Blog: August 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.

Ki Teitze: what does Egypt have to do with it?

This week's parsha presents a variety of laws. In the seventh aliya we are given a reason for two of them -- because we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us. We see this theme in other places in Torah (and we remember the exodus in liturgy every day). But it's something I have trouble relating to on a personal level -- while it is part of our national history, it's usually pretty hard for me to see myself as having been redeemed from Egypt. (Even the people Moshe was addressing, with two exceptions, were not in Egypt.) I don't think I'm alone in this difficulty; would the haggadah have to remind us to see ourselves "as if" we had gone out of Egypt if this came easily to almost everyone?

But why should this be a problem? Mitzvot are mitzvot; we shouldn't need to be given specific reasons. The issue I see is that if we're given a reason and we don't relate to that reason, could that weaken the mitzvah, making us less likely to heed it? Especially if the reason seems to be guilt-based or "you owe me one"? It reminds me of times during childhood when my father would tell us kids "your mother worked hard on this meal and you're going to eat all of it, even the brussels sprouts". The guilt got me to do the action at my mother's table, but I don't eat brussels sprouts now. As an exercise of guilt it worked; as a way to get me to change my dining habits it didn't. Sure, that's a trivial example, and I'm not trying to compare the torah to unwanted vegetables. I'm just talking about the way a commandment with that kind of motivation can come off to a listener who isn't already completely sold.

I mentioned that this motif shows up a lot in torah, so I became curious about whether the associated mitzvot had anything in common. If so, maybe that could help me make the connection to the redemption theme. So I began searching (aided by a digital copy of the torah text). The words "Egypt" and "slave" occur a lot in the torah, so in the end I limited my search to Sefer D'varim, Moshe's final speech. I found five occurrences there. What are the associated mitzvot?

One, from this week's passage, is to not abuse the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow. Why them in particular? They are particularly vulnerable; someone without a father or husband to serve as advocate and protector is at a disadvantage, and someone without connections to the community is also isolated. We were strangers in Egypt and that didn't work so well for us at the time. Now we are not; we are part of a community, most of us [in the congregation where I was speaking] have good family relations, and we're overall in a good place in society. Let's remember that not everyone is.

Another, from just a few lines later in this week's passage, concerns gleanings. When we harvest our crops and miss or drop some, we are not to go back for it; we have to leave that for the poor to come gather. We have food enough to spare; we're in a much better position than someone whose most productive path to a meal is to follow us around hoping for scraps. Further, while we cultivated the field, we don't get full credit for making the food. As we have benefitted from God's bounty, so must we provide bounty to others.

A third has to do with the festivals. We're told that when we celebrate we have to include everyone, including our servants, and not just our own families. We have the means to make a celebration, so we have to include those who don't.

A fourth regards the sh'mita year. One year in seven we must let our fields lie fallow rather than leeching every last bit of life from the land. We don't need to, so we mustn't get greedy.

The last one I found is the one that we probably all figured out without help: Shabbat. Not only are we commanded to take a day of rest for God, but we have to give this to our workers and our animals. We have the power to compel work on every day (as was done to the slaves in Egypt), but we don't do so.

The common theme I see in these commandments -- protecting the weak, gleanings, festivals, sh'mita, and shabbat -- is privilege. We're in a better position than others; we are not to abuse it. We're pretty comfortable today in this community. Most of us don't even have to work for six days, let alone seven. We have comfortable homes, ample food, and probably more than a few luxuries. We've had pretty good educations and, often, outside encouragement to grow. Many of us come from stable families (my parents, for instance, just celebrated their 47th anniversary), and we are all part of a caring community. We live in safe neighborhoods and the police are a phone call away if needed. Most of us have pretty good health care, even with the current mess. These things aren't true of everyone (even in our own city to say nothing of the nation or world), and we have a religious obligation to acknowledge our own comfortable positions and help those who were dealt different cards. (I said religious, not political; we don't live in a theocracy.)

We are entitled to benefit from our own hard work; I'm not trying to say that everything comes only from God, we had no part in it, and communism is the right way to organize a society. No, we should be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor without guilt; there is nothing wrong with studying hard, getting a good job, and buying that nice house, car, or vacation. But we should remember that it's not all from us alone; we did the work but God gave us the brains, stable families, and health that allowed us to flourish.

With that context, I can view the redemption-from-Egypt basis for mitzvot not as some sort of guilt or divine scorekeeping, but rather as a reminder of the other ways in which I have been redeemed. As I have benefitted, so am I obligated to behave well toward others who haven't. And if someday I can make the personal connection to Egypt, this feeling can only get stronger.

Games day

We had a dozen or so people for gaming on Saturday. I played one new game this time, Pandemic, which I really enjoyed. Ralph, who brought it, wrote about the game here, but I'll share my impressions too.

This is a cooperative game for up to four players (all of our games had four so I can't speak to the experience with fewer players). Each player has a specialization; more about those in a bit. The team is trying to find cures for four diseases before they spread out of control. You win by finding the cures; you lose by having too many outbreaks, by having any disease run so rampant that you run out of its markers, or by exhausting the deck of cards without winning. The game starts with several infected cities; at the end of each player's turn two more cities will be drawn from the "infections" deck and infected as well. Every now and then an epidemic breaks out; a new city (from the bottom of the deck) gets a disease and then all the discarded infection cards get shuffled and put on top. That means that cities that have been infected once are more likely to be infected again, which has the right feel to it.

Players can spend actions (four per turn) to move, cure a single disease token (in the city they're in), build research centers (help with travel and required for finding a cure), or work on finding a cure. Finding a cure requires accumulating sets of cards, which are drawn each turn; there is a limited mechanism for passing cards, and one of the player roles (the researcher) can pass cards more freely (that's its special ability). The other roles are the scientist (requires fewer cards to cure), the dispatcher (can move other people on his turn and can bring people together without the normal constraints), the operations expert (can build research centers for free), and the medic (can heal cities more effectively). I played three games, playing researcher, the medic, and the dispatcher. I enjoyed all the games, and while it had appeared in the first two games that playing the dispatcher would be boring, it was not.

The calibration of the game (we played at the first two levels of difficulty) felt pretty good, neither too easy nor too hard. In the last game we were prepared to win on the very last turn, until the single card that would have caused us to lose came up in the infections deck. Oops.

Other games I played, all of which I think I've written about before, were Trans America (filler), Rum & Pirates, Puerto Rico (three players, four-point spread among scores), and Carcassonne.
Other games that were played (this might not be a complete list) were Imperial, Dominion, El Grande, and Hermagore. Pandemic and Dominion got played multiple times by different groups. Belatedly I realized I could have given up a Pandemic slot to let a new person play; I jumped into Pandemic when the choices were that and Arkham Horror (decent game but too visually-challenging for me late in the day), but then the other group decided to play something else instead and I didn't think to move. Oh well; didn't mean to be greedy with the new game.

We had some cancellations and were down five people (from planned) for dinner. Non-sandwich suggestions for leftover lunch meats would be welcome. (No combining with cheese or milk, though, so pizza, lasagna, etc are out.) We'll eat sandwiches too, but I'd like some variety. I think scrambling the pastrami in eggs would be good; I don't have good instincts for the roast beef (would stir-frying it with veggies work?) and turkey breast.

Food suggestions in the comments.

New restaurant: Hokaido Seafood Buffet

Hokkaido is a fairly new (to Pittsburgh) seafood restaurant on that stretch of Browns Hill Road leading from Squirrel Hill down to Homestead. (It's a chain; link is to their corporate page.) Dani and I went there for the first time Saturday night after Shabbat (around 9:30). Read more…

Midrash sessions 9 and 10

The last two sessions were shorter than usual so I'm combining them here. As usual, I'm choosing literal translation over the best (English) phrasing, since the main point is for me to improve my Hebrew. Read more…


Pennsic was quite good for me this year -- not for any big reasons, but for a lot of small things that went right. Read more…