The Observant Astronomer

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

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

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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

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