This whole “Catching Wine” thing

I almost never talk about religion on here (I don’t remember if I have at all yet, so this page may be the exception), but I think in this case it’s useful for describing what this blog is about and who I am, and hopefully it’s more interesting to read than a list of credentials. I promise to keep it non-preachy. If you wanted a sermon this isn’t generally the blog to read. I am more likely to talk about things like transgender issues, kink communities, design quirks, and media bias. Most of what I do here is intended to show the complications in apparently simple situations, or to make apparently inscrutable situations a bit more accessible to people who aren’t already intimately familiar with their workings. (Relevant credential: my day job includes writing technical documentation that doesn’t make end users miserable and bug reports that make developers want to throw as few things as possible.) Anyway, my point is that this isn’t a sermon, it’s about me.

There is a Jewish ritual performed at the Passover Seder, the ceremony of telling the story of the Jews’ freedom from slavery, which involves spilling wine. There’s ample debate about the historical accuracy of this event so please ascribe it all the accuracy you would to most other events of religious significance, but it’s generally agreed that the story of this event is significant and powerful and resonant, part of why the ceremony is honored with drinking four glasses of wine rather than the normal single glass of your average Shabbat. A critical part of the Passover story holds that Moses asked the Pharaoh for the Jews’ freedom, and Pharaoh refused. There’s some weird stuff here about God hardening the Pharaoh’s heart when Moses asks for freedom, and what that means. Is it that when people do bad things, God strengthens their resolve to do the same bad thing again next time (the Joseph Hertz interpretation in the Pentatuach found in many American and British synagogues)? Is this some evasive wording suggesting that even bad choices are in some way divinely influenced, and therefore have we should faith in God’s role in even the bad things in the world? Or perhaps the reverse, to fear God who may be a jerk, forcing people to respond the worst way when given the chance to avoid retribution so that when retribution comes in such a cruel form, they really deserve it? Jeez. Obviously, there are many sermons about what this means. Go read one of those. This isn’t one of them.

So God sends plagues, and in the Seder, we speak their names one by one and as we do, for each one we each dip a pinky in the wine in our glass, and then dab that wine on our plates. This is often seen as about recognizing that our freedom was obtained in a way that brought the Egyptians sorrow and suffering, and I’ve heard some people carry that further to say that this also leaves only joy in the glass. This bothers the hell out of me. What is this even? I mean, it’s great to acknowledge when our joy has come at the cost of others, but that sets up a strange forgiveness for a power dynamic of survival and suffering that maybe isn’t always as relevant as we think it is. It’s so common to see limited resources when what we actually have is a problem of distribution and access. It’s so hard to acknowledge the pain of others, yet so easy to get that far and consider the work done. Stories of extreme situations are more often thought experiments than instruction guides. And we’re spilling these sorrows onto a plate, where they will mix with other foods and be consumed? Can we make the metaphor of eating other people’s pain any more blatant? Oh, but wait, the plate’s a place you consume things but so’s the glass. So…out of the frying pan and into the fire?

So anyway. For me, the thought experiment goes: what about catching the wine in our hands, instead of spilling it on the plate, except that we’re in metaphorland so how about catching sorrows with whatever tools we have to do so, and working with them, not just acknowledging but maybe finding new ways to do this. So here’s another read on the heart-hardening: what if there have to be plagues, and the point of the story is that it was going to happen to someone, and God chose that it would happen to the Egyptians and not the Jews, and made things work out that way so be thankful it was them and not us and that God’s ultimately responsible? If there must be plagues, can we do better? Yeah, sacreligious, I know. I’m not a very good Jew. Told you it’s not a sermon. It’s barely even a suggestion. It’s a way of reading a classic story about power and responsibility and complexity and sharing the world with other people and survival and sorrow. And, well, that’s the world we live in now, and in three thousand years I’d like people to look back on now and acknowledge that we worked together for less suffering, and all of that stuff. Acknowledge that we made efforts, anyway. Many of us. Some of us? I think most of us really do try, at some point in our lives, and that many of us do want to get back to that and don’t know how.

That’s more or less what this blog is about. Even when I’m talking about the design of pencil sharpeners. And I apologize in advance for the poetry.


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