Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Chag Ha-Camping Out

Of the mitzvot d'oraitha - biblically-mandated commandments - that are applicable in modern times, few are as widely ignored by otherwise religious Jews as is the requirement for men to sleep in the sukkah during the festival of Sukkot.

We all build sukkot, we all eat our meals in them unless it's raining, and many are careful to avoid even snacking outside the sukkah. But remark to someone about how well you slept the night before, and more often than not you'll elicit reactions of surprise, even discomfort.

"Oh, you sleep in the sukkah?" "Well, I kind of figure it's a mitzvah d'oraitha."

Often these are people who are very finicky about choosing their lulav and etrog and would rather order the fruit salad than risk an inferior hechsher.

It's not entirely clear when or why sukkah-sleeping fell out of common practice among Ashkenazim, though many halachic authorities consider it to be the essence of the mitzvah of sukkah, far more significant then eating there. Presumably the cold October climate in many northern countries, combined with dangers Jews often faced from the societies around then, were seen to constitute a "discomfort" exemption to sukkah-dwelling.

I certainly never slept in the sukkah when I was growing up. As far as I know, neither did my friends or their fathers - regardless of how religious they were in other respects.

With rare exceptions, this is a mitzvah I've only started observing since making aliyah. In Israel, neither the weather nor the neighbors are usually a concern this time of year. Sukkah-shluffing is clearly far more common here than overseas. Still, I wonder how many congregants in my synagogue sleep in their sukkahs. Not many, I suspect.

Even in chutz la'aretz, though, the mitigating circumstances do not necessarily still apply. Heating is safe and affordable, as is Thinsulate. Pogroms remain rare, especially in suburbia. What remains is the "weird factor" - who ever heard of sleeping in a sukkah in this day and age? - and the "bourgeois factor" - I don't mind a chilly picnic with bees for the mitzvah, but I'm not about sleep out in the cold with creepy noises!

The difference between eating in the sukkah and sleeping in it is like the difference between a picnic and a campout. There is a vast difference in the degree of exposure the elements, the sensation of vulerability, the awareness of one's dependence on God, and, in general, the ability to identify with the experiences of the Israelites in the desert, which Sukkot commemorates. They didn't have comfortable homes to move back to between meals.

If you have a sukkah, all you need to add is a folding bed, mattress, or good sleeping bag. You might want some mosquito repellent, or, if it's cold or noisy, earmuffs. Depending on how you sleep and when the sun rises, you might not even need an alarm clock.

This Wednesday night's forecast calls for a low of 56F and clear in New York City, 60F with scattered clouds in Los Angeles, 46F (brrr) and clear in Chicago. Even dreary London is expecting 53F (12C) and cloudy.

Personally, in Israel I'm looking forward to a balmy 77F (26C) and clear. Nyah!

I hope you join me. Clouds permitting, I guarantee you a beautiful full moon.

(Don't try this in Florida, though! Stay safe and dry!)

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Emulating the angels

There is a well-known Jewish tradition that on Yom Kippur we strive to emulate the angels: We abstain from physical pleasures (food, drink, washing, leather shoes, marital intimacy), we wear simple white clothes, and we stand for long periods of silent prayer. In this, we demonstrate our desire to free ourselves from domination by our physical needs, to be, like the angels, humbly obedient to God and innocent of sin.

This imagery is very beautiful. There's only one problem.

It doesn't work.

However I try, after spending 25 hours without eating, drinking or washing, much of it standing in uncomfortable shoes, I don't feel like an angel. I feel hungry, thirsty, dirty, weak and achy.

I can ignore those feelings to an extent, but they won't go away. Persistent angel-emulation would quickly leave me bedridden, ill, and, before long, dead.

In case you hadn't realized, there's a tiny but crucial difference between me and an angel. Angels, I understand, have no physical bodies and thus no need or desire for physical pleasures. I do, and I'd like to keep it that way.

The more I try to behave as if I don't, the more I succeed in proving the opposite.

I suspect that's the real point of the angel-emulating metaphor. Our day of ersatz angelhood only serves to demonstrate how unlike angels we really are. We are physical beings, with all their intrinsic vulnerabilities and weaknesses. We cannot change that, however much we might wish to.

Were God to have wanted unquestioning, unerring, obedient servants, he would have created us as angels, not as weak and fallible men. As men, though we can strive to perfect our behavior, we will inevitably fall short - often far short - of God's demands.

On Yom Kippur, we implicitly beseech God to judge us as the men we are, not as the angels we cannot be.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Heroes - theirs and ours

According to police and eyewitness accounts, the female bomber, her face nearly completely covered in a headscarf, was approaching the heavily-guarded bus stop at Jerusalem's northern French Hill intersection just before 3:40 p.m. when she was stopped by one of the two border policemen stationed at the adjacent hitchhiking station who was suspicious of her. When the security officer asked to see her identity papers, and to open her bag for inspection, the bomber began arguing with him, and then almost immediately set off the three to five kilograms of shrapnel-packed explosives she was wearing on her back.

"The operation of the border police officers today in Jerusalem prevented a very big attack at the bus stop," Jerusalem police chief Ilan Franco said at the scene of the explosion.

The late-afternoon blast completely gutted the hitchhiking station, sending chunks of human flesh flying into the city's main northern thoroughfare, and spraying shards of glass onto the busy road that leads out of Jerusalem.

Our heroes: The two border policemen killed in the blast, Corporal Mamoya Tahio, 20 from Rehovot and Corporal Menashe Komemi, 19, of Moshav Aminadav on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

Their "heroine": The suicide terrorist, 18-year-old Zainab Abu Salem from the Askar refugee camp near Nablus (Shechem), sent by the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades, a branch of Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

What's Arabic for "Infield Fly Rule"?

It was a perfect evening for baseball. Parents crunched pistachios to the ding of aluminum bats. Soldiers from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade stood guard at the soccer field-turned-baseball diamond, with a Humvee parked at each outfield foul pole and another sitting just beyond the center field fence.

The children — Kurds, Turkomen and one Arab — belted line drives, scooped up grounders — and booted a few, too. Parents cheered as their boys chased down fly balls and hurled them home, where overzealous runners were tagged out.

Who says the U.S. hasn't improved the quality of life in Iraq?

With the final out on opening day, Diller, the winning pitcher, and his teammates ran off the field, their arms in the air, shouting "Nawruz, Nawruz!"

"I like this game. It's better than soccer," he said.

Hear, hear! When can we expect a road trip to Israel?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Finding the real culprits

When things have settled a bit, I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere. Whatever it takes to identify them and bring them in, I will provide somehow.
-O. J. Simpson, October 3, 1995

If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story. Any time I'm wrong, I want to be right out front and say, "Folks, this is what went wrong and how it went wrong."
-Dan Rather, September 15, 2004

Impromptus in Israel

Heads up: National Review's Jay Nordlinger has just completed a five-part series of comments on his recent trip to Israel: I, II, III, IV and V. A bit cliched, but worth a look.

Rosh Hashana and the new moon (I)

Rosh Hashana is the only major Jewish festival which falls on the first day of the Jewish (lunar) month; that is, at the new moon. Passover and Sukkot, the calendar's most prominent celebrations, both start on the 15th, at the full moon, while Shavuot and Yom Kippur take place while the moon is waxing.

This has both symbolic and practical significance. Jewish sources tend to see the moon as symbolic of the Jewish people, with the sun symbolizing the world in general, and foreign empires in particular. The sun shines powerfully and constantly (despite rare eclipses), representing the overwhelming power and constancy of global superpowers throughout history (though their identity changes).

The moon, though the same apparent size as the sun, is always much dimmer, shining with cool reflected light, visible primarily at night when the sun is absent. Most significantly, the moon waxes and wanes, cycling through phases from invisibility to full strength. This is seen as symbolic of the Jewish people; though at times weak to the point of insignificance and always much less prominent than the powerful nations, we will in due time be blessed to return to our full strength.

Thus, Passover and Sukkot, celebrating the redemption of the Jewish nation from Egypt, are appropriately scheduled when the moon is full. Furthermore, both are set for the equinoxes, when the day and night are equal, with the sun and the full moon sharing the 24-hour cycle evenly. The moon and the sun, like the day and the night, or the winter and the summer, are at a rare point of balance.

Rosh Hashana, by contrast, is primarily not about the Jewish people in particular. It marks the creation of the world with a coronation of God as the King of the Universe and Supreme Judge. All creatures pass before Him in judgment; all beings acknowledge his sovereignty. Appropriately, on Rosh Hashana the moon is nowhere to be seen. It is a day of universality, of the constancy and power of the sun.

More on the practical implications in a separate post, God willing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Mega-terror and the threat to Israel

I've been meaning to comment on the horrific terrorist assault on the school in Beslan, Russia.

Set aside for now the inconceivable brutality of the Chechen terrorists, and questions about the Russian authorities' handling of the situation. What's most striking about the attack is the complex planning it required.

Dozens of terrorists, precisely coordinated, stashed massive quantities of weaponry and explosives in a school complex, and then, on the busiest day of the year, took over the building and held over a thousand children and adults hostage.

This is far from the first operation of such complexity. There was the 2002 Moscow theatre siege, the March 2004 Madrid bombings of four trains with ten bombs, and, of course, the September 11 attacks themselves. These operations and others like them have displayed detailed planning and disciplined training.

Which makes me wonder: If I'm a Palestinian terrorist, how does that make me feel? While they surely should not be belittled, the Palestinian gangs look like rank amateurs compared with their Chechen or al-Qaeda counterparts. When you're bombing the occasional bus or cafe, or shooting at targets of opportunity, how do you feel about the Beslan operation? Awe? Envy? Frustration? Inspiration?

So why hasn't Israel seen attacks on this scale, what the security services call "megaterror"? I can suggest a few answers:

1. They've tried and failed, thank God. The May 2002 Pi Gelilot attack, if successful, could have sent the whole fuel depot up in a massive fireball, endangering hundreds or even thousands of area residents. Other terror plots have been foiled by security services.

2. Most of the Palestinian terror gangs, despite cooperation and training from Hizbullah, really are opportunistic amateurs who lack the discipline to pull off what their fellow global terrorists have accomplished. Let's hope this is true, at least for the most part.

3. There's a cost-benefit calculation at work, at least implicitly.

With the large number of hostile Palestinian Arabs living side by side with Israelis, and in many places intermingled with us, it's relatively easy to find targets and carry out large numbers of small-scale attacks.

For al-Qaeda, by contrast, attacking the United States is a logistical challenge. To be worth the investment, the attacks should be spectacular - especially since they'll be relatively rare. Consider the list: WTC (I & II), African embassies, Khobar Towers, USS Cole, and foiled plots against airliners over the Pacific and New York's bridges and tunnels. If you're going to attack a target the size of the US, let alone run sleeper cells there, attending flight school and risking deportation, the end target better be worth it.

The larger the target country and the greater the effort needed to hit it, the more it makes sense to focus on smaller numbers of mega-attacks. In Israel, the reverse calculation holds; an intense campaign of frequent, though smaller, attacks can be more effective.

4. Finally: Who says they're not still working on it? Could it be that the recent "lull" - though punctuated by many foiled and a few successful attacks - is in fact being expoited by Hamas to regroup for a megaterror attack?

The strategic question: Does Israel's construction of a security fence, which is gradually making it more difficult for individual terrorists to infiltrate into Israeli cities, shift the cost-benefit balance in favor of mega-attacks? The harder it is to carry out "small" attacks, the greater the incentive to think strategically and plan carefully for mega-attacks. I hope our security services understand this too.

May all of Israel merit a year of peace, prosperity, health and happiness.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Truth in athletic sponsorship

A crazy idea: NASCAR drivers are sponsored by motor oil companies and tire companies - maybe Olympic athletes should be sponsored by steroid manufacturers?

Leftists making sense

When left-wing commentators get it right, they deserve proper credit. I hereby present a couple examples from this week's Jerusalem Post.

1. Larry Derfner often annoys me when he writes about politics, but on other subjects he can be surprisingly sensible. This week, he wrote about the ubiquitous incompetence in management of Israeli supermarkets.

As a rule, I object when olim - or native Israelis - criticize aspects of Israeli society, kvetching that such things would never happen in a "proper" country. (At the post office recently, I was treated to a rant about how citizens of normal countries would never have to wait 40 minutes in line at the post office. Tell that to the USPS or Royal Mail.)

On this subject, however, he's right on target. The practices of efficient, customer-oriented supermarket management are no big secret, and stores large and small in the U.S. and Europe implement them without difficulty. Why not here?

(Some gripes he doesn't mention: Every little cashier's error can be corrected only if the manager swipes his authorization card, delaying the customers and betraying a lack of trust in the cashiers. Since it happens so often, he swipes it without thinking anyway. Also, the display screen is usually oriented so the customer can't watch items as they are rung up, and can rarely follow the registered prices. Way too many products have no label or product code, setting off a mad price check rush at the register.)

2. Yosef Goell is an old-style Labor socialist, supporting territorial compromise, a strong defense and a highly-regulated economy. He usually talks sense, even when I disagree with him vehemently. This week he discusses Sharon's strategic errors in pushing his highest-profile recent initiatives, the security fence and "disengagement" from settlements. His solution: a "time out" to rethink strategy - lest Sharon inadvertently return Israel to the unthinkable 1949 Green Line borders.

If we're forced to swallow the inexplicable disengagement plan, at least let's do it right.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Radical Islam's Cult of Death

New York Times columnist David Brooks states the obvious - when no one else at his newspaper dares:

We should by now have become used to the death cult that is thriving at the fringes of the Muslim world. This is the cult of people who are proud to declare, "You love life, but we love death." This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergartners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.


...the death cult is not really about the cause it purports to serve. It's about the sheer pleasure of killing and dying.

It's about massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness. It's about experiencing the total freedom of barbarism - freedom even from human nature, which says, Love children, and Love life. It's about the joy of sadism and suicide.

We should be used to this pathological mass movement by now. We should be able to talk about such things. Yet when you look at the Western reaction to the Beslan massacres, you see people quick to divert their attention away from the core horror of this act, as if to say: We don't want to stare into this abyss. We don't want to acknowledge those parts of human nature that were on display in Beslan. Something here, if thought about too deeply, undermines the categories we use to live our lives, undermines our faith in the essential goodness of human beings.

Three years after Sept. 11, too many people have become experts at averting their eyes. If you look at the editorials and public pronouncements made in response to Beslan, you see that they glide over the perpetrators of this act and search for more conventional, more easily comprehensible targets for their rage.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Labor Day salutations

What is the proper greeting for Americans today?

"Happy Labor Day"? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it should be a happy day:

It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Seriously, though, given the state of American labor unions in a post-industrial society, that sounds pretty silly. No one really thinks of Labor Day as having anything to do with the labor movement anymore. It's just a convenient day off at the end of the summer, the day the beaches close and the schools open (more or less).

In a nod to Labor Day sales, should the greeting be "Happy Bargain Hunting"?

What about the all-inclusive "Season's Greetings"? That one could work year-round.

Maybe we should adopt the Yom Kippur approach: "Have a meaningful Labor Day."

Or we could take after the British and rename it the Late Summer National Holiday.

The Brits already have the Early May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday and Summer Bank Holiday. When Christmas falls on a weekend, they can even celebrate Substitute Bank Holiday in lieu of 25th and Substitute Bank Holiday in lieu of 26th.

Try finding a greeting for those!

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Does this picture make you think of Israel?

Maybe it should!

A drasha on Sefer Yonah

In anticipation of Yom Kippur, our shul has started a discussion group on the Book of Jonah, which is read at afternoon services.

I suspect the story of Jonah must be the shortest story in classical literature involving a whale (okay, "a great fish"). The longest is presumably Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

With its subtle descriptions of life at sea, Moby Dick offers many insights into the first half of the Book of Jonah (the wet part). Sailors are a cosmpolitan, multinational group, religious and highly superstitious. Alone in a small vessel amidst the vast sea, they are deeply dependent on each other while constantly at the mercies of the elements. You might say they're in the same boat. (groan)

Pay close attention to how Jonah is treated by the sailors, how they speak to him, how they react to his story. A great deal can be said about this short book; for now, I'd just like to encourage everyone to read it carefully and thoughtfully - if possible, in the original Hebrew.

One insight-packed drasha (sermon) on the Book of Jonah can be found in Moby Dick itself, in Chapter 9 ("The Sermon"). Melville's preacher, Father Mapple, expounds on Jonah's story with eloquence and erudition. Suprisingly, there is hardly a single Christian reference in the sermon. Whether you appreciate his interpretation or not, it is of interest to Christians and Jews alike.

And it's several times longer than the original Book of Jonah!

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Dissenting on Darfur

Other Jewish bloggers have noted with approval recent statements by Jewish groups calling for international action to end the horrific genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan by state-backed militias.

While they're clearly right on the morality of this, I continue to believe they're wrong on the politics. Jewish activism against internal oppression by an Arab Muslim regime will do nothing to help its victims; quite the contrary.

Syria under diplomatic assault

Who wrote the following (excerpted)?

Lebanon's Lost Sovereignty

When it comes to occupied Arab territory, Syria applies a brazen double standard and does not even have the decency to be discreet about it: In Iraq, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza, every additional day of foreign occupation is viewed as intolerable, and immediate, unimpeded sovereignty is considered imperative. For Lebanon, under the thumb of Syrian troops for the past 28 years, Damascus never uses the word occupation and never hesitates to abuse Lebanese sovereignty.


Lebanon, the most democratically minded country in the Arab Middle East, deserves the immediate withdrawal of Syrian occupation troops.

Would you believe the New York Times editorial page? I'm still rubbing my eyes.

With the US and France jointly proposing that the Security Council reassert its call for Syria to pull out of Lebanon, can anyone continue to talk about American unilateralism? Quiet diplomacy (including, presumably, by Israel) may be bearing fruit here.

Agreement among the US, France, and even the New York Times! Will wonders never cease?

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Hail to the Undecideds

Confirming my previous comments on undecided voters, 18% of respondents to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll said they might still change their minds, with 7% saying there was a good chance they would. With the headline figures 48-48 among "likely voters," that leaves plenty of room for movement in the figures.

This is clearly much smaller than in 2004, which is natural considering we have an incumbent president and people have had four years to form opinions about him. But it is farfetched to conclude from this, as many pundits have, that the candidates have no great need to convince the undecided and can just focus on turning out their base supporters.

The best proof of this is the Republican convention, which (unlike in, say, 1992) is deliberately showcasing the party's moderates and emphasizing its appeal to Democratic crossovers. If there are no undecided voters left, why not pump up Bush's conservative creds?

Soccer Dad links to an early-August column by pollster John Zogby, explaining why Kerry's convention bounce was minimal. It reads today like, well, yesterday's news. He wrote, inexplicably, that "only 5 percent are genuinely undecided and only 3 percent of each candidate's supporters say they could still change their minds." He forecast that the Republican convention would only bounce Bush "to a tie with Kerry." Funny, Bush managed that last week, before the convention even opened.

I think Bush's prospects this year remain excellent, especially considering Kerry's lackluster campaign performance. Two months is a long time, though. The undecideds will still determine this race.