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 tarting 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 sefaria.org 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 Sefaria.org "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

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Be Tru

It dawned on me this morning, it being the actual morning, as evening dawns rather infrequently, and I realized that my second child is getting older. She is approaching one of those arbitrary markers of "adulthood" and I need to sit down because I feel old. My "baby" will be 18 very soon. I only have the two kids so when she passes into the realm of "grown up" I will be without a little kid around. I know that she has been moving in this direction for a number of years, but this year, her senior year in high school, really presents me with a lot of "last times." A year from now, she will be gearing up for another stage -- be it a gap year program or college or a job or I have no idea what, but it won't be any more high school unless she absolutely fails out this year and I'd like to think that that isn't going to happen. I don't want to wake up in next September and start feeling all empty and what-not, bemoaning the cliche "you don't appreciate what you have until it is gone". I want to work on appreciating everything now.

To that end, I want to list some things that I am going to try and be aware of in this upcoming year -- some are annoying, some not, but I want to have a list so I can take nothing for granted. For example, this is the last year that I expect to have to wake up a child every morning so instead of sighing and getting frustrating, I will try to enjoy these last times. After this year, I won't have the morning and afternoon car rides, or the odd moments at school when I get to hear about her day as it happens. The walks to shul on Shabbos morning, and the games of cards on Shabbos afternoon. Once she leaves the nest, I won't be able to criticize the TV shows she watches or the stuff that passes for "music" that she sings in the shower. She loves bath bombs but when she moves out, there won't be anyone pushing various hand-made combinations under my nose and wanting to chat with me about the different aromas. Our frequent discussions about what color she might treat her hair will be gone. The innocent questions about current events which gave me an opportunity to explain and guide but not dictate beliefs will be a thing of the past. I will not have the reins, controlling her movements and I will have to trust her to make the right decisions -- I'm confident she can and I pray that she will.

So in the upcoming year, when I remind her to clean her bathroom, do her homework or get some sleep, when I get frustrated picking up the clothes she leaves lying around, or get annoyed that I have to cajole her to walk the dog, I have to take a deep breath and take stock. She's a wonderful and miraculous child and I have her under my roof for a finite (and ever diminishing) number of days. She gives more than she takes and I am going to miss her terribly, even while I know that she is out there doing something wonderful. So, yeah, it will be irritating to have to tell her, again, to turn the light off when she leaves the room, and it won't always be riveting to hear the girl-drama that is high school life, but my resolution is to try and seize every moment and savor it for what it is: a chance to connect with a very special someone who will soon be spreading her own wings and discovering the world on her own terms, without her dad watching over her shoulder.

Welcome to senior year, Trolley. I hope it is fulfilling, fantastic, frustrating and frantic and that it helps set you up for whatever you decide is the next chapter of your life. Now walk the dog, please.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Things I don't know

As an irresponsible adult, I think it meet that I pass along some secrets instead of guarding them as seems to be expected of me. The biggest secret is that I have no idea. About what? Most everything. Maybe I'm doing it wrong and every other adult has an idea but I'm completely lost.

An example. Do I like a firm mattress or a soft one? I don't know. When I use one, I'm often asleep and not paying attention. And when I can't fall asleep (it is currently 2:05AM where I am, which is, not coincidentally, not in bed) I have no idea if it is because of the mattress or because I have forgotten how to fall asleep. Maybe it is because half of me has to be stretched until it clicks, pops or cracks and the other half is achy. There is no owners manual on this machine that is my body, so I don't know.

What style of furniture do I like? What kind of car would I prefer? Do I like Italian or French food more? I don't know -- do people really care about this stuff? Am I supposed to feel, deep in my heart, that some things are preferable to other things? Either I don't or I do but I don't know what that is. Either way I feel like I'm doing this all wrong.

Shouldn't I feel relaxed and comfortable sometimes, knowing that I have done what needs to be done and chosen what will make me happy? Instead, I just float through life not because I'm too scared to choose but because things don't seem to matter on that level. I'm happy when I'm happy and it isn't tied to the kinds of things that seem to determine life happiness. It isn't that I'm not happy, just that I get the sense that I'm supposed to have a clearer cut happiness as driven by particular things. My sports teams? They win, they lose...either way, my stomach is tied in knots. My job? I feel like I'm faking it there also. I have no fire burning in me to be on the cutting edge of anything; I don't want to sit at work and stare at a computer screen. I want to do what I do and go home and stare at the screen there.

I don't even know if I prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Both are good and at different times, each is preferable. I think it is simplistic to have clear preferences in things because there are too many variables in any given case so a decision that went one way might go in the other direction 2 minutes later. My brain is just whirring away, clicking through situations and possibilities and not settling anywhere. Is it supposed to? I care that I don't care, but I still don't care.

There are clearly things I like. Make no mistake -- there are foods, movies, even people that I prefer or maybe can't really do without, but there is so much more that I feel outside of (for lack of a better or more expressive phrase) and more that I just don't get. Is this what getting older is all about? Gaining such a wide perspective that I can no longer reduce my world into simple ideals to latch on to? Is there something wrong with that? Or is the fault on the side of youthful exuberance which I am fortunate to have abandoned? I don't know.

Anyway, it is now 2:51 and I think I'm supposed to pretend to be sleepy now.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Why I didn't play the lottery


If you are looking for something serious and political, move along. Tonight I deal with dry statistics, probability and current events.

There was a drawing for a 535 million dollar Powerball lottery tonight and I didn't buy a ticket. Allow me to explain why.

I usually don't buy a ticket. This means that though the odds for someone who buys a ticket are 1 in 292 million, for me, they are 0 in 292 million. So, and I have studied this, if I bought a ticket, my chances would increase from 0 in 292 million to 1 in 292 million. That doesn't sound like a lot, but trust me, it is. Think about it -- if I bought 2 tickets instead of one, my chances would increase to 2 in 292 million, a 100% increase. From 2 to 3 tickets is a 50% increase and so on. But from zero to one works out to be an INFINITE increase in my chances. That's a truth -- an infinite increase. That means I would inevitably and unavoidably win! Sounds good, right?

But remember, I have set a threshold for winning the lottery. Tonight the pot was at 535 million. But I figure that there have to be about 5 other people in the country who not only haven't been buying any tickets, but who also have the grasp of probability that I have and who would therefore also buy a ticket and inevitably win.

This would mean that 6 of us would win and my share would be less than my 100 million threshold! So winning wouldn't be worth it. So I sat this one out. You're welcome.