there is bliss on the day of judgment
גמר חתימה טובה
September means back to school here, as in much of the world. And as I watch the young students with book bags and backpacks… on their way to school or coming home, my thoughts are on school and learning, and especially on the difficulties attached to both. This year we didn’t have a teachers’ strike. But in the past, such strikes often coincided with the beginning of school. You wouldn’t hear many students complaining about how miserable they were without the pleasures of the classroom. On the other hand, unhappy parents were interviewed, moaning in protest as they asked, how are we going to go to work with the children stuck at home? And I would wonder if school wasn’t just a self righteous cover for babysitting.
As I have mentioned in the past, my teachers in the seminary would say, we’re not here to teach facts; we try to teach you how to learn. And one of the most impressive methods of study that I learned there, was studying with a learning companion. We could choose a friend to study with, or a teacher could suggest a match. The nature of the relationship was different from the sort of friendship that develops between people who find themselves thrown together and learn to love one another… or who discover a natural affinity with someone else. There are so many reasons that people become friends… and maybe as many reasons that friendships cool and wither.
The learning companion is more like a partner in sports. It is best that you both have a similar capacity to study, and similar enthusiasm. Because the role of the study partner is not to drag his friend to class or to help each other study for a test. The idea is that every person sees the world subjectively. And when you study with a partner, each understands what is learned in a different way. Often the student thinks he understands well what he has just learned, but sharing the different perspectives offers us a wider view of the possibilities.
I remember at times, having serious arguments with my study partner, and there was no obligation to come to an agreed upon resolution. Nor was there a need to agree to disagree. We could remain with our different conclusions, and in telling others of what we had studied together, I would mention, ‘my study partner came to another conclusion’, then telling what he understood regarding the subject. When we would study legal decisions made over 2000 years ago in the Talmud, the minority opinion was always recorded as well.
I have mentioned recently my discomfort, gleaning the news from the media. It often seems as if I’m hearing propaganda. There is a common agenda that sets the tone in so many areas. The newspeak of George Orwell’s 1984 seems to have come full bloom at the beginning of this century, and it not only washes out the color of speech; it dampens our thinking as well. So discussing things that matter to us with a comrade who has a different opinion is an important part of learning.
We all know the experience… working on the computer with a few different tasks in our head. We have a number of open windows on the screen; maybe some different computer programs or applications working at the same time… We go from one to the other. And at some point the computer starts slowing down, if we’re lucky. It might also send us strange messages or make mistakes. Occasionally, the computer just freezes and we can’t get it to do anything. What do we do to deal with a problem like that? Well, if we’re lucky, and the computer hasn’t frozen, we close all the windows and the programs, and restart. In the worst case, we have to force a shut down, and then start from scratch.
Does this happen in real life?
A healthy human being is usually so wrapped up in what he wants to do or what he expects, that when encountering little signs from body or mind, he virtually ignores them. It’s not that he can’t see these little hints. It’s that he’s so involved in whatever work he’s doing, that he’s already looking for ‘relevant’ information’. And the signals he’s getting to slow down or re-examine the way he’s going seem not relevant to him. It takes a great sense of relaxation to be able to recognize all that’s in our path, as we walk along a trail in nature. Maybe, if we were looking for a nice photograph, we would see more. But if we were looking for mushrooms, for instance, there would be a lot of things we might ignore.
The Jewish New Year, which will begin this coming Sunday evening (for all our days begin with the evening, followed by night, and then followed by day), is a ‘restart’ celebration for us. We bathe, and put on special holiday clothes. We join our families and friends. There are so many symbols and gestures, that I won’t even try to itemize them. But all of them are intended to remind us that we are experiencing a new beginning. And to do so, we have to put our lives in order, clean up, close open files, return tools to their proper places, pay up old debts, and start our life anew.
And since we are aware of our own human failings, the new year holiday isn’t just one day. It is one day followed by another. We pray a special prayer with the start of the holiday. And this is followed by a feast on the first day, on a table usually covered by a white table cloth, on which all kinds of symbolic items are displayed. Many of us wear something white to remind us of the holiness of the day. Luxury and plenty are emphasized. And then the next day we do it all over again. The holiday is actually observed twice. Day after day. Because we know that sometimes we can do a thing without really throwing our heart in it. And that’s not all.
Because we know human failings; because we know that people always put things off… even if we’re sure we’ll do them, we’re allowed 10 days after the new year, to put our lives in order. To search our hearts and search our minds for the sake of peace and closure. We ask forgiveness from our friends and relatives for our offenses. Then comes the day of atonement, in which we stand before god, and say, this is who I am. Such are my affairs. My business (and most private, personal cares) are an open ledger before you. And that day is a day of reckoning… mostly within our own hearts. The purpose of it all, is to appreciate life anew. To really, really live life. It is so easy to get carried away by our occupations, obsessions, and even taking care of business. Just as every seven days, we stop what we’re doing to celebrate the holy sabbath, so once a year, we settle our accounts and deal with all the things that have distracted us.
My best wishes to all my readers. May the new year bring with it peace and contentment for what we have; and wonder at what we can’t understand. May there be plenty for all, good health, and clear thinking. And most of all, love.
A new generation has taken over the world, and there are folks still around who don’t know it. Can you imagine that after the French or Russian revolutions… people just living their lives and not being aware of how history had recorded changes that would affect people everywhere in the world? But it happened then too. The world changed radically, as it changed during the Industrial Revolution, and there were a lot of folks who didn’t notice.
To those of you who feel heartbroken about Trump winning the US presidency; who are hoping with all your hearts that he will be impeached, I say to you, dry your tears, and go about your lives… try to find happiness. Because it doesn’t matter that Trump won. And in the long run, it won’t matter much. It was just a side issue. It wasn’t really that important.
Looking back, the French Revolution established a new set of values for our world. There was some instability after the revolution, a lot of cruelty, unnecessary deaths and impositions on innocent people, but that’s life. There’s no denying that the human being is a cruel animal. This latest revolution, which I refer to as the Digital Revolution, is much more than the start of a new technological era. It encompasses all the activities and the beliefs of man, and by the time it’ll be accepted by the vast majority, the past will be almost completely forgotten. Of course, there’ll be a few historians who’ll remind those interested of what happened before the new age of enlightenment. But for most, all that was before this millennium will be included in the ‘dark ages’.
I don’t know how it was for those of my readers who live in countries around the world, but I can tell you I was amazed that on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution there was no mention of it in the media, here in Israel. Such an earthshaking event. Forgotten. There were some really fine Israelis too, who though they were living fully active lives at the time, and bringing about the rebirth of Israel as a politically independent state, gave up everything and ran to ‘help the revolution’. Most of them died in the gulag, or were killed by Stalin, and never heard from again.
Back in the days when I was a child, people were still arguing whether the ends justified the means. And if you’re young, you may be surprised to learn that there were some very intelligent and good hearted people who insisted that the ends did justify the means. Their thinking went something like this, “I really hate having to kill Millie the turkey. But Thanksgiving is getting close, and folks have to eat”. While watching Stalin fight Hitler, many enlightened minds were willing to forgive his excesses. But after World War II, most if not all of those same people came to the conclusion that the end doesn’t justify the means, and drummed that particular truth into the next generation.
I don’t think they’re going to put an end to gambling this time… or an end to eating meat. But they will put an end to smoking tobacco, and will allow smoking cannabis. They’ll legitimize homosexuality, create an environment more friendly to women, and there’ll be a completely different attitude towards family. If we were worried once about the population explosion, it now looks as if that will no longer threaten us. And were it not for hatred and war, we could very likely insure that there’d be no hunger in the world. There is speculation that soon hard work won’t threaten us. And since the less we work, the less we want to work, we’ll have more time to dream… and to dream up collective worries. For instance, that life is so empty… that there’s no meaning to existence…
I remember asking my father when I was a child… what is this business of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Why do we still learn such savagery? He answered me, No, that’s not savagery. That’s justice. If we were to trust to the magnanimity of the human heart, there’d be at least two eyes to pay for the one… and more likely, ten.
My dear friends,
Back in the days when I was alive, we used to view objectivity as something to be expected from every intelligent and educated person. The news media included more than a score of newspapers which represented all the different political views, but the one state radio station, and afterwards our only TV station did their best to give the impression of objectivity. In fact, our first local media star was this affable newsman who told us the news almost every evening on the one state owned television station, broadcasting from Jerusalem, and all of us… the religious and the irreligious, the left and the right, the rich and the poor, we all believed him and liked him, if just for the fact that he was willing to enter our homes, and let us know what the heck was going on. Of course, we knew he didn’t tell us everything. If a certain well known general was having an ecstatic affair with his secretary, we didn’t expect to hear about it in the news. That sort of thing was whispered to us by our next door neighbor. But we made do with just the essential bad news which was summed up at the end of the day.
This week, one of our pioneer journalists passed away. Or as we say it in Hebrew, went to his own world. That’s a nice way to say it; nicer than ‘dropped dead’, or as the cynics would say it in our own tongue, ‘turned into a corpse’. Uri Avneri was one of the front line newsmen back when we first re-established the Jewish state, editor and publisher of the first innovative newspaper in our land, a politician, and a man about town in Tel Aviv, hobnobbing with celebrities on first name basis. He was such a lover of peace, that he had no reservations about getting together for hugs and hot coffee with a known murderer.
He wasn’t a ‘New Journalist’ like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer. He was a provocateur who liked to break the toes of clay idols and didn’t find fame any more attractive than infamy. The ‘new journalists’ tried to present the story they found from a subjective view point. They shared with us the very personal way they captured and understood the story. He wrote as if he were imparting facts, but he was so wrong that most of his contemporaries didn’t even bother to knock holes in his arguments. They were obvious. He mixed facts, lies and fantasies with abandon. He would cook up stories which included social rumors he heard in the local clubs and bars, a few pictures of naked or half naked women, and a full rack of accusations and revelations of corruption, whether true or not, about any member of the establishment and especially those he saw as his enemies; that is, his brothers and his sisters.
Though I belonged to the opposite camp from his, I loved him for his childlike innocence. He seemed to me as if he was starring in his own hand made movie, and a wonderful hero to himself. Though he had almost no sense of humor, he had a vivid imagination, and it was most amusing to see the ways he found to offend his fellow citizens by provocation arm in arm with absurdity. He wrote his own story, and if it didn’t make me chuckle , it often made me smile. Of course, now that the news media keeps pounding away at their agenda, his newspaper would not stand out or be noticeable. But a lot of his ideas became popular among the lunatic fringe, and I believe there are still some parliament members here who quote him without the bother of attribution.
As we get old we watch our own familiar crowd thin out, drop out, and disappear till there are just a few of the old crowd left, and then they too get frail and eventually die and are buried. He was one of the last who had something unique to say or something memorable to contribute to the society I enjoyed so much when my country was just getting on its feet. In those days, I felt affection for many who had different political leanings or worldviews. But these days the hostility and the belligerence of the opposing camps has alienated me, and it is hard even to listen to their arguments. When there was just one fellow like Avnery, he contributed to a sense of balance to our society. Maimonedes said you can’t really call a place a city unless you have at least 10 bums around. I say, what’s the point of having a king if you don’t have a court jester.
I was a young man when I first began writing professionally. It was what I expected to do… what I’d set as my personal goal. I had been so grateful for the advice and friendship I had received from writers in my childhood and youth, that I felt a personal debt to them, and in this way I hoped to repay them. I wrote long pages in blue-black ink from a fountain pen on white linen bond paper. That same pen is still in one of my drawers. The act of writing was as gratifying to me as the possibility of conveying thoughts to paper. I could smell the ink. I enjoyed watching the trail of blue-black ink slowly drying on the page as I continued to write. I had a number of different pens, and numerous nibs which enabled me to write in different styles as well as different languages. I preferred a fine line, but used wide nibs as well… sometimes to emphasize something in the text, I used italics as well. To me, good writing meant no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and the ability to organize my thoughts in such a way that they would be readily understood by the reader. This was so important to me because if I (or my editor) found a mistake, I would usually rewrite the page. Which took some time. Such work was drudgery.
My first typewriter was a present from an aunt. I was greatly moved by her gesture. It seemed such a personal and appropriate gift. And strangely enough, I received another three typewriters through my life, from very close friends. But as much as I enjoyed typing, I felt most comfortable and most natural writing by hand with pen on paper. Though I felt no need to study journalism or creative writing, I did take a typing course so as to learn to put my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. Typewriters could only write in one font, which meant that I needed separate machines for Hebrew and Latin letters.
The machines stayed with me for decades, and became part of my physical presence in this world from my point of view. In a way, they were more an extension of my body than the pens I used, maybe because I typed blind. The Royal portable traveled with me across the world on ship and in airplanes. I used to feel a sense of intimacy in my relations to tools. But since the start of the digital age, tools come and go. The life expectancy of a computer is so short that I haven’t really gotten attached to any of them. Software programs change and become more complicated. I would discover that I didn’t have enough RAM, and by the time I moved on to a new computer I was glad to get rid of the old.
Language too, is an intimate tool. A tool of the mind by which we communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings. And that too is changing. When I was young, our ancient language was sacred. Educated people went to great pains to conform exactly to the rules of grammar. The language we heard on the radio was elegant. When a word was added to our vocabulary, it’s addition was decided by The Academy of the Hebrew Language, and though we laughed sometimes at the new inventions, they were necessary for scientific and technological subjects that hadn’t existed when our language first flowered. But then slang appeared in the army, and folks were amused by these new additions and used them. Foreign words were included in our speech as well, and slightly changed to correspond to our rules of grammar. Slowly, gradually, the slang increased, and nowadays when conversing with the young, I have to ask the meaning when hearing an unfamiliar phrase. It makes me feel less grounded.
The pictures on the store front windows, were found on Jaffa Str., here in Jerusalem. They represent visual illustrations of Jerusalem slang and expressions unique to our town. The artists involved in this project wished to decorate the city with local expressions.
I’ve been working on a post, and just haven’t managed to complete it yet, so I’ll let it wait. Meantime, I’ll share a picture taken this week when some of the cubs joined the adult hyraxes at the park… or should I say manger?
I think it was last year… maybe two years ago; a little later in the year… at the end of summer. I watched the adults teach their cubs how to climb a tree. An adult would take a running start and sort of continue up the tree. The cubs tried, but they would fall down. This continued for a while till everyone was tired, so they had a bit to eat and went home. I wasn’t able to take a picture. I’d been sitting for a time with my back against a tree (which they studiously avoided), and I knew that if I raised the camera to take a shot, that would be the end of the exercise. So I just sat there and watched. This time, all they were interested in was the grass. And I did manage to get a shot for you. The cubs are so cute.