Blog: June 2009

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.

What's that tree in the middle of the garden?

My rabbi is currently in Jerusalem, so I was asked to lead the torah study before the morning service. (That day's torah reader led the whole service, which worked well.) We're currently in the second chapter of Genesis (the group progresses a few verses a week; last time it took 20 years to get through and that's fine with us), so this week we talked about the special trees in Gan Eden.

I hadn't realized in advance that our primary chumash, Plaut, translates the one as "the tree of knowledge of everything". That seems pretty loose to me; the conventional translation is "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (or sometimes you see "bad"). There was a footnote: the translator understood "good and bad" as describing a spectrum, not binary choices. Interesting, but not really the focus of our conversation.

We talked some about how eating from the tree of life was permitted so long as they didn't eat from the other one, and that man (or Adam and Chava; not clear to me) could have been immortal but ignorant. I asked the group if there were things that it would be better we didn't know; is ignorance desirable? No one took up that argument; everyone was on board with chowing down on knowledge. (I am too, for the record, with the exception that there are things about individual people or communities I don't need/want to know. But I don't think that's what this is about.)

So what exactly is this "knowledge", anyway? Is it a moral knowledge, the identification that some things are "good" and some "bad" (and we should use that knowledge to moderate our behavior)? That is, is this the tree of ethics? Several people supported that view. Someone brought the Rambam (Maimonides) that it gave (if I understood this correctly) the will to set aside the best outcome for a desirable one. If I've got this right, the Rambam says that pre-fruit we were logical, taking the actions that were best for us, but eating from the tree brought free will into it (so this knowledge could only make things worse). So, according to the Rambam and to use a light example, it was only after eating the fruit that it was possible to say "I know this bowl of chocolate ice cream is bad for me but I'm going to eat it anyway"; previously, we wouldn't have eaten the ice cream.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that the "knowledge" is our inclinations; this is (again, if I understand correctly) where the yetizer tov (good inclination) and yetzer ra (bad inclination) come from. Before that, he says, the base state was for people to be good. I didn't get to push the conversation in that direction; that the base state is good rather than neutral seems controversial to me. Another time. (I won't be there next week, but I can send the suggestion along, maybe.)

Aside: the rabbis have quite a bit to say about the desirability of having the yeitzer ra in the world. We need it to be there but we're supposed to dominate it. (There's a midrash where people imprison and are going to kill the yeitzer ra, but there are bad consequences so they don't.)

You know what Rashi has to say about this tree? Absolutely nothing. That surprised me.

Other interesting things were said, but I haven't managed to retain them. Overall, I think the session went well. It was also a slightly larger group than normal, which is doubly surprising because when it's known my rabbi won't be there attendance usually drops off.


Apropos of nothing, I learned yesterday morning that another congregant is going to the kallah, so instead of driving myself I now have a ride. Nice! (I knew that her daughter's family was going; the husband is in the ALEPH rabbinic program so he pretty much has to. But that means he's staying another week after the kallah, so I didn't try to hook up with them. Turns out the whole gang is going, everyone but him is coming back after the kallah, and he's finding his own way back a week later.)

Midrash session 8 (and a hardware update)

This session was actually a few weeks ago (things have been hectic). Read more…

Mac frustration

It's a lovely machine in many ways, but if I can't figure out how to print from it, it's going to be rather limited.

I have an HP LaserJet 1020, which apparently does not work natively with the Mac. I first tried to just share it from my PC, but that doesn't work -- at best I can get jobs to appear to queue from the Mac but go nowhere. These instructions were written for Tiger but I did basically the same stuff (the UI has changed). The Mac doesn't have a driver and won't even let me select one I downloaded (see next step), and "generic postscript" doesn't work. So then I moved the printer to the Mac and followed these instructions, which gets me as far as a job showing up in the print queue on the Mac and never printing. (But hey, on the way it showed me a picture of my printer, so it knows something.) Whee.

I don't care which machine it's connected to so long as I can print from both. Currently I can print from neither. I guess Apple tech support is my next stop. Sigh.

Edit: fixed on the Mac side (Windows can't print to it via the network yet).


My Mac Mini arrived Friday, faster than I expected. In an act of will I did not punt my congregation's Friday-evening services, attendance at which required starting Shabbat two hours early, to play with it (and go somewhere else later). I did verify that a VNC server is running on my PC and reachable from my laptop, so I can skip the dual-monitor/keyboard/mouse-on-one-desk setup. So now, off to rearrange bunches of hardware and load up a new machine.

If you've got favorite Mac tips & tricks, sites, software, etc, please feel free to share. I've used an iBook (running Tiger) casually, but as a main machine it's new to me.

The rain isn't supposed to be indoors, right?

The phrase for the night was "that's why we have insurance".

A big storm rolled through Pittsburgh around 6:30-7:00 tonight. It dumped massive quantities of rain and we had several short power outages. But then it started to die down and I knew of no reason the 7:30 meeting at my synagogue would be cancelled, so out I went, dodging a couple intersections closed by accidents.

I walked into the building to find no one obviously around but the door unlocked, the lights on... and the alarm blaring and two big puddles in the lobby, one at the foot of a staircase. After calling out didn't produce any results, I headed out to the relative quiet of the front porch to try to call the director (failed). By this time another person had arrived for the meeting, and while we were talking about what to do next we saw people moving around inside so we went back in, where we joined a water-diversion effort. The director was already there and told us the sanctuary and chapel were fine but parts of the upstairs were not. The sound of a waterfall in the stairwell confirmed her story. We were then joined by my rabbi and the meeting chair, who had been in the sanctuary tending to torah scrolls (all fine, whew). Most of us headed to the gift shop, where water was pouring in from above and chunks of ceiling were floating in the ankle-high water, to rescue as much as we could. Most of the chumashim were shrink-wrapped; many of the other books weren't. :-(

Apparently we lost part of the roof -- probably two parts, since the gift shop wasn't getting its water from the stairwell. Oof.

It puts the water in my basement into perspective.

Beyond the letter of the law

Last Thursday after morning services the rabbi was telling me about a d'var torah on parshat Kedoshim, which begins "you shall be holy". The d'var (which I found online after he emailed me a copy of it) talks about the concept of the "naval birshut ha-torah", the one who is (essentially) a rogue within the domain of the torah. That is, you can fulfill the letter of the law and still be doing bad things; "kedoshim tih'yu" (you shall be holy) calls on us to do more than what's strictly required.

(Which, ok, raises the question that if it's the torah telling us this, then isn't that really within the scope of the black-letter law to begin with? But I digress.)

Anyway, the reason we were having this conversation is that the author of the d'var torah, Rabbi Artson at the Ziegler School, talks a lot about a guy named Naval who wasn't a nice person. The phrase "naval birshut ha-torah" originally comes from the Ramban (Nachmanides), who probably didn't use capitalization (Hebrew doesn't), and (according to the rabbi with whom I was speaking) the word "naval" has the more general meaning of a rogue or cheat or the like. So the question arose: was the Ramban talking about Naval or a naval? I don't have the correct references available; if someone reading this does, please speak up.

Why does it matter? If the Ramban meant Naval, then it might -- within the letter of the law :-) -- be correct to draw more specific conclusions about behaviors that are not in keeping with "you shall be holy". Anything Naval did would be included, but for other negative behaviors, you would have to make an argument tying them to Naval indirectly somehow. On the other hand, if we're talking about a naval, then broader interpretation is called for from the start.

In one sense it doesn't matter; I strive to go beyond the letter of the law and be a better person than I "have" to be no matter what the Ramban meant. But I'm still curious about what he actually meant and what his context was.

I'm the what?

Originally a locked entry.

Late last week the engineering manager asked me how comfortable I am with writing requirements. I answered the question, asked what was up, and got no reply.

Monday a project manager asked me to help work out requirements for a particular effort. I said ok but kind of wondered why me; I'm neither an expert in the particular area nor a stake-holder.

Once I saw the attendee list I became suspicious (way too many face cards [1] in that meeting), and it was later confirmed for me: I'm the "biggest brain" not already firmly ensconced in the argument. I've been called in as a mediator. This will be novel.

(I sent my first "here's what I heard you all say, here's where you seem to agree, and here's what we need to talk more" draft to the chief architect this afternoon. Tomorrow I hope to corner the program manager who wants "X and not X" in too many places.)

[1] A long time ago there was a company deck of cards. The founders' faces were on the jokers, and there was an unrealized notion that the other high-ranking folks ought to have been face cards.

How can a murderer be pro-life?

I keep starting and abandoning posts about the murder of Dr. Tiller. I guess I'm still a little dumbfounded by the fanaticism involved.

It's not about pro-choice versus pro-life; the people I know who oppose abortion are not cold-blooded murderers, and we can disagree thoughtfully and respectfully. And most of the people I know who oppose abortion still grant that under some circumstances it might be the least-bad path, if the life of the mother is at stake (and with it the life of the fetus anyway, in some cases). I don't like abortion, but I feel it can be necessary sometimes. People like Randall Terry call Dr. Tiller a butcher; what do you call a doctor who stands idly by while a woman dies from a pregnancy gone horribly wrong?

But as I said, this isn't just about abortion. The person who murdered Dr. Tiller committed the same kind of terroristic act as the unabomber or the Oklahoma City bombers or any number of other people trying to advance a position by inciting fear and committing violence. No matter what the issue is, the method is unacceptable. As with treason, terrorism is about more than the specific acts committed by the wrongdoers. It doesn't seem like our legal system has a good way to deal with that, and indeed it would be hard to write the relevant laws, but I sure hope this factor is taken into account when Dr. Tiller's murderer is convicted and sentenced. The murder of any individual is sad; this was not just the murder of one individual. It needs to be discussed and, if possible, prosecuted as the larger crime.

Lots of discussion in the comments.

Midrash session 7

More midrash from Sefer Aggadah and my attempts to translate. Read more…