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

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.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hate Is guaranteed to have a home if it pays on time, just like anyone else

I'm at a complete loss. This is not new, or unusual but what troubles me is that others aren't at that same loss -- things seem to them to be so obvious and I just don't understand.

Stuff has been happening in the U.S. In a nutshell, there has been a galvanization of people who espouse beliefs based in the hatred of non-whites (racial and religious minorities) and those people have recently massed and protested things which undercut what they view as the fair expression of their beliefs. The removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee was apparently a flashpoint this week. I don't know. I try not to follow the news because it depresses me.

Our commenter in chief made the error of neither naming/labeling the protesters nor placing blame securely and exclusively on them. A firestorm ensued because even after he decried the hatred he reiterated that there was blame enough to go around. Memes exploded with righteous fury and talking heads went on and on about this. The Tweetmaster reminded us that the counter-protesters were doing the same thing when trying to assemble and strip rights from others and brought up the slippery slope argument -- if we remove Lee then do we next remove all slave owners (Washington and Jefferson)? On one hand these are reasonable concerns:

1. schools named after slave owners are having names changed and people want to separate themselves from that legacy and

2. it seems unreasonable to shout down voices that demean races or religious groups just because they are unpopular opinions to have, since the freedom of speech extends to all,

but on the other hand, totally dumb.

2a. Those shouting down the Neo Nazis seems obviously proper -- we fought the people who acted on those ideas so why would we condone their opinions now, and

1a. Lee isn't being removed because he was a slave owner but because he was a general of a rebelling force, an enemy. We don't have statues to Rommel in German communities in the U.S. He was also a general who denied the primacy of the construct that is the United States. He lost. We don't have to celebrate him, no matter his other (potentially) good personal qualities.

Does that make this all simple? Not by a long shot.

I remember very few things from middle school Social Studies class (apologies to Mrs. Liebman -- I wasn't "not trying" but I was certainly "not getting it"). One thing I remember is the tenet "It is the obligation of the majority to protect the rights of the minority. When the minority becomes the majority, it must do the same." I also have spent some time studying the first amendment (in graduate school). I learned what was protected and what isn't. I learned what is actionable after the fact and what kinds of expression are subject to a priori restraint. And I learned that what developed (either because of the American revolution, or if you are a more honest historian, a bunch of years after that) was a respect for the freedom to say unpopular things. The government cannot suppress a sentiment simply because it is controversial. As long as it doesn't run afoul of those categories which are not protected, people have the right (with a permit) to assemble and shout it.

Now, as much as I'd like to be, I'm not a naive, pie-in-the-sky liberal who buys into the ACLU, no questions asked. If I were, I would be a lot angrier at this invention called a "hate speech" statute which denies people the right to say things that are considered hate speech. On one level, this is laudable -- why should we allow people to say hurtful and (frankly) disgusting things about individuals or groups? Shouldn't one element of the minority we protect be its right to dignity and equal status and not disparagement? But isn't the hater also a protected minority? Whose rights, um, "trump" whose?

When I was growing up there were people who would make my life difficult. My parents, sagacious as they were, often advised "ignore them and they will go away. If you give a bully attention, he wins." That was interesting advice and well-intentioned. The bully does want to be acknowledged so, when ignored, he often then ramps up his attacks. Will he eventually go away? Maybe. I don't know. I was not very good at ignoring because I also heard that "silence equals death" or at least "silence is tantamount to agreement." If you don't raise your voice in opposition, you are tacitly acceding to the bully's position. Those two pieces of folk wisdom are at odds here and this is where I get lost.

Protesters have the right to assemble and shout horrible things. I think. Counter protesters have the same right. Not everyone agrees with any one particular opinion and in the free market place of ideas, don't all have the right to be heard? Or maybe, some positions are so abhorrent that they, by definition, should never see the light of day? Holocaust denial is a crime in many countries. Is this healthy? Words and ideas do infect and influence behavior; is it healthy to expose young people to unchallenged hateful ideas which will lead to violence or repeats of oppression? But censorship creates a backlash and resentment (and hearkens back to "the greater the truth, the greater the libel"). Your hate speech can drive someone to want to strip me of my identity and rights, but if your hate speech motivates me to punch you in the nose should you be silenced or should I have to control myself? Whose rights are paramount here? And, with our recent focus on safe spaces and trigger warnings, that slippery slope reemerges: who gets to decide what topics or words are off-limits? The pope drew one line. A college professor might draw another, and a plumber from Iowa, a third.

So we have the alt-right which marches with swastikas (allowed in the Skokie decision) and the intolerance of outsiders and the alt-left which marches with muzzles and gags, and intolerance of intolerance. One side wants the right to hate, the other, the right to muzzle hate. And both are protected but are both equal? Some people (OK, me) are more of an alt-tab, or possibly a shift-F5 kind who want to go back to playing Castle Wolfenstein. At least there, I knew who the bad guys were.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Decidedly UnOrthodox

Note – this post deals with a current event here in NJ. I’m not linking to any of the many news stories – you can google this all and see it if you would like.

The people of Mahwah, New Jersey don’t want me to live near them. I have been wrestling with this truth for a while now. I don’t know what I did to deserve their scorn. Maybe they don’t like that I like walking around in jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe they are afraid that my knowledge of classic rock trivia will negatively influence their children. Could it be that they don’t want empty pizza boxes in the paper recycling bin outside my house? I don’t know. But they have gone on record as saying that they don’t want “the Orthodox” to move in and take over.

Take over. Like I have any interest in anything outside my house.

But they are afraid of me and my dog Sparky. The Jewish community in that area has been working to put up an eiruv – a series of PVC pipes attached to utility poles which creates a legal fiction, an area surrounded by these poles and their wires which can then be treated as a single “private” domain so that those Jews who observe a certain understanding of Jewish law and limitation of behavior on the Sabbath can carry necessary items outside of their houses. An eiruv is what allows Orthodox Jews to push babies in strollers on the Sabbath, to carry house keys, to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house. It doesn’t actually change anything in the nature of the area enclosed except shift its status under Jewish law. Many, many communities have eiruvs and I have no doubt that a bunch of you readers have traveled within the bounds of one in the past. You wouldn’t have noticed. The markers are not recognizable as anything. In fact, Jews living in neighborhoods surrounded by an eiruv often can’t see it – we rely on a map, and the inspection report of the small group of experts who know what to look for.

But in Mahwah, as has been the case in other areas within the last few years, residents are afraid that this accommodation will attract Orthodox Jews who would then want to move in to the area. Which is true. When looking for someplace to buy a house and raise a family, an Orthodox Jew would look for a house of worship within walking distance, schools close by, stores which carry Kosher food and, very often, an eiruv. So its presence would certainly be a lure for Orthodox Jews. And apparently, that’s bad. We are, I have heard, dirty, cheap, criminals on welfare who want to exclude everyone else from our neighborhoods and force others to abide by our rules. I didn’t know this and I have been Orthodox for a bunch of years. Was there a memo to this effect? I didn’t get it.

In Mahwah, they claim to love diversity and are afraid that letting Orthodox Jews move in will change the nature of the entire town. We will lower their housing values. We won’t send our kids to the local public school, but we will demand a say on the board of education that uses our tax money. We are clearly a feisty bunch.

And I have no doubt that if I were to meet face to face with a resident, he would size me up and say something to the effect of “Oh, we don’t mean you, just the other kind of Orthodox Jew, the Hassidics.” As if that clears everything up. Here’s some news – I need the eiruv as much as any other Orthodox Jew. You can’t claim to want to keep only certain types of Orthodox Jews out and still embrace others. You are rejecting a whole range of people. There is no “them” that doesn’t include “me.” When you are afraid of them, you are afraid of me.

I think that what this situation has done is highlighted that we, as Jews can’t afford to buy into this game of subdividing our religion. We, as “modern Orthodox” Jews, can’t say “those right wing, ultra-Orthodox ones are crazy and I wouldn’t want them to move in, either.” Yes, I know that it seems that some groups on the right look at us as lesser, not even really Jewish. I have seen it and heard it from their mouths (until they meet us as individuals and realize that we aren’t that different). Jews further to the right DO live in smaller, insular groups, because that's part of their understanding of Jewish life. And I DO send my kids to private school, but still feel that if the town government is going to spend my tax money, I should be represented in that process. And we do the same thing when we look at groups to the left of US. They are not really being the right kind of Jews. Well, you know what? We should all, collectively and as a single religion, just shut up about anyone else’s practice of Judaism for a short while and try, just try, to accept others and work together as a single entity, not a fractured one. There are criminals in every subgroup. None is immune to the evils that beset us through our human nature. When we put blinders on and try to find fault only in those others, we feed into the general anti-somebody tenor which puts hate above loving your neighbor.

I know – na├»ve, idealistic and ultimately impossible, right? I am not advocating giving up our beliefs or even compromising them. I am pushing for practicing what we practice and recognizing that others understand the laws differently and act in accordance with that different take on things. Their practice doesn’t invalidate who I happen to be, and mine shouldn’t attempt to squelch theirs. And when particular practices cause some form of conflict, we can work it out coming from a place of mutual respect, not disdain. Is it impossible? I don’t know, but we won’t ever find out if we don’t try. If the residents of Mahwah see that we fight amongst ourselves, why should they worry when they pick on one group or another? We do the same thing!

Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, is coming. This saddest of days reminds us of what we lost because we couldn’t stand together as a people – we gave in to partisan bickering and infighting. Supposedly, we pray each day, week, and year for an end to this exile. And yet we are still fighting. What change have we made to address the specific problems of the Second Temple era? Why should we deserve any divine mercy when we look down on “them” because their practice of Judaism isn’t “right”? We should be inspiring others by our own integrity and not trying to dismiss others because of what label has been slapped on them. And I am speaking to Jews of all stripes, across the continuum that is today's religion.

I don’t have all the answers, and, truth be told, I have no interest in moving to Mahwah. But when they paint all of US with a single brush, our response shouldn’t be to distance ourselves and allow their offensive attitude and exclusionary attitude to be valid as it applies to some phantom “them.” Their hate won’t be solved by a court decision favorable to the eiruv’s exponents. But maybe, our goal shouldn’t be to fix their hate until we have fixed our own.

May we all take a moment this Tisha B’Av to look inward and resolve to act in a way which allows us to be one people. May our fasting, our prayers and our expression of our religion, in whatever way we find meaningful bring us closer to deserving to be treated with respect as we respect others.