Blog: October 2018

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.

Attack on Pittsburgh Jews

Yesterday at my synagogue we had just finished the torah reading and held a baby naming for a young family when the first cell phone rang. Some people carry cell phones on Shabbat and sometimes forget to silence them; you shrug and move on. Then the second one went off. Then the first one went off again. Then more. People started checking to see what was going on. And we learned that a nearby congregation, the one I attend for weekday services, was currently under attack and the killer had not yet been caught. Not only were we scared, but we all know people there -- one of the members of my weekday morning minyan was there with me yesterday (for the baby-naming), and we exchanged horrified looks. We locked the doors, hastily finished the morning service, packed up the nice kiddush spread that the family had prepared to celebrate their daughter's naming, and waited for news. (All of the staff and some others have had active-shooter training -- that we should need such things is terrible in itself -- so we looked to our rabbi for guidance.)

We couldn't get any police guidance (they were understandably busy). We heard that he'd been caught and waited long enough for that report to be disputed, which it wasn't. Eventually we had to decide whether to stay put or disperse. Most of us concluded that hey, we're in a synagogue so maybe we should get the hell out of here, and left. I asked somebody for a ride home to minimize my time on the streets. We made sure nobody walked home.

Later I heard more details (answering the phone seemed prudent that day), that the killer was a white-supremicist monster on a "Jews must die" rampage, and most horribly, that he'd succeeded in killing eleven people and wounding half a dozen more. Almost certainly that list included friends -- it seems plausible that the people who show up to a weekday morning minyan regularly would also be the ones who show up on Shabbat on time, and the murders were early during the service. Nobody knew who, though, and that was very tense. Read more…

Daf bits

I used to lead the morning service on Thursdays at Tree of Life. For reasons I never learned, the minyan there does say the blessings for torah study but doesn't then read the traditional passages of torah study from the prayer book. Sometimes leaders would share brief thoughts of their own, but I felt uncomfortable elevating my own interpretations to the level of torah that justifies a torah blessing. So I would teach something brief from that day's Daf Yomi page -- Daf Yomi is an organized cycle of learning one page of talmud a day.

I'll probably import a few of those "daf bits" into this blog, but not all of them. To see all of them, visit the daf-bits tag on Dreamwidth.

Following is the last one:

Menachot 76

One ephah = three seahs (dry measure). The omer meal offering consisted of a tenth of an ephah of flour taken from three seahs of barley -- that is, an ephah (three seahs) of barley was reaped, ground, sifted, and resifted to get a tenth of an ephah of fine flour. Why the poor yield? Because this is the new (fresh) harvest and there is more offal and bran in fresh corn than in dry. (So say the rabbis; I have no agricultural experience to draw on.) The two loaves consisted of two tenths taken from three seahs; they're wheat rather than barley, so even though it's also new and not dried, the yield is better. And the showbread consisted of 24 tenths from 24 seahs, the best yield of all, because it was made from old produce. (In all cases this is "fine flour"; I don't know how this compares to yields for ordinary household use where you can be less picky.) (76b)

Stack Overflow needs a social-media policy

In response to the hot network questions mess, somebody posted saying that Stack Overflow needs to develop a social-media policy for its employees. This post cited my blog post. I added the following in support of this suggestion: Read more…

Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk

We’ve had a rough few days. I get that you’re tired of hearing about it, but the damage is still there, so we can’t just ignore it, hide behind the weekend, and hope it’ll blow over. It won’t. You need to act.

Your silence in the face of bad behavior is harming your relationship with the volunteers and community members who make your sites work.

On Wednesday a Twitter user complained about the titles of two questions in your “Hot Network Questions” list. Within 40 minutes, an employee responded to say that an entire site had just been kicked off the list. The titles weren’t particularly problematic, by the way. The author of one of them saw the tweet and edited the title. It makes me wonder why public criticism of the whole site was your first response, instead of an edit.

But that’s not the biggest problem here. Read more…

Revisiting hot network questions

The Stack Exchange network has a "hot network questions" list that appears in the sidebar on every page. An algorithm picks posts for this list based on newness and velocity of activity. In 2018 this was completely automated and sometimes made bad choices. The community had been asking for a remedy for years, and got deafening silence.

In October 2018 somebody on Twitter complained about a question on that list, and the company reacted disproportionately, causing a lot of pain and aggrevation. They also finally asked the community for input about "revisiting" hot network questions. This is the answer I wrote. It was well-received by the community, though the company addressed only a tiny part of it. (Moderators can now withdraw posts from their sites from the hot list manually. That's it.) Read more…


I gave approximately this d'var torah a week and a half ago. Ha'azinu is the poem at the end of Moshe's long speech at the end of D'varim (Deuteronomy).

"It's like talking to a brick wall," my mother often said to me and my sister. It happened when she was trying to get us to do our chores, or stop fighting, or behave ourselves in front of guests. We weren't the best-behaved kids sometimes. She'd end her lectures with "did you hear me?" and, often, we'd sarcastically parrot it back to her, but little changed. What she said went in one ear and out the other, she often said.

Our prophets have this problem with us. The only prophet who actually succeeded in delivering his message and bringing about a change was Yonah -- and he was talking to the Assyrians, our enemies! Israel, on the other hand, didn't listen to our prophets, not the gentleness of Micah nor the warnings of Jeremiah. And not to Moshe either. In his final speech Moshe pleads with Yisrael to follow God's path, knowing full well that they will stray. Why does he bother? What's the point? The words of our prophets go in one ear and out the other.

I sometimes wonder if we have this problem with our own words of prayer sometimes. We say the words of the siddur, but do we internalize them? Are we listening? Or are we just reciting what is before us and moving on? Do our prayers go in one ear and out the other?

A funny thing happened with my parents' messages to my sister and me. I don't have kids but she does, and it turned out that she and I have both said to her kids many of the things we heard from our parents. The first time I heard myself telling one of them that I was talking to a brick wall, I stopped in my tracks. It turns out we did hear what they said, maybe even listened -- even if we didn't act on it back then.

Our prophets' words often seemed to fall on deaf ears, but despite that, we're still here. God hasn't wiped us out despite the dire warnings, no matter how much we've deserved it. Have we gone through some bad times? Yes, as Moshe knew we would, but some remnant, some part of Yisrael, listened to our prophets.

We always read Ha'azinu near Yom Kippur, either on Shabbat Shuva right before or, like this year, a few days after. Every year I make a sincere effort at Yom Kippur. I enter with regret and resolve to do better. The words of the day's prayers make a real impact on me and there's a lot of introspection. I hear the message and I think I'm listening. Yet it's hard to make it stick; it sometimes feels like the changes I try to make in myself don't survive much past the end of Sukkot. Should I bother? Won't I just be back here next year in the same situation?

But no, I can listen. Just as it turned out I listened to my parents and we listened to our prophets, I can listen to our prayers and my own yearnings. I can do better, just like our people did, just like my sister and I did. I can learn to listen. The message doesn't have to go in one ear and out the other.