Blog: January 2007

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Minor liturgical observation

I noticed something tonight during a class on a different topic. Every morning we say a prayer that begins as follows: "Elohai neshama shenatatah bi tehorah hi", "My God, the soul you have given me is pure". But given that English I would expect "shenatatah li" -- gave to me. Instead, it says bi, which seems closer to "in me". In one way it makes no difference; we're saying God placed my soul within me. In another way, though, that's kind of neat -- "bi" seems more intimate, more reminiscent of that very first soul-insertion, when God breathed the soul into the nostrils of ha-adam, the first human.

I suspect my experience of this prayer might be a little different tomorrow morning.

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A commeter wrote:

Another aspect: li would mean that it was given to me, while bi means that it was placed within me but not necessarily given to me (i.e. not for me to control/do with as I will/etc).

To which I replied:

Good point -- the soul is "on loan", so to speak. We're custodians.

Bo: the tenth plague

This is roughly the d'var torah I gave yesterday morning. Warning: the tenth plague, the death of the first-born, isn't light stuff.

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Last week we read the first seven plagues against Egypt, and this week we read the final three, including the terrible final one. After each plague Paro initially relents and then his heart is hardened. God tells Moshe that the reason for the plagues is to demonstrate God's superiority over Paro; it appears that Paro is supposed to retract his promises to free the Jews. When Paro stops doing it himself, God helps him along. What clearer account could we have that really, God is just a puppeteer, the author who has already decided how his creations will behave?

Further, the final plague appears to be particularly cruel. Some plagues are direct attacks against things Egypt holds holy, like the Nile and the sun. Others are inconvenient, painful, and economically devastating, but they are not life-threatening and they target the people who benefitted from the Jews' slavery. But the final plague is different; not only does it kill, but it kills many who are too young to be involved, too young to be held accountable. Yes, children can be tainted from an early age, as anyone who has seen television from the Arab world knows, but surely not every first-born killed in the plague had it coming. Shall not the god of justice deal justly? What could possibly explain this?

Before you get your hopes up -- no, I don't have a definitive, reassuring answer for this plague, some teaching to offer that will make it all better. If I could do that, I'd probably have s'micha. :-) But in thinking about this plague and trying to figure out just what I could say about it this morning, I found another way to look at this event.

Imagine that you're a Jew in slavery in Egypt. Things are bad, but they've been bearable so far. Then this pampered prince who's never been there in the fields with you comes along and dangles hope in front of you. But every time he goes to talk to Paro, your life gets worse -- the work gets harder, the task-masters' beatings increase, and the food gets worse. The false hope Moshe offers you about impending freedom adds insult to injury. Moshe and his god don't seem to be doing you any favors; what can you do to make him stop?

People can be remarkably good at adapting to bad situations and enduring. We get used to the status quo -- even when it's the bad job, the abusive family member, the destructive habit. Standing up and making a change can be much, much harder than enduring whatever you think life has dealt you. And how much the moreso when it's not just personal, when your entire people is under attack?

The midrash says that 80 percent of the Jews didn't want to leave Egypt, despite the conditions. One midrash even says that God punished some of them for this during the plague of darkness, when the Egyptians wouldn't be able to see. It sounds like most of the Jews in Egypt would have preferred that Moshe and God stop stirring up trouble.

Against this backdrop, perhaps God had to do something dramatic, something that would force them to act. The final plague is different from the rest; the Jews had to take positive, public action to avoid being stricken. The penalty for not acting was the death of one of your children -- not your own death, which some would accept, but having to witness the death of someone close. Lesser threats had apparently not gotten through to most of the people. Maybe, rather than being Paro's punishment for enslaving the Jewish people, this plague was the thing that finally got the Jews to stand up for themselves. Maybe this is not what God tha manipulator planned, but rather what God the all-seeing knew would be necessary.

Was it just? Maybe in the grand scheme of things it was less unjust than the alternatives; maybe a few Egyptians had to die to prevent 80% of the Jews from dying in Egypt. We don't get to make decisions about those kinds of trade-offs; people have imperfect knowledge and questionable motives. But God, we have to believe, has a better position from which to judge, even if we don't understand.

A talmudic puzzler

A discussion in talmud tries to determine who is and is not permitted to do the public reading of the megillah for Purim, and three cases are raised: a deranged man, a deaf man, and a child. Everyone's clear that the deranged man is out. There's a lot of argument about the deaf man (who can speak but can't hear his own words), and then there's an aside by Rashi -- surprisingly not supported in text -- about the child. He says it depends on whether the child has reached the "age of training" -- that is, the age at which he can be trained to perform mitzvot. (While one is not obligated until the age of 13, you've got to learn and practice before then so you'll be ready.) The argument is mostly focusing on ex-post-facto cases (b'diaved) -- that is, someone questionable has gone and done a megillah reading; does it count?

Check me on this: we are having a discussion of whether the child who just read the megillah is of an age where he can be trained to do so? I am obviously missing something.

My guess -- also not supported in text -- is that this hinges on the typical age of training, not any individual case; if custom is that you can't learn to do this until you're 10, a 9-year-old prodigy is disqualified.

(B'rachot 15b, if you're curious.)

Survey followup

A few days ago I asked my readers a question and promised to follow up. Here's why: the account of the revelation at Sinai that I think I know isn't what's written in torah, and this was true of everyone in class Monday night when we discussed it, and I was curiou about how widespread that is. Pretty widespread, as it turned out. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

Mind, every year I read the relevant passages and have some reaction along the lines of "huh, that's odd", but that thought never seems to stick around long enough for me to actually do something about it. So I'm glad our teacher pointed it out.

A summary:

  • God speaks the ten commandments

  • The people say "hey Moshe, we can't handle this -- you go" (20:16)

  • Moshe goes to talk with God

  • Moshe comes back and says "here's what God said", the people say "we're in", and Moshe "wrote down God's words" (24:3-4)

  • Moshe does a ritual with sacrifices and blood

  • Moshe reads "the book of the covenant" to the people and they make the famous reply "we will do and we will obey" (24:7)

  • Moshe and some others go up and have their vision of God, and only then does Moshe go up, spend 40 days (really 47), get the (first) tablets, and come down to see the calf party

(I'm sorry the golden calf served as a distraction for people. I was trying to find a way to mark this end point without giving anything away. I could have done that better.)

I, like many of you, have this deep-seated notion of God speaking, the people saying "you go", and Moshe going and getting the tablets. I know that "we will do and we will obey" is in there, but I always manage to misplace it.

But what's with the other one or two documents that Moshe (not God) wrote and the people agreed to? What was in them? Moshe eventually comes down with the tablets of the covenant and this -- the torah -- is the real agreement, but I wonder about the preliminaries. If they were just going to get replaced, why were they there? If they were just a preview ("here's what I've got so far; I'm going back for more"), why did Moshe write it down and why did the people make a sacred covenant?

The best interpretation I can come up with is that this is the people signing a "letter of intent" before the main parties spend time crafting the final contract, but that feels a little weak to me.

Tangentially (though this was a significant topic in class), at the end of Deuteronomy Moshe writes "this torah" and gives it to the priests (to keep with the ark, not in it). I read this as a copy; the original tablets are in the ark, where the priests can't easily refer to it, so here's a copy they can use to look things up in (even though Joshua can handle those questions). I've never really thought about that passage before.

Traveling with an iBook

Someone asked me:

I've been meaning to ask -- perhaps you already addressed this and I missed it -- you took a Mac laptop on your trip with you, yes? How did that work out for you?

I replied:

Pretty well in general. I took an iBook (12", a couple years old, running OS 10.4) that I bought used recently. This is the only laptop I've ever owned, though I've borrowed the occasional Windows laptop for conferences and the like, so I have limited experience for compare-and-contrast analysis.

Being able to open the machine and auto-detect wireless networks in airports and hotels was nice. The access was never free and in all cases, launching a browser brought me to the hot-spot page telling me how to get access. (I assume that's all standard behavior.)

I took a mouse with me because I've had a lot of trouble with PC trackpads, but most of the time I didn't actually use it. I would have used it for finer-grained activities, but starting the machine, launching emacs, typing an LJ entry, launching a browser, and pasting it in was not that big a deal with the on-board hardware. (Sometimes I plugged a mouse in for the cut-and-paste operation.) Ditto reading comments on my entries -- the trackpad was fine, at least for the amount of time I was spending online. (Access was metered so I didn't even try to read my friends page -- just comments on my own entries, and my email via shell.)

I mostly couldn't use the machine on the planes for two reasons, one likely personal. It was hard for me to get the laptop into a position where I could both type and see the monitor on those little tray tables -- that's just me, due to my limited vision. The other problem might have been hardware, and I may have to pay a visit to the local experts: I discovered that the machine was very sensitive to being tilted. Once on the plane it made an awful squealing noise and wouldn't boot (at the beginning of the trip, so this was scary); later it was fine on a hotel desk but when I picked it up to carry it across the room (running and on battery power only), it made that same noise and the screen blanked. (I set it down and things went back to normal.) Before the trip I bought a new battery (brand new, not used); that's the only hardware change I've made. Both times this happened it was running on battery power. Are those facts related? I have no idea.

I had forgotten that I hadn't configured a decent-sized emacs font before leaving, and machine-local exploration (like querying emacs' font set) wasn't turning up anything useful for me. (I haven't tried Google yet, having forgotten until just now.) I used the zoom functionality built into OS X to handle that; it meant the entire screen wasn't on-screen, but since I was just using a text editor that was ok so long as the text I was directly working on was there. One down-side: the center point of the zoom is dynamic and based on mouse-cursor position, so I couldn't just shove the mouse off to the side out of the way. I found places to put it where it didn't bother me, and I understand why they did it that way, but I think I would have liked an option to specify a center point for this kind of case.

The other thing that was a little frustrating was that plugging in a mouse didn't disable the trackpad, so an accidental brush there produced surprising results. (If you're using the trackpad you expect it to raact, but when I plugged in the mouse I began to think of the mouse as the sole control, not just one of two, so I was startled every time the trackpad activated.)

Some people who know about my vision expressed surprise that I chose a 12" monitor, but that was (1) fine for my purposes and (2) a feature when considering portability. I knew I was going to be using it to (functionally) do just one thing at a time anyway, so if my emacs session or browser or ssh session wanted most of the screen, fine. This would be completely unacceptable for a work or primary-home machine, but it's just fine for a travelling machine. And being able to easily put the machine in my backpack without worrying about either footprint or weight was nice.

Oh, I also used it for downloading pictures from the camera (and backing them up on a thumb drive). For that I used the mouse. I did not attempt to do any editing of said pictures on the laptop.

Overall, definitely a positive experience.

Technological disappointments

I don't care about the iPhone at all, but the announcement of AppleTV caught my interest. I'd probably pay $300 for a device that lets me dump the cable service (depending on what content costs). I don't watch a lot of TV but I don't want to watch what I do watch on my computer; this fills a real need for me. Alas, it appears (from Apple's site) that my plain old TV, bought about five years ago, can't talk to this new box; they use the words "widescreen" and "enhanced definition", neither of which I think applies to my TV (assuming "widescreen" means 16:9 instead of the standard 4:3 aspect ratio -- why that should make a difference when they could just letterbox is beyond me). They can make an allowance for wired networks but not for recent-but-not-current TVs? Bummer.

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Spam subject line of the day: "mollusk suffrage". On consideration, giving them the vote probably wouldn't make things worse.

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I cleaned out my spam traps last night; the problem has definitely gotten worse recently. There's more spam and the distribution (or performance of various filters) has changed:

My filters, in order of firing, are:

  • Pobox bounce: 200 messages/day (these generate unknown-address notices)

  • Pobox trap: about 75 messages/day

  • Procmail 1 (SpamAssassin score 7+ and a few specific targets): about 100 messages/day

  • Procmail 2 (aka "maybe spam"; gets about 5% false positives): about 10 messages/day

I haven't been keeping careful records, but I think about 15-20 messages/day get through all that to my inbox.

Gak. That's about 400 pieces of spam per day aimed at my mailbox, of which about a third are getting through to my mail host. (I want this stuff to be caught as far upstream as possible.) Pobox used to catch a higher proportion; in addition, the ratio of Pobox bounce:trap used to be about 5:1, not the current ~3:1. I can't say that this is a Pobox degradation, though, as it wasn't long ago that I got about 100 pieces of spam a day, total. Pobox is presumably trapping everything it used to and a good deal more, but the spammers have gotten more clever. (I should write a procmail rule to catch any message that begins with an image.) I used to browse the traps about once a week looking for legitimate mail, but even with search that's getting impractical. I no longer inspect the bounce trap at all.

The spammers have caused email reliability to revert to that of the UUCP days, when there was a chance that your legitimate message just plain never got there. Thanks, guys.

Partly-formed thoughs on a difficult torah passage

This week's torah study largely revolved around one verse from Va'etchanan, Deut 7:2: "When God your Lord places [the seven nations in the land] at your disposal and you defeat them, you must utterly destroy them, not making any treaty with them or giving them any consideration." (Translation from ORT.)

(There are, of course, other places where this subject comes up too; the book of D'varim is largely repetition. This is where our study group is now.)

This directive makes many people (myself included) uncomfortable. How can God command us to utterly destroy people, when elsewhere in torah we're given strong ethical directives about how we treat others, including non-Jews? This doesn't sound like treating your fellow as yourself or dealing kindly with the strangers in your midst. As with many things in torah, I think it depends on how you read it.

The thing I noticed immediately, when someone brought up the ethical laws, is that those laws talk about treating individuals but, perhaps, the current verse talks about treating peoples. The torah goes on to forbid intermarriage with these peoples, specifically because those nations will lure the Israelites into idolatry. It's not an idle fear, as the story of Pinchas illustrates.

I'm not comfortable reading "utterly destroy" literally. My instinct is to try to narrow the context to "in the land of Israel" -- that is, it might be fine with God if the Hittites et al go do their thing somewhere else, but the Israelites have to destroy their influence within Israel. It's tied to the conquest of the land, after all, so maybe "utterly destroy" means "destroy them as an organized presence in this land". The previous verse (which I didn't quote) says that God will drive these seven nations out; maybe we can read the present verse as closer to "and keep it that way". Israel is not being commanded to go out into the world, seek out every last Hittite, and kill him. That status seems to be reserved for Amalek.

My Hebrew probably isn't good enough for this analysis, but here I go. The phrase translated as "utterly destroy" is "hachareim tacharim", which repeats the same root in two different forms. (It's a chet, not a chaf; I really need to learn the right way to distinguish them in ASCII transliteration.) Repetition sometimes means emphasis; if that's what's going on here and if we take "destroy" at face value, then you could informally translate the phrase as "really, I mean it, destroy them", which to this English speaker is not quite the same as "utterly destroy them". (Granted, English is not the original language and all translations are imperfect.) By contrast, when God commands Israel to "obliterate" the memory of Amalek (Deut 25:19), which is quite definitely a call to more direct action, the verb used is "timcheh" (not the same root as the present case).

The difference in word choice piqued my curiosity, so off to BDB (the lexicon of choice for this, I'm told) I went. Chet-reish-mem (which you might recognize as "cherem", excommunication) seems to be closer to "prohibit", while mem-chet-hei is closer to "strike". So perhaps my instinct was right, that the text is telling us to take different kinds of actions in the two cases (seven nations versus Amalek). Ch-R-M doesn't imply a lack of violence, but the degrees might be different.

When encountering difficult passages, some Jews (especially liberal ones) fall back on the view that this was a text written for an earlier people and it needs to speak in their cultural context (and, hand-wave, this speaks to them and not to us). If you're going to take that approach, though, then why seriously study any of it? At best you can pick and choose the parts that still give warm fuzzy feelings millennia later. Whether you think the torah was written by God (for all time) or men, if you think it's important at all then I think you need to wrestle with all of it, not just the appealing parts. This is one of the reasons I'm so pleased with the (slow) speed of our torah-study group; we're not doing the weekly parsha but rather just a few verses at a time, in sequence. If you try to do several chapters in an hour, of necessity you're going to skip parts entirely.

I don't claim to be good at this wrestling; I could be (and often am) off base in how I read the text. This is why I ask questions and raise challenges in torah study and classes, make posts like this, and engage my fellow congregants in discussions when they seem willing. I hope to learn from the process, both in articulating what I think I understand and in hearing others' views. How else can I tease out a better understanding?

Lots of discussion in comments (archive).

Ivrit

This morning at the end of services the rabbi said he had a message for the congregation, and proceeded to translate from a certain postcard. Err, when I said "say hi to the morning minyan", I sort of assumed the postcard would beat me there. :-) (Two weeks.) He praised my Hebrew, I suspect more than it deserved. (I hadn't taken a dictionary with me.) But I figured it was fair to make him and Dani work a little for their postcards. :-)

Before sending it I took a picture:

handwritten Hebrew message

Yes, we really talk like this

On the way home tonight from an SCA event, in the rain:

Dani: I'm really disappointed that we got a non-balmy day in January.

Me: I'm sure it's balmy somewhere. (Pause.) I'm sure it's day somewhere.

Dani: The operative word was "get".

Me: You have to go pick it up; they don't deliver.

(Apparently my theory that I had dodged some winter weather while in Israel was mistaken; it was warm here the entire time I was gone.)

Israel trip

At the time I posted pictures in Picasa albums. Picasa has since died, taking my captions with it.

Here follows a long trip report with pictures. Some of this is drawn from blog posts I made during the trip (which are also here), but this is the tidied-up version, also with pictures.

Other thoughts

People have asked me if I felt unsafe in Israel. No, I didn't. While security is an everyday matter there, it didn't seem to take over; it was part of the background, not something that people got worked up over. Most restaurants had shomrim (guards) who sat outside and sized you up on the way in; when going into larger establishments (including grocery stores) I sometimes had to offer a bag for search. Once I walked through a metal detector. It was all routine, normal. I didn't see as many soldiers as I expected, and I saw even fewer who were obviously armed. We drove through the west bank -- quiet.

Things are much closer together than I had thought. Living in the US, I'm not used to thinking of places as that small and tight. I heard a saying there: in the US 200 years is a long time; in Israel 200 miles is a long distance. So true. (I talked about distance; here's time: we were told that if you use the word "old" and aren't talking about milennia, people will laugh at you.)

Being somewhat immersed in the Hebrew language was interesting. I understood more of what I heard than I'd expected and less than I'd hoped. Speaking (as opposed to listening) was hard; I'm still too slow. It was rarely necessary; almost everyone we interacted with spoke (and assumed) English. But I took the practice opportunities when I found them.