Blog: Judaism

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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.

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!

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…

Religious uncertainty

The original post had restricted access. While I'm now fine with making my post public, people commented under the assumption of a restricted audience and I'm not going to expose those. Hence, no link to the original for this one.

With some trepidation, I have just sent the email that might lead to me joining an Orthodox congregation. While I always imagined that this would happen someday, I did not expect it to happen out of an acute need and during my Reform congregation's transition year between permanent rabbis. And so I need to be clear and up front about that acute need with the rabbi, that there is a complicating driver mixed in with the pull (and push) I've been feeling for a while. Read more…

Triage in Jewish Thought

One of the classes I took at Hadar this week was on making triage decisions -- nicely, and explicitly, topical. The class was taught by Rabbi Ethan Tucker. These are some assorted notes, not a proper write-up.

At the beginning of the class, he asked participants to list things we thought might be factors in deciding which of two patients in dire need gets the ventilator. Other people said age (prefer the younger person), overall health (bias against the person with other illnesses), family status (bias in favor of the person with children to take care of), "merit" in various forms (bias against the drug addict, bias for the "important" person, etc), who you think has a better prognosis of this illness (regardless of other factors), and more I'm not remembering. I said: who got there first or, failing that, lottery. This was not a popular suggestion.

We examined a bunch of sources, some of which were familiar to me from a previous class about programming self-driving cars (whom should the programmer prioritize in an impending accident?). Some key points: Read more…

New Judaism community on Codidact!

I'm so excited!

Last Wednesday, an active user on Mi Yodeya asked on meta about trying out Codidact. By the end of the day it has something like 18 votes, which is a strong show of community support on this site.

On Thursday (by which time it had picked up a few more votes), this same user proposed it on Codidact's "site proposals" section. Several people participated in that discussion, including Isaac, the founder of Mi Yodeya (who is one of the moderators there). Isaac also posted an answer on the Mi Yodeya meta question commending my involvement.

On Friday it was pretty clear to us on the Codidact team that the proposal had the support it needed to go forward. We tested Hebrew fonts and the lead developer added a Hebrew keyboard for typing posts, adapted from a userscript a Yodeyan had written for use there. (Eventually Stack Exchange took that script and built it in, so not having it would be a regression for our users on Codidact.) We tried to figure out what to use for a logo.

Saturday night after Shabbat we talked about some final details. Sunday morning we launched the site.

Monday I had a brief conversation with somebody at Sefaria about their source linker, a server-side package that finds citations (like "Genesis 1:1") on web pages and turns them into links to source texts on Sefaria. After a bit of poking and a code review we turned that on. Much excitement on our site ensued.

It's now been a few days, and Judaism Codidact is going great so far! We're still having some initial meta discussions, including what data to import from Mi Yodeya and whether to broaden scope in certain ways, but that doesn't stop us from asking and answering questions right now, which people are doing. People I miss from Mi Yodeya are showing up, and I hope in time more will. I've missed my friends. I've missed being part of this community.

We asked Isaac to be an initial moderator on the Codidact site, and he wrote a thoughtful explanation of why he accepted on Mi Yodeya. This is the model of collaboration and cooperation. Online Jewish learning is not a zero-sum game; Mi Yodeya and Judaism Codidact can exist side by side, working together to spread knowledge and build community. I'm delighted to have him on Codidact along with Mi Yodeya.

A Shabbat story

My synagogue, like everyone else, shut down in mid-March. They've been holding Shabbat services over Zoom; most Reform Jews don't care about using computers on Shabbat but I do, so I haven't joined. But I miss my minyan, and also we've been preparing for my rabbi's retirement (all those celebrations went out the window too), so, um.

A couple weeks ago the Conservative movement put out a detailed analysis of the issue. Their conclusion (and yes I read the supporting documentation, all 35 pages of it) was that, basically, passive computer-based stuff you set in motion before Shabbat is ok under these specific exceptional circumstances (do not extrapolate beyond COVID). Starting two weeks ago I've used my tablet (intentional: battery, not wall current) to join the Zoom meeting before Shabbat. I left it sitting there with a headset plugged in, with my video turned off and mic muted. (Even remembered to disable my password lock so I could see the video feed.)

People tried to interact with me that first week, but I didn't want to interact with the software on Shabbat to unmute and apparently they couldn't do that remotely, so oh well. I had a conversation with my rabbi about this, saying I'd talk if I didn't have to do anything but I did so I couldn't.

This Shabbat was my rabbi's last as our senior rabbi, after 32 years with us. It was, as you'd expect, a very emotional service, and I'm glad I could attend even in this limited way. (Better, of course, would have been for us to all be together physically, but that is not within our power.) I knew that someone in the minyan was organizing a thing at the end where each of us would say just a few words (the request was to share something fun, not teary), but as usual I didn't expect to be able to join in. Only during the service did it occur to me that had I gone to the home of another willing participant, I might have been able to passively benefit from others' use of Zoom. But I don't know how kosher it would have been to set that up in advance even if I'd thought of it.

So there I was, sitting in my living room with my tablet on the chair next to me, listening to people share stories... when my cat walked across the tablet.

And unmuted me.

And somebody noticed and said "hey, Monica unmuted", so I explained about the cat, who they declared to be a "Shabbos cat" in the nature of the "Shabbos goy".

And then I ad-libbed a response (everyone else had had time to prepare), and I felt like I was part of the goodbye for a rabbi who has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks Orlando. I don't know how you did that, but I'll take it.

Leaving personal slavery: lessons from Pesach (class notes)

Last night I watched the recording of a JLI class that had been given for free earlier in the day (but I had a work meeting at the time). The class is Leaving our personal slavery: 10 lessons from Passover for the whole year. taught by Sara Esther Crispe. I don't know anything about the teacher; I went there because I've taken several JLI courses (in the classroom, not online).

What follows are basically my running notes as I listened (and occasionally backed up to hear something again, so I guess it's just as well I missed the livestream). Some of this might sound a little pithy or trite summarized here; I encourage you to listen to the talk (44 minutes) before drawing a negative conclusion just based on my notes.

In English the book is called Exodus, but in Hebrew it's Sh'mot, Names. To leave something which enslaves you, you need to know who you are. Slavery is dehumanizing, taking away your name, reducing people to numbers. When someone tries to strip our identity, that is the foundation of enslaved reality - we have no voice, nobody is going to believe us.

Nobody escapes Mitzrayim (Egypt); we all are there at some point in our lives -- not having freedom of movement, expression, thought. Egypt is something we all go through. It's part of our journey. The same God who put us there takes us out.

It's not "what can I do to escape Egypt", but "what will I learn from the Egypt I'm in?". How do I discover who I am so I can be free?

10 lessons: Read more…