looking back

saw the founding fathers resting in their graves…
on my way out from your burial… I was in a daze
in memory of David

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There are smells, and sounds… certain places… sometimes clouds, or a certain blue in the sky that brings back old moments, memories… or emotions. One minute you’re on your way to buy a pack of cigarettes, and the next, you’re a young man on your way to work… and memories come rolling in, one after another… till those subjective visions have more substance than what you were planning to do with your day.

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I’ve never been one to revel in the joys of nostalgia. I prefer to enjoy each day as it comes, and to make the most of it. Not to give too much attention to the future or the past, but to savor the present. The library was my first home away from home. But if I visit the library today… even though that institution has lost most of its importance now that I’ve learned to take advantage of search engines and online academic facilities… still the library remains a store house of wisdom from the many different ages of man, and I enjoy it for what it has to offer me these days.

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But there’s a village in the Galilee, where years ago I tried to realize my ideals and fantasies… and where I tasted the sublime. It’s a place much like any other place. With good and bad, and all kinds of people who’ve made their homes there. Except that it wasn’t like any other for me. I chose to live there, among friends who had similar ideals to my own. It was there for me, at a critical stage of my life. I had already enjoyed the life of an adult for a number of years. I had started a family. I had made compromises and adjustments along the way. I pretty much knew what life had to offer if my luck stayed with me. And before I got sedentary or set in my ways, I wanted to try living according to my highest ideals, just to know if it could work. And to know whether the theories we kicked around in those days were practical.

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It was a time when a lot of people thought the world was on the threshold of a great social change. The youngsters who were attracting attention then, were chanting ‘make love not war’; and instead of checking just how many people could fit into a public telephone booth, there were those who chose to live in communes, to grow their own vegetables, to make their own movies, religions, and social order. Expanding one’s consciousness was considered a legitimate occupation. And tolerance and love for one’s fellow man was the spirit of the time.

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I didn’t choose a radical path. My choice was a commune which was based on traditional values. The family remained the basic building block of society. But we believed that everyone should enjoy the same income, regardless of talent or education. And that the unpopular jobs should be performed by all according to a system of rotation in which everyone did public service once every couple of weeks in order to keep things running as they should. Each person offered his work to the society according to his ability, and received according to his needs. That meant that the surgeon and the gardener received the same salary, but the invalid or madman was given all kinds of added resources in order to make his life more comfortable. Basic education was offered to all. But no one was forced to learn… or to live up to a standard that he didn’t choose. And those with special talents could develop them at the expense of the society as a whole. A friend of mine, who was an accomplished and successful writer, worked as a kindergarten teacher. And I, a scholar and a business man, grew bananas.

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The children lived in children’s houses, where they studied and played and lived life with the direction and nurture from teachers and counselors, and house mothers and fathers. They spent time with their parents every day. But they met with their parents at tea time, and learned to appreciate them around the table in social intercourse. Mother and father were not identified with punishment or demands. The time spent together was marked by friendship and common interests.

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Our leaders didn’t run for office, promoting themselves, and making promises of what they would do for the common man. They were chosen by others, and elected by common vote. And in most cases, they didn’t want the job, because it meant giving of their precious free time for the sake of the community. But usually they were persuaded to give of their talents for the common good. There was no police. Public opinion, and group pressure maintained order in our little world. Medical and dental treatment were free to all. The public spaces of our village were beautiful beyond description, cared for by gardeners who loved their work. I never saw litter. We all used to eat in a public dining room, and the food was good.

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There were flaws and weaknesses in the system, for all men and women are flawed. Many folks thought they were giving more than they were getting. There were pet peeves, and personal conflicts. There were in-groups, and outsiders. But it worked. I felt as if I’d found the garden of eden.

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This week, I went there to bury a friend. He was a good man and had lived a good life. He’d worked as a cotton grower, a tractor driver, and for many years as a skilled metal worker. He’d never asked for special consideration or a bonus. He was a modest man and didn’t stand out. But many in the community recognized his unique character and personality. His children had gone on to other places and other life styles, as many of the younger generation have done. The community has changed greatly. It is no longer a communal village.

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As I walked through the town, I couldn’t help but notice the changes. There were new roads, and parking lots. There weren’t many private vehicles when I lived there. We used to borrow a car from the car pool back in my day. The houses and gardens were more individualistic than I remembered. And the public dining room no longer caters to all comers. Nowadays, people prepare their meals at home, and children live with their parents. But as I walked along the streets and lanes of the village, I felt as if transported to a world that might still await us… a world of values that aren’t especially popular these days.

rooms of our home

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Our city is our home on a larger scale… There are rooms for intimacy, and rooms for study. Bed rooms, and entertainment halls. There are dives in which to lose ourselves to dreams and fantasies, and subconscious urges… and holy places where the whole includes that which is beyond us.

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mother and daughter

There’s the toilet, and the laundry room, and the balcony that looks out at the world around us… and the kitchen, and the dining room, and the salon where friends meet. There’s the store room, where we pick up what physical objects we need, if we can find them… the rooms with somber quiet, and the rooms with screams of excitement…

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synagogue

There are the halls we go through on the way from one place to another, and the chamber where we shine our shoes, or brush our hair. The TV room or the cinema… the children’s playroom, and that for the adults… and the sickroom, the dying room, and the room for giving birth.

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Some spend their time in art galleries… while others pass through halls, barely noticing the art hung there as decoration, meant to inspire the imagination as we go along our way to something else. There are work rooms and libraries… And high tech labs, and virtual rooms.

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There are those who like to read on the toilet. Some have sex there. Others prefer to be left alone there. Many like to hang out in rooms where you can stay in your underwear. And then there are those who prefer the rooms that demand that you come in suit and tie.

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Some like the rooms where people talk only in a whisper. Others like a never ending stream of music. And there are folk that breathe best on the balcony… mostly outside, but still attached to the home. It can be a venue for solitude or for love making; a place to gather with friends for sipping wine or drinking tea.

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Each of us can best judge the city by those rooms he or she most prefers. Some people have a favorite room, a favorite corner, a favorite chair… and you can mostly find them there. Others like to move around, take in the sights, enjoy the variety. There are some rooms you have to visit now and then. And others you may never see.

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The scenes in these photos are from the sick rooms of our city. There is no discrimination here. The young and old mingle in the hallways, and find solace in the compassion of healthy people who care enough to spend their time nursing and healing people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds. The ill too, have access to the sacred, to study halls, art and play. I sat in the coffee shop, and had a double espresso and some cheese cake.

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blind faith

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after we’d finally arrived

Call me old fashioned, but a telephone for me, is still a miracle, even when I’m only using it to talk to one of my friends who lives two blocks away. But the rest of the world has gone on to bigger and greater things. Not so long ago, my grand daughter was visiting. She had just come out of the shower, and lifted the receiver off my rotary dial phone in the kitchen, and asked me how to adjust it to a medium warm blow. She’d never seen a phone like that, and thought it was a hair dryer.

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Rivka and Chana in the kitchen

And so, last week, when Rivka and I were over at Chana’s house, preparing dinner, I proudly told them of my success at sending a letter by way of telephone. They immediately began to encourage me. I was told of the wonders of using Waze. One could just jot down the destination in the program, and Waze would know the best and fastest way to get there. Rivka told me of a recent incident that happened on her way home from her Yoga class. She had her Waze on, and was taking the route she knew well. The fellow on the phone told her to take a right down some side street, but she ignored him, thinking she knew which way was fastest. But then a couple of blocks later, she got stuck in a terrible traffic jam. There’d been an accident. Cars were packed in for about a kilometer, as one by one, individual vehicles managed to pass the standing police cars and ambulance at the site. If only she had listened to the Waze, she said.

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Noga and Michael

Well, it was on Monday of this week, that Noga and I had arranged to visit my friend Michael, who lives in the little village of Vineyard, at the edge of Jerusalem. He lives on Yemenite Immigrants Street; I forget the number. It was raining, when we set out in the afternoon, and the entire city was one big parking lot, as it often is at the beginning of the rainy season. Cars were crawling along… moving a meter forward, and then having to wait a few minutes until the next opportunity to move again. Though I’ve driven to Vineyard so often, I could probably do it in my sleep, it did seem like these were just the circumstances in which to try out the wonderful new invention. I typed Yemenite Immigrants and Vineyard into the Waze program, and settled into the driver’s seat, happy in anticipation of finding the shortest route through the traffic, on our way to my friend’s house.

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telling our adventure to Michael – photo by Noga

Since I hadn’t yet hooked up my phone to the car, and didn’t know that blue tooth was anything but a tooth that had died and discolored, I asked Noga to hold the phone and just pass on the instructions to me. From the very beginning, I could appreciate the advantages of the program. Instead of the usual situation in which a friend suddenly yells ‘take a right now’ or ‘turn left’, forcing me to cross a lane in the last moment to execute the maneuver, this program gave me warning 800 meters before I had to make the turn. It even advised me ahead of time to switch from one lane to another. I was happy to have joined the world of the enlightened.

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Strangely enough, though, I was getting instructions that I would never have thought possible. With a surety that only a robot could muster, the GPS program had me go left when I thought right, and into a neighborhood I thought totally illogical. But I remembered what Rivka had told me. How clever, the program was helping me to avoid an accident scene. We were going to get there much faster than we would have, had we gone the old route.

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And then amazingly, we were out of the traffic jam, and down an old road I didn’t even recognize. It was a little narrow, and when a car came the other way, we had to pass one another carefully, with one car or the other going slightly off the road, it was so narrow. But I was ecstatic. Wasn’t it great that Waze had found the way to avoid all the traffic?! The phone told us to go left when we reached the fork in the road. It got dark. The rain kept coming down. Then there was a turn to the right which put us on a road that was even worse. There were no street lights here. We were driving through the Jerusalem forest, And when we left the forest, the pavement gave out. It had been supplanted by gravel. ‘Maybe we should go back’, said Noga, a bit aghast at our surroundings. But I insisted. What? You want to get back into the traffic jam in town?

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photo by Noga

After the next right, I could tell by the limited light of my headlamps, that we were now on a dirt road with large rocks here and there, and holes where you didn’t expect them. From the speed of a horse’s pace I slowed down to what might best be called a walk. Fortunately, we were no longer encountering any cars coming the opposite way. But finally, after hopping over the rocks and trying to avoid the holes, we encountered a large sign. It was so dark I couldn’t see what it said. But I got out my flashlight, and put its light on the sign. It said, ‘graveyard’. A couple of letters were weather worn, but it was still readable. The Waze was no longer speaking to us. Noga thought we might have gotten to an area where there was no cell phone reception. So we kept going straight. But soon we were facing another fork in the road. Except that this time, it looked as if both choices in front of us were foot paths. I turned the car around, and that’s when the right rear tire blew. Luckily, I had a spare.

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I was ready to go back by then. But the problem was that I didn’t know where in the hell I was. As we slowly made our way back, we checked any signs we could find. It was then that we discovered the intersection of Vineyard street and the Yemenite Immigration. And it turned out that we were in the backwoods town of Olive Tree. I would never have guessed that. But fortunately, the town of Vineyard was only an hour away. Hope you enjoy the pictures of Michael’s home. On our way back to Jerusalem, we decided to go without the help of artificial intelligence.

Autumn in Talpiot

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For many here in Jerusalem, autumn begins with the bloom of the squill, one of our favorite wild flowers, which appears miraculously on the hills surrounding our city, and between our homes and business establishments.

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When I was a young man, traveling and learning about the world of other peoples and nations, far away from my own… I’d come upon a new city or town unknown to me… I would walk for hours, getting to know the place by foot. My pleasure back then, was visiting the alleys and the back streets, the parks and the libraries, the bars and the night clubs, where I met the local people and listened to their music.

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As I mentioned a while back, my dear friend Chana recently moved back to Jerusalem, back from the pastoral village where I was staying with her during the grand move. She set up her new home in Talpiot, where I used to live some fifty years ago. And in recent weeks I’ve been walking around the neighborhood, rediscovering the area from a new perspective, and after the changes of a half a century. I’ve met some very gracious and interesting human beings, and a lot of fascinating animals.

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I had the pleasure of discovering that there’s a whole colony of brightly colored parrots who’ve made their home in our city, and what a surprise it was to see them sitting as a group in a number of trees close to her home, speaking in tongues and sounding like no other birds I’ve known. No photos yet, but I’m sure I’ll capture them eventually.

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The dominant birds in this neighborhood are the crows. You can see them everywhere. The doves, who are just as common, give them due respect. They fear the crows who are smarter than them and more aggressive. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking through an area of luscious green vegetation between two blocks of houses, where there are some installations meant for children’s play, and a few benches most appropriate for a read outside when a city dweller such as I has spent too much time closed in.

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I saw three cats eating cat food that had been placed on the pavement surrounding the slide and the locomotive, looking as if it had been built of Lego blocks and meant for play. The cat food had been placed in neat piles, and the cats seemed quite satisfied with the offering. But there were three crows perched on a railing above, watching every move of the cats. I found a good place on a nearby bench and watched them… wondering if the crows were planning to attack the cats. They enjoyed their food and paid no attention to the birds above them. Eventually, when the cats were sated, they left some of the food behind as they went off to take a leisurely walk along the path by which I had arrived. Then the crows descended, joined by friends and relatives, to finish off the repast.

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Later that day… I went out with Chana to have pizza at a neighborhood diner, next to a local grocery store. There were just two men sitting at a table in the cold night… we took another. One of the men noticed I was photographing, and asked why. We got into a conversation, and after a while he pulled an old sheet of paper out of his pocket, folded and worn. He gave it to us to read. It was poetry, well metered and carefully rhymed. A song commemorating wasted youth. After we praised it, we were allowed to read another. This, a love poem hinting unrequited love. Your writing?, I asked. Yes, he said… that’s my name on the bottom line.

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Two women walked by with a dog. The younger of the two men exchanged a few words with them. But they didn’t linger. The dog was impatient. He had places to go… things to see… We too, left after a while. It had been a good dinner, and another taste of the neighborhood.

for the birds

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My dear readers,
I was going to write an article today. In fact, I even started writing it. But in a moment of madness, I decided to try out the smart phone that I’ve had for a couple of years now. I thought I would just take a couple of minutes to try it out… and then get back to the writing. Well, it took me a couple of hours to figure out how it worked. And by the time I had done that, I was a nervous wreck. So what I had planned to write is half finished… and at best, will be written some other day.

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sparrows on a country lane

What I discovered, is what I expected in the first place. While I feel quite comfortable with a computer, the smart phone is too small for me, and the keyboard too unwieldy. I barely ever use the phone, and originally bought this one just because I didn’t like the keys on my ancient cell phone. Now that I know how to send and receive mail on the smart phone, I may use it in case of an emergency. But I’m still hoping I won’t have any more of those.

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this roundabout in Jerusalem seems symbolic of today’s misadventure…
with it’s sidewalk leading nowhere

The experience of trying to keep up with the day to day technology that all the young folks use these days, was frustrating. I’m almost sorry I tried. But I still have curiosity… and the phone was in my pocket… So that’s what I did. As I put the damn thing back into my pocket, I remembered an English expression I had learned years ago, “it’s for the birds”. It was meant to dismiss something… I don’t know what. Certainly, I couldn’t say that about the smart phone. No bird would try to operate it. But remembering that expression, I thought I’d show you a few birds I’ve seen lately.

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from one of my trips during the recent holidays; a bird about to be uplifted

My cat friends and I enjoy watching the birds… even if they’re not meant for supper. Sometimes they offer inspiration. And often they symbolize freedom. Though Bob Dylan couldn’t help but offer us a taste of irony when he asked, “Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?” Wishing you all a very restful and enjoyable weekend.

P.S. One of the great things about writing a blog is the feedback. After having written this post, I learned from a reader the source of this expression, ‘for the birds’. It comes from a time when transportation was still dependent on horses to a large degree. And the horses would leave their droppings in the streets and along the ways they traveled. Certain birds would be seen regularly, feeding from the undigested grain in the horses’ leavings. And so the expression, ‘for the birds’ meant to say that though it seemed that what was in the street was nothing more than excrement, there were those who found some value therein.

the post that went missing

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Shadow on the Wall
(when Nechama looked at me)

Back in the day when I was looking for contemporary literature that would move and inspire me as much as some of the literature I read in my younger days, I asked for recommendations from my readers. I haven’t yet finished reading all those books that were recommended, but I did read ‘Shadow of the Wind’ that was suggested by a number of readers. That volume offers both a story and a story within the story. It tells the tale of a man who discovers a writer he really loves, but it turns out that there has been someone who’s been chasing down all of his books and destroying them. We find a hint that the fellow who burns this writer’s books is the devil himself. The suspense around the hounding of the wonderful writer, and the rarity of his works provides an important ingredient in the telling of the story. I couldn’t help but think about the possibility of such a thing happening in our day. But of course, once some writing or picture has been uploaded to the internet, it is hard to imagine that anyone would succeed in making it disappear.

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Black & Blue asks ‘what is a blog?’

And then, this very weekend, a short while after I published my most recent post on this blog, I started getting mail from readers that they had been informed by different ‘feeds’ that I had written a new post, but were unable to find the article after following the link. And to make the matter all the more interesting, the post that they couldn’t find was called, “It’s a cruel world”. My imagination came to life as I contemplated the possibilities. Could this be the result of hacking by the ‘league of positive thinkers’ in an attempt to put an end to negative comments about the world, or the spread of sorrow by way of the pens of pessimistic scribblers? The more I thought about it, the more outraged I became. I discussed it with my cat, and though she doesn’t have time to read blogs on the internet, she too was offended. Something’s gotta be done, she said.

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Jinji can’t believe that Nechama is a blogger now

But it was then that I remembered how that post had come to be written. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t written it at all, Nechama, my cat, had. She’d tried to convince me to go back to blogging, claiming that a lot of people weren’t enjoying their Fridays as much as they had been before, bereft of the enjoyment of reading my blog. As I’ve mentioned previously, I found it hard to write after the war we endured this last summer. Sometimes, I couldn’t even talk. ‘You know, Friday is fish day’, said Nechama with a glint in her eye. Okay, I said, giving her some fish. And then I started thinking about her comment. Was she trying to hint that there was something fishy about my avoiding the blog? ‘I just might write a post myself’, she continued, ‘if you don’t come up with something for your readers’. We tossed the ball back and forth, and I asked her what she’d write about, if she were to take my place at the laptop.

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Nechama tells a neighbor what she has to go through…

She mentioned that I come across like such a friendly old gent, that it might be a service to the community were she to present a portrait of me from another perspective. ‘they deserve to know the truth’, she muttered under her mustache. What truth? I asked innocently, thinking that as a cat, she couldn’t possibly understand my real sins. ‘Well, what kind of man serves pumpkin pie with whipped cream to a cat?!’ she asked in a growl that betrayed deep seated resentment. I burst into laughter. Is that what you’re going to tell my reading public? And with that, she started making her case. You know, when you live with a pet, they do adapt your ways. She was shoving ancient history at me, including the menus that were enjoyed by cats in the Greek temples when their occupation was protecting the local gods there. The more she told me, the more I laughed. Till finally, she got really irritated and asked why I wasn’t writing it all down.

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Nechama eating pumpkin pie – photo by Chana

I told her I’d write it down, exactly as it came from her lips… very thin lips… but I wouldn’t sign my name to anything like that. I’d put hers on the by-line. This rather pleased her, and her story became still more colorful as she progressed. I was writing and she was telling it. I was drinking whisky and she was eating fish in a sour cream sauce, right there on the table next to me. Towards the end, she started including little parenthetical remarks mentioning a number of her friends by name, just for the fun of seeing their names in print. I kept saying, now that is off topic, and she would say, ‘when you write, you can decide what the topic is. This is my post’. And when we finished she just had to look over my shoulder, and asked where it said that she had written the blog post.

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she seemed to enjoy it – photo by Chana

She decided on the name of the post. I myself would never have written anything like that. It was all hers. And I had a riotous two hours writing down what she said. I thought it was one of the funniest pieces I’d ever heard. After we finished, I published the post, and we both went to bed for a bit of a cat nap. But when I got up, the thoughts in my head sounded like the sound of bowling pins falling in the alley. I went to the computer, and checked out the post that I’d published. It sounded hollow. I didn’t laugh once. I pressed the edit button, and ran through it again. It wasn’t funny at all. So I threw it into the trash. All through the Sabbath, Nechama kept coming by and rubbing herself against my legs. ‘Any comments yet?’ she would ask. You know I don’t check the computer on the Sabbath, I told her.

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napping now, while I’m writing

But when the Sabbath was over, I turned on the computer. That’s when I found all these letters from people wondering how my post had disappeared. I really didn’t know how to answer them. What could I possibly say?

a day of awe

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We don’t know what is waiting for us. We don’t know what is beyond us. If the world came into being from a bit of cosmic dust that exploded with a big bang, we don’t know how that cosmic dust came into being. A few days back, our favorite theoretical cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, patiently explained to us that god doesn’t exist. He explained that back in the days before science existed, we needed something to relate to, to explain the world around us… to explain the origin of life… and other wonders beyond our understanding. And since we were more primitive then, we invented gods, and told ourselves that they… or he, or she… created the world, and us in it. There is nothing, he said, that is beyond what science can reveal and explain.

I am very fond of science. But I believe that there is more beyond our ability to know… beyond the ability of science to discover, than there is in all the collective knowledge of science, including all that we may discover as long as mankind continues to exist. I wouldn’t argue with Hawking, though. Because I have the greatest love for all those who focus their attention on the front line of our curiosity, and try to understand the unknown.

This evening is the start of the holiest day of the Jews, known as the day of the atonement. It is a day of fasting and soul searching. It is a day on which we consider life and death. It is a day on which we acknowledge our mistakes, and regret them. But it isn’t a sad day. No, it’s a happy day, a holiday in every sense of the word. The fasting is not sorrowful, but meant to allow us to concentrate on the spiritual nature of the day and avoid all the distractions that are connected with our everyday existence. It is the only day in the year that takes precedence over the Sabbath. This year, it falls on the Sabbath. Every other fast day, if it falls on the Sabbath, is moved over a day, so as not to fast on the Sabbath. But the day of atonement is even more important. At the conclusion of the day, we return to our normal lives refreshed and renewed. It is a wonderful feeling.

Some 250 years ago, the great rabbi and teacher, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev entered his synagogue on the day of atonement, and told his congregants that as he arrived he noticed a Jew standing outside the synagogue, praying to god. He was curious why the man was praying outside instead of coming in and praying together with the whole congregation. So he came close to the man and listened to his prayer. Dear God, said the man, you know I’m not religious, and that I don’t go to the synagogue, and am not used to prayer, and wouldn’t know where to look in the book to find the prayers everyone is praying… don’t know anything about religion… so I will just recite the ‘abc’s now. And I ask you to put the letters together in the very best way for me, and let that be my prayer to you. Levi Yitzchak continued… So I would like the congregation to wait in silence now, till that man finishes his ‘abc’s, and then we can begin our prayers here inside.

I would like to tell you of another fine Jew, a scholar, a rabbi, and a teller of tales, who was known as Reb Nachman of Breslov. He is best known for the tales he told, which are considered parables on mystical understanding. But he is also especially loved for something he said, that is often quoted. When translated into English, it sounds like this:
“The whole world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
This quote has become a popular song among our people, and I would like to share a version of it that I found posted on the internet. You can find it here, sung by Justin Shenk in both Hebrew and English: http://youtu.be/Vfc2CPgMLVc

I’ve heard of people who are moved to hug a tree. It might seem a bit ridiculous to someone who’s never done that. But the person hugging, knows something that the outside onlooker couldn’t even guess. And tomorrow, there are a few of us, who will try to hug the whole world.

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