Baseless Love

This is the talk I delivered this morning at Kesher Israel.


Shabbat shalom.


In case anyone hasn’t kept track, today is the 123rd day of the omer, which is 17 weeks and 4 days. The omer-count is something done in the seven-week period between Passover and Pentecost – it’s the quintessential example of “marking time” in the Jewish calendar.  From that period we get lots of practices, including the wait between minha and ma’ariv on holidays during which questions about whether Commander Data could convert to Judaism are considered completely reasonable.  But really, the omer period itself is defined by the endpoints – and in the way that the covenant of Avram was the covenant bein ha-betarim – “between the pieces” – so too that period between the two holidays marks the growth of the covenantal relationship of the jewish people with God from Exodus to revelation.

Now, there is a reason for remembering the omer-counting period today, which I hope will become clear in a few minutes.


So, this week’s parsha is Eikev, and it contains a lot of neat stuff.


It contains the one of the non-severability clauses in the Torah – kol mitzvotav asher anokhi mitzav’kha hayom (all of the commandments that i command you today).  Non-severability, in that context, means that we don’t get to pick and choose which commandments are important.  Rashi renders “eikev” as “heel” – specifically referring to the importance of observing those mitzvot which one would tread upon.


It’s also the source for how we sanctify our meals – after a description of how excellent the land of Israel is, we are told v’ahalta v’savata, u’veyrakhta, et A-donai Elokekha al haaretz hatova asher natan lakh (you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will praise the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you) – and being straightforward, literal minded people, we thus perform the commands in precisely that order.  Of course, this is followed immediately by an injunction to avoid haughtiness and self-congratulation for success, lest we come to believe that the satisfaction we experience is due to the work of our own hands rather than coming from the bountiful and open hand of God Himself.


The injunction against haughtiness leads into a retelling of the great paradigmatic communal sin – that of the golden calf, followed by one of the things which grabbed my attention the most when I started preparing; Divine reward and punishment as a concept is discussed a whole lot here.


Now, this is a very important Jewish concept – Maimonides includes this as one of his 13 principles of faith, and it’s included in the sh’ma, our basic declaration of faith, twice daily – and in fact, the paragraph from the sh’ma discussing reward and punishment is comes from this parsha.


The language used in second paragraph of the sh’ma is what I found the most interesting (Deut. 11:13-15):


וְהָיָה, אִם-שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל-מִצְוֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם, הַיּוֹם–לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-ייְ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, וּלְעָבְדוֹ, בְּכָל-לְבַבְכֶם, וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁכֶם:  וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר-אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ, יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ; וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ, וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ:  וְנָתַתִּי עֵשֶׂב בְּשָׂדְךָ, לִבְהֶמְתֶּךָ; וְאָכַלְתָּ, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ:


Rabbi Lord Sacks mellifluously translates that as:

If you indeed heed my commandments with which I charge you today, to love the LORD your God and worship him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give you rain in your land in its season, the early and late rain, and you shall gather in your grain, wine, and oil.  I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied.


The paragraph continues in the converse: if we serve other gods, then the rain ceases, and we are punished.


Straightforward, right?  Do good stuff, get rain, crops grow.  Well, not quite.

This reward and punishment stuff is clearly important, but do we actually function this way?  Do we really believe that rain is dependent on how much we love God?


We certainly are willing to look inward for sins and blemishes after calamities  – thus we say that sinat hinam (baseless hatred) was the sin for which the second temple was destroyed.  We accept that God does act in this world as force in history.  However, are we willing to say that every everything is a direct reward or punishment?  “Eating and being satisfied” is a basic condition of normalcy – but are we willing to say that the hungry or the sick person is being punished?


Are we willing to say that droughts happen because people weren’t righteous enough, or that suffering is only a result of sin?  What about the whole book of Job, which addresses the suffering of a righteous man through no fault or sin of his own.


If we hold this way, then theodicy, the problem of evil in the world, rises to an intolerable volume.  No, I’m certainly not willing to hold that suffering is only the result of sin, and fortunately, neither are our sages.


Really, they say, the time of the true judgement is some time after one’s death – on the day of judgement, and at that time true and complete justice will be meted out.


We see a piece of this in the response to being told of someone’s death – we say “Barukh Dayan Emet” – Blessed is the True Judge.  In fact, we can see this opinion right here in ibn Ezra’s understanding of the name of the parsha itself – he renders “eikev’ as “in the end” – he sees the rewards of following the commandments as being granted in the next world rather than this one.


There is certainly precedent for using a specific language in the Bible even though it was never meant to be taken literally – consider lex talionis – “an eye for an eye” – that has always meant financial restitution, and was never intended for any sort of literal interpretation.


Great!  So problem solved, right?  All of the times where reward and punishment is brought up, we’re talking about in the world-to-come.  However, we do still have a question – why use this particular set of words, right here?


The text of the Torah refers to rain in its season, grass for your field for your cattle, and other very much this-world phenomena.  Are we then to understand that these are metaphors for next-worldly rewards?  If so, why not just say that?  There has to be more here that the Torah is trying to teach us.


I think I can propose an answer to why this paragraph is here, now, but we’ll need to go on some seeming tangents first.


Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says that the switches in the grammar in our paragraph between the singular you and plural you (as an example, vetiroshekha versus nafshekhem)- is designed to introduce collectivism as a concept to the Jewish people – or to put it in the words of the Talmud., kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another: we are in fact our brother’s keeper.


This linking of the individual and collective experience in the way that R’ Hirsch describes fits nicely the time in which we find ourselves.  Specifically, we’re in the second of the seven weeks of consolation – the time between Tisha b’Av and Rosh Hashana, where comforting messages steadily yield to greater introspection and a desire for teshuvah (repentance).  The great sin of Tisha b’Av, as we understand it today, is sinat hinam – baseless hatred.  We’re told that the proper tikkun – the mystical reparation which can heal the damage we have caused in our relationship with God and our fellow humans – is ahavat hinam – baseless love.  I’ll get back to that.


Did you notice the number of weeks of consolation?  In the same way that the seven-week omer count provides a time-marking bridge between the Exodus and revelation, this period of consolation provides a bridge between the communal experience of tragic destruction and the personal experience of judgement.


Back to the text of the parsha, the unaddressed question is the image of rain: here, rain represents the sheer bounty of God’s beneficence, bestowed upon the worthy, no?


But here’s the catch: it doesn’t ever just rain over one field.  And there isn’t any indication that no righteous person could never have a wicked neighbor.  So the Torah is showing us, in a clear manner, that God will give rain to the wicked person’s field due to the merit of the righteous person – and like what R’ Hirsch said, we are bound up as a community – we are our brother’s keeper, but the way in which we should keep our brother is shown by imitatio Dei – we should follow in the ways of God, and act out of ahavat hinam, just as God does toward us.


So to sum up, we have a paragraph which tells us to follow God’s commandments, all about the rewards and punishments which happen in the next world if we do or don’t, and the language used directs us to consider ourselves as part of a larger community.  The here and now takeaway of that paragraph is that we can navigate the strait between the Scylla of Tisha b’Av and the Charybdis of Rosh Hashana by following the commandments of God, and behaving toward other people in the same manner that he showed us in that same paragraph: with baseless love.


Shabbat shalom.



Sadly, I have to take back some of the good things I had said last week about the RCC.

They have now stated that they had been unable to determine the intended purpose of the personal lubricant, and once they realized that it was for (gasp) sex, they weren’t willing to certify it any more.

I’m appalled.

This is a complete dereliction of their duty, and something which makes a mockery of kashrut supervision as a concept, implying that Judaism is prude or sex-negative (God forbid!)

To the RCC: if you don’t know what a non-food product is used for, don’t even begin the certification process. Further, once you start, you’d better have a good reason to stop, and there is not the slightest halakhic (Jewish legal) justification to not certify this non-food product (assuming it meets the rules of other non-food products). Sex (between husband and wife) is encouraged, and lubricants are permitted. What precisely is the “intended use” surprise issue here?

I challenge the RCC to produce this justification.

I Would if I Could, ICANN, so I Won’t.

There are two different problems inherent in this story about the new top-level-domain “.kosher”.

Problem one: the o-k is a major, reliable, and reputable supervisor, but they are neither the only nor the largest of supervisions. “Which supervision agencies are acceptable” is an excellent question – one which is really (theoretically) best directed at one’s LOR (local orthodox rabbi), although KosherQuest is a great place to start. A glance over at KosherQuest shows a gazillion supervisions which are widely considered reliable, and then there are another gazillion which aren’t on that list. So it’s a bit concerning that a single agency would establish a worldwide monopoly from an Internet perspective.

Problem two: the new TLDs are stupid from the get-go, and this is a great example of why. In the way that .museum is not really used by anyone (hint: what domain do you think the Smithsonian or the Louvre, or the Getty use?), this too is redundant.

(Oh, and don’t give me any static about all of the names listed in the full second-level search of .museum – those are largely redirects to the actual, real domains used by the museums, which are held in other TLDs. Why, precisely, is “search” such a problem? I know that I would have an easier time going to a preferred search engine looking for “Louvre”, and that search engine will even correct my spelling and send me to the page appropriate for my browser language preference, while the .museum redirect is top-level only.) Another fight that’s going on is over the .amazon between the purveyor of pretty much everything and the countries which have a similarly named jungle.

Would we end up with,, etc? Personally, I’d want to buy the second-level domain “porkisnot”, or perhaps “ikeep”. But please, ICANN, reconsider this foolishness.

Another Win for the Kosher Consumer

According to reporting in the Times of Israel, the Rabbinical Council of California (the group who gave the unmarked supervision to Huy Fong sriracha), have now declared that Trigg products’ “Wet” lubricant is free from nonkosher animal products, and on that basis they have granted supervision. Good to know!

Now this is the kind of outreach which scratches a needed itch in the community. All joking aside, I appreciate the RCC’s proactive approach.

Ping… Echo Reply

There are times when “fake it till you make it” is the operative thought process. There are some things in life about which I admit total ignorance. Occasionally, these are the same thing.

A very long time (so it seems) ago, Sarah had heard from friends that getting a fetal doppler was reassuring, and our experience was that the ultrasound at clinics had been able to detect the heartbeat at 5 1/2 weeks. So we purchased one at 8 weeks, and this thing caused no end of trouble. The how-to videos on YouTube were no help whatsoever – apparently people only post videos when it works.

After hearing a whole lot of nothing with it, I was convinced that the unit we had was a piece of junk. At 9 weeks, our RE tried using it, and also couldn’t hear anything, seconding my opinion (although he said he had never had any luck with any of those). The trouble was that it had, when we used it at home, worked me up into quite a lather, while I was trying to reassure Sarah that, yes, everything is okay(tm), but it introduced a gnawing fear into my night until our next visit.

So it went into the drawer, until our 14-week appointment with the regular OB, who used one which looked remarkably like the one we had purchased – he found the heartbeat in all of about 12 milliseconds. He then showed us that our unit worked fine (!)

And so finally this week we’ve figured out how to use this thing ourselves, and can hear it fine (and it turns out that, according to real doctors, 13-15 weeks is around the time that one can actually hear a heartbeat.

My lesson is that things only work in the right time, and doing something at the wrong time leads to trouble.

Exiting Radio Silence

There is a Yiddish saying: Man Tracht, und Gott Lacht, which could be translated as “people plan, and God laughs.” I think that’s about right.

On April 14, I wrote about how Sarah and I were giving up on the fertility meds and moving to IVF. Earlier that month, after the last failed cycle of the injectables, the nurse at Columbia Fertility (CFA) had told us that due to cysts (open follicles) on Sarah’s ovaries, the month after that cycle would also be a dud as well – thus, we would need to wait for the cysts to go down before IVF could start, and of course, their presence is expected to prevent regular ovulation as well.

I need to say a few words here about injectables. So those are basically a percentage of the same medicines as are used in IVF, but you’re basically relying on timed intercourse to try to get everything in the right place at the right time. Now, the problem there is that the husband ends up being something between a trained monkey and porn star (which is far less hot than it sounds). So with all of this, I can’t say that I had such a warm fuzzy feeling about how those work. In fact, those are definitely part of the “affliction” to which I had been referring.

Anyway, the injectables tended to be “one month on, one month off” because of cyst development (and continued use at that point would be dangerous). So we booked a bunch of appointments for IVF consultations, and decided that this was where we needed to be going. We met with Dr. Frankfurter at GW, and I must admit that all of the Rocky Horror jokes were running through my head the whole time (“Come up to my lab… and see what’s on my slab…) – none more than when he said that his main embryologist was named “Dr. Scott” (Brad! Janet!) (Note: Studio Theatre is showing Rocky this year – can’t wait!)

However – remember that I wrote that piece on April 14.

On April 29, we learned that Sarah was pregnant.

When we went in to CFA to confirm the pregnancy, Sarah asked “how could this happen??” Dr. Sacks replied, without missing a beat, “I think sex.” Oh, you scamp! That was too early for a non-IVF sonogram, so we went on about our day.

We decided to keep our appointment with RMA in New Jersey – they take forever to schedule, we had filled out probably three inches of paperwork, and honestly, having lost three pregnancies relatively early, we took a cautious view of chances, and at the least, wanted to find out what we thought of them relative to the folks in DC. Dr. Drews in NJ was amazing. I don’t hesitate to say that if we ever do need IVF, that is totally where we’d go, and that’s where I’d recommend anyone else go. I am blown away by their approach – they basically look for all of the various and sundry ways to get each extra .25% improvement in outcomes (like “use this particular type of air filter in the lab”, “use only this particular type of lighting”, “perform transfers only at this particular stage of development”), and then do them. The net effect of all of those little things is that their actual success rates are dramatically higher than clinics in the DC area – for women Sarah’s age it’s over 46% (national average 32%) (by way of comparison, CFA’s success rate for women Sarah’s age is 29%, and GW doesn’t brag about their statistics online, but according to what they’ve published to the CDC’s ART report, their success rate is 21%). According to Dr Drews, RMA doesn’t turn any patients away (we had been told that their numbers were the result of patient selection, which from my perspective he refuted).

They did say “most people don’t come here when they’re already pregnant,” but the consult was very informative. Dr. Drews did our first sono, and was excellent – he warned us that it was early and we might not see/hear anything, but he wanted to get a baseline (apparently this is standard of care for a first appointment there – which is also impressive). And there was the heartbeat!


But of course, we’ve been there before. And so, the fear began (along with prayer).

When we got back, we resumed working with Dr. Sacks – he had been our regular RE at this point: he told us that the genetic/chromosomal die had been cast already (true!) but there wasn’t any way for us to know how it fell for a while, but he would monitor us closely. Each appointment was nerve-wracking, but the heartbeat was strong. Apparently “made with love and science” was going to be more like “made with love, watched closely with science.” Maybe the s/he will have a future with the NSA?

So we’ve had a whole heck of a lot of ultrasound pictures of the stringbean-variety – not the ones which look like a kid (those are the 20-week anatomy scan), but oodles of early ones. The jarring moment happened when we got to about week 12 – we were discharged from CFA and sent to our OB – that had never happened before. Now we had to go from the high-touch world of “lots of imaging, can we buy a sonogram machine for the house like Tom Cruise?” (answer: no, they’re regulated medical devices) into the normal-pregnancy world of “I wonder if everything is okay?” which is of course the world in which most women (and men!) are 99.99% of the time.

But it’s an awesome kind of jarring.

We went back and forth on when to start telling people – we’ve previously been public very early, but this time decided to wait a bit longer. However, one practical component is that apparently pregnancies after the first show much faster than the first, and a comment we received from a family member upon seeing a picture was “I don’t know who you think you’re not telling.” Well all-righty then.

We’re due January 1, 2014 – sounds like a great way to start a new year (or, perhaps Dec 31 would mean that the IRS would be nicer to us this year). Then again, I was multiple weeks late (setting a pattern for my life), so who knows – Elvis Presley’s birthday is January 8…

So now we can just thank God for bringing us to this day, and count on Him to sustain us in the days ahead (and perhaps try to save up on some sleep a bit).