Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

The binary and the infinite: What we learn from computers, the I Ching, the Bible and breathing.

We live today and have long lived in what seems to us, at first glance, a binary world. So it seems.

At their most basic, computers are binary machines. Countless combinations of yes/no, on/off decision circuits, adding up, as speed and the number of decisions increase exponentially, to processes that mimic (or exceed) human thought.

The I Ching begins its panoramic presentation of world with a simple binary calculation: either a solid yang line or a broken yin line, combined into eight trigrams and sixty-four hexagrams, from which the entire nature of life and time is profiled, if not actually predicted.

Traditions, such as Taoism, Zen and others, suggest non-duality. That reality exists between those choices we are so attached to. That it is not either/or, not neither/nor. Computers agree. Reduced to each of the billions of digital decisions, binary means nothing. The I Ching reduced to a single line means little. The meanings, all of them, are in the matrix of combinations.

The Bible agrees. It would seem, in its rules and lists, to promote binary behavior. The Ten Commandments are a prime example. But at the literal first moment, if we immerse ourselves in the question of what is between existence and non-existence at creation (contemplation that according to one legendary interpretation drove the Talmudist Ben Zoma crazy), the answer may be everything. The Book of Ecclesiastes, famous for saying that all is ephemeral vapor and listing the binary poles (a time to laugh, a time to weep…), is telling us we live now and ever in the changes in between. Not unlike the I Ching.

Physics has also given up on the binary. Simplistic analysis has given way to acknowledgement that as much as we would like to hold on to a concept of this or that, now or then, the physical world at a foundational level exists in simultaneous multiple states.

Not everything about our organic human lives is binary, but plenty of it is. Ten has its place (fingers, toes), but a distinct second place to two. Two arms and hands, legs and feet, eyes, ears, lungs.

Lungs bring us to breathing, the penultimate binary. Inhale, exhale. There is nothing in between. The failure of that binary leads to the ultimate: life, death. Some do posit an alternative to that binary, a third option. But if we just stick to life/death, what do we learn about either one from this discussion of binary?

Things as they are are not exactly binary, except we make them so. This doesn’t mean that one can think away breathing or death. No inhale/exhale, no life happens. But the values in between—the digital fabric, the I Ching, the space between existence and non-existence, the time between laughing and weeping, the quantum states—are where it is at.

Hanukkah Hexadecimal Code

 

If four sides of a dreidel and eight candles are proving too simple for you, here is a way to expand the Hanukkah holiday—mathematically and mystically.

The eight-candle menorah is binary, that is, a candle is either lit (1) or unlit (0).

With eight binary places, the menorah is a type of hexadecimal, a code central to digital processing. Each of the eight places in a hexadecimal is occupied by a digit or a letter.

If you assign each of the eight candles, left to right, either a 0 or a 1, you can convert each from a hexadecimal to a numeric value:

First night of Hanukkah = 00000001 = 1
Second night = 00000011 = 17
Third night = 00000111 = 273
Fourth night = 00001111 = 4,369
Fifth night = 00011111 = 69,905
Sixth night = 00111111 = 1,118,481
Seventh night = 01111111 = 17,895,697
Eighth night = 11111111 = 286,331,153

Is this of any use? Some suggestions:

1. A secret code to identify each day of Hanukkah with a number. When greeting someone on the second day of Hanukkah, you might say “Happy 17”. Please be sure to explain the system behind your greeting, lest it is thought you are experiencing a psychological break or are high (assuming you are not).

2. Gematria is a system that assigns numbers to each Hebrew letter in a word, and then calculates a value for each word, which value is then associated with other words of the same value. You can look online to find the gematria associations for each of the above values. In addition to gematria, there are countless systems that assign values to letters and meaning to numbers.

For the larger numbers, you may not find an associated meaning. But you can factor the larger numbers to find smaller associated meanings. So, for example, the eighth night value of 286,331,153 factors to 17 × 257 × 65537. The smaller numbers such as 17 and 257 are widely discussed.

Chag urim sameach! (Happy Festival of Lights). And if I don’t see you, Happy 273!

The Hanukkah Guest: A Story from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

“Now, when you bring your thoughts to Paradise, you are there, on that holy mountain. But when your thoughts return to this world, you will find yourself here once again.”

The Hanukkah Guest, a story from Reb Nachman of Bratslav, retold by Howard Schwartz in A Palace of Pearls:

On the first night of Hanukkah, a poor man, who lived alone, chanted the Hanukkah blessings and lit the Hanukkah candle. He gazed at the candle for a long moment, and then there was a knock at the door. When he opened it, he saw a stranger standing there, and he invited him in. They began to discuss things, as people do, and the guest asked the man how he supported himself. The man explained that he spent his days studying Torah, and that he was supported by others, and didn’t have an income of his own. After a while, their talk became more intimate, and the man told the guest that he was striving to reach a higher level of holiness. The guest suggested that they study Torah together. And when the man discovered how profound were the guest’s insights, he started to wonder if he were a human being or an angel. He began to address the guest as Rabbi.

Time flew by, and the man felt as if he had learned more in that one night than in all the other years he had studied. All at once the guest said that he had to leave, and the man asked him how far he should accompany him. The guest replied, “Past the door.” So the man followed the guest out the door, and the guest embraced him, as if to say goodbye, but then he began to fly, with the man clinging to him. The man was shivering, and when the guest saw this, he gave him a garment that not only warmed him, but, as soon as he put it on, he found himself back in his house, seated at the table, enjoying a fine meal. At the same time, he saw that he was flying.

The guest brought him to a valley between two mountains. There he found a book with illustrations of vessels, and inside the vessels there were letters. And the man understood that with those letters it was possible to create new vessels. The man was taken with a powerful desire to study that book. But when he looked up for an instant, he found himself back in his house. Then, when he turned back to the book, he found himself in the valley once more. The guest, whoever he was, was gone. The man, feeling confident, decided to climb up the mountain. When he reached the summit, he saw a golden tree with golden branches. From the branches hung vessels like those illustrated in the book. The man wanted to pick one of those vessels, as one picks fruit from a tree, but as soon as he reached for one, he found himself back in his house, and there was a knock at the door. He opened the door and saw it was the mysterious guest, and he pleaded with him to come in. The guest replied, “I don’t have time, for I am on my way to you.” The man was perplexed, and asked the guest to explain what he meant. The guest said, “When you agreed to accompany me beyond the door, I gave your neshamah, your highest earthly soul, a garment from Paradise. Now, when you bring your thoughts to Paradise, you are there, on that holy mountain. But when your thoughts return to this world, you will find yourself here once again.” And that is how it remained for the rest of that man’s life, and the story has still not come to an end.

Hanukkah: Joy Comes with the Morning

Reading Psalm 30 is a Hanukkah tradition. Not nearly as well-known or widely practiced as lighting the Hanukkah candles, eating fried foods (latkes and donuts) and playing dreidel, but just as essential.

Psalm 30 contains one of the most uplifting of all biblical verses. The sometimes perplexing Hebrew leads to a variety of English translations, but it is best known this way:

Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
Psalm 30:5

Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler explains the connection between Psalm 30 and Hanukkah:

Jewish custom mandates that a psalm be recited for each weekday, and a special psalm for each festival. This custom goes back at least to late rabbinic times, as recorded in the post-Talmudic Tractate Soferim (ch. 18), where Psalm 30 is associated with Chanukah. Ostensibly, the psalm was chosen because the superscription, מזמור שיר חנכת הבית לדוד, refers to the dedication (chanukah) of the temple.

Traditionally, the superscription refers to the dedication of the First Temple, Solomon’s Temple, though some scholars connect it to the dedication of the Second Temple (some psalms are clearly Second Temple in origin). Thus, the connection between Psalm 30 and Chanukah would be a loose one, but the best the rabbis could find—after all, Chanukah occurred in 164 B.C.E., hundreds of years after the dedication of the Second Temple in 515 BCE. Thus, the psalm cannot be referring to Chanukah … or can it?

In fact, I, along with many other biblical scholars, believe that the superscription to Psalm 30 does not refer to the dedication of the Temple (first or second) but literally refers to Chanukah….

A number of points connect this psalm and the Maccabean uprising. First, the psalm describes overcoming, at great odds, enemies—an apt description of the Maccabean experience and the exact situation that led up to Chanukah. In addition, the psalm mentions chasidim (v. 5). The NJPS translates this phrase properly as the “faithful,” the typical meaning of this term in early psalms. Yet we know from both 1 and 2 Maccabees that in the second century B.C.E. a group or party developed, associated with the Maccabees, who called themselves Chasidim, as reflected in the Greek term asidaioi.

In other words, it is possible that someone (on the winning side) after the Hasmonean victory in 164 BCE could have read Psalm 30 and imagined: “David prophesized this about us!” The psalm, for that very reason, may even have been recited as part of the dedication ceremony on Chanukah in 164 BCE since it was seen as broadly appropriate—or even prophetic—to what had happened.

What does Psalm 30 say? In The Jewish Study Bible translation:

Psalm 30

1 A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.
2 I extol You, O Lord,
for You have lifted me up,
and not let my enemies rejoice over me.
3 O Lord, my God,
I cried out to You,
and You healed me.
4 O Lord, You brought me up from Sheol,
preserved me from going down into the Pit.

5 O you faithful of the Lord, sing to Him,
and praise His holy name.
6 For He is angry but a moment,
and when He is pleased there is life.
One may lie down weeping at nightfall;
but at dawn there are shouts of joy.

7 When I was untroubled,
I thought, “I shall never be shaken,”
8 for You, O Lord, when You were pleased,
made [me] firm as a mighty mountain.
When You hid Your face,
I was terrified.
9 I called to You, O Lord;
to my Lord I made appeal,
10 “What is to be gained from my death,
from my descent into the Pit?
Can dust praise You?
Can it declare Your faithfulness?
11 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
O Lord, be my help!”
12 You turned my lament into dancing,
you undid my sackcloth and girded me with joy,
13 that [my] whole being might sing hymns to You endlessly;
O Lord my God, I will praise You forever.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Christmas or nothing, light candles or tree lights, believe in God or gods or none, this is a message for all seasons and all time. Especially this season and these times.

When we are troubled, with a desecrated temple, death or illness, heartbreak, we can find a path to turn our lament and mourning into dancing. Weeping may linger for the night (many nights), but joy and light come with the morning.

Hanukkah begins on the evening of December 22. Chag urim sameach (Happy Festival of Lights).

The Torah Begins Again: A Big Nothing or A Big Something?

Whether or not you believe in religion, God, Judaism or the Torah, it is exciting that the annual cycle of Torah reading begins again with the first words of Genesis. A Big Nothing? A Big Something that becomes a different Big Something? Who knows? Who even knows what it says?

Here, a few different translations and comments from some brilliant scholars.


GENESIS 1:1-2

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

הַמָּֽיִם׃ וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י


When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters

Note:

welter and waste. The Hebrew tohu wabohu occurs only here and in two later biblical texts that are clearly alluding to this one. The second word of the pair looks like a nonce term coined to rhyme with the first and to reinforce it, an effect I have tried to approximate in English by alliteration. Tohu by itself means “emptiness” or “futility,” and in some contexts is associated with the trackless vacancy of the desert.

hovering. The verb attached to God’s breath-wind-spirit (ruaḥ) elsewhere describes an eagle fluttering over its young and so might have a connotation of parturition or nurture as well as rapid back-and-forth movement.

Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: Translation with Commentary


When God began to create heaven and earth—the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

Note:

A tradition over two millennia old sees 1.1 as a complete sentence: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” In the 11th century, the great Jewish commentator Rashi made a case that the verse functions as a temporal clause. This is, in fact, how some ancient Near Eastern creation stories begin—including the one that starts at 2.4b. Hence the translation, When God began to create heaven and earth.

This clause describes things just before the process of creation began. To modern people, the opposite of the created order is “nothing,” that is, a vacuum. To the ancients, the opposite of the created order was something much worse than “nothing.” It was an active, malevolent force we can best term “chaos.” In this verse, chaos is envisioned as a dark, undifferentiated mass of water. In 1.9, God creates the dry land (and the seas, which can exist only when water is bounded by dry land). But in 1.1–2.3, water itself and darkness, too, are primordial (contrast Isa. 45.7). In the midrash, Bar Kappara upholds the troubling notion that the Torah shows that God created the world out of preexistent material. But other rabbis worry that acknowledging this would cause people to liken God to a king who had built his palace on a garbage dump, thus arrogantly impugning His majesty (Gen. Rab. 1.5). In the ancient Near East, however, to say that a deity had subdued chaos is to give him the highest praise.

The Jewish Study Bible (Second Edition)


In the beginning of God’s creating the skies and the earth —when the earth had been shapeless and formless, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and God’s spirit was hovering on the face of the water—

Note:

the earth had been: Here is a case in which a tiny point of grammar makes a difference for theology. In the Hebrew of this verse, the noun comes before the verb (in the perfect form). This is now known to be the way of conveying the past perfect in Biblical Hebrew. This point of grammar means that this verse does not mean “the earth was shapeless and formless”—referring to the condition of the earth starting the instant after it was created. This verse rather means that “the earth had been shapeless and formless”—that is, it had already existed in this shapeless condition prior to the creation. Creation of matter in the Torah is not out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo), as many have claimed. And the Torah is not claiming to be telling events from the beginning of time.

shapeless and formless: The two words in the Hebrew, th and bh, are understood to mean virtually the same thing. This is the first appearance in the Torah of a phenomenon in biblical language known as hendiadys, in which two connected words are used to signify one thing. (“Wine and beer” [Lev 10: 9] may be a hendiadys as well, or it may be a merism, a similar construction in which two words are used to signify a totality; so that “wine and beer” means all alcoholic beverages.) The hendiadys of “th and bh,”plus the references to the deep and the water, yields a picture of an undifferentiated, shapeless fluid that had existed prior to creation.

Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah


At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean,

Note:

At the beginning…: This phrase, which has long been the focus of debate among grammarians, is traditionally read “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” B-R agrees. I have followed several medieval commentaries, and most moderns, in my rendition.

When the earth…: Gen. 1 describes God’s bringing order out of chaos, not creation from nothingness. Wild and waste: Heb. tohu va-wohu, indicating “emptiness.” Ocean: The primeval waters, a common (and usually divine) image in an ancient Near Eastern mythology.

Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses


When God was about to create heaven and earth, the earth was a chaos, unformed, and on the chaotic waters’ face there was darkness.

Note:

When God was about to create (b’reishit bara elohim); other translations render this: “In the beginning God created.” Our translation follows Rashi, who said that the first word would have been written (ba-rishonah, at first) if its primary purpose had being to teach the order in which creation took place. Later scholars used the translation “In the beginning” as proof that God created out of nothing (Latin: ex nihilo), but it is not likely that the biblical author was concerned with the question of matter’s origin.

W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary (Revised Edition)


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

In the beginning when God created, or “When God began to create.” The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation—it is the “beginning of” something—and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of classical Hebrew grammar had been forgotten. The idea of creatio ex nihilo (Latin, “creation out of nothing”) is dependent on the later rendering. In the original grammar, creation is a process of ordering and separation that begins with preexisting chaotic matter.

This disjunctive clause portrays the primordial state as a dark, watery chaos, an image similar to the primordial state in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek traditions. Unlike these other traditions, the chaos here is not a god or gods, but mere matter. The wind from God is he only divine substance and seems to indicate the incipient ordering of this chaos (cf. the role of God’s wind in initiating the reversal of watery chaos in 8.1).

The HarperCollins Study Bible


In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Note:

Scholars differ on whether this verse is to be translated as an independent sentence summarizing what follows (e.g., “In the beginning God created”) or as a temporal phrase describing what things were like when God started (e.g., “When God began to create . . . the earth was a formless void”; cf. 2.4–6). In either case, the text does not describe creation out of nothing (contrast 2 Macc 7.28). Instead, the story emphasizes how God creates order from a watery chaos.

New Oxford Annotated Bible

Yom Kippur: Martin Luther King, Jr. on Repentance

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) begins this evening. It is the final day of the Jewish Days of Awe.

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963)

Rosh Hashanah 5780: Re-Creating the World

Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1738–1813)

Every year, on Rosh ha-Shanah, everything returns to its very beginning. Creation is renewed. All that was created in the beginning comes into being again. Thus each Rosh ha-Shanah the world is re-created.
Sefer Netivot ha-Shalom, commentary by Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1793)

Passover: Let’s Get Lost

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
We’re on a road to nowhere
Come on inside
Taking that ride to nowhere
We’ll take that ride
Talking Heads, Road to Nowhere


Let’s Get Lost

Passover
Americans are lost
Jews are lost
Jews are used to being lost

Wake up wandering in the wilderness
Wanting guidance assurances
That it will be all right
Promises will be kept
A land will be found

No assurances
No promises
No land
No turning back

Tell the story
Then like the afikomen
Broken and lost
Let’s get lost

©


Living under an American Pharaoh: What’s a Jew to do?

It’s almost Passover, so Pharaoh is our minds. Also on our minds because we are living under an American Pharaoh—or at least a wannabe Pharaoh.

Don’t let him fool you. Just because his chief henchman is Jewish, or his son-in-law is Jewish, or some of his rich donors are Jewish, or because he says and does things that make it seem that he understands and cares about Jews and Israel (he doesn’t), he is nothing less than a Pharaoh.

So where does that leave American Jews, particularly at Passover?

It is actually not that surprising that some Jews have joined the Pharaoh’s cause. There are dramatic moments in the exodus story where Jews are willing to throw away freedom and principle for a golden calf and the comfort of the Pharaoh’s harsh protection.

And Aaron said to them, “Take off the golden rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the golden rings that were on their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he took them from their hand and he fashioned it in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” And Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron called out and said, “Tomorrow is a festival to the LORD.” And they rose early on the next day, and they offered up burnt offerings and brought forward communion sacrifices, and the people came back from eating and drinking and they rose up to play.
Exodus 32:2-6

So where does that leave the Jews who do not believe in Pharaoh? We can stay and argue with those who support Pharaoh, though that has so far proven pointless. We can escape to the wilderness in search of a Promised Land of freedom and light, although by many conventions America is already the Promised Land of freedom and light.

Or we can all be tiny Moses, telling fellow Jews at Passover that worshiping Pharaoh and a golden calf and unprincipled conduct is ungodly and unholy. We cannot wait for God to intervene because God leaves it up to us. Let us not disappoint.

The Hanukkah Guest, Told by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav

Artist: Xul Solar (1887-1963)

Hanukkah begins on the evening of Sunday, December 2, and continues for eight nights and days. One candle is lit on the first night, with a candle added each night. Light increases.

Every story has something hidden. What is concealed is the hidden light.
Reb Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810)

The Hanukkah Guest

On the first night of Hanukkah, a poor man, who lived alone, chanted the Hanukkah blessings and lit the Hanukkah candle. He gazed at the candle for a long moment, and then there was a knock at the door. When he opened it, he saw a stranger standing there, and he invited him in. They began to discuss things, as people do, and the guest asked the man how he supported himself. The man explained that he spent his days studying Torah, and that he was supported by others, and didn’t have an income of his own. After a while, their talk became more intimate, and the man told the guest that he was striving to reach a higher level of holiness. The guest suggested that they study Torah together. And when the man discovered how profound were the guest’s insights, he started to wonder if he were a human being or an angel. He began to address the guest as Rabbi.

Time flew by, and the man felt as if he had learned more in that one night than in all the other years he had studied. All at once the guest said that he had to leave, and the man asked him how far he should accompany him. The guest replied, “Past the door.” So the man followed the guest out the door, and the guest embraced him, as if to say goodbye, but then he began to fly, with the man clinging to him. The man was shivering, and when the guest saw this, he gave him a garment that not only warmed him, but, as soon as he put it on, he found himself back in his house, seated at the table, enjoying a fine meal. At the same time, he saw that he was flying.

The guest brought him to a valley between two mountains. There he found a book with illustrations of vessels, and inside the vessels there were letters. And the man understood that with those letters it was possible to create new vessels. The man was taken with a powerful desire to study that book. But when he looked up for an instant, he found himself back in his house. Then, when he turned back to the book, he found himself in the valley once more. The guest, whoever he was, was gone. The man, feeling confident, decided to climb up the mountain. When he reached the summit, he saw a golden tree with golden branches. From the branches hung vessels like those illustrated in the book. The man wanted to pick one of those vessels, as one picks fruit from a tree, but as soon as he reached for one, he found himself back in his house, and there was a knock at the door. He opened the door and saw it was the mysterious guest, and he pleaded with him to come in. The guest replied, “I don’t have time, for I am on my way to you.” The man was perplexed, and asked the guest to explain what he meant. The guest said, “When you agreed to accompany me beyond the door, I gave your neshamah, your highest earthly soul, a garment from Paradise. Now, when you bring your thoughts to Paradise, you are there, on that holy mountain. But when your thoughts return to this world, you will find yourself here once again.” And that is how it remained for the rest of that man’s life, and the story has still not come to an end.

A Palace of Pearls: The Stories of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav by Howard Schwartz