Friday, December 29, 2006

Vayigash: Exile by Choice

Globally, the story of the Jewish People in the Bible is a dramatic cycle: the nation is forced off its land, languishes in exile, desperate to return, and, ultimately, is granted this wish. There is a microcosm of this greater picture in the Torah. This vision is most clearly represented in this week's reading.

When God was first promises the land of Israel to Avraham, he is excited to immediately inherit it. From this promise on, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov saw their permanent home only in the Land. At brith ben hab'tharim, God makes it clear to Avraham that he will not be the one to inherit it. His descendants will first be 'strangers in a land not theirs...' (Gen. 15:13). Imagine, every time one of the forefathers left Canaan, he must have thought, 'perhaps this will be the exile that mushrooms into the fulfillment of the promise of brith ben hab'tharim!' What relief they must have felt upon their return to their promised land. Only Yitzchak remained in Israel all his life.

In 37:1, Ya'akov assumes that he is back in Canaan to stay. The midrash (source to come) comments on this verse that Ya'akov wanted to enjoy the fruits of his years of hardship in his homeland. The midrash extrapolates from this that one who lives permanently (dar) in Israel is as one who has a connection to God, while one who lives outside of the Land is as one who does not have a connection to his God. Ya'akov's comfort is not to be, and Providence leads Ya'akov, along with his entire family, to settle in Grar. The term used by the Torah for this settlement originally is 'gur', which is a temporary dwelling. Surely, Ya'akov planned to leave Egypt as soon as the famine ended. However, by the end of Vayigash, Israel, the name that refers to Ya'akov as a national unit, 'dwells in Egypt, and takes hold of the land, multiplying greatly.' (47:27) For the first time in Jewish History, the exiled Jew finds comfort, peace and prosperity outside his Promised Land.

This is taken by commentators (among them the כלי יקר on this verse) to be the sin which turned this exile into the one that fulfilled the brith ben hab'tharim. The sons of Israel took hold of the land, and divested themselves of most cultural symbols that identified them as Jews. Tanchuma states that after Yosef died, circumcision was abandoned. The Jews took hold of the land of Egypt as their new home, and almost forgot their Promised Land. When a Jew forgets that outside of Israel he is a stranger and and exile, he incurs the wrath of God, who promised Canaan to Avraham.

The Ba'al Haturim comments that the word 'r'dah' appears in the Torah twice, once in reference to the descent of Israel into Egypt, and once in reference to Nebuccadnezer's descent into the fires of Hell. He claims that this equates the descent out of Israel to Hell. Rabbi Gifter comments that only one who has this attitude will be able to properly fulfill the requirement of the Talmud (Shabbath 31a) to anxiously await the redemption. Without it, our prayer every day to 'see God's return to Zion' is meaningless lipservice, and a serious affront the God who promised the Land to each and every one of us.

Imagine a king who exiles his son to live with the commoners as punishment for some offense. Every day, the exiled prince makes his way to the palace gates, imploring his father to forgive him. As time goes on, the son builds a home and develops a life outside the castle, but always returns to the castle gates, begging for forgiveness. The son hangs a painting of his father the king as a shrine in his own house, and tells himself that if he cannot be in the physical presence of his father, at least he can see his likeness. Day after day, the prince goes to the castle to pray for pardon.

One day, when he comes by, the castle gates open, and there is his father, the king. The prince looks into his father's compassionate eyes, and again recites his daily plea for forgiveness and reinstatement in the palace. The king answers the plea by saying, 'my son, I forgive you. How many years we have lost! Come back home, you are completely pardoned!'

The prince looks at his father as if he does not see him, and turns to walk back to his house. Once at home, he sighs, 'oh, I hope I live to see the day my father finally forgives me!'

While we continue to pray for the return to Zion, the doors have been open for sixty years. Each year, they open wider, making it easier and more realistic to go back home. How long will it take until we see things for what they are, and actually listen to the voice of our Father in Heaven, inviting us back in?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Miketz and Midoth

Character traits are tools. We are meant to use each one at the appropriate time. Sometimes, we must use anger and hate, other times, love and patience. The key is to know when to use each one, and to what extent. This lesson is taught both in Miketz and the holiday of Chanuka.

The midrash twice comments on Yosef's vanity in his younger years. Before his sale into Egypt, and again when he becomes the head servant in Potifar's household, we are presented with a slightly egotistical youth, curling his hair and paying undue attention to his appearance. Indeed, again, at the beginning of this week's portion, we find Yosef shaving and changing his garments for his meeting with the king of Egypt.

Rashi takes the time to point out that Yosef did this 'for the honor of the king's majesty'. Is this not clear from the context of the plot?

I suggest that Rashi points this out in order to make it perfectly clear that this time, Yosef's apparent vanity is commendable, and not a narcissistic act. The trait of vanity should be used for the honor of others. We are told by the halacha to dress in a respectable manner, with no tears or stains in our clothing. This is not for our own honor, but for the honor of Torah, God and the Jewish nation we represent, as well as for the basic honor of everyone we encounter (כבוד הבריות). When used in this way, vanity is a positive force. However, it can quickly degenerate from this ideal to personal honor and vanity. Therefore, it is particularly dangerous, and must be used with caution.

The Hasmoneans began their war and their dynasty for the honor of Israel, and with zealousness for God's name which was being profaned. This was commendable, and indeed, the Maccabees were wildly successful. However, their dynasty refused to hand over the kingdom to the tribe of Judea, as they should have. Because of this, their kingdom eventually came to be considered a bad force in Judaism. This is the reason that Chanuka did not merit its own tractate in the Talmud.

The character traits of קנאה and כבוד, zeal and honor, are ones which, when used correctly, are essential at certain points in national and individual lives. However, they can easily become abused and may end up destroying the very things they originally were to protect.

Rabbi Kook explains that the 'good' character traits, such as love, compassion, patience and kindness, must become part of our very being. True, there are certain times we need to supress them. However, the suppression of these midoth should be against our natural tendencies. We should feel uncomfortable the whole time we suppress them. In contrast, the 'bad' midoth should never become part of our natural state of being. Rather, they should remain in our toolbox of traits, to be dusted off and used only when absolutely necessary. All the while we utilize them, we should feel a foreign attribute in our actions.

May we internalize the good, and keep the bad at hand for its time of need, and may we look to the Torah for direction as we tread the path to the redemption.

(27 Kislev, 5769: Revisiting this issue, my chevrusa and I discussed the ethical in light of the Torah. Our discussion concluded that perhaps an individual halacha, such as Amalek could not be used in isolation to teach the ethics of the Torah, for it is a product not of a purely ethical form or category, but a result of various competing ethics and considerations. For example, the act of torture may be morally reprehensible. However, when used to urge a terrorist to reveal the location of a ticking time bomb, the overall ethical thing to do is to use torture. Some actions should define us (being kind, being peaceful), and are inherently ethical, while other actions, though sometimes employed, do not define our ethic, and only receive the nod of approval because of surrounding considerations. Thus, while an individual halacha may not define morality, the totality of halachot and hashkafa do, and provide a framework and set of rules to, with all the complexities of life, choose the best possible course of action when none may always be perfect. אשת יפת תואר and עמלק are thus not necessarily so different. They are both the best course of action for imperfect situations.)

Friday, December 15, 2006

Vayeshev: The Multi-Colored Coat

The midrash states that Yosef's brothers felt threatened by his favored status in Ya'akov's heart. They felt that Yosef and Ya'akov planned for Yosef's continuation of the Godly mission passed from Avraham to Yitzchak, excluding Yishmael, and from Yitzchak to Ya'akov, excluding Esav. In the same way, Yosef would be the leader of the nation of God, while the rest of the brothers would fade into the scenery of history. They felt this, in part, because of the beautiful multi-hued coat that Ya'akov weaved for Yosef.

Aside from the obvious favoritism displayed to Yosef, perhaps the brothers saw the very coat as a symbol of the continuation of the nation of Ya'akov. The coat was a tapestry of many different colors, all used harmoniously to make up a complete garment. The brothers might have seen this as an allegory, that in Yosef's offspring, the diversity and individuality of Israel would be expressed, leaving them out of the picture.

What is the first thing the brothers do to Yosef? They tear off his cloak and dip it in blood. They effectively obliterate the vibrant and distinct colors, making the point that Yosef is, at best, only one valid aspect of the nation of Israel, amongst the rest of them. And in the end, they are proved right, and all the children of Ya'akov make up the tapestry of Israel.

The tragic part of it all is that Ya'akov probably never meant the coat in the way that the jealous brothers perceived it, and Yosef probably did not interpret it that way, either. Yet the animosity engendered by this jealousy was so intensely passionate, that it led to our incarceration and enslavement in Egypt. What a lesson in parenting! We must not only have equal appreciation and love for our children, but we must make absolutely sure that each child feels it. No child may be allowed to feel second to any other in parents' love.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Illuminating a Machloketh

In Masechet Shabbat (21b), the Gemara discusses the laws of the Chanukah lights. In order to fulfill the minimum requirement of Chanukah, we need light only one candle each night. However, it is praiseworthy to light more. The Gemara quotes a disagreement between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel regarding the extra candles. Beit Shammai holds that on the first eve of Chanukah we light eight candles, and then deduct one each subsequent night. According to Beit Hillel, however, we start out with one candle, and on each successive night of the holiday we add another candle. The Gemara explains that the view of Beit Shammai is that the number of lights on any given day corresponds to the days left to Chanukah ("yamim hanichnasim"), while Beit Hillel maintains that the number of lights reflects the days of the holiday that have passed ("yamim hayotzim"). Reading this Gemara, we ask: Why is the number of candles lit on a given day related to the number of days the holiday lasts?

R. Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zt"l, Rosh Yeshiva of Kerem B'Yavneh, addresses this issue in his sefer, Asufat Maarachot. He says that in order to understand this dispute, we must examine another machloket of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.

The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (52b) discusses the proper wording for the blessing on fire in havdalah. Beit Shammai says, "shebara me'or ha'esh" (Blessed is He ... who created the light of the fire), while Beit Hillel opts for "borei me'orei ha'esh" (Blessed is He ... who creates the lights of the fire). The reason given for this dispute is that Beit Shammai holds, "There is one light in fire," and Beit Hillel argues, "There are many lights in a fire." Rashi explains Beit Hillel by saying that "many lights" means that fire has red, white and yellow colored flames. Beit Shammai, on the other hand, would say that light does not consist of many parts; rather, it is one physical reality.

It seems from the Gemara and Rashi that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argue about the physical quality of fire. However, the Vilna Gaon explains that the argument is much more subtle. Both agree that that fire, as we see it, has many components and colors. They also agree that the initial spark that generates the flame is a single entity. The argument, rather, is about which part of the fire we use to bless G-d. Beit Shammai says that the essence of fire is that original spark which created the flame. Therefore, we bless Hashem on the spark, because it is the origin of fire. Since the spark is a single entity, the wording of the bracha is singular. Beit Hillel holds that since we benefit from fire because of the flame, not the spark, we must bless G-d on the flame. Since the flame has many parts, the wording of the bracha should be plural.

Understanding this machloket in further depth will shed light on the machloket about Chanukah lights.

Midrash Bereishit Rabbah (12:5) says that God created the world with an especially clear "super-light." With that light Adam could see to the ends of the earth. This light lasted the day of Adam's creation (Friday), that night, and Shabbat. However, because of Man's sin, God concealed that "super-light." On Motzei Shabbat, when darkness fell, Adam was paralyzed with fear. Hashem taught him to strike two flint stones together and create fire. Now, it is obvious that Adam did not create fire ex nihilo. He was simply taught how to actualize an already existing potential. When God created the "super-light," Adam could use it with no effort on his own part. It was a Divine gift from above. However, when God hid this light, Man was forced to work to benefit, and the fire he created was "by the sweat of his brow." Sefer Habahir (ch. 50) writes about the concealment of this super-light that, "G-d concealed it in the Oral Torah." What does this mean?

The Written Torah and the Oral Torah define two stages in Torah learning. The Written Torah represents the situation before the breaking of the luchot. All the laws and intricacies of God's teachings were unambiguously clear. Anyone interested would effortlessly understand Torah as clearly as the greatest sage. There was no need for toil and exertion in order to understand the precepts. However, once the luchot were broken, forgetfulness and confusion came to the world, and Man was forced to labor with his own intellect to understand the laws of God. We can understand Torah only to the extent that we labor in it. We actualize our potential for Torah in proportion to how hard we work on it.

Let us return to the dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Whenever these two tanaim argue, there is a deeper level to their respective opinions. Beit Shammai is more interested in what was meant to be by God (hinted to by the Written Torah). They decide halacha based on a perfect, idealized world, the kind of world originally intended. Beit Shammai decides the lechatchila, the de jure, aspect of the law. On the other hand, Beit Hillel sees the present spiritual level of the word and rules a more practical, bediavad, de facto, halachah (corresponding to the idea of the Oral Torah). The ARI, z"l, writes that although in our times halacha is in accordance with Beit Hillel, in the Messianic age halacha will follow Beit Shammai. (This is the meaning of Pirkei Avot (5:20) that the machlokot between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are for the sake of Heaven and, therefore, both views will eventually be utilized.)

We now have a deeper understanding of the argument concerning the blessing of havdalah. The primary spark that ignites the fire is the original, Heavenly light, the intended illuminant for our world. It corresponds to the Written Torah -- God's word effortlessly understood. According to Beit Shammai, we bless God every motzei shabbat on this idealized light. The light that is radiated by the fire, however, is the light that Adam had to create with his own two hands. This is the Oral Torah, which hints at the exertion of the human mind. According to Beit Hillel, this earthly light (our present situation in the galut) is what must also be used to bless G-d.

The ideas we discussed explain the machloketh about the lights of Chanukah. The one candle that is required each night to fulfill the commandment of Chanukah hints at the Heavenly, beginning spark of fire. This is the concealed light of creation. The rest of the candles imply the earthly, manly light. Now we understand why Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel argue.

Beit Shammai lights according to the incoming days (yamim hanichnasim) of Chanukah. Every day we deduct a light, until we reach our goal, the singular, Divine spark. Even after the concealment of this light by God, our goal is to reach it again. Beit Shammai follows their own reasoning, that we bless on the ideal, intended situation. Beit Hillel, however, holds that we light based on the outgoing days (yamim hayotzim). The addition of candles each night symbolizes the present, pragmatic, world situation. We look back at what God has given us, and use that, however distant from the ideal it may be, to thank Him.

May we continue to worship God for the present, while striving to reach an ideal future with the coming of the redemption.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Torah Education

A comprehensive examination of Jewish education is beyond the scope of my time right now. Even so, I have extensive contact with Jewish youth in my work as Youth Director at a Modern Orthodox Synagouge, and am less than impressed with the product of our schools. No one argues against sending children to Jewish schools. However, what do they produce? Do these schools succeed at their goals? What can parents do to enhance their children's Torah education?

In secular education, each subject has a syllabus, and has stated goals for each age level. Jewish education consists of subjects as well, and each one should have a syllabus and a lesson plan to guarantee mastery and breadth.

In first grade, students begin learning the book of Genesis. That sounds great, but in fourth grade, they have only made it to Parashat Vayishlach, only about two thirds of the way through! They begin learning mishna in this grade as well, also at a snail's pace. The children still cannot comfortably understand and translate Hebrew, and they struggle to read the words of the text.

In Israel, when immigrants need to learn Hebrew, they are taught in a lightning immersion system called 'ulpan'. They learn how to speak, read and write Hebrew within six months. From first grade and on, students should be presented with an ulpan style method to learning the Hebrew language. For the first half year of first grade, this is all they should learn in their Torah half of the day. After that, they will be comfortable and confident reading Chumash, Rashi and Mishna. From then on, they should continue their Torah studies only in Hebrew, and devote half an hour a day to continuing Hebrew grammar and language skills. The rest of their morning should be devoted to Chumash and Rashi on a quick pace. They will thus, by the middle of fourth grade, be able to complete the Torah with Rashi, an accomplishment that will further motivate them to desire success in Torah learning.

After this, students can learn Mishna. For the first year or two, the Rabbi can simply read and translate, moving quickly, while making sure everyone keeps up. Students like paced movement, and their short attention spans will be happy for the speed. For seventh and eighth grade, they can review the Mishna while spending the bulk of their time going through the Nevi'im and Ketuvim.

Tanach and Mishna are not closed books. They are readily understood and can be learned fairly quickly with a Rabbi who is fluent in them. Students who are at home in the Hebrew language will find much of these subjects interesting, and will come out of elementary school with a formidable knowledge base.

Students who enroll in the school late can go through a six month 'ulpan' time, and then be brought in to the mainstream of the classes.

Each year of elementary school will have a section of halacha that they focus on, so that students end eighth grade with a solid knowledge of Orach Chaim.

High school can then be devoted to Talmud and Halacha, also in a structured way, with cyclical reviews of Tanach and Mishna.

I know that this type of system will probably not be instituted in our schools soon. However, the concept is one that will help produce well-rounded, thinking students, and help us raise a generation knowledgeable in Torah and the world around them.

As it is, parents can supplement their children's current education with an hour of private learning with father, mother or tutor. The hour can consist of twenty minutes of Mishna, enough to cover about five mishnayot, and thus, in about two years, the entire Mishna. The next twenty minutes can focus on half a perek of Chumash a day, and the last twenty can teach half a perek of Nach a day. It is up to the student's ability and the teacher's descision to add Rashi to that or not.

I know these suggestions are dramatic, but I truly believe that they are attainable by the vast majority of children. Please, let me know through the comments what you think, and if you would change the system I propose, or any other system in place. I think we, as parents, need to rethink the way Jewish Education is run, and this is an excellent forum to do so.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The Baker Report

Last week, James Baker's report outlined a dim view of the war in Iraq. It stated that in order to leave with a measure of success, the US must reach out to Iran and Syria, who both have as a national interest the prevention of chaos in Iraq. Baker's thesis represents a total capitulation to the countries that most support and legitimize global terror. The report is an implied suggestion that Israel be sacrificed on the altar of Arab unity, and it is amazing to me that the Jewish world, and the blogging world, is not up in arms.

In order to secure Iran's 'help' in Iraq's political arena, the US is to accept a de facto nuclear Iran. The United States is to ignore the fact that with nuclear weapons, Iran will pursue its stated ideal of annihilating Israel. To bring Syria to the table, the US is to pressure Israel to give the Golan Heights away, doing away with the most militarily strategic piece of land it possesses. Both of these actions would immediately place Israel at the mercy of those who daily call for her destruction. Simply put, the Baker report advocates sacrificing the safety of Israel on the altar of Arab unity.

The possible abandonment of Israel by the US would not be quite so dangerous, had Israel a strong, independent leadership. Sadly, our country has one of the most corrupt, self-serving, blinded governments in its history. Ehud Olmert has repeatedly placed the Iran issue at Bush's feet, ignoring the fact that Israel is, in the end, going to have to go it alone. The Iranians are anywhere from 4 months to a few years away from nuclear launch capability. Israel does not have the luxury to assume the latter. It must prepare for the former, and realize that one missle with a nuclear warhead would effectively decapitate the country, and leave it open for the taking.

The Israeli government must stop the rhetoric, and begin acting. It must put an end to the international perception that Israel is for sale or dependent on anyone. Israel must stand on its own two feet and threaten Iran with immediate destruction of civil, religious and national infrastructure, as well as, of course, military capability.

The Israeli public must take to the streets and protest its government's inability to form a solid, focused foreign policy with regard to Iran. Israelis must demand that the IDF end the rocket attacks from the south and the threat from Lebanon, so that, if and when it does come to a military strike against Iran's nuclear capabilities, Israelis are not lay to waste by rockets sent by Hamas and Hizbullah.

Jews around the world, and Americans in general, must vocally protest the proposed abandonment of Israel. We must make it clear to the US and other free world governments, that if Israel is attacked, they will all be fundamentally altered. Israel's second launch capability and Sampson Option will surely send the free world into the stone age, destroying oil wells and power in the Middle East for decades to come.

Jews everywhere must pray to God and return to him. It is not a far cry from where we are to the apocalyptic words of the prophets, where the world entire turns on Israel. However, it need not happen that way. Repentance and calculated preparation are our only hope.

I am surprised not to find the blogs, particularly the Jewish ones, discussing Baker's report and its implications. As we have seen in the recent past, blogs are a vehicle for grassroots change that can shake traditional institutions. We must come together to battle a policy that is aimed directly at Israel's heart.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Vayishlach: Limping through History

Tomorrow, we will read about Ya'akov wrestling the angel of Esav. The text describes the attack of the angel as, 'vaye'avek', he raised dust against Ya'akov. Rabbi Hirsch comments that it is more than just raising dust due to the actual struggle, but that the angel of Esav tried with all his might to bring Ya'akov down to the dust, to completely take him off his feet, to the ground. Realizing that this was impossible, the angel settled for bruising Ya'akov's sciatic nerve, his gid hanasheh.

The angel leaves our forefather, and he continues on his way back to his family, limping into the sunrise, 'v'hu tzole'a' al y'recho'. Rabbi Hirsch teaches an important lesson about the exile from this story. A person's legs symbolize her ability to take care of themselves and be stable. When a person stands on his own two feet, he is able to deal with anything life throws his way. However, when someone limps, they are not in control of their own destiny, and they are weakened. The nation of Israel limps through history, not quite able to walk upright. We are visibly weakened in the eyes of the nations around us. It is clear, as we make our painful way from exile to exile, that the children of Ya'akov are barely able to stay alive.

The angel of Esav periodically throws all his resources at finally putting us down for the count. He wrestles us, trying his best to make sure that Ya'akov limps no more. However, his work is always for naught. Although we limp, we can never be stopped. We can be slowed, but we constantly plod resolutely toward the finish line of history.

And the nations learn, from our miraculous trek, that it is not physical strength or fortitude that sustains Man. Not by our own power do Ya'akov's People limp on by. It is rather by our adherence to the Torah that we continue to exist. When we succeed, it is not thanks to our own physical prowess, for we are cripple. Rather, it is testament to God's power and our fulfillment of His will. And when we stumble, and fail, it is not the natural failing that every nation experiences. Rather, it is proof that we have failed our duty to our God.

And so, the Jewish limp through history is the greatest testimony to God's complete power and control. Our success is only due to our obedience to Him, and our failures are due to our ruptured relationship.

To embed this lesson in every Jewish heart, we do not eat the sciatic nerve of any animal. By removing the nerve necessary to confident movement from our diets, we are constantly cognizant that our own movement and success is dependant on our loyalty to God.

An interesting addition can be made when considering the words of the midrash at the sin of the golden calf. God threatens to destroy the Jews and make a nation out of Moshe exclusively. The midrash quotes Moshe as countering, "Lord, if a chair of three legs (Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov) cannot stand before thee, how much more so will a chair of one leg (Moshe) be able to stand..."

The forefather who makes the "chair" of the nation of Israel stable is Yaakov. It is he who joins Avraham and Yitzchak too create a stable foundation for the people. However, this is paradoxical, since in worldly matters, Avraham was wealthy and had a relatively easy physical life, and Yitzchak was "old money", who simply had to maintain the riches for whic his father worked so hard. He had a particularly uneventful and easy life, for a founder of a nation. It is Yaakov, the first-born who came out second, who suffered the most - it is he who had to trick his way to his rightful payment for years of servitude, it is he who displayed obsequiousness to a belligerent brother, it is he who suffered the degradation of the rape of his daughter and feared reprisal for his sons' actions. Later in life, it is he who suffers famine, loss of sons and fear of failure.

However, it was Yaakov particularly who provided the spiritual strength and stability for the Jewish people: of all the forefathers, it was he whose children were all righteous. It was he who transitioned the family from a clan to a nation. As as affirmation of the above concepts, it is indeed not physical or material wealth that indicates stability and success for the Jew, but spiritual, aphysical assets. Not by wealth, strenght or prestige is the Jewish nation, the moral and ethical light of the world, founded, but by limping through history, rising and falling with its fidelity to the Torah.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pride in Our Miraculous Country

With all the political and military issues concerning Israel in the past years, it is easy to forget the absolutely miraculous blossoming of Israel's economy. God's material blessing to the Jewish people in the land of Israel is the most obvious sign of the impending redemption, and we are privileged to see it with our own eyes. As the economy continues to grow robustly, I found an article from last year, which really made me proud and happy. I hope you all enjoy it.

The secret of Israel's success
From The Economist print edition
November, 2005

This week's initial public offering (IPO) by Saifun, an Israeli chip-design firm, on the NASDAQ exchange was one of the biggest flotations by an Israeli company in America for years. Saifun has developed a new, more compact form of flash memory, demand for which is booming as the storage capacity of mobile phones, music players and other portable devices increases. It has already licensed its technology to companies including Sony, Infineon and Fujitsu, and is expected to sign a deal with Samsung soon.

Having been valued by the IPO at $675m, Saifun now joins a list of globally successful Israeli technology firms such as Amdocs, Check Point and Comverse. Indeed, Israel is third only to America and Canada in the number of companies listed on NASDAQ, and the country attracts twice the number of venture-capital (VC) investments as the whole of Europe, according to Ed Mlavsky, a veteran of the Israeli technology industry and the chairman and founder of Gemini, a big Israeli VC fund that was one of the investors in Saifun. In 2003, 55% of Israel's exports were high technology, compared with the OECD average of 26%. Tech giants such as IBM, Motorola and Cisco have research centres in Israel, which is also where Intel developed its Centrino chip. Not bad for a country with a population of 6.9m.

Why is Israel—sometimes called the "second Silicon Valley"—so strong in technology? For several reasons, says Mr Mlavsky. First, the pump was primed by government grants in the 1970s, by the BIRD Foundation (a joint American-Israeli initiative that supported many start-ups before VC money was widely available), and by government schemes to encourage Russian immigrants who arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The second big factor is the army. "The army gets hold of everybody at age 18, and if they have a glimmer of potential, it catalyses their transformation into engineers or scientists," says Mr Mlavsky. The technically minded are given projects to develop and run, and are allowed to keep any intellectual property that they develop, which results in many spin-outs. It also means that once they get to university, trainee engineers already have practical experience and a problem-solving mentality. Israel has 135 engineers per 10,000 employees, compared with 70 in America, 65 in Japan, and 28 in Britain (see chart).

The small size of Israel's home market is also, paradoxically, an advantage. While a British start-up, say, will look to its home market to get started, Israeli firms cannot. Accordingly, they look to America for customers, so that Israeli start-ups function as "mini-multinationals" from the off—and are instantly exposed to the world's most competitive high-tech market. Similarly, Israel's relative lack of land and resources serves to steer entrepreneurs towards high technology instead.

Naturally, cultural factors play a part too. Around 5% of start-ups in America are headed by repeat entrepreneurs, says Mr Mlavsky, compared with around 30% in Israel. "The whole culture, we're like junkies, and the real kick is success, not the fruits of success, so we want to do it again," he argues. Israeli entrepreneurs are often workaholics who tend not to change their lifestyles much after becoming successful, he says. Gil Shwed, the boss of Check Point and one of Israel's richest men, still has a regular DJ slot at a Tel Aviv restaurant on Wednesday nights, for example.

The bad news for other countries that wish to encourage the development of their technology industries is that few of these factors can be replicated. Singapore's attempt to establish itself as a biotechnology centre faces the challenge of encouraging risk-taking and entrepreneurialism in a highly conformist society. And Britain is hardly likely to introduce conscription in order to boost the fortunes of the technology cluster around Cambridge University. In technology, as in so many other ways, Israel is a special case.