Sunday, December 24, 2023

Planning for peace

I am tired of hoping for peace or praying for peace. It is time to plan for peace.

It is possible for all the world's faiths and religions to work together as part of a larger whole. The good news is this can bring freedom from fear. There will still be sickness and death, but these need not be faced alone. Instead of looking outwards to colonize and exploit foreign worlds, we can look inwards at how we can improve our communities, together.

The bad news is this means leaving behind the notion that my faith is the only true faith, and the goal is to convert all others. Working together in this way means acknowledging that Divine wisdom was not only revealed to one person in one place, but instead to many people in many places.

In the movie "The Matrix", the Oracle tells incompatible truths to two different characters. Quantum mechanics is full of experiments where reality appears differently depending on what type of measurements you take. The parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant also speaks to these principles, that reality is more complicated than the wisdom of any one person.

Copernicus said that the Earth is not the center of the universe. This is similar, because it may be deeply uncomfortable for some. There is nothing wrong with the religion or faith you were taught. What is needed is a sense of a larger overarching purpose, that all humanity can work together towards shared goals. Each person and faith and community has a part to play. I do not believe that any Being intelligent enough to create an atom would create a world with so much beauty and diversity without also having a plan of how all the elements of creation could work together in harmony.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

2023 Israel-Gaza War: Hoping for Peace

Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all children of G-d and children of Abraham. I do not believe that G-d or Abraham take any pleasure in seeing their children fight. 

I wish we could talk less about rights and more about responsibilities. I wish we could talk less about what has been done to us, or what is being done to us, and more about whether we are setting a good example for the next generation.

I feel sad to see so much pain and suffering, so many miles away. There is so much anger and anguish on both sides. I do not know what the Divine plan is, but I know there is a plan. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. was right that love is stronger than hate. There can be imbalances in the short term, there can be many things in the short term, but in the long term there is only love.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

One Call to Prayer

 A vision of peace

There is one call to prayer

Regardless of religion or denomination

Regardless of nationality

Regardless of political affiliation

Regardless of any labels people call themselves or others

As it says: "You shall know and take to heart this day that the L-rd is G-d in the heavens above and on earth below. There is no other." (Deuteronomy 4:39)

As it says: "And G-d shall be sovereign over all the earth; in that day there shall be one G-d with one name." (Zechariah 14:9)

Thursday, November 2, 2023

The Lasting Echoes of Abraham's Sacrifice (Part 1)

In Chapter 22 of Genesis, Gd commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  What I learned as a child: Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham and Isaac willingly do as they are told, Abraham is rewarded, the end.  

Here are some of the interpretations or rationalizations I've heard over the years:
  • The opening verse of the chapter explicitly says that this is a test. Gd was never seriously planning to let Isaac be killed.
  • Abraham was incredibly righteous. Gd would never test an ordinary person in this way.
  • Even though Abraham is prepared to kill his son, the net effect of the story is against child sacrifice. Gd is saying he does not want or expect child sacrifice.
  • There is a Midrash that Gd only intended Abraham to put Isaac on the altar but not to kill him. [1]

The consequences of the attempted sacrifice

Let's look at the aftermath of these Biblical events. 
  • For most of Abraham's life, Gd talks directly to Abraham. In Chapter 22 it is an angel, not Gd, who blesses Abraham. After Chapter 22, Abraham has no further recorded dialogue with Gd or angels.
  • At the end of Chapter 22, Abraham goes back to Beersheeba and Isaac isn't mentioned. (So maybe Abraham and Isaac settled in different regions of Israel.)
  • Abraham's wife Sarah dies a few verses later.
  • After Chapter 22, there is no further recorded dialogue between Abraham and Isaac.
These can all be explained away. [2]

After enough reading and thought and analysis, an interesting fact emerges:
  • Abraham is mostly outdoors. Isaac is mostly indoors.
Let's see where this observation can take us.

Why is Abraham outdoors so often?

In the Midrash, Abraham destroys his father's idols.  Abraham's father brings Abraham to Nimrod, who throws Abraham in a fiery furnace. Gd makes a miracle and Abraham emerges unharmed. Let's suppose that Abraham develops claustrophobia as a result of this ordeal. [3]

The book of Genesis never explicitly describes Abraham as being indoors. Abraham pitches his tent (Genesis 12:8), he dwells in various cities, and through all his travels Genesis never describes Abraham as being inside a tent or other structure.

After Abraham circumcises himself, Abraham is at the entrance of his tent at the heat of the day. (Genesis 18:1) Then three men (or angels) appear, whom Abraham rushes to serve.  Rashi says that Gd appears to Abraham, then Gd makes the sun hotter than usual so Abraham won't be troubled by travelers, and when Gd sees that Abraham really wants guests, Gd sends three angels to visit Abraham.  While the claustrophobia interpretation is an unusual reading, it doesn't contradict anything said by Rashi here. Abraham could be a righteous man who, even when in pain and on a hot day, wants to serve guests. At the same time, maybe Abraham never goes fully inside his tent, and the best he can do under difficult circumstances is sit at the entrance to his tent where gets partial shade.

Isaac as an agoraphobic

After Isaac is almost killed, the literal text in Genesis says nothing about Isaac's emotional state or his reaction to these events.  Was Isaac an eager and willing participant, even after being bound to the altar? Was Isaac afraid? We the reader are left to fill in the blanks.  Let's say that, as a result of the attempted sacrifice, Isaac develops agoraphobia. As we will see, this helps to resolve some of the textual difficulties later in the story.

"Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes an intense fear of becoming overwhelmed or unable to escape or get help. Because of fear and anxiety, people with agoraphobia often avoid new places and unfamiliar situations..."

Why did Eliezer find a wife for Isaac, rather than Isaac finding a wife for himself? Why does Isaac relocate rather than confronting the herdsmen of Gerar? [4] Why are Isaac's servants sometimes digging the wells? [5] Agoraphobia is one possible explanation.

Location, location, location

Let's look at the different places we see Isaac after he moves away from his father.
  • He prays in a field and meets his wife Rebecca (Genesis 24:63)
  • He is indoors with Rebecca (Genesis 26:8)
  • As previously mentioned, both Isaac and his servants dig various wells.
  • When Isaac blesses his sons the location is not mentioned. (At this point in the narrative Isaac's eyesight is limited, so it's reasonable to assume he's indoors in his tent.)
There are two times that Isaac digs his own wells:
  • Isaac redigs the wells that Abraham had dug, and calls them by the same names that Abraham had called them. (Genesis 26:18)
  • Isaac's servants dig the wells of Esek and Sitnah, and quarrel with the herdsmen of Gerar. Immediately afterwards, Isaac relocates and digs a well himself at Rechovot. (Genesis 26:19-22)
In the first case, Isaac digs the wells himself to honor his father. In the second case, Isaac only gets involved after his servants have made two failed attempts on their own.  One reading is that this is hard for Isaac, and outside his comfort zone, and he does it anyway because he understands it is important to his mission.

When Abraham instructs Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham repeats twice not to move Isaac to Canaan.  Gd also says that Isaac shouldn't descend to Egypt. In the traditional understanding, even though Isaac wasn't killed on the altar, he acquired a level of holiness that made it inappropriate for him to leave Israel.  The agoraphobia reading does not contradict this. Isaac is a holy man, and neither Gd nor Abraham want to burden Isaac with the challenge of living in an unfamiliar country.

Now that we have this understanding of Isaac, let's see where it takes us.

Why does Isaac love Esau?

"Isaac loved Esau because game was in his mouth, and Rebecca loved Jacob."
(Genesis 25:28)

The obvious reading is that "his mouth" refers to Isaac: Esau gives Isaac food. Another reading: "his mouth" refers to Esau.  Esau tells Isaac stories of the outside world, and of Esau's daily adventures hunting.  As an agoraphobic, Isaac is so grateful to hear these stories, and he loves Esau for it.  

Coming in Part Two

So far we have explored how Abraham and Isaac each responded to very difficult circumstances.
In part two we will look at how these events affected Isaac's sons Jacob and Esau.


"This midrashic commentary, like the previous one, understands that [Gd] could not possibly have commanded Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac."

As Israel Drazin explains in his article "Was Isaac angry that Abraham tried to kill him?", Isaac brought Rebecca to his deceased mother's tent, and Isaac buried his father Abraham. So Isaac was still connected to his family.

"What causes claustrophobia isn’t fully understood. Researchers believe causes might include ... [a] traumatic event as a child: Some adults with claustrophobia report one or more events where they were trapped or confined to a tight space as a child."

Note the contrast between Abraham and Isaac.
When Abraham's herdsmen quarrel with Lot's herdsmen, Abraham immediately intervenes. (Genesis 13:5-9) 
When Isaac's herdsmen argue with the herdsmen of Gerar, Isaac doesn't intervene and instead moves to a new location. (Genesis 26:16-22)

Isaac digs his own wells: 
Genesis 26:18
Genesis 26:22
Isaac's servants dig a well: 
Genesis 26:19
Genesis 26:21
Genesis 26:32

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

What's in a Name: The Anonymous Builders of the Tower of Babel

The Tower of Babel,
by Pieter Bruegel the Elder [1]
"Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.... And they said, 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.' " (Genesis 11:1,4)

Chapter 11 of Genesis has the story of the Tower of Babel. Why were they punished? It isn't obvious from the literal text. The people have one language, they build a city and a tower, and a few verses later G-d gives them multiple languages and disperses them to separate communities all over the world.

Contrast this with the story of Abraham, which begins in the next chapter: 

"I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)

Notice the difference: the generation of the Tower of Babel wants to "make a name for [themselves]". In reference to Abraham, G-d says, "I will make your name great."

The Hebrew word for "name" is shem, which is spelled shin-mem (שֵׁם).  The account of the Tower of Babel has nine verses, and seven words with this root of shin-mem.  In an indirect way, the author seems to be saying that names are quite important to the narrative.  When read with this lens, something interesting pops out. Nobody in the story has a name!

The builders of the Tower of Babel had a level of unity that we can only dream of nowadays. Unity, but for what purpose? To make the tallest tower the world had ever seen, an engineering marvel. They wanted to build something so magnificent they would be remembered for generations to come. What actually happened?  The tower and the community that built it are long gone, their names effectively erased.  Meanwhile, Abraham's spiritual descendants now account for over half of the world's population. [2]

In our generation, humans have unprecedented power to reshape the world, for good or ill.  The important question is not whether unity is a good thing or a bad thing. The important question is: for what purpose?

Photo credit: By Pieter Brueghel the Elder - Levels adjusted from File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg, originally from Google Art Project., Public Domain,

UN estimate of the world population in 2020: 7.8 billion people
Accessed 2023-10-24
2020 estimates of religious composition by country:
Accessed 2023-10-24

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Death as a Tuning Fork

Vach cameraman/
Most US and UK orchestras tune to the same note, at 440 hertz. [1]

440 is also the numerical value of the Hebrew word for "dead" -- meit (מת) [2]

Death has the power to bring us together, across all the categories that divide us, if we let it.

According to Wikipedia: 
"A440 is widely used as concert pitch in the United Kingdom and the United States. In continental Europe the frequency of A4 commonly varies between 440 Hz and 444 Hz."

Normally I don't find gematria to be helpful in understanding the world, but this one resonates with me.

Monday, October 2, 2023

What is a Miracle?

Photo credit: G0DeX
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." -- Albert Einstein

In the Bible, the Hebrew word ot (אוֹת) is generally translated as "sign" or "wonder."  These are some places where the word is used:
  • the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16-17)
  • male circumcision (Genesis 17:11)
  • the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15)
  • the rainbow (Genesis 9:12)
  • phylacteries (tefillin) (Exodus 13:16)
  • the plagues of Egypt (Exodus 7:3, 8:19)
  • three miracles that Moses performs before Pharaoh (Exodus 3:12, 4:8)
  • the blood on the doorposts for Passover (Exodus 12:13)
What's the common thread here?  Some of these are done by G-d and some by humans, so the word ot can't refer only to supernatural activity where humans are passive observers. Furthermore, the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-5) is NOT referred to as a "sign", but rather as a "marvelous sight":

(1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of G-d. (2) A messenger of G-d appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (3) Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (4) When G-d saw that he had turned aside to look, G-d called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (5) And [G-d] said, “Do not come closer! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!”

There is an interesting detail in this passage. First we learn of an angel, and a bush ablaze but not affected by the flames.  Then Moses marvels at the bush, while not acknowledging the angel at all!

Ramona Lofton (better known as "Sapphire") wrote: “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, "Grow, grow." [1]  Perhaps we are surrounded by unseen angels, which would appear if only we knew how to look.

Or as Eden Phillpotts put it: "The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." [2]

Back to the source

Many years ago I was told [3] that if you want to understand a Hebrew word, you should find the first place that it appears in the Bible.  The word ot first appears in the book of Genesis, on the fourth day of creation:

(14) G-d said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs and seasons, and for days and the years; (15) and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so.

When the Bible uses the word ot, it doesn't (necessarily) mean that something is outside the normal laws of physics.  Like a rainbow or the planets, it could be part of our ordinary day-to-day experience.

As Einstein said, we can see a world where there are no miracles, or where everything is a miracle.  Miracles are in the eye of the beholder, if your wits grow sharp enough you can see them everywhere.

Sapphire attributes this to the Talmud, and the actual quote is from the Midrash, Bereshit Rabbah 10:6
Rabbi Simon said, "There isn't a single herb or spice that doesn't have a constellation in the firmaments that smacks it and tells it to grow."


This was on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, some time between around 2004-2012. I never wrote down the name of the person who told me, so I can't give proper attribution.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

A Mitzvah Game for N Players


  1. Every Jewish community has relationships with zero or more other Jewish communities.
  2. Every lunar month, every Jewish community chooses one mitzvah (commandment) to focus on.
    • This can be the same commandment as the previous month, or a different one.
    • Every Jewish community is autonomous with regards to which commandment they choose.
    • Some examples:
      • Observing the commandment with more beauty and/or frequency and/or stringency
      • Studying Jewish texts related to the commandment
      • Providing educational, logistical, emotional, or financial support for any of the above


Have a connected group of Jewish communities that collectively observes all 613 commandments, every month.

The Four Species of Succos: Unity, Diversity, Harmony, Synergy

On the Jewish holiday of Succos, there is a ritual to hold four plant species and say a blessing.

One popular commentary:

  • The citron (esrog) has taste and smell.
  • The date palm (lulav) has taste and no smell.
  • The myrtle has smell and no taste.
  • The willow has no taste and no smell.
  • Taste represents Torah knowledge and smell represents good deeds, so each of these four species represents a different type of person.
  • When we bring together all four species, we symbolically show the importance of creating a community with all Jews and/or all people.
While this explanation is true, it leaves some unanswered questions:
  1. What is good about the willow? [1] 
  2. What is bad about the citron?  Or: if citrons are so good, why do we need the other types?
  3. Have you ever seen a community that welcomes people with no knowledge and no good deeds? What would such a community even look like? [2] 
  4. This smell/taste commentary would seem to indicate a ranking between the four species, that some are better than others.  But we don't see this type of ranking in the Biblical text, or in any of the customs around the four species.
  5. Why not use an orange?  Why were these four plants chosen specifically?
After puzzling over this for a few decades, I added another question:
6. In the Bible, these species are listed in the following order: citron, date palm, myrtle, willow.  Why are they in this order?

A pattern of four in the Torah

Over time I have come to believe there is a recurring pattern of four which shows up in many places, and this ritual is one example of that pattern.

I'm not able to find a source online, but I've heard one interpretation that says the Four Species are representative of Biblical Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

I've read repeatedly (and don't know the source) that in Kabbalah these people correspond with chesed, gevurah, tiferet,and yesod respectively.

There is also a well-established tradition that the seven days of creation in the book of Genesis match up with the seven sefirot of Kabbalah.

To summarize, we have:
  • Citron - Date palm - Myrtle - Willow
  • Abraham - Isaac - Jacob - Joseph
  • Chesed - Gevurah - Tiferet - Yesod
  • First Day - Second Day - Third Day - Sixth Day
Using the above correspondence:

The citron, which has taste and smell, corresponds to the first day of creation, which was the creation of light.  Rashi (Gen. 1:4) says that G-d created light on the first day, and then set it aside for the righteous in the world to come.  We see a theme here of something that is both "good" and separate.

The date palm, which has taste and no smell, represents the person who has Torah and no good deeds. A date palm is fairly rigid, and in some traditions it binds together most of the other species. This is the person who does not compromise their principles to make other people happy. There is an opinion that the angels were created on the second day of creation. [3]  I was taught that angels are like robots: they do G-d's will but they can't do good deeds on their own initiative.

The myrtle, which has smell and no taste, represents the person who has good deeds and no Torah. The third day of creation includes dry land and plant life. This is the first day where something is created which can reproduce itself: trees bear fruit which create more trees. Similarly, the myrtle can be compared to a rope:

There are many “thick-leafed trees” in whose branches “the leaves completely cover the stem”; but the Hebrew word avot (“thick”) also means “plaited” and “rope-like.” Hence the “branch of the thick-leafed tree” (anaf eitz avot) is identified as the myrtle twig, whose overlapping leaves grow in knots of three, giving it the appearance of a plaited rope.

Here is a verse from Ecclesiastes which ties these themes together:
"... a threefold cord is not quickly broken."

Finally, the willow has no taste and no smell, symbolizing the person with neither Torah nor good deeds. This is the sixth day of creation, which includes humans and land animals.  As many philosophers have said in many times and places, humans can sink lower than the animals or rise higher than the angels. One meaning of "neither Torah nor good deeds" is that humans have tremendous potential, and no objective external constraints to force them into goodness or holiness.

G-d calls most of the days of creation "good", but G-d only calls the sixth day "very good":

"In each of the previous occasions in Genesis, when [G-d] saw that it was good, 'it' refers specifically to the next stage in Creation. This last one, however, refers to 'everything that [G-d] had made'.

A first layer of understanding

We can now start to answer some of the questions we asked earlier.

Q: What's bad about the citron?
A: The citron by default is separate, and can only fulfill its purpose as part of a larger community.  

Q: What's good about the willow?
A: The willow has a lot of potential, as it can draw from both its own strengths and those of the larger community.

There are many customs of how to bind and hold the four species. My custom is to hold the date palm in my right hand and the citron in my left, with the willow in between the citron and the date palm.  This particular arrangement leads to:

The role of the willow is to create the conditions and environment where the citron can join the community freely, without being bound rigidly by the bonds of the date palm.

Translating this back to the days of the creation and adapting Rashi's comment from earlier: 

The divine light from the first day of creation is ordinarily hidden from view.  We who were created on the sixth day of creation have a unique ability to bring this light into the world and make it visible to all creation.

Unity, diversity, harmony, synergy

The holiday of Succos has some universalist overtones:
  • Sitting in the succah is the only Jewish ritual that involves the whole body.
  • The 70 bulls sacrificed over the course of the holiday represent the 70 nations of the world.
  • The rules for constructing a succah say that it could potentially be so large that all people could eat in it.
The Four Species have universalist overtones as well.  At the cosmic level, we have the ability to unify all the forces of creation.  At the communal level, we can create synergistic communities that do not exclude anyone.  We can have unity within: intellect, spirit, emotions, and body.  Finally, the easiest and hardest is to bring our full selves into this ancient ritual, with so much depth and richness and meaning.

[1] Many have already answered this question, for example:

[2] Robert Fulghum expresses the same sentiment beautifully in his short story about mermaids, in "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."