Blog: August 2015

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.

Internet harassment in the modern age

When I was in college, some people thought it was a right fun prank to sign other people up for wildly-inappropriate catalogues and suchlike. These days they use the Internet for that. Any site that blithely accepts an email address without sending confirmation email to that address is contributing to the problem, big-time.

I know that already, but reading this article about a victim of the Ashley Madison breach -- spoiler alert: not an actual user -- reminded me how problematic this still is. Definitely worth five minutes of your time.

I want to ask you, Internet, to please stop taking all of this [supposed evidence] at face value. Please stop taking things like lists of names stolen from a company as a reason to abuse others — online or offline. When you see a story about someone doing something you think is either wrong or even just lame, it’s not a reason for you to abuse, stalk or attack someone you don’t know.

A friend whom I trust quite a bit not to be using their services is also on that list. So if you don't believe a random person on the Internet, there's that.

Curried vegetables

We recently had a pot-luck lunch at work. I was short of time, so had my slow-cooker do most of the work:

  • 2 sweet yellow onions, diced
  • 1 pound butternut squash, cubed (~ 0.5" cubes)
  • 2 sweet potatoes (not yams), cubed
  • 8oz bag frozen cauliflower
  • 8oz bag frozen peas
  • 15oz can chickpeas, drained
  • 2 12oz jars Madras curry sauce (I used this)

Put all ingredients in slow-cooker and cook on high for 3 hours. Then add:

  • 4 sturdy tomatoes (I used Romas), diced

Reduce heat to low for 8 hours or so. (I went to bed at this point.)

Eat straight or serve over rice. With fresh-baked naan is even better but not always practical.

Conflict of values

I recently traveled for business, and the hotel where I stayed -- as is becoming the norm in my limited experience -- asked clients to consider not having linen service every day to avoid waste. I don't replace my towels and sheets at home every day and I really don't need somebody else to make the bed (in the room I have to myself), so I've been on board with that for a while.

One morning as I was leaving my room, with the "do not disturb" sign on the door, I ran into one of the housekeepers. The conversation went something like this:

Her: You don't want me to clean your room?
Me: No it's ok; I've only used these towels once.
Her: Are you sure? It wouldn't be any trouble!

If I'd been caffeinated I might have picked up on the subtext, but it wasn't until later that I found myself wondering: is this policy costing people jobs? I'm guessing that very few people become hotel housekeepers if they have other options; is my desire to go gently on the planet at odds with my desire not to make it harder on people in low-end jobs who want to work?

This is far from the first time I've faced the "but the candle-makers will go out of business if we adopt lightbulbs!" idea, but this may be the first time that the "other side" of the issue isn't either convenience or economics but, rather, a liberal value. I mean, I pump my own gas even though there used to be people who do that, and I'm fine with that. I'd use the grocery self-checkout if it worked better, but I find the human cashiers to be faster and more accurate. I do stuff online that used to require dealing with a (paid) human being. Somehow this feels different. I'm not sure if I should care, but I did take notice of it.

I left a decent tip on check-out day.

A commenter pointed out that cleaning the room and replacing the linens are different operations -- one can still make up the bed, empty the trash, restock the amenities, and so on, while leaving the linens as they are. This was a point I had not considered.

Days of Awe - Mi Yodeya?

This is what 1400 copies of our book looks like:

boxes of books

If you've previously said you might be able to help with distribution, please let me know Real Soon Now where and how many copies to send you. (Or if you weren't able to get permission from your rabbis, of course I understand.) If we haven't discussed that, but you'd like some copies for your synagogue, please let me know (while supplies last). My email address is this journal name at

I'm delighted with this book. You can download a copy from "> Enjoy!

Some Pennsic music

The Debatable Choir performed at Pennsic last week; check us out (~26 minutes). We knew we were running tight on time so instead of talking about each of the pieces our director made up a program. The list of songs is in the video description, but I'll also list them here for posterity:

  • Shoot False Love (Thomas Morley, 1557-1602)
  • O Dolce Nocte (Philippe Verdelot, 1475-1552, lyrics by Niccolo Macchiavelli, 1469-1527)
  • Nel Mezzo (Giovanni da Florentia, ~1350), performed by Lady Alysoun and Mistress Arianna
  • Ecce Quomodo (Jacob Handl, 1550-1591)
  • Pase el Agoa (Anonymous, from the Cancionero de Palacio, early 16th c.)
  • Weep You No More Sad Fountains (John Dowland, 1563-1626)
  • O Virgo Splendens (Llibre Vermeil de Montserrat c. 1370), performed by Lady Bugga, Baroness Gwendolyn, Lord Pavel, Lady Libby, and Mistress Hilda
  • Sauter Danser (Orlando di Lasso, 1530-1594)
  • Cantate Domino (Giovanni Croce, 1557-1609)

For my Jewish readers who would prefer not to listen to Christian music, when you get to the smaller group singing "O Virgo Splendens" you can skip ahead to 19:30 to get to the next song. But if you don't mind listening to that text, they did a very nice job with it.

The other two religious songs, in case you're wondering, are from Isaiah (Ecce Quomodo) and Psalms (Cantate Domino). The first is in Slovenian Latin, so the pronunciation is a little different in places. Before learning this song I didn't know that Slovenians had their own special Latin.

Eikev: reward and punishment

Yesterday's d'var torah:

Long-term members of our minyan may recall that about 12 years ago, we were a pilot group for an early draft of Mishkan T'filah. This was our movement's first new siddur in a generation, and any new siddur brings some changes. One of those changes was somewhat controversial: the editors added back the two paragraphs following the Sh'ma and Va'ahavta.

The Reform movement dropped these two paragraphs early on. One was about tzitzit, and ritual mitzvot like that were seen as outdated and unnecessary. The other was about reward and punishment -- specifically, the passage from this week's portion. In this passage we're told that if we do God's commandments He will reward us with rain in its season and abundant crops. But if we don't heed God's commandments, the punishment will be no rain, no food, and that we'll perish from the land.

What's wrong with this idea of reward and punishment? I can think of a few things:

  • We don't like God to be so tit-for-tat. It sounds petty.
  • Post-enlightment, we value individualism, not collective punishment. Rain and crops are not on a farmer-by-farmer basis; they affect everybody. But mitzvot and transgressions are done by individuals.
  • But the main problem is: the world doesn't actually work this way! We all know of people, and nations, who do evil and prosper or do good and struggle.

The other reasons might be due to our modern perspective, but the world not working that way isn't new. It's never really worked that way. It's why the rabbis, as early as the mishna in Pirke Avot, came to understand the idea of Olam Haba, the World to Come, where apparent injustices in this world would be corrected. Reward and punishment might come in Olam Haba, not in the here-and-now.

I don't find this idea very satisfying -- Olam Haba is unknown and speculative, and meanwhile this world, Olam Hazeh, doesn't work that way.

So should we just ignore this part of the torah as not applying to us? Or is there another way to understand it?

In addition to the reward-and-punishment part, this passage repeats a lot of Va'ahavta -- you shall love God with all your heart, speak these words when you lie down and get up, teach your children, etc. Why does the torah repeat this? In Va'ahavta it's all in the singular; here it's plural. The whole passage here is addressed to the community, the kehal, not to us as individual Jews.

The torah passage, Moshe's final address, speaks to the concerns of the Israelites in the wilderness -- land, rain, food, sustenance. What are some similar concerns in our kehal?

When we gather in this minyan to serve God we pray with ruach (spirit) -- and that rubs off on others. New people come in and are moved by the music and the intensity and intentionality in our service. We love God with all our plural heart and we get the reward of a stronger minyan.

We connect with each other, those we know and those we don't yet know, at onegs and kiddushes and as greeters and through the activities of the B'racha Center,1 and we get the reward of a stronger congregation, one where we're all family.

We learn and teach and discuss and argue about torah with dedication, taking the text and our tradition seriously, and we get the reward of engaged adults and reaching the next generation.

Our rewards are just as important as rain.

And the punishments?

If we don't work to keep the minyan strong, high-quality, and welcoming to all, the punishment is that people drift away and the minyan diminishes.

If we don't remember that we're part of a kehal, a community made up of people with human needs, the punishment is a disinterested, sterile congregation.

If we don't care about learning our torah and traditions, the punishment is that no one else will care either.

Do these rewards and punishments come from God, or are they the natural consequences of our actions -- just human nature? Pirke Avot teaches: "mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah" -- the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah, and the punishment for a transgression is another transgression. We do what we are in the habit of doing, in other words, good or bad. I'm willing to grant the divine hand in all this -- after all, who made human nature? The reward and punishment are indirect, but they're there. Maybe in this light, this passage resonates more for us.

In the end the editors of Mishkan T'filah compromised; they included the paragraph about tzitzit and omitted this one. Maybe in another generation, or maybe even sooner, we'll be ready to reconsider this passage.

1 The B'racha Center in my synagogue is the group that, among other things, organizes hospitality for newcomers, meals for families that are in mourning or dealing with an illness, transportation help for seniors, and lots of other personal-connection stuff.