Saturday, June 30, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Balak (Nice ass!)

I hope that got your attention. This is one of my favorite parshiot, and not just because it is the one time I can say God is talking out of His ass and not be accused of blasphemy (no, the heresy charges come from other things I say). Looking at my last year's edition of this Torah portion, actually the double-parasha of Chukat-Balak, I wrote about EVERYTHING. So, what should I write about. Maybe I will mention something mentioned at shul this week, that "the malediction becomes a benediction".

But I just thought of something new (I am an inclusionist and so have left my thought process intact). I am a little bugged by the way some non-Jews are treated by God in the Torah, particularly Pharaoh and Balaam. It is anathema to Judaism that free-will can be taken away. Yet Pharaoh in the hardening of his heart and Balaam in the words that come out of his mouth, the thrice changed maleditction-to-benediction, these imply that God is directly supplanting the freedom of choice which He has graciously destroyed to all humanity. I don't know of any accounts of Jews having their free-will taken away from them by God (sure, Pharaoh takes their free will away when he enslaves them, but he is not divine (at least according to us)). In fact, Balaam seems to be a servant even to his donkey. What an ass!

Shabbat Shalom

Saturday, June 23, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Chukat ("You got no water, how you gonna survive")

To be expanded after Shabbos:
Miriam dies, the well of Miriam dries up and they don't have water following them wherever they go
Aaron dies and the Clouds of Glory ascend to heaven, no longer leading the Children of Israel.
When Moses will die in the final parasha the manna ceases to fall from heaven.

Important family...

Boy what is Matt going to do with this Dvar Torah after shabbos? You're gonna just have to wait and see...

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: (on the following Friday, okay, kind of procrastinated it). Answer to the previous question: Absolutely nothing. I'd rather take a look at some other things. Snakes. The copper snake is troubling. Why do we need something potentially idolatrous (and in the future will be come idolatrous) to save us; why do we need to look at something carved from bronze to heal us from deadly venomous asp bites? The reason, I think, is the same reason why Moses has to have his hands raised in parashat Beshalach to be victorious over the Amalekite cads. We need to read between the lines, or, more accurately, beyond the lines. Past Moses on the high mountain and past the copper snake on a long pole (the Hebrew for "pole", here, by the way is nes, which also means "miracle") is the sky. In Psalm 121 (just remember the famous Carlebach rendition of Esa Einai), it says "I lift my eyes up to the mountains. Whence (it means "from where") will my help come? My help is from the Lord, Creator of the heaven and earth." When we look to God, we are inspired. Did Moses' hands and staff open up the Sea? No, it was God. Let's sort of take a look (meaning using my own self-serving 'translation') at the final verses of Exodus ch 14, immediately preceding the Song at the Sea. "When the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the banks of the Sea, and saw the heavy hand which God wrought against the Egyptians, and (reversing the verse for better effect) they believed in the Lord and His servant Moses, but they were in awe of the Lord". Whether we choose to believe in magic or superstition, everything ultimately comes from God, an important point to remember. It wasn't the copper snake that saved us. No, God sent the asps to punish us and then sent us a cure. I don't know why we kept the damn thing. Hezekiah had to destroy it when people started praying to it. Ultimately my help comes from God, Creator of heaven and earth.

Also, the Haftarah cuts off right before the good parts. General Whats-his-name (I forget, look it up in the Haftarah) swears to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if God makes him victorious against the Ammonites. It cuts off after they rout the neighboring invading nation.
But what will come out of his house? His daughter greets him to congratulate the conquering hero. Oops. Though it is forbidden in the Torah as an abomination, he goes through with sacrificing his daughter. The other example of something like this happening is when King Saul vows that that specific day that the entire army will fast, anyone who eats on that day of battle will be killed. His son Jonathan is not informed of this rule and has a taste of honey. The Jews lose and, through the Urim V'Tumim, they discover Jonathan broke the vow. Though Jonathan is condemned to death, some other soldier guy asks to be killed in his place. Oy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Tonight Show... not airing Tonight... or probably ever

I walked to and from Universal CityWalk today, a walk I haven't done in a couple of months, since the day of the blackout, and I noticed that they were filming Jaywalking for The Tonight Show in which participants were asked to display an unusual talent. Having so many regrets in my life in not taking certain opportunities and my apparent lack of shame, I decided to try out an unusual talent. Well, as I told the producer it was unusual and a talent, anyway. I told him I forget important things but soak up trivia like a sponge. I particularly have a savant ability that, if given a topic, I can think of specific prooftexts in the Old Testament (aka Hebrew Bible, but nobody knows WTF I would have been talking about. I was wearing a tzahal shirt, I think they know I'm Jewish, though I balanced it out with douche-bag aviator sunglasses that I had purchased a couple of minutes earlier, as well as my ever-present iPod in jogging-mode). Needless to say, it's not a talent I get asked to perform at many parties.

This "talent" is probably the result of attending Junior Congregation, my grandfather quizzing me when ever I talked to him on the phone ("Snakes!" was one he used on me a couple of years ago, the same topic on which he was tested at his Rabbinical School interview by Louis Ginzberg. My answers to him, by the way, included: Garden of Eden, Aaron's staff in the court of Pharaoh, the plague of asps at Baal Peor and the copper snake used to cure it, later destroyed by King Hezekiah in his attempt to combat idolatry). I also read random minor prophets and later writings when bored on Shabbos afternoons in Jerusalem seeing as none of the shuls did mincha.

Anyway, the producer said "Leviticus 4:17". "Well", I told him, "I usually do it the other way around", but let's do this Jeopardy style: I I immediately shot back, "priestly sacrifices -- but that's a cop-out as the entire book is sacrifices. Wait, specifically it is about the inauguration of the desert Temple-thingy , The Tabernacle" possibly stuff about putting oil and blood on thumbs and big toes of the priests. (NOTE: Upon looking it up later, I was damn close: "4:17 "And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle it seven times before the LORD, in front of the veil." -JPS).

Anyway, he said I was right. I asked him how he knew I was right. He said that he was at Bnai Mitzvah last year and this is the subject the kids were talking about. It also happens to be something, according to him, that was mentioned by Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H. I didn't know whether to be more impressed that this guy knew this bit of trivia or the fact that someone would mention this passage on a sitcom. I had a long conversation with this producer, stepped in front of the microphone, and the PA asked me to sign a release form, though the producer said that he doesn't know what he could do with the footage. Much like parties, the American public just isn't interested in savant abilities to reference the Bible, though he wanted me to recall other things, such as episode titles of Dukes of Hazzard (to which I responded would be quite a feat seeing as I have never seen the show). So this probably will never see the light of day, though he did want me to come up with other ideas because he liked me. I have another unusual hobby of learning dead or diminished languages like Phonetician, Proto-Canaanite, Akkadian, Babylonian Aramaic, and Yiddish, but I decided that that was stupid so I didn't mention it.

A photograph of my exploits, as of press, can be found as the new image on my facebook profile which is the closest that this talent will probably make to appearing on media in the near future.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Harry Potter Demented Theories #2: The symbol and the dragon on the other side

On J.K. Rowling's official website, she opened her Room of Requirement once more, leading to a third (and presumably final) W.O.M.B.A.T. (the Muggle equivalent of the O.W.L., though it seems as difficult as the N.E.W.T.), in the puzzle, spoiler alert, you need to put together three geometric shapes: a triangle, a circle, and a vertical line. The finished product is the same as the symbol found on the top of the spine of the UK Children's Edition of Deathly Hallows. I believe this symbol to be important to the plot. The sixth UK children's book, Half-Blood Prince, had Gaunt's Ring in the same position...

Actually... I want to concur with some opinions I heard on both Pottercast and Mugglecast and combine it with a few theories of my own: One is that the dragon on the cover of the deluxe edition mentioned in my last Harry Potter post is not Norbert but a Antipodean Opaleye as seen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (I knew that book would eventually come in useful) and is the only dragon not to be aggressive toward humans. Found in New Zealand it would be antipodean (on the exact other side of the world) from Great Britain. Here's where the symbol comes in, as well as the solstices: the line and circle is an invisible line through the earth, the triangle is length of day in sunlight. The solstices have been known to be very important in these books and I feel that the final battle or something else incredibly major will occur on or around December 21 or June 21, booktime, the solstices. Harry will at some point be in the southern hemisphere. How does he get there? Either he apparates or the wizards have harnessed a tube travel system through the center of the earth a la Thursday Next.

Here is an excerpt from a Scholastic interview with JK Rowling in 2001, while she was still writing the fifth book, Order of the Phoenix:
Q: Could Harry have a pet dragon?
J.K. Rowling responds: You can't domesticate a dragon whatever Hagrid thinks. That's simply impossible. So no. He's got more sense. He might get a different pet at some point but I'm saying no more at this moment.

First of all, is Kreacher a pet or are we talking about something else? Are we talking about him becoming an animagus or befriending his patronus? Or is this pet something we have not seen before?

So nobody can domesticate a dragon, but what about speaking to a dragon? I reiterate my theory that dragons, basilisks, and snakes are all related and all understand parseltongue. Considering that Antipodean Opaleye is the most docile of dragons to humans, do you think Harry's power of persuasion would work? I think Harry might also have to learn some legilimency, but whether by free will, persuasion or Imperious Curse (yes, I think we will get at least one Unforgivable Curse from Harry in this book considering the circumstances), Harry is going to be riding a living, breathing fire, flying, horcrux-killing machine (considering my theory that dragon's blood kills horcri... I mean horcruxes...)

Also, does every scene on the covers occur during sunrise or sunset because the sky is always orange.

Chew on that. I'm out.

Friday, June 15, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Korach ("You say you want a revolution")

Last year I talked about Quaroon in the Quran. This year I will examine something that comes from closer to home but waxes even more heretical.

Korach's claim was that everyone was holy and therefore should have the same role as Moses and Aaron. I actually somewhat sympathize with Korach here. God did declare all of Israel a Mamlechet Kohanim vAm Kadosh, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. God directs each and every person "You shall be holy for I the Lord am Holy". I think this is a reasonable request, but I fear that he was going to function as a Stalinist Communism in Animal Farm, everyone was equal, but some were more equal than others. Korach's major malfunction, well one of them, was that he failed to see the bigger picture: yes, everyone is holy and it would be ideal for them to all be at the same level but in the desert they needed a strong leader; in transition from their slave mentality, they needed someone who could take control. I imagine people who have been slaves all their lives and are suddenly freed have absolutely no idea of how to cope with their emancipation. Two weeks ago we read about the people missing the food they ate for free in Egypt. The statement is ridiculous: they didn't eat for free, it came at the cost of their indentured servitude as slaves, but they were fed rather than having to gather the manna themselves.

The Psalm for Monday ends with the line hu yenahageynu al-mut. This last word can be translated in two ways: "He (God) will lead us until death" or "He will lead us as children". Take it either way, seems to be the message in this week's Torah portion: Submit to God and he could lead you and care for you or it could be quite damaging. Or, you can roll the dice and try for something else. Korach took a chance, ultimately failing. He may have been right, but he lacked courtesy in addressing Moses that one is even supposed to exhibit, lhavdil, to gentile kings.

Bottom line: So Korach had a good idea that might have worked if he wasn't such a jerk.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Palestinian Civil War

I was working on another entry, on the topic of Harry Potter, but there is something more pressing and less mundane happening right now. The Palestinians are in a civil war right now. Now the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend, particularly in this case, but I am still following this closely. Hamas has "conquered" Gaza and Rafah. Israel has not yet gotten involved (if she does, she will get blamed for the Palestinian civil war by the world), and I don't know if we need to get involved yet. Let's let them destroy each other a little more and see what happens. Of course then the world will blame Israel for not stepping in to prevent more destruction. And when it spills out into Israel-proper, we'll still get blamed. Well, I believe that a laissez-faire approach is the correct one -- for now.

Meanwhile all of this stuff going on in Lebanon indicates that they and Syria aren't leading to a good place. According to someone at minyan this morning, Ahmadinijad said that he's sending troops to attack Israel. Bring it on, jerk! I am incredibly hawkish when it comes to Israel, a change that occurred when I lived there and over the last summer. Peace treaties and cease fires mean nothing to those with whom we make them. Iran is something we have to deal with now. They are working on nukes and we need to go Operation Opera on their asses before it's too late. Iran is the puppetmaster and we need to go after it and the rest of the hydra's heads will fall with it. Or not, but at least they will lack their organization and funding...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Harry Potter Insane Theories #1: Chocolate Frog Cards, The Seven Uses of Dragon's Blood, and transportation

Nerd Alert! If you are not a fan of Harry Potter and/or you don't want to potentially ruin it for the remote possibility that I am right on any of my theories, skip this entry and anything else flagged with "Harry Potter"

As promised, I will periodically present some madcap theories or fancies I have for the upcoming final Harry Potter novel. Some of the theories are genuine, some are as insane as I can allow my imagination to travel. Sometimes my theories are drawn from other tidbits discussed on podcasts such as PotterCast and MuggleCast, which I sometimes listen to on my 20+ mile walks. However these are just jumping-off points. As you will see from the first theory I will present, I leave anything ever discussed after the kushya (difficult question)

My first theory was one I submitted to MuggleCast after I thought I heard someone comment that there couldn't be portraits that were wallet sized. The background here is that there are portraits in the Wizarding world in which the occupants can communicate with the living from beyond the grave and are able to visit other portraits of themselves should they exist. Particularly, former headmasters of Hogwarts have portraits in the Headmaster's office and elsewhere, charged to serve the bidding of the present headmaster.

Here goes my submission almost verbatim:

A wallet sized portrait of Dumbledore? We’ve seen one already: those seemingly red herring Chocolate Frog Cards. Ron will get yet another Dumbledore card and because he already has so many (I think he gets his seventh when he first meets Harry), he gives it to a grateful Luna. Ms. Lovegood somehow activates the secret of the card using some advice she read in the Quibbler. They ask wallet-sized Dumbledore about the other side of the card. Learning that one of the seven uses of Dragon’s Blood is to destroy Horcruxes, Hermione points out that the only Horcrux any of them actually saw being destroyed, was Tom Riddle’s diary that was obliterated by a bloody basilisk fang (both basilisks and dragons are serpents according to Wikipedia, which I’m sure Hermione has memorized). Failing to coax the dusty vial of Dragon’s blood from Professor Slughorn, Harry asks a Hungarian horntail in parseltongue in Gringotts to donate blood, which he then hangs from a leather pouch hanging from his neck (see picture of US Cover) in the final battle with Lord Voldemort.

My theory, which I came up with a couple of months ago, is further supported by the Special Edition cover art released a couple of days ago. I will modify my theory slightly however, and change the dragon to Norbert, Hagrid's pet from the first book. He was apparently important enough to include in the first movie. Additionally, the arc theory, that the storyline begins and ends in a palendromic arc (1 with 7, 2 with 6, 3 with 5, and 4 standing alone) causes me to predict his importance in this final book. Harry has experienced a new form of wizard transportation in each of the books:

1. Broom (Quidditch), the Hogwarts Express, and oarless boat,
2. enchanted Ford Anglia, seemingly-horseless carriage, phoenix
3. Hippogriff
4. Portkey
5. Thestral
6. Side-Apparation, Apparation training

The logical conclusion is that he will be riding a dragon in the seventh book, perhaps the same one will be guarding him at Gringotts and perhaps battling the other dragons therein.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Shlach Lecha (You don't really want to get stoned...)

Boy, what a fun parasha. We are damned to wander the desert for 40 years until all of us die out because of the foibles of ten spies. Too cliche and I already covered it last year. How about the laws of Shabbat? There is this guy who remains unnamed, though the Rabbis identify him as Tzlopchad, the late father of five daughers who will soon ask Moses for a legal ruling. His story involves two of the three times Moses doesn't know the answer to a question.

Anyway, the issue here is that there is a guy who is caught gathering wood after God declares some of the laws of the Sabbath. In a vary rare use of Capital Punishment in Judaism, God orders him stoned outside the camp (also known as lapidation). Why would such a severe penalty be applied here? Sure, the law for violating the sabbath is death by stoning (unless you were important such as the relative of a prince or priest; then it would be death by burning, molten lead poured down one's throat). The Rabbis said that a court that sentenced even one person to death in 70 years is "a bloody court". The modern State of Israel, possibly for this reason, does not have a death penalty. The only person ever executed by the Israeli court system was Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the trains that led millions of our people to their murders in the Holocaust, so there was good reason for this.

Another example in the Torah of violation of Shabbat after being warned not to violate came when God told the people to take a double portion of Manna on Fridays so that they would have a single portion remaining through the sabbath (the source of TWO Challot for Shabbat). It was the only case that the leftovers would not rot. Besides Moses not being too happy, those who went out to gather manna on the Sabbath got off scott-free. But as for stick-guy, why does this guy get punished by forfe? Why nobody else? Was this guy to serve as an example? An effigy? Would he represent the expiation for anyone else who would violate the sabbath in the future? He is nameless as it could be anyone who committed this egregious felony. Don't fret, anonymous Ploni, according to legend your daughters brought about the biggest revolution for women's property rights for the ancient world, so you have that going for you...

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, June 01, 2007

DVAR TORAH S2: Behaalotecha ("...until it comes out of your nostrils!")

One of the fun angry rants of our God. In this portion a lot happens, enough to comprise three books. As I mentioned last year, this portion contains two inverted nuns (not upside-down brides of christ, but the hebrew letter) between which is contained passages that we include at the beginning and end of our Torah service, both the words and the inverted nuns literally are bookends as many consider these two verses to be a completely seperate book of the Torah, or perhaps misplaced.

What I will discuss today happens at the very beginning of the Third Book of Numbers, a very interesting and disturbing account of people longing for meat. This account happens to be one of the rare strikes against meat-eating (my somewhat humorous halachic polemic against vegetarians will be transcribed at some point) in the Hebrew scriptures. The people tire of manna, they long for the cucumbers, melons, leeks, the fleshpots of Egypt they partook from "for free" (Yeah, kinda forgot that you were slaves, right?) At the initiation of the asafsuf, the riff-raff (etymologically, by the way, words like asafsuf are interesting as they have the same type of word extant in English: riff being the same as raff, asaf being the same as suf, anyway it means a collected collection or something like that, the bottom of the barrel, scum of the earth, the Egyptians and other non-Jews that decided to follow the Jews out of Egypt, known in Exodus 12 as eruv rav, a mixed multitude (and for some reason is a pun referring to students in Rabbinical school, "the eve of becoming a rabbi") but were insincere in becoming righteous strangers that dwelt among them), these incited the people to reminisce about the food in Egypt.
Memory is an interesting thing, it is not a recording of actual event, but is somewhat romanticized. Perhaps events in your childhood weren't as vivid as you remember them, but wistfulness takes over and suddenly you want to relive them. This seems to be what happened here. They had crappy lives in Egypt! They probably didn't get to sit around the fleshpots of Egypt. What do we eat in memory of our time spent in Egypt? We eat bitter herbs, not cholent! The Egyptians basically worshipped all of their livestock. When would we have had meat until that hallowed eve in which we took their g0at/lamb-god and made it the centerpiece of our Passover seder?

I also find it a little peculiar that they are lacking meat in the desert. Remember Exodus 16:8, 12-13 in which they previously complained about not having food and God guaranteed them manna during the day and meat, specifically quail, at night? And once again they test God. This time God says that they will have meat. Not just one day, or two days, or seven days, but thirty days, until it comes out of their nostrils. And yet some of the people eat and they are destroyed by plague.

Within this story is the calling of the seventy elders to commute with God, six from each of the twelve tribes. For those of you good with math, 6x12 does not equal 70 but 72. Therefore two men, Eldad and Medad were excluded from the group. Yet they too were possessed with the word of God and prophesied in the camp. Joshua, who was the sgan Moshe (Moses-pro-tem) while he wasn't there freaked out and brought them to Moses who said that they too were prophets and that there should be more people like them.

That's it for this portion for now. Perhaps next year we will discuss Miriam's leprosy.

Shabbat Shalom.