A Modest Proposal

Sarah wrote about her experience at Spa World, and one part of it got me thinking. Specifically, the part where she described the experience of being naked in a room full of other naked people. Counterintuitively, it was more modest for her to be naked in that context than it would have been for her to be clothed in that same room, or for even a single person there to be clothed. Had there been a clothed person there, all eyes would have been upon her, and immediately there would have been discomfort among the naked women due to the imbalance of power and position – much the same way that there is an imbalance between the gowned patient and the doctor in a lab coat. The state where all are naked is like a return to the Garden of Eden – nakedness is only something negative once clothing exists.

This is the part of the teachings of tzniut (modesty) that often gets overlooked in our obsession with sleeve lengths – modesty doesn’t mean “be covered” – it means “be appropriate for the occasion.” Sadly, this is more observed in the breach, and the gradual trend toward informality of dress means that all occasions are the same. Had I my druthers, I would encourage a mindful awareness of dress – we should consciously choose what impression we want to send at that particular moment, and dress accordingly.


Fear Itself

I’m a bit scared right now. I have mystery pain and neuropathy in my hands, arms, and feet, and it has proven to be resistant to the attempts to treat or diagnose it. Some things I know:

My EMG was normal (but very, very painful – I would put it in the same league as a pelvic fracture or a kidney stone), so I don’t have nerve or muscle problems in my extremities. My blood-work shows a whole bunch of things I don’t have: no lupus, no lyme (well, at least not a standard Western Blot, but these tests are notoriously inaccurate), and no thyroid problem. I know that it’s no longer Parvo – it was either a co-infection, something that the parvo triggered, or something that was masked by the parvo. I’ve got a series of MRIs tomorrow where they’ll try to determine whether I have any brains or any backbone, so we’ll see what it says.

I’ve now had three courses of prednisone, multiple different systemic NSAIDs, topical NSAIDs, muscle relaxants, and other pain-relief drugs, and none of them get me to a point where I can play guitar for more than 10 minutes without my left hand going numb. Then, of course, there are the side effects of the meds, which range from the merely unpleasant to the thoroughly embarrassing.

Sarah’s being a trooper about all of this – she’s tremendously supportive, and I have no idea how I would deal with this if I were (God forbid) single – but I know this is draining for her too, and of course all of the above things aren’t a recipe for me being in a good mood…

So I’m scared. I know that I have some of the best physicians in the DC area looking at me, and I know that Sarah will be by my side no matter what happens, but that doesn’t actually settle down the emotion. So now, I go try to relax for a bit, and perhaps tone down the anxiety.

Coming to a physician near you

I’ve had more encounters with doctors this year than I have in the last several combined, and one thing I have come to appreciate is the magnitude of the difference between the good ones and the mediocre ones. Sarah’s battles with her health over the past several years have given us knowledge of pretty much the absolute best doctors in the Washington area, and this has definitely worked to my advantage.

Sarah’s last two PCPs have taken on the “gourmet medicine” approach (MDVIP and Privia are the two flavors I’ve encountered). I saw one of my doctors today (a very good one), told me that this will become a lot more common with the new health care law, and she recommended that if the doctor you like joins that type of arrangement, it’s actually worth it to sign up. In addition, about half or more of her (and my) physicians participate in exactly 0 insurance programs, so if you want to see them, it’s a flat rate out of pocket (and rarely is that rate low).

Now, on the one hand, this is market forces bursting through the fog of the modern insurance-driven system – I’m in favor of allowing pricing signals to reach the consumer, so that he or she can include price in his or her decision making. On the other hand, this means that the best doctors (i.e. the ones we went to after we had seen the rest) are not available at all to people without financial means to afford them. The gripping hand, however, is that the regulatory scheme which the country is moving toward will tend to decrease the pricing signals to the consumer and merely ration the care of those people who can’t afford to wholly opt-out of the system. This strikes me as the least desirable outcome, and for all of the talk of outcome-based medicine, this sure doesn’t seem like we’re moving in the right direction.

An example of jerkiness

Today, Sarah and I received a letter addressed to the “family of {Sarah’s father’s name},” and it was a handwritten letter from a Bible student along with a Jehovah’s Witness tract. The author is unknown to us. Nobody in Sarah’s family is a Jehovah’s witness. The letter basically cited a bunch of Christian Bible verses, and suggested the tract as a good source.

This is the kind of thing that makes Christians look bad.

If anyone reading this ever is in a position to decide whether sending a note like this is appropriate, please allow me to assure you: it is not. It is not welcome, it’s hurtful, it’s mean, and it makes the people who do this look like jerks.

Shavuot drasha

Below is the text of the sermon I delivered on the first day of Shavuot (Pentecost) at my synagogue.


Tomorrow morning we will read megillat Rut, which is notable for the sheer density of information which can be gleaned from the minor incidents and seemingly incidental details contained therein.

Primarily, the story is that of the most famous convert to Judaism, the effort she makes to join the Jewish people, and of the tribulations she endures. We can get a sense of the elliptical writing of the book in the names of some of the characters: Naomi’s children, Mahlon and Kilyon, are “profanation” and “destruction,” while the closer kinsman mentioned at the end of the story is given the Biblical “John Doe” treatment and only named as Ploni Almoni.

Clearly, none of these people were routinely referred to this way during their lives, so the use of these pseudonyms is trying to tell us something. There are assorted midrashim on the subject of Mahlon and Kilyon, and Rashi says that Ploni’s name is not recorded because he wouldn’t fulfill the mitzvah of redemption. Certainly the three of them are given designations which indicate that they are not the important part of the story.

Seeing this degree of meta-awareness in the text, the inclusions and omissions become all the more important: just as Debussy said “music is the space between the notes,” so here there are significant teachings between the words.

Coming back around to the central narrative of the book, this is a story about what it means to convert to Judaism. Except for one thing: where precisely does Ruth actually convert? That’s a glaring omission from the story, and its absence has to be there to teach us something.

A standard interpretation is that Ruth performed Kabbalat ol Malkhut Shamayim (acceptence of God’s kingship) when she makes the famous soliloquy Ki el-asher teilkhi elekh u’vaasher talini alin amakh ami velokaiyikh keloki (for where you go I will go, your people are my people, and your God is my God.” Now, this is a wonderful declaration of faith and allegiance, but it begs the question: is merely declaring one’s faith in a lucid and concrete manner sufficient to convert? Unlike Islam or Christianity, we don’t generally believe that this sort of declaration is sufficient for conversion – there are formal rituals which need to be followed. So where were they?

One proposed answer comes right before Ruth goes to Boaz in the night: Naomi instructs her to wash herself, and that is taken by some to mean “go to the mikvah and finish the conversion.” This explanation does not satisfy me because if Ruth was a brand-new convert at this point, the whole redemption of land and property scene makes no sense – she would not have been anyone’s relative.

So let’s look at another possibility – Mahlon and Kilyon were clearly Jewish, and while the women they married were of Moabitish ancestry, it fits the narrative precisely if we assume that they had converted before the story starts. All of a sudden, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah are cast in a very different light, and I think this bears a little exploration.

if Ruth and Orpah are already Jewish, what do we make of Naomi’s impassioned speech describing herself as bitter, and attempting to send Ruth and Orpah packing when she is about to depart for Israel? Clearly that becomes problematic: it’s well known that one is not supposed to remind a convert of her ancestry or encourage her to return to her people of origin – this is derived from the verse from Shemot: v’ger lo toneh v’lo tilhatzenu ki gerim hiyitem b’eretz Mitzrayim (You shall not taunt or oppress a convert, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt). How precisely are we to reconcile our normally positive view of Naomi with an example where she behaves this poorly? Obviously, she is grief-stricken – she was no longer secure in Moab, and had buried her husband and two sons, but there has to be something else we need to derive from this incident.

When both Ruth and Orpah said that they wanted to go to Israel with Naomi, she did not take that as an answer, and continued to push them away; she was all too willing to require extraordinary declarations of faith during emotionally charged times: after all, Naomi’s had lost her children, but Ruth and Orpah had lost their husbands, and their grief, while unmentioned in the text, would have needed to be addressed.

I believe that an answer can be found in the lineage of the two converts: Ruth (and by extension Naomi) is the ancestress of David, while Orpah vanishes from the text of the Bible. However, Midrash tells us that she goes on after returning to her prior Moabitish ways to become the ancestress of the very same Goliath who deviled the Jews until David was able to overcome him by cleverness.

So an inference we can draw from this is that by allowing her grief to overcome her, Naomi drove away a convert, whose children then went on to become tremendous antagonists of the Jewish people. For us in these days, this serves as a reminder that we all were strangers in Egypt, and we should all act accordingly in the service of God’s commandments.