"What Every Should Know About Blog Depression"
This photo of a mincha minyan on two sides of barbed wire at Kfar Maimon, which I saw on Mirty's blog, but which was originally posted on Lamed, the ATID blog, left me feeling kind of sad and confused. I also found it moving in sad way. I'm not 100% sure what else I can say about what or how it made me feel, but it definitely made me feel something, so I felt it was worth sharing.
"The Orthodox Union joins a broad and diverse coalition in opposing this measure, including the Bush Administration, the Airline industry, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops."
That's a broad and diverse coalition? What planet are they living on? (Props to the other AG, who is really AMG, for pointing this out to me.)
I will admit to knowing nothing at all about this matter. I heard that it might happen and I kind of ignored it. I see that the OU website says that the legislation was passed on April 21 and is currently in a House-Senate Conference, whatever that means. (Oh, it means this and this, I think. Does this mean that the bill has been floating around since 2003? I should have paid more attention in 8th grade Civics with Mrs. Kaufman!)
I like daylight and longer days, and I'm all for saving energy (as long as I can keep running my air conditioner during these dog days/nights of summer, and can sit in my frigid office all day, and ride air-conditioned trains to and from work--on the energy-saving side, I never blow dry my hair). I'm not that clear on why extending daylight savings time save so much energy, and I'd love to learn about that. I also wouldn't mind Shabbat starting and ending later for more of the year. I go to shul more when that's the case, and that's always a good thing for me. What are the downsides to this change? Of the ones that the OU listed, I guess my main concern would be about safety. Also, sunrise being at 8 am seems fairly ridiculous. And it would mess up shacharit for people who have to be at work at a normal hour.
Here is some more information about HR 6, the bill in question. I haven't read them yet but hope to when I have more time.
Bill Summary & Status
GovTrack: HR 6: Energy Policy Act of 2005" (see the map on that page for how people have voted, for which I would need to know what else is in the bill for it to make any sense at all)
Maybe I'll write more about this another time... Good night!
I guess it's pretty clear that they changed the text for the American edition. I saw some references to "soccer" and was surprised. I kind of like those Britishisms (is that a word?) and missed them. Were there queues or engaged telephones in Harry Potter?
In summary, I can see why people like the books, but I can't exactly see why they go so crazy over them. (Don't shoot me.) I mean, are they that much better than other good books? Or are there so few (new) good books out there that it's necessary to go nuts over them? What's up with waiting in line at midnight for them?
Thus, in preparation for the 17th of Tamuz, I am trying to wean myself off of caffeine (not coffee, just the caffeinated kind). Last summer, I foolishly thought I could just stop cold turkey for a day, but I could not. I got a terrible headache by 2 pm and could not function. Which was bad, and unnecessary. Someone once told me I could take caffeine pills in minor fasts to prevent headaches, but part of me hates being addicted to a drug, even a legal and fairly innocuous one, so I try to get off of coffee a few times a year, just to prove I can. (Mind over chemistry! Or something like that.) Also, it doesn't seem wise to take a caffeine pill without drinking a lot of water.
So, here's to Day One! So far, so good. No headache. Of course, I had some dark chocolate today, which may have prevented the headache. (How much caffeine does cheap bittersweet chocolate have, anyway?)
Sorry, this is kind of boring, but "Ack! No caffeine!" is really all that's on my mind today (in addition, of course, to my work). My original plan was to stay off of caffeine through Tisha B'Av, because it seems needlessly annoying to go back on and then off, but we'll see how long that idea lasts.
On a happier note, I went to part of the Harlem Meer Performance Festival yesterday with MY. It was fun, except that it started raining about half an hour into the performance. Luckily, MY and I were somewhat prepared, but it was still pretty wet...it was pouring, actually. And the musicians had to stop playing. But in any case, it was wonderful to hear half an hour of jazz (Ray Vega Quintet) and it was nice to see a part of Central Park I'd never been to before. It was peaceful. Before, during, and after the rain. To free music in Central Park!
This Game is Like Life
This is why it's like life:
Once you get the hang of the rules, it seems fairly simple. This dot goes there, that dot goes here, voila! It all works out. I don't know if that's how life actually started out, or if it only seems that way in retrospect. I mean, weren't things fairly simple when I was about five? Maybe I didn't think so at the time. If anyone remembers what I thought when I was five, please let me know. I didn't start writing down my thoughts until I was eight or nine, so those early years are lost to me. This stage of life--the not-entirely-organized-but-simple-to-fix stage--correlates to levels 1-3 in the game.
After that, it seems to get more complicated. It almost seems impossible to solve level 4 at first. It takes a lot of work and staring at it, letting go and coming back, trying to make it look 3-dimensional, etc. It's kind of a work in progress. Then you figure it out and everything's okay. For now.
Then you get to level 5 or level 6 and it seems much more complicated. But it's also a much prettier shape at those levels. It's more intricate and delicate-looking.
The lesson I derive: the further you go in life, the more complicated it gets, and, in some ways, the prettier it looks. Not that my life is necessarily so gorgeous these days, because, really, it's not, but I think, deep down (or at least I hope), that the more complicated it gets, the more potential there is for beauty. Because if it's not that way, then, damn, I'm in trouble.
The other thing that I note about this game is that I find it somewhat enjoyable to play and addictive, although I can't understand why. I think it's because my brain is occupied, so often, with speech and words that it feels good to use part of my brain that deals with shapes, rather than words. It's like when I took one quantitative class in college, or when I started doing crossword puzzles. Using your brain in not-the-usual-way feels very good to me, like a good stretch after a workout. Aaaaah....
Two blog posts in seventeen minutes. What do you think of that?
I think that I used to see the story as kind of simple--okay, a talking ass, no big deal. I mean, kind of strange, but lots of stories in the Torah are kind of strange, and I didn't ascribe any particular power or meaning to this one.
The research I did for the paper, which led me to the conclusion that the story is about the power of speech--the power of speech to bless and curse, to subjugate or overpower, to elevate or lower--made the story much more meaningful. I have long felt that words are incredibly powerful, maybe one of the most powerful things known to human beings. Research shows that words can alter brain chemistry. On a macro level, words can cause war and words can bring peace. On a micro level, words can change everything about the way an individual sees the world. I fundamentally believe that words are what make people people, and, more specifically, what makes me me. The words I speak and the words I write make me who I am, for better or for worse. They are at the core of my identity. (Not coincidentally, I also think that books have the power to change my life.)
The power behind this story is that it illustrates, in a very straightforward way, and against Bilaam's wishes, that words come from God. There is a beautiful part of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy (I think, although it may be Yom Kippur), which says that the creation and expression of words are a partnership between people and God. People think them and God arranges them, or the opposite. Something like that. I don't have a machzor here, but if I did, I would find it. This rings true for me, in a way that many other things in the liturgy just don't. I often feel that there are words stuck inside me that "want out," for lack of a better expression, and it seems impossible to stop them. On the other hand, there are times when I want to say something and cannot. I believe that these words that we say and write are created through our free will, but there can be something so powerful and magical about words, and speech, that I find it hard to believe that God isn't involved at all.
And that's why I like that paper. I'm not sure the paper itself says all of this, but that's what it makes me think. All that, from the story of a talking ass. Go figure! And Shabbat shalom.
Categories: parsha, Torah
A Prophet, A Sorcerer, and a Talking She-Ass: A Biblical Story of Good, Evil, and the Possibility of Transformation
I only wrote a few papers in college that would qualify as Judaic in any way. And only one of them is relevant to this week's parsha, or Torah portion. I wrote a longer version of this for English 199t. Animals that Talk, with Prof. Marc Shell. (I cut out about half of the paper, which I think was mostly filler to make it long enough, and was not directly connected to the main point of the paper.) I'm not claiming to be any kind of authority on midrash, parshanut, or anything else. If I have any actual facts wrong, please let me know. If you think that this paper is full of rampant speculation--well, you're probably right. It was a fun elective. Without further ado...
"A Prophet, A Sorcerer, and a Talking She-Ass: A Biblical Story of Good, Evil, and the Possbility of Transformation"
December 4, 2002
The story of Balaam, his talking ass, and the blessings he bestows upon Israel is recounted in Numbers 22-24. This story is important in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. However, in the Christian tradition, Balaam is mostly characterized, in the words of St. Thomas, as "a prophet of the devil." Balaam is seen as a heathen, prideful, or worse. It takes a talking animal to set him straight. The blessings or prophesies themselves are only interesting in the Christian tradition in that they foretell the celestial setting of the birth of Jesus. The lessons learned from the story of Balaam and his stubborn she-ass are reiterated several times in the New Testament, but otherwise are given relatively little attention.
In the Jewish tradition, the story of Balaam is an important story about the human potential for both good and evil, as well as for transformation from evil into good and good into evil. Balaam is alternately identified with Laban, Jacob's father-in-law who tried to rob Israel of its inheritance, and with Moses, the greatest Jewish prophet to ever live. In the Jewish sources, Balaam is transformed, likewise, from a prophet into a sorcerer and back again, and his curse becomes transformed into a blessing.
In this paper, I will argue that the talking ass is the perfect metaphor or vehicle for this transformation. When God opens the ass's mouth, and thus Balaam's eyes, the mute gains speech, the blind gains vision, and, for a brief moment, the animal and the human switch places. The animal gains mastery over the human through the gift of speech. This foreshadows a later transformation in the story, when God, again, controls speech and Balaam utters a blessing instead of the curse that he intended.
Why the talking she-ass? Talking animals are rather rare in the Bible; the only other one is the talking serpent in the Garden of Eden. The anomaly of the talking animal did not escape Jewish or Christian commentators and scholars. The Jewish analysis of the talking ass phenomenon, in particular, reveals the centrality of transformation to the Balaam episode. Numbers Rabbah, a collection of commentaries that adds a layer of interpretation to the Biblical book of Numbers, is one of the earlier explanations of the talking ass. One such midrash, or explanation, reads:
The Holy One, Blessed Be He, had mercy on the self-respect of his creatures [i.e., Balaam] and knew their needs so he closed the mouth of the creature. For if she had continued speaking, people could not subject her. For this was the stupidest of creatures and this was the wisest sorcerer, and as soon as she spoke he could not stand before her.
This midrash contains many themes that run throughout this story. Although on the surface the midrash explains why God took the power of speech away from the ass, it also explains why God had to give the ass speech in the first place.
The talking animal was able to stop Balaam in a way that an angel of God could not. Even the wisest sorcerer cannot always sense the supernatural, in this case the angel of God that attempted to block his path. The supernatural needed to invade his life in a tangible way to get Balaam to stop and notice it. Furthermore, Balaam was the best in his field, yet the talking animal was able to reduce him to the extent that he could "not stand before her."
This midrash reveals that humans only dominate animals because humans have the capacity of speech, and animals lack it. If animals gained speech, as occurs in this episode in the Bible, then humans would be unable to control or subjugate animals. This is interesting for several reasons. It sheds some additional light on why a talking animal was necessary in this story, which is ultimately about who controls speech, including the speech necessary for cursing or blessing a nation. In most interpretations, Balaam believes that he controls blessing and curse, and this story teaches that God actually controls all speech. The entity that controls speech controls all. Just as God's control of speech enables him to force Balaam to bless the Israelites rather than to curse them, humans' normal control of speech enable them to force animals to do their will. This is the power of speech as exemplified again and again in this story.
Along the same lines, Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno, a sixteenth century Jewish Italian commentary on the Bible, says that God made the ass speak to show Balaam that God actually controls speech. Just as God can give voice to an animal that doesn’t normally speak, so too, can God control what comes out of Balaam’s mouth. That is, even if Balaam intends to curse, God can make him bless. God could make an ass bless Israel if he wished to. Sforno says that this was an attempt to encourage Balaam to repent before he tried to curse the Israelites.
A slight variation on this idea is found in some modern interpretations. They say that the ass, rather than Balaam, sees the angel, and that this occurs to mock the power of the sorcerer: Even the best sorcerer, or seeer, cannot see what the dumbest animal, the ass, can see. The point here is that sight rather than speech is what gives power. Speech seems to be more central to this story than sight, however.
Who is Balaam? Traditional Jewish sources often go to great lengths to prove that various biblical characters are either good or bad. Balaam is unique in that he is identified both with "good" characters, such as Moses, and "bad" characters, such as Laban. Although different sources identify him with each and only a few identify him with both, the inclusion of both identifications in the Jewish canon indicates ambivalence about the character of Balaam. In expressing both Balaam's good (“prophet”) and evil (“sorcerer”) sides and his various transformations, Balaam is complexified as a literary character.
The idea that Balaam was transformed from a prophet to a sorcerer, or from a sorcerer to a prophet, is particularly interesting, as it fits into the theme already expressed in the talking-ass part of the story. When the ass spoke, the animal became human and the human became animal, as he lost the power of free-will to curse as he wished. This idea of transformation, so evident at the moment when God opens the mouth of the ass, is then applied to the rest of Balaam’s life: "In the beginning [Balaam was] a prophet and in the end he was a sorcerer." Others say that Balaam was a sorcerer and then he repented and became worthy of prophesy. They locate the turning point when Balaam tells the angel of the Lord that he has sinned.
There is one source that categorically denies the possibility of change. This source pins Balaam down as bad, through and through. Balaam tried to repent and Phineas, who was generally known as a zealot, wouldn't give him that chance.
When Balaam the Evil saw Phineas pursuing him [to kill him], he started doing magic….Immediately Phineas recalled the great and holy name [of God] and ran after him and grabbed him by the head and pushed him to the ground and unsheathed his sword to kill him. Balaam opened his mouth with words of supplication and said to Phineas: "If you sustain my soul I swear to you, all the day that I live I won't curse your nation." Phineas replied to him, "Behold you are Laban the Aramean who wanted to kill Jacob our father….You cannot remain in this world any longer."
The analysis of the character of Balaam within a story that contains a talking animal leads to a deeper understanding of both elements of the story: the elusive character of Balaam, who is at once a sorcerer and a prophet, and the talking animal, who, because of his power of speech, is somehow both human and animal. His transformation from animal to human and back to animal is what allows Balaam’s own transformation from a sorcerer who sets out to curse Israel, to a prophet who gives the Israelites one of their greatest and most important blessings.
 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Copyright 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition copyright 1999 by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02214b.htm
 There is a fascinating article about the intertextuality between the two talking animal stories in the Bible. See G. Savran, “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 64.1. December, 1994. 33-55.
 Numbers Rabbah, 20:12 as cited in Leibowitz, 301 (translation mine).
 This interpretation is heavily based on Numbers Rabbah 20:12.
 Leibowitz, 301-302.
 Sanhedrin 106b
 Numbers Rabbah 20:15
 Targum Jonathan, Numbers 31:5
Babylonian Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin
Babylonian Babylonian Talmud, Sotah
Ethics of the Fathers
Midrash Agadah Numbers
Zohar, volume 1
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1, Copyright 1907 by Robert Appleton Company, Online Edition copyright 1999 by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02214b.htm
Hasidah, Yiśra’el Yitshak, ed.. Otsar Ishe ha-Tanakh: Demutam U-fo’alam be-fi Hazal (Encyclopedia of Biblical Personalities: As Seen by the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud and Midrash). Mahad. New and Expanded. Jerusalem : Re’uven Mas, 1999.
Leibowitz, Nehama. Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers). Translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Aryeh Newman. Rev. ed. Jerusalem : World Zionist Organization, Dept. for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1982.
Savran, G. “Beastly Speech: Intertextuality, Balaam’s Ass and the Garden of Eden.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. 64.1. December, 1994. 33-55.
Categories: parsha, Torah
Found via post on ms.musings, which often has short, interesting items.
On a not-entirely-unrelated-note, I took Masechet Makot off of my shelf tonight and, based on the copious notes inside, it seems that I learned it at least through page 15b. It only goes through 24b. I have no recollection of ever having learned any of it, though. Is this not strange? When did I learn it? Did I learn it with you? Please let me know if you can help me solve this mystery. I am utterly baffled.
(I wanted to be all cool and link to the masechtot online, but I never did figure out how to read Hebrew fonts on my old workhorse of a Mac, so that's not happening.)
I'm sorry about the lack of weighty subject matter in this post. I think it's important to dilute important things with unimportant things whenever possible. Ciao!
Recently, someone came across it and asked if they could actually republish or repost the piece in a forum for Jewish educators where coeducation was, once again, being discussed. I declined for two reasons.
The first is because I find it mildly embarrassing. It is self-righteousness in the way that only a sixteen year old can be, and it displays a total naivete about life outside of my lucky isolated bubble of Othodox Boston youth. Also, some naivete about life inside my isolated bubble, since I really didn't know everything that was going on at the school. (Yes, it's online, but I'm not linking to it for those reasons. You can find it if you try.)
The second is because it seems irrelevant to me now. I don't disagree with the thrust behind what I wrote in 1995, but it seems beside the point. For me now, the most important reason for coeducation in Jewish day schools is to educational parity for boys and girls. The experiences I had after that, especially during my year in Israel, only supported that. I felt that I was getting a second-rate education, possibly with some second-rate teachers who wouldn't have cut it at a "real yeshiva." (More on that another time, maybe. I'm not really interested in smearing any institutions, so I will probably leave it at that. Overall, I feel lucky and grateful for the extensive Jewish education that my parents and the larger Jewish community provided.) Other personal experiences I've had and things I studied at college mostly reinforced my feelings that "separate but equal" does not apply to education. (I understand that the rest of the world, or at least the US, arrived at this conclusion fifty years ago, but as we all know, some things take longer in my corner of the Jewish world.) I care much more about educational parity right now than I do about whether 16 year olds will or won't be shomer negiah. I think then, as I think now, that they will or won't be regardless of whether they go to school with or without boys/girls. And if that was the biggest or most important thing that the Orthodox community had to worry about, we would be a very blessed people.
I started this post wanting to write about the Makor thing, and about the draw of other sex-segregated gatherings, but this wanted "out" first, so I'll save the rest for a later post.
Can I have some? Please? One box? Half a box? (My life has blessings a' plenty, but we could all use a little more, I think.)
For the confused, I think that these boxes of blessing must have contained what are known, in some circles, as "bentchers" or "birkonim." Or maybe they were just boxes of blessing. What a great image!
I mostly went because it was an all women's event. I somehow felt that I was missing that, not having really been part of any "women's thing" since finishing up my last Women's Studies class in January 2003. (I just recently discovered that the Committee on Women's Studies is now called the Committee on Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality. I wonder if that name change would make me more or less likely to drop that part of my degree at certain Shabbos tables? But that's another issue entirely.) Ironically enough, I work in an office with all women, so I'm not sure what I thought I was missing.
Alright. It seems that it is past midnight, and my brain is grinding to a halt in protest. I shall go to bed and continue thinking/writing about gender-segregated gatherings and environments another time.
I went to see the fireworks on the East River on July 4, along with many families. As I was trudging up the stairs out of the 96th St. subway station, glad to be near home after a very long wait at 34th St., I saw a little girl, probably in the 2-3 year old range, ensconced in her mother's arms. When we reached the top of the stairs, she exclaimed, "Mommy, it's still dark outside!" It had been dark when they went underground somewhere in midtown, and, lo and behold! Fifty or sixty streets north and half an hour later--it was still dark outside! These things amuse me... I can't even imagine a world in which going into the subway and coming out again might cause the sun to shine at night--can you?
Lest you think I have an unrealistic idea about the innocence and sweetness of kids, there are times when I don't like them. One such time might be during rush hour, after a long and exhausting day, when a harried mother gets into an overcrowded car with her five kids. I am sitting down, but the kids look like they need a seat more than I do, so I get up, leaving room for at least two little ones. They sit down, and four of the five kids commence pushing, shoving, not holding on, and purposely falling onto me. Also, generally mewling and whining. Then I wonder why anyone bothers having 'em in the first place.
Such as my wonderful roommate who is shouting from rooftops for me or the equivalent. [Pardon the fragment. Literary license.] We're having a picnic in Central Park this evening, which should be very nice. The last time I lay around on the grass in Central Park, I thought, "Life doesn't get any more divine than this." There's not much else I'd rather be doing on a typical summer day in New York. Good food, good company, soft grass, low humidity.... Mmmmm.
As a birthday, my 26th isn't going too badly. I had coffee at Starbucks this morning, which is always nice, and I appreciated the down time. I managed to get in a great workout at the gym. I used the rowing machine, which I hadn't used since college, and discovered that my arms are even weaker than I had suspected. Mostly, though, I was grateful to have a fully-functional body, and happy to reap all exercise-induced endorphins. And the arc trainer thing was free, and that always makes my day! Plus I watched an interesting documentary on PBS about Sweet Honey in the Rock, a group I like. After that, I spent some time on a "search and destroy" mission to eradicate some small unwanted guests from our kitchen pantry. They are about 3/4 eradicated, and aforementioned roommate is going to complete the mission. In case anyone's curious, grain weevils seem to have a particular fondness for Osem chicken bullion and for white flour. Enough said.
Back to birth. I had an odd moment a few weeks ago. I was watching some old 8 mm home movies that my father had transferred to VHS and then to DVD. I wasn't going through them in any particular order. I saw my father running around as a two year old, and I saw my little sister's first birthday party. Then I opened July 1979, expecting to see moving images of me being brought home from the hospital or something, and--whoa! There I was, being hauled up from behind some sheets, screaming and bloody! It was awesome in the original sense of the word. How many people are able to witness their birth and their first few moments of life? I guess any kid whose parents filmed the blessed moment, but, still... I had no idea that was taped. I saw my umbilical cord being cut and then my first few moments, after I was cleaned up, screaming on a little table. Not sure what that was about, but I sure looked pissed off... It's nice to see how I've grown since then, in so many ways.
In conclusion, let me take this moment to thank all of those who allowed me to get from that morning in July 1979 to this afternoon in 2005. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and, of course, friends near and far--thank you! If I could shout about YOU from the rooftops, I would. But I'm not a "shouting from the rooftops" kinds of gal, really. Let this be the equivalent.
What is the first book you remember reading to yourself, by yourself? What was the context?
Did you learn to read when you were three? Are you serious? Because I didn't learn to read until I was six, and I'm going to get an inferiority complex if everyone reading my blog learned to read when they were three. Really, that's just sick, people!
Do you remember learning to read? Because I don't. I mean, I remember not knowing how to read, and then I remember learning the sounds of the letters in kindergarten, and then I remember being able to read in first grade. Maybe that's just how it goes, but I kind of would have thought that something (magic? a lot of effort? blood, sweat, and tears?) would happen between learning the sounds of the letters and being able to read Pat the Bunny. But maybe not. Or maybe I was just lucky.
One reason that I'm thinking about reading so much these days is that the other day, on the B train, I saw these two very cute little girls learning how to read. They were sounding out words from a book with the help of an adult sitting with them who helped them when they got stuck on a particularly difficult one. I don't really remember being at that stage of reading, and I wondered if others had.
Are you a compulsive book buyer? If you do buy an inordinate number of books or sometimes feel compelled to buy books, why do you think that is? (If you don't mind my asking...) What kinds of books do you like to buy?
And, finally, on travel, since that is what started this blog--do you like to travel? Why? Where to? Or, conversely, do you find it a major hassle?
While you're at it, if you have a blog, please help the good people over at MIT and fill in their blogging survey by clicking on the link below: