Dvar Torah for Matot-Masei 5782

This week we close out the book of Bamidbar with a double parshah, Matot, meaning “Tribes”, and Masei, meaning “Travels” or “Trips” – this is the same word found in the name of our congregational religious school that we call Masa B’Yachad, or “Journey Together”.

This is a pretty technical parsha, and while there are some action scenes, there’s also a lot of material that doesn’t really support the narrative structure. Matot opens with some legal discussion about vows (specifically by women, and when they do and don’t count); and it proceeds to a Netflix-worthy scene of the Israelites’ slaughter of their enemies. But then it goes into this extremely detailed accounting of the spoils of the battle, how much was allocated to each tribe, and exactly what percentage was levied off to support the Levi’im. This is the parsha that makes you ask, “what would 675,000 sheep actually look like, and how would you possibly go about counting them all??” …lest we forget that we are, after all, nearing the end of the book of Numbers.

And a lot of Masei, as you might expect, is literally a long list of all the places the Israelites encamped in their sojourn in the desert. But one of the things that was interesting to me about this reading is that it’s full of callbacks to other recent parshiyot. We hear about the death of the prophet Bilaam, who gets put to the sword during that slaughter of Israel’s enemies. It turns out that his blessing of Israel in Parshat Balak two weeks ago was not enough to excuse him for helping corrupt the Israelites at Ba’al Peor a few pages later. We hear about Aaron’s grandson Pinchas, the priestly zealot and the hero of Ba’al Peor, who had the cliffhanger ending at the end of Balak and then got his own parsha last week. And we get the wrap-up to the story of the daughters of Tzelofchad, whose inheritance was discussed last week at the end of Parshat Pinchas. So there’s a complicated intertwining of all of these stories that behaves almost like that Netflix drama you’re going to sit down and binge-watch. (In case you can’t tell, I watched all of Stranger Things 4 this week.)

And even within today’s double parsha, we get this self-referential quality, because once we get through the list of the Travels, Parshat Masei is even more occupied with the tribes and their concerns than the parsha actually called Matot. The middle of Masei explains all the chieftainships assigned to the different tribes. And the final chapter of Masei, that we’ll read today, uses the word Matot or Mateh, “tribes” or “tribe”, 15 times within 10 verses, because the case of the daughters of Tzelofchad is highly significant to the interests of the tribes and the tribal system. So it’s like Matot is the kernel, the heart, of the book of Masei, and Masei is a kind of tribal scrapbook of their journeys along the way. 

Rabbi Yehonatan Chipman* offers a teaching about Masei in the name of Rabbi Art Green, that the long list of locations is the shorthand for a lot of stories: some that are pleasant to recall, and some not so pleasant. “But at the end of the journey, there is a certain value to remembering all the trips, to knowing that they all, however misguided and stupid they may seem in retrospect, went into one’s life, and together constitute a source for a certain kind of wisdom.” Personally, I know I find this in my own life; there are certainly episodes that I wouldn’t do the same way again, but at the same time I can’t exactly regret them because every step is part of the journey that brought me to this time and this place. 

Life really is about the journey, for good or ill, and that is why we have to remember where we’ve been. Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – may we all be strengthened by the memories of our steps along the way. And may we all make it to the Promised Land, even if it takes us til next season to get there. Shabbat shalom!

30 Days, 30 Posts: NaBloPoMo is here!

In November of last year, I actually decided I would try National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo. I didn’t actually get very far; I did make some headway on framing out a storyline I had been kicking around for literally years, but then the month caught up with me, and I didn’t get much past 10.000 words (the definitional goal is 50,000 words before December 1).

However, some inspired folks have decided that if turning out writing is the goal, 30 blog posts in 30 days is also a worthwhile benchmark, and thus NaBloPoMo was born. This, I think, may be more achievable for me. Let’s see how it goes! (I’ll be counting both WordPress and LiveJournal posts for this purpose.)

WordPress.com News

There’s a lot of buzz each November around NaNoWriMo — you may notice some of your favorite blogs dedicating themselves to churning out 50,000 words this month.

If 50,000 words seem like 49,000 too many or you’re more interested in blogging than writing a book, NaBloPoMo — National Blog Posting Month — might be your speed: a challenge to post once every day for the entire month of November. No theme, no word count, no rules; just you, your blog, and 30 new posts.


NaBloPoMo started in 2006 in response to NaNoWriMo; not every blogger has the time or inclination to write a book, but the idea of a challenge that forces participants to stretch themselves, grow as bloggers, and be part of a supportive community is undeniably appealing. As founder Eden Kennedy, the power blogger behind fussy.org, put it:

If there’s one thing creative people…

View original post 786 more words


I’ve been wanting for days and days to write some stuff about what’s happening on my interior landscape, but have been too busy churning out actual work (made some updates to my website, though, alongside working on the big book project). So, in lieu of content, you get some of the interesting things that have come up in the past several weeks.

Design & typography

Beautiful and colorful, both from This Is Colossal:
The Chromatic Typewriter: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2011/12/the-chromatic-typewriter/?src=footer
A Massive Black Field of Cut Steel Plants Hides a Colorful Secret: http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2012/01/a-massive-field-of-cut-steel-plants-reveals-a-colorful-secret/

The Met has a new section on their (recently overhauled) website called “Connections”, a long series of thematic presentations with voiceovers by various Museum personnel and specialists. It’s really nice.

Of historical interest: a film about Linotype (click to read about/see the trailer if you don’t know what that is) that premiered in NYC this past weekend:

Linotype: The Film

“How to Build a Newsroom Time Machine”: Typesetting and layout the old-fashioned way, or, what “on the pasteboard” really means:


Gotham Writer’s Workshop offers FREE writing classes! (well, one-hour workshops, but it could be fun):

An old one from Neil Gaiman about how to get published and/or how to get an agent:


Scaling back consumption in service of happiness:
See also: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/the-case-for-a-21-hour-work-week.html


The 100 Best Lifehacks of 2011: The Year in Review

(srsly, read only the ones that you find interesting! Skip the rest!)


Unbelievably beautiful:


30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself

Naming Elephants: 10 Ways To Use Radical Honesty to Improve Your Relationship

Not really so insightful, but several people pointed me at it:


Scotch tastings in NYC:

Star Wars

I forget who pointed me at this, but I am totally loving it (and I’m on about page 52 of 600+ and counting — they just got up to Episode IV last month).
Darths & Droids is an “RPG screencap comic” that re-envisions Star Wars: Episode I (The Saga Begins) as a roleplaying campaign. Apparently inspired by DM of the Rings, but funnier in terms of making sense of the weaknesses of the source material.

This reminds me that I also wanted to post this link when it first came to my attention several months ago:
Secret History of Star Wars: A Tribute to Marcia Lucas


Jewish Sacred Theatre – Its Components and Its Means:

A handy nuts-and-bolts link on kashering your kitchen:

You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

This has stuck with me since a friend shared it to Facebook about 2 weeks ago:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal, and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass

From this video segment: http://youtu.be/BI23U7U2aUY
Nicely typeset here, if you can access it: https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/293156_10150290719459626_795709625_7387707_7099296_n.jpg

That said, I think I might sign up for a writing class. Yes, I know you don’t need to pay someone to jump-start your writing process, but I feel like some structured guidance would help me at this point in my creative life, and that’s worth investing in.

Nautical Man (or, T.M.B. Pinafore)

So, as mentioned yesterday, I have been digging through old documents in the process of overhauling/updating my website, and one more thing I turned up was my Fall 2001 Pinafore filk:

Nautical Man (or, T.M.B. Pinafore)
to the tune of “Particle Man” (They Might Be Giants, Flood)

Nautical Man, Nautical Man,
Smartest lad in the Royal “N”.
What’s he like?
A pining tenor,
Nautical Man.
Is he a slave or an Englishman?
Can he dance a hornpipe or lead the band?
Will Josephine marry a foremast hand?
Nobody knows,
Nautical Man.

Triangle Man, Triangle Man,
Triangle Man hates Nautical Man.
They have a fight:
Man overboard,
Triangle Man.


Admiral Man, Admiral Man,
Ego the size of the universe man;
Usually kind to smaller man,
Admiral Man.
Articled clerk turned K.C.B.,
Knew better than to go to sea,
So now he rules the Queen’s Na-vee,
Powerful man,
Admiral Man.

Captain Man, Captain Man
Exchanged at birth with Nautical Man,
Offering up his daughter’s hand,
Captain Man.
Com-for-tably in the bourgeoisie,
Hardly ever gets sick at sea;
But then he uses that big, big D —
Berated man, Captain Man.

Nautical Man, Nautical Man
Suddenly finds he’s Captain Man;
Blissful refrains,
For he remains
An Englishman!


Marge Piercy

Going around right now is this “top 15 authors that have affected you” meme, but I’m not doing that today. All I have for you on the topic of authors is this:

I just reread Marge Piercy’s 1993 novel He, She, and It (I’m proud to say that my copy was sent to me by Ira Wood when I was doing some typesetting work for the Leapfrog Press, back in around 1998-2000… but anyway).

I’d forgotten how good it was. Really. I inhale books; but as a result, very often a book can move me greatly and then within a few years I have only the vaguest notion left, or none at all, of what lived and breathed between its pages. (Though I have to wonder if I so vividly cast Yod as Brent Spiner the last time. I can only assume that I would have.)

Then, I picked up my copy of Woman on the Edge of Time (published 13 years earlier, in 1985).

Again, I had retained zero memory of what it was even about. At first I found it woefully unpleasant, to the point of thinking to myself “Yeah, I’m giving this away after I finish, ’cause who needs to read this again?” But by last night, a good third of the way into the book, I was engrossed. So if you read it and hate it at first, give it time; it has more to say.

The thing that gets me is how similar, in a way, some of the themes/motifs are (well, except for the cyborg bit… and the Jewishness…) — but they’re handled very differently. I could say more about this if I had time (sorry if that’s what you came here for! maybe later!), but I will just say this for now: While WOTEOT is still a fine book, it’s very, very much an earlier book. The way her style and storytelling matured from one to the other is just… startling.

Which produced the further insight that I, personally, had damn well better get cranking on writing my first novel, so that I can eventually write my tenth. X-)

That is all.

I Enjoy Being A Geek

In the department of “stop me before I volunteer again,” I am officially blowing off a Shabbaton planning meeting at shul tonight in order to go see Juno with ablock (7:20pm at the Somerville). Go me!

I am also thinking, as I sit here munching on wasabi peas, that I should write a filk of “Burning Down the House” called “Eating Down the Chametz“. ‘Tis the season.

This reminds me that I never posted the song I wrote (with help from Tiger Boy) for this year’s Purimshpiel, to great popular acclaim: “I Enjoy Being A Geek”. (If you’ve never heard the original, it’s here; whether you have or not, you might enjoy this version.)

I’m a geek, and by me that’s only great!
I am proud that my glasses are like bottles,
And I’m longing to find a Jewish mate
For a love that’s like Tzeitel’s and like Motel’s.

I can charm you with scholarly discourse,
I can quote you from Torah or rabbinics,
But you ask me about religious wars,
And I’ll start explaining Windows, Mac, and Linux!

I’m hooked on the Sci-Fi Network,
I can read twenty books a week,
I love playing Fluxxx or Settlers
I enjoy being a geek!

I have a degree in physics
I think cloaks are the height of chic
Every summer I go to Pennsic [note: this line did not garner a single laugh, I was shocked]
I enjoy being a geek!

I own every episode of Buffy,
The Lord of the Rings was really great,
I stayed up all night for Harry Potter —
How I wish there would be a volume number 8!

From Vericon to Arisia
I have looked all around to see
Whether somewhere in Cantabrigia
There’s a boy who would enjoy
Having a geek like me!

(My character in the ‘shpiel was Esther the Second Gabbai… with a cameo by Tiger Boy as the Nice Jewish Boy who comes in as the tenth for minyan and sweeps her off her feet for a happy ending. Awww.)