Sunday, July 31, 2011

Gavra vs. cheftza

(source — strongly recommended)

Inspired by the discussion in the comments to this post. An excerpt from here:
The biblical commandments are the 613 mitzvot explicitly or implicitly contained in the Five Books of Moses. The rabbinical commandments are the laws instituted by sages throughout the generations. (For example, praying three times a day, reciting kaddish after the dead, making a blessing before eating, lighting Shabbat candles, and the festivals of Chanukah and Purim are all rabbinical institutions. Indeed, a major part of what we call "Judaism" is of rabbinic origin.)

Both are equally binding upon the Jew. The sages institute their laws by the divine authority expressed in the verse: "And you shall observe all that they shall instruct you" (Deuteronomy 17:10). Thus, the blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah -- "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to..." -- is recited over rabbinical mitzvot as well. G-d is the sole commander of a mitzvah, whether it is written or alluded to in His Torah, or instituted by human beings to whom He imparted the authority to interpret and safeguard His laws and legislate Jewish life.

Nevertheless, Halachah (Torah law) distinguishes between biblical and rabbinical laws, applying a different set of standards to each of the two categories. One of these differences is that, according to many halachic authorities, biblical laws define the nature of their object, while rabbinical degrees are only prohibitions upon the person. For example, if biblical law forbids a certain food, this indicates that the very substance of the food is intrinsically negative and profane; on the other hand, rabbinical proscription of a certain food is strictly a prohibition upon the person not to eat it.

At first glance, this seems to indicate that rabbinical mitzvot are less "real" than biblical ones; that while the biblical law affects the very nature of its subject, the rabbinical law is superimposed over human life, having the authority to command and instruct but not to define reality. On a deeper level, however, this alludes to the fact that the rabbinical law is the more profound expression of the essence of the mitzvah as divine will.

The biblical mitzvot define the nature of our world, expressing the fact that their predominant element is the mitzvah's role as molder and illuminator of the created reality. Not so the rabbinical commandment, which is concerned only with what man should or should not do, not with how this affects him or his world. Thus it asserts the "decree" element of the mitzvah: the mitzvah as it transcends all relation to physical life, its sole purpose being the fulfillment of a divine desire.
Another excerpt, from here:
In the third chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, the mishnaic sage Akavia ben Mahalalel teaches:

"Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting. From where you came -- from a putrid drop; where you are going -- to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting -- before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

The Mishnah is known for its concise wording -- every extra word or phrase is interpreted by the Talmud to enfold many layers of meaning and instruction. On the face of it, the above-quoted Mishnah is just using lengthy, repetitious wording to convey a single idea. Upon closer examination, however, the Mishnah includes three sentences, which can be interpreted as three separate messages:

1) "Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression."

2) "Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting."

3) "From where you came -- from a putrid drop; where you are going -- to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting -- before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that Akavia ben Mahalalel is in fact speaking to three different types of people: the materialist, the spiritualist, and the tzaddik.

The third and last part of our Mishnah is addressed to the materialist, who sees nothing higher -- indeed nothing other -- than the body and its needs, wants and desires. It's all but useless to speak to the materialist about his soul. So we talk to him about his body -- about the fact that it's nothing more than a bag of flesh with a slimy beginning and a maggoty end, and that there's a higher authority before which it will one day be taken to task for all it did during its earthly life.

The second and middle part of the Mishnah is addressed to the spiritual person. To him, we need not speak of the lowliness of the body; instead, we extol the virtues of the soul: "Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgment and accounting." We speak of the soul's life origins as "a very part of G-d above," of the "World to Come" to which it is propelled by the good deeds of a virtuous life, and of the day it will merit to give "a judgment and accounting" before the Source from which it came and to which it shall return.

And then there is the tzaddik, the perfectly righteous individual. To the tzaddik we don't speak of the lowliness of the body, for the tzaddik's body is refined and rarified, as holy, perhaps even holier, than his soul. Nor do we speak to the tzaddik about his soul -- the tzaddik doesn't care about his soul. He's not interested in spiritual development. He's not interested in the World to Come. All he desires is to lose himself within the all-embracing reality of G-d, like a tiny candle-flame absorbed and nullified within a great fire.

Still, the tzaddik, too, can "come to the hands of transgression." The tzaddik, too, can sin -- not in forgetting about G-d, but in forgetting about the world. The tzaddik may backslide to the pre-Sinai reality, when there were only two things -- only G-d and man, and their quest for each other.

So the tzaddik is admonished: "Reflect upon three things." Remember that Shabbat morning at Sinai when G-d descended upon the mountain and decreed that the world shall henceforth be made real. Remember the day on which G-d decreed that your purpose in life is not to lose yourself within Him, but to bring Him into the world and uplift the world to Him.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What party does G-d want you to vote for?

This Shabbos I read a fascinating excerpt from one of the Rebbe's sichos. The Rebbe asks: Why (according to some opinions), is it a chiyuv to loan money to a non-Jew for interest? One can understand why it's a chiyuv to loan a Jew money for no interest (a Jew is your brother); one can also understand why it's permitted to ask interest from a non-Jew (that's the normal state of affairs*) — but why should asking for the interest be required?

The answer is interesting: because of the prohibition of bal tashchis, wanton destruction. If a Jew is permitted to loan money to a non-Jew for interest and does not do so, he is destroying some of his potential property (the money from the interest). Therefore, it's a requirement for him to request the interest.

The ramifications of this reasoning are very interesting. First, a Jew must be careful about being financially responsible. Hashem gives him his possessions for a reason: to use in his avoidas Hashem. A Jew was sent into this world to elevate it by making it more G-dly. All physical objects contain "sparks of G-dliness", and it is our job to elevate them by doing mitzvos with those objects — the process of elevating the sparks converts the objects into Dira B'Tachtoinim, the Dwelling Place for G-d, which is the purpose for which G-d created everything, both the spiritual worlds and the physical one, and the purpose for which our soul descended into this world.

(This is why, according to Chassidus, it is ossur to steal. When Joe steals Bob's pencil, he is taking the object which has the sparks of holiness which were destined for Bob to elevate. Joe cannot elevate them — not only because those sparks were destined for Bob, but also because it is impossible to elevate sparks of holiness in the objects that are halachically forbidden to us, Mi'de'Oraysa or Mi'de'Rabbanim.)

Therefore, when a Jew is not careful about his property or financial situation, he is denying a part of the world from becoming Dira B'Tachtoinim. He is failing in one aspect of his purpose in this world.

There is a second interesting ramification. Seemingly, Torah does not support any particular political view or any particular political party. You may say that actions of liberals are damaging to our economy and wealth, but so what — what does this have to do with Torah?

But from the above, we see that Torah cares about the wealth of a Jew. The government's actions lead to a Jew losing his wealth. First, from direct taxation — which is not even spent on anything pertaining to the Jew's livelihood, such as paying for the roads he drives on or police/army that protects him. Second, from the government's control of money production that leads to devaluation of money (you can think of it as unseen taxing, or as the government counterfeiting money — the effect on the worth of the money you have in your wallet is the same). Finally, from the policies damaging US economy, which leads to a Jew losing money from higher prices of food, gas, bills, lodging, etc., having to pay higher interest on the loans he takes out, from losing money in the investments, etc.

Therefore, although one may say that Torah does not care about a particular political ideology (a statement I do not necessarily agree with, since there is a concept of yashrus in Torah), Torah definitely cares about the effect this ideology has on a Jew's livelihood, since his livelihood is an aspect of his avoidas Hashem — both from a simple point of view that if he doesn't have enough money, he may not be able to carry out all the mitzvos, or at least carry them out b'hiddur, and from the above point of view which states that if a Jew loses even one extra dollar, that's a dollar that he was supposed to make into a Dwelling for Hashem!

Furthermore, I think the concept of bal tashchis applies not just to Jews but also to non-Jews. If a certain political ideology's actions lead to general destruction of civilization (such as multiple businesses closing all over the country due to high taxation or governmental regulation, services and products not being used by people due to damaged economy or due to liberal propaganda about things like global warming), Torah is against this ideology and the people who support this ideology.

* Many libertarians (such as on forums) ask: why is the Bible against interest? Well, it's not! It's only forbidden to ask interest from a Jew, since he is your brother. It is stated that the interest that you forgive him is a gift that you're obligated to give him. A gift — not something that is inherently a bad thing. (We don't say that a man not committing adultery with someone else's wife is a gift he has to give to the woman's husband; adultery is an inherently abominable phenomenon.) Why a Jew has to give that gift to another Jew is a different question, which can be explored from socio-moral to Chassidic perspectives.

But in the areas where a Jew is not required to give this gift, there is nothing wrong with charging interest; in fact, he is obligated to do so.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Evolution and maturation

It says in Chassidus that as the body matures, during the gestation, so does the soul (the level of the soul that is mislabesh b'guf).

I don't know if the two processes are the same (as discussed in the previous posts), or if maturation of the body parallels the changes in the soul, because the keili must be able to receive the oir, but here are some of the changes that happen with a few kinds of inhibitory neurons (source). If you're not interested in Neuroscience, you can skip to Chassidus after the figure.

(click on the image to enlarge)

Meanwhile, a quote from a ma'amor by Frierdiker Rebbe (Ma'amor 38 from the Chassidic Discourses translated to English, starting with: "Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Each and every day, a Heavenly voice goes forth..."):
The bodies of all created beings are physical, while their souls are spiritual. Though there are differences between the bodies and souls of each of the four categories of terrestrial beings — inanimate, vegetative, animal and man — there are also similarities. The physical bodies of inanimate objects conform to their souls, just as the physical substance of vegetation dovetails with its soul. So too, animal bodies suit their souls and human bodies correspond with their souls. 
In all instances, the life-force which emanates from the soul causes the body itself to be alive (rather than there being a living soul in a dead body). Indeed, a body's physical life is completely dependent on the soul that vivifies it; bodies themselves can neither hear, see, nor understand. Nevertheless, the soul clothes itself in its body in such a fashion that the whole body lives withing each of its limbs. Thus, the eyes see, the hands work. Unlike a machine which moves in response to an external activating force, the body enjoys an internal G-dly unity with its soul (and is thus itself alive). This causes both body and soul to feel the purpose for which G-d created them, and to fulfill G-d's desire by implementing their role in creation. 
Just as G-d's desire for body and soul to unite causes the physical body to conform precisely to the soul that enlivens it, so too does the soul conform with the physical body, so that it is able to imbue all of with life. Thus, the unification of the spiritual soul with the corporeal body causes body to attain a loftier status than it had enjoyed previously. 
Conversely, that part of the spiritual soul which permeates the body is, upon its descent, lowered in spiritual status. Previously it was a wholly spiritual being, with no connection to physicality, and was included within the hierarchy of the spirit. 
The Midrash states that the soul is divided into five distinct categories: Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chaya and Yechidah. Each name indicates an aspect of the soul's function. The highest part is Yechidah and the lowest is Nefesh, whose purpose is to enliven the body. All five parts are connected, and before G-d sends a soul down to animate a body, Nefesh (the part that actually descends) is integrated with the other four soul levels. [...]
The Frierdiker Rebbe goes on to say that even after its descent, Nefesh is still connected with the other parts of the soul, albeit less consciously or fully. As a result, Nefesh is capable of sensing, for instance, the Heavenly voice (heard by Chaya) which daily urges Yidden to repent and do mitzvos. This sensation is what drives many Jews to do something positive and constructive in their lives, although for many of them, that urge is misdirected. (It is also the reason why sometimes we get sudden bursts of energy and inspiration, both in our material affairs and in the different aspects of avoida, such as learning or davening.)

Nefesh is also able to express Yechida when a Jew goes on mesirus nefesh, chv"sh, or when he meditates on how he is capable on going on mesirus nefesh not to separate himself from Hashem and how each sin separates him from Hashem due to being a micro-act of avoida zarah. As a result of this meditation, the Jew's hidden love is aroused, and he does not sin.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Form and substance in North Korea

The discussion in the last post reminded me of this video from Vice Guide to North Korea. (Some music and singing heard in the video, but sound is not really important; so, if you’re makpid on music in videos, you can just turn off the sound; some female dancing, but level of the detail is minimal). The actual ikkar starts at 1:30:

Basically, the connection to the last post is that you could imagine this huge "TV" made of LCD "pixels" (each pixel a few feet wide and tall), or neon signs, or people holding cards of different colors. As long as the dynamics of the people changing cards is the same as that of pixels changing colors, the effect should be same. So, the chomer of the process — who is holding the card — is not important, only the tzurah (the relationship between the rectangles and the color of each rectangle).

On a related note, that’s also the way socialists view the society: as long as the "function" of a particular element of the society is played, the contents of that element are not important. Of course, the function is defined by the Central Headquarters. For instance, from the point of view of Mr. Bernanke, the function of the rich people in this country is to serve as a form of savings account. When things get tough in the economy (or when the government is running out of money), we can always tap into the savings account.

Of course, from some conservatives’ point of view, it’s not too different. The “rich people” are also seen as playing a particular role. It’s just that conservatives know more about economics than the liberals. They realize that the rich people’s “function” in the society is to direct investment of capital into different businesses.

That’s why they’ve become rich — because they were successful in investing the capital in the projects that the public deemed worthwhile, voting for them with its money (for instance, Bill Gates became rich by investing into Windows OS; enough people voted with their money for this product being useful for them by buying it; as a result, Bill Gates became rich). This is also the reason why they need to continue to hold on to that money: they need to be able to use the capital to invest into new projects, or change the nature of the old projects, responding to (or anticipating) the changes in the public’s needs.

So, that is why it’s a bad idea to tax them whenever things become tough in the economy: it’s almost exactly equivalent to bleeding a patient when he is trying to fight an infection. (Perhaps a better example would be to pump the blood from his heart and direct it into his urinary bladder. What happens to that blood is what happens to the money that the government takes from the public in taxes.)

But from libertarians’ point of view, taxing the rich is wrong because it’s poshut immoral to take money from people to pay for the services which they a) don’t benefit from, b) didn’t agree to pay for. Doesn’t matter whether they are rich (and “can afford it”) or poor. (Ironically, because taxing the rich hurts the economy, it’s the poor people who suffer the most. So, yes, rich people can afford to live through the liberals’ “management” of the society; the poor cannot.)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Forms and substances


I would like to advertise two posts by Rabbi Micha Berger:
Form and Information
Mind, Pereception and Metaphysics
If I were to summarize the two posts (the parts relevant to the discussion below), I'd say:

1) Phenomena of a world higher become the forms of the phenomena of the world lower
2) Soul is a ray of G-dly Light that pierces the spiritual worlds
3) The lowest level of the soul is the highest level of the brain, its form

We recognize that each object has two components: matter and form (chomer and tzurah). A key consists of the metal from which it is made and its unique shape. If the metal is replaced from aluminum to copper, but the shape is the same, what was replaced is the matter, while what remained is the form. If the key was melted down, its matter remained the same, while its form was changed.

I personally define form as the relationship between different parts of the matter. The properties, the nature of the object, can be thought of as the matter: after all, we can't say that there are two things: the electron and its properties; the properties of the electron are electron. But then again, they can also be though of as the form: if all we care about is the charge of an amino acid, even if a point mutation in a gene replaced amino acid A with amino acid B, as long as the function that it plays in the protein (due to its charge) is unaffected, the protein will still fold normally; so, we've replaced the matter, but retained the form, which means that the key property of the amino acid that we cared about could be identified as its form.

In order to see in detail the discussion of form and matter as it pertains to brain and soul, in the context of Jewish sources, please read the posts. I would like to quote this bit:
[W]e can say the soul is therefore the pattern which the brain fits, encoded in the layout and attributes of its neurons, neurochamicals, glial cells, etc… This doesn’t mean the soul is only the pattern, or that the soul has no existence without the brain. The soul is the same thing, as substantiated in a higher world, one in which there is no need for a physical instantiation. The two are in sync in the same way a movie picture changes as the light from the projector flickers in its different colors.

Thus the mind is a product of the design and structure of the brain while simultaneously being a spiritual thing, our connection to a higher plane.
(See also this post, briefly.)

Now, Rabbi Berger says that he is a Litvishe Mikubol and thus doesn't subscribe to all ideas of Chassidus Chabad, but I was wondering if I can apply his model to the struggle between Nefesh Elokis and Nefesh Ha'Bahamis as described in Tanya.

According to Tanya, the two souls (G-dly and animalistic) fight over control of the brain. Each one wants to be the one "enclothed" in it. So, for instance, we can say that when I was sixteen years old, not religious and eating lobsters, my brain was controlled by my Nefesh Ha'Bahamis. When I turned seventeen and became religious and started going to shull (and stopped eating lobsters), but brain started to be controlled by my Nefesh Elokis.

Well, if an atheist Neuroscientist hears this, he will scoff. It's not like, he will say, my brain was plugged into an iPhone when I was sixteen, and then was plugged into Android when I was seventeen. The internal structure of my brain changed! Due to a number of outside influences (charismatic rabbi, his wife's chip salad, certain propaganda literature, certain conversations), some connections in my brain (e.g., in the circuits responsible for lobster-eating behavior) weakened or even became associated with negative emotions, while other connections (e.g., in the shull-going circuits) strengthened.

If you consider Rabbi Berger's model, however, the Neuroscientist's view does not contradict the concept of one soul being enclothed in my brain vs. another.

Remember, according to the model, hislabshus (enclothment) of the soul in the brain happens through the brain's tzurah (form). Perhaps we can even say that the brain's tzurah is the soul's hislabshus in the brain's chomer (matter). [See again the first post linked above.]

Yes, the brain's tzurah changed, as the Neuroscientist above tells us. But that is exactly what it means that one soul vs. another gained the control. The change in the brain circuits from lobster-eating to shull-going is (evidence of) the change in hislabshus of one soul vs. another in the chomer of the brain.

(What I am trying to understand at the moment is what the specific nature of hislabshus of neshama in moach might be, according to the model and according to sources in Kabbala and Chassidus. To be continued, iyH. Any comments, especially with sources, are welcome.)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Probability, causality and Harry Potter

I have two questions, answers to which I do not yet know. So, I thought I’d ask them and see what people answer either in comments or in private communication. Also, even if you don’t know the answer, it’s interesting to think about these questions.

The first question is from Math; the second is from theology/philosophy.

First question:

I have a set of N elements. Each element can make a decision in favor of A or against it. The probability of each element making decision is given as P(A). If enough elements make decision A, the set will make decision A. If not, it won’t. The proportion of elements necessary to make a decision is given as R. I want to define P(S), the probability of the set making decision A, in terms of N, P(A) and R.

For example: In a parliament of 100 members, at least 75 members have to vote "yes" for a law to pass. The probability of each member voting "yes" on the given law is 30%. What’s the probability that the parliament will vote "yes" on the law? In this problem, N = 100, P(A) = 0.3, and R = 0.75, and we need to find P(S).


Second question:

According to David Hume, there is a fundamental problem in our understanding of the world. We define "nature" as a series of causes and effects. But what does causality mean? When we say that A causes B, what exactly do we mean? It seems that we mean that A must necessarily lead to B. But if we try to explain the nature of causality, we can do two things:

1) Say that due to its properties, A always leads to B. I.e., say: “What do you mean, what is the relationship between A and B that results in A causing B? The relationship is that whenever A happens, B necessarily happens.” But this doesn’t really explain why or how it is that A results in B; it just means that in our observation, A has always been followed by B. But why does this mean that A necessarily leads to B? Maybe A leading to C (or remaining A) is a low-probability event that has never been observed? In that case, A can be said to be highly correlated with B, but not be its “necessary cause”.

2) Define A in terms of a number of sub-events and do the same with B. So, say that A really consists of A(1) and A(2) and A(3) which lead, respectively, to B(1), B(2) and B(3), which comprise B. But then, we are back to the original question: what does it mean that A(n) leads to B(n)? We haven’t really explained the causality, we just increased the power of our microscope and zoomed in.

So, if you read a little more David Hume and think about it yourself, it doesn’t seem that we have a satisfactory answer to the question “What exactly does it mean that A necessitates B?” All our answers will either involve defining the causal relationship of A and B in terms of sub-relationships of their elements, or saying that A and B are strongly correlated as per our observations. But correlation, as everyone knows, is not causation. At least, it shouldn’t be. [This paragraph wasn’t in the post originally, but I realized that just because my explanation of David Hume’s problem with causality makes sense to me, it doesn’t mean it makes sense to everyone. For a better treatment of the problem, listen to this lecture by Rabbi Gottlieb.]

Philosophers have argued whether Hume really thought that “causation is reducible to pure regularity” (source) or not, but that’s not really interesting to me.

What is interesting is that in the 20th century, scientists have discovered Quantum Mechanics, which postulates that if you go “turtles all the way down”, to the level of sub-atomic particles, the microscopic events cannot be said to cause each other with absolute certainty. They are at most bound by a probability. So, A cannot be said anymore to lead to B with 100% certainty. It has a probabilistic relationship with B — and with a number of other outcomes, all of which comprise A’s “probability cloud”.

The reason why in the macroscopic world, we observe things as seemingly causing each other is that microscopic probabilities "pile up", such that even though it is probable that one day you’ll let go of an apple, and it will float upwards, the chance of that happening is so low that you’d have to wait for a whole bunch of lifetimes of the Universe before you observe it. So, yes, causality is regularity, but a very-very strong regularity. (So, ice dissolving in a hot bath is still a law of physics, but it is a probabilistic law. Then again, the probability is so high that you can very well put your money on that happening.)

Now, my question is: can we really have such concepts as “nature” and “miracles”?

To explain:

We could say that either G-d created the laws of nature and let the world run its course (sometimes interfering in a miraculous way) or that He creates every single instance of the world.

I will address the first possibility very briefly. Or, rather, I will quote Rabbi Gottlieb (who is quoting Rav Dessler): “If all you can tell me about cause-and-effect is that ‘it always happens’, and you agree that G-d is the source of the world, aren’t you left with the idea that He makes every single thing happen directly?” (If you don’t follow the logic, keep reading.)

But, according to our tradition, Hashem creates the world every single instance of time. So, that’s not a big chiddush. One could still say that most of the time, He creates the world according to a pattern that He set up Himself (and such events are defined as “natural”), and in other times, He makes an exception to that pattern (i.e., making “miracles”).

So, we can define two modes of Hashem’s relationship with the world: a “natural” one, whereby He creates the world according to a pattern, and a “miraculous” one, whereby He creates [an aspect of] the world outside the pattern.

But then, let’s go back to our question of causality.

Before, when we believed in such a concept as A leading inevitably to B, we could say that whenever A → B happens, that’s nature, and whenever A → *** happens, that’s a miracle. But now that our conception of inevitable relationship between A and B has collapsed and been replaced with “when A happens, it leads to B with high probability”, how do we differentiate between a natural event and a miraculous one? Should we set an arbitrary cut-off point in probability of the event happening, where higher than this probability is “nature” and lower is a “miracle”?

Furthermore, before, we could say that certain events happen by hashgacha klalis, general Providence of G-d, i.e., they come from G-d, but rather “automatically”, according to a pattern He set up, and some happen by hashgacha protis, specific Providence, with His “personal attention”. The natural events’ outcome was “certain”, their nature sealed and pre-ordained by G-d. The miraculous events’ outcomes, however, required G-d’s individual decision which differed from moment to moment. (And I mean here exactly the same event, under exactly same conditions.)

But now that we know that every time A happens, its outcome must pass through a “purple fuzz” of probability (as Rabbi Gottlieb calls it), should we not say that every event demands personal attention from G-d, since its outcome is not sealed at all?

To put it in a different way: before, when we believed in causality, we could say that each event could either find a cause in another event (in this case it was deemed “natural”), or it could be said to have no cause in the world (according to the “laws of nature”), in which case it was happening ex nihilo (by definition) and was “miraculous”.

But now, with every event not really having a cause and only having a certain correlation with another event preceding it in time, all events are happening ex nihilo! All events have to be said to stem from G-d, in a “miraculous”, hashgacha-protisdik way!

Reading this sicho, we discover:
[T]here is a difference of opinion between the approach of the Rambam (and the others who follow the approach of Chakirah, Jewish metaphysics) and the Baal Shem Tov. 
According to the Rambam, G‑d’s involvement in the particulars of the future of any being other than the righteous is “passive”. He has created the natural order, and He has deemed that the natural order control the fate of these entities. 
In contrast, according to the Baal Shem Tov, every element of existence and every slight change that occurs regarding it depends on G‑d’s will and desire, as it is written: “I will conceal My face.” The intent is that only the inner (p’nimiyus) expression of His providence is hidden. Thus a person can convince himself that his difficulties “find him”, that they are part of the natural order or a function of circumstance. In truth, however, every aspect [of his life] is being controlled by Divine providence.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Regarding consciousness

Saying: "Neuroscience cannot explain consciousness" is a little unfair. Yet.

I'll explain why.

First of all, neuroscientists are trying. And haven't been for so long. I.e., Neuroscience still hasn't explained schizophrenia or the role of DNA methylation in adult neurons, but nobody claims that it cannot.

But much more importantly, imagine that Magellan is circumventing the world. He has been given instructions to visit South America, and India, and the mythical land of Australia, and South Africa and the island of Chupacamba.

He comes back and reports not having found the latter. Now: it could be that he sailed right past it in the fog. It could be he received wrong directions. It could be he poshut didn't know how to find it. Or maybe it's difficult to reach, like the North Pole.

Or it could be that the island of Chupacamba doesn't exist.

All of those are fair explanations.

But if Magellan said that in the course of his journey he has not been to the other side of the moon, all of the above assumptions are off the table. Why? Because we didn't expect him to be able to to reach the moon on a ship with sails! It doesn't mean the other side of the moon does not exist.

(The moshol is imperfect. Moon/island existing = consciousness being a brain process.)

For instance, the physiological process accounting for being able to sense dead people or, say, sense magnetic field, is within the reach of Neuroscience. Lobsters have it (both of those abilities). If people claimed such an ability, and Neuroscience (after very-very numerous, long, and careful attempts) couldn't find any basis for such an ability in the brain, that would be interesting...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Libertarianism in parenting

(Warning: the poem read at the beginning has swear-words in it. Just the poem; no swear-words in the interview.)

Whether or not you agree with everything said (I agree with a lot, but not everything), one thing is true: a group that does not produce a lot of offspring does not survive. Hear that, Europe? Or, as I once said to Rabbi Posner (a father of twelve kids) when talking about the Hareidi-MO machloikes: "If they can't convince them, they'll out-breed them".

Not to mention that each child is a blessing.

By the way, my wife didn't get the context of the interview fully, so I will explain it for the audience. Libertarians believe in the concept of non-violence. That is the basis for their political beliefs (they don't hate taking money from the rich to give it to the poor just because it's a stupid economic and sociological policy, but also because it's an act of violence), for their social beliefs, for their educational beliefs and, apparently, for their ideas in parenting.

So, for instance, my wife told me of someone who found about the areas that her kids were not interested in and forced them to excel specifically in those areas, arguing that that would develop them as much as possible, teach them discipline, willpower and going against the current. Whether or not I would agree with this approach (probably not, even though I believe in encouraging one's kids to do such things in certain areas of life, more micro than macro), Libertarians certainly would not.

Soon, in all airports

A really funny Russian clip, in which fiction is mixed with reality. Famous actors are trying to leave Russia to go on vacation to Turkey. But, all modes of travel are blocked off. Russian airports are closed, with charter flights cancelled by the "Ministry of Travel". Russian railways cannot accommodate all the travelers. GAI (Russian traffic-control police) is interfering with travel by car. And so on.

Scene from movies are interspersed with scenes from real life.

The clip ends with: "Soon, in all airports".

Meanwhile, Russia is working hard to maintain its international image of real-life Mordor (I think Iran is runner-up):


I think even Tolkien’s Uruk-hai would seem as High Elves when put side-by-side with Russian cops and politicians, working hard to maintain the thousand-year feudal regime (as everyone knows, the answer to the question of "Why did it take so long for Russia to abolish serfdom?" is: Russian people care about traditions):

Down Russian rivers

Artemiy Lebedev is continuing his journey down Russian rivers. I assume you're not interested in the clip where he went swimming in the shallow waters, and his boat got a part of its engine damaged (afterwards, they spent long time hypothesizing which part it might be, took it apart, realized it was a safety mechanism, and were happy).

This episode, however, I find interesting. I call it the Hellholes of Russia. I am posting the most interesting clip first.

Uchma, or "If you think this museum is bizarre, you should've seen the reality" (also, Karl Marx transformed into a medieval hero):

Myshkin, or "Meeting a woman with verbal diarrhea" ("We have fishing mafia — Five Families that control the fishing of Myshkin Volga. Our fish is the tastiest. Also, the most expensive."):

Kalyazin, or "Reminds me of Pripyat', except there are more ticks there..." (at the beginning of the clip, you see a tower in the middle of a lake, which is the Mage Circle Tower featured in Dragon Age: Origins):

How Russians look when hungover:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hidden and revealed

Everything hidden eventually becomes revealed
— A Russian proverb (warning against lying)

I was thinking this morning about how counter-intuitive the idea of a gene, the basic concept of modern genetics, may seem to someone who encounters it first (or, for instance, to those who encountered this concept when the results of Gregor Mendel's experiments were publicized).

It is intuitive, just from observation, that many aspects of our appearance and behavior are passed to us from our parents (in fact, it's less intuitive that many factors are not genetically determined, or are not solely genetically determined; for instance, how tall or smart one is might be determined as much by the environment as by genes). I look a bit like my mom and a bit like my dad. Both my mom and my dad have nose and eyebrows and chins and eyes, and it makes sense that I should received the information about how to build those parts of me from either of the parents or both.

But my mother, for instance, does not have facial hair. My father does not have certain aspects of female anatomy. Therefore, it seems more intuitive that I should inherit my facial hair (and other primary and secondary male dimorphisms) from my father, and my sister should inherit the female aspects of her anatomy from my mother. How can I inherit anything pertaining to my facial hair from my mom if she doesn't have facial hair herself?

(a particularly striking example of sexual dimorphism — a difference between male and female anatomy; I assume the male is called "parasitic" as a zoological, not socio-political, statement; [source])

In reality, of course, we learn that our appearance is not directly inherited from our parents. My father's beard did not somehow split of and become my beard. There is a hidden layer of reality called genetics (the fact that genes are transmitted through DNA is not relevant; the point is that there is some level of human body's reality that is not immediately visible) that determines the body's appearance and function. It is that level that is passed on.

So, in reality, it is not my father's beard that "causes" my beard. But my father's genes cause his beard; my father's genes cause my genes (by being copied into the egg from which I came), and my genes cause my beard (the influence of the environment notwithstanding).

From this point of view, it makes sense that I can inherit my beard from my mom, so to speak. Because she can have genes for facial hair; just that due to the influence of other genes, these genes are not expressed, remaining "hidden".

* * *

We can apply this idea to Chassidus and to our everyday life with an extremely profound effect on our appreciation of reality.

Sometimes we see connections between events in our life. But in reality, the connection may not be between the physical events themselves, but between their spiritual "causes" — and sometimes, the relationship between the spiritual causes may be very complex, with some of its aspects completely hidden from our appreciation.

Thus, just like people before Gregor Mendel may have thought that I inherit my beard solely from my father, we may think that event A may have been solely caused by event B. Or, for instance, success in business only depends on how much one invests himself in it, not (also) on how hard one davvens.

Furthermore, sometimes the spiritual events may be completely hidden. Something in our life can be to our benefit or detriment, chv"sh, with no immediate effect on our revealed reality. Sometimes the effects may "skip a generation" (or a number of them), which could mean in terms of parents — children — (great-) grandchildren, or even in terms of different gilgulim of the same neshamo, or a pair of neshamos (i.e., perhaps a relationship between two people in their current life is just another chapter in a story that spans a few generations of their gilgulim). I am not just talking about husband and wife; the same may be true for, lehavdil, a murderer and a victim (r"l).

Thinking about the above will not directly answer any questions, of course. But it may have ramifications on our hypothesizing about possible answers to difficult questions. Why do bad things happen to good (or completely innocent) people? Why do infants die? Why are we sometimes lucky, and sometimes unlucky? Why do some Halachic rulings (even in the areas of mishpotim) make little sense? Will eating or not eating "cholov-stam" ice cream really have an effect on anything? And so on...

On a more intellectual level, appreciation of (sometimes hidden) relationship between the spiritual and the physical may instill some humility into those who study the physical (for a living or in passing).

Monday, July 18, 2011

Cause-and-effect vs. epiphenomena

Some people seem to confuse these concepts.

Cause-and-effect statement: My wife and I came to Rabinowitzes. The children were happy.

What I am saying is that children were happy as a result of my wife and me visiting them. One event led to another, with two events being completely separate.

Epiphenomenological statement: My wife and I helped out with the children. She played with the girls; I played with the boys.

In here, the second statement is the same as the first statement; it just provides more details. The two of us helping out with children and my wife playing with girls are not two separate events.

Now, let's see if we can give some examples of the two statements from science.
(1) The faster the molecules of air in the room move, the greater the room's temperature. 
(2) If you heat up the reaction, the beaker will explode.
In the first statement, I am not saying that change in temperature (and by that I mean an objective property of the room's air, not my perception) is caused by the change in molecules' velocity. A leads to B. No, what I am saying is that "temperature" is the same phenomenon as "molecules' movement" (more or less). The more movement, the more temperature, because they are two different ways of describing the same phenomenon.

In the second statement, I am saying that one event (supplying thermal energy to a reaction) will lead to another event (explosion of the beaker). The two events are not the same. There is, therefore, a causal relationship between them.

Now, let's see if we can guess which of the two statements the following are:
Friction is a result of interaction of the molecules of two surfaces.
Doing a mitzva increases oiros and keilim in Atzilus. 

Pnimiyus ha'keili

In Chassidus, there are three basic components of spheroes, the specific expressions of Hashem in Seider Hishtalshelus:

1. Oir Ein Soif — Infinite Light of Hashem
2. Pnimiyus ha'Keili — the Essence of a Vessel
3. Chitzoinius ha'Keili — the outer aspect of the Vessel

It makes sense the the Vessels should be of a lower level than the Light. Light is infinite, simple and expresses Hashem. Vessels are finite, have specific properties or aspects (or, rather, because of them the specific aspects of Light that had been so far hidden in potential are expressed), and conceal and define/shape the Light. Vessels come from Hashem's Potential Not to Shine (Yecholto SheLoi L'hoir), while the Lights come from Hashem's Potential to Shine (Yecholto L'hoir).

On the other hand, if you look at the specific sub-divions of the Vessels, something interesting is revealed: the second level in the enumeration above, the Essence of the Vessels, is not only higher than the outer aspect of the Vessels; it's even higher than the Infinite Light itself!

How are we to understand this?

From Kabbalistic point of view, we can explain it this way. The essence of the vessels is the reason, the motivating force of their action, while their outer aspect is the action itself. The Infinite Light is an expression of Hashem. The ultimate desire of Hashem, however, is that His expression reaches its specific target in the Seider Hishtalshelus. For this reason, the Light must be limited and shaped.

Therefore, as we learn from Kabbala of Arizal and from hemshech Ayin Beis of Rebbe Rashab, the force that motivates the action of the Vessels is actually mushrash b'Atzmus — its source is in the Essence of Hashem! Therefore, it makes sense that it is higher than the Light; since Essence of Hashem is infinitely higher than His expression through the Light, the "motivating force" for the keilim that stems from it (and becomes pnimiyus ha'keilim) is also higher than the Light.

* * *

To give an example from music, a melody consists of notes. Notes result from a string being divided — for instance, by pressing on it at a specific spot with a finger. Where exactly the string is divided determines what frequency it will vibrate at, which determines the note. If you only divide the string, however, no music will result. The string also has to start vibrating (through someone plucking it, or bowing, or striking it with a little hammer).

So, there are two aspects to making a note: the vibration of the string and the fact that it is divided and thus is vibrating at a particular frequency (pitch). [Of course, there is also how hard it is plucked, which determines the volume of the note, but we won't go there.]

So, division of the string is the keili, and its vibration is the oir.

But there is a third component: the one who divides the string. The purpose of the division. That is the pnimiyus ha'keili.

* * *

One can also give an example from a relationship. Let's say, one buys flowers for his wife. Why does he buy them? Because he wants her to feel nice. So, the intention is the oir, and the flowers are the keili, the way of expressing that intention. But there is the third component: remembering to buy the specific flowers that the wife likes. That's pnimiyus ha'keili.

And perhaps we can say that remembering which flowers she likes (or what kind of specific favor she wants at the moment) is even higher than the whole act of buying flowers altogether.

Different devils

Interesting difference between the portrayal of the Satan in Russian and American movies.

Russian (the content is not important; I am more interested in look and feel of the character):


Depressive animals

As we know from Tanya, depression comes from Nefesh Ha'Bahamis, and it takes Nefesh Elokis to battle. So much the harder this is to do so for those who don't have the latter.
Interfax: A ferret and a monkey ran away from Chita's cirque chapiteau, followed by an Australian necklace parrot.
As the creative director of the circus Janna Lazerson told to news reporters, the cause of the escape is depression caused by bad weather: "We think that the animals escaped due to depression, since it has been raining hard in Chita."
According to Lazerson, only the monkey was found. It was discovered sleeping in a cage with a dog, which the monkey was hugging in its sleep. The two other escapees have not been found yet.
Creative director of the circus explained that the parrot is missed by the female parrot, who was his partner during the show. According to Lazerson, the trained ferret could go for a visit to one of Chita's families. She mentioned that the main features of the ferret are laziness and gluttony.
Representatives of chapiteau hope that in the nearest time, the ferret and the parrot will return to the circus. 
I can't figure out if this is for real or a joke.

Update: according to this article, the ferret was discovered in the city park by one of the city's citizens. The ferret was hand-trained and friendly, "knew how to open doors and responded to a clap on the leg". (The reason why in the above article it was hypothesized that it would go looking for humans is that it is both lazy and gluttonous and thus seeks human contact. I was planning to make some politically incorrect joke here about liberals and minorities, but felt too lazy to do it...) It was brought to a local zoo, where it was fed and put to bed, until the owners of the circus came to claim him.

The parrot is still missing. Its female friend really misses him. If the parrot is reading this, he should consider at least sending her a message.

P.S. I am really annoyed at how unbalanced the colors and brightness/contrast are in the above picture, but I don't have ImageJ on this computer. I will fix it when I get home, iyH.

P.P.S. The bottom line is: even the animals are depressed in Russia. I mean, sure, blame the bad weather. I don't hear of animals escaping English zoos.

Blast from the past

Looking through my old e-mail messages, found these pictures in a draft. I am not sure why I had wanted to share them in the first place, and why I never did. But here they are:

(on the left — former Russian President and current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin)

[source censored due to past nisht pictures; re-open the above pictures to see the source url]

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Three men in a boat, Russian version

This post is not sarcastic or critical of Russian culture. There are still intelligent and talented — if wacky — people left in Russia. The designer Artemiy Lebedev who organized ethnographic expedition down Russian rivers is one of them.

Preparation (the labels you see on the sides of the boat are from the companies that sponsor the expedition, which, in turn, provides an advertisement for them):

I like the part where he goes through the junk food and says: "No expedition can go without this."

Passing through river locks (if you get bored, you can skip down to a more interesting third video or to Jerome K. Jerome's humorous description of passing through 19th-century English locks):

Morning of the third day (the most picturesque of the three videos):

As Lebedev posts more videos, so shall I (perhaps).

Speaking of river locks (source):

For myself, I am fond of locks.  They pleasantly break the monotony of the pull.  I like sitting in the boat and slowly rising out of the cool depths up into new reaches and fresh views; or sinking down, as it were, out of the world, and then waiting, while the gloomy gates creak, and the narrow strip of day-light between them widens till the fair smiling river lies full before you, and you push your little boat out from its brief prison on to the welcoming waters once again.They are picturesque little spots, these locks.  The stout old lock-keeper, or his cheerful-looking wife, or bright-eyed daughter, are pleasant folk to have a passing chat with.  You meet other boats there, and river gossip is exchanged.  The Thames would not be the fairyland it is without its flower-decked locks. 
Talking of locks reminds me of an accident George and I very nearly had one summer’s morning at Hampton Court.
It was a glorious day, and the lock was crowded; and, as is a common practice up the river, a speculative photographer was taking a picture of us all as we lay upon the rising waters. 
I did not catch what was going on at first, and was, therefore, extremely surprised at noticing George hurriedly smooth out his trousers, ruffle up his hair, and stick his cap on in a rakish manner at the back of his head, and then, assuming an expression of mingled affability and sadness, sit down in a graceful attitude, and try to hide his feet. 
My first idea was that he had suddenly caught sight of some girl he knew, and I looked about to see who it was.  Everybody in the lock seemed to have been suddenly struck wooden.  They were all standing or sitting about in the most quaint and curious attitudes I have ever seen off a Japanese fan.  All the girls were smiling.  Oh, they did look so sweet!  And all the fellows were frowning, and looking stern and noble. 
And then, at last, the truth flashed across me, and I wondered if I should be in time.  Ours was the first boat, and it would be unkind of me to spoil the man’s picture, I thought. 
So I faced round quickly, and took up a position in the prow, where I leant with careless grace upon the hitcher, in an attitude suggestive of agility and strength.  I arranged my hair with a curl over the forehead, and threw an air of tender wistfulness into my expression, mingled with a touch of cynicism, which I am told suits me. 
As we stood, waiting for the eventful moment, I heard someone behind call out:
“Hi! look at your nose.” 
I could not turn round to see what was the matter, and whose nose it was that was to be looked at.  I stole a side-glance at George’s nose!  It was all right—at all events, there was nothing wrong with it that could be altered.  I squinted down at my own, and that seemed all that could be expected also. 
“Look at your nose, you stupid ass!” came the same voice again, louder. 
And then another voice cried:
“Push your nose out, can’t you, you—you two with the dog!” 
Neither George nor I dared to turn round.  The man’s hand was on the cap, and the picture might be taken any moment.  Was it us they were calling to?  What was the matter with our noses?  Why were they to be pushed out! 
But now the whole lock started yelling, and a stentorian voice from the back shouted:
“Look at your boat, sir; you in the red and black caps.  It’s your two corpses that will get taken in that photo, if you ain’t quick.” 
We looked then, and saw that the nose of our boat had got fixed under the woodwork of the lock, while the in-coming water was rising all around it, and tilting it up.  In another moment we should be over.  Quick as thought, we each seized an oar, and a vigorous blow against the side of the lock with the butt-ends released the boat, and sent us sprawling on our backs.The photographWe did not come out well in that photograph, George and I.  
Of course, as was to be expected, our luck ordained it, that the man should set his wretched machine in motion at the precise moment that we were both lying on our backs with a wild expression of “Where am I? and what is it?” on our faces, and our four feet waving madly in the air. 
Our feet were undoubtedly the leading article in that photograph.  Indeed, very little else was to be seen.  They filled up the foreground entirely.  Behind them, you caught glimpses of the other boats, and bits of the surrounding scenery; but everything and everybody else in the lock looked so utterly insignificant and paltry compared with our feet, that all the other people felt quite ashamed of themselves, and refused to subscribe to the picture. 
The owner of one steam launch, who had bespoke six copies, rescinded the order on seeing the negative.  He said he would take them if anybody could show him his launch, but nobody could.  It was somewhere behind George’s right foot. 
There was a good deal of unpleasantness over the business.  The photographer thought we ought to take a dozen copies each, seeing that the photo was about nine-tenths us, but we declined.  We said we had no objection to being photo’d full-length, but we preferred being taken the right way up.

Messed up nation

Background: Moscow government decided to chop down some trees in a park in front of a few apartment buildings to build a parking lot. The people who lived in those buildings — some of whom planted those trees themselves or grew up playing among them — got angry. (This, as an aside, is a beautiful illustration of how well the concept of "public property" works.) Also, they wanted to prevent the rest of the park from being destroyed.

As a protest against chopping down the trees, the people blocked a major highway that runs by the apartment building. People in the cars got angry. People from the apartment building got angry. The government was no longer the villain here: it was one group of people against the other. Not letting people to get to the airport. Driving through the crowds. Pulling out people from the cars and beating them up. Sitting on cars in front of windshield wipers. And so on.



I have always said: people get what they deserve. Yes, Russian society has always been "ruled" by psychopathic lunatics that made their people's lives hell. But it was the people themselves who tolerated these lunatics, and, having gotten rid of them, elected new lunatics of almost exactly the same character. (Psychopathic tzars got replaced by psychopathic communists who got replaced by Putin.)

From reading Russian literature and from my own experience of living in that society for half my life, I get the impression that there have always been two Russias, one (in minority) alongside the other. Now, after the borders have been open for two decades, and most Jews and Russian intelligentsia have been leaving the country, I expect Russia to go into the dumpster.

— I have kids at home.
— Everyone has kids at home.

Typical Russian logic. "My life is messed up, so I will mess up your life and feel justified doing so."

I have always said that Russia is a perfect society to implement libertarianism, but I am actually having my doubts. Giving these people freedom is like giving a gun to a monkey (or a group of them).


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Talking heads

I love it when liberals say phrases like "talking heads on Fox". Look at the guy they elected.

BHO in 1999:


So, 2013... after he's re-elected? And after that... deluge?


Friday, July 15, 2011

Something that everyone seems to be missing...

Two horrible things happened. First, an innocent child was slaughtered. I hope that his family and all Yidden shall be consoled. And his neshama won't linger much before entering the Gan Eiden. Whatever tikkun it was supposed to accomplish in this world, it surely has done so. And something good will come into this world as a result of this tragedy, not just hidden and wrapped in mystery, but also in a revealed way.

But there is another side to this story. A person whose soul is literally a piece of G-dliness above committed a terrible, horrible crime. It doesn't matter if he is mentally ill, or if he did it deliberately. Whatever it was, it was his out "garments" that lead him to the murder. And buried deep inside him, there is that spark of Holiness, plunged into a dark, painful exile, screaming out in horror every second at what he has done.

(Read the "Note" at the end here.)

We must cry out and pray to Hashem and complain that just like this act was senseless and evil, this exile is also senseless and evil, and it must end. Not just because we are suffering, spiritually and physically. But because Hashem's Presence is in exile and darkness. And this is not right. It must not continue.

Everyone that feels empathy to Leiby's parents and the horror of this situation must realize that the global situation in which we have been living since the start of this final golus two thousand years ago is equally or even more horrible. And no matter how comfortable we are, physically or spiritually, no matter how many yeshivos we build, or how safe we are, we cannot be consoled until Beis HaMikdosh is here, Moshiach Tzidkeinu is revealed, and the world is full of knowledge of G-d as the oceans are full of water.

Yud Beis Tammuz and Parshas Pinchas

Farbrenging today in the local shull, with Rabbi Lieberman, Rabbi Yaffe and Rabbi Krinsky (and other chassidim), I heard the following idea:

Many people wish to portray Pinchas as a radical. Or as a first revolutionary. The truth is: he was not a radical. Before he did what he did he consulted with Moshe Rabbeinu, asking him: "Didn't you tell us...?" And then he did something which was, on the surface, extreme. But he did not do it for the purpose of being extreme, or a zealot, or a radical. He did it because it was necessary at the moment.

The same can be said about the Frierdiker Rebbe. On Tuesday, I picked up my grandmother, who, boruch Hashem, had come to US for a visit from Israel. She told me that in our city, in Ukraine, there were many frum families who were not able to pass on their frumkeit fully, because the process of passing was crushed by the Soviets. Speaking in Yiddish could hurt one's prospects at work, in school, or in one's social circles. In secular schools, children obviously were not taught Yiddishkeit, but, what was worse, they were implanted with anti-Jewish ideas. (And the parents that did not send their kids to the government schools could be jailed or worse.) Shulls, schools, mikvehs were closed. My grandmother said: everyone lived in fear. Rabbis of the city (including the Rebbe's father) had been arrested.

So, there were Yidden who remained frum, in private. There was a schochet, to whom our family (and others) brought chickens to be schechted, but he sent his kids to the government school, gave them Russian names, then sent them to universities to get secular professions, and who knows if his kids grew up frum or remained frum.

So, one can't really blame the families for letting go of their Yiddishkeit under the conditions. People retained what they could, but their survival was their first priority.

On the other hand, Frierdiker Rebbe went on the path of mesirus nefesh and demanded the same from his chassidim. He demanded that they did not send their kids to secular schools (and many would not, despite knowing that they were going to be sent to Siberia). He would send a telegram to a chossid to become a melamed. In two months, the chossid would get arrested. Frierdiker Rebbe would then send another telegram to another chossid to replace the first one. And the story would repeat itself.

And he himself lived on the level of mesirus nefesh, for which he was jailed, beaten, and almost murdered by the Communists, y"sh. But, even while being jailed, he did not give in to them. He would speak Yiddish. He would demand his tallis and tefillin. When he had left Russia, he left after himself an underground network of chassidim keeping Yiddishkeit alive, like heat burning inside a coal, ready to spring into a full flame. And I saw that happen. When the Rebbe's shliach came to my city in early 90s, the effect on the Jews of the city was that of bringing a match close to a powder keg.

Frierdiker Rebbe and his chassidim lived on the level of everyday mesirus nefesh. But that was not because they were radicals. That was because it was what was necessary. They did not seek out mesirus nefesh like Rabbi Akiva. They just served Eibeshter b'emes. And when they encountered a need to do mesirus nefesh, they did it, like Avraham Avinu (which, the Rebbe says in his first ma'amor Bosi L'Gani, is a higher level of avoida).

So, nowadays, in America, we also encounter need to live on the level of mesirus nefesh. For each person, it includes different things. Keeping Halacha. Keeping Halacha b'hidur. Learning more than we are accustomed to. Davening every day. Davening b'kavana every day. Not speaking during davening. Learning Chitas and Rambam. Keeping a higher standard of kashrus. Not eating food with unpeeled vegetables on Peisach. Not saying loshon horah. Being nice to others and giving them benefit of the doubt. Controlling yourself and not getting angry. Sending one's kids to a Jewish school. Sending one's kids to a better Jewish school with worse secular program and then supplementing their secular education with private lessons. Approaching someone to do a mitzva, though you're not comfortable. The list goes on...

For each person, at different moment of his or her life, it's something different, and once one reaches a certain level, it's important to continue pushing oneself further. As Reb Zushe said: "They won't ask me: 'Why weren't you Avraham Avinu?' They will ask me: 'Why weren't you Zushe?'"

All these things to us are mesirus nefesh, because we are giving up an aspect of our lives, an aspect of our identity, or desires and thoughts for Hashem. Other people (our friends, our family members) will say that we are radicals. That we are crazy. That there are people who are perfectly frum and don't do X or Y.

But we are not doing this because we are radicals or are crazy. (And it is important to make sure that we takeh are not being radicals — because then it's not frumkeit, but ga'ava. I am talking about taking extra chumros, etc.) We are doing this because this is emes. Because this is what is necessary nowadays.

How do we know what's necessary? We have a Rebbe.

We are not asked to do much. But for us, that's everything. And so it is for Hashem and for the Rebbe. As my rabbi's father said, we are not just the heels of Am Yisroel. We are the dead skin on the heels. But we are the ones who will bring Moshiach.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Don cossacks and Italian children

The song's contents:

In boundless steppe, with –40 degree temperature, Tzar's cossacks are travelling. In woolly hats and in boots, they are trying to get towards river Don. But one of them, Popov, is sniffing, sniffing, and gets stuck in the snow. Popov has everything: woolly hat and boots — but, it turns out this is not enough.

Brave cossacks with curly mustache keep walking forward, but Popov is not among them. He lies breathless, curled up. What a loser is this poor Popov! But, Popov does not give up; he lies a little and then starts going on his stomach towards river Don.

Hey, Popov! Cossacks don't travel this way!

But, the cossacks are tired. Their mustache are frozen. And they haven't reached river Don. In the boundless steppe, with the –40 degree temperature, they turned to stone from the frost.

But Popov did not lose heart. Like a snowball, he rolled towards the river. And was the only one to reach river Don.

And now the song, in Italian:


Interestingly, the little boy is now a member of Italian parliament. I guess he took to heart the idea of hopeless enterprises in a company of idiots.

Here is a cartoon version of this song, in which Popov (called Popoff by the Westerners) is, for some reason, a dog:

More on Don Cossacks: "Brotherly Love".

And the pseudo-karaoke that I had promised (the karaoke's joke makes sense only to those who know Russian, Soviet songs, and Russian history, so basically almost nobody who reads this blog, but that's fine, since I post these things for myself anyway):

Monday, July 11, 2011

Meriting Eliyahu

(a re-post)

The cartoon above is interesting, because it’s possible to interpret it in a number of ways. If you’re an eidel Jew, you can take what the cartoon says, and what the message of Baal Shem Tov was, literally: there is G-d (and Eliyahu) not just in sitting on your bench the whole day learning Gemara, but also in doing a mitzva, out there in the world. In other words, ein od milvado, without exceptions.

On the other hand, if you’re a grub apikores, it’s possible to say that revelation of Eliyahu and all that holy stuff is merely a metaphor for doing a good deed. As I was thinking while driving just now (incidentally, to do a mitzva), a religious scientist tries hard to see G-d in the world. A secular scientists thinks what he is studying is G-d. A chassidic scientist knows both of them are right. (A Lubavitcher scientists knows why and how they are both right.)

And so the lesson is (going back to the cartoon) that this is why Alter Rebbe created Chassidus Chabad. Because Ba’al Shem Tov’s Torah and its message, ein od milvado, are too eidel for a regular grub person. They need to be chewed; they need to be explained such that a person sees not Martin Buber’s version of Ba’al Shem Tov’s Chassidus, but, lehavdil, Torah version.

But another point is that there is an advantage in Talmud Bavli over Talmud Yerushalmi, even though that advantage comes as a result of a lower spiritual level. When a person comes into a lit room, he sees where the exit it and goes straight towards it. When a person comes into a dark room, he has to tap his way towards the exist. He taps, he taps, he taps. He gets to know every object in the room, intimately, by touch. Sure, it takes him longer to go through the room, but once he is through, he knows more about this room than about the lit one.

Therefore: when you have a question about something that the Rebbe did, don't hesitate to ask it.

More on the topic:
Love is Not Enough
Uniqueness of Chassidus Chabad

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Market vs. state


From the comments:

Those NASA rockets?
They are too expensive and wasteful to actually be used in any practical way. Most of our communication satellites are put into space by Russian and Chinese rockets, not American ones.
Instead of using expensive liquid nitrogen fuel, the biggest of those ‘communist’ rockets use kerosene to launch our communication satellites into orbit.
NASA is so corrupt and worthless at actually being a space agency that the USA has been long been surpassed by Asia for practical space flight.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Defend yourself

Russian poster:

“Everything is solved much more easily. I do not call 02.” (Russian equivalent of 911.)

The image is in response to a story where nine Russian settlers of the village Sagra defended themselves against sixty Azerbaijanian drug dealers who were angry at the villagers’ having kicked out a drug dealer from their village.

The response of Russian “authorities” is brilliant: they are trying to figure out if it’s possible to put the villagers in prison for not waiting for the police. Unable to prove that the villager Zubarev who killed one of the drug dealers committed murder, the police are trying to prove that this was “a case of hooliganism”.

Instructions, in Russian, how to get yourself a legal gun (I like the mottos in Latin letters, such as “Si vis pacem, para bellum”):

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Kum aher, du filozof


A rather funny post on the practice of writing to Igros (re-formatted and corrected for spelling mistakes by yours truly):
I was having big shaalos about this whole Igros issue, pro and con, so I decided to ask the Rebbe: 
I took a volume at random, opened up to a page and I found a letter against "segulos"! (Vol. 14, p. 394). 
But — being skeptical (and it doesn't always work the first time) — I tried again. This time I grabbed another volume, opened it, and found a letter dealing with Tomim thiyeh im Hashem (and not segolos, chochmos hayad, etc.) — vol. 15, p. 64.
I wasn't satisfied, and having heard something about asking three times, I decided to try again. With bated breath, I went to my bookshelf, closed my eyes, took a volume, opened to a page, and slowly opened my eyes. Leaping out of the page at me, w[ere] the words: "Go away from this; if you davka want a sefer segulos, there is the trusted segulo, our holy Torah," etc., and he again brings the posuk Tomim thiyeh im Hashem! — Vol. 10, p. 184.
My question: Is this my answer, or do I try again?
This is all ignoring the issue whether Igros actually works (which could have three or four possibilities). The question is whether it's appropriate to use it this way. Secondly, as one of my rabbis says, of course it's appropriate to use the Igros! If you have a question about having shidduch doubts, or looking for parnosso, or animal cruelty, you search what answers the Rebbe gave to people regarding your specific question.

Another interesting post based on the interview of Rav Braun about the instances when he is asked a sha'alah about the content of Igros "divination". And there is the shiur by Rabbi Paltiel at the end of which he says that the practice of writing to Igros is similar to a practice of asking nevi'im too often. Which is ossur. Not because it's not effective, chv"sh, but because it goes against the concept of "Tomim tihiye".

Finally, if you listen to Rabbi Gottlieb, the sin of the golden calf was not avoida zorah. It was the fact that Yidden did not listen to their Rebbe and started looking for their own "solutions".

Without future, there is no past

I love this: “Scientists and astrologists predict terrible future for Russia”. Which, if you read the article (not recommended), means: “Unstable economic and political situation and hot summers with forest fires.”

So... terrible future, not to be confused with the similar present? I don’t think one needs to be a scientist or an astrologist to say: “In the nearest future, things in Russia will stay just as bad and might very likely get worse.” One just needs to know basic history.

From here:
Russian forests constitute 22 percent of the world's total woodlands, an area larger than the continental United States. "Our planet has two lungs — the Amazon rain forest and the Siberian taiga," said Vladimir Gandzha of Russia's Nature Protection Society, the nation's oldest environmental group. "The latter is blazing now."

A top government official accused illegal loggers of starting some of the Siberian fires to conceal the traces of their work. "They set it all afire — and covered it all up," Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov was quoted by the Itar-Tass news agency as saying.
Brilliant. I am surprised he didn’t mention the "agents of the Western regimes". Whose fault is it that Soviet agricultural system failed? Foreign capitalists and lazy peasants, of course.

Some background on the Russian forest fires and their causes: 2010.

Photographic art and artistic photography

Which of these two do you think is a photograph and which is a painting?


(sources [spoilers!]: Joe Simpson, original, and a sketch)

Dense intellectual climate

A “beautiful” story of a European pseudo-journalist and malaria-stricken natives.

In one of his comments, the author speaks about “dense intellectual climate of France”. What a fitting description.

(I don’t really see what the outrage is all about. So, it’s fake. So what? How is this radically different from the rest of journalism nowadays? It’s not fake; it’s “creative”.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On the tails of spring

From Wikipedia article about springtails:
Various sources and publications have suggested that some springtails may parasitize humans, but this is entirely inconsistent with their biology, and no such phenomenon has ever been scientifically confirmed, though it has been documented that the scales or hairs from collembolans can cause irritation when rubbed onto the skin.[36] They may sometimes be abundant indoors in damp places such as bathrooms and basements, and incidentally found on one's person.
    More often, claims of persistent human skin infection by springtails may indicate a neurological problem, such as Morgellons Syndrome, or delusory parasitosis, a psychological rather than entomological problem. Researchers themselves may be subject to psychological phenomena. For example, a publication in 2004 claiming that springtails had been found in skin samples was later determined to be a case of pareidolia; that is, no springtail specimens were actually recovered, but the researchers had digitally enhanced photos of sample debris to create images resembling small arthropod heads, which then were claimed to be springtail remnants.[36][37] However, Hopkin reports one instance of an entomologist aspirating an Isotoma species and in the process accidentally inhaling some of their eggs, which hatched in his nasal cavity and made him quite ill until they were flushed out.[11]

Still, better than fleas: