Friday, March 25, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Sh’mini/Shabbat Parah 5771-So Say We All

I’m confused.  In the special haftarah for Shabbat Parah which we read this Shabbat, G”d speaks of removing our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh. This, G”d says (though the prophet Ezekiel) will cause you to obey the commandments.  However it seems to me that it is our very fleshy natures, our “free will” as it were, that causes us to be stubborn, obstinate, and disobedient. It seems to me that in coercing to follow G”d’s commandments, G”d is taking away our free will, and making our hearts more like stone.

Now I realize I am seeing the metaphor differently than it was perhaps intended. The stone heart of which the prophet (and thus G”d) speaks is most likely referring to our selfishness, our failure to do justly, care for the poor, treat rich and poor alike fairly, and our empty and meaningless performance of ritual and prayer. On those with a truly stone or cold hear could be so cruel and unthinking.

Yet if we are merely automatons, coerced and forced to do G”d’s bidding by G”d’s own hand, that, to me, is more like having a stone heart. We are like machines that merely do what we are programmed to do.

If you follow the world of (the recent remaking of the world of) Battlestar Galactica, you may note the irony in the fact that it is the humans that believe in a pantheon of gods while the machine-based Cylons worship their one true G”d. Who has the heart of stone here? It’s not so clear. (The Cylons, of course, are machines, but machines that would clearly pass a Turing test. They are self-aware, procreate, and have thinking power equivalent (if not superior) to humans. Sometimes, the series seemed to suggest, it wasn’t clear whether the humans or the Cylons had better morals, ethics, and values. There is also the interesting parallel that, just as in our universe we humans are G”d’s creation, in the Battlestar universe, the Cylons are humanity’s creation. They, too, are stubborn, obstinate, and prone to follow a different G”d!)

In this haftarah, is G”d seeing the error of the choice to give us free will? Realizing we’re just not gonna get it on our own, G”d decides to cause us to change our ways, and become obedient to G”d’s laws. (Not too difficult for the G”d who could harden Pharaoh’s heart. If G”d can harden hearts, G”d can surely soften them as well.)

I ask “what’s the point?” I have offered the thought before that G”d gave is free will, made us less than perfect as it were, precisely because it would have been a pretty boring universe if everything were perfect and nothing were left to chance.

I recognize that Ezekiel was trying to give hope to the people in exile. He recognized that they felt hopeless to change themselves in a way that would make them more obedient to G”d’s desires on their own. So he offers them the hope that G”d will do the changing for them.

Thanks, but no thanks. If I am to follow G”d’s commandments, I want it to be entirely of my own free will and volition. Because I want to do so, not because I am being compelled to do so. So thanks for trying to help us feel better about our inadequacies, Ezekiel, but I don’t buy your hypothesis.

So say we all.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha

Sh'mini 5770 - Don't Eat That, It's Not Kosher
Sh'mini 5769 srettirC ypsirC
Sh'mini 5767-Don't Be a Stork
Sh'mini 5766-Palmwalkers
Shemini 5765-It All Matters
Shemini 5764-Playing Before Gd
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Would A Developer Fail to Plan Ahead for Firefox 4?

Just a quick blog entry to wonder aloud this question:

Why, when Firefox 4 has been in beta for a long time, and the release candidate has been around for a while now, are there so many Firefox Add-ons that aren’t yet FF4 compatible?  Many of my favorite add-ons were made compatible even before the official release of FF4, and kudos to those developers and companies for planning ahead. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why major add-ons, with lots of users (for example, the Delicious Bookmarks add-on) were not yet FF4 ready at the time of its release. C’mon people. be forward looking, plan ahead! Yes, not every one of your users is an early adopter or will be so quick to upgrade to FF4, but it has been clear now for weeks, if not months, that FF4 would contain enough improvements (especially in memory usage and speed) that most users would want to upgrade as soon as possible, since FF3 has become real slow and bloated.

I know it’s not easy for developers, and especially so for those who create free add-ons. These are labors of love a lot of the time. Nevertheless, if you’re gonna make the commitment, make it all the way, and be prepared to support major new releases when they are released.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Those developers who have always shown foresight by planning ahead for new releases, who respond quickly to bug reports and offer good customer service – well, those are the developers on whose “donate” buttons I click, and give them some cash in appreciation of their efforts and to help them keep the app going. Get it?

Adrian (aka MigdalorGuy aka Yoeitzdrian)

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Random Musing Before Purim 5771 – A Purim Ditty

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Purim 5771

Rather than write about Parashat Tzav or Shabbat Zachor this year, I thought I would turn to Purim. This is an extemporaneous piece of writing I worked one earlier this year that I thought might be fun to share. For thoughts on Tzav, try any of these previous musings:

Tzav 5769 - Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 - Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 - Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah's Solution

Random Musing before Purim 5771 - A Purim Ditty

Purim is coming, the goose is getting fat

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

OK, that’s a terribly mixed up metaphor, taking a traditional Xmas song and using it for Purim. However, isn’t that one of the main themes of Purim – that everything is v’nafokh-turned upside down? In the Purim story, the Jews of Persia managed to turn the tables on those who sought their destruction. In celebration of that aspect of the story, we bring that sense of topsy-turvy into our Purim, and do the unexpected, reverse roles, and the like.

There are other parts of the Purim story that can be found if we perform a little exegesis on our cobbled-together ditty. Where does a fattening goose fit in? Well, we can think of it as a connection to the prevalence of banquets in the Purim story. The story starts with long banquets, and the central plot twists occur at more private banquets held for King Ahashverosh and Haman at Esther’s request. Some scholars have suggested that the whole Purim holiday came about after our exile in Babylon when the returning Jews didn’t want to give up the 40-day libation festival that was part of the mixed Babylonian and later conquering Persian culture in which they were living.

Then there’s that second line – clearly, a connection tsedakah and social justice – another main theme of Purim. In celebration of the turn of events, the Book of Esther commands the Jewish people to engage in two acts: shalalkh manot – the sharing of gifts with friends and neighbors, and mattanot l’evvyonim – sending gifts to the poor.

Now, let’s be honest, there are some rather politically incorrect part of the Purim story that we tend of gloss over – take a look at the last two chapters and see what I mean. Nevertheless, it is a holiday imbued with great meaning, and with great lessons. Even universal ones, and ones that can transcend boundaries.

There’s little doubt that Judaism was influenced by the time it spent in Babylon and Persia. What religion hasn’t been influenced in this way. Here, in 21st century America, we have many religions and cultured represented. Why not a little cultural sharing, like our little X-mas-based Purim ditty?

Here’s to a joyous, upside-down, yet meaningful Purim for all!

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameakh!

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, March 11, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Vayikra 5771-I’d Like To Bring To Your Attention…

I’ve written before about my problems with the ideas underpinning the Jewish sacrificial system. While I accept the idea that human beings can and do make mistakes, you have to wonder a bit about a system that is complex (and perhaps unclear) enough that it simply assumes people will transgress on a regular basis. Yes, I understand the argument that a simpler system gives us less of a goal for which to strive. (It’s sort of like the dilemma we face today in Jewish education, being asked to provide meaningful content in less and less time. So we set our sights a little lower. Problem is, with lowered expectations, you generally get what you expected. If what you;re teaching isn’t challenging to your learners, what’s the point. Without some stretching, there’s really no learning. But I digress.)

Nevertheless, G”d (or those responsible for the creation of the text of the Torah and the laws and rules therein) could have created a system that was far less likely to cause regular transgressions. One place to start might have been starting with some clearer instructions in some areas – laws and rules less open to interpretation (for example, the one about boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.) Seems to me the written Torah could have been written in a fashion to obviate the need for the oral Torah. Yes, that could have been quite a challenge, and created a system even more static than the one we have (which, I must admit, is not truly static, just slow to change.)

It is sort of ironic that I, who so often point to the inconsistencies, problems, idiosyncrasies and challenges of Torah as precisely the things that make Judaism (and the Torah) so great and wonderful, should find himself advocating for a less mysterious text. Then again, if I revel in inconsistency, why not this one?

As I was pondering these things and reading the parasha this week, one thing did jump out at me. The text speaks of the committing of inadvertent or unknowing sins, of which the sinner later becomes aware. Twice, when giving instructions for sacrifices of expiation for inadvertent sins, the text adds the notion that rather than discovering the sin for themselves, the sin is brought to their attention.

This phrase is not used when referring to the sin of a priest, or of the whole community, but only in reference to the sin of a chieftain or individual. I suppose it is assumed that the priest will always knows when he has sinned, though that’s one whopping assumption. It also assumes that the community as a whole will also know when they have sinned. Another whopping assumption.

It may just be a matter of practicality. Who would dare to bring to the attention of a priest a sin they committed and had not acknowledged? And when it is the whole community, who could bring it to their attention? (Actually, there are a number of good answers to that. You see what you can come up with.)

Here’s my problem. In allowing for others to bring someone’s attention to an overlooked sin, we approach a very steep slope. Unscrupulous individuals could take advantage of this. Unscrupulous priests could really take advantage of this. (Hey, I’m hungry. Let’s tell Nachshon over there he committed a sin and didn’t know it, and he’ll have to bring a sacrifice. Let’s try and convince him to make it a meal sacrifice-I just love those griddle cakes he makes.) The system is an opening to a sort of Big Brother nightmare. People just watching each other trying to catch them in a transgression.

Why did the Torah feel it necessary to add the words “o hoda eilav khatato asher khatat” - “or the sin of which he is guilty is brought to his knowledge?” What is added to the dimension of these laws and commandments with this additional words? Why not assume the better nature of human beings and leave it as the text preceding this says simply “and he realizes his guilt?” Why open this can of worms by introducing the ability of another person bringing the offense to the attention of the sinner?

Yes, Torah teaches us that all Israel are responsible one to the other, and that we are obligated for tokhekha, reproach. Is informing each person of a sin they overlooked of such importance? On a communal level, I suppose, it does matter. There is value in helping members of the community know when they have done wrong so that they may correct themselves the next time.  That, for me, has greater value than the requirement for a sacrifice of expiation. On the other hand, putting ourselves in the position of the one who was unaware of sinning in those days, I’m sure it was helpful to them to be able to offer a sacrifice of expiation. Nevertheless, I think we’ve a better system nowadays, the one we often refer to at Yom Kippur, of trying harder to hit the mark when we have missed it.

There are those who would claim that all this sacrificial cult material is irrelevant, so why even bother to discuss it as all. Simply dismiss it.  While I certainly reject the idea of animal sacrifices, I am not entirely opposed to some system of enabling people to make expiation for sins that is helpful to them and the community. I do see value in wondering why the Torah suggests that others make people aware of their sins. So I don’t find this material devoid of value in a modern context. As we work our way through Vayikra, I’ll try and keep that in mind, and hope you will, too.

And, as long as where on the subject of informing other people of their mistakes and sins…

Oh, G”d, un, I’d like to bring to your attention….

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Vayikra 5770 - You Can Fool Most of the People Most of the Time
Vayikra 5768 - Redux 5763 - Kol Kheilev
Vayikra 5767-Stuff That's Bugging Me
Vayikra 5766 - Osymandias
Vayikra-Shabbat Zachor 5765-Chatati
Vayikra 5763 - Kol Cheilev
Vayikra 5759 & 5762-Salvation?
Vayikra 5760-Meaningful Gifts
Vayikra 5764 and 5761-Mambo #613: A Little Bit of Alef in My Torah...


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Friday, March 4, 2011

Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pekude/Shabbat Sh’kalim 5771 – Ideas worth Re-Examining

I really wanted to write about something I came across in the regular haftarah for parashat Pekude but I am going to have to save the thought for another year, because this Shabbat is Shabbat Sh'kalim, and we read a special haftarah.

Shabbat Sh'kalim is a Shabbat that moves around a bit according to the dictates of the Hebrew Calendar. It is designed to start the series of 4 special haftarot that are read preceding Pesakh, and it has to fall such that all the others line up in time.
A special maftir is used for the Torah reading on Shabbat Sh'kalim, hearkening back to the openong 6 verses of parashat Ki Tissa which we read just a short while ago. It speaks of the half-shekel tax levied on the Israelites on the basis of the census, the funds then being used to serve a joint function - as expiation on the part of the Israelites, and as funds to support the needs of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting.

Synagogues love this Shabbat, as it reinforces the obligation of Jews to help support the religious infrastructure. On the other hand, there are aspects of how this was done that may conflict with modern synagogue operations. The biblical mandate is egalitarian when it comes to economic status - rich and poor alike pay just a half-shekel. Not exactly the way many synagogues are doing it these days, what with "fair share" and other types of programs designed to not conflict with our more modern sensibilities about the distribution of wealth. People who support a so-called "flat-tax" for income tax seem to have the Torah on their side.

Here's an interesting thought. What if every Jew, everywhere in the world, paid to a communal fund the modern equivalent of a half-shekel. This obligation would apply to every Jew, whether they belonged to a specific congregation or not. These funds are then divided up between all the world's congregation and Jewish institutions. Not very practical, but an interesting thought exercise that at least gets us closer to the biblical mandate. For example, synagogues could have no dues structure-operating solely on their portion of the half-shekel tax. Jews could freely come and go between congregations, so long as they can demonstrate they paid their half-shekel. Pretty mind-blowing idea, huh? I'm not advocating this wholesale, but it has some interesting possibilities, especially in light of recent cries that what a 21st century Jewish community may need and want is the ability to move seamlessly between institutions, as they structure their own path of Jewish life.

The socialist in me has a little trouble with placing equal burdens on rich and poor alike, but there is a certain appeal to the idea, philosophically.

The special haftarah we read for Shabbat Sh'kalim clues us in to something we already know about human nature. Money corrupts. King Jehoash instructed the preists of the Temple that all donations received shall go for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Twenty years later (slow on the uptake, or choosing to ignore, we'll never know) he discovers that the priests had made no repairs to the Temple (surprise, surprise!) So King Jehoash comes up with an ingenious solutions. Money will no longer go directly to the pirests, and they, in turn, will have no obligation for the upkeep of the Temple. All donations would be collected in common vessels, and then turned over to the staff (i,e, the workers who kept the Temple operating, fixed it, cleaned it, repaired it, etc.) This would insure the Temple's upkeep (one might hope.)

To keep the priests from being totally unhappy with the deal (and possibly having him de-throned) he allows all money brought as guilt and purification offerings to go directly to the priests.
Imagine what our synagogues might be like today if all donations went to pay for the staff and materials for building upkeep and maintenance, and the clergy relied solely on monies donated to expiate the sins of congregants.

I wonder how many synagogues have policies on the maximum salary differential permitted between the senior rabbi and the lowest-paid custodian or staff member? It's an idea that many Jews cry out for in general society - capping CEO salaries, for example. Are we willing to try that in our synagogues?

Now here's something amazing. The haftarah for Shabbat Sh'kalim tells us that no supervisions or checks and balances were necessary for the people who oversaw the collection and distribution of the funds to the workers - for, as it says, they dealt honestly. The haftarah tells us the the high priest and the royal scribe were the ones who were to notice when the collections jars were full, count the money, and then distribute it to those who distributed it on to the workers. The text isn't clear whether the high priest and royal scribe were trusted and not checked upon, but my read is that the trusted ones were the next level down - those who actually too the funds and paid the workers and suppliers. What does it tell us that we couldn't trust the priests but we could trust these people?

There's another text here that, if taken at face value could vex modern synagogues many of whom have become "bar/bat mitzvah factories." The age of Jewish communal majority has along history of being fixed at age 13 (12 for females) however if you examine Israelite culture and the Torah, you see that the half-shekel tax was only assessed to males age 20 and up. Now, there can be many practical reasons for this. Nevertheless, it does seem to call into question the rabbinic decisions to fix the age of becoming bar/bat mitzvah at a much earlier age. Seems to me if one can be a full member of the community with all the appurtenant obligations, they ought to be obligated to pay the modern synagogue equivalent of the half-shekel. Imagine how well that would go over with both parents and children! So, do we change the age of majority, or start collecting dues from everyone over the age of bar/bat mitzvah? Radical? Perhaps. Worth contemplating, nonetheless, if for no other reason than, while it may not change things, it can influence and subtly affect our approach.

There are clear differences between our own times and those of Temple times and earlier. The synagogue may have taken the place of the Temple, but it is not quite the same thing. So comparisons aren't entirely fair. Yet the values and ethics we read about in the Torah should surely remain applicable.

The rabbis were smart. They enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple by two millennia! Yet much of what they did, which they claim is based in and supported by the oral law, seems somewhat antithetical to what we read in the Torah. The things that the rabbis put into place may no longer be necessary, or may not work well in the 21st century. It's equally true that the original teachings of the Torah might have the same problems. However, I'm willing to go back to the source without the cliff notes of the rabbinic interpreters to see if there are values and ideas we can re-adopt to our modern times. Issues of economic egalitarianism, how institutions are supported and paid for, how the donations are distributed, who are the people we can trust to distribute the communal funds without oversight - all are worthy of re-examination.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha: