The Observant Astronomer

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

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

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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

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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

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