Blog: April 2011

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.


We were in Toronto for a few days. We spent some time with Dani's family, helped an outlaw (spouse of an inlaw) buy a computer, saw a show I might review later (Billy Elliot), visited a textile museum, and went to the two seders. This post is mostly about the seders.

But first: on the way up it rained the whole way, except that it was sunny in Erie. That's just Wrong. Bad weather is centered in Erie; it's one of the laws of the universe. :-)

Dani's family does not, near as I can tell, include any believers, which certainly affects the seders. Both went better than I expected given past experience; the first night was the best seder I've attended in Toronto.

The first night was with Dani's father's family. The leader started out quickly, skipping chunks of the haggadah at will. Someone else at the table (I don't have the standing so I'm glad someone else brought it up...) got him to slow down and share the reading. I was, fortuitiously, sitting next to him, so when no objection had been lodged in the split-second after this request was made, I started reading right where he'd left off. Then the reading passed along in a fairly orderly fashion for a while, with no skips for a while. People read pretty quickly and didn't stop for discussion, but they read. The children present were very well-behaved, which helped.
We were using a mainstream, normal, and good haggadah -- the yellow one from Ktav. (I should procure a copy, if only to have a no-frills normative edition that isn't from Artscroll.)

The reading came back around just as the haggadah hit what the family calls "the rabbis", a few paragraphs of talmudic excerpt analyzing the number of plagues that afflicted Egypt. Someone sitting nearby quietly said "turn the page" but the leader either didn't hear or didn't heed, so we were off. (I happen to like this part, even if I don't understand R. Eliezer's position, but I would never lobby for it in that crowd.) We got to b'tzeit Yisrael and I, less reticent by this point, just started to sing it, knowing that at least Dani and his sister would join in. (Historically it has been difficult to make singing happen at this seder.) We still skipped a bunch of stuff in the first half, and per tradition didn't do the second half at all, but it was better than it usually is for me.

And then there was a nice bonus. For logistical reasons the meal was served buffet-style from the kitchen table, and come dessert time everybody was standing around that table noshing and talking. This meant that I could go back into the dining room, snag a haggadah and wine, and do the second part of the haggadah without offending anybody. (I think two people noticed, one of them Dani.) Not knowing how much time I would have I did the short birkat and abridged hallel some, but for once I was able to do them. Nice.

The second night was with Dani's mother, Dani's sister and her family, and two friends of my mother-in-law. There was more singing and we even got some discussion going, particularly when Dani's oldest niece pointed out that both the wise child and the wicked child say "you" instead of "us", so why do we dump on the wicked child so much? I then noticed that the wise child first refers to "our God" and then asks his "you" question; I think that makes a difference but I don't know if that's the generally-accepted answer. Note that we only had this conversation because we -- uncharacteristically -- read the Hebrew and then I suggested we translate. (The haggadah didn't include a translation; it only offers that horrid Clementine song.)

We also read more text in Hebrew this year than usual. One of the guests (maybe both) is fluent, so they gave him parts to read. Dani and his sister are near-fluent, so they read some. You don't actually need to be fluent to read out loud, so I read some. (I did understand a fair bit of what I was reading, it being a constrained text.) Reading in Hebrew when not everybody is fluent naturally leads to on-the-fly translation and discussion of same, so I think I will encourage this practice in the future. (This haggadah includes very little Hebrew, but there's no reason not to do everything it does include.) I realized, and confirmed later with Dani, that of the ten people there, I was the second-least-fluent; everybody else save one can at least understand straightforward text and converse. So why don't we take advantage of that? I don't think it's deference to me (and I wouldn't want that anyway). The last person isn't going to engage no matter what language we do things in (this person doesn't care for seders or religion but gets dragged along), so there's no point in deferring to that person.

We experienced good hospitality on this trip. My sister-in-law and her husband have always been happy to have us, and this year I found that they had laid in a supply of Diet Coke in anticipation. :-) ("Um, we couldn't remember if you take it with caffeine..." "Caffeine is the point of the exercise." "Oh good, we got it right.") My mother-in-law went to the effort to procure kosher meat for me (no one else cares), which was a nice surprise. The hosts of the first seder, about whom I didn't have clear memories from their previous turn, were gracious and easy-going even with 20+ people invading their home. :-)

We saw something interesting in their home, by the way. They had recently returned from travel overseas (I didn't catch where) and had brought back a painting. It was a reasonable journeyman-grade picture of a vase of flowers -- unremarkable, until you learn that it was painted by an elephant. :-) They told us that they had a painting done by an elephant and I was imagining abstract art, but no -- somebody has trained some elephants to do specific classes of paintings. (Different elephants did different ones, as I understand it.) They watched their painting being painted. (A human has to dip the brush in the paint and put it in the elephant's trunk.) "Their" elephant is four years old, which led to the expected comments about child labor.


This shabbat was our congregation's annual retreat. We had several first-timers this year, in part due to better promotion, and I enjoyed getting to know them better. The study sessions were mostly done in small groups and we kept the same groups throughout (mostly); the other two people in my group were a first-timer I didn't know past his name (he's only been to the shabbat morning minyan a few times so far) and a second-timer I've gotten to know just a bit over the last year. While you can have amazing, deep discussions with people you've known well for years (I had a great experience like that last year), you can also have deep discussions with people you've just met, and I enjoyed that this year. The study sessions revolved around four questions in the book of B'reishit (Genesis): ayeka? (where are you?), ma t'vakeish? (what do you seek?), ha-shomeir achi anochi? (am I my brother's keeper?), and lamah zeh anochi? (why am I?).

We stayed up pretty late Friday night singing and more of the songs than usual were enjoyable to me -- a good mix of Hebrew songs and mostly 60s/70s folk music, with very few intrusions from the first half of the 20th century this year. (I recognize that older attendees feel about the music of the 30s and 40s the way I feel about music of the 60s, but I personally do not connect with the earlier era's music, at least what I've heard of it.)

For the torah service the rabbi did group aliyot based on how many shabbatons people had been at. (So everybody gets an aliyah, like on Simchat Torah. Nice.) I was a little startled that there were only five of us in the "10 or more" group, out of 32 people present. When did I become a quasi-elder of the group? :-)

There were other groups and activities at the campground (not surprising). Saturday morning we saw signs directing another group to the "Easter bunny brunch". It's dangerous to give a phrase like that to a bunch of Jewish geeks. We decided that while the wording was ambiguous they were probably eating with the Easter bunny rather than upon it, but that led to questions about the nature of the Easter bunny. Is it a single immortal being, like Santa Claus is understood to be, or do Easter bunnies retire and get replaced? Is there a training program and merit-based selection, or do Easter bunnies come from one unbroken family line (like kings, absent conquest) and there's always an heir apparent, or is it like the Dalai Lama and the reincarnated Easter bunny is identified in each generation? And, more specific to our group, are Elaine's iconic bunny slippers at all involved? Alas, these questions went unanswered, except that we think Elaine's slippers are likely to be innocent byhoppers.

Daf bit: Menachot 29

Today's daf includes the following famous, challenging midrash:

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: when Moshe ascended Sinai to receive torah he found God affixing crowns to certain of the letters. (If you look in a sefer torah you'll see ornaments on the tops of some letters. That's what this is referring to.) Moshe asked: Master of the universe, is there anything wanting in torah that these crowns are necessary? God replied: after many generations a scholar named Akiva ben Yosef will expound upon each one of these crowns. Moshe replied: Master of the universe, please let me see this man! God said: turn around.

Moshe sat down behind eight rows of students and listened to Rabbi Akiva teach, but Moshe couldn't follow the arguments, which disturbed him. Then on one subject a disciple asked: how do we know it? Rabbi Akiva said: it is a law given to Moshe at Sinai. Comforted, Moshe returned to God and said: you have such a man as he and yet you give torah through me instead? God replied: be silent, for this is my decree. (Many tellings of this midrash end here.)

Moshe then said: Master of the universe, you have shown me his torah -- now please show me his reward. Turn around, said God, and Moshe saw them weighing out his flesh in the marketplace. Moshe protested: such torah, and such a reward?! God replied: be silent, for this is my decree. (29b)

(Akiva is one of the ten martyrs we read about on Yom Kippur. He famously died with the Sh'ma on his lips.)

Yes we talk like this

At work, two coworkers were standing near me discussing a problem of reconciling divergent data in a system I'm helping with. Coworker 2 said "draw me a picture". On a whiteboard, coworker 1 wrote "location 1" and drew a laptop symbol, then wrote "location 2" and drew another laptop, then drew a squiggly line between them, then drew something evocative of a bicycle.

Coworker 2 asked "what's that?". I replied: "the transport layer". (Yes, really. Customer has no network availability and multiple locations.) He was enlightened about the problem of potential data stale-ness, and did not ask me what protocol is used. :-) (BCP - bicycle communication protocol?)

A commenter counter-proposed SNOB: SneakerNet Over Bicycle.


The Shabbat morning torah-study group has reached the part about S'dom and 'Amorah. I had brief access this week to the commentary by Nechama Leibowitz (must get myself a copy of that), which included a comment on Avraham's plea/challenge to God. He first asks "will you kill the righteous alongside the wicked?" and then asks God if He will really destroy the cities if (50, 45, 40, 30, 20, 10) righteous people are found therein. I had not read these as two separate questions until Leibowitz pointed it out.

Ten righteous people are not found and the cities are destroyed, but Lot and his family are spared. (We don't know, because they aren't the POV characters in the story, if anybody else was spared from either city.) Mind, we're dealing with a pretty loose definition of "righteous" (more on that in a bit), but nonetheless God does not destroy the righteous alongside the wicked, even if there are not enough righteous to provide a safety net for the whole area. Read this way it seems clear that the judge of all does do justice (as Avraham challenged); sparing the cities entirely might be closer to mercy than strict justice.

I can't say anything about Lot's wife and daughters (about whom we learn almost nothing), but Lot seems to have some problems with righteous behavior. Perhaps it is the corrupting influence of the city he chose to live in; surely he had the opportunity to learn better while in Avraham's company, but he didn't learn enough to stay out of bad neighborhoods. Despite that he starts out well enough, escorting the visitors to his house and offering them food and shelter (though one person in our study group noted that he, unlike Avraham, was ready to push them out the next morning). When the mob arrives at his house he steps outside and closes the door behind him to protect those inside. So far, so good, but we all know what happens next -- he protects the visitors at the expense of his own family. Bzzt. A truly righteous person takes on risk himself rather than using others as a shield.

And yet, despite the reprehensible crime he committed against his daughters, Lot was allowed to escape. The things he got right were enough for the divine judge to allow him to survive this destruction, apparently. The world is not so black and white as we would sometimes like it to be.


Added in a comment, in response to a comment about other religions:

It's interesting that both Islam and Christianity (as I understand it) consider S'dom's sin to be homosexuality, while the Jewish sources I'm familiar with (commentaries and midrash) consider it to be the violence with which they treated others. The problem with what the mob wanted to do to the visitors isn't that it's male-male sex; the problem is that it's rape. I wonder how that difference in interpretation came about.