Shabbat Shalom! Birshut Maran De’Atra, Rabbi Perton, I’d like to dedicate the following words of Torah to the memory of the Rabbi’s father, the late David Perton ז”ל. May his neshama have an alyiah!
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I’ve always been fascinated by man’s conversations with G-d. From the famous איך (“aieka”) — “where are you?” that G-d addressed to the first humans after they sinned in the Garden of Eden, to Cain’s fearful plea at life after he himself took the life of his brother. From Isaac’s silent tears at the Akeidah, to Jacob’s prayers in the middle of the night, as he was fleeing his brother who had sworn to kill him.
In all those conversations, I felt their fear, their trepidation, their emotion. You cannot read those verses, especially in Hebrew, and not feel something, a link between the hero of the narrative and yourself, the reader. I must confess that I wondered if I would ever find the same courage those characters showed, to approach G-d in such a direct and straightforward way. I can even say I felt envious for what they accomplished in those moments, in those conversations with G-d: salvation, answered prayers, closeness and connection.
But if I were to rank all such dialogues between humans and G-d in order of the sheer power they transpire, three candidates really stand out. (more…)
Twenty two years ago almost to date, in early February of 1996, a computer program called Deep Blue was making history in the game of chess. It was the first ever computer program to beat a reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a chess game. It was an amazing technological feat at the time, and it soon became evident that humans were no match for machines in analysing positions and calculating millions of possibilities and variants, to pick the winning outcome in a game of chess.
A month ago, in December of 2017, history was made again. This time, a computer program developed by a British company now subsidiary of Google, a self-learning algorithm called Alpha Zero played a 100 games match against the world’s top chess engine, Stockfish 8. At the end of the match, the score was as follows: Alpha Zero vs Stockfish: 72 games drawn, 28 wins for Alpha Zero, 0 wins for Stockfish. The result was nothing short of remarkable. The Guardian called it “a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence”, and various professors from top universities around the world characterized the program as ”an outstanding engineering accomplishment”.
But the result was much more than just an ”engineering accomplishment”. What makes this moment unique and particularly amazing is that Alpha Zero was actually never taught by humans to play chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and was allowed to play against itself for just four hours. And in those four hours it learned chess to such a level that not only it ridiculed the best chess engine ever made, but also produced some games of phenomenal beauty and incredible complexity. In short, by playing alone, against itself, Alpha Zero learned more about the game of chess than we humans were ever able to teach a machine.
Which brings me — strangely enough — to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. Allow me first to set the scene and explain the idea, and then I promise to come back to this connection in the end. (more…)
If I asked you who is nowadays “the most hated man in America”, what would you reply? I am sure some of you would point to President Donald Trump, who has had his share of dislike and even hatred from various individuals and groups in the United States. But since I made a personal promise a long time ago to stay away from politics in all my derashot, I can tell you this is not the answer I am looking for.
So, who is “the most hated man in America”? (more…)
My mom earned the nickname “the cat” as she seemed to have at least 9 lives. So many close calls and yet she would miraculously pull through. I remember after she passed away numerous people remarking “I really was expecting one more miracle”. This year her yahrtzeit falls just after purim and parshat Tetzaveh and before parshat Ki Tisa. This happens many years that are not leap years.
For my d’var torah in her memory I want to focus on the luchot the tablets with the 10 commandments. It is interesting to note that there were two versions of the tablets one that was written by Hashem that Moshe shattered, and a second pair written painstakingly by Moshe’s own hand. We are told how Hashem wanted to destroy us when we sinned with the Golden Calf and how Moshe fought on our behalf. Hashem accepts Moshe’s prayers and gives Moshe a formula of 13 attributes pertaining to Hashem’s mercy that will assuage Hashem’s anger, and the section ends with Moshe brazenly saying to gd that you will “forgive our iniquity and error, and make us Your heritage” (Ex 34:9)
In life we are given hurdles to rise above. The original tablets are broken and Gd who loves us wants to destroy us. All is lost. Moshe and the Torah say no. Moshe tells Gd to forgive us. Mom said no. Born a preemie in the 1960s she fought to stay alive as a baby. She was told she may never have kids, and my sisters and I proved the doctors wrong. When told she may never walk again she countered with “that’s what wheelchairs are for”. After the second tablets were made both the new and the old were housed together in the Temple. The Jewish spirit, my mother’s spirit, is one and the same. Together we look at hurdles and challenges as opportunities for growth to be overcome.To see the handmade tablets next to the broken Gdly ones, is to look at what could have been and feeling accomplished with the new version while never forgetting the old version.
My mother was one of the strongest, kindest, and most resilient people I know. Knowing and loving her have made me strong. It is her example I strive for daily. For a woman so worried about her legacy, mom your accomplishments still ring true in my heart, and everyone else’s that you touched.
The first portion of the Torah that I ever layned was one that has a very strong connection with this week’s parsha. It actually wasn’t from it, but rather from the very end of last week’s parsha, Balak, and it wasn’t a particularly happy episode. I still remember that paragraph, as if it were today:
“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron HaKohen saw and he stood up amid the assembly and he took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.” – Bamidbar 25:7-9
Indeed, not a pretty episode… Not only because we learn in it that 24,000 people died during the plague, but also – in my opinion – because an act of violence was necessary for this terrible plague to end. (more…)
On Passover night we break the middle Matzah for numerous reasons. Tonight is a night of duality where we balance signs of slavery with signs of freedom. Some of the answers are as following. Simply to get the children’s attention, encouraging them to ask questions. Our Joy cannot be complete because we are still in exile waiting for Mashiach. As poor slaves we know to always save some for a later time. It is also a sign of freedom and hope to quote Lenard Cohen “There’s a crack in everything that’s where the light comes in”. Lastly it is because we are sharing. No matter how dire our situation as Jews we are compelled to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. When we have 2 pennies to our name we still give 1 of them to charity. Chag Sameach