Saturday, December 2, 2017

A funny thing happened on the way to the funeral

Sadly, I had the opportunity to speak the praises of a good man recently. Another good man about whom all the right (and true) things are said. And while this does put focus on the life of another of God's creations, I can't help but turn the lens on my own eventual demise, mostly because I'm a selfish narcissist.

Along with my Walter Mitty-esque existence during which I envision myself in heroic scenarios one after (if not during) the next, I also have made plenty of plans for my funeral. Long time readers (and I don't know who you are) might have read my death wishes and similar posts. But I also spend time imagining something called guerilla comedy, in which people act and do the most bizarre things, all for the laugh. I am inspired by Roger Rabbit who, as I'm sure you all remember, was handcuffed to Eddie Valiant (the great Bob Hoskins). Hilarity ensued. In one pivotal moment, Eddie is sawing the handcuffs in an effort to extricate himself from Roger's presnece but the angle was made difficult by the rabbit's arm. Roger slipped his hand out of the cuffs and asked "would this help?" Eddie grunted in assent. Pause. Eddie sees what has happened so Roger quickly sticks his hand back into the handcuff. Valiant, fuming, asks "are you telling me that you could have taken your hand out at any time?" (I'm paraphrasing…apologies to the perfectionists). Roger responds, "not at any time -- only when it was funny." That's what I'm going for.

Back to the point -- I picture the scene at my own funeral. Tears, wailing, possibly gnashing of teeth though I hope TMJ will have been cured by then. A man stands up and ascends the podium. He speaks the following speech.

"When one man dies, others begin to consider the frailty of their lives -- they consider their choices and how they have lived their time on this planet. Our thoughts invariably go to our own morality and how it is as subject to the vicissitudes of time and tide as anything. The morality of every person here is at the whim of God and nature and when we stop to think about our morality, it is generally too late to make any important changes. Whom have we touched during our time on earth, and when we lie view of others, what will they think of us? The young man ignores his morality, living life to its fullest unaware of consequence and effect. Only the old man, feeble and decrepit, whose passions no longer burn as his days run out reconsiders his morality and knows that he has little time to mend his ways."

He continues this way for a while until someone climbs to his side, and whispers something in his ear. He stops, turns and says "are you sure?" The second looks at him and nods.

The speaker refocuses on the audience and says clearly, "Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been alerted to the fact that the word I intended was 'mortality'. Mortality. Yes, that sounds better. So, yeah…that."


and then he sits down in his seat. Fin.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

What hath the Internet Wrought

Recent articles (no, I'm not linking can find it yourself; that's going to be important later) have discussed the impact of the spate of electronic devices on the mind of the young person. I thought it meet to add my two cents in on this. I'm sure I have, at some point previous, written about the loss of random reading and the problem of subcontracting memory to the cloud, but I have come upon another negative consequence (unintended though it may be) of the ubiquity of the hive mind.

There has been a loss of imagination and creativity.

This might sound counter-intuitive. The plethora of apps and the ability to free up the brain from the shackles of lower order thinking should be allowing our minds to soar free and high, going places that were previously reserved only for the intellectually elite or vocationally idle. But that isn't what has happened. What I have seen is a reversion to an even more concrete worldview because, once anything can be found on the internet, there is no reason for anyone to think of anything else.

Case in point -- I assigned my class to find, in their every day experiences, examples of the actual use of rhetoric which manifested particular logical fallacies. I wanted them to become sensitive to these errors in thinking and see how rife our common discourse is with them. Instead of tooling about their worlds, students started googling examples. They were "finding" examples in their lives because their lives were simply a series of directed web searches, standing on the shoulders of previous generations who were sitting at their computers. The second element of the assignment met even more resistance. I asked students to invent their own scenario in which the fallacy was invoked. I was asking them to throw off the bonds of others' thoughts and create, on their own. They started googling examples and copying them down, insisting that they couldn't think of anything. A bunch of teenagers, asked to make up something, demurred, preferring to have others imagine the world for them. That's sad.

I have gotten used to students' double (and triple) checking everything I say to see if some invisible, anonymous (but for some reason, more trustworthy) website confirms my claims. I have gotten used to their sharing documents with each other so any mystery or surprise is now impossible -- I give an assignment to one section and the other class knows about it instantly because they are all in the same group chat or google group. I have resigned myself to accepting that students can't spell without little red lines guiding them, can't physically sign their own names or even shape letters properly when they are forced to write by hand. But I had held out hope that all of these wires and waves would empower the students to push the envelope further and ask deeper, more analytical questions reflecting deeper thinking. Instead, they have relied on the work of others and reserve their questioning for when they can establish positions which challenge the accepted classroom norms (in terms of information...I'm not accusing anyone of disciplinary problems as condoned by the web) only as substantiated by internet encouragement. Even their rebellion is canned. What will happen when they can't find a preset voice to glom on to? What will happen when they have to be revolutionary on their own terms?

Look, I like the internet. It has given us a lot. But I'm just sad that I see students squandering opportunities to innovate and invent because they see this skill of mining the web (an important practice, one which we seem to be stressing a lot) and this practice of collaborative thinking as being ends, not means.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Waka Waka

As part of my daily attempts to redeem my soul (long term at least) I make an effort to give to charity. I have found that the most efficient platform is a service called Good Street. I make a monthly contribution of (IIRC) $7.50 and then, each day, I receive an email which presents me with a cause and 2 charities which help address that cause from 2 different angles. I can then choose which of the two receives .25 from my monthly donation. In cases where there is a large scale issue/tragedy, the general area of donations might stay the same for two or three days, but usually, each day brings a new cause, already researched by the people at Good St. and two charities, pre-vetted so that all I have to do is click a button. Easy, effective and educational. I recommend that you all join and buy gift subscriptions for loved ones who can then not only benefit from the giving of charity, but become more aware of the causes in the greater world. All good, right?

Not exactly.

This morning's email had a write up which began as follows, "South Africa’s education system is one of the weakest in the world. In a table drawn up by the OECD, the South African education system ranked 75th out of 76." (sourced here) I am not going to argue with the statistics because, honestly, I haven't researched them and have no reason to doubt their veracity. And I'm a big fan of education so that isn't the problem.

But think about it -- according to that ranking system, there are 76 countries involved. One of them will invariably be last. It has to happen that way. There has to be a bottom of the list unless there is some incredible mathematical tie! And I'm not counting on that. This means that if I donate to any one country, while I may be helping there, I am forcing whatever country gets leapfrogged over into a lower position on the list! How am I supposed to look the good people of, say, Morocco in the eye if I help South Africa rise? And won't the guilt of pushing Botswana down eat me up from the inside?

Maybe we should all agree that, statistically (and ignoring Lake Wobegon), a huge chunk of people/countries are below average, and on most any list, someone has to be at the bottom. Does this mean that we ignore the educational system in South Africa? Absolutely not.

It seems to me that what we should do is donate the money, improve the system and then encourage everyone to move to another country! Then, their educational system will be superior with no chance of losing steam. Alternatively, I have devised a two-step solution to resolve this issue, ensuring that, in the future, no country will suffer the indignity of being at the bottom of a statistical ranking.

1. Outlaw statistics.

Fixed. Duh.

P.S. Goodst is seriously wonderful. Don't hold my recommendation against them. I joined and subscribed my kids. Other family members ahve also joined and others have given subscriptions as gifts. Do it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Eve of Destruction

First, please excuse the potential misogyny of the title. It actually fits with my message but I can see how some might find it offensive. I happen to like the pun.

Second, I find that as I age, more of my posts are quasi-serious musings or Torah based thoughts. As a younger man, I was inspired more by the ridiculous but now I find that reality has co-opted the ridiculous so all I can to distinguish myself from an uncomfortable reality is to wrap myself in more serious thoughts. I apologize to anyone who reads this expecting the silly on a consistent basis and who feels cheated or that he signed up under false pretenses. Refunds are not forthcoming. Force majeure and all that.

On to the Torah thought.

As we begin the yearly cycle of reading the Torah again, I realize that the biggest challenge that Modern Orthodox Jews have is Simchat Torah, the day of celebrating the Torah. It shouldn't be tough -- we love us some Torah. But it is the 9th day of a holiday which comes after 2 days of Rosh Hashana, 2 fasts, and a month of liturgical changes before that. Enough, we want to scream. And then, just when you think that we can have a big blow out celebrating that we are finally finished: finished with the holidays and their demands on our time and spiritual energies, we don't. We have to get up there and sing and dance (if you are so inclined. I'm usually so inclined that I can neither sing nor dance) to celebrate the BEGINNING! That's the challenge. Not just finding the energy and will to be joyous on the holiday, but to be sincerely joyous about starting the whole thing over again.

But I'm not here to talk to you today about new beginnings. My goal is to discuss ends.

The first reading of the year, the opening chapters of Genesis is about that (re)birth; it is about creation and the potential that lies within the starting of any new project, year or endeavor. But in the same way that we clothe the beginning amidst a celebration of beginning, we learn of ends as soon as we start learning about the start of things.

Adam and Chava are in the garden. Things are going swimmingly for an hour or so -- Adam is convalescing, post-surgery and Eve is wandering around, feng shui-ing the live stock. They have been given the run of the place with only one caveat, Genesis 2:17 (text and translation lifted fro the site)

וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֙עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת׃
but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.”

The strange Hebrew phrase is at the end of the verse, "Mot tamut" rendered here as "you shall die" and elsewhere as "you shall surely die." The doubling of the root for "death" causes no dearth of consternation to commentators. Some say it is an emphatic doubling (hence the "surely") and cite other instances where words are doubled to indicate importance. Others understandings include

1. You shall be liable to a death penalty for the sin (evidenced by similar language in later Books of Moses when the text discusses the death penalty)
2. You shall suffer 2 deaths (and commentators discuss what those 2 deaths might be)
3. Your nature shall change so the order of things will now lead to a death, as opposed to immortality
3a. Your nature will change so the order of things will lead to an earlier death than was intended

Some, like the HaK'tav V'HaKabala point out explicitly that this "death" is not a punishment as dying is not listed as any of the curses leveled against the players after God's discovery of their actions.

I'm not going to say that they are wrong -- these are great thinkers whose shoulders I do not even merit to stand on, but the wording actually leads me to a subtly different understanding. In 2:17, God tells Adam this doubled language. Then He creates Eve. But I don't see, textually, where anyone warns Eve! Clearly, someone does, because in 3:3, she tells the Nachash,

וּמִפְּרִ֣י הָעֵץ֮ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּתוֹךְ־הַגָּן֒ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים לֹ֤א תֹֽאכְלוּ֙ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ וְלֹ֥א תִגְּע֖וּ בּ֑וֹ פֶּן־תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
It is only about [Lit, "and from"] fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said: ‘You shall not eat of it or touch it, lest you die.’

Commentators (like the HaK'Tav V'Hakabala) point to Adam as her source of information and wonder why he relayed the injunction in a way which included touching, with one answer being " הוסיף לה אדם הראשון סייג לדבר " the first man added a fence around God's words, as per the advice of the Ethics of Our Fathers 1:1. But the real change here is in the end result, "pen t'mutun" translated here as "lest you die." The double language is gone! So all the interpretations of what it might mean are likewise gone!

The Nachash replies. Now, remember, the Nachash is referred to as "Arum" (cunning) in 3:1. But we know that arum also alludes to naked (as shown in 3:7, 10 and 11). The Nachash showed Eve the naked truth -- he is not deceptive! In fact, he lays things bare when he says,

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הַנָּחָ֖שׁ אֶל־הָֽאִשָּׁ֑ה לֹֽא־מ֖וֹת תְּמֻתֽוּן׃
And the serpent said to the woman, “You are not going to die,

Hold on, you say, that isn't honest because she IS going to die! But if you look closely at his language, you might come to the conclusion I came to -- the translation is wrong. He says, "lo-mot t'mutun," which is "no, you will surely die." Now that doesn't seem much better until you remember that he is reintroducing the doubled language. He isn't saying "you will not..." but is saying "No, the consequence was this doubled concept." He is quoting God more closely than she is -- he is not hiding God's command behind a fence or in equivocated language, as Adam had done when he conveyed this information to her. Instead he says "What God said was that if you eat this, then your general nature will change and you will be susceptible to a process called 'death'" of which she otherwise KNEW NOTHING!

The Nachash exploited two things: one, Eve's ignorance of what death is, and two, the human urge to celebrate the now and not care about the long term. So what, Eve figures. So what if my nature will change and somewhere, long into the future, I will cease to be. I want that food and its special status, now.

What changes though isn't just that we, as humans, eventually die, but that we know it. And how does that awareness (which turns living into one long and ticking time bomb) begin? Usually when we encounter death through the passing of someone else. This is the double language: You will experience death and you will realize your own mortality. This is the true curse and punishment, this realization that our time is limited and we are in a race against an unbeatable foe. Eve brought on to all of us a knowledge of our own fate - and in an extended sense, this is the pain of childbirth (3:16): a mother's knowledge that she and eventually the generations after her will die.

So what is the cure? How do we get back to the garden?

We focus on the spiritual and the immortal soul. If we can remember that there is a part of us that transcends this body and world, then we can reattain the pre-fall status, and live forever. Eating fruit won't do it. Following the mitzvot and celebrating even the body's end will help us see that there is a greater promise. In our beginning, there is a built in end. But in that end, there is a new beginning (a "Dawn of Correction" one might say).

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Another post-Ne'ilah post: "Ne'ilah"

Last year at this time, I posted a thought about the final prayers of Yom Kippur, the Ne'ilah service. I focused, through the lens of bosh and piffle, about how the service should not be seen as an end, but a beginning of a journey, and that the name of the service refers to shoes, which we must don in order to make that journey of improvement.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on my own genius, but this year, I have been inspired with some loftier thoughts regarding the service. Allow me to explain.

As stated last year, the Ne'ilah service is not about an ending. And yet, most of the speeches I hear are all filled with analogies about beating deadlines -- the final 2 minutes of a football game, the sirens rushing to an accident, the paper that has to be submitted. This is, even though the gates don't actually close. The "slips" which have our verdict are not handed down until the end of Sukkot. Even then, we say in the thrice daily weekday prayers a blessing about repentance and forgiveness, and have the prayer of tachanun which includes confession. If the gates were closed then prayer the rest of the year would be ineffectual and useless!

So what changes at the close of the Ne'ilah prayer that makes it so important that we focus? (and no fair saying "we do" because we hope to change for the better all the time). The answer seems insignificant -- some subtle liturgical wordings. For the last 10 days we have been shifting the text of certain prayers to focus on God's kingship and this stress ends right after Ne'ilah ends. Ne'ilah is the last chance to address that element of God's character explicitly and that's the rush.

There is, in my mind, a difference between talking about a king, and talking to the king. In both cases, there is reverence, but in the latter, we have reached a level of importance, we have risen high enough in stature, that we can look to the king directly and make our requests; instead of saying "the king is really mighty and powerful, and he has the power to save me" we can say "Hey, king, please save me." We are in his presence, by his throne and that s about to end.

So then why "Ne'ilah"? I looked at the word with my 24-hours-into-the-fast eyes and I saw a different word that shares most of the letters -- na'aleh. We will rise up. Rising is a concept that appears elsewhere in our prayers during the year and, in fact, in the Yom Kippur prayers -- in fact, in the evening service at the beginning of Yom Kippur, we, full of fear and hope, begin the supplications with a liturgical poem beginning with the word "ya'aleh" (it will rise up). We want our prayers to rise up. But by the end of the day, we hope that we, ourselves, will rise up. We are at the throne and want to be able to rise up and address the king one last time, and, somehow, we want to be granted the privilege of staying on that level, having that "aliyah" become permanent so we can speak to "hamelech" the king, all the time.

May we all have that aliyah, that rising up this year, in the merit of the prayers which we offered fervently yesterday, and which we will continue to offer throughout the year.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Little Does A Lot

A strange thing happened in synagogue yesterday. I was reading along as the portion from the Torah was being read, and I got to Devarim (Deuteronomy) 29:22. I guess that, even though I have been going to synagogue for years, I never really thought about this verse (as copied from the Judaica Press text on chabad. org):

Sulfur and salt have burned up its entire land! It cannot be sown, nor can it grow [anything], not [even] any grass will sprout upon it. It is like the overturning of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overturned in His fury and in His rage.

This verse lists 4 cities that were destroyed by God. OK, that's pretty epic but I recalled that the original story was a little different, so I checked. In Bereishit (Genesis) 18, God tells Abraham that He is going to destroy S'dom and Amora. Abraham starts to haggle and asks God if He would destroy the entire "city" if 50 righteous people live there. Fifty is not a random number -- Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) explains that there were actually 5 cities (as in 14:2, "That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar") and Abraham was asking about destroying what would have constituted a quorum (minyan) of 10 righteous men in each city (an argument apparently bolstered by the Targum Yonatan). The metropolitan area of 5 cities was named based on the largest, S'dom. So instead of recalling 5 destroyed cities, the Devarim text refers only to 4. So I did more reading.

It appears that the original goal was to destroy 5. Abraham prays and begs but God stands firm. But in Bereishit 19:18 something changes. Lot, Abraham's nephew who lives in S'dom asks the angels/God not to destroy the city of Tzo'ar. His argument is that Tzo'ar is the smallest of the 5. The talmud, in Tractate Shabbat, page 10A explains that "small" is not a measure of size, but of age. It had been settled most recently (1 year later than S'dom) so it was "closer" in time and "smaller" in evil and did not have the same measure of sins as was found in the other cities.

One year. That's not much of a difference. Abraham was asking about the possibility of (ultimately) their being 10 righteous men in one of the cities, or possibly all 5 combined (rabbinic sources disagree) but when that didn't pan out, he dropped his suit. Lot didn't ask about righteous men. He pointed out that one city simply wasn't as bad as the others (by a factor of a single year over a span of over 50 years...Tzo'ar was 1/52nd less evil, under 2 percent better). God presents no counter argument as He did to Abraham -- Lot persuades God with that one point and the city is saved! What Abraham can't/won't/doesn't do, despite his sterling character, Lot, who is not exactly a consistent paragon of virtue accomplishes in a moment of desperation. In fact, it seems that Lot didn't even buy his own argument! He leaves Tzo'ar as quickly as he can (verse 30) because, as Rabbi David Kimchi puts it, he really was aware that its inhabitants were evil and deserved the same destruction (as quoted from the English translation on "He left Tzoar being afraid that Tzoar might face the same fate as Sodom, even though a little later, seeing that he was well aware that its inhabitants were also wicked people.")

So Abraham, man of God, strong defender of all that is right and good gives up on 5 cities while Lot, who is willing to hand over his own daughters to a violent mob, is able to argue to save a city even though the crux of his argument is a point which he knows to be false.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year is coming. On it, Jews are judged.

God, as you well know, I am no Abraham. I don't know if I could offer up my child, jump into a furnace, fight a war or circumcise myself. But maybe, it would be enough that you see me as a Lot. My pleas in the name of Abraham, explaining rationally and mathematically why I am worth saving might not persuade you. I don't have the minimum allotment of righteousness to merit another year.

But I call out to you as Lot -- in desperation and in the face of destruction, an emotional and irrational argument, one that I might even recognize as not entirely valid: that there is some small part of me which is not that bad, even if not good. Forgive me and save me for the year even though I know that I do not deserve it. I will try to flee even from that small part because I know, deep down, that it is bad also, but please give me a chance.

I ask all those whom I might have hurt, offended, alienated or bothered to forgive me. I hope we can all merit (by any means necessary, be it via the method of Abraham or Lot) a year of joy, happiness, health and peace.

L'shana Tova tikatem and teichatem -- may we all be written and sealed into the book of life.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

For English teachers and other lovers of language puzzles

I will start with an extra credit assignment I have put on the board for my classes and then I will include a new part which is a natural extension of that first assignment and which struck me this morning while I prepared for my day. Do not use the internet to find the answer. I don't know if it is out there, but that doesn't seem fair. For some people, the second part will be significantly easier than the first.

Part A:

What do all the following words have in common (the words for both parts are listed in no particular order and I'm sure that there are more that I could add, but I'm writing this off the cuff)?

Corn, bout, trophy, toll, skew, mount, vow, muse, spire, maze, shore, political, venue, far, round, drift, verse

Now, Part B:

What do all THESE words have in common?

grudge, still, hold, tween, hooves, witch, muse, spoke, little, knight, night