Author Archives: ShimonZ

self knowledge

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I was thinking of a title for this post, and remembered a common saying in Hebrew, but couldn’t think of how to say it in English. So I went to Google Translate and wrote it in the Hebrew window, expecting to find my title in translation. But what I got was: “He who own imperfection invalidates”. Well, that wouldn’t work, so I’ll translate it myself: He who invalidates another, points to his own imperfection. It comes from a volume in the Talmud which deals with problems of government. What it means is that when we want to disqualify someone, the first flaw that we’ll notice is a flaw we have ourselves. That happens because we are most familiar with our own flaws, and we recognize them quickly when looking at others.

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I had an old pair of eye glasses which were meant for working on the computer and for reading books on paper. They were bifocals, so they enabled me to see everything close, as well as little print. For instance, if I wanted to check the ingredients in a box or can of prepared food. But over the years my eyes grew weaker, and it got to the point where I had to make a real effort to read, and when it came to the little letters I’d have to use a magnifying glass. Finally, one of the handles of my glasses broke, and I went to the optometrist.

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Strangely enough, standing at the counter, when asked by my amiable and smiling optometrist how he could help me, I told him that the frame of my glasses had broken, and it was time for another set. I’d be satisfied, I said, if he just copied the prescription onto a new set and put them in a frame I could wear. He looked at his records to check how long it had been since my the previous prescription, and since it had been some time, suggested a free examination. I agreed. We went to the back room and it took a little while. But it wasn’t a disagreeable experience. He’s a bright young man, and I even enjoyed a bit of conversation while reading the same line from different distances as he placed varying lenses in a frame designed for such examinations. And when he finished, he assured me I’d really enjoy the new glasses once they were ready.

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And so I did. When I put on these new glasses, I was just amazed at all the details I saw. And after trying them with my desktop, my laptop, and reading a book, it seemed to me that the quality of my life had just improved greatly. I thought about all the time I had endured visual difficulties without doing anything to ease the problem. The stress of sitting in just the right position so as to be able to read from the computer screen. I know I’m a self indulgent person. But self indulgence could mean running to the optometrist as soon as I had difficulties reading, instead of avoiding the act because I don’t like stores, and don’t like the help of doctors and such.

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This is just one of my idiosyncrasies. There are many things in life that I don’t care for much, and I just avoid them. This is made possible by some very dear friends who are willing to take the trouble so as to make life a bit easier for me. But there are some things I have to do myself. Like buying a hat… or a camera…or going to see a doctor. In those cases, when I have to do something that is to my own advantage, but that I don’t like to do, I put it off indefinitely. Which is in sharp contrast to my normal behavior. I’m a punctual person. When going someplace to meet someone, I’m usually there between 15 minutes and a half an hour before the designated time (with a book in my backpack, so as not to waste time). When I was in business, if I promised a job for a certain date, I was never late.

I am reminded of a comic sequence by Lenny Bruce in which he berated the police of Los Angeles for hiding in public restrooms and watching through a spy hole to catch homosexuals doing something nasty in the toilet. And then as an aside, he said, ‘I don’t know about you guys, but when I go into a public restroom the only thing I’m thinking about is how to get back out as fast as possible’. That’s the way I am when I go into a store.

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But still, looking at myself critically, I just couldn’t excuse the discomfort I had imposed upon myself just because I don’t like shopping. And as I contemplated this defect of mine, it suddenly occurred to me that this was one of the things I most dislike about my country. As I have often complained to my friends, it’s exasperating to watch the way the government will let a problem grow and grow until it’s unbearable before doing anything about it. For example, Jerusalem used to be a very nice, comfortable little city. When I was a young man I used to go almost everywhere on foot. But over the years the city grew; the population grew much greater; and it seemed as if everyone got a private vehicle. The streets bore more and more traffic until they choked up with gridlock. Bicycles would speed past us as we in cars moved at a speed of two kilometers per hour, before they finally decided to improve public transport. Take another example from five years ago, when the ‘militants’ of Gaza started shooting rockets at towns and cities in the south. At first they just shot a few to see how we’d react. We condemned the rocket attacks. So they figured it was safe, and shot hundreds of them. Our citizens kept running to the shelters, and we would shoot back now and then… but still, it took more than a year till we realized it was war.

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According to my favorite philosophical attitude towards initiating change, I would have to change myself before trying to change the country. I’m willing to give it a try. But I tell myself, I’m old. What’s the point? Change is so much work, and who knows how much longer I have to live anyway. Whereas the country is young. It has plenty of time to improve, and it would be such an improvement. But you know what they say about people who tell you, ‘don’t do as I do, do as I say’

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hindsight

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I recently reread Winston Churchill’s ‘The Second World War’ after which I reread Michael Bar Zohar’s biography of David Ben Gurion in Hebrew. Not the English translation which fits into 426 pages, but the 3 volume Hebrew edition which is 1604 pages long, not counting notes and bibliography. Both of the narratives are fascinating, and cover much of the same time frames from two very different perspectives. In another book I’d read on the politics of Israel at the beginning of the 20th century, there was a comparison of Ben Gurion to Churchill. Since I had read Churchill and learned to respect and admire the man, I thought long and hard about the comparison.

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There are two more or less accepted attitudes regarding the influence of individuals on history. The first is that there are certain unique individuals in history who are able, because of their brilliance or amazing talents… sometimes with the help of a charismatic personality, to rally together a great many other people and produce noteworthy changes in human society or change history by invention or war. The second attitude regards the individual as less important. The exponents of this theory see the progress of humanity as great collective social structures which reach certain strategic planes at which time the most fitting candidate takes the lead in the same way that a dominant lion becomes the leader of a pride. They believe that at any specific time, there are a number of candidates who could take it upon themselves to fill the same role.

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If we look at historical inventions, for instance, we can see that often the same inventions were created in different places at approximately the same time, without knowledge of one another. On the other hand, if we were to study the history of chess, we would see that throughout, there were always chess champions, but some of them were so much more imaginative, that they are thought to be the greatest of all time. When I looked at these two great men, one of whom led his people through a terrible challenge and saved his country from defeat and destruction, and the other who tried to save his people and failed, but who re-established a nation state that had been vanquished and dispersed two thousand years ago, I saw something that I had missed at first read; something they both had in common.

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Both had a vision at an early age and committed themselves to serving their nations in a great way, and they both prepared themselves for the job with severe self discipline. They were both very talented individuals, but more than anything else, they were professionals. That is to say, despite the righteousness of their cause, and their emotional dedication to their goals, they never lost sight of the practical limitations of the circumstances in which they operated. Both of them had to accept choices that were hard for them to live with. They had to be objective about what they could and couldn’t do. They had to accept defeat and continue onward.

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I mentioned in my blog of two weeks ago, after-ache, that I had been studying the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. Now there have always been Jews living in Israel, but it was only in the late 19th and the 20th century that relatively large groups started returning to our home country, the country in which we are the indigenous population. First Theodore Herzl, then Chaim Azriel Weizmann and David Ben Gurion worked to reestablish the state of Israel, and convince the nations of the world that we too deserved a homeland. Coming as I do from a minority group within the Jewish people, it was not that difficult for me to be objective about Ben Gurion, our first prime minister here in Israel, and to compare his vision to what we actually got. When I read that biography the first time, I thought he was a great man, but also made some big mistakes. Looking at him now, I am reminded of the many writers who claimed that after they’d created their characters, they just couldn’t force those characters to act in a certain way… the characters had a will of their own.

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I now believe that history as it unravels, in ever changing circumstances, has it’s own momentum that won’t be bent by man. We can make the most of circumstances, can use our talents to save a hedgehog or teach a kitten to climb a tree, but even with the help of all of mankind’s wisdom and talent, including the wondrous power of the computer, there’s just no way we can make a hedgehog or a kitten. There was no way he could make Israel the way he wanted and hoped it would be, but he had the capacity to understand what it had to be, and that in itself was a type of genius. He was a midwife to the rebirth of our country, and in my heart I believe there was no one else at the time that could have taken his place. There are many quotes by him to choose from, but here’s two that might be the keys to his success.

In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.

Courage is a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared.

in honor of the temporary

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Riding a bicycle (though I haven’t done it for years) is an allegory for me on living life. We have to be constantly aware of balance, and at the same time are bolstered by the forward movement and the wheels going round, establishing centrifugal force. Though yin and yang is not part of the Jewish tradition, when I read about it in my study of eastern religions, I accepted it as an inherent part of life, familiar and inclusive. Each year we have the same holidays at the same time of the year. Are they repeat performances of something we’ve already done? Yes and no. Every week, we read a portion of the pentateuch. Is it the same each year? Again, yes and no.

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These cyclical events are in fact a repeated framework, and there is a general message that is enforced with each experience. But they are different for us each time we observe them. Each time we read a particular portion of the five books of Moses, we look at it differently, and examine it in the light of different commentaries and by comparing the historical chapter to things that have happened in or own lives, or bits of wisdom that may be understood in the context of our own experiences.

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The holiday of tabernacles comes at the start of our year, after celebrating the new year and having a day dedicated to soul searching and the acceptance of our own mortality. Tabernacles reminds us of our exodus from the slavery of Egypt, but we don’t usually dwell on the subject. I live in a stone house as do all of my neighbors, but once a year, we leave the comfort of our homes, and move into temporary booths which are considered home for a week. It is meant to remind us that all of life is temporary. That even the security of home is a temporary circumstance. We don’t suffer much from hurricanes or terrible earthquakes, so we have to take it upon ourselves to remember that the physical structures of our lives are not permanent. The roofs of our booths are built so that we will see the sky through the roof, and the walls of our temporary homes do not insulate us from the environment. On the outside, they all look pretty similar. But on the inside, they are usually decorated, and pictures may be added to make them as pleasant as possible.

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As the years go by, each year provides a very different experience, even though the framework remains the same. Many of us have used the same boards or tent cloth from year to year with very few changes. What’s important about the tabernacles is our own subjective experience, which changes from year to year. Of course, different people have varying enthusiasm towards custom and tradition. Some folks are satisfied to visit such a booth just once, or a few times maybe. They might choose to visit the booth of a friend, or sit in one set up by city administration, or by one of the many synagogues in our town. Those of us who are more religious will build their own booth, and spend more or less time in it. Most of those who have their own booth will eat their meals in the booth. And there are some people who are so adherent that they will not eat in any other place but a booth, which is called in Hebrew, a sukkah. A lot of the restaurants in town have set up booths for their customers to sit in while they eat. This custom is prevalent in our town.

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Among my family and friends it is common for us to eat all our meals in the sukkah, but only a minority insist on sleeping in the booth. Even so, this practice is respected. In my youth I often slept in the sukkah, but nowadays I’m no longer willing to give up the comfort of my own bed.

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The days of this holiday, this year, have been very intensive. I no longer have the strength I once had and was used to. And in this period of my life, it is wearing for me to spend a lot of time with people. Long conversations and continuous social activity wears me out, even though I have the very good luck of meeting with the finest of people, folks that I truly love. So I didn’t really expect that I’d have the strength to write a blog post today. I thought maybe I’d post a photo and leave it at that… maybe a photo and a link to some previous post. But then, I started searching out pictures of the holiday in past years, and I found so many that it was hard for me to choose. And while looking at old pictures, chose to check out some of the recent photos of family and friends in booths this last week, and that made it even harder. And now I’ve written all of this, so here’s another post on the festival of tabernacles.

after-ache

We are well into the holiday season*, but to me religious ceremony is a bit like the ‘trips’ we used to talk about when experimenting with LSD in the 60s.

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The day of atonement is the holiest day in the year. It is the sabbath of all the other sabbaths. On the weekly sabbath, we create an integration of the expression of our religious faith. Unlike some other religions of this world, we do not believe the spiritual good and the material bad. We believe that the material pleasures of the world are as important as one’s spiritual wakefulness. Because of that, many of our precepts concern the physical relationship to material things. One of the things that are not allowed on the sabbath is fasting. And if a fast day falls on a sabbath, we move it to the next day. All except the day of atonement, on which we are commanded to fast.

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It is not meant to be a punishment. We are encouraged to eat till we’re full before the beginning of the fast. The fast is meant just to help us focus on the subject of life and death. For that is the framework within which we are asked to examine our lives. I have referred to soul-searching many times on this blog in the past. But that process, personal self examination can take place on many levels. Haven’t we heard that almost everything in life is relative? And it’s true. If one of the toes of our feet hurts, that toe can become the very center of our concern and attention. But we believe in truth. And truth has its boundaries. There’s a difference between opinions and facts. And the most sobering fact for a human being is that he lives a temporary life, and will die as sure as he was born. It is common, at the time of prayer, to go through a list of the different types of dying.

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So when we examine our acts, behaviors, and our choices, and what is valuable in our lives and what is rubbish while completely aware of the fact that we are going die, and are only on this world for a while, we are able to weigh the true worth of things seriously.

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I mentioned LSD trips earlier. It might be superfluous to tell you, but in case someone is reading this who doesn’t know me, let me say that I and my friends did not take this drug to get high, or to get drunk out of our minds, and drink the beautiful colors… Most of us had studied philosophy or religion, and read the tales of mystics, and wanted to expand our consciousness so as to be aware of those aspects of the world that are beyond the obvious. And though there is much that I could write about my experiences in such adventures, my personal bottom line on the subject, is that I came to the conclusion that the use of LSD is a shortcut to spiritual awareness. But as I used to tell my children, I don’t believe in shortcuts. It is my opinion that it is better to go the long way, and enjoy every step along the way. But back to the acid trip, one of the things we noticed, that regardless of where you started… and there were those who used to light incense, and put on soothing positive music before they indulged. No matter where you start, you don’t know where you’ll go from there.

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Well, the day of atonement is a trip no less powerful than an acid trip, and I’ve had a few. Usually, I start with a few prayers that get me in the mood, but there have been times when I picked a certain subject to work through, or a certain problem to study. I have gone to nature and I have joined a quorum of Jews in prayer. Like acid, you might know when you swallowed the pill, but you don’t know when you’ll feel the effect; so on this holy day you know when you’ll light the two sabbath candles but you don’t know when you’ll get high. I remember one time when I only felt the great uplift a couple hours before they were about to close and lock the gates of heaven.

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This year I begged to study the beginnings of the modern Jewish State. It was the first time I had chosen a secular subject to focus on, on the holy day. You know, we have many names for god. I think of them as faces of god. Just as a person has different faces when he is occupied with different things, so we have different names. There is the one specific name that says it all, but we are very careful about that name, we don’t usually say it. When we come to it in a text or a written prayer, we replace it with another name, because the name itself is so holy. But then, sometimes we exaggerate.

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Our first prayer on the eve of atonement, is a prayer to god that he will cancel all the promises we made to ourselves. And as we approach god, and refer to him, we call him by his name which means ‘place’. That is one of the names of god. And so after asking ‘the place’ to suffer my prayer… and I will admit to you, my dear friends, that I have made so many promises to myself, that after many years of having to beg cancellation, there are still a few promises flying around in my head, and they’re more distressing than a bunch of flies at the dinner table.

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I had a long day. I got upset more than once, and my doctors have warned me not to get upset. It’s bad for my heart. But I didn’t let up. Even after I had me a little nap in the afternoon, I went back to the same subject and continued to contemplate the difficult moral and social problems. In fact, even after the holiday had reached its conclusion, and I had filled my belly with good soup and fine food after the fast, my mind still dwelled on the study of my day of atonement. There were so many paradoxes to deal with, and impossible situations. One of the hardest questions I kept asking myself was how can I be blind to what’s standing right before me? But I had examples to study from: a personal hero of mine who had been blind to something that he knew and understood. But it had been just too terrible to see.

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And seeing is an important issue for me. I have cataracts, and I am aware of a loss in sight. Of course, on the surface there is a far distance between physical incapacity and psychological inability to see. But there are those who believe that even personality is written in our DNA. In any case, such was my state of mind, that I was asking myself, just how far can we widen our perspective and live. Remembering that when Moses asked for a glimpse of god, god told him, a man can’t look at me and live. All night, after the day of atonement, I was unable to sleep. But since I had already scheduled to meet with two very close friends the next day, I tried lying in my bed on the theory that lying down in peace and comfort might strengthen me almost as much as sleeping. I think I did sleep from 4:00 to 5:15 in the morning.

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The next day, I traveled to Tel Aviv with Noga and we had breakfast with Yizhar, whom I hadn’t seen for five years. There have been a number of meetings with him that have coincided with great emotional turns in my life. He’s a research scientist, and shared with us some thoughts and knowledge about eyes and sight. Of course, most eye problems and diseases are related to aging, and he discussed the efforts made to find remedies. In particular he related developments regarding failure of the retina. Though a remedy hasn’t been found there is a treatment that is able to slow the deterioration. The problem, though, is that the medicament slowly becomes more terrible than the disease itself.

Despite the difficult thoughts, it was good to be in the company of dear friends. Very good indeed. And good to return to Jerusalem. Very good.

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(*) As I’ve described in the past, this season which starts with the new year, is called in short ‘the holidays’; almost a month in which we don’t do much work… and we put off nearly everything that we don’t feel has to be done, till after the holidays. First there’s the new year, which is a two day holiday, and then comes the day of atonement which is a 25 hour fast during which we don’t eat or drink. And then comes the holiday of tabernacles which we celebrate for seven days by living in a temporary dwelling. The last day is called the ‘The Great Supplication’ followed by still another holiday which is called ‘the eight day of assembly’, on which day we also celebrate the ‘happiness of the torah’, though these two celebrations are celebrated separately on two succeeding days outside of our country, in the Diaspora.

eve of judgment day

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there is bliss on the day of judgment

גמר חתימה טובה

learning companion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Restart

D099_96I wait each year to eat my first pomegranate on the second day of the holiday and say the blessing which marks the first time I eat a fruit in a year

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?

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it is traditional to eat honey cake, and bread with honey, as a sort of blessing for the new year, that it be a sweet year

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.

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it is common to eat round challah on the New Year

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.

D1871_10the squill appears around this time, and reminds us of the season

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.

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a hand made street poster designed and put up by teenagers in the neighborhood to wish everyone a happy new year

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.

D2469_18it is common to eat apple dipped in honey on the first day of the new year

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.