Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Do you really want the mon?

Today is Tuesday, and  not just any Tuesday, but the Tuesday of Parshas Bishalach. I've seen a number of "reminders" to say parhas hamon (shnayim mikra v'echad Targum [the text twice and the Aramaic translationtoday as a segulah for parnassah [livelihood]. The concept behind the connection is attributed to Reb Mendel M'rivinov.  I am not taking a position about segulahs here, something I 've discussed on blog posts in other years. I am simply making an observation about what the mon was really about.


Chazal say "Lo nitna Torah ela leochley hamon [The Torah is only given to those who eat the mon.]" We have no mon today, so what can it mean for us? The mon came directly from Heaven, so someone who orients him/herself to connect directly to Hashem and recognize Him as the source of all sustenance would be fit for Torah. Beyond that, though, the mon came down each day with just enough for that day (except on erev Shabbos when the double portion came for the next day). That meant that the Jews in the midbar never had the feeling of security that comes from pas besalo [bread in the basket, on hand for later]. Each day was another challenge in bitachon that Hashem will provide what you need. 


The way the term parnassah  tends to be used today is not that you live day-to-day with bitachon that Hashem will provide but that you are comfortable -- secure in the knowledge that you have a number of baskets filled with bread and whatever else you want on hand. I get the sense that people consider the segulahs for parnassah to be guarantees of a certain standard of living that is quite different from the experience of eating mon.


For more on segula in general and this one in particular, see http://divreichaim.blogspot.com/2012/01/parshas-hamon-and-segulah-scrooges.html

Other related posts: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/06/ordering-miracle-or-just-shidduch.html
http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/04/bye-bye-birdie-hello-promises.html

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Catching up over a thousands years later

That is studies of psychology, like this one, http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.com/2011/03/envy-is-stronger-motivator-than.html. It found "it was the participants who felt more envy, rather than admiration, who said they planned to work harder in the next semester.


Well, chazal picked up on that point a long time ago with the saying "Kinas sofrim tarbe chachma." (Bava Basra 21a)- {Jealousy among scholars increases wisdom.] 

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Natural vs. Man-made

We are now in the month of Shvat during which we give due consideration to the trees. But the fact is that after the cheyt in Gan Eden, our food supply is not defined as much by fruit as by bread that is made by man. Adam is told bezeas apecha tochal lechem [by the sweat of your brow, you will eat bread], and bread become the quintessential form of sustenance. We don't merely gather our food, we plant, water, tend, harvest, winnow, pound, knead, shape, and bake it. We may even experiment with new recipes to try to improve it. 
I was thinking about this in light of R' Akiva's argument with Turnus Rufus and the argument of intelligent design that Nassim Nicholas Taleb just hints at in a footnote on p. 170 in The Black Swan. He is in the midst of rattling off discoveries that resulted from the serendipity of randomness or "unintended consequences" rather than design, like the discovery of penicillin. Though he positions himself outside of the debate, he says: "creationists believe that the world comes from some form of design while evolutionary theorists see the world as a result of random changes by an aimless process. But it is hard to look at a computer or a car and consider them the result of aimless process. Yet they are."
Much as I like most of the book, I have to say that he clearly errs here. Yes, there have been serendipitous discoveries that could play a role in the construction of a computer or a car, but the whole can only be assembled by design. Even the famously accidental discovery of penicillin required an intelligence to apply what had been observed to a form that could be administered to patients. Another thing is that one does not just sit back and wait for discoveries to show themselves serendipitously. Alexander Fleming just happened to benefit from the fact that his own messy tendencies resulted in moldy bread in proximity to bacteria, but he was researching bacteria. If he had not been, the observation would not necessarily had registered.  Thomas Edison famously tested out 2,000 different substances in making his light bulb. Had he hit upon the working filament right away, we may have pointed to another random discovery, but that is not how it worked. 
Let's go back to bread: (though the mold formation that was key to penicillin is a natural process) the loaves  don't come to be on their own. There is a consciousness at work in preparing and mixing the ingredients that go into it. There may be happy accidents along the way. For example, the bread may have baked too close to the fire, and the person who ate it may have discovered the appeal of toast. Or someone may have left it to rise longer than usual and found an improvement there. However, bread is still a human product, something that is key in the famous debate between Turnus Rufus and R' Akiva recounted in  Midrash Tanhuma Tazria 5:
Turnus Rufus posed the question, "Whose works are superior, those of God or those of man?"
 R' Akiva answered unequivocally: "Those of man are superior." Turnus Rufus persisted: "But look at heaven and earth, can man make their like?" Rabbi Akiva disqualified that argument by pointing out a type of apples and oranges flaw there: "Do not draw on what is above human experience and control, but rather on that which is within our range."
Then they got to the crux of the issue when Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise?" 
R' Akiva saw that coming, as he replied, "knew you would ask this question, and so I anticipated you by declaring that human works are superior to those of God." 
 Rabbi Akiva then brought him sheaves of grain and rolls and said: "The former are the works of God, the latter of man. Aren't the rolls preferable?" 
[Some accounts of this interaction end here, for the point has been made that the purpose of human beings is to improve on nature by application of intelligent design to work what is given into something better. But, in fact, Turnus Rufus did not concede the point so easily, and the debate continues.]
Turnus Rufus persisted: "If He requires circumcision, why is the child not born that way?"
 Rabbi Akiva replied: "Why indeed, does the umbilical cord come out with him and he is suspended by his navel and his mother cuts it? He is not born circumcised because the Holy one Blessed be He has given the commandments for the purpose of refining our character through them. This is why David declared: 'The word of the Lord refined'" (Psalms. 18:31).

This is very consistent with the notion of ha'adam nifal kefi peulathav [man is formed by his actions] which the Sefer Hachinuch offers as the reason why there are so many mitzvos to do. It also fits beautifully with the prohibition of declaring that heavenly mercy extends to the mother bird in the mitzvah of shiluach hakan.  It seems that Turnus Rufus was willing to accept the fact that a Deity had created the world. In fact, he seemed to accept the concept of intelligent design and viewed the world as perfect. What he was not prepared to accept was that the Creator was concerned with human actions. That is why R' Akiva pointed out the areas of creations that are not perfect in their natural state. They were made so to give human beings the task of improve them and in doing so improve themselves.


related posts: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/05/quality-of-infinity-and-pardes.htm
http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/03/rabbi-akiva-said-of-himself-that-before.html

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Knowledge, decisions, and responsibility

Note: this post reworks two previous ones from years back. The Wordpress blog they were on is not searchable or even fully accessible, so I give the thoughts new life here.


 During the  reign of Chezkeyahu, all across the country there was not a single child (tinok o tinoket) that were not thoroughly versed in hilchos tuma and tahara [the laws of ritual purity].  There is that wonderful picture of the king planting a sword in the doorpost to demonstrate his point that anyone who does not study the Torah would be stabbed by the sword.  Int hat case, strong tactics worked.  But what the king imposed was not his own authority or even blind obedience to other authorities; he imposed studying enough so that one knows on one’s own—even a female one—what the halacha is. 



 In contrast, today many push for people—particularly female ones—not to really learn the principles and derivations of halacha.  The goal is not that one should know the halacha oneself but that one should know just enough to ask questions over every little thing.  The ideal is not well-educated Jews who can independently do the right thing but Jews—particularly Jewesses—taught to be ignorant, so that they would be dependent on asking rabbinic authorities for any move.


  Now, of course, there are times when real questions do arise, and a competent posek should be consulted.  However, there are many, many more things that are not real questions.  Their status has been established long ago and even recorded in sforim.  In other words, they could be learned and internalized as they are not new questions. However, dependence is set up as an ideal because of an implicit fear that the female mind will mess up if left to her own devices. 



Personally, I don’t like to be told what to think, and I don’t want to tell others what they should think either.  However, this view is not one that is shared by all, particularly females.  I recall someone saying she liked being told what to think by seminary.  Now if you wonder why that is, consider that it is not a uniquely frum Jewish phenomenon.

A classic work on gender differences is Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge and London: Harvard UP, 1982.
She explains:
“When women feel excluded from direct participation in society, they see themselves as subject to a consensus or judgment made and enforced by the men on whose protection and support they depend and by whose name they are known.” (Gilligan 67)  So a patriarchy offers less individual control but more protection.
She proceeds to quote someone on her experience:

“’As a woman, I feel I never understood that I was a person, that I could make decisions and I had a right to make decisions.  I always felt that that belonged to my father or my husband in some way, or church, which was always represented by a male clergyman.  They were the three men in my life:  father, husband, and clergyman, and they had much more to say about what I should or shouldn’t do.  They were really authority figures which I accepted. . . . . Well, I think in one sense there is less responsibility involved.  Because if you make a dumb decision, you have to take the rap.  If it happens to you, well, you can complain about it.  I think that if you don’t grow up feeling that you ever have any choices, you don’t have the sense that you have emotional responsibility.  With this sense of choice comes this sense of responsibility.” (qtd. in Gilligan 67)

And back to Gilligan herself: “The essence of moral decision is the exercise of choice and the willingness to accept responsibility for that choice.  To the extent that women perceive themselves as having no choice, they correspondingly excuse themselves from the responsibility that decision entails” (Gilligan 67).





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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Was he pulling his leg?

I'm currently in the middle of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (which deserves more starts than Amazon gives it). On p. 131, the author relates being at a cocktail party where Yossi Vardi, whom he describes as "one of the most insightful thinkers I know, the computer entrepreneur" asks "to summarize 'my idea' while standing on one leg."

The combination of the distinctly Jewish name of Yossi brought in connection to a reference to a summation while standing on one leg evokes Hillel and Shamai's different responses to that same request made about Torah (Shabbos 31a).  Though Nassim Nicholas Taleb comes across as very erudite, he doesn't indicate that he's familiar with the Talmudic account, though. He seems to focus on the problem of maintaining balance after downing a few glasses of wine: "It was not too convenient to stand on one leg after a few glasses of perfumed Riesling, so I failed in my improvisation." The next morning, he says, a formulation came to him as follows: "the cosmetic and the Platonic rise naturally to the surface." Not quite as pithy as Hillel's formulation of all of Torah, and, certainly, less concrete or practically instructive. However, Taleb is more concerned with observing how people fall into errors of thinking and perception rather than in telling people how to live.


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Minimum payments and the wisdom of R' Shimon

OK, I know it's not the time of year designated for the study of Pirkei Avoth, but I was struck by this thought just now. I have in front of me an invoice for a credit card. It offers me a choice of paying $60 or a figure with 4 digits before the decimal point. Which do I choose? If you know me, you know my answer.

But I happen to be seeing that choice all by itself protruding from the ripped corner of the envelope. Seeing  it in isolation, I finally realized how those who opt for the lower amount see it. That's the key: they see the choice of two amounts -- one small and easy, and the other large enough to give many people pause. They  do not pay attention to the larger picture that paying the smaller amount now will result in pay far more over time than paying off all that is owed on this bill.

What struck me is how this is a prime example of what R' Shimon advocates as the trait a person should acquire: being roeh es hanolad -- seeing the ramifications of one's actions. Sure enough the parallel bad trait he gives in the next Mishna is borrowing without paying back.  It's a simple enough idea, but so many people never internalize this notion of foreseeing the consequences of opting for the more tempting choice at present. They see it in isolation, not as something connected to other parts of their life.

Related post: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2012/01/check-your-impulse.html


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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Divrei Chaim: talking to the walls makes a difference

Divrei Chaim: talking to the walls makes a difference: 1. Bnei Yisrael was not receptive to Moshe's message that the redemption was immanent. Moshe Rabeinu went back to Hashem and argued (6:12) ...

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are these the top 10 novels?

 I read almost all of these. I'm not sure I agree that they sharpen the mind particularly, especially as they tend toward the best known works of these authors. 

What do you think of this list of 10 books?10 Novels That Will Sharpen Your Mind [Interactive]: Scientific American


I read most of them.  I'm not sure I agree that they sharpen the mind particularly. To that end, one of the works of Camus should have been included.  It's possible to argue for a place for Thackery's Vanity Fair, also, if only because it challenges the notion that a novel must include characters one can admire or sympathize with.  As for the novels selected, they tend toward the best known works of the featured authors.  


For instance, If anyone reads only one book by Jane Austen, it usually is Pride and Prejudice. But the author herself, fond as she was of it, considered it nor so deep: "The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style." 
Persuasion is less "light, and bright, and sparkling." It was the one novel from Jane Austen selected for my comprehensive exams in grad school.

As for George Eliot's Middlemarch, I agree that there is much depth there in the stories of these characters and the long term effects of the choices that they make, though Daniel Deronda has much of that, as well, along with the question of identity, background, and belonging.

I would have liked for Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre to be included. It does deserve recognition -- if only for depicting a plain woman as a fascinating and strong heroine who will not let her sense of right and self be swallowed up by another -- a sort of inverse of the heroine of  Madame Bovary,  a book that make the list.

related post: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2012/01/utility-of-fiction.html



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Divrei Chaim: the source of Pharoah's zechuyos

Divrei Chaim: the source of Pharoah's zechuyos: 1. You have to be the Sefas Emes could ask the following question: What was the zechus that Pharoah had that allowed him to merit having a d...

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Check your impulse

Good advice: http://www.sooverdebt.com/2012/01/09/how-to-stop-buying-on-impulse/
related posts: http://www.examiner.com/jewish-bridal-in-new-york/joy-alert-tis-the-season-for-self-controlhttp://www.examiner.com/jewish-bridal-in-new-york/take-charge-part-1-of-2
Also see the "Saver or Spender" quiz at http://kallahmagazine.com/MoneyMatters.htm

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Slaying the Deerslayer

An 1895 rant -- yes, people did that even before blogs were a realized -- by Mark Twain in response to James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer. 
A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Read more at http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/01/10/fenimore-coopers-literary-offences-mark-twain/


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Monday, January 09, 2012

Divrei Chaim: ro'eh -- shepherd or friend?

Divrei Chaim: ro'eh -- shepherd or friend?: I want to share two linguistic observations on the parsha that shed light on two well known pesukim in Tehillim: 1) Most translations rend...

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Going behind the myth of mammographies

from http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/01/09/x-ray-mammography-screenings-finding-cancers-not-there.aspx?e_cid=20120109_DNL_art_1

Early detection through x-ray mammography has been the clarion call of Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns for a quarter of a century now.
However, very little progress has been made in making the public aware of the crucial differences between non-malignant lesions/tumors and invasive or non-invasive cancers detected through this technology.
When all forms of breast pathology are looked at in the aggregate, irrespective of their relative risk for harm, disease of the breast takes on the appearance of a monolithic entity that you either have, or don't have; they call it breast cancer.
The concept of a breast cancer that has no symptoms, which cannot be diagnosed through manual palpation of the breast and does not become invasive in the vast majority of cases, might sound unbelievable to most women.
However, there does exist a rather mysterious clinical anomaly known as Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS), which is, in fact, one of the most commonly diagnosed and unnecessarily treated forms of 'breast cancer' today.

This article corroborates a key aspect of the argument made in  Pink Ribbon Blues, which I reviewed in http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2011/06/beyond-pink.html
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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Avoiding the up escalator in lifestyle inflation

I couldn't have said it better myself, so I won't bother to paraphrase. Read the post at http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2012/01/03/avoiding-lifestyle-inflation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+thesimpledollar+%28The+Simple+Dollar%29
and as proof of the many activities that are open to people at no cost at all in our fair city here, see http://www.examiner.com/jewish-bridal-in-new-york/free-new-york-today

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