Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah 5773: The Tower of Babel and the App Store

There is more to the world than the United States. That should be obvious, but events this week floored me into realizing it. What floors me more is that the very liberal, open-minded person that I thought I was could ever make that mistake.
This week’s Torah portion has two known stories, and that second one dovetails into my current thoughts so well: God becomes dissatisfied with all flesh on the earth, and thus plans to destroy them, saving one family, that of Noah, and a handful of animals. In the wake of the destruction that follows, God promises not to try that stunt again, using a rainbow for a contract. Noah, with a bad case of Post-Traumatic Stress, gets drunk and stupid. After the unpleasantness of this incident, a few more generations are born. With only a rainbow as a contract, these later generations don't completely trust God. They decide to make a tower to prevent this sort of thing from happening again.
5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men built. 6 And the LORD said: 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withheld from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city.[Gen 11]
Something about these verses interests me. God plans to confound their language, and instead scatters them. The text never say, that the people working on the tower first had their language changed and then were scattered. Genesis 11:9 seems to fill in that missing piece:
9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
I’m not sure they weren’t simultaneous acts. I’d go as far to say God confounded language by scattering people. We are limited by our perceptions, and even more by our physical senses. These limitations create a situation where we tend to think locally. What is outside our local sphere of perception is ignored, the lesson I learned this week.
Among the other things I do, I’m a budding app developer. A friend of mine who is a public health educator had an idea for a counter for smartphone which would count the number of time one would wash their hands. I decide to explore the idea, and for the various festivities around the globe associated with Global Hand washing Day on October 15th, I’d give away the app as an educational item. I wrote the Handwashing Counter in about a month, and got it into the Apple App Store on October 11th. Unfortunately, as of this writing I haven’t heard from my friend, so I assume she never promoted the app.
The marketing guru Seth Godin calls writing apps a sucker’s bet. The world is full of apps already. For you to be found in the top ten is not likely. If you aren’t in the top ten, you won’t make all that money you thought you would. I’m not making any money at this to be sure -- I’ve sold about 130 of my paid apps in the 8 months they have been in the App Store. I did not expect a lot from the hand washing app given my main promotional never happened. A week after introduction, there have been over 130 downloads of Handwash Counter, the most I have ever had for that period of time. There are now more downloads in a week than all the paid apps I have ever sold. But what got me was this: it was downloaded in 34 countries, yet only a quarter were in the U.S.
It was a shock to me, one that has got me thinking. The market is not the United States, it’s everyone else too. I had been thinking about one place, I was thinking local, when what I should have been doing is thinking global. God’s trick of making me distant from others got me. I did an analytics check on this blog and the numbers are extremely different. Two thirds of my shlomosnewdrash hits are US based. This blog is a lot of English. The average entry is about 1200 words. The Handwashing Counter app has very little in comparison. With a few localization changes, the app works anywhere. I’m planning to improve that. I’m going to add more graphics to the app in its next version, because I can see the less words, the better.
God split us up at Babel the story goes. Being too far away to talk or communicate meant variation came into the picture. In time that variation became different languages. But what happens when that barrier of distance starts to break down? A tweet I send right now is visible anywhere on the planet in a few seconds. We still have language barriers of course. The 18% of downloads by China and Russia require those users to know a Latin alphabet just to use the app. Yet 75% of my downloads was from outside the US. The Internet connects lot of people. With cell phones being the most common way in even developing countries to communicate, smartphones with web browsers are slowly becoming common in the most unlikely places. We are getting closer to all having a link to everyone else, if only we had a common language again.
Thirty years ago, Steve Jobs took some ideas from Xerox, whose executives thought it was not a profitable avenue for their company, and built an icon-based computer. The Macintosh led to the icons found in every program and app we use today. The idea that ancient languages had, of using pictograms as visual language, returned. In doing so it became so much closer to a universal language again. Those icons, buttons and sliders that make up my apps are still easy ways for people to understand things. It is a simple language. That I can transmit that anywhere is quite miraculous.
There is a bit of programming I do, actually mandated by Apple, known as delegates. Two parts of a program don’t talk to each other. In order to get them to talk, I have one program part, known as a class, have a requirement of what it thinks is communication, and the other class to do that part. If I want the communication both ways both classes need to have requirements and both need to make part of their code that requirement.
Babel was the time when we stopped communicating and started talking. We forget we need to be part of each other and know what that part was. We stopped having delegates to each other. The program, the building of a great tower, collapsed. God could have spread us half an inch apart from one another, but if we lose our ability to connect, we lose our ability to communicate. Even with the same vocabulary and grammar we can be talking different languages. This week I have hope we can connect. A little app showed me there is hope we can all communicate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is Religion A Good Thing?

Is religion a good thing? For the last few years, it has been a question that seems to loom over many of us. There definitely are sides. There are atheists and religious fundamentalist positions vying for their one Truth, and there are many of us stuck in the middle. In the last few years, fundamentalism has risen its ugly head, not just to dictate to their congregation but force their view as the law of the land.

 This is not the first time. Such corruption is as old as the Bible. One story is of course the story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel and the Prophet Elijah. In their quest for an institutional religion, the king and queen massacre prophets, and Elijah has a price on his head. On the run, he heads south and ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai. Like Moses before him, Elijah gets to be in the presence of HaShem on the mountain:
And He said: 'Go forth, and stand upon the mount before HaShem.' And, behold, HaShem passed by, a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before HaShem; but HaShem was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but HaShem was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but HaShem was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entrance of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said: 'What doest thou here, Elijah?' [I Kings 19]
Many many years ago a guy named Isaiah, inspired by God was angry about a corrupt priesthood. Isaiah cries out in the name of God:
To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith HaShem; I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before Me, who hath required this at your hand, to trample My courts? Bring no more vain oblations; it is an offering of abomination unto Me; new moon and sabbath, the holding of convocations-- I cannot endure iniquity along with the solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates; they are a burden unto Me; I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes, cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. Come now, and let us reason together, saith HaShem; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
The sacred ritual had become mere rules, devoid of their meaning, static and unmovable. While there were times they listened under Jeremiah, the priesthood and the kings remained corrupt. The priesthood died at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar's army, but in the exile that followed, God was with the people. Jesus and his disciples was angry about a corrupt priesthood (actually political appointments from Rome). While they counted Cohanim among their numbers, The Rabbis of the Talmud also bristled at the travesty that the Temple had become. The Talmud [Gittin 56a-b] makes some rather remarkable statements in the story of bar Kamza and the destruction of the Temple. First, ignoring hospitality even to one’s enemies, leaving them embarrassed, destroyed the temple: The second was fundamentalism destroyed the temple.
Rabbi Yohanan said, “The discretion of Rabbi Zechariah ben Abkulas destroyed our House, burned ourTemple, and exiled us from our Land.”
The fundamentalist rejects diversity by believing only the static perception of someone else is the whole and entire truth. By this view one can not believe or even tolerate anything outside their truth, nor does their truth change and evolve. They do not acknowledge that there may be other truths for other people. The truth is not just the truth for them but must be the law of the land. It must be enforced by Earthquakes, fire and wind. To the fundamentalist, the Infinite One which each of us humans can only understand in limited terms can only be described in one way, not as many as the number of people on the Earth or stars in the sky.
The story in Gittin continues with Rabbi Yohanan b. Zakkai faking his own death to be carried out of Jerusalem, meeting with the Roman general Vespasian and essentially trading the old religion of Jerusalem for an academy at Yavneh and rabbinic Judaism, changing everything to hear the still small voice away from the corrupt institution. In the loss of everything, The Still Small Voice accompanied Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism wherever they ended up after the destruction of the Temple and Priesthood.
HaMakom is the omnipresent. The Divine is in all things, and it takes those who honor and respect that fact to keep and grow the holiness in the world. I am and know of many people who I will refer to as Benei Shechinah, literally children of the Divine Presence, people who believe in a greater power that can manifest itself in the world around us. We believe in God, but may not believe what God is exactly the same way, nor do we completely agree on how to serve God, or even if service is what we are supposed to be doing. What we can agree on is that the Divine calls to each of us in different ways. Those of us who agree enough alike to the questions “What is God” or “What does God want of us?” may form a community, both small and big, to grow together in their answers to those questions, or in finding new questions about those answers.
The Benei Shechinah are increasingly uncomfortable and questioning of what their greater communities, their religions, are doing in the name of God. Religions more often seem to take fundamentalist positions, or just acting corruptly and going against some the most important agreed on answers to the questions of service to God: caring for other human beings. Religion has become as Isaiah rails, and Jesus famously quotes:
Thus says HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Don’t trust in lying words, saying: 'The temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, the temple of HaShem, are these.' But if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; If you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever. Here, you trust in lying words, that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer unto Baal, and walk after other gods whom ye have not known, Then come and stand before Me in this house, whereupon My name is called, and say: 'We are delivered', that ye may do all these abominations? Is this house, whereupon My name is called, become a den of thieves in your eyes? Hey, I, even I, have seen it, says HaShem.[Isaiah 7]
Organizations, interested mostly in their own survival, both in socially and financially have never been good at this. They get bogged down in rules, cannot hear the still small voice in the Thunder and Fire and Earthquakes of their rules and enforcement. They consistently give false witness, worshipping the false Idols, the Baal of Money, and marketing false prophets for profit.
I look to the biblical prophets, and the history of religion in the times after the prophets. Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah all look to the institutions of the land, the kings and priesthood and condemn them for corruption and for not doing what is the most important things: care for other people, especially those people who are strangers widows and orphans, those who cannot care for themselves without help. Yet time after time, the greater institution fails in this. Survival of the fittest is not holy, Atlas shrugging is the act of a pagan god, though institutions fall into the trap repeatedly. The prophetic books end with the destruction of the Temple, and exile to another land. Yet God goes with the people. Many of the thinkers of the first Century Israel were just as fed up with the corruption of the Second Temple practices, for very much the same reasons. The Temple became a profit center for the rich and powerful, not a prophet center. In Christianity, Jesus and his disciples had lots of problems with this system. So too in Jewish thought did the Rabbinic Mןnd. While the Tannaim of Talmud did preserve a lot of tradition of Temple Practices, they had no problem letting it crumble and be replaced by Rabbinic Judaism -- which has survived longer than Temple Judaism ever did.
Rabbinic Judaism, where prayer and study replaces sacrifice, has its origins in Biblical times. The centralization of all sacrifices in the Temple and destroying the high places, the Bamot, had an unintended effect. People couldn't afford the the time or money to come to Jerusalem frequently -- so they started studying and praying instead. The institution was replaced by the community. By the time of the destruction of the Temple, this was a common practice, coming together in small prayer communities instead of the mass institution and spectacle of the Temple sacrifice. Our smaller prayer communities, the synagogue, church or prayer circle, emerged from these original communities.
Some grew into larger organizations. There are advantages to larger organizations. There can be a consistency of message over many smaller communities. There can also be a bigger force of message and action when many people band together. Yet there is an even bigger chance of depersonalizing the Benei Shechinah’s diverse, personal witnessing of the Holy One. There is an even bigger, and fallacious idea that the survival of the organization, of the religion, is paramount to the the survival of the small communities and the individuals within them. Biblical precedent is clear here: the first and second Temples were destroyed, and with them the priesthood and sacrifice system. Judaism survived both, and in the ashes of the Second Temple, Christianity arose as well. The Shechinah will abandon the religion and it capricious rules made by humans, but The Shechinah does not abandon any of her children.
We are once again in a time where we see so many counter examples of “love thy neighbor.” People often treating the widow, orphan and stranger with cruelty instead of kindness in the name of religion and the Baal of economic necessity. There are many who are obsessed with what they would call Sodomy, that brutal force is necessary to suppress it, instead of believing what both Isaiah 7 and Genesis Rabbah make clear: the sin of Sodom was to treat the stranger, and indeed everyone, with evil intentions, not homosexuality. Sodomites were rapists, and would rape anyone, any way on sight, not care to the needs of the stranger or the weak. It is not the sin of those referred to in one small verse in Leviticus 18:22. The sin of Sodom, found dozens of times in the Bible, is the core sin of many fundamentalists today. Their religion stands on oppressing the weak. Their religions stands on oppressing women and denying the status of human being to GLBT people within and outside their community.
Yet, this is the voice of some institutions and religions -- there are others who have different views. Even more so the still small voice in the small communities of God, the Kehillat HaShem, who may even associate with a institution, work towards the goals of seeing the Divine in all things and all people, then act on that with a respect and goodness. It is not the big organization that will bring about the will of God and Tikkun Olam. It is the small community, as it was in days of old.
The Talmud [Sanhedrin 38 a] Gives the greatness of God being compared to to a king who mints his own coins:
Our Rabbis taught: [The creation of the first man alone] was to show forth the greatness of the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. For if a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mold of the first man, and not one resembles the other
On each coin is an image of the king and all are the same. But God mints coins in his own image, and yet no two are the same. We are God’s currency each witnessing and completing Creation differently. We are all unique and holy, but when we get together as a group holiness increases. As the Perkei Avot [3:3]tells us that for three to eat and talk of Torah, The Holy One Joins them at their table. Community is important and does makes us stronger, and creates a synthesis -- a presence of God -- that one person alone cannot manage.
Religion is a dressing of organization over our servitude to God. There is no word for religion in ancient Hebrew, -- it is an alien term to scripture, never mentioned. Religion is neither bad or good -- but its institutions, in their desire for self-preservation may lose their way, and often end up corrupt and evil. As thought they are prophets, It is up to individuals and the smaller communities who might be under the umbrella of a religion to stand up and make there voice and action known, for like the Temples before it, the institution will fall, but the Divine Presence will accompany her children wherever they journey.
As Elijah found out on Mount Sinai, the thunder and fire of religious institutions is not where God resides, but in the still small voice within the practitioner. To listen to the still small voice is not enough, we need to get together with others. Let us share our still small voices in community and heed them in doing gemilut hasidim, good works, in our selves, in our community, for the poor, the oppressed, and for our world.
It takes the individual to truly believe, not the organization. It is good to have a community who share experiences and ways of experiencing and bringing Ribbono Shel Olam more into the world in their own ways, like helping the widow orphan and stranger in their midst. Like Elijah, we may have the whole world, government, and priesthood after our head. But we do not listen to their thunder, fire and wind, because God is not there. We together listen instead to The Still Small Voice, for there is where הקדוש ברוך הוא The Holy One Blessed be sHe, really is.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Sukkot 5773: Is the Simple Life Complex?

Since I was about five years old, I've been involved in building a sukkah. My family did not have our own in our own yard, but we did put together every year a sukkah in the parking lot of our synagogue. Every year my dad led the congregational  effort, and came up with a new design each time. In Rochester, New York Sukkot was not just when the leaves fell but  the sun would hide behind clouds until sometime in late spring. Often there were a few snowflakes in the air, though it was never an accumulation. Building that sukkah every year is one of my fondest childhood memories.

That memory surfaces every year as I now build sukkahs along with my congregation. there is a holiness about making a sukkah that I don't find in many rituals, it is also one which I do the most in joy, no matter what the ever unpredictable Autumn weather brings.

Only five days prior to Sukkot we read about a sukkah in the Yom Kippur Mincha Haftarah. Jonah makes one to see what happens to Nineveh. The roof leaks light and heat of the sun burns him. Only the gourd gives him comfort, which promptly dies the next day.  IN other biblical stories, At the town of Sukkot Jacob builds a house for himself and builds sukkot for his cattle, naming the town.

We also have the סכת שלמך the shelter of peace from the liturgy.  In English we might call this a booth or a hut.  Hebrew’s verbal counterpart to Sukkah(סכה) is Sachach(סכך) a word meant to overshadow, screen or cover. Our sukkot screen or shadow us. The Talmud of  Sukkot begins the tractate by stating that if there is more sun than shade coming though the sukkah’s roof, it is not a valid Sukkah. Yet it is not a complete covering and must be made of plant material.

 While I was sitting in the sun on Brannake Beach on the Island of Kauai, a local family put up a portable tent in about fifteen minutes. I had some interesting conversations with them, but I was rather interested in their point of view as locals about being out in the sun and being on the beach. The point of the tent was to keep the blazing sun out while able to see everything in this beautiful place. It may not have been a sukkah, but it was doing the same thing -- keeping the sun out, but let them see the sea turtles swimming by, the crashing wakes against the rocks, the surfers riding a wave towards the shore.

The sukkah has a simple purpose. It’s supposed to be a simple booth. But when we put together the sukkah this year at my congregation, it took hours, not the fifteen minutes of the well-engineered popup tent. The complexity of the task is in fact amazing. It may be a simple hut but takes a good chunk of Talmud to describe its building.

My life is complex. Lately, I’ve begun to simplify things. I’m thinking about life in an idealized sukkah, the simple shelter, kind of way. I started to think about simple around the time of another Harvest festival, Shavuot, when I was told to pack up my office for the remodel of the offices at work. I realized I had a lot of stuff to pack. My office was crowded with stuff. For most of the summer, I was in a temporary location, either in another part of the building or in my own office, sharing it with others who offices were being remodeled.
There was a lot of stuff I shoved into boxes. As I unpacked however, something extraordinary happened. I started to not put things back, but throw them away or donate them.  I realized in my office and in my home how much stuff I had accumulated.

Some people are good at accumulating things -- they have problems throwing them away. I’m not not talking about hoarders here, just people who have a hard time getting rid of something. They reason the stuff might  be of use later. I’m one of those. In what I do there times that is a very good strategy.  But many times it is not.

Complexity in my life often come from collecting things and not letting go of it. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one that is true of. Some of my things, as I mentioned in my Yizkor Drash, are hooks to memory, and cannot  be thrown out because I want to remember my mom through some of her stuff. There is my artworks and sculptures, there to remind me that I can accomplish things. And there is my book collection, a reference library on several topics I’m involved in: Programming, Web design, Jewish studies, Educational Psychology, Business, Science, and Regulatory Affairs.  That’s just the stuff I have reason to have in my office. There is also stuff I’m not quite sure why it is there.  I just ignore it like it is invisible. That would be the problem stuff.

This week, I stand in a sukkah. Everything is so simple. There is a table and I eat. I shake a lulav and etrog. So much like the way I’d like my office to be -- simple. In my dreams, I sit down in my office and I work on one thing until it is done. How nice it wold be but that is far from the truth. Looking out of that tent on the beach in Kauai, and looking out of the sukkah, I realize life isn’t simple. Outside the shade of  simplicity that is the sukkah is a complex life -- it can’t be avoided. Like the sun coming trough the windows of my office,  I will have infinite  interruptions and complexities in my day and I will get nowhere in any of the simple tasks of my day.

But complexity can be mitigated. The high holidays, besides ridding of what most would call sin,  also gives us time to remove the needless complexities of our lives. The evaluation of our sins is the sealed judgement of Yom Kippur. The evaluation of the complexities is Sukkot, in living in the simplest kind of structure. Similiarly, I can throw out the needless junk in my office. All of it leads to a new beginning, the beginning of the Torah cycle and of the story of Creation.

We come out of Sukkot ready to create a new world for ourselves, one we hope is better, and in some sense simpler than the last one.

May your new world be a good one.