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Shakespeare and Sodom (Vayera)

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the English language’s greatest writer. Yet he was a notoriously sloppy historian. In Act 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for instance, Brutus announces that “the clock hath stricken three.” The real Brutus would never have uttered such words, though, because the ancient Romans used sundials to tell time. Another inaccuracy appears in Act 1 of Macbeth, when the Scots refuse to enter into a treaty with the Norwegians unless their king “disburse[s]…/ ten thousand dollars to our general use.” Since Macbeth reigned in the eleventh century, the mention of “dollars” is clearly out of place here. References to “billiards” in Antony and Cleopatra and to “guns” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream are problematic for similar reasons. Nor do allusions to Niccolò Machiavelli, in King Henry IV, or to Aristotle, in Troilus and Cressida, make much sense either; Machiavelli was still an infant, and Aristotle was not yet born, at the time that these plays are set. (more…)

It’s a Generational Thing (Noah)

If Johannes Gutenberg (inventor of the printing press) had succeeded as a mirror salesman, would literacy remain a luxury that only society’s wealthiest members could afford? If Martin Luther (leader of the Protestant Reformation) hadn’t pledged his life to God after lightning nearly struck him and his horse, would the Catholic Church still rule over Western Europe? If Edward Jenner (father of immunology) had ignored the advice of the mentor who encouraged him to “try, don’t think,” would human life expectancy ever have eclipsed fifty years of age? These questions, and others like them, belong to a field of study known as “counterfactual history.” Its practitioners invite us to imagine what our world might look like today had the events of yesterday unfolded differently. (more…)

Samuel and the Separation of Powers (Shoftim)

Many of the principles associated with modern democracy come to us courtesy of the French. Voltaire argued for freedom of speech and of religion; Rousseau defined the law as the “general will” of the people; Tocqueville emphasized that society flourishes when private citizens form “voluntary associations” to take on projects that their government either has not or cannot. Then there was Montesquieu.  Montesquieu was a political theorist of the Enlightenment who firmly believed that “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” He discussed this problem at length in his classic work, The Spirit of the Laws, and offered a solution that today seems obvious, but that at the time was quite novel: separation of powers. It was Montesquieu who first suggested dividing government into an executive, a legislative and a judiciary branch as a way of imposing a system of checks and balances upon the rulers of a state. In his words: “to prevent abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.” (more…)

Leadership and “Leanership” (Pinchas)

Alexander the Great

By the age of thirty, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the known world. He was the King of Macedonia, the Pharaoh of Egypt, the Shah of Persia, and even the “Lord of Asia”—a title he created himself. The man never lost a battle; it seemed like he would rule forever. But Alexander was a heavy drinker, Plutarch recounts, and in 323 BCE, he became gravely ill. Caught by surprise, the Greeks scrambled to prepare for their future. “Who should take over from the Great Alexander after his death?” inquired the members of his inner circle. The reply they received, as recorded by Diodorus, is legendary: “tôi katistôi”—grant authority “to the strongest.” Thus began one of the worst civil wars in ancient history.  For four decades, Alexander’s diadochi (“successors”) fought for control over the territory their leader had captured.  None of his generals succeeded completely. When all the dust had settled, Ptolemy was left with Egypt, Seleucus was left with Persia, Lysimachus was left with Asia Minor—and Alexander’s once mighty empire was left in shambles. (more…)

Miriam and the Moccasins (Hukkat)

A well-known Native American proverb states: “Never criticize a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.” This is straightforward advice, yet it can be notoriously difficult to implement. According to social psychologists, we tend to underestimate the role that people’s circumstances play in shaping their behavior. Stanford researcher Lee Ross called this phenomenon the “fundamental attribution error.”[i] It implies that we often judge the actions of others even before we have considered how we might act if we were placed in a similar situation. As a result, we grant the benefit of the doubt less often than we should. (more…)

Problem Finders vs. Problem Fixers (Bechukotai)

Originally published on May 14. 2014. 

Great orators understand the power of repetition. Mark Antony, for instance, gained the trust of the hostile masses gathered at Caesar’s funeral by addressing them, again and again, as his “friends.”  For Martin Luther King Jr., the refrains were “I have a dream” and “Let freedom reign!” The man at whose memorial King spoke –– Abraham Lincoln –– concluded the Gettysburg Address by promising that “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” But perhaps no leader knew how to emphasize a point better than Winston Churchill. In his first speech to parliament as British Prime Minister, Churchill, who took office at the start of WWII, guaranteed: “In one word: Victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be –– for without victory, there is no survival.” A month later, Churchill would restate his position even more forcefully:

We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.


Closeness, Closure, and Claustrophobia (Vayigash)

Body language communicates volumes. Our facial expressions, hand gestures and eye movements all influence the ways in which we are perceived by others. So does the distance at which we interact. In fact, cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall considers this final consideration so critical towards understanding the dynamics of a given human relationship that he introduced a new term,“proxemics,” just to describe its study. Hall was also the man who gave us the concept of “personal space.” As it turns out, we can learn a lot from a person’s posture and position. In fact, this week’s Torah portion provides a powerful case in point.  (more…)