineer" the intent before we can understand how to apply they bracha when technology affects how do things.

Some time ago, the general rules of saying שהחיינו on a new fruit was discussed in a TftD.  The quest…

Thought for the Day: 613, 11, 6, 3, 2, 1 Guiding Principles

One of the arguments that the Ramban made in his famous debate, known as The Disputation of Barcelona, is that it is unconscionable to believe that the Creator would make a public contract -- witnessed and unanimously ratified by the entire Jewish nation of something like three millions men, women, and children -- and then change the whole deal by whispering into the each of a solitary Jew, "Oh, by the way, I changed My Mind."  When I was coming to Orthodox Judaism I also noticed that HaShem gave one mitzvah to Adam, then (when that didn't work out so well) gave seven to Noah, then (when ... sigh... that also didn't work out so well) gave 613 to the Jewish People.  It seemed pretty unreasonable to me, therefore, to believe that HaShem would then drop that to one (or zero, depending on how you understand Christianity); basically just love their god and you are good to go.

Be that as it may, there seems to be a fly in that ointment place there by Chazal.  Chazal tell u…

Thought for the Day: Knowing to Do and Knowing to Ask Is Knowing to Know

Ok, I know the title is tedious -- bear with me, 'k?

Facebook has a very advanced face recognition feature.  The company for which I work uses a similar technology to automatically estimate repair costs from photos taken by the owner at the accident site.  Very cool.  the core of the algorithm, by the way, simply gets fed millions of pictures and internally adjusts dozens of parameters to get the right answer.  I was complaining (more whining, really) about that, because it doesn't offer any insight into how we humans actually recognize faces so fast.  A coworker replied, "But it lets us automate a job down that would otherwise be completely manual."

That's the difference between a scientist and an engineer.  It's also the difference between learning Torah לשמה and learning Torah just to know what do to.  Klal Yisrael accepted the Torah with a resounding נעשה ונשמע/we will do and hearken.  Learning Torah to know how to do is just the נעשה part.  The נשמע part…

Thought for the Day: Using the Three Weeks to Prepare for תשעה באב

I was asked last Shabbos to discuss some of the ideas of the Three Weeks and תשעה באב.  As I sat down to prepare, I knew I would start with something like: We now find ourselves in the Three Weeks, also know as בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים; which means "between the straits", so named because it the like the lull between two waves of disaster.  Then I stopped.... "between the straits"?  תשעה באב commemorates the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash -- may it be rebuilt soon and in our days -- that is a disaster of unimaginable proportions.  But שבעה עשר בתמוז commemorates the breach of the wall of Yerushalayim.  Putting those together sounds like someone complaining about stubbing their toe before being hit by a truck.  Really?

If breaching the wall were considered the beginning of the destruction, then I would understand.  But it's not.  The term "בֵּין הַמְּצָרִים"/between the straits, puts the breach of the wall as (a) an event in and of itself, just like the act…