Parshat Lech Lecha
Posted by: Rabbi Aaron on Friday, October 30, 2009 at 9:18:22 pm | Comments (0)
In this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God enters into a unique covenant with Abraham, promising him that his numerous progeny will inherit the fertile land of Canaan. There's just one snag. Abraham doesn't have any children. Sarah and Abraham cannot procreate and the covenant with God is suddenly in jeopardy. Sarah gives her servant Hagar to Abraham, thinking, "perhaps I will be built through her" (Genesis 16:2). The great Spanish commentator Ramban (1194-1270) specifically identifies Sarah's righteousness through this whole process. Subsequently, Hagar conceives and everything changes. According to Rashi, Hagar now looks at Sarah differently. Hagar sees Sarah and thinks, "this Sarai is not as she appears to be. She behaves as if she were a righteous woman when she is not righteous, since she did not merit conception all these years." Only a few verses later, we see Sarah treating Hagar so badly that Hagar flees with her unborn child.
So what happened to Sarah, our righteous matriarch? We live in a culture of achievement. And when we are successful, it's so easy to look at other people differently like Hagar did. Hagar sees Sarah's struggles with infertility and assumes that this reflects Sarah's core character. This type of assumption is certainly dangerous and potentially very damaging. Ultimately, it changes the way Sarah views herself. Hagar's harsh judgment becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Sure enough, Sarah becomes far less righteous and even abuses Hagar, forcing her to flee. In those moments that we do struggle, it's so easy to take it personally. Hagar assumes a flaw in Sarah's character and Sarah starts to believe her. Just because we bomb a test or don't get the internship we so badly want doesn't mean that we have any less worth as people. Sarah and Hagar teach us that achievement, positive of negative, is not a reflection of character.
ICHEC - Week III
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 1:55:31 pm | Comments (0)
In class this past week we discussed death and dying and what it means to us and to our survivors. Many brought up how their friends very casually drop in conversation the fact that they know they are going to die soon. We discussed how to deal with that. Alicia doesn't talk about the fact that she is going to die, rather she talks about how to get better, how to feel better, how to live her life better. She and I speak about her sickness every week. She is one who wears her emotions on her sleeve. Some days she is very sad about the condition she is in. She had to turn down a tour group recently because she knew she would not be able to physically do it. So she is coping with the fact that she may never be able to work again. All I could do is be encouraging. We talk every week about her emotional status regarding her pain and disabilities now. I tell her that if she is not optimistic and positive about the situation she may only digress. This is something I believe in across the board and know that I want to incorporate into my everyday life.
Alicia has only allowed for my vision to be even clearer. I want to be a doctor, and now I can confidently say that I know how I want to practice. The mind and the body are in sync and a patient must be treated with that view. The patient's psychological mindset can heavily influence the status of their physical being.
I see this with Alicia at every meeting. She is a good patient because she knows her body, knows what hurts her, and knows why. But not only that, she is expressive. She feels more pain when she is sad than she does when she is happy. When I come to visit she always says: "Every time you come I enjoy your company more than anything. You take my mind off of this darn illness and I feel better for the rest of the week."
Here is a perfect example of how she and I help and learn from each other. Sometimes I even feel the need to call her during the week for my dose of encouragement.
Posted by: Jonathan Newcombe on Friday, October 23, 2009 at 10:20:09 pm | Comments (0)
Is there such a thing as an objective basis of morality? For some time, in secular circles, the idea has seemed absurd. Morality is what we choose it to be. We are free to do what we like so long as we don't harm others. Moral judgments are not truths but choices. There is no way of getting from "is" to "ought", from description to prescription, from facts to values, from science to ethics. This was the received wisdom in philosophy for a century after Nietzsche had argued for the abandonment of morality - which he saw as the product of Judaism - in favour of the "will to power".
Recently, however, an entirely new scientific basis has been given to morality from two surprising directions: neo-Darwinism and the branch of mathematics known as Games Theory. As we will see, the discovery is intimately related to the story of Noah and the covenant made between G-d and humanity after the Flood.
Games theory was invented by one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, John von Neumann (1903-1957). He realised that the mathematical models used in economics were unrealistic and did not mirror the way decisions are made in the real world. Rational choice is not simply a matter of weighing alternatives and deciding between them. The reason is that the outcome of our decision often depends on how other people react to it, and usually we cannot know this in advance. Games theory, von Neumann's invention in 1944, was an attempt to produce a mathematical representation of choice under conditions of uncertainty. Six years later, it yielded its most famous paradox, known as the Prisoner's Dilemma.
Imagine two people, arrested by the police under suspicion of committing a crime. There is insufficient evidence to convict them on a serious charge; there is only enough to convict them of a lesser offence. The police decide to encourage each to inform against the other. They separate them and make each the following proposal: if you testify against the other suspect, you will go free, and he will be imprisoned for ten years. If he testifies against you, and you stay silent, you will be sentenced to ten years in prison, and he will go free. If you both testify against one another, you will each receive a five-year sentence. If both of you stay silent, you will each be convicted of the lesser charge and face a one-year sentence.
It doesn't take long to work out that the optimal strategy for each is to inform against the other. The result is that each will be imprisoned for five years. The paradox is that the best outcome would be for both to remain silent. They would then only face one year in prison. The reason that neither will opt for this strategy is that it depends on collaboration. However, since each is unable to know what the other is doing - there is no communication between them - they cannot take the risk of staying silent. The Prisoner's Dilemma is remarkable because it shows that two people, both acting rationally, will produce a result that is bad for both of them.
Eventually, a solution was discovered. The reason for the paradox is that the two prisoners find themselves in this situation only once. If it happened repeatedly, they would eventually discover that the best thing to do is to trust one another and co-operate.
In the meantime, biologists were wrestling with a phenomenon that puzzled Darwin. The theory of natural selection - popularly known as the survival of the fittest - suggests that the most ruthless individuals in any population will survive and hand their genes on to the next generation. Yet almost every society ever observed values individuals who are altruistic: who sacrifice their own advantage to help others. There seems to be a direct contradiction between these two facts.
The Prisoner's Dilemma suggested an answer. Individual self-interest often produces bad results. Any group which learns to cooperate, instead of compete, will be at an advantage relative to others. But, as the Prisoner' Dilemma showed, this needs repeated encounters - the so-called "Iterated (= repeated) Prisoner's dilemma". In the late 1970s, a competition was announced to find the computer program that did best at playing the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma against itself and other opponents.
The winning programme was devised by a Canadian, Anatole Rapoport, and was called Tit-for-Tat. It was dazzlingly simple: it began by co-operating, and then repeated the last move of its opponent. It worked on the rule of "What you did to me, I will do to you", or "measure for measure". This was the first time scientific proof had been given for any moral principle.
What is fascinating about this chain of discoveries is that it precisely mirrors the central principle of the covenant G-d made with Noah:
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of G-d
has G-d made man.
This is measure for measure [in Hebrew, middah keneged middah], or retributive justice: As you do, so shall you be done to. In fact, at this point the Torah does something very subtle. The six words in which the principle is stated are a mirror image of one another:  Who sheds  the blood  of man, [3a] by man [2a] shall his blood [1a] be shed. This is a perfect example of style reflecting substance: what is done to us is a mirror image of what we do. The extraordinary fact is that the first moral principle set out in the Torah is also the first moral principle ever to be scientifically demonstrated. Tit-for-Tat is the computer equivalent of (retributive) justice: Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.
The story has a sequel. In 1989, the Polish mathematician Martin Nowak produced a programme that beats Tit-for-Tat. He called it Generous. It overcame one weakness of Tit-for-Tat, namely that when you meet a particularly nasty opponent, you get drawn into a potentially endless and destructive cycle of retaliation, which is bad for both sides. Generous avoided this by randomly but periodically forgetting the last move of its opponent, thus allowing the relationship to begin again. What Nowak had produced, in fact, was a computer simulation of forgiveness.
Once again, the connection with the story of Noah and the Flood is direct. After the Flood, G-d vowed: "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done." This is the principle of Divine forgiveness.
Thus the two great principles of the Noahide covenant are also the first two principles to have been established by computer simulation. There is an objective basis for morality after all. It rests on two key ideas: justice and forgiveness, or what the sages called middat ha-din and middat rachamim. Without these, no group can survive in the long run.
In one of the first great works of Jewish philosophy - Sefer Emunot ve-Deot (The Book of Beliefs and Opinions) - R. Saadia Gaon (882-942) explained that the truths of the Torah could be established by reason. Why then was revelation necessary? Because it takes humanity time to arrive at truth, and there are many slips and pitfalls along the way. It took more than a thousand years after R. Saadia Gaon for humanity to demonstrate the fundamental moral truths that lie at the basis of G-d's covenant with humankind: that co-operation is as necessary as competition, that co-operation depends on trust, that trust requires justice, and that justice itself is incomplete without forgiveness. Morality is not simply what we choose it to be. It is part of the basic fabric of the universe, revealed to us by the universe's Creator, long ago.
ICHEC - Week II
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 7:11:38 pm | Comments (0)
Alicia and I are getting closer and more comfortable with each other as our time together progresses. As our relationship grows I think of her more and more as one of my good friends. That being said it is hard to remember that she is different. On one of our last visits she spoke about her recent interview with an Austrian Jew who wants to find out more about the lives of the Jews living in Austria during WWII. Alicia explained to me that she was only 9 years old when the Germans invaded Austria and that she still remembers it as if it was yesterday.
It was the dead of winter and the Nazis were coming into Jewish homes during the night to take them across the border to Czechoslovakia. She knew that if they came to her house she would suffer the long journey in the harsh winter climate. As Alicia lay in her bed late at night she would practice enduring the cold by pulling the covers off her body and laying there shivering for as long as she could possibly handle it. This 9-year-old girl wanted to be prepared. She wanted to make sure she would be accustomed to how cold and miserable she would be if the Nazi's would take them away. The Nazis never came for her family as they did for many others in Austria at the time. But sometimes I forget that she is not just a friend, also someone who is a living proof of such a horrible era of inhumane suffering. Alicia is amazed that she is still so emotional about her early childhood but realizes that it is a part of who she is and will be there in her heart for the rest of her life.
This same theme was also conveyed in class. Last week we watched the Eichmann trial and saw witnesses retell their experiences during the 1930's and 1940's as Jews in Europe. Even though the trial took place in Israel in 1961, it was obvious that the events of the Holocaust impacted the survivors' lives forever and molded them into the people they already became. There was one witness who conjured up so many horrible thoughts and pains that he ended up fainting at the stand from distress. No matter how normal they seem they will always have a deep scar in their hearts and minds from the lives they lived under the Nazi Regime. And through all of her grief and reflectance Alicia again reminded me of how rewarding it is to be with her and be able to learn from her. Someone who experienced such tragedy and devastation still lives a happy and relatively healthy life today.
Posted by: Rebecca Kaplan on Friday, October 9, 2009 at 10:02:10 pm | Comments (0)
Autumn 1909, one century ago, was a rather uneventful time. Compared to traumatic events that took place during the previous High Holiday seasons, and the horrible atrocities that would soon be unleashed, Tishrei 5670 (September-October 1909) was relatively quiet.
As it turns out, that fall was a deceptive lull in the early years of the 20th Century. Beneath the surface and behind the scenes, violent forces were simmering which would soon erupt and throw the benign century into bloodiest century in all of history.
Despite the apparent calm that holiday season, the illustrious Rebbe Rashab (Rabbi Sholom Dovber), a grandmaster sage and mystic, was not oblivious to the impending storm. In his classic style, the Rebbe delivered another of his timeless and timely masterpieces, which presented a cosmic snapshot of events to come, coupled with a profound perspective on how to approach and take on the challenges ahead.
That Rosh Hashana, one hundred years ago, the Rebbe Rashab began delivering the series of discourses, titled "Hemshech Eter" (eter is an acronym for the year 5670, tov resh ayin). The series would span for nearly six months, until the winter of 1910, and would consist of twenty-seven discourses, delivered both live (in Yiddish) and in writing (in Hebrew), and later published in a complete volume.
Couched in Talmudic language and mystical terms, the Rebbe laid out in the first part of this series of discourses two critical elements that allow us to understand and prepare for every situation, even the most difficult of circumstances.
We will focus on the discourse delivered exactly one century this week, on Shemini Atzeret 1909 (the sixth discourse in this series). In this dissertation the Rebbe Rashab explains the difference between the two holidays that flow one into the other, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. The Torah instructs us that following the celebration of the seven days of Sukkot, "the eighth day shall be a time of retreat (Shemini Atzeret) for you when you shall do no mundane work."
What is the significance of this eighth day? And why does it follow the seven days of Sukkot?
Explains the Rebbe Rashab that the secret power of the eighth day lays in the expression "(the eighth day shall be a time of retreat) for you."
We each have two aspects to our lives: Our outer lives and our inner lives. The things we do to affect the environment and the world around us. And the things we do within our own intimate selves.
The two consecutive holidays of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, explains the Rebbe, represent two primary prototypes of human initiative that each one of us has to be involved in - the first external and the second internal.
The purpose for which we were placed on Earth, why our souls were sent down to this material plane, is in order that we illuminate the moral and spiritual darkness of our physical world. This is the primary focus of Sukkot, when we take on not just our own personal lives, but also the welfare of our communities and societies. We dwell in Sukkot, made of vegetation of the world, we pray and commit to improve and refine the nations of the world, we dance and celebrate in public, we engage, connect and unite with others.
Following this seven-day immersion in the affairs of e the world, we then arrive to the eighth day, Shemini Atzeret, when we enter into our intimate space, "a time of retreat for you," when we are alone with G-d, "let them be for you alone, and no strangers with you" (Proverbs 5:17), and we are not involved in any "mundane work" of refining the world.
After refining the entire world during Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret is the single day when everything else is put aside and we are alone and intimate with the King, without any strangers present, for one last time before entering the dark, cold days of winter.
In mystical terms: Sukkot is related to the role of the "reshimu" - the cosmic residue that was created by the great "tzimtzum," which concealed the infinite Divine energy to allow the emergence of finite "containers" that would be able to receive this energy. Think of it as letters and words that convey profound wisdom, whose intensity completely overrides and submerges the actual letters in a powerful light, which don't allow the letters visibility. The tzimtzum conceals the brilliant wisdom, leaving a "residue" - a jumbled up assortment of letters (which are alternately compared to a summary, a blueprint, signs and hints to something deeper), which now can emerge and be revealed, but only due to the concealment of the intense brilliance. Like letters that remain visible after the light recedes, the "reshimu" is considered to be the first "container" - the root of all the "containers" in existence, which now have to begin the long and arduous process of reclaiming the hidden wisdom hidden within these residual "letters" and "containers."
On Sukkot the main focus is to enter the world of the "containers," in all their dimensions, from the subtlest to the most callous, to refine and illuminate them with Divine energy. After seven days we then retreat into - and retain ("atzeret") - the inner sanctums and chambers of the infinite energy and essential light that is above and beyond the "reshimu" and the tzimtzum - a day that is dedicated "for you" alone.
Though it would not mitigate the tzimtzum-induced horrible events to come in the first half of the 20th century, it is a bit empowering to know that we have the ability to not only not be destroyed by the darkness, but to actually illuminate it.
The Rebbe's elucidation of the tzimtzum could help people, at least cognitively and emotionally, face the gloom to come, knowing that no darkness can vanquish the spirit. In the Rebbe Rashab's own words (in the previous Sukkot discourse): "We cannot say that the objective of the tzimtzum is to eradicate the light, G-d forbid, because what purpose is served by the removal of light, and we are told that the world was ‘not created to be empty and chaotic but to be inhabited' (Isaiah 45:18)... the purpose of the concealment is that the light should then be drawn into the finite parameters of our universe, and this happens when the light is filtered through the reshimu, which carries the infinite into the finite..."
As the clouds of doom were gathering over the European horizons, one can only imagine the strength and courage imparted to all those who heard the Rebbe Rashab explaining the potency of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret back in that autumn of 2009. No words can describe or minimize the harshness of the 20th century. But as challenging as those harsh times were, the Rebbe Rashab's words must have gathered much confidence and power knowing that these holidays infuse us with both the ability to transcend all the world's troubles, to enter an "inner" sanctum reserved "for you" alone, as well as to illuminate the dark universe.
In our time as well, though we are blessed to face far smaller challenges, we too have much to learn from Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret. Whether we are concerned with our uncertain economy and our future security, whether we are frightened by others fears and unknowns, whether we are anxious about our relationships and other personal ghosts, come Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret and we are told that these days bring us an unprecedented gift from above. They enable us to realize that we are not victims of circumstances; we can and must illuminate the shadows around us. And they allow us to access an inner place (which is dedicated "for you" alone) that can never be affected by the storms raging around us.
To take control of your life requires discerning a clear distinction between both parts of our beings. First, the message of Sukkot: we must know that we were sent to this world, each of us charged with the mission to illuminate our surroundings. Darkness exists for a reason - so that you can dispel it with your unique light and energy. Second, the message of Shemini Atzeret: There is a place reserved for "you alone." In the depths of your soul resides a private, intimate essence, where no intruder - physical, psychological or spiritual - can enter. This is your inner sanctum where you and only you and G-d reside. Nothing can wound or even touch that connection.
A practical way to actualize these resources is to dedicate time, as the holidays wind down and we enter the new year, to focus on these two dimensions of your life. Identify elements that reflect each one of the two, don't allow their boundaries to be blurred and spill into each other - know clearly when you are focusing on improving the people and the world around you and when you are entering into your intimate space. And above all, designate time to nourish both these responsibilities.
Some food for thought as we reflect on a century old discourse, that comes with warmest regards from the Rebbe Rashab. As we conclude Sukkot (this Friday) and celebrate Shemini Atzeret (this Saturday), we can glean much from these Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret thoughts.
And then - with this intimate and invincible power of Shemini Atzeret - "for you" alone - we have much reason to dance all night and day on Simchat Torah.
ICHEC - Week I
Posted by: Leya Schwartz on Thursday, October 1, 2009 at 3:06:00 pm | Comments (0)
The past few weeks have been a bit of a whirlwind for me. The months of September and October prove to be very busy ones for Jews. The holidays include a large amount of eating most times, with a small period of the extreme opposite on Yom Kippur. In addition, there is the large amount of time spent praying and reflecting. With the New Year in full swing, it is important to reflect on the past year and try to better oneself for the year ahead. This time of reflection and introspection with G-d became a large part of my past few weeks.
Perfectly intertwined has been hearing a Holocaust survivor speak of her experience. Standing at 4 feet 10 inches (at most), this special woman is elderly. Having survived the Holocaust, she came to speak to us about her experiences. Nothing or nobody can explain what her life was like, and I won't even attempt to. All I know is that every account I hear breaks another piece of my heart. She should have died in so many different instances yet she managed to survive. She survived the occupation in Poland, she survived the Sosnovietz Ghetto, she survived mass killings, she survived Auschwitz, she survived Dr. Mengela, she survived the death march, she survived two bouts of typhus, and for what? She saw her family, friends, and fellow Jews die before her eyes. Six of her seven other family members weren't as lucky, or unlucky as some look at it. But she feels that if she endured the Holocaust she HAS to live now. She is here for two reasons. First, to continue the growth of the Jewish nation with her beautiful family, exactly what Hitler and the Nazis were determined to destroy. And secondly, to experience the most beautiful gift G-d gave to the Jewish people: Israel. The first time in 25 years that she laughed was when she visited Israel 20 years after the war. That is what she lives for, and that is what all of the Jews should live for, to appreciate and understand the importance of the State of Israel. This inspired me during these important times to put my life and thoughts into perspective. She inspired me to revisit my trip to Poland, print out my pictures, put them in an album and caption them using my lengthy journal. As I revisited I thought more and more about how important that trip was and how every PERSON should go. Only there will you be able to superficially grasp what happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe.
On a very different note, along with the theme of these few months, I met with Alicia, my friend. Alicia has been an important inspiration during these times of repentance. With all of her stories and experiences she reminds me again and again that life is too short. When Alicia first moved to America she was around 30 years old and worked for Elizabeth Arden. She was a tall, thin, blond who fit the company image perfectly. After seven years she left Elizabeth Arden because she felt she could be doing something she really loves while she works: traveling. She soon landed a job for a travel agency and worked her way up to becoming a tour guide. Alicia and I have the same passion for traveling. She loves to learn about different cultures, as I do. I can sit and listen to her stories from all around the globe for days. When she was talking about one of her trips to Japan she was telling me about this waterfall that was not on the itinerary for the group but was definitely on hers. She woke up three hours earlier and trekked to the waterfall by herself. Alicia said something to me that will always resonate: "I never regret anything I did, only something I didn't do." They say that wisdom comes with age and you can really see that with Alicia. Some may think of elderly people as out of touch with the times or old-fashioned, but Alicia is more than in touch with the world today she is someone who I would gladly take advice from. She is an honest person who knows what it is to really live life. Even with her inhibiting injury she goes to museums alone, taking in the fresh air and the knowledge. She is thankful to me that she can now have a friend who will listen to her stories. "Some people my age are bitter misers and they don't get out much, but I refuse to live my life like that: you only live once," she says so eloquently and honestly. She is an extremely refreshing person to be around. ‘Refreshing' is not necessarily a term one would use to describe an elderly person, but Alicia is something special and I am so thankful to be able to spend time and learn from her. I hope this year will be as meaningful and special as these two amazing women who I met. Their stories and lives inspire me to live mine in the best way that I can.