The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

On global warming

David Warren's take:
If you want some real science, check out for instance the next issue of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. An important article by Robert Erlich will expound the link between solar resonant thermal diffusion waves, and terrestrial climate change. They give a fairly precise overlay for climatic variations through the last 5.3 million years, and appear to explain the sudden emergence in time of the already-known 100,000-year “Milankovitch cycle”, while eliminating many of the problems previously associated with it.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Then why would you have an opinion on global climate change?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Changing Mars

At a press conference today, NASA announced seeing new things on the surface of Mars. By comparing Now and Then photos of the same places, they've seen evidence for water outflows and meteor impacts taking place in the past five years. Two gullies show evidence for new outflows, and several new craters have been spotted. Water comes up and rocks come down, and we can see the effects.

Mere Rhetoric live blogs the press conference, including the Q & A session. Another interesting example of science journalists in action. Watch out for the press articles, and see how well they correspond to what was really discovered.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Observing Observatories

From the world wide wanderers comes some photos of the top of Mauna Kea, home to the Northern Hemisphere's biggest collection of big telescopes.

Courtesy of Ask Maps, here's the same place from on high.

Now from Google Maps, Observatorio del Tiede on Tenerife and its companion Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

In the Southern Hemisphere we have the Very Large Telescopes of the European Southern Observatory on Cerro Paranal and some more telescopes on La Silla. (Low resolution I'm afraid, from both sources. As are Cerro Tololo and Cerro Panchon homes of CTIO and Gemini South respectively. Coverage in the Andes just isn't what it ought to be.)

And, in a class all its own, here is Israel's biggest observatory from the same vantage point.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


My uncle is Ishmael and my brother is Esav, and you wonder why I've got troubles?

Friday, November 17, 2006

VC: The Life of Sarah (Season 1: Episode 5)

We open within a dark tent. There is a body lying on the ground. The flap opens letting in the midday light from outside. The body is Sarah's. Avraham enters and mourns. [Roll opening credits]

The gate of Hevron. The town council is in session, with many of the townsfolk in attendance, when Avraham approaches them. Out of respect, they wait for him to speak.

"I am a stranger and resident amongst you. Grant me land for a grave with you, that I may bury my dead."

The council spokesman responds, "Hear us, my lord. You are a Prince of G-d with us. Take the best place and bury your dead. None of us will withhold a burying place. Bury your dead."

Avraham bows before them and stands again. "If this be your will, then please, I ask of Ephron ben Zohar the Cave of Machpelah on the edge of his field. I will pay him full price for it as grave."

There is a commotion amongst the onlookers. Ephron is pushed forward into the town council.

"My lord! It is yours. The field and the cave? Consider them yours. Before all those present, I have given it to you. Bury your dead."

Again Avraham bows.

"Listen to me, Ephron. I will pay you full price. Take it that I may bury my dead."

"No problem. What is 400 silver shekals? Good ones, mind. Bury your dead."

Avraham brings out his silver and weighs out to Ephron several large bars.


The cave entrance is in the side of a hill at the end of a field. The funeral procession reaches the cave, and Sarah is taken inside.

Avraham and Eliezer are in the shade of the tree we saw last episode, near the entrance of Avraham's tent. Avraham looks much older than when we last saw him. With Sarah's death, the years are beginning to weigh on him.

"Eliezer, I want you to swear that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canannites. I want you to go back to my family and bring him a wife from there."

"But what if she won't come with me? Shall I take him there?"

"No! Don't take him back there. G-d will guide you and you will find a wife for Yitzchak there. But if she won't come back, you are free of this oath. Just don't take my son there."

Eliezer swears the oath.


Eliezer is leading a group of men guiding a line of ten muzzled camels. As the sun drops low, they stop near a well outside a walled town. Eliezer prays to G-d that whichever girl he approaches for water, who is willing to also water his camels, she should be the one intended for Yitzchak.

We switch to inside the town. Walking towards the gate is a beautiful maiden carrying a large jar on her shoulder. She's friendly with her neighbours. Helping here and there as she walks. As she approaches the well, the water rises up and she easily fills her jug. She is turning to leave when a stranger comes up to her. It is Eliezer.

"Excuse me, miss. Might I have a drink of water from your jug?"

The girl looks at him and at the camels behind him. She gives him a drink, and then offers to water his camels, as well. She starts running back and forth between the well and the drinking trough. The camels move forward thirstily.

After they are finished drinking, Eliezer gives the girl some jewellery and asks her family, and whether they have place for him to stay the night.

"I am the daughter of Besuel ben Nahor. Of course we have place. Come along."


Eliezer falls upon the ground and praises G-d for guiding him to the house of Avraham's family.

The next shot is at Besuel's family compound. It is a busy place. Rivka's brother Lavan is directing the servants, when Rivka comes running in. She goes to her mother's house and Lavan, attracted by the gold, follows. Standing in the doorway, he overhears Rivka telling their mother about the stranger at the well. Lavan runs off.

Eliezer is still at the well when Lavan comes out to greet him and invite him back to his house. They enter into the city.

Back at the compound, Eliezer is sitting down to eat with Rivka's father and brother. Night has fallen. The room is lit by oil lamps. They place food on a low table in front of him, but he refuses to eat until he has spoken his piece. He tells them of his oath and the events at the well and then asks, "Now, if you intend to deal kindly and truly with my master, allow your daughter to be Yitzchak's wife?"

Lavan and Besuel answer, "From what you have said, this has been ordained by G-d. We cannot refuse you. Take Rivka as G-d has said."

As at the start of the ascent, Eliezer prostrates himself on the ground and praises G-d.


Rivka and her mother enter, while Eliezer goes out. He soon returns laden with rich gifts for everyone. They all eat and drink in celebration.

The next morning he meets Lavan and his mother in the compound.

"Send my to my master," he asks.

"You are free to go," they reply, "but let Rivka remain here yet a few months."

"Do not delay me after G-d has made me successful in my mission. Let us go."

"Well, let us ask Rivka what she wants."

The call for Rivka, and before long she comes. When asked, she agrees to go.

The camels are all loaded. Rivka is on one. Her nurse, Devorah is on another. They take their leave and head out into the desert.

It is another field and again it is evening. Yitzchak is walking in the fields. He looks up and we follow his glance. In the distance he sees camels approaching.

Rivka is looking back the other way and sees a lone man walking in the field. She falls part way off her camel. Eliezer helps her down and she asks "Who is that man?"

"He is my master."

Rivka turns back to the camel and rummages in her baggage until she finds what she is looking for. A veil, which she puts on. Yitzchak soon joins them.

Back at the tent, Yitchak brings her in and the darkness we saw earlier is dispersed.


Avraham with lots of family around him. His second wife, their six sons, and a whole pile of grandchildren.

Another funeral procession approaches the Cave of Machpelah. This time it is led by Yitzchak and Ishmael. Avraham is laid to rest beside Sarah.

Yitzchak and Rivka settle near Beer-Lahai-Roi. It is a quiet camp.

In contrast, we see scenes of Ishmael and his large family. Ishmael, too, dies and is buried. There are hundreds at the funeral.

Last update: 2006 Nov 17

previous | index | next

Thursday, November 09, 2006

VC: Appearances (Season 1: Episode 4)

The episode opens with the soft focus that we've seen indicate the immanent presence of G-d. It as if the things we are seeing don't quite exist. Avraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent, fiddling with his bandages. A tree provides some shade.

The soft focus takes on shimmering quality, as if of great heat, and, out of the mirage-like distance, three men appear. We focus in on them. They seem to be looking at the tent, trying to decide whether to approach or move on. Avraham stands, excuses himself and comes running towards them. The visitors are invited back to the tent, given water to wash with, and offered food. Avraham goes into the tent to coordinate the meal with Sarah and Ishmael.

Sitting in the shade of the tree, the visitors eat with Avraham attending. We watch with Sarah through the entrance of the tent.

One of the visitors asks Avraham, "Where is Sarah your wife?"

Avraham points towards us. "She is in the tent," he replies.

The visitor says in a loud voice, ensuring it carries to Sarah, "I will surely return to you a year from now and Sarah will hold her son."

We hear Sarah mumbling to herself with a chuckle. "After all this time, this old body will be young again? And my old man will father a son?"

And things suddenly go soft as G-d reappears and speaks to Avraham. "Why does Sarah laugh? Is anything beyond me? Next year this time, Sarah will have a son." The camera focuses on Sarah's consternation.


Sarah, in fear, denies she laughed, but G-d knows she did.

The camera goes back outside as Avraham escorts the visitors on their way. They climb a hill. There Avraham stops as the visitors walk down the other side, towards the cities of S'dom and Amorah visible in the distance. The camera zooms past them, focussing on the cities, and then into them. Once again, we are treated to scenes of evil and depravity.

Avraham is still watching as G-d appears to him.

"Avraham, the outcry from S'dom and Amorah has become great for their sins are grave. They have sinned enough. I shall destroy them tomorrow."

"Lord, what if there are a few righteous people there? Maybe fifty? Surely you wouldn't destroy them with the wicked?"

"I will spare them for the fifty, if they exist."

"And if there are only 45?"

"OK, 45"


"Four cities for 40."





"What about if there are even ten righteous people?"

"Fine, one city shall survive for the sake of 10, but no fewer."

And G-d departs in the direction of S'dom. Avraham takes one last look, and turns back towards his tent.


Two of Avraham's visitors come to the gates of S'dom in late afternoon. They cast long shadows ahead as they approach the city from the west. Who do we find sitting at the gate? Why it is Lot! Like Avraham at the start of the episode, he invites them home. After some initial reluctance, they agree. The three sneak through the back streets of S'dom and finally reach Lot's house. Lot is bringing them food, when we hear a mob gathering outside his door. Things become very tense.

Lot stands outside his door to confront the mob. They are demanding he send out his guests. Lot tries to reason with them.

"Look, my brothers, these men are my guests. But, I've got two virgin daughters at home. Why don't I give you them instead?"

"Get away," shout the leaders of the mob. "You've only been here a short time and suddenly you think you're fit to judge us? We'll show you how we treat visitors!"

As Lot is about to be seized by the crowd, the door opens behind him and he is pulled back inside. Outside, the mob suddenly looses cohesion. They have been struck blind.

Back inside, the meal is forgotten. "What family have you got in town?" ask Lot's rescuers. "You've all got to leave town now. G-d has sent us here to destroy this place."

Lot hesitates, and they argue through the night. As light starts to fill the eastern sky, his guests take him, his wife, and two daughters back outside the gate where they first met. "Flee for you life," the tell him. "Flee to the mountains, and don't look back."

Still Lot has time to argue. "No, my Lord. You've been very kind. Let me just escape to Zoar. It is small, and not worth destroying."


They are anxious to get on with their work, so they agree to spare Zoar. Lot arrives at sunrise. Behind him, cataclysm. Avraham is back on his hill top looking down at the valley. It is full of fire and smoke. Destruction is utter.

Lot flees Zoar in the midst of all this. His wife looks behind, and turns to salt. Lot doesn't see this and flees to the mountains. He arrives in a cave with his daughters, and collapses.

The daughters look out the mouth of the cave. Nothing remains of the cities they fled. They fear that they are the only ones alive. So they plot to continue the human race with they're father's unknowing help, aided by a few bottles of wine they find hidden in the cave. Some time later, they hold their infant sons.

Avraham has moved south and now is in Gerar. Sarah has been seized again and is in the bedchamber of King Avimelech, who is sleeping elsewhere. Avimelech dreams and hears a voice.

"Behold! You are a dead man because of the married woman you have taken."

"Lord, what have I done wrong? They told me she was his sister. And I haven't touched her!"

"Only because I wouldn't let you. Return her to her husband. He is a prophet and will pray for you. Otherwise, you and yours will die."

In the early-morning darkness, Avimelech wakes with a start and calls his servants. All are frightened. He sends some one to bring Avraham. There is turmoil as Avraham enters the throne room. Avimelech crosses the room to speak to him.

"What have you done to us? What did I do to you that you have brought me and my kingdom to such a great sin? And now we are all closed up and unable to pass a thing. Why? What did you see that you did this?"

Avraham replies, "I saw there was no fear of G-d here and that you would kill a man to take his wife. Besides, she is my half-sister. So, when G-d sent me from my father's house, I said to her, 'Tell them you're my sister, so they don't kill me.'"

Avimelech calls for Sarah and, following her dramatic entrance, restores her to Avraham with many gifts and an offer to settle wherever Avraham sees fit. Avraham prays to G-d and all of Avimelech's household are cured. Everyone rushes off to take care of their business.

The ascent ends with Sarah holding baby Yitzchak.


Yitzhak is named and a feast is made when he is weaned. There is great rejoicing, and all the great people of the generation are there: Shem, Ever, and Avimelech among them.

Time passes, and Ishmael has gone bad. He takes to shooting arrows at Yitzhak as the boy toddles by. Sarah comes to Avraham and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Avraham is distressed. That night, G-d comes to him and tells him to listen to Sarah.

In the early morning, Avraham rises and sends Hagar and her son away with some food and water..

Hagar is wandering in the wilderness, carrying Ishmael. The boy is obviously very ill. Hagar puts him down under a tree. He is fevered and there is no more water to drink. Hagar moves away from the dying boy, unable to bear watching him die. She sits down and weeps.

The an angel appears to comfort her. She looks up as the angel departs and sees a well. In joy she gives a recovered Ishmael water. We end with domestic scenes. Ishmael hunting in the wilderness. He and his Egyptian wife.


Avimelech and his general come to Avraham's tent. When Avraham greets him, he comes straight to business.

"G-d is with you in everything you do. Swear to me by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me, my son, or grandson. As I've treated you well; treat me and this land well."

Avraham agrees, but raises another point. "I have dug this well, but your servants have taken it."

"I don't know anything about it, and this is the first I've heard about the matter," Avimelech replies.

So Avraham gives Avimelech sheep, goats, and cattle and they swear oaths. Avraham has also set aside seven ewes. Avimelech gets curious.

"What's with those sheep?"

"I'm giving them to you as my witness that I dug this well."

They name the place Beer Sheva, and Avimelech returns to Gerar with his entourage, plus livestock. Avraham settles into providing hospitality for wayfarers and the years pass.


Avraham is asleep when G-d comes to him.


"Here I am."

"Take you son..."

"Which one?"

"Your only one..."

"They're both only children..."

"Whom you love..."

"I love them both."

"Yitchak! And take him to the land of Moriah and bring him up there as a sacrifice on the mountain I'll show you."

Avraham wakes with a start. By the early-morning light, he rushes off to fulfill this new command. He's got his donkey, two servants, Yitzchak, and a load of wood. Sarah watches as the small caravan departs northward.

They've been travelling for a couple of days. Avraham looks up, and we see one mountain in particular standing out. He gives Yitzchak the wood, takes the fire and knife and they head for the mountain leaving the other two with the donkey.

Avraham and his son walk in silence for a while. Finally Yitzchak speaks.


"Yes, my son?"

"I'm puzzled. We've got fire and wood, but where is the lamb? What are we supposed to be sacrificing?"

"G-d will see to the offering. My son." Yitzchak looks startled, but continues walking with his father.

They arrive at the place. There is an open spot on the side of the hill. Avraham builds an altar and arranges the wood on it. They he ties up Yitzchak and lays him on top of the wood. Methodically, he picks up the knife and raises it over his son.

An angel calls out. "Avraham! Avraham!"

Without moving, Avraham replies, "Here I am."

"Don't touch the lad. Not even a scratch. Now I know that you haven't withheld even him from me."

Avraham, hearing a noise, looks up at the thicket on the other side of the clearing. There is a ram caught there. He unties Yitzchak and helps him down, then takes the ram and offers it as an offering instead. As the fire burns, he names the place.

Again he hears the angel. The angel gives him G-d's blessing and promises him endless numbers of offspring. Avraham returns to the others and they head toward Beer Sheva.

Back at his inn, Avraham hears news from his brother Nahor.

Last update: 2006 Nov 9

previous | index | next

Friday, November 03, 2006

VC: Go! (Season 1: Episode 3)

The last episode ended with the focus on one family of travellers settling in Charan. We begin this episode following some of them as they travel onwards: Avram, his wife, his nephew Lot, and their servants and cattle. It is an impressive procession as they head southward. As the travel montage continues, we see Avram stop twice, build altars, and bring offerings. The land gets drier; there is a drought. And once again Avram head off, heading towards Egypt.The travel scenes end as they get near to the Egyptian border. Avram stops to talk to his wife.

"Sarai, you are a beautiful woman and I'm afraid that if the Egyptians get a look at you they'll kill me and kidnap you. So, do me a favour. If they ask, tell them you're my sister, and everything will be fine."


The next ascent begins with Avram, Lot, and their baggage at the Egyptian customs post. Behind them is the fervent greenery of the Nile valley, a welcome contrast of the desert we've been travelling through lately. Customs inspectors are rooting through the baggage. They come upon a large box and open it up, staring at the contents.

They come back to their boss, still talking to Avram, Sarai in tow.

"Well, well. What have we here?" asks the chief, pointing at Sarai.

"Smuggled goods," they reply.

"Confiscated!", he shouts, to Avram's dismay, and orders her sent to Paro. Avram is waved through, with thanks for his contribution to the Egyptian king, who will be sure to provide ample compensation for Avram's generosity with his sister.

Than night, the palace is in an uproar. The king has gone to spend the night with Sarai, but we find him rolling on the floor in agony instead. And he's not the only one. As we pan through the palace, it seems everyone is in pain, in the most intimate places. Avram is summoned.

"What have you done to me?" asks Paro. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? You said she was your sister! Take her and go!"

So once again we see Avram and his greatly enlarged entourage travelling. Back the way they came. Returning to places we've seen before, but this time much greener.


Now we see Lot, also with lots of cattle and servants. And his servants are arguing with Avram's. The main question seems to be where to pasture all these animals. The local fields are getting crowded.

Avram comes to Lot to settle the issue.

"Look Lot," he says. "Things can't go on like this. If there isn't enough room around here for both of us, then we'll just have to go our separate ways. Look around. Let me know where you want to go with yours, and I'll take mine the other way."

Lot thinks about this and says, "That river valley, Kikar HaYarden, looks nice and fertile. I'll head down that way." So off he goes, and the camera focuses in on the inhabitants of the cities dominating the valley. What we see is very disturbing.

Returning to Avram, G-d appears to him. He promises him the entire land and children as numerous as the sand.


The scene changes to a conference in a palace somewhere. Four kings are conferring. Their five vassals in Kikar HaYarden have rebelled and it is time to punish them.

This ascent has lots of battle scenes with men armed with spears and swords, and plenty of horse-drawn chariots. The four kings attack the five. The five loose, flee, and some are captured after falling into pits of mud. The five cities are plundered, and among the captives we see Lot.

Avram is sitting by his tent talking with three friends, when a giant comes to visit. "Lot, your nephew has been captured."
Avram organizes a small posse and takes off in pursuit.

By the time they catch up it is dark. Avram attacks, the enemy army, frightened, flees, and the captives, including Lot, are rescued. All return home. Along the way they stop near the mountain top city of Shalem. The king, Malchi-Tzedek, comes out to meet them. It is a meeting of royalty, but the one he blesses is Avram.


After Malchi-Tzedek's praise, the king of S'dom asks only for his people, offering all the plunder to Avram as a reward. Avram, in a stirring speech, declares that he as taken nothing and wants nothing for himself. He then return home.

Avram is asleep in his tent when G-d appears to him and promises him his protection and great reward.

"But Lord", he asks, "what good is this to me if I have no children? There is no one to leave all this to except my servant Eliezer?"

"He will not be your heir. You will yet have children. Now come outside. Look up and try to count the stars; so will be your offspring." Avram does not respond.


The same scene as before. Again G-d promises him the land. Avram asks for a sign that this will be so, and G-d instructs him what to do.

We see slaughtered cattle lying on the ground. An ox, a goat, and a ram, each cut in half with a space between. Also two birds. Birds come out of the sky and try to eat the meat, but Avram drives them away. As the sun sets, Avram falls asleep, and receive a prophecy.

"Know that your children will dwell in a strange land 410 years. I will judge that nation and will bring them back here with great wealth. You will come peacefully to your fathers, and in the fourth generation the will come back here. Then the evil of the current inhabitants will be full to be dealt with." As darkness falls, a firey torch and smoky furnace pass between the animal parts.

We are now back by Avram's tent and Sarai comes over to him with her Egyptian maid, Hagar.

"Look, we've been here 10 years and G-d has kept me barren. So come to my maid, and perhaps I'll have children through her."

Next scene, Hagar is being insufferable to Sarai. She's pregnant.

Sarai tells Avram, "I'm sorry I even suggested you take Hagar. She's become impossible to live with."

"So do what you want. She's your maid." And Sarai makes life so miserable for Hagar that the Egyptian runs away.

Hagar is in the wilderness, sitting near a well, when she is approached by an angel.

"Hagar, Sarai's maid. What are you doing here?"

"She drove me away," Hagar replies.

A series of angles appear, swooping in to deliver their messages and then swooping away again.

"Go home to to your mistress and do what she says."

"Great and uncountable will be your offspring."

"You will become pregnant again and bear a son. Call him Ishmael, for G-d has heard you. He will be a wild man and rule his neighbours."

And soon we see Hagar with a small boy. Ishmael.

Thirteen years pass. G-d appears to Avram again to make a covenant. Avram falls on his face as G-d says, "No longer are you 'Avram', now you are 'Avraham', for you will father nations."


G-d is still speaking.

"I will be G-d forever to you and your descendants. And I will give to you and them this land of Canaan. For your part, circumcise yourself and your household, and all your sons at eight days. Thus will be my covenant in your flesh.

"As to your wife, her name I change as well. No longer 'Sarai', but now 'Sarah'. And I will bless her and she will have a son, and from him will come your nations."

So Avraham prostrates himself again, and laughs at the news. "Let Ishmael live before you," he asks.

"But Sarah will bear a son, and you will call him Yitzchak and with him will be my covenant for all generations. Ishmael I will also bless. He will have twelve sons and become a great nation. But the covenant is with Yitzchak."

The episode ends with Avraham circumcising himself and his household.

Last updated: 2006 November 9

previous | index | next

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Back to Hubble

Here's a piece of good news for astronomers. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin gave the go-ahead to day for a final visit by the space shuttle to service the Hubble Space Telescope. The crew of seven has been announced and includes three veterans of previous servicing missions. Among the other objectives, two new instruments---the Cosmic Origins Spectograph and Wide Field Camera 3---are to be installed. (COS replaces the now useless COSTAR. WFC3 will replace WFPC2 and provide upgraded capabilities.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

VC: Noach (Season 1, Episode 2)

We see Noach, with whom the last episode ended, in a tight shot. As the camera pulls back we see that he is walking in an ancient marketplace. We see him staring at the ground, so as to avoid seeing what is going on around him. As the continues to widen we see in full the corruption hinted at in the previous episode. We see idols all over and demonstrations of various sorts of sexual immorality. What are that dog and cat doing in the corner over there? We see evidence that the market is barely functioning, however. To one side, as we pass through, a bargaining session ends with the purchaser just grabbing a jar and walking off with it, only to have it stolen in turn by a passing gang.

We cut to Noach, now reaching his home outside the town. He stops when he hears G-d speak to him. We hear G-d's instructions for the ark, and we see the ark take shape, first as a vision, and then in reality as Noach takes 120 years to put it together. He is working on a hill, in full view of the town below. People stop by to ask what he is doing, but ignore his warnings of doom. "Life is good", they say, laughing at him. With the ark finished, Noach starts gathering food and loading it in to the ark. Still, no one listens.


At the funeral of his grandfather Methuselah, Noach stops as the procession continues. Again G-d speaks to him, this time with his final instructions. Once the seven days of mourning are over, the flood will begin. The animals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects started coming. Most in single pairs, some few of seven.

It is a week later. Noach, his sons, and their wives are by the ark atop a hill outside the town. It is starting to rain. The last of the animals have boarded when an angry mob approaches from the town. We hear them threatening to destroy the ark and kill Noach. Bears and lions intercept them before they can come close, and, as the rain becomes heavier, Noach and his family reluctantly climb aboard, and the door slams heavily behind them.


Then the rain really lets loose. Water starts welling up from the ground, as well as falling heavily from the sky. It rains and rains and rains. The water rises rapidly and lifts the ark off its hill. The stormy waters climb higher and higher, covering the hills and the mountains. And still it rains. Inside the ark, Noach struggles to feed and care for all the animals in his keeping.

An outside view. The rain and wind have stopped. Outside the ark there is nothing but water. Endless, endless, expanses of water. The ark floats on the now calm water, but we have no sense of it actually going anywhere. The ark starts to rise out of the water. Unnoticed until now, the water level has been dropping, and the ark has obviously grounded. Before long, the highest mountain tops are emerging from the flood.

Noach unlatches a window and looks out. Around him are the mountains of Ararat. Further beyond there is still water. We see the ark from outside. Noach reappears at the window and releases a raven. The bird flies about and insists on going back inside.

With the landscape somewhat drier, Noach again appears at the window, this time with a dove. The bird flies off, below it we see nothing but water beyond the mountains. It cannot land and returns to the ark. Again Noach sends out a dove, this time to a yet drier landscape. This time the dove picks up an olive leaf and brings it back. And yet a third time the dove flies off, and this time does not return. So Noach opens the door, and there is no water to be seen anywhere. The earth was dry.


The door to the ark is wide open, and all the animals are coming out again and heading off in various directions. Noach builds an altar and selects one each from the groups of seven to bring as sacrifices. G-d speaks to Noach and blesses him and his family, commanding him to be fruitful and multiply, but to take care that his descendants not fall into bloodshed or immorality.


Above Noach a brilliant rainbow appears and we hear G-d promise not to bring another flood. His rainbow, he says, will be a sign and reminder of his promise.


His great task complete, Noach leaves his sons to carry on with things and tends to his newly-planted vineyard instead. The vineyard bears fruit, and before long the first vintage is ready. Noach gets drunk and goes to his tent to sleep it off, his clothes in disarray. His son, Ham, sees him there naked, and goes in. Later, the other two sons cover up their wounded father, heads averted so as not to see his shame. When Noach wakes, he curses Ham's descendant Canaan, while blessing Shem and Yaphes.

We now have a series of vignettes introducing the descendants of of the three brothers, the nations coming from them, and their lands. We also meet Nimrod, a powerful leader from the family of Ham.


In the last ascent of the episode, we see all the people travelling and arriving in a river valley in a land they call Shinar. They like the look of it, and, after a great meeting and long discussion, the decide to settle there and build a city and a tall tower. So amidst scenes of brick making, and urban construction, the city begins to grow and the tower climbs towards the heavens.

We sense, as at the end of last week's episode, G-d's displeasure with the activities of man. And then things start going horribly wrong. We'd been watching some bricklaying high on the tower. Up until now it had been an orderly process. Now when the bricklayer asks for bricks, he gets mortar. Or at least we think he asked for brick, because suddenly we can't understand him. Nor can we understand anyone else. Construction stops. Various groups head off in different directions, trying to get as far as possible from these sudden foreigners.

Again, as in the first episode, we see a line of familial descent leading from Shem through nine generations to Terach, his three sons, Avram, Nahor, and Haran, their wives and families living in Nimrod's city of Ur Kasdim. After Haran's death at the hand of Nimrod we see the remainder of the family flee the city planning to go to the land of Canaan. The episode ends with them settling in Charan.

Last updated: 2006 October 26

previous | index | next

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Visual Guide to Chumash: Overview

This pioneering series is without parallel. Long after its initial run, the 53 episodes remain in syndication, broadcast on a weekly basis. Such is their following that widespread celebrations are held annually to mark the conclusion of the series and its re-commencement. The programs are so deep and detailed that they repay constant and repeated viewing and study. With the start of the new run, I have decided to begin a series celebrating this acclaimed work. In this series of postings, I attempt to bring out some of the visual impact of the episodes. Besides being a summary, the focus is on elaborating the images of the series, including some of the cinematographic effects in use.

These are very much a work in progress, and I will be unashamedly altering and modifying them as I see fit. In fairness, while their original posting dates will remain unchanged, I will indicate the update date both in the posting and in the table of contents.

I follow the following conventions. The 53 "episodes" are unevenly divided into five "seasons" and I will examine each episode individually. The postings in this series will have "VC:" at the start of their titles. The posting for each episode is divided by *** into the traditional seven "ascents". This allows for an appreciation of the dramatic tension introduced by the breaks in the episode. The dialogue has been freely adapted and is perhaps more colloquial than one might expect, but this is in keeping with my purpose in trying to heighten the impact in text of a visual medium. Comments are welcome.

Proceed now to The Index, or to the first episode.

VC: Index


Season 1: At the Beginning

At the Beginning (2006 10 19)
Noach (2006 10 26)
Go! (2006 11 9)
Appearances (2006 11 9)
The Life of Sarah (2006 11 17)
The Offspring of Yitzchak
Yaacov: Departure
Yaacov: Dispatch
Yaacov: Settled
At the End
Yaacov Lived

VC: At the Beginning (Season 1: Episode 1)

This series opens with a flourish of spectacular special effects as we are introduced to the protagonist of the series. if not his purpose. After a timeless moment of calm darkness we hear, "Let there be light!", and, with an unbearable flash of ethereal light, everything begins. Subsequent creations flash by before we can begin to understand what is happening. At some level, we sense there must be a pattern to all the activity, but it happens too quickly to comprehend. Light and dark, sky and sea, land and plants, sun and moon, fish and birds, animals and man follow each other in quick succession. Each good. And then, as suddenly as it began, everything stops. In the west, the sun sets, followed by a day-old moon, and all is quiet. It is Shabbat.


When the light returns at the start of the second ascent it is seemingly to an earlier time. We see an empty land, full of potential. As a mist covers the ground, a man-like shape appears from the earth. We cannot tell if it is a male or a female, for it has aspects of both. But he or she, or perhaps they, get up and look around at the barren landscape. Then it rains, and the plants burst from the ground like released springs. We see a garden take shape, with beautiful trees, and a mighty river running through it. G-d takes the man to the garden and points out to them one tree in particular with the commands, "Eat from any tree, but this one, the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. For on the day you eat from it, you will die."

The man is alone, so G-d brings to them all the birds and animals that the man should name them. The entire creation passes before us in pairs and each species is given its name.


The third ascent opens with the man still giving names to the last of the animals. And, when it is all done, they are still alone. So they complain to G-d, and we see them fall asleep. When they awake, they are indeed two, male and female, mate for each other, naked, innocent, and unashamed. As the camera pulls back, we see the snake in the bushes, parting the branches with his hands, watching the man and his wife. From the expressions on his cunning face—desire towards the woman, hate towards her husband—we know he is plotting something.

When the man moves off to tend the garden, the snake strikes up a conversation with the woman. Ever so casually, the topic moves to food.

"So," asks the snake, "does G-d let you eat from the trees?"

"Oh yes," responds the woman. "We're allowed to eat any fruit except for one tree in the middle of the garden. On that one G-d said, 'Don't eat from it and don't touch it, or you'll die.'"

"Don't believe it," says the snake. "You won't die. G-d just wants to keep that one to himself. If you eat from it you'll be like G-d and know good and evil." As the conversation continues the two walk over to the tree and the snake causes the woman to touch the tree. When she doesn't instantly die, the snake pushes her further: "See what happened? If you can touch it, you can eat it, right?" And with that, he leaves her there to think about it.

But not for long. She reaches out and takes a fruit and eats it. Still, nothing happens. So when the man returns, she gives him one too. The only difference seems to be that they notice that they're naked, so they quickly cover themselves up with fig leaves. When, soon after, they hear G-d walking in the garden, they dive into the trees to hide. (We never see G-d ourselves, but it is always clear somehow when he is taking an open part in the proceedings.)

"Hello? Man? Where are you?", calls out G-d.

The man and woman sheepishly creep out from behind the tree they've been hiding behind. The man says, "Over here. I heard you coming and was afraid because I was naked, so I hid."

"Who told you, you were naked? You ate from the tree didn't you?" accuses G-d.

The man whips around and points at his wife. "She gave it to me!"

G-d turns to her as well. "What have you done?" he asks. And she replies, "The snake tricked me!"

G-d has heard enough and hands out punishments. The snake is summoned and stripped of his arms and legs and sent off to eat dirt and fight forever with the people. The woman is given the difficulty of children and the man that of his livelihood. Then he makes them proper clothes.


The fourth ascent sees G-d making his final decrees in the matter of the forbidden fruit. Adam and Chava are banished from the garden, and as they walk away, angels with fiery swords appear behind them, barring the way.

When next we see them, some time has clearly passed, since they now have children. The two boys, Kayin and Hevel, have chosen different occupations and have become rivals. Kayin is a farmer like his father; we see him tending the fields, working the land. Hevel minds sheep.

Kayin gets the idea to bring an offering to G-d. So he sets out some flax seed, a praiseworthy plant. Hevel, not to be left out, brings a firstborn sheep. G-d accepts only Hevel's offering, to Kayin's clear annoyance and dejection. G-d warns him to watch himself and behave correctly.

Sometime later Kayin visits Hevel in the field and starts a conversation. We can't hear what they are saying, but suddenly Kayin suddenly attacks his brother, stabbing him over and over. Hevel falls, blood gushing out, soaking into the ground, as Kayin walks away.

But he is not alone for long. G-d comes to him and asks, "Where is Hevel your brother?"

"How should I know? Am I his sitter?"

"What have you done? Your brother's blood is crying out to me from the earth! So, the earth will be even more cursed to you than before. It will produce nothing. And you will wander the earth."

"Is my sin more than you can bear? I cannot hide from you. I will wander the land and will be killed myself."

G-d agrees to protect Kayin from retribution for seven generations and places a letter of his name on his forehead. Kayin wanders off. In a quick succession of scenes we see him marry and raise a family. He builds a city and sees children born to his children.


The brief fifth ascent consists of domestic scenes with the last child born in the fourth, Kayin's great-great-great grandson Lemech, his two wives Adah and Tzilah, and their children: Yaval the nomad cattle-herder, Yuval the musician, Tuval-Kayin the smith, and their sister Na'amah.


What happens here is very obscure. The end result is Kayin and Tuval-Kayin dead at the hands of Lemech.

With Hevel dead and Kayin in exile, Adam and Chava have another son, Sheit, who in turn fathers Enosh. And we see the people of that time forgetting G-d and applying his name to other things.

The ascent continues with the line of descent from Adam through the seven generations. In the sixth generation, Chanoch, a simple but sincere fellow, follows G-d. G-d is concerned that Chanoch will be misled by his ill-behaved neighbours, so suddenly on day, Chanoch isn't there any longer.


The final ascent brings us three more generations, ending with the righteous man Noach, his wife Na'amah seen earlier, and his three sons: Sheim, Cham, and Yafet. We see images of widespread corruption and wickedness. With G-d's ominous announcement that a general housecleaning is in order, we are left with him looking favourably on Noach as the episode ends.

Last updated: 2006 October 19

previous | index | next

Friday, September 29, 2006

Gloibal Varming

So now, apparently, we Jews are responsible for global warming too. An outfit called the "Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life" dumped a pile of fliers in shul the other day exhorting Jews to change their light bulbs. After all,
the Jewish community has an intrinsic responsibility to respond to the daunting environmental problems confronting us and future generations.

So, no longer are we to be permitted to use incandescent light bulbs. It is now, according to the unpronounceable COEJL, a halachic imperative to only use "energy efficient, cost effective compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs".

"If not now, when?" they ask. And then answer that we're to do this "as a community" on Hanukkah. So, get going and apply to your "institution's Point Person" for your quota of CFLs and, come Hanukkah, replace your incandescents with CFLs. One per night, I suppose, would be in order. This way we can become "energy observant"!

Their enthusiasm is misplaced, however, in that they are ignoring the real Jewish contribution to global climate change: Shabbos. Never mind the energy wasted by light bulbs. Consider the energy wasted by leaving on the stove and other appliances for 26 hours straight. And for what? After the cholent has come off, that stove is likely heating up nothing but the blech. And if your household is anything like mine, there are too many burners on all night anyway, since the main objective is to keep the food hot for the Shabbos evening meal. Waste, waste, waste. Further, consider the amount of carbon dioxide and other toxins being given off by the Shabbos candles. An incredibly convenient suggestion in this regard is to "replace an outdoor light fixture with one that has a motion-detector" on the first day of Hanukkah, which, fittingly, is on Shabbos this year. Incomplete combustion of wax candles is considered to be a major Jewish contribution to global CO2 production. Never mind the methane produced as a result of kiddushes and cholent beans. So, once we've replaced all our light bulbs, as our next contribution to "protecting creation", we'll be called upon to sit in the dark and eat cold food one day a week. The Karaites will be pleased to see their position justified by the Rabbinics at last.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shuttle on the Sun

Click on the link for a spectacular image of the Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station silhouetted against the Sun.

(hat tip to Jay Manifold who estimates it was taken with a 13cm telescope)

Today's picture shows the reality behind the infamous "Face on Mars". Is that a road going up the side?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Chasiva v'chasima tovah 5767

I seem to be getting a lot of hits at the moment from people googling "chasima". I don't know if this is what you were expecting, but if not, I don't know what that was, and probably don't want to know either. As in, for existence, "goth". One Shabbos afternoon, not so long ago, a young woman sitting on her front asked me as I went by if I was a "Goth". I stopped dead and asked for a repetition of the question, wondering what she was talking about. And was she particular about my being a Visigoth or an Ostrogoth? I was tempted to just reply, "No, I'm a Vandal", but decided to just say no and keep going. I found out something more about gothkeit from the events in Montreal last week. So, I'm not googling chasima, if you don't mind.

The shul I daven on weekdays has two luachs on the wall giving details of the customs of the year. One from Colel Chabad and one from Ezras Torah. And yes, they do get confused from time to time over which minhag to follow. Anyway, the two end off with some wishes for the new year. One has
ולשנה טובה נכתב ונחתם שנה גאולה וישועה אמן
and the other
תחל שנה וברכותיה
ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רועה הגזירהס
with the last line in real big letters. The next year's luach starts exactly the same way. So, whatever your viewpoint, may you and yours, and all Yisroel, be blessed in the new year with a good, sweet, and healthy year, a year of peace, and a year of redemption.