Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Our House in Israel II

(Click here to see Part I.)

Well, our house is about about 5 months away from completion, and things are really starting to come together. Air conditioning is in, and flooring, as well as some bathtubs! Exciting! Stairs and banister are not in yet, and much is still left to be done.

Here you can see most of our kitchen. The strip in the middle is bare because most people will be putting tile in as a backsplash. Part of our backsplash will be granite, but most will be egshell paint. Counters will run along the wall, and the corner to the left in the picture is the starting point of a peninsula.

Here you can see the bottom of our staircase. We have a tri-level stairwell, which should look quite nice when the house is done. Obviously, the marble stairs are still not installed, nor the banisters. Our staircase has a window, so we hope it will be airy and light.

Here you can see one of the children's bathrooms. The tiling is almost done, but the side tiles for the tub are not in yet. We chose to tile only the area in the bathrooms that surround tubs or showers. The rest of the bathroom will be finished with egshell paint.

And finally (for now), here is the view from the kitchen out to the front entrance. The support poles you see are going to be removed soon. I chose this view so that you can see the tile we chose for the flooring. It is shiny and faintly remenicsient of marble, which is the look we were going for.

I hope to keep this blog up to date regarding the house as it nears completion...please let me know if you find this of interest!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Demons of Maimonides

In his Guide to the Perplexed, the Rambam categorically denies the colloquial understanding of the existance of demons. His understanding of talmudic passages such as Berachot 6a work around this fact, but I find his explanation of a different midrash much more interesting.

The Torah (Gen. 5:3) states that Adam gave birth to many children besides Kayin, Hevel and Shes. Midrash Rabbah (Gen. 24:6) explains that these were children of a fractured relationship between Adam and Eve, and they were demons. What does Maimonides do with this midrash?

In the Guide (1:7), the Rambam explains this phenomenon. Demons, he says, are human beings that are born with all the normal faculties of Man, but their minds are not fully perfected. These souless beings are essentially animals in human form. Because of their vastly superior intellect to other animals, however, they are capable of much more complex thought and action. The fact that they lack a truly human soul gives them sociopathic tendencies. Hence, Maimonides explains, they have a propensity to damage and contributee to the development of evil in this world.

And so, to the Rambam, demons are not figaments of our imagination or products of our nightmares. They are humans that have no conscience. Absent is that part of the human soul that ennobles it, elevating it beyond the realm of mere beast. Their superior intellect allows them to ensnare others into tremendous pain and suffering, bringing evil into our world.

Reading this passage, my thoughts immediately turned to the sadistic smiles on the faces of the German (and other) guards during the Holocaust (image). The title of demon befits these brutes well.

UPDATE 3 Nov 2009: In Shapiro's Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters, Rambam's view is stated as I have presented it here. Furthermore, Professor Shapiro quotes R Shlomo Duran in Milchemet Mitzvah as holding the same view: "לא שיהיו שידין ממש אלא בני אדם הדומין לשידין במעשיהם כלשון בני אדם שאומרים על אדם רע זה שד הוא וכל אדם שמשחית במעשיו ג"כ נקרא שטן" (p 111 f 75).

He also points out the fact that the Meiri similarly reinterperts many talmudic passages that deal with demonology, turning them into rationalistic rules. For example, while the talmud (B'rachot 4-5) states that the reason for the recitation of שמע at bed-time is to afford protection from demons, Meiri states, "להבריח את המזיקים, וביאורו אצלי המזיקים הידועים והם הדעות הכוזבים, והזקיקוהו בעתות הפנאי ליחד את השם שלא יטעה באמונות השניות וכשיקרא על הכונה הראויה תהא מטתו בטוחה מהם".

Monday, January 29, 2007

Appeasement isn't Working

While the complexities of Israeli politics and security may be hard for most of us to fathom, we can be assured that the Appeasement Process is not achieving desired results when diary entries like the following appear:

January 15th, 2007: Israel states that it may give up territory in the Golan Heights, as well as most of Judea and Samaria.

January 29th, 2007: One of many attempts, a suicide bomber evades Israeli authorities and detonates himself in a bakery in Eilat. The government of Gaza, the Hamas, state that 'as long as there is an occupation*, resistance is legitimate..."

(This type of result-oriented evaluation of policies also works for the Lebanon war, which had as one of its stated goals, 'the return of the two soldiers kidnapped on the border', and ended with no such success. Meanwhile, Olmert has decided that enough time has gone by for Israelis to forget his promise, and claimed on January 26th that 'the Lebanon war was a great success.')

UPDATE (1.30.2007): According to this poll, Kadima is going the way of Shinui. Israel seems to know that Olmert and his bunch of goons are worthless. Again, an oppritunity for a popular political revolution. May we act towards new leadership, and may Hashem help us succeed where past governments have failed.

* While Israelis like to believe that only the territories post 1967 are considered 'occupied' by the Arabs, the Arab schoolbooks so consider Eilat, Tel Aviv and Haifa, as well.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Bo: Renewal of Spirit and Morals

In a week marred by the Katzav affair, the portion details the first commandment with which the Jewish nation is charged. Each month's beginning is a holiday on the Jewish calendar, and its announcement is ritualized in halacha. Witnesses look out for the night when the moon is begins its waxing period, and they make haste to Jerusalem, to announce their sighting to the court. What is certain is that this is not simply the effort of a crude, unenlightened people to set a calendar. The court in Jerusalem knew the astronomical intricacies very well, and even had the power to override the testimony of witnesses in order to plan the calendar pragmatically for the nation.

So, what is the purpose of the New Moon ceremony? Rabbi Hirsch points out immediately that the moon produces no light of its own. Its surface simply reflects the rays of the obscured sun. Immediately, this conjures up the natural symbol of the moon for the Nation of Israel. As the moon reflects the light of the sun to the inhabitants of Earth, so are we supposed to reflect the spiritual warmth of God to the rest of the world. The moon is beautiful because of the light it reflects; in the same vein, we are a model to the world because of our relationship to God.

When a Jew gazes at the moon, he lifts his mind from the physical, material world, and shifts his sights higher. The wax and wane of the moon represent the constant struggle of humanity to remain true to God's spiritual and ethical commands. The gravity of materialism slowly draws mankind away from lofty goals, and mires it in the drudgery of pragmatism. Eventually, however, the soul re-exerts itself, and lifts humanity back to the realm of ethical growth. This constant state of flux creates tension and a recurring yearning for growth. Without falling, we would have less drive to rise higher. And so, the national focus on the moon each month beckons Israel back to its goal of reflecting Hashem's light. It is an invitation to interact with God in a closer way, to commune with Him on a deeper level.

Thus we can understand the offering of Rosh Chodesh. On this day, a goat is brought, a sin offering, to atone for sins that are unconsciously committed (Shavuoth 9a). The nation atones for its waning spiritual and moral consciousness, and resolves to strengthen these in the future. The tradition of יום כיפור קטן, the miniature day of atonement, which occurs the day before Rosh Chodesh, is also a reflection of this concept. Before the holiday, we turn our thoughts towards penance, and work our ways closer to Godliness.

This day of communion with God, this renewal of national and individual spirit, is not one-sided. God does not want to command His nation to re-inspire themselves. And so, He places us in control of the commemoration. The nation is responsible to set the date, not just through their sanhedrin proxy, but through popular moon-watching and testimony. Each Jew watches the sky, searching for astronomical renewal, and is symbolically invited to spiritual renewal. The nation communes with God as co-participants, not simply as servants fulfilling the will of their master. Jews renew themselves, weaving a new reality, and join Hashem in creation.

The time of the reawakening is, paradoxically, the time immediately following the darkest point in the cycle of the moon. Historically, Jews spring to new heights directly from the shadows of their lowest falls. And so, בדמיך חיי, from our bloodiest point, from our lowest spiritual and moral stances, we are enjoined to live! -- To grasp life and reach higher, re-dedicating every step to God.

May our national shame this week be a springboard for rapid spiritual accomplishment, culminating in redemption.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Shame of a Nation

The allegations against the president of Israel, Moshe Katzav, are now international news. Headlines around the world blare the rape and corruption charges against the figurehead of the Jewish State. It is not hard to hear the relish in some news outlets. The undercurrent of schadenfreude inevitably stems from the perception that those who consider themselves the most 'moral nation on earth' have been proven hypocrites. Katzav seems to demonstrate that Jews are no more moral than anyone else, and it would seem that they may even be a cut below in the area of government officials.

Indeed, members of the Knesset have complained of the shame that the Katzav debacle is causing Israel in the international community. They end up sounding like calculating politicians, who care only about opinion polls and public perception, instead of truth, justice and morality.

During the formation of our Nation, Moshe made sure not to use his position to take anything from the people. He used his own donkey for transportation, and never made personal demands on the Jews, even the kind that we might consider appropriate. How our leadership has changed from those times. Where has the honor of Israel gone?

The governing class in Israel has, for the most part, rejected the practical aspects of the Torah. Israel is, as much as they can influence it, a secular state, one where religion, God and Torah have little to do with the governance of the land. In fact, the founders and visionaries of our State made it clear that they wanted a state just like any other state. I recall reading that when the newly minted Israel caught and convicted its first thief, the feeling was palpable that now we are really a country; we have Jewish scientists, Jewish policemen, Jewish doctors, and now, Jewish robbers!

What a far cry this is from the ethical standard that the Torah requires! We are meant to be a 'kingdom of priests, a holy nation'! Our social and judicial rules gleaned from the Torah would set our status as a beacon of light, standard-setters for the rest of the world. When Israel sits in its land and follows the Torah, the nations of the world will see utopia! And yet, when we fall from grace, when we abandon the ways of God, we become lower than any other. Our substantial national soul has the ability to fall far below, just as it can soar high above. And so, without God squarely before our consciousness constantly, we flounder, and eventually sink. And the results are the Katzavs, Olmerts, Halutzes and a hundred others, who only represent the tip of the depraved iceberg we allow ourselves to become.

Israel is a gift from God. It is our chance to enable the redemption in a quick, painless way. If we abuse it, it can be a source of suffering, until God redeems us despite our actions. However, if we utilize it correctly, it will continue to flower and bear fruit, unfolding the messianic era before our eyes, and the eyes of the whole world. This can only be accomplished by applying the Torah to the State.

When a child is created, he is born incomplete. It is up to his father to circumcise him, thus perfecting what God has given him. Part of the lesson to the father is that the boy must be educated and perfected spiritually, as he was completed physically. In this world, everything God gives us must be perfected by our own actions. We take part in creation with God, and become like Him in this way. When God presented us with the gift of Israel, it was imperfect. It is up to us to complete it with God, and have a hand in our own redemption.

We must return to God, not only on a personal level, but on a national level. We must take this unfinished gift that God gives us, and complete it by his instruction. May God guide us, and help us replace corruption and hedonism with justice and morality. May swift, merciless justice be done to the Katzavs and the Olmerts, and thus Israel's national glory be restored.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Vayechi: The Diversity of Israel

The time has come for Ya'akov to die. He gathers his sons, each of which is an integral foundation stone in the new nation of Israel. In his philosophic will to his descendants, the patriarch recognizes each son's nature. He describes how each son's innate attributes should be used properly for the service of God. In doing so, Ya'akov learns from the mistake of his father with Esav.

The Midrash Tanchuma points out an interesting oddity. Ya'akov follows birth order in his blessing of his sons, with one exception. Yissachar was older than Zevulun, and yet, the younger is mentioned before the older. The fact is that the two brothers' blessings were intertwined. Zevulun was to provide for the physical maintanance of his brother Yissachar, while the latter provided spiritual sustanence for himself and his supporter. The midrash points out that it was not Yissachar who is mentioned first, but Zevulun, driving home the point that those who provide the physical wherewithal for the study of Torah are the ones who stand first in line to receive the credit.

The diversification of each important set of traits into individual sons of Ya'akov, together making up the whole nation, speaks of the unity of purpose that was expected of the children of Israel, and their idealized desire to bring the kingdom of Heaven here, to Earth. Perhaps, however, we may see the diversification in reverse, as well. While each member of the nation of Israel must see himself as, first and foremost, part of the tapestry of the People, he must also remember that he is an individual. The Israelite (Hirsch's Mensch-Jisroel) must realize the microcosm of the nation, indeed, of the world, in his own life, to the best of his ability. This would require him to do the opposite of Ya'akov's diversifying blessings. He must take each trait and quality that is necessary in life, and integrate it into his personality, becoming as close to perfection as possible. By harmonizing the Yehuda, the Yissachar, the Zevulun, the Yosef, and all the others, in her own life, the individual Jew ensures that not only does she use her natural talents for Godly purposes, but she also adopts traits foreign to her, and uses them to further God's purpose in this world.

Tanchuma states that the blessings Ya'akov gave his children would not become effective until the Nation accepts the Torah. Only with a plan for enacting God's will on earth, can we truly act accordingly. It is only with the Torah as our guide, and our overarching authority, that we can truly engage the world as sons and daughters of Ya'akov, and reap the benefits of success.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's New Here

Welcome to the newer and better mevaseretzion blog!

By converting my blog to the new blogger, I was able to retain the same look, while adding the link tree of all posts. I am sure there are many new features that I will try to implement in the future, but this was the most important change I wanted to make.

In other news, I know I have not been posting much lately, what with my child getting sick and my changing jobs very soon. However, I do plan to get invest more time in my blog very soon, commenting and posting more frequently, about halacha, hashkafa, politics, and the rest of it.

I hope people out there are reading what is already here, and looking forward to more!