Blog: May 2010

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.

B'ha'alot'cha mini-dvar (Thursday minyan)

We're into the book of Bamidbar now, which means plenty of stories about kvetching. This week's topic: the food. The Israelites are in the desert on their way to the promised land (they haven't yet been condemned to spend 40 years on this; it's just down the road), and God is sustaining them with manna that they merely have to pick up off of the ground and eat. One rabbinic tradition is that it tasted like whatever the eater wanted it to taste like. But the people complain, saying that the food they had back in Egypt was much better.

Seriously? You have got to be kidding me. They were slaves, ill-treated by their masters. I'm guessing that a day on which they got food at all was already a pretty good day, culinarily speaking. The regular deliveries of manna had to be better than that.

The people were upset -- probably not actually about the food, which might have just been a handy target. Being upset isn't a problem on its own; it's natural. But in expressing their upset they distorted history to make their point. We do this all the time, it seems; when we tell the tales the significant events in our lives were wonderful or terrible but rarely anything in between. Ask people of a certain generation and they will tell you that back in their day they walked to school 20 miles, in the snow, uphill -- both ways. Or sometimes it works in the other direction: the guy who had this job before you was wonderfully competent, unfailingly friendly, always on time -- nothing like you. Of course it's not true, but we do it anyway, just like the Israelites remembering an Egypt they never experienced.

Why do we do this? Ben Franklin famously said that there are only two certainties in life, death and taxes. With all due respect to Mr. Franklin I think there's a third: change. Change is scary; it might be better or it might be worse, and is the chance at "better" worth the risk of "worse"? So we tell ourselves stories to convince ourselves to avoid the risk. Egypt was terrible but predictable; this new, powerful God who drowns armies, forms a pillar of fire, and makes food appear on the ground represents a big and frightening change. But the problem is that change is inevitable; we might be able to resist any particular change, but we won't resist all of them.

By definition, change means we're going to have different experiences. There are times when we need to resist it and times when we need to be open to it. We are best-equipped to do either if we are honest with ourselves about what came before, rather than painting an exaggerated picture.

[I then tied this into some upcoming changes in our congregation that had been discussed in the annual meeting the previous night.]


I came to LOST late, just a couple years ago. I watched the first four seasons on DVD over a span of time (courtesy of a friend), then watched the fifth season in the month between when it came out on DVD and when season six started to air, then watched season six as it unfolded. I liked the show and certainly benefitted from the compressed viewing of the earlier seasons (easier to notice things when you're watching a disc at a time; also easier to move past the weaker episodes). And I liked most of this final season.

Those last ten minutes, though? "Extremely disappointed" is insufficient description.

It's not just that I like the ending I anticipated a few episodes in better. I mean yeah, I do prefer it, but it's quite likely that I also would have preferred an unceremonious meteor strike ending it all, y'know? So that's not really saying much.

LOST was to all appearances a science-fiction show. While SF and religion can certainly mix to good effect, just throwing out the SF foundation so you can tell an "and they all went to heaven" story is cheap. Especially since (to my eye) they didn't lay the groundwork early, aside from one suspiciously-named character. We've been seeing time travel for a few seasons; the flash-sideways world was quite plausibly another branch among many worlds, with porous borders. That idea was interesting. Accessing that alternate timeline accidentally, or by way of Jacob (or Desmond), or by way of Losties acting on their own (without Jacob's blessing) would have been interesting. Having it turn out to be something completely unexpected, but supported in the plot (a gotcha! twist), would have been interesting. I could engage with any of those ideas. But a shared heaven subconsciously created by these characters, with the other Losties being the most important people in the lives of every single participant (else it doesn't work)? I'm having trouble making that idea work. I feel cheated, even moreso than by an "and then they all woke up" ending (or even the St. Elsewhere inverse of that, which I have decided just did not happen in my world).

I find myself wondering at what point in the show's development the writers decided on this ending. There have been points where it felt like the writers were making it up as they went along, though certainly not always. I wonder where this plan came from and what ideas they rejected on the way to it (and why). I guess we'll never know.

And as a minor aside, if Vincent is important enough to recur through the series and make the final island scene, he ought to rate a spot in the joint afterlife. Hmpf.

A little neighborhood togetherness

I know some but not all of my neighbors, some by name and more by sight, but ours isn't a tight block. It's a typical city street -- the apartment building at the end of the block has typical churn, people on the other (rich) side of the street don't tend to be out and about (they don't mow their own lawns, for example), and I feel funny knocking on doors just to say hi. But I do know some people, including the SCA folks three doors up who I've known forever.

This morning as I was walking downstairs I heard the familiar squeal-thump that the intersection in front of our house produces a couple times a month (sometimes more). Someday someone will get killed and they'll put in a traffic light, but mostly it's fender benders caused by people not yielding (it's not an all-way stop) or people speeding down the hill. This squeal-thump was followed by a car alarm, which is unusual, so I went out to take a look. (If I'd have had any caffeine yet I might have parsed that without looking.)

There was a car nearly perpendicular to the road, and mostly on our sidewalk and grass. It had been parked (no owner present). It was badly dented; I find it hard to believe that whoever hit it was going less than double the speed limit. There was no other car in sight. There were half a dozen people on the sidewalk across the street; two of them walked over to me and turned out to be members of my congregation out for their morning walk. They told me what I'd surmised -- hit and run, two people had already called 911, and they didn't get a license number. They asked if it was my car (fortunately no). People who aren't us park in front of our house all the time; I don't know why, as they are usually passing up spots closer to every other house on the block. I have no idea who this car belongs to. Someone left a note with a timestamp so he could more easily sync up with 911 when he discovered the damage. I went back inside to feed the cats.

When I left a few minutes later (police were just pulling up), the SCA neighbors were out and asked if it was my car. A little farther up the block someone walking her dog asked the same question. It was 8AM; I didn't expect so many people to be out and about. (They usually aren't.) But now I wonder whether, if I hadn't been around, somebody would have left a note on my door or something. I would do the same for someone else, but before today it hadn't occurred to me that I lived in a neighborhood where people might pay that much attention. Neat.

Tikkun leil Shavuot

There is a tradition on Shavuot, the holiday about the giving of torah at Sinai, to stay up all night studying torah. (This is called tikkun leil Shavuot.) This was, in fact, the holiday that got me to actually venture into a synagogue lo these many years ago, specifically for this: that sounded cool. I haven't actually stayed up all night in recent years, but I try to get in as much study as I can.

For the second time we had a community-wide tikkun from 10PM to 1AM. There were three sessions with a total of a couple dozen classes, with rabbis from across the spectrum. As I did last year, I set out to study with rabbis I'd never studied with (or met, as it turned out) before. It was a good experience; details of the classes will have to wait until after Shabbat.

In the last timeslot I attended a class taught by the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Kollel, a local Orthodox institution that offers classes to adults. I've never been able to get a good read on Kollel -- in particular, I haven't been able to tell if women are welcome to study text there. (They have women-only classes on topics I'm not generally interested in, men-only classes on topics I am interested in, and under-specified opportunities for individual study.) So partly because of that, partly because of a recommendation, and partly because the topic sounded interesting, I went to the rosh yeshiva's class at the tikkun.

It was a good lecture (at that hour something a little more participatory might have been better), and at the end he said that people were welcome to go to Kollel after the community tikkun and continue studying. So I did that. They had several classes going (I saw mostly men); the rosh yeshiva was going to be studying the book of Ruth, so I opted for that. Apparently each year he's been spending all night (well, starting after the community tikkun last year and this) on one chapter of the book; this year was chapter 4. It kind of reminds me of our Shabbat morning torah study (20 years to complete the torah). :-) There were seven or eight students there (two other women). I held my own on prior knowledge (at least as expressed at the table). I only stayed until about 3:00 (too tired; hadn't been able to leave work early and get a nap). Next year I will try to go there again and stay longer. I may also try to find out what else the rosh yeshiva teaches throughout the year.


This was an essay I submitted to a synagogue publication.

I don't believe that God micro-manages the universe, but I also don't believe that God stands apart and aloof. I believe we sometimes receive divine nudges. I believe this because I have received them.

When I graduated from college I and my classmate Adam (not his real name) went to work for the same small high-tech company. We'd gotten along fine as students; as coworkers, though, things were sometimes more than a little rocky. After several years we both left that company and went our separate ways. We did not stay in touch.

A decade later I was working for another small company when, shortly before what would be my first Rosh Hashana, the director of engineering came into my shared office holding a resume. "You and Adam used to work together; what can you tell me about him?" I responded immediately, not stopping to think that the Adam of a decade ago was probably not much like the Adam of today. (I knew I wasn't much like the me of yore, after all, and I wouldn't want to be judged a decade later for my first job out of school.) Later, when I realized my error, I tried to set things right with both my office-mate and the director of engineering. The company went on to offer him a position (which he declined for something better).

I was at the time reading the Chofetz Chayim's book on lashon hara -- clearly I had not absorbed its lessons yet! -- and I asked myself whether I owed Adam an apology. Since I had not prevented the company from offering him a job, we had not seen each other in all that time, and he was unlikely to even hear of my remarks, I reasoned that calling him out of the blue and telling him what I had said would do more harm than good.

God made an entry in the divine ledger.

A few days later I was in the park with friends, and who should I see but Adam! He approached me, we exchanged pleasantries, and then he said "I hear you had a bad reaction to my resume". I said that initially I had but I was wrong and had tried to set matters straight. He said something like "no problem", and then we were both called away. I wondered if I should do more.

That night I went to s'lichot services. The service touched me, particularly a phrase that would be oft-repeated over the coming days: for sins against another person, God wouldn't forgive me until I'd made amends. Oh. Oops.

Ok God, I said, you have my attention.

The next day I called Adam to apologize and ask his forgiveness. He brushed it off, saying he knows he can be annoying; I responded that even if that's true it didn't justify my behavior; I had no way of knowing what he's like now. I asked again for his forgiveness and he granted it.
We talked for a while and even visited a few times before he moved out of town. I felt much better for having had the conversation, and on Yom Kippur I felt scrubbed clean -- that the divine ledger had been updated.

God doesn't micro-manage, but I do not believe all of these events were mere chance, either.

Marian of Edwinstowe

Marian of Edwinstowe, more recently known as Old Marian, died last night. Marian had long been a fixture in the SCA when I joined. I met her at my first Pennsic, where she and Johan ran the Sated Tyger Inn, which was selling tasty period food long before most people were trying to cook such. That inn closed, and some years later she (and Chiron and maybe others) founded the Battlefield Bakery, where she continued the tradition.

I didn't know her especially well but I visited her bakery every Pennsic and, during the years I travelled a lot in the East Kingdom, I encountered and spoke with her quite a bit. She was gracious and friendly and always had time to spare for me and countless other nobodies (as I was at the time). I always enjoyed talking with her.

I remember when she resigned all of her awards. She made a point of telling the orders a year in advance -- so, she said, that there could be no question of whether she had done this because of some snit or disliked royalty. This was typical of the care she showed for others' feelings.

I regret that I did not get to know her well. Even so I will miss her, and her friends and family will miss her a thousand times more. The society is a poorer place today.

Notes to animals

Dear Baldur,

It is wonderful -- nay, astonishing -- that you chose to get some exercise last night. If cats could sweat you probably would have worked one up. That's great for an elderly tubby tabby. So I really hesitate to say anything, but... that squeak-toy was not provided by any of the household humans, and you know how I feel about ambulatory toys, especially on the similarly-colored carpet where I might not see their remains. I'm sorry I took it away from you while it was still moving, but you know the rules. Yeah yeah, cycle of life and all that, but not where I'm going to have to deal with it, ok?

Dear squeak-toy,

I hope you made it. If you did, please warn all your murine friends that the cats who reside here are either too stupid or too self-centered to kill you quickly, and they are also too well-fed to eat you afterward, so your death would be in vain. We'll all be happier if you try another house. I nominate the guy up the block who never shovels his sidewalks; he's got a karma deficit.

The books are ganging up on us again

We ran out of shelf space (and pile space) again, so, having long since filled all the good spaces in the house with bookcases, we started eyeing up the not-so-good spaces. This led us to re-evaluate the dining room.

The shorter, wider, not-very-deep cabinet on one wall (holding linens) was clearly not holding its weight. Table linens are important -- and, also, that cabinet was holding dice and other small gaming supplies -- so eliminating that function wouldn't do. What I really wanted was a taller, narrower chest of drawers. This turns out to be hard; everyone expects your dining-room storage to be low and wide so that you can put a lighted glass shelving unit on top of it to show off your fine china. But recently we prevailed -- the magic phrase turns out to be "lingerie cupboard" and you find it as part of a very few bedroom sets -- and the resulting chest of drawers, a glorious 52" or so high and about 22" wide, was delivered a few days ago. The original cabinet has been unloaded into it, leaving a stretch of wall that can hold two half-height bookcases. (Other features of the room prevent full-height bookcases.)

Now, the wall with this cabinet is about four feet wide before large windows kick in, so this leaves room for a 24" bookcase. That shouldn't be hard, right? Most bookcases are 30" or 36" wide; most 24" ones are also short. We found one that's 48" high online in a color that doesn't clash with the rest of the room (or, most importantly, the cupboard that will be right next to it), so tonight we ordered it. We'll have to assemble it ourselves, but bookcases aren't too bad for that. The vendor has a sense of humor: returns are permitted within 30 days in the original packaging.

In the end this project should net us roughly 24 shelf-feet of bookcase, which I'm sure we will fill up distressingly quickly. Such are the challenges faced by bibliophiles.

Writing circle: Psalm 23

My congregation recently started a writers' circle. This isn't the type where everyone submits stuff for critique in advance; rather, the group gets together, the leader assigns writing prompts, we write for (usually) 15 minutes or so, and then those who want to share what they wrote. It's an exercise in introspection as much as, if not more than, an exercise in writing.

At a meeting this week we read Psalm 23 in traditional and contemporary translations. (The latter was from Mishkan T'filah and I didn't find it online.) The leader asked us to react to it in any way we chose. After a little bit of clean-up, here is what I wrote:

"The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."

Can you want without knowing you want?

Once I would have thought that was a stupid question. Wanting, by definition, would seem to require knowledge of what you want. The Lord was not my shepherd and hey -- guess what? -- I didn't want. Life was fine.

My world wasn't changed by some distressing event. There was no valley of the shadow of death, no enemies surrounding me. Nor was it the sound of thunder that got my attention; no, rather it was a still small voice that gently whispered "you can do better". I didn't know it yet, but I wanted.

Slowly and uncertainly, reading from a transliterated text carefully copied from email, I said the Sh'ma for the first time. Then I lit Shabbat candles, reading the blessing from a post-it note. Something awakened. I wanted, and I knew I wanted.

The more I opened myself to the possibility of a shepherd, the more I felt the gentle nudge of the shepherd's staff, directing me toward this pool of water or away from that danger. I took in spiritual sustenance for the first time in my life, and my cup ran over.

There are times of greater and lesser connection, but the shepherd is always there if I but stop and look. I still want, but it is a different kind of wanting. Now I know what is possible; I know that I want, if not always what I want, and I know when my want has been fulfilled. I feel the confidence now to say -- "Adonai is my shepherd; I lack nothing".

(That last quoted line is from the contemporary translation I referred to.)