3.27.2008

Amused?

This is the sort of thing that amuses me:

A woman standing on 42nd Street at 10:30 am on March 25, a sunny day very close to the spring equinox, asking a police officer which way was east.

The sun was shining very brightly from the east. It was an absolutely lovely day.

Are people so cut off from the natural physical world that they don't think to use the bright, shining sun to help them navigate the (nearly) north/south/east/west Manhattan grid? After I was amused, I had this second, sobering thought, which made me a little bit sad.

3.20.2008

The Lottery

No, not that one.

* * * * *

In memory of Isaac Meyers, z"l, who loved Megillat Esther [the Book of Esther].

* * * * *

I wasn't really feeling it when we read through Genesis in the fall. All that family angst and drama was just too much for me. I couldn't handle it. I thought Exodus would be better, with its redemption and liberation and all of that. Really, it's much more uplifting than Genesis. Yet, I couldn't get into that, either.

But, finally, we've arrived at a place where my current mood and the Jewish calendar match: Purim.

Purim is the antithesis, in so many ways, of Pesach. Pesach is organized, mesudar, and carefully planned. God speaketh, God doeth, and we get the hell out of Egypt. Later, a highly organized ritual was created to commemorate said exodus. There's an outline, for crying out loud, at the beginning of many haggadot, containing a reminder of the order (literally, the "seder"), even though the book is right in front of you! You can't skip around, so it doesn't really help you to know, before you start, how many steps there are before shulchan orech, when you finally get to eat the egg in salt water. (Or at least some Ashkenazim do. Yum!) There is an order to the dinner ritual, an order to the ritual seder plate, and an order to the three identical matzot that you stack up. There are four questions, the same ones every year, and they're in order, too. There are four glasses of wine, and they, too, have an order. The songs at the end--also highly organized. It wouldn't make sense to have the ox precede the cat, would it? Or the four matriarchs follow the twelve tribes?

Purim? Not so much. Purim is disorganized.

That is clear from the story in Megillat Esther. One of the many things that I love about Megillat Esther is the suspense throughout. Will they or won't they survive? What will Haman do? What will Achashverosh do? (And why is he such a weak character, anyway? But that's a separate issue.) What will become of Esther in the king's palace? Of Mordechai outside it? What will happen when Esther approaches the king? Oooh, it gets me every year. I normally hate suspense (like, in movies and books), but in Megillat Esther, I love it!

Why is there so much suspense, though? If you think about it, there isn't really a plan for redemption in Esther. There isn't a plan at all. Purim is based on the randomness of things. Things just happen, tumble jumble, one after another. It could go one way or the other, and you don't know until it happens. The very name of the holiday--Purim, based on the Akkadian pūru meaning lottery--is random. Haman could have picked any day to plan to kill Mordechai and his ilk, and the day he came up with was utterly random. Just like it was random that Mordechai happened to overhear Bigtan and Teresh and thus save the king's life. Just like it was random that Haman walked into the palace to finally do away with Mordechai just when the king had insomnia and thus one of the most fun bits of the megillah comes into being--Mordechai, dressed as a king, being led around the city by his arch nemesis, Haman, who is calling out Mordechai's praises.

Life goes this way, I think, more often than it goes in the "God speaketh" way.

Even before Isaac died this week, it has become increasingly clear to me that things--many things--might not turn out as they ought or as I once thought they would. Things might not be what you would expect them to be at all, and really, nobody can predict much of anything. You think you know who someone is, but you don't. You think you have the rest of your life to get to know someone better, but you don't. You think that things ought to go a certain way, and they don't. (And then you have to deal with the repercussions of all of those things not going according to the plan in your head.)

This--this acknowledgement of things being what they are not, and not being what they are, and the sheer unknowability and lack of plannedness of it all--is nothing short of terrifying when we are forced to confront it. Purim, Rabbi Jan Uhrbach once taught me, is about joy with an undercurrent of fear. (In contradistinction to Yom Kippur, which is fear with an undercurrent of joy.) That suspense from Megillat Esther that I mentioned earlier, that unknown, unknowable, and apparently random quality of life, pervades Purim.

Oh, we try to deny the fear on Purim. We stamp our feet and twirl our graggers in an attempt to drown out what is, or what was, and we dress in costume to pretend to be what we are not. (My plan is to wear a purple, lit-up, punky wig. I.e., what I am not, a punk rocker. I am not going with full regalia, though. Just a wig.) We drink to confuse Haman and Mordechai, to make each into the other, to make each into what he is not. Purim is about what is not as much as it is about what is. As much as Pesach is about God's awesome, history-altering strength, Purim is about its absence. As is often noted, God's name does not appear in the megillah.

Purim tells us that there is no plan. If the king happens to pick the Jewess to be his new wife, we are all saved. And if not, not. If the king sides with his Jewess wife over his vizier, we are all saved. And if not, not. (As Esther herself says, "וְכַאֲשֶׁר אָבַדְתִּי, אָבָדְתִּי" Esth. 4:16) Unlike Pesach, there is no instruction manual.

Perhaps, as the Rabbis claim, there was a plan all along, but it was simply nistar, hidden.1 Perhaps. But even if I convince myself that this is true--that God was there and God was pulling the strings all along--it really gives me very little comfort if we can't see him or sense him or feel him in the vicissitudes of life. When it seems and feels like there is no plan, God's hidden presence is of little comfort.

My mood and Purim's a good match this year not because I particularly feel the absence of God. I've known for a long time that God lets terrible things happen and that there isn't a damned thing we can do about it, and I still choose to believe in God. Nothing has changed about that.

Purim and I are a good match because, for the first time in my life, there is no plan. There is no "next step." I have outgrown my current job2 but there's really no place up for me to go in my current field without going back to school. (A BA just ain't what it used to be, folks.) I am not even sure that I want to stay in my current field. Staying would basically mean more of the same, but I would have the additional responsibility of managing others. This does not sound like fun. And lest you retort that life is about more than having fun, I will amend that statement and say, "That sounds like a recipe for disaster, because I will be bored to tears before too long." (There must be something I can do that won't bore me to tears, but that will also pay the rent and for food and other necessities.)

Thus, I have decided to leave my current job and go off and do something else. Something unknown. I have begun to apply for things (being purposely obtuse), something that I have not done (except when applying for jobs), in a long, long time. Thus far, I am 0 for 2. I am waiting to hear back from a third place, and I have approximately two remaining places to apply, but after two rejections, it's hard to sally forth and apply to more programs. My life feels quite a bit like a lottery these days. Like a totally random, arbitrary decision made by people I don't know and may never meet, or by people who I know quite well, will at least on a superficial level determine what happens next. Can you stand the suspense?

Chag Purim sameyach!

[Last year's Purim posts here, here, here, and here. It was a prolific Purim, what can I say?]

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1. אסתר מן התורה מנין? (דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר [Hulin 139b]
2. I do not blog about work as a rule, but (a) rules were meant to be broken (this is me practicing to be a punk rocker) and (b) my superiors at work already know of my plans to leave.

3rd blogiversary

Two days ago was the third anniversary of this blog. I was thinking about that this morning, and how I was in Brazil the last time we had a Purim meshulash. That year, like this year, Purim was on a Friday, with Easter the following Sunday. I remember because I was surprised by how big a deal Easter was in Brazil--much more than it is around here.

3.19.2008

The random senselessness of death

Originally, this post was going to be about the particular life stage in which I find myself and how it relates to Purim. I had been thinking of writing about this for some time, but God, apparently, had other plans. Maybe I'll get back to it on a day that doesn't include a funeral.

I wish I could rewind the past three days and return to Sunday, before Isaac Meyers was hit by a truck and killed on his way to a shiva minyan on Monday morning in Central Square, Cambridge, Mass. Seriously. On his way to a shiva minyan. at 6:45 am. If that isn't theodicy, I don't know what is. (And, yes, this is the second person I have known who has been killed after being hit by a motor vehicle on the streets of Cambridge, Mass.)

I did not know Isaac well. He went to Yale; I went to Harvard. (We weren't forsworn enemies, though! I have long had a particular fondness for Yalies and know quite a few.)

I met him once in my apartment, when he was hanging out with a roommate who had gone to college with him. He had only just met me, but he invited me to a barbecue. For some reason that I no longer recall--possibly embarrassment or discomfort at being invited to a barbecue of a person I'd only just met--I declined. I met Isaac another time or two when I was visiting Cambridge. He moved there after I left, but he was friends with a lot of my friends there, and also a neighbor to several friends. I saw him at the Ortho minyan on more than one occasion, I am sure. I think I shared a Shabbat meal with him. I got some of his hilarious e-mails, including one where he channeled Cynthia Ozick in writing weekly Shabbat announcements for the Harvard Hillel Orthodox Minyan:
A number of entries for the position of Announcement Writer have been received to date, some from unknowns hoping to make their mark, others from established figures on the literary scene. In order to encourage further interest in the post, we are including excerpts from some of the more notable applications. These didn't make it, but you might! The first is from a Mrs. C. Ozick:

"All was still and silent in Cambridge that evening in early July. A heavy humidity weighted with gloom all who found themselves stranded there Independence Day weekend. Then, faintly, in the distance, but now ever loudening and growing in clarity, the sound of davening could be heard: mincha. The offering of the afternoon! O blessed expression of preprandial spirituality! No humble, dank devotion, this, but men and women standing, be-mechitza'd, in glorious self-affirmation: Jewish nationhood here, now, alive; and what honeyed drink of prickly pineapple and obdurate coconut--what backgazing bacchanal, gaudy with fireworks, a-rage with the odor of roasted meat--visions of WASPish Nadabs and Abihus, offering strange fires on the Charles--(O relish, inaptly named!)--what poisoned arrow in faithlessness's quiver could taint her people's veins, so long as they stood, swaying as one, in der minkhe-sho, the mincha-hour?"
Even only knowing him in the very peripheral way that I did, he was clearly a funny, smart, thoughtful, adorably quirky person. I knew that he played the ukulele and wrote many of the songs for a band he had formed called The Rothschilds (see recordings here) that parodied Orthodox life, and that he was studying classics at Harvard. (He arrived the year I left.) I learned a lot more about him at his funeral this morning, but, oh, how much would I have preferred to learn these things by getting to know him better directly, rather than through his friends who are mourning his tragic death.

I always thought that he was someone I would like to get to know better if we ever ended up in the same city. I figured it would have to happen one day, and I was probably right, given a statement of Isaac's that a friend of mine shared on the Facebook page dedicated to his memory after his death:
Sometimes I think the world has four quarters: Cambridge, New Haven, the Upper West Side, and Israel, with water (Long Island Sound) in the middle. That just shows what a circumscribed life I lead.
–Isaac Meyers, 6/21/01

The death of a person such as this, at the age of 28, is utterly random and senseless and I refuse to attach any meaning to it. Someone asked me why this happened. And my answer is that it happened for no reason at all. It happened because a truck was turning onto a street and did not see someone who was standing in the crosswalk, about to cross on a walk signal. It didn't happen for a reason. It totally, utterly sucks. And it hurts. A whole lot. And it's going to hurt for a good long while. He isn't coming back. The hole that he left will never be filled by anyone else--that is the beauty and the tragedy of our irreplicable individuality. It is not fair. It is not right. It is certainly not just. And it cannot be undone.

I wish I had gone to that barbecue.

Yehi zichro baruch
. May his memory be for a blessing.

3.12.2008

Things for you to read while I am too busy to blog

Or while I'm sick. I've been over the flu and back at work for two weeks now, but I'm still totally exhausted much of the time and my throat has been hurting, on and off, also. So I went back to the doctor today. It's probably nothing, but if it isn't nothing, it may be mono. And how wasteful is it to get the kissing disease without any kissing?

Anyway, carry on. I might have blogged about all of these things (and LimmudNY) if I weren't so busy sleeping and taking acetaminophen. Also, working my paying job. And, you know, reading the newspaper and Scientific American Mind and stuff. (That and Wired are my current two favorite magazines.)

Science fun

Education fun


Eliot Spitzer...fun? No, power-hungry and delusional.

Random fun (if you consider either sadness or shopping to be fun)


That's all I've got for now. Stay healthy and far away from germy people!