Thursday, October 27, 2011

a serious break

It has been a while since I interrupted my flow of stupidity with something striving to be considered seriously, especially from a religious perspective, but the muse descended and so I have to put this Torah thought down in words.

In parshat Noach, the text initially describes Noach as "ish tzaddik tamim haya b'dorotav et ha'elokim hithalech Noach." [no punctuation intentionally]

Rashi comments on the wording of "b'dorotav" in his generation and cites the famous discussion in masechet sanhedrin regarding Noach's righteousness -- was he a tzaddik EVEN in his own generation (and would be at least as great if not greater in a more righteous time) or ONLY in his own generation (were he alive in a more righteous time, he would be "nechshav klum" thought as nothing).

This presents a problem. How can anyone say that Noach would have been less than perfectly righteous in another generation because of the word "b'dorotav"? One cannot explicate that word while ignoring the remainder of the verse -- that he was "perfectly righteous" (tzaddik tamim)! And the verse concludes by saying that he "went with hashem." How is this not a good thing at any time?

First off, there is an argument in the 2 Aramaic versions of the text. The phrase "tzaddik tamim" is not clearly how the verse should be read. The trope seems to connect "ish" and "tzaddik" and then starts a mercha under "tamim" which ties it to "hayah" and not "tzaddik." This would account for the Yonatan Ben Uziel's translation as "gvar zakai, shlim b'ovadin tavin hava..." he was a worthy/righteous man, complete in his good acts in his generation." The Onkelos reads "gvar zakai shlim hava..." he was a completely worthy/rightous man in his generation. If the notion of tamim (perfect, unblemished, complete) modifies the nature of his righteousness (tzaddik tamim) then how could one question how he would be at any time? The trope seems to be creating this reading "a righteous man, in his generation he was complete/perfect" thus allowing the negative reading, in that his completeness was only based in the relative comparison to his generation.

The Siftei Chachamim discusses at length the entire question of how one could see anything negative here. He begins his answer by citing the next Rashi which seems to say that the notion of "et ha'elokim", going in hashem's path, is different from Avraham's blazing a trail inspired by some inherent righteousness, not relying on external inspiration.

I'm not convinced by this. It is apparent that different people derive their inspiration from different sources and we don't try to assess how "good" someone is by the source of their love for hashem. If No'ach had lived in Avraham's time, maybe he would have developed differently. Maybe his generation was on such a lower level that he needed this external push (in fact, the Siftei does conclude that the insult is on the generation and its deficiency, not on No'ach! Had Avraham lived THEN, who knows if his internal inspiration would have been enough?) Different people find their centers in different places, but the end result, righteousness and sincerity should not be second guessed.

I think the answer is that Rashi's point is subtler. In any generation other than the deficient one of No'ach, simply being righteous and following hashem's path shouldn't be enough to be considered remarkable. Yes, in any generation, Noa'ch would have been completely righteous and would have followed what hashem wants. But this isn't the standard he or we should be shooting for. We need to be an Avraham, blazing a trail somehow even higher. Only in a generation where people are all deficient does seeing someone doing mitzvot seem incredible. In any other time, mitzvot should and would seem common place, so seeing someone do what is expected wouldn't be note worthy.

Our goal in our generation isn't to tout the mitzvot we do and say "but our generation is so deficient that I have to be patted on the back for following in the path of Hashem." We have to see that we aren't lliving in No'ach's time, so simply trying to be righteous and do mitzvot simply isn't enough. We have to be on an even higher level, pushing forward and finding the fire within to go the next step and be an Avraham. No'ach was an ish tzaddik, and his righteousness would have risen in another generation, but in his generation all that was needed to be newsworthy was to be who on a particular level, one lower than Avraham.

Monday, October 24, 2011

questions for Siri

I don't have an iPhone and I am woefully ignorant about this Siri character. Apparently, one can ask the phone a question, and inside the phone, somehow reproduced in miniature, is a woman who knows everything (redundant? you decide). So the commercial shows people asking their phones a question. We are left to assume that the phone can interpret the question, distill it into a search, and come up with the answer. Meanwhile, I am amassing a list of questions to ask the iPhone, if I ever get one.

1. Does this milk smell bad?
2. I just killed a guy.
3. If a man and a half can dig a whole and a half in a day and a half, what color were the driver's eyes?
4. Are you bound by any ethical code, or legal confidentiality agreement?
5. Please hold this for me.
6. Do you feel like we do?
7. and what's the deal with airline food?
8. Muhammad Ali vs. disc brakes.
9. Why do fools fall in love?
10. y'know that thing in your ear. No, not that, the other thing. What's he deal with that thing?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

or your money back

I don't like guarantees. I don't like promises. I don't like commitments of many sorts. Does that make me a bad person? No. I'm a bad person for other reasons. But the fact is, I don't like guarantees. And I'll tell you why.

I want people to like me.

That probably doesn't make sense to you, so allow me to explain.

I started using this new toothpaste recently, called "Optic White." It promises "whiter, more fabulous teeth in 7 days." That is a guarantee, or you get your money back. My teeth, truth be told, are "off white" the way the house in the Amityville Horror was a "fixer-upper." I have tried lots of different stuff, not because I particularly want whiter teeth, but because pop culture told me I had to. Who am I to argue with the hive mind? So I bought this toothpaste and have been checking it out.

A week has passed. My teeth look very much like my teeth. I haven't noticed any difference and strangers on the street still refuse to come over and tell me how amazed they are by my blinding smile.

So I should call, and get my money back, right?


If I call the conversation goes like this: "Hello? I tried your toothpaste and I'm still ugly. I'm cheap also and actually thought that I could by my beauty in a tube. Since that has failed and I must admit that I'm naive and gullible, I'd like my three dollars back. OK?" I may have to tweak the wording to get it just right, but the idea is that this phone call forces me to fess up that I tried to cure my image problem by buying something with the same active ingredient as 12 other products on the market. And I have to admit that I am still the same monster I was last week, with the children crying and the court issuing their restraining orders. No diff. I have to make the claim that I'm not just tough to look at, but I want to capitalize on that wretchedness by asking for my cash back.

I mean, I could say "you promised me noticeably whiter teeth, and I don't notice anything." Then all they have to do is say "Sir (meaning, 'jerk face'), just because you aren't able to notice something doesn't make it not so. Some people can tell the difference between cornsilk and sky blue and some are unperceptive morons. Your inability does not constitute justification for your miserliness."

Wouldn't it be easier if I called up and told them what they want to hear? "Your product is fabulous -- I'm a new man, and I owe it all to you!" That's the kind of talk that wins friends and influences people. Do I want to call the guy at the acne place and say "I'm still pimply you liar. Gimme my cash." I want him to think I'm dashing and happy. Don't get me started on the lady who sells the "male enhancement" pills. I'm not calling her back and saying "I'm still less of a man." I want people to say "There goes a guy who is comfortable with himself -- which is easy when you're as good looking and well adjusted as he is, and you don't need to whine and ask for your money back."

Yeah. That'd be swell.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Vocation, all I ever wanted

I'm a teacher. I admit it. I go into classrooms every school day and try to transmit information which I believe is important: facts, skills and methods of understanding. I try to transmit it in a way which is interesting, engaging and which keeps in mind the mindset of a high school student. I work hard at it and take pride in what I do. That's why I get offended when people from outside the profession come around and try to tell me how to improve my field. Introduce technology, they say. Work towards standards, they insist. Increase relevance, they advise. The fact is, no one knows my students and what works for them any better than I do. And I will argue that "experts" WITHIN the education field are hard pressed to give me any advice.

Teacher education is like handing an archer a quiver with 100 different arrows. The archer has to know which one to choose in any given case. Others can suggest that he get more arrows, but no one can tell him that a particular one is the magic arrow that will work. I recall my first time being observed. The administrator criticized my class because I didn't use the board enough. Sure, I understand the value of writing key words, or addressing the visual learners, but the fact is, nothing I did necessitated using the board that day. Forcing a medium for the sake of saying I am using the medium is not the answer. Smartboards in the classroom are a resource, but not one that I need to use every day, week or month. The responsibility for transmitting the info rests on the teacher's shoulders.

So what makes a good teacher? I have written extensively about this elsewhere but I'll go on record here as saying "good teachers can be made; better teachers can be made; great teachers are born". Quality teaching is about that ever changing blend of content mastery, empathy and the temperament to connect with students. Can that be taught? Well, someone can tell me that to be a good doctor I have to tie a good knot and not faint at the sight of blood. I'll still faint. A good teacher can take 25 strangers, build trust, have them in rapt attention and begging for more and go home and not feel like their time was wasted. It isn't easy and the demands change day to day, but that's what makes teaching a profession and not a rote series of steps that anyone can do.

So to all the business people who think teaching is all the lawyers who think teaching is is. But good teaching is really tough, and which would you like for your kid: a teacher or a good teacher?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Change we can't believe in

Someone asked me a question last night and then accused me of not answering when I asked for clarification, context and other defining elements. The truth is, I find questions difficult to answer because I see complexity in them. The motivation of the asker plays a large role as does the meaning of particular words and ideas. Men know this intuitively -- when a woman asks "does this dress make me look fat?" or "I don't know; what do YOU want to do?" we know that there is more than meets the eye.

See, the thing is, everything is more complex that it seems and only simple people don't understand that. So when simple people ask a question, they may sincerely mean it as a simple question, so they expect a simple answer. But simple answers are almost always wrong. Is the quest for complexity to problematic because it injects a mode of confusion in everyday discourse? Sure, but it is more honest.

The same holds true for protestable moments. Are we concerned about the 1% who have all that cash and the 99% who have less? Yes. Is there a simple answer that a protest can bring about? No. Are we being foolish wasting our resources on "occupying" a city park? Yes. Is there a better way to bring about change? No.

The thing is, change is difficult if it is to be real. Change is upheaval. Change is revolution. Change means a real shift in an underlying paradigm. And we don't want that kind of change. We want a simple alteration which will solve everything. If we don't like how are system has ended up, then we need to revamp, nay remove the ENTIRE SYSTEM. Our system of capitalism and corruption has worked just fine for so long. If we now turn around and say "hey! How come no one ever tried to bribe ME?" then what we have to say, in order to be honest, is "the entire system is flawed and we need to abandon it and start over. I'll still be poor, our entire economy and culture will crumble but if we start over, in 250 years, we won't be in this mess."

And I don't want that. It is nice to say change, but we can't stand the pains of starting over which real change would require.

I was in the store today and I saw some eco-friendly drain cleaner. I happen to be in the market for some drain cleaner as I have a drain which needs cleaning. My brand of choice is rife with nasty chemicals and harsh products which blast the clog out, beat it up and go after its family. But those chemicals, once loosed on the pipes, do the job. So this eco stuff claims that it is not harmful to the pipes or nature or furry animals. So I started reading the bottle, thinking globally, but willing to act septicly. The instructions indicated that I should pour a quarter of the bottle into the drain every night for 5 nights. Ignoring that this would mean that I have to buy 2 bottles, it meant that the drain would not be unclogged until next week. It even cautioned me that the drain would run slower in the short term. This is proof that the product is working.

So if I want to save the earth, I have to lose the convenience of a product which gets the job done on my schedule. It is the same for so many other "healthy" options. If I want organic food, I have to pay more. If I want to go to an organic cleaner, I have to drive farther from my house, or have a longer turn around time on my clothes. Drive an electric car? Find a plug, have less acceleration and shorter range. These are trade offs because, for there to be real change, we have to abandon our time honored practices and make do with less.

Are we really ready to go through rebirthing pangs and growth pains again? We would be crippled in the world market, vulnerable to our enemies and not nearly as cool in the eyes of the hot girls.

True fact.

So I say "yay for the 1%! May I have my bribe now?"

Monday, October 10, 2011

On Being a Writer

I was looking at a couple of reader responses posted in an online forum today -- we, as a school use online sites to allow students to post material and interact with the teacher and each other in a way both complementary and supplementary to the classroom experience. Neat stuff.

One student wrote a by-the-numbers response with a topic sentence, some supporting facts and a conclusion. The content was serviceable and the argument, sound if uninteresting. Another student began with a hook sentence: seemingly unrelated, grammatically jarring and on the whole, disarming. She then moved from this unexpected statement into a subtle and interesting discussion of a topic which, it just so happens, turns out to be tangentially related to the assigned topic. By the end, she wrapped up an elegant statement and a complex but orderly paragraph which informed and entertained.

These are high school freshmen. Ninth graders. Fourteen year olds. No one taught the second student how to write; she naturally saw this mode as the best way to engage with and speak to her audience. It seems that those people who find writing "easy" do so because they naturally already have something they want to say. They explore and turn ideas over and the ideas bubble out into words. Give them a concrete question, and you'll get a long and intricate response. Give them an open ended essay and you'll either get brilliance or a free-flowing fountain of everything and nothing.

It seems that good and natural writing cannot be taught, only refined. And those people who don't naturally write can't be taught the skill -- it either develops out of reading and a maturation of thought, or it has to be replaced by the workmanlike and competent writing which is the end product of direct instruction. We cannot teach inspiration and passion, just a satisfactory replacement.