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The Men in the Middle (Balak)

When you study Tanakh carefully, you begin to notice that many of its protagonists bear striking similarities to each other. In literary terms, such characters are referred to as “mirror characters.” We have compared many mirror characters together in the past, including Yitzchak and Noah, Shimshon and Avshalom, and Yosef and Tamar. There are dozens of others. (more…)

Outside Opinions (Beha’alotcha)

Note: This article was written for Parshah Beha’alotcha, which was read this past Shabbat. Its publication was delayed on Friday and so it is being shared now instead. 

In 1955, Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz, two American Jewish sociologists who pioneered the field of communications studies, published a book entitled Personal Influence, in which they explored “the part played by people in the flow of mass communications.” Their theory, in a nutshell, was that the most important players in the shaping of public opinion are not those who make the news, and not those who report the news, but rather those who interpret the news on behalf of others. These individuals, whom Lazarsfeld and Katz called “opinion leaders,” can be teachers, clergymen, business executives, and even prominent laypeople. The key is that they are the ones who determine the meaning of current events for those within their social network; through their speech and conduct, they provide the cues that help their friends, family and followers decide how they ought to react to developments in the world around them. (more…)

To Hear the Baby Cry (Yitro)

Although often subject to criticism, government is one of the most remarkable concepts that we humans have ever innovated. In its most limited sense, government is the force that maintains law and order within society; “were it not for the fear of government,” noted the Talmudic sage R. Hanina, “men would swallow each other alive” (Avodah Zara 4a). Yet government does not only protect us from harm. It also provides for our welfare, through public services such as education, healthcare, transportation, food inspection, waste management, and postal delivery. All these services require a high degree of planning and coordination if they are to be effectively administered. In fact, the job of maintaining them is not one that our elected officials are capable of handling on their own. All we must do is compare the population sizes of the world’s three largest countries (China: 1.3 billion; India: 1.2 billion; United States: 316 million) with the number of seats in those countries’ national legislatures (2987, 795, and 535, respectively), and the need for lawmakers to delegate authority becomes immediately apparent. (more…)

Searching for Patterns in the Ten Commandments (Yitro)

How do we organize items, information and ideas? Every field has its answers. In philosophy, we have Aristotle’s suggestion that all of reality can be categorized according to ten criteria (including substance, time and place), and Kant’s attempt to whittle that list down to four (quantity, quality, relation and modality). In psychology, Gestaltists gave us four principles for the grouping of visual stimuli (proximity, similarity, closure and continuity), plus a few others, which were added on separately. In biology, researchers rely on the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus, which greatly simplified the study of life by schematizing all organisms into a system of rigorous hierarchies (kingdom, phylum, class, etc.); in chemistry, Dimitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements accomplished a similar goal. In history, Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx and George Hegel all perceived patterns which reduce the mess of human events into neat, never-ending narratives (the Great Man theory, class struggles, and Hegelian dialectic, respectively), while in literature, Gustav Freytag’s dramatic structure (rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) and Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey (call to adventure, supernatural aid, crossing the threshold, etc.) guide our thinking.

In everything we do, we organize. Most of the time, we do this merely to make our lives easier. Sometimes, however, order not only contextualizes content, but also clarifies it, communicating, through its structure, ideas which we might have missed otherwise. This latter phenomenon we observe, for example, when we consider the Ten Commandments, delivered to the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion: (more…)