Blog: September 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.

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur went fairly well for me this year. I had some introspective moments during the services that were good for me. The fast wasn't too bad; the headache waited until almost 4PM to show up and my mouth felt dry but I didn't feel hungry. The break-fast at a friend's was a nice mix of sedate eating and lively conversation. (This is probably the most time I've spent in close proximity to William du Montegilt. Interesting fellow.)

I dislike the Yizkor service in the Reform machzor but I had overheard my rabbi tell someone else that he was going to do something a little different with his talk there, so I went. The talk was very good; I'm not going to share here some personal details he gave there, but the general theme was that we should make amends before it's too late not just because we might die but because the other might and then no apology or amend is possible. He talked about drifting away from people without clearing things like this up, and I found myself thinking of someone I went to high school with who clearly wants to have some sort of relationship with me, but I'm not interested because we have nothing in common but a distant past. What do I owe this person, I wonder? Is it sufficient to say, as gently as I can, that I'm not interested? Do I owe more? Thus far I have been ignoring the situation. (This is, by the way, not dissimilar to my reasons for not being on Facebook. If the only thing we have in common is that we attended the same school several decades ago, then no, I'm not really interested in getting in touch. There are plenty of people who represent much more fertile grounds for friendship.)

Now that my congregation has been using Mishkan T'filah for more than a year the style of Gates of Repentance, which is similar to the siddur MT replaced, is even more jarring -- the lack of honest English translations, the "creative" English readings that deviate quite far from what I understand of the Hebrew and its intent... it's bizarre. The political correctness in some of the English phrasing stands out too, but it also does in MT. On Yom Kippur especially, I want the image of a divine King. A divine Sovereign just doesn't have the same feel, you know? Fortunately they just leave "avinu malkeinu" untranslated; if that turned into something like "our parent, our ruler" instead of "our father, our king" I would twitch. I've been thinking for a while that I need to study a traditional machzor; I mentioned this last week and received a recommendation I will follow up. I'd like to have more fluency with the traditional liturgy before our services next year. (Were it not for the fact that (1) I would miss my rabbi's sermon and (2) it might cause offense, I would be tempted to seek out a traditional congregation for at least one HHD service, just to experience it. I did go to a Conservative second-day-RH service many years ago, but I didn't have enough experience at the time to really appreciate it.)

I went to the later morning service because I was planning to stay all day (and this meant I didn't have to kill a few hours between services; I've learned in the past that there's no good reading light in parts of the building I can get to). All of the torah readers were recent b'nei mitzvah; on Rosh Hashana, when I went to the early service, all the torah readers were adults. (They always invite the kids first; I guess it's harder for them to get there early? Dunno.) The readers were good to very good, and I wonder what we can do to provide opportunities to kids to stay engaged. Teenagers don't tend to come to the informal Shabbat minyan (where we have lay torah readers), and we don't have a lot of lay torah reading otherwise. Of course, it doesn't have to be torah reading; there could be other ways to invite them in. Of course, similar issues apply to lay adults who want to be more involved, so I guess it's a hard problem. (In my experience, Reform Jews expect their rabbis, rather than lay people, to lead services. There's a lot of pressure; I'm sure my rabbi catches some flack each time he lets me lead a Friday service, which happens once or twice a year. Mind, he also receives compliments (as do I), but that doesn't make the flack less annoying.)

The mincha service had something new. At that service we read the book of Jonah; this year members of the youth group (and some adults) staged a dramatic presentation (mute show while the text was being read). They had masks and props and stuff. It was well-done, and the person playing Jonah did a good job with body language. (The face was completely hidden and, as I said, the actors didn't speak, so that's all that was available.) Because someone had recently brought it to my attention I was listening for the last sentenece of the reading to see how it would be translated; it was softened, as it often is. I like the interpretation that Andrew quoted in his entry: "These people (the Assyrians, in Nineveh) are stupid and ignorant and evil and despised, yet even they would have been forgiven had they only repented. What’s stopping you?"

The ne'ilah service, at the end of the day, felt uplifting, as we stood there in community repeating our dedication to God and then hearing that final shofar blast. I felt like matters were, in fact, right with God at that point. Are we individually judged and sealed annually? Maybe, maybe not -- the thought that is most powerful for me at this time is kivyachol, "as if it were".

This entry is kind of rambly, which is how the day often feels to me. Lots to think about, only some of which I've captured here.

(Pre) Yom Kippur

Tonight is Kol Nidre, the beginning of Yom Kippur, so I won't be around tonight or tomorrow. To those who observe, have an easy fast.

According to the Rambam we know that someone has done teshuvah when he makes amends, asks for forgiveness, and doesn't do the same thing again when put in a similar situation later. This year I found myself saying to someone that I don't know if I'll do the same thing because habits are hard to break, but I will certainly try not to. I suspect this is a common case (though not necessarily articulated as such). I find myself wondering whether the Rambam means "yeah, it could take years to know", or if he means the narrower case of your intention at the time that you apologize and ask forgiveness.

The problem can be bad habits or obliviousness (the latter being, I suppose, a case of the former). So in that vein, if I have done harm to anyone reading this in the last year, there is a good chance I don't know, which makes it challenging to make amends. I would appreciate it if you would help me out by contacting me privately to let me know that we need to speak. (Fortunately, given the timing, the gates of repentance do not close at the end of Yom Kippur.)

A musical possibility

My congregation is having a talent show in January (fundraiser). They're limiting it to five minutes per performance and congregants only, so I can't bring in On the Mark, alas. (I'm also not too motivated to spend 45+ minutes tuning the hammer dulcimer to concert-level precision for five minutes.) I told the person in charge, who was encouraging me to participate anyway, that a-capella solo vocals probably wouldn't be very interesting to audiences and she said our pianist would be available so long as we provide sheet music. Our pianist is really, really good, so that's an interesting idea.

I've been trying to figure out what to sing. When On the Mark was a possibility I'd been thinking of "Denmark 1943". I don't have a piano part for it, but maybe I could cons one up from what On the Mark did. But that idea isn't grabbing me. Then I thought to maybe do something by Neshama Carlebach, as she does some good music that often has nice piano lines (I assume I could procure sheet music), but again, specifics are eluding me right now.

Then it hit me this morning: I could compose something for voice and piano. It's a talent show, after all; let's broaden the definition. I've only done this once before (not counting arrangements for OTM) and I am not myself a pianist, so I'm not sure it'd be any good, but I've got some time to find out. (The last time I did this I had a professor critiquing drafts and making suggestions.) Now I just have to identify a text... (I want Hebrew; it needn't be liturgical, though it could be.)

I'm pretty happy with the one piece I did do, but while the text is from Psalms, the language is Latin and the Hebrew text doesn't fit the music well. (Already tried.) I'm not going to sing in Latin in a synagogue. So I'll roll this idea around in my head for a little while to see what ideas hatch. I haven't done serious composition in a while (in part, limited opportunities), and this idea appeals.

Rosh Hashana in bullet points

  • - Normal 15-minute drive home from work Friday took 45 minutes.

  • + But I'd done most of the cooking the night before.

  • + Used special candles that were a Pesach present from a friend.

  • - Kabbalat shabbat shrunk to make room for Rosh Hashana.

  • + Seasonal motifs work: the majesty of the HHD music was quite evocative.

  • - Off-by-one error in the assigned torah readings left me preparing one more verse five minutes before the service.

  • + I could, in part because I thought that might happen and looked at it briefly the night before.

  • + Compliment from several: "you sounded like you knew what you were chanting". That's because I did, and I also got the climax of the passage.

  • + Excellent sermon jumping off from Yishmael (not Yitzchak as we often do).

  • - Morning liturgy felt choppy to me: day-of-judgment stuff was very effective but we seemed to spend more time celebrating the creation of the world instead. Maybe I need to get myself a traditional machzor to better learn and appreciate. (Suggestions welcome.)

  • + Unatana tokef brought out the gravity of the day quite thoroughly.

  • - I wish I'd felt more of that before Rosh Hashana.

  • + Second-day service was a nice complement to the first.

  • + The rising crescendo of the last shofar blast, t'kiah g'dolah; to conserve breath it starts low and quiet and then intensifies to the final blast. shiver

  • -/+ No guests (minus), but it meant meals could be lower key and that turned out to be good.

  • + Afternoon games of Pandemic, because it's ok to not spend all your time focusing on the themes of the season.

Halachic problems for Jewish pirates

In connection with "talk like a pirate day", I had linked to a post (now missing) called "top ten halachic problems for Jewish pirates" and said: "Should I be worried that I have defensible answers for several of them?" Naturally, someone called me on it.

If you have a hook instead of a hand, which arm do you put teffillin on?

You place t'fillin on the weaker arm. The stronger arm is considered to be the one you write with. Unless the pirate has learned to write with a hook, this means the t'fillin go on the arm with the hook. I am not sure what the law is in the case of one who is illiterate.

Does your treasure map show how far the eruv extends?

I don't know; do you usually make an eiruv around buried treasure? I wouldn't; you have to wait until after Shabbat to carry it out anyway...

How long do you wait till after capturing a ship to put up a mezzuzah in the cabin?

Do you intend to occupy the ship? If it is your residence, you must do so immediately. If it is merely a vehicle or a temporary dwelling, you don't need one at all. We recommend having a non-Jewish crew member sail the ship home if you do not intend to keep it.

If Kalhua doesnt have a hashgacha, what rum do you make kiddush on?

(Kalhua isn't a rum. ?) You make kiddush on a good drink, one suitable for sanctifying the day, but you need not open a new barrel even if it is higher quality than your current stock. So the rum you have on hand will be fine.

Is owning a parrot assur cause it may cause you to speak loshon hora?

A parrot repeats what it hears. You should ensure that it hears words of torah.

Do you take maaser on an unlocked treasure chest? worse, what if there is chas vshalom, chometz in there!?

(1) Yes. (2) We recommend against piracy during Pesach to avoid this problem. (The rest of the year, who cares if there's chametz? Surely you can hold off for eight days, at least four of which you couldn't work anyway? (Note: I am assuming an Ashkenazi pirate from the spelling, and thus probably in the diaspora, hence eight rather than seven days.))

Do you cover your eye patch with your hand when you say Shema?

This is not a matter of halacha but of minhag (custom). You may but need not.

Are you able to carry on the plank on shabbos? If your parrot is on your shoulder, is that carrying?

The plank is part of your dwelling, like your porch is, so you may carry so long as you don't drop things over the edge. As for the parrot, a fascinating question: I think that if you put it there it is carrying, but if it perches there of its own accord while you move around you might be ok. I am not sure.

Is your pirate hat a zachor l'hamentashen? Can you wear a leather boot on your peg leg on Yom Kippur?

(1) Maybe. This, too, is not a matter of halacha. (2) You should avoid doing so for the sake of marit ayin, but since the prohibition on leather derives from issues of comfort, you could make a case that it does not apply to a peg leg.

Are you sorry you asked? :-)

musings on erev Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur bracket the Yamim Noraim, the ten days of awe, but the season really begins before Rosh Hashana. During the whole month of Elul we're supposed to be preparing; we hear the shofar every morning to remind us. (Except today, actually -- we don't sound it right before the holiday.) While we have until Yom Kippur (or, according to some, even later) to seek forgiveness and make amends for the wrongs we've done, we can and should start well before Rosh Hashana, the day of judgement. Someone on my reading list (I forget who; please identify yourself if you see this) characterized this as saving God some writing and erasing -- if we clear up the problem before God records the deed on Rosh Hashana, God doesn't then have to erase it on Yom Kippur after we fix it. I like that bit of motivation. It's not that it never happened; we're still accountable. But by being proactive we can lessen the burden a bit, a good general lesson for any time of year.

But as a consequence of all of this, I don't connect as much as I should with Rosh Hashana as the (big, singular) day of judgement. It's more like the day of the preliminary hearing. It's important, but it's not the final word. I'm more afraid of Yom Kippur than of Rosh Hashana. I'm not trying to make light of it; I'm just trying to see it in context. I know that others, while beginning their preparations earlier, can appreciate the gravity of the day better than I can now, so maybe I'll get there.

We celebrate Rosh Hashana as the birthday of the world and acknowledge it as the day of judgement. Two themes, seemingly very different but maybe not so different after all. We're all used to the annual performance review and the annual reconciling of financial accounts (and payment of taxes). These are tied to points in time. So, too, the birthday of the world seems a good day for the divine evaluation of the world's residents. (And as my associate rabbi pointed out last night, while this is a Jewish holiday, there's nothing specifically Jewish about its themes -- it's not like, say, Pesach, that commemorates an event specifically in Jewish history. We all have a share in the world and all who believe in God have to settle our accounts.)

I was thinking, last night at ma'ariv, that the day and the year have something in common. We begin the day not at the artifical hour of midnight or at the seemingly-natural time of sunrise, but rather at sunset, as twilight comes to be followed by night. At the beginning of the day things start to darken, with the most challenging or dangerous times to come in a few hours, but by the mid-point (mid-day, so to speak) things are brightening up and the day reaches a climax in light and warmth. So too with the year -- we begin it now, as autumn comes to be followed by the cold, dark winter, but we know that spring and summer are coming. (What's the mid-point of the year? Roughly Pesach.) There's even a rabbinic tradition that the first Rosh Hashana was not on the first day of creation but on the sixth, the day man was created, after which things went downhill rather quickly but will ultimately end in redemption.

Maybe that's the connection -- things seem darker now, as we are being judged and found wanting, but the coming year will grow warm again and we will too, God willing, if we take action. Either that, or I'm reading way too much into this.

Cirque du Fail

We saw Cirque du Soleil a few years ago and enjoyed the show, so we were planning to go again when we saw that they'd be in Pittsburgh next month. However, we've been overcome by a truly obnoxious ticketing process.

We were chugging along with the not-very-well-designed web site -- chose our show, accepted the offered tickets (which we could only kind-of sort-of locate on the seating chart), filled out all the info including the credit-card security code, were irritated at the $10/ticket service fee (for using the web site) but went ahead anyway, decided the $7/ticket insurance against "lost in the mail" was sleazy and we'd invoke Visa if necessary, and thought we were done -- but no, it then routed us to a page where we had to sign up for some security service "for our protection". That was one annoyance too many, so we fell back to ordering via phone.

The first attempt to do so ended after half an hour on hold with no sign of progress. A later attempt reached a human, who informed us that there'd be a $10/ticket fee (for using the phone), which prompted us to ask where we could just go buy tickets in person, and that turned out to be "nowhere in town". And, of course, they couldn't guarantee delivery without another $7/ticket. And only at this point did we realize that the venue is a stadium, not a smaller place like the last show, and I was pretty dubious about actually being able to see from the seats that were available. I really expected better from a base price of nearly $100/ticket.

So the heck with that. Maybe we'll buy a $20 DVD instead.


It never occurred to me that after upgrading the Mac from Leopard to Snow Leopard, my printer (HP Laserjet 1020) might no longer work. I had to download a special driver to get it to work with Leopard, and I guess I assumed that driver would still work. Sigh. If I'd actually thought about it, I would have done some research before taking the OS upgrade.

My choices seem to be: (1) revert to Leopard (I don't even know if that's possible without doing damage), (2) wait for a fix (prognosis unclear), or (3) buy a new printer. I wasted a lot of time under Leopard trying (4), network the printer using my PC, so I probably won't try that again. (The Mac still needs a driver, whether the printer is local or remote, so that's not likely to help.) I'll continue with Google research tomorrow; so far the only solution I've found involves downloading a 750MB package, compiling code, and doing lots of fussing.

I realize that this is HP's fault, not Apple's. It's frustrating because I've been using HP printers for more than 15 years without issues and when I bought this one I never thought to check for Mac compatibility. (At the time I wasn't planning to buy a Mac.) It's a peripheral; at some level I expect it to just work.

On the other hand, it's worth noting how easy the OS upgrade was otherwise. Insert disc, confirm intent, leave for an hour, and there it was. I was never willing to attempt an OS change under Windows. This is the only major problem I've seen so far. (There's one minor one that I'll probably just have to get used to; they changed a color that I'd rather they not have, but there doesn't appear to be a user setting for it.)

From a comment:

I wasn't going to buy it yet. Dani wanted it, it sounded benign, and the family pack was cheaper than individual purchases, and I guess I bought into the "things just work on the Mac" mindset (even though my printer hadn't before), so I said sure, get the family pack. What I should have done was say "sure, get the family pack" and then set it aside for six months after he upgraded his machine, but I didn't think it through. I never bought a Windows OS in the year it was issued; why did I upgrade this one right away? Stupid stupid stupid.

A man with one watch knows what time it is (and genizas)

My congregation tries to have recent b'nei mitzvah do the torah readings on the high holy days, but they sometimes need adults to fill in and I usually get tapped for this. So it was no surprise to get a piece of mail on Thursday with a portion. They don't need to mail me the portion (just telling me the verses would be fine), but it's easier on the office to mail things out to everybody, I'm told. So now I have another piece of paper that I can't recycle because it contains the divine name; into the stack it goes, and someday I'll make that stack someone else's problem. So far so good.

Then today came the audio CD, which I also don't need, but it's easier on the office... But what I am to make of the one-verse offset between the written passage and what's on the CD? Oops. (It's written on the CD, else I never would have noticed because I never would have played it.)

I can handle it either way (in fact, I've already negotiated the boundary with the person before me, whose CD was also off by one), but I hope this doesn't mess anyone else up. Or rather, I hope the other readers are also observant enough to notice the problem before they get too far. Maybe I better call the office on Tuesday.

There is a lot of interesting discussion in the comments about disposing of papers with divine names. I've archived the comments for safekeeping.

Midrash session 1.11

More Akeidah midrash translation behind the cut. This time: more about the intervention of the angel, and Avraham finally speaks up. Read more…