The Partial
Vapor Pressure of
A Yiddish folktale recounts how an angel distributed human souls on earth from a stock he carried in two bags. In each region he scattered ordinary human souls from the larger of his two bags, with an admixture of just a few simple souls from the smaller bag. But the angel flew too low over one spot in Poland, and ripped the smaller bag on the highest branch of a tall tree. Before the angel could repair the bag, a cluster of simple souls all dropped into one place, which became the village of Chelm.

Yiddish folklore omits mention of similar accidents on the American continent, but I know a place where one surely occurred. This place became the Jewish group home where my son Aaron, who has Down Syndrome, lives together with a half dozen other developmentally disabled young adults. I am a frequent visitor at Chelm West, often hanging around with the residents and occasionally joining them for dinner. Indeed, I can be found there often enough that sometimes, despite my age, I am taken for a resident myself. One such occasion occurred last Spring.

Aaron had invited me over on that particular evening because he was in charge of dinner, and he was creating his Spécialité de la Maison, grilled cheese sandwiches. However, just before dinner was to be laid on, we were visited by a local orthodox rabbi. Rabbi M., a Lubavitcher with beard, hat, and the mild, droning tones of Woody Allen playing a rabbi, comes by every now and then to provide the residents with helpful advice. So, dinner was held up while all of us simpletons sat around the dining room table listening to our visitor hold forth.

On this visit, the rebbe's topic was Passover, which was only a few weeks off. He began by reminding us how the Lord God led us out of Egypt with a strong hand, the historical event which Passover commemorates. However, Rabbi M. was by no means obsessed with history, and quickly moved on to matters closer to his heart, namely correct Jewish practice. His mild eyes began to gleam as he explained the rigorous measures needed to exclude any trace of khometz (leavened bread or pastry) from the home during Passover, replacing every last crumb by matzo.

Khometz during passover is even more toxic than treyf (non-kosher) food. The rebbe pointed out that we are permitted to consume as much as one part treyf in 30 parts kosher, because at precisely this fractional molar concentration, the treyf is diluted out the by the kosher. (I had often wondered about this myself, but had never worked out the physical chemistry in such detail.)

But khometz is even more potent than treyf --- in chemical thermodynamics, we would say that it has a higher activity coefficient --- and even one part in one hundred is too much. Much too much.

"Aha," I said to myself, "if we measured the partial vapor pressure of khometz, we could define proper kosher practice in terms of deviation from Raoult's Law."

The other residents did not find all this physical chemistry as fascinating as I did, and attention was beginning to flag. Ellen, who normally talks a blue streak, was abnormally silent, eyes closed, with her head drooping. David, sitting next to the rebbe, was lost in a daydream, as usual. Howard was beginning to mumble to the Mickey Mouse pin he wore on his lapel. My son Aaron, hungry and distressed that dinner had been delayed, was giving our visitor the Evil Eye. But the rebbe, oblivious of his audience, flew on.

Why is there this tremendous difference between khometz and matzo, he asked rhetorically. (He was not, it appears, thinking in terms of Raoult's Law.) Well, khometz, as a bakery form, is RICHER. It is finer, more affluent, more self-indulgent. One could almost say that it has an ARROGANT character, as baked goods go. But matzo, ahhh...matzo: there we have a simple, unassuming character. It doesn't call attention to itself. Unlike snooty khometz, matzo just sits there, mild, plain, and flat, wishing only to be of help. Matzo stands for simplicity, and also, don't you see, for purity. One can even see the distinction between them in the first letters of each baked good's name. Khometz begins with the letter KHET while matzo begins with the MEM. The rebbe helpfully drew the Hebrew letters on two napkins and held them up for us all to inspect. The KHET, he pointed out, is like an upside-down box, closed at the top. There is no way out. But the MEM is different, it is not completely closed. It has a little opening at the top, and this, he confided to us, could be viewed as like an opening to heaven. The rebbe paused, beaming, to contemplate the virtues both of matzo and of its first letter.

By this time, I noticed that Ellen's head now lay directly on her plate, in perfect repose. Howard, on the other hand, was wide awake, and deep in conversation with Mickey Mouse. Aaron, who takes proper meal-times very seriously, was handling a roll and drawing his arm back, with the evident intention of hurling the roll at the rebbe. But now the rebbe at last noticed that the congregants were not exactly bewitched by the significance of matzo's first letter, and brought his monologue to an abrupt end. He thanked us all for our attention, shook hands briskly with David (to the latter's astonishment), and headed for the door.

Just before leaving, he looked meaningfully back at the table, and wished us a happy and kosher passover. The rebbe's expression implied that he did not entirely trust us on the kosher part. The door had scarcely closed behind him when Aaron launched himself into the kitchen to get the grilled cheese sandwiches. I had just time to mutter a quick blessing over the lemonade, and am still uncertain whether Snapple is properly described as pri ha'gofen (fruit of the vine). I must take it up with the rebbe on his next visit. We will need a lot of time to clear up a point of midrash halakha as thorny as this, but something tells me the rebbe will be willing.

A few weeks later, I presided over the seder at Chelm West, as I have done for the last few years. We follow the traditional ceremony, with variations that could be described as deconstructionist rather than reconstructionist. For example, we use lemonade or grape juice rather than wine for the four ceremonial cups. If we were to drink wine, then by the fourth cup there would be no need to ask the ceremonial question "Why on this night do we recline, whereas on other nights we try to sit up, more or less?" We replace the Paschal Lamb shank by a Paschal Chicken drumstick, and put delicious Greek skordalia on our matzos. Aaron, concerned as always to get on to the food, invariably interrupts my sonorous reading of the ten plagues with a description of the dinner menu. Our seders at Chelm West are a little anarchic, full of good spirit, and I find them both exhilarating and deeply affecting. They make me think again about the legend of the origin of Chelm.

The legend does not go into the consequences of the angel's accident, but I have worked out what they must have been. So many of the simple souls fell out of the bag over Chelm that too few were left to distribute in the right proportion elsewhere. And so, as the angel flew over the rest of the world and populated it with souls, he could not provide the necessary minimum of simple souls for any other single location.

This is the origin of all our misfortunes. God watches only over the simple, and it is only for their sake that He occasionally makes some small adjustment to allow the world to continue. But because of the accident over Chelm, the great places of the world, the glittering capitals like St. Petersburg, Vienna, and Paris, have too few simple souls. And so from these places, God has averted His gaze.

--- Dr. Phage
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