The Kabbalah of Magazine Publishing

Time Cover

Photo Credit:

By Yonatan Gordon

Last time we discussed how no story exists in a vacuum. That the seemingly isolated event of Yahoo! acquiring Tumblr, could actually be seen to relate to at least nine other stories during that same week. But before we explain how these stories relate to one another, we need to first begin with some introductory marks.

Through the past eighty plus articles on Community of Readers, a great majority of the entries have been reactive in nature. We saw some interesting news event, so we thought to write about its significance within the landscape of Torah and Jewish thought. While there is nothing specifically wrong with this approach, the Torah also has vast predictive capabilities as well. To be sure, even years in advance, we can make an educated guess about the nature of the headlines come out during any particular week.

The formula is rather straightforward. On every week, there is also a corresponding Torah portion (or portions) read during that week. This is our anchor or gravitational element for the week. Each news story then can be seen as hovering somewhere along a constellation of Torah concepts for that week.

Using the Kabbalah paradigm of expanding a concept into an array of ten (called a partzuf or personae), we can say that any newsworthy story orbits around one of these ten weekly Torah “planets.” But instead of the light coming from these stories themselves, the closer they orbit a planet, the more light from the planet they reflect. But it is not the story itself that is light-filled, but rather the eternal truth and light of the Torah.

This also explains why we typically write stories after they occur. While we know what themes will be dominant years in advance (based on the content of the weekly Torah portion), the headlines and metaphors used to approximate the center change over time.

Many times in our articles we mention Quantum Mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Now we are adding to this principle that only the Torah, when studied with the proper motivations, can be appreciated by both position and momentum simultaneously. Although observing particles changes them, the Torah remains unchanged from our study. So too, by refining our perspective of reality through our progress in the Torah, we begin to see the Divine intelligence in reality without changing it.

This is why in our article about Seth Godin June 20th event, we can only say what would make the content of the event most attractive or lighted. In this case, we focused not on the weekly Torah portion, but on the fact this his event coincides with the Chassidic festival of 12 Tammuz. The closer his event approximates the messages of 12 Tammuz, the more “light-filled” or attractive the event will seem.

With these thoughts in mind, we can now turn back to the ten articles mentioned in the previous post. Although we started by writing an article in response to Yahoo!’s acquisition of Tumblr, we could have really done the opposite. We could have begun by discussing the Torah portion, then showing how the major headlines for that week (May 19-25) can be found in it.

A Different Kind of Kindle

The Torah portion for that week was Beha’alotcha, and begins with the commandment that Aharon should kindle the lamps of the Menorah in the Temple until the flame rises up on its own. The flame alludes to the soul, the human soul.

In this portion, the Torah also describes Moses’ prophecy as coming through a clear lens, whereby he saw reality as coming from the same perspective as God (according to one opinion); or as coming from the backside of God (according to another opinion). While the frontside connotes revelation without anything being concealed, the backside represents that which is concealed.

Why did God create the world such that His essence is revealed only through great concealment? We can begin to answer by first realizing that we are a part of God, and this essence (עצמות) is only possible when there is some kind of opposition. In fact, essence cannot be revealed at all. It is a contradiction in terms. Yet God desired to have a dwelling place below in this material world. A place where God and the Jewish people’s essence can be revealed among the nations of the world.

Humble Leader

This Torah portion also includes the statement that Moses was the most humble person on the face of the earth. There are two ways we can read this. The first is that while Moses knows his good traits, he also clearly understands that they are all a gift from God; and if God would have instead given these traits to someone else, that other person would certainly be as great as him. The second version is that he thinks that this person might, or would certainly, become even greater than Moses.

While this second level already includes some self-nullification, absolute humility also means the ability to lower yourself to identify with the lowest of the low. Such a person is able to bring himself down to the level of every single person. At this level, even Korach and his faction, who rebelled against Moses’ leadership, have their rectification.

Now that we have touched upon some of the main themes in the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha, we can now explain briefly how each of these ten stories are but approximations of these themes:

Mathematics:  Prime number breakthrough by unknown professor

One of the important topics in Torah is that of pairing different entities, concepts, etc., into male‐female pairs. This extends to number theory as well, where according to Torah, integers are either masculine or feminine and therefore can be paired. It is then not surprising then that Dr. Yitang Zhang extended the rule about the coupling of prime numbers further along the number line.

Although coupling is also an important theme in this Torah portion (e.g. between Moses and the Divine Presence), the main articles about Dr. Zhang start not with his finding, but with his background:

A virtually unknown professor has taken a major step towards solving a numerical problem which has baffled the finest minds in mathematics for centuries.

Dr Yitang Zhang, who once resorted to working at Subway when he could not find an academic job, has received glowing reviews for his “astounding” new paper on number theory.

This reminds us then of another story from this Torah portion; the account of Eldad and Meidad who prophesied while still in their own camp. Although this act was met with alarm by Joshua and others, Moses responded, “would it be that all of God’s people were prophets…” Any time then we speak about a person coming up with insights from outside some preset boundary, we immediately are reminded of Eldad and Meidad. Whereas Moses’ willingness to allow their prophecy speak to his great humility, we can find the approximation to this concept in the openness of mathematicians to accept the “virtually unknown” Dr. Zhang’s findings.

That fact that the account of Eldad and Meidad set off the rest of the events in the Torah portion (Rashi to Numbers 12:1), also implies that many headlines during this week of the year will include some “outside the tent” reference.

Exact Sciences: What are we to make of a man who left academia more than two decades ago but claims to have solved some of the most intractable problems in physics?

At 4pm on Thursday at the University of Oxford, the latest attempt to fill the biggest holes in physics will be presented in a lecture at the prestigious Clarendon Laboratory. The man behind the ideas, Eric Weinstein, is not someone you might normally expect to be probing the very edge of theoretical physics. After a PhD in mathematical physics at Harvard University, he left academia more than two decades ago (via stints at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and is now an economist and consultant at the Natron Group, a New York hedge fund.

Again we have our approximation of the Eldad and Meidad account. The fourteen dimensions of Weinstein’s theory can also be seen as the pairing of Moses and David (דוד, whose Hebrew name equals 14); also the internal and external aspects of the Mashiach respectively. The article talks about the asymmetrical nature of the two “hands” of the universe (i.e. “light” matter and dark matter and energy). Aside from 14 being the value of the Hebrew word “hand” (יד) itself, the humility of the “light” side is in its ability to include even those people that seem “dark” at first (see again Numbers 12:1 with Rashi).

This level of humility is like Hillel the elder, who unlike Shamai, accepted conditional converts; people who wanted to convert conditionally. Hillel is a descendent of King David. How can he halachically accept conditional converts? First of all, because he is more humble than even any non-Jew, not just converts. Then secondly, that even as much as he is humble, he trusts himself to be able to carry converts through their conversion and make sure they do it properly. Indeed, later these converts admitted that it was only thanks to Hillel’s perseverance that they were able to remain Jewish.

While Weinstein’s finding would make a good article by itself, the short answer is that his theory is in accords with a Hillel approach to life. Instead of pushing away unwanted elements, the “elegance” of his theory is in his ability to include all factors into the equation. This is how he explains to “Shamai” approach in physics:

The Standard Model relies on a fundamental asymmetry between left-handedness and right-handedness in order to keep the observed particles very light in the mass scale of the universe,” says Weinstein.

He says his theory does not have the asymmetry associated with the Standard Model. The reason we cannot easily detect the dark matter is that, in the observerse, when space is relatively flat, the left-handed and right-handed spaces would become disconnected and the two sides would not be aware of each other.

“Imagine a neurological patient whose left and right hand sides were not aware of each other,” he says. “You’d have a situation where each side felt itself to be asymmetric, even though anyone looking at both halves together would see a symmetric individual whose left hand counterbalanced the right.

Psychology: Email Works for Anxiety Therapy

This article approximates to the two opinions mentioned above with regard to Moses’ prophecy; either he saw God fully revealed from the front, or he saw the relatively concealed backside of God. So too, relating these ideas to the therapist-patient relationship, either the patient can be looking the therapist direct in the face, or the relationship can be relatively indirect. The lesson here is that both approaches can yield abiding results.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) delivered by email was helpful in relieving anxiety disorders in patients unable to receive conventional treatment, a researcher said here.

Although face-to-face sessions should remain the first-line approach to delivering CBT, email appears to be a viable alternative when conventional delivery is impossible, she said at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting.

Social Sciences: “IBM Report: How Social Business Can Help Organizations Succeed

To gain external customer insights, the report recommends the practice of integrating social media outreach with internal social collaboration platforms, so that employees can directly track customer sentiments and observations, and can collaboratively respond to customer needs.

To do this, an organization deploys social monitoring tools for directly listening to customer sentiment, analytical tools to gain insight, communication tools to converse with key influencers and collaboration tools to identify and develop responsive products/services through internal social systems.

There’s a lot of words here, but the message is pretty simple. If people are saying something about you, instead of simply monitoring them, find a way to “internalize” these sentiments with your organizational structure.

This again approximates the Eldad and Meidad story. It is interesting to note that while the prophecy was about Moses, the head of the “organizational structure,” he was also the one that first supported “integrating” their sentiments. So too, we can learn out from this, that perhaps the best person to manage social media initiatives is the owner himself.

Law: Why not let nonlawyers help regulate the legal profession? Law prof makes case for change

Washington and Lee law professor James Moliterno tells the Wall Street Journal Law Blog (sub. req.) that nonlawyers should be allowed to serve in leadership and policy positions in the ABA and state bar associations, where they could help set standards for the profession. He makes his case in an Emory Law Journal article and a new book, The American Legal Profession in Crisis: Resistance and Responses to Change.

In an interview with the Law Blog, Moliterno outlines possible changes if nonlawyers help govern the profession. There could be a movement to a national law license or a relaxed admission-on-motion system to allow freer law practice across borders. Ethics rules barring nonlawyer ownership of law firms would likely be relaxed.

Again the implication is that those “outside the tent” are somehow more innovative. Another Eldad and Meidad reference.

Medicine: Scanadu Develops Medical Sensor, Asks for Investors and Test Subjects

Scanadu’s Scout promises to scan vital signs and send them to a user’s smartphone for diagnosis.

A user will immediately know vital statistics, including blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature and electrocardiogram (ECG). The Scout will also include two disposable ScanaFlo paddles for urinalysis that can test for pregnancy, among other things.

According to Scanadu’s founder Walter De Brouwer, the Scout is “a medical instrument that can almost replace a clinic.

The relationship here is a bit more subtle, but refers back to the beginning of the Torah portion. The service of Aharon kindling the Menorah, is such that his activity, lights up the entire world with Divine light and awareness. In order to become aware of one’s spiritual (or physical) health then, doesn’t necessarily come through direct contact. Sometimes it is those in-direct findings that shed the greatest light on the situation. As mentioned, Aharon was commanded to kindle the lights until they rose up on their own. So too the sensor is something futuristic, because in-direct contact always leaves room for unexpected and remarkable results.

Education: “How a Little Data Can Solve One of Higher Education’s Biggest Problems

By mining the data, the university is able to spend its limited funds on students who have the potential to do the most with the extra dollars. Georgia State calls them “structured interventions”: Find a problem, comb the numbers to figure out a solution, test the idea on a small group of students, and either tweak it or expand it if it works.

What Georgia State demonstrates is that by better using data, universities can successfully weigh pressures to enroll a student body that reflects their state, and keep up retention and graduation rates at the same time.

This is another “shedding the light” on the situation example. What they realized is that instead of large, lump sum scholarships to a few, well placed micro-funding benefits many more students.

So too, a small amount of well-placed light, can dispel a great amount of darkness.

Economics: Why the Sharing Economy is Growing

Most people (77%) see the sharing economy as a great way to save money, but among those who have actually tried it, the plurality, 36%, said their motivation was philosophical, not financial. Listing extra goods or a spare room online was seen as a way to help others and, for one in four, to promote sustainability as well.

This is again a “sharing the light” approximation. If we have an abundance of something, the good thing to do is share it. While Aharon was sharing an abundance of light, there are other forms of sharing that each of us can do.

The key message here is that if you have something that could benefit another without compromising your basic needs, then it’s praiseworthy to pass it along.

Communication Sciences: The Yahoo! and Tumblr story

While we didn’t explicitly relate our article to the Torah portion, everything we said there very much can be found in Beha’alotcha. First the whole question about determining both the position and momentum of a company, was realized in Aaron. According to Kabbalah and Chassidut, his service is one that unified both variables.

The fact that Yahoo! wanted to acquire Tumblr, also on some level relates to Eldad and Meidad as well. If they didn’t find at least some content on Tumblr to be innovative, then it is hard to imagine that they would still be interested in buying it. This is also why the nature of the Tumblr content came into question. More fundamental than the number of blogs and posts, is the quality and nature of the content itself.

Political Science: “Extreme Political Views Caused By The ‘Illusion of Understanding

Have you ever tried to engage in a balanced discussion or debate over, say, macro-economics or maybe foreign policy — subjects that are complex and contingent upon many factors — and found yourself frustrated in your attempts by an extreme/unyielding ideological viewpoint?

Well, the next time you’re confronted with an extreme (and typically over-simplified) political viewpoint, you might try asking that person to explain their viewpoint, that is, ask them to detail how they think a certain policy or law actually works. You might just find that their extreme view will shift to one that is more moderate and balanced.

This shift from an extreme view to a less extreme one is due to the ‘illusion of understanding’, according to new research published in the journal Psychological Science.

Instead of “illusion of understanding,” we again would call this the “integration” of some innovative thoughts coming from outside the camp (or another political camp in this case).

The Problem with Predictions

If we could say with certainty that we know what Seth Godin will talk about June 20th, then we could write a press release and go on an interview tour.

But when it comes to approximations around our constellation of Torah concepts, the trajectory could sharply change course at any moment. All we know is that this is what would make his event attractive and lighted. But what he actually does with his event is up to him.

When a company comes out with predictions for the forthcoming quarter, how does this affect the stock when the actual earnings are released? If they beat expectations, presumably the stock would go up. But what would happen if their predictions were set higher? Even though they earned the same amount of money, all other things being equal, the stock would probably stay flat.

In the world of finance, predictions are the method by which analysts try to pin down the momentum of a company. But if we make use of the Uncertainty Principle once again, if you know the position (prediction = earnings), then the movement (stock change) is zero.

While the truth and letters of the Torah do not change, what does change are the applications and innovations. A hundred years ago, there was no computers or internet. But now we have these metaphors to help us further understand Torah concepts. The more I walk the Torah way, the more my ego is nullified and the less it interferes with reality. When this happens, God’s true reality is also revealed.

Often we speak about the “core concepts” behind the weekly news happenings. But we can also group our discussions as either talking about “sources” or “roots”:

The source” (מָקוֹר) is a revelation of something new, like a newborn emerging from its mother’s womb.

The root” (שֹׁרֶשׁ) is the point where everything develops from; like a tree whose trunk, branches, leaves and fruit sprout from the root.

The challenge in our discussions then is to both stay true to the source behind the concepts, while expanding them to grow into whole fruit-bearing trees.

Note to Reader: It should be noted that it is also a worthwhile practice to draw or compose spontaneous contributions of art or music as well. Of course, it is a good idea to relate these works to the Torah portion for the week where possible. 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s