Blog: September 2020

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 5781

Oh, so that is what I've been missing. Fascinating.

I went to Chabad for Yom Kippur. This was my first Orthodox Yom Kippur. (For that matter, this was my first non-Reform Yom Kippur.) I found it engaging and meaningful, though sometimes repetitive -- repetitions of the Amidah and Musaf besides can add up. On the other hand, since I am a slower reader than the leaders, it gave me a chance to read everything at least once, usually more than once.

The Kol Nidrei service (for the evening that starts Yom Kippur) seemed pretty familiar. Afterwards I paged through the Reform machzor that I borrowed, and if you cut out all the creative modern readings and such, the core is all there. (That surprised me; I expected the publishers to have taken more liberties.)

This was not true of the daytime services, though. Some differences I knew, of course: the Reform movement replaced the Avodah service (about the high priest's service in the temple on this day), they changed the torah reading, they shorten the confession (Al Cheit) and Avinu Malkeinu, they don't do the ten martyrs, and Reform never does the extra Musaf service. Other differences I didn't know about in advance, and I'd like to get a traditional machzor to study it more. (It felt like there was more to the sanctification of the day in the middle of the Amidah, for one thing.)

So, about that Avodah service, recounting the high priest's offerings, the two goats (one for God and one for Azazel), the details of the ritual, the saying of the divine name out loud... On one hand I kind of expected this to turn me off (never really got my head wrapped around the temple service and the desire to return to it). On another hand, I had Ishay Ribo's song on my mind as another interpretation. And on yet another hand (who says there can be only two?), I entered the whole thing in a spirit of being open to new experiences and wanting to see where that took me.

I, uh, found that part meaningful. I felt the power of it. Read more…

Ha'azinu / Shabbat Shuva 5781

Yesterday's d'var torah for the minyan (recorded in advance):

Ha'azinu consists primarily of Moshe's final poem, recited to the people before he ascends the mountain to see the land and die.

The language is very different from what I'm used to in the torah. It is not the language of events and facts and commands; it is the poetry of evocative images and allegory. It resembles the writings of the prophets -- which makes sense, as Moshe was a prophet too and these are his final words. Prophets give us words of admonition and words of comfort, and Moshe here does both.

The plain reading, the p'shat, of this text is a recounting of Yisreal's relationship with God. It's mostly focused on the negative -- God did all these good things and Israel rebelled and worshipped false gods and so on, and God withdrew. While it's mostly written in the past tense, it also predicts future events. And in the end there is a nechemta, a consolation -- that if the people return from those evil ways, God will be there for them. This was the case for the people Moshe was speaking to -- they were redeemed from the sins of their parents and granted entry into the land of Israel.

It seems possible to read this on another level, too. Moshe is at the end of a long life, the last third of which has been filled with contention and challenges. He, too, rebelled against God and cried out at the apparent unfairness of the punishment he received. But here, at the very end, it is clear that he has accepted God's authority, praising Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, repeatedly. He has returned to God, and when he dies God Himself takes Moshe's final breath with a kiss.

We usually read this portion on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur, when we too are focused on reflection of the past and aspirations for the future. We are especially challenged this year, when our our world, our country, our society, and perhaps our personal lives have seen many challenges. We face plague, violence, turmoil, corruption from our national leaders, personal losses, fear and uncertainty. But while we pray and confess in the plural, Shabbat Shuva and the whole season of repentance really call on us to take a personal accounting and not just a societal one.

There are two things I think are important about that personal accounting. The first is that it's important to look in both directions. We look back on the past year, on places where we missed the mark, and we try to make amends for the damage we've caused, try to set things right, seek and grant forgiveness. It's a mix of depressing, embarrassing, and cleansing. Sometimes we've strayed from each other and strayed from God. But then we look ahead -- teshuva is about returning to the right path, so what will we do differently in the coming year? What will we be more careful of? What hazards do we now know are waiting to trip us up so we should look out for them? What will we learn from the past, and how will we apply it?

The second thing is that we don't have to do it all at once. If we can repair one relationship, make amends for one thing we've done wrong, accept amends and forgive one person who has wronged us, that is progress. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Our Yom Kippur liturgy includes a blanket forgiveness clause where we say that we forgive people who have wronged us, even if they didn't ask like they're required to. When I say that passage, I quietly insert "except...". There are a few people who have wronged me severely -- I'm not talking about passing slights here -- and until they do teshuva then no, I do not forgive them. I'm not holding a grudge; I'm just waiting for them to make amends. There were five people on that list last year, people I was waiting to see positive change from, sometimes for years, and this year I was able to remove three of them. It feels great to be able to make those repairs, which require both parties to help. Unfortunately there are additions to my list this year, all rooted in a single evil, hurtful source, but maybe someday they, too, will see the harm they're doing and want to fix it. It's not under my control, so there's no point in focusing on it and letting it pull me down.

Ha'azinu is, on its face, about Yisrael's failings and teshuva, its path. On another level, it's about Moshe's path too. And maybe on yet another level it's about us, our path. Looking back we see failures and rebellion and wrongs done and received -- but looking ahead, we see return and renewed relationships.

Israel returned, and will again in the future. Moshe returned. May we also be able to return, one step at a time.

Adapted and reposted on Judaism Codidact.

Community philosophy: centralized structure or self-determination?

A few days ago I wrote about moderator selection in online communities, and somebody asked in a comment which is a better approach, Stack Exchange's centralized control or Reddit's anarchy, where the founder of a subreddit is in charge and communities can have whatever rules they want about content and moderator selection. I responded:

I hope we're drawing on the best of both and avoiding the worst of both. On our network we have a community-proposal mechanism, which is much lighter-weight than Stack Exchange's. (Stack Exchange now makes it very difficult to create a community, which fits with both their business model and the fact that they've got 170 of them already.) On Codidact, we'll create a community if -- hand-waving ahead -- there's "enough" interest. "Enough" is a fuzzy mix of number of people, people's specific interests (e.g. if nobody's prepared to answer questions that'd be a problem), and level of enthusiasm. The Judaism community had several enthusiastic people within hours of being proposed; we launched that in a few days. A proposal for role-playing games feels like it ought to have support but people aren't participating much in the discussion so we don't know if we should create it or wait. And, of course, we're new to this and learning as we go. Read more…

Rising to the challenge

Since March my Shabbat morning minyan has been meeting on Zoom, not in person. Since June I've been attending, sort of -- I join the call on my tablet (with a headset plugged in) Friday afternoon before sundown, and most weeks the minyan is there in the morning. (Sometimes Zoom fails in some way or other.) I don't turn on video or a mic; I am a purely passive consumer of whatever is set in motion in advance. It doesn't really feel like praying, but it's a form of contact with the minyan and it's the best we can do right now.

For the last couple months they've been trying to get more people involved in the service -- do a reading, lead this prayer, etc, as a way of building engagement. In the Before Times I was one of the torah readers (though recently I'd been backing off due to some vision challenges). Sometime this summer someone asked me if I would chant torah, recording it in advance so I wouldn't be violating anything, and I did that once. (I should note that it's not really a torah service, since there's no scroll and no in-person gathering. We read or chant the portion from Sefaria but without the torah blessings.)

Often but not always, the torah reader also gives a short talk. (They've been trying to mix that up too; some people are comfortable giving a talk but can't read torah.) I was asked to read this week and was told that someone else had asked to give the talk. Fine, I said -- I prepared the torah reading, only, and we recorded it tonight.

45 minutes ago I got email -- that person backed out, and do I want to do something, recording tomorrow? (If not we would just do without, or maybe a rabbi would improvise something -- no guilt involved here.)

It's Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat before Yom Kippur. There should be something. So I started mentally outlining (not ashamed to reuse some old notes either), said yes, and started writing. I have a draft now, which I'll make another pass over tomorrow morning. It'll be an adventure!

Election mechanics (not about the US)

A few days ago I was musing elsewhere about some online elections. Specifically, Stack Exchange has been running elections to replace all the moderators who have quit, and it's highlighting some weaknesses in their election scheme. Ranked voting is much better than "first past the post" but you still have to put the right checks in place.

If your election system uses ranked voting, think about how voters can reject candidates. The Hugo awards have "no award" as an automatic candidate in each category and you rank all candidates. My local SCA group lets you mark candidates as not acceptable and any who get 35% NA are removed, which gives the voters a veto when needed. Systems in which you pick N candidates lack this safety check.

"Cast N votes" doesn't let you distinguish between "this candidate is ok but not in my top N" and "I oppose this candidate". And even if you allow "not acceptable" marks on candidates (like my SCA group), you still need to allow ranking those candidates so voters can express "the clueless candidate before the evil one". If I recall correctly, my SCA group gets that part wrong; if you vote "not acceptable" you can't also rank the candidate, so you can't express degrees of unacceptability. If your goal is to deter NA votes that's a positive; if your goal is to elect people who are broadly acceptable then it's a negative. Read more…

Rosh Hashana 5781

My synagogue streamed its services, with some parts recorded in advance (like all the student torah readers) and some parts live. They assumed that people would check email and click links on Rosh Hashana (we say we're "inclusive" but we don't really mean it), and after much pushing I was able to get the stream link for Saturday morning mere moments before sundown Friday so I could set it up in advance.

During the service our (interim) rabbi said "this is live" and as proof, held up the day's New York Times. Which is how I found out the sad news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's passing. (And now I fear even more for our country.)

It did not feel like a service, which didn't surprise me. I mostly prayed on my own instead, sometimes badly (there's a lot of stuff we don't say the rest of the year so I'm not fluent), but I listened to the torah reading and the sermon. The stream froze near the end, during the announcements after the sermon and before Aleinu. All of which strengthened my resolve for today. Read more…

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.

But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

A different take on the Yom Kippur avodah

Today a friend forwarded me a link to this blog post, which talks about a song I was previously not familiar with. The song reinterprets the Yom Kippur afternoon liturgy in a way I find beautiful, resonant, and yet authentic.

Some context: on Yom Kippur when the temple stood, the high priest enacted an elaborate ritual that included offerings to effect atonement for the people. The traditional afternoon liturgy recounts this ritual. (A good chunk of Tractate Yoma in the talmud covers this in detail.) As the high priest splashed the blood on the altar he would count. This song adds some interpretation to the counting -- while mostly including the traditional text in the song.

If you're familiar with this text, I encourage you to listen to Seder Ha'Avodah by Ishay Ribo before continuing. And heck, even if you aren't familiar and don't understand Hebrew, let it play in the background while you read the rest of this. (You can buy the mp3 here. I now have.)

There's a third-party translation that I'll quote from here. Read more…

Garden thoughts

This year I tried my hand at a little container gardening. I have nine pots: two cherry tomato, two lunchbox pepper, two rosemary (different varieties but I don't know which), and three basil. I'm enjoying having truly fresh food available (harvesting herbs as you prepare dinner is great). I'm not sure what yield I should be getting and some of it's been surprising. I've identified some things I did wrong. Read more…

If at first you don't succeed, redefine success

Stack Exchange (may their venture funders wise up speedily in our day) lost a lot of moderators in the great evil of last fall and winter. They also fired most of the community managers who knew how the election machinery works, so they've been slow to replace them.

Then in July they announced changes to the moderator agreement, saying all new mods would be bound by it and all existing mods had 60 days to sign it or they'd be out. (This does not seem like smart timing given the previous paragraph.) The new agreement contains some troubling language, and some mods have said they won't sign it. I don't know how many; I didn't spend a lot of time digging around on their network. The deadline is tomorrow.

So, all in all, it's not surprising that they're having trouble filling all those moderator vacancies. It's also not surprising that they're trying to spin this to cover up their many mistakes. Read more…