Category Archives: philosophy

on noticing clouds

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A few weeks back, I got a comment from menhir, mentioning that someone had said that there were no clouds in Israel. I decided to photograph some immediately. Went out for a walk and did it. But then… just couldn’t think of any story to tell that would enable me to use the clouds for illustration. I guess I just like a wide open blue sky, and we do have them now and then. Watching clouds in the sky brings me very personal subjective thoughts… nothing I would share in public. I remember the cloud photos of Stieglitz and Steichen, and how people enjoyed them. But clouds never did that much for me as a subject for photography.

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When taking a walk, by myself or with others, I don’t look for subjects. They find me. Some to be appreciated visually, and some as thoughts, memories, dilemmas or inspiration. I do enjoy company, but when walking alone my thoughts are deepest and longer lasting. If I read a fascinating book, it’ll often accompany me as I walk. I have spent a lot of time with Theodore Roosevelt in the past few weeks. First his autobiography, and then ‘River of Doubt’ which Cheri recommended, and got me interested in TR. It’s an excellent book. As a study of Roosevelt, it reveals much of the same man that I got to know while reading his autobiography. Aside from that, it enabled me to know the others who were part of his great adventure in the Amazon, and provided the background to better understand TR’s passion to conquer new territory.

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A hundred years ago, when he lived his life, there had been a great leap in mankind’s understanding of nature and this planet on which we live. Roosevelt was inspired by the first successful expedition to the north pole. He found a romantic delight in the heroic feats of previous explorers who had revealed many parts of the world, unknown to Europeans and the west. The invention of the train, automobile, airplane, electrical light and devices aroused the hope in people that they would soon know and understand all of the world.

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From the start of the tale, we are aware of conditions and attitudes which will weaken and challenge the expedition. He wishes to learn unknown territory, to map the geography and examine wildlife and plant life which may be completely new to him. But because of prejudice, does not choose to first acquaint himself with the human beings who live on that territory. I don’t blame him. As we do today, he accepted the conventions of his time. He was exploring an area of Brazil. And Brazil was a sovereign nation, whose government was cooperating with him. The natives of that country, living outside of those territories that had the advantages of modern technology and culture were considered primitive cave men whose only hope was being civilized by the representatives of western culture.

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At the start of the expedition there were 19 officers, almost 150 hired hands, and 200 pack animals. As the expedition approached that leg of the journey which was completely unknown (to modern mankind), after reducing the crew to 22 men, there was no way of going back, not enough food, and a lack of equipment, especially appropriate boats to enable them to travel efficiently down a river in which the rapids were impassable. They were forced to bypass those rapids each time when encountered. How different the expedition would have been if they had found some way to cooperate with the indigenous tribes who were native to the land. Or if they had made a primary small visit to the area in order to acquaint themselves with the conditions in the Amazon jungle before attempting to follow a river nearly 1,500 kilometers in length.

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But Roosevelt was a romantic hero of historic proportions, and influenced by the standards of his time. He approached his mission with the preconceptions of his day. He traveled with an entourage that was fitting for a king, or for the ex-president of the USA. As difficult as the journey became, through sickness, wounds, fear and worry, he remained loyal to his principles. He was a man who did not fear to live his life despite the dangers.

life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living

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wisdom of the past

Since starting to use the internet, I’ve encountered a regular stream of quotations from well known thinkers and writers, on a variety of subjects meant to enlighten and encourage us. I’ve often felt that the quotations were false. They didn’t always fit the personality of the individual being quoted. Sometimes they quoted a person whom I’d previously read, and the quote seemed highly unlikely. Occasionally they were irrelevant, such as: “Always zip up your fly before going out” by Albert Einstein. When seeing something like that, I wonder how many people go to the source and try to understand the thoughts and intentions of the person quoted.

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I got a comment from our friend Cheri a few weeks ago that included a recommendation of River Of Doubt by Candace Millard. I read a couple of reviews, and bought the book. I had long heard of Theodore Roosevelt, but had never read him. I had read about him in history books. many years ago. I knew he had written quite a bit himself. But none of his books are translated into Hebrew. Thinking about him, and this tale of an adventure of his in South America, I thought that I would rather meet him in his own words before I read the book about him. I got his autobiography. It’s very different to read a man’s account of his own life as compared to how others see him. Even as I read the forward, I felt a great respect for him. I’ve been reading about American presidents and following their speeches and decisions since the days of Eisenhower and I had never encountered anyone like him. He reminded me of Thomas Jefferson who had led that nation a hundred years before Roosevelt.

As I continued to read the autobiography, I learned to love the man. He was a true leader and teacher. A modest man, he was very aware of his faults and his limitation. He saw himself as a regular fellow. He writes of an occasion when he was toasted by the crew of a Navy vessel on which he had sailed with his wife. It was a a time when he was working with a Government Commission to revive the inland waterways of the country. At the conclusion of the trip, one of the petty officers proposed the toast as follows “Now then, men, three cheers for Theodore Roosevelt, the typical American citizen!” That was the way in which they thought of the American President, and it pleased him greatly.

As a child he had health problems, was a bit weak. As he describes it, he was neither a genius nor exceptionally gifted in talent. But he kept on working on himself, trying to learn what this life was all about and what was truly valuable. He read and studied as a youth. Often beaten by bullies, he learned how to box in order to defend himself. And as a young man, he left his comfortable environment in a well-to-do neighborhood of New York City, and went out west (in those days the Dakotas were considered part of the west), and chose to live the life of a cowboy. As he progressed in life, he sought out challenges; tried to actually live the experiences that attracted him in books. Moreover, he tried to live his life according to the values he believed in, and though he had the greatest respect and affection for the common man, he was not satisfied to go along with the crowd.

Perhaps he was overshadowed by the second President Roosevelt, but in these days, when so many Americans are disappointed by the present American President, I think it would be very helpful to read this exemplary man. For he saw that there was something wrong with the direction his country was taking, and tried to change things. And he tells us what works and what doesn’t when you’re trying to make a change, trying to reform established practices. I don’t agree with all of his opinions, but I do think that what he writes about is important for all who love and care for democracy. And I believe that he presents his values well. He translated the ideas of ‘conservation’ (now called ecology), to a working plan for government, and was the first leader in the world who actually provided tools of government with which to control the abuse of the environment.

He writes:

The men who first applied the extreme Democratic theory in American life were, like Jefferson, ultra individualists, for at that time what was demanded by our people was the largest liberty for the individual. During the century that had elapsed since Jefferson became President the need had been exactly reversed. There had been in our country a riot of individualistic materialism, under which complete freedom for the individual— that ancient license which President Wilson a century after the term was excusable has called the “New” Freedom— turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.

He writes that he often listen and consulted with those with whom he did not agree. He even deliberates on whether one should listen to the arguments of truly evil people, and says that he was able to learn even from them.

I consulted all who wished to see me; and if I wished to see any one, I sent for him … and I always finally acted as my conscience and common sense bade me act.

I would find an occasional humorous anecdote here and there, and laughed along with him as I read.

There was a big governmental job in which this leader was much interested, and in reference to which he always wished me to consult a man whom he trusted, whom I will call Pitt Rodney. One day I answered him, “The trouble with Rodney is that he misestimates his relations to cosmos”; to which he responded, “Cosmos— Cosmos? Never heard of him. You stick to Rodney. He’s your man!”

He talks about reading and books, giving great advice to the student. He might not have told all about his presidency, but he did tell how he worked to live a meaningful life. Telling that, he manages to cover numerous activities that we all engage in. And there is much to learn from his words. I could bring you many quotes from the book, but I will conclude with a short one that I found most important:

But life is a great adventure, and the worst of all fears is the fear of living.

 

home and garden

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the garden behind my home

In the past, I’ve taken you along with me on many a walk, here in Jerusalem. Sometimes in my own neighborhood, and now and then, in other neighborhoods I love. Once, a long time past, I published a series on a number of different communities here. Yet often, after photographing a neighborhood, I feel a sense of frustration. I have such a love for this city… for almost every quarter and every street. Each time I go to the town center, I feel an emotional uplift… and have the same feeling when I am out of town and return to my beloved city. Usually, I would return in my own car, and as I went up the mountain, especially after Ein Chemed, I’d feel this swelling in my chest… of happiness, to be back home, and excitement in anticipation of seeing the city again.

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the perimeter of the block – ‘the gardens of Katamon’

Taking a portrait of a person, one discovers many faces. In Hebrew, the word for face is usually used in its plural form. But it is possible to take a single portrait, and to capture that person that we or his or her acquaintances know. I have done that many times, but when coming to photograph this city, or a part of it… I always have the feeling that I have left out more than I have captured. There is so much here. Recently I got to know a blog which regularly publishes a photo with the title ‘1000 words’. I asked the blogger where the words were, and she told me that she’d heard a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that sometimes that is true. But I have often thought that words, or a painting, have a great advantage over photography. The artist is free to produce those delicate variations that don’t make it into the photo.

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As some of you may remember, I moved to a new home about four years ago. It’s a very nice home, in a pleasant residential neighborhood. I have a neighborhood park right behind my home, so it serves almost as a personal garden. I’ve published some photos of it and the immediate surroundings, in a number of posts since I moved. I couldn’t ask for more. But today I want to introduce you to a small building project in the middle of the city, that is sort of hidden away, not far from the German Colony, which is one of the up beat neighborhoods these days. It is called ‘the gardens of Katamon’.

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It is built on a square piece of land with three and four story houses sitting in line at the perimeter of the block. Their faces towards the center, which is a landscaped park with trees, flower bushes and grass. It’s a fine place to visit, which I do occasionally. And I’m sure it’s a great place to live. I’ve visited that project since it was built, about 20 years ago, and always thought it must be one of the best places to live in the whole city. I get a sense of completeness when walking there. I imagine that the people who live there must surely live happy lives, even though I don’t know anyone personally who lives in one of those homes.

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Even so, it wouldn’t be the right place for me. We all have our personal tastes and particular demands when looking for a home. Some people like the excitement of the center of town. Others want a grocery store just a few steps from home. Lots of people like to live close to work, or close to where their friends live. There are people in our city who would only consider living in a neighborhood where most of the people have the same religious or cultural inclination as they do. Only the luckiest among us are able to find a home in the neighborhood we want, available at an affordable price, and fulfilling all of our demands including the way it looks. But most of us here are very happy to be living in this city that we love.

 

Most of these pictures are from an album of the place found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shimonz/albums/72157696040847104
Those of you who would like to revisit the post in which I shared the environment of my new home are welcome to find it here: https://thehumanpicture.wordpress.com/2014/04/25/in-the-vicinity/

yesterday

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almond blossoms at the top of the little hill where I live in Jerusalem

When I came into this world, it was hell on earth. My earliest memories are of nightmare qualities. My parents, who were orthodox Jews, were married by ‘arrangement’. and complemented each other in a strange and unexpected manner. My father didn’t really want to bring any children into this world, but my mother wouldn’t hear of such a plan. It was either marriage with children or no marriage and he agreed. In an attempt to offer me some consolation, he suggested that I read history, and this I did. It gave me a wider perspective of human affairs. My mother, on the other hand, told me of the good in the world. She tried to share with me what she loved about life. She was an incurable optimist.

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Nechama my cat does not believe in religion or any ideology. she looks at life from the ground up. she has an exaggerated faith in me. but when we’re taking a walk together and she sees a dog in the area, she hides behind a bush or up in the tree. she doesn’t rely on me to save her.

As a young man I started my learning with the study of religion, and from there I continued to mechanics, science and engineering. This was simply because Jewish people could not feel safe in any country. They had been driven out of one country after another and been forced to adjust to endless changes in language and cultures. The study of engineering or mechanics would allow me to feed myself and my family regardless of where I might have to go to find shelter. But after securing a professional base, I found myself drawn to philosophy. As I would read the thoughts of different philosophers, I was convinced almost every time, identifying with the thinker, and adopting his point of view until I came across the next which I would adopt too. I was naive and trusting when reading these volumes by intelligent rational people… well, some of them were rational. Eventually, I came to existentialism, and this was more or less where that search ended. I tried to live the present. Not to reach out in hope and prayer for the future… not to entertain fantasies about what could happen, and what I wanted to happen. And not to look back… because in my case, I couldn’t even take a peek without inadvertently seeing images of a blood drenched inferno, being beaten up, and tortured by fear.

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she’s an old one eyed cat, but she hasn’t run to fat. she watches the birds on the hill without disclosing her opinions

For most of my life, I continued on this path. And as I’ve mentioned many times in this journal, my life became better and better. To the point where after sixty some years, dying quietly on the floor of my college office after a heart attack, I argued with an ambulance paramedic who wanted to take me to the hospital, saying that I had a good life, and just wanted to be taken home, which was a good place in which to say good bye to the world. Circumstances outwitted me, and I was eventually taken to the hospital where I was saved, but that is a story for another time.

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this is wild mustard that grows freely in the fields at this season, and can be included in a sandwich without industrial additives

What I wanted to say, though, was that for most of my life I preferred to focus on the present. But as I grew old, I realized that in many cases that which was most precious to me, was not the contemporary favorite. It was not just that I’d grown old and was no longer able to keep up, and so waxed nostalgic about what had been popular when I was younger. In my youth I had enjoyed Vivaldi and Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. I had read philosophical speculations that were sometimes two and three thousand years old, and back again up till the present day. In the pursuit of happiness I had the advantage of checking out anything and everything that had been studied before me. And then… sometime after my retirement, I became entranced by the desire to keep ‘up to date’… and was disappointed.

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more almond blossoms at the same place

technology is a straight line; the arts, philosophy, and music are part of a timeless blossoming of the human spirit. there is no before and after in art.

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As we all know, there is nobility in ‘art for art’s sake, or studying for the sake of knowledge. One discerns music by taste. The reason to play is for the sake of enjoyment…of the player or the listener; either or both. But in the case of technology, there is constant forward motion and progress is judged by practicality. Technology started before recorded history, before the invention of the wheel, before the invention of scissors and pliers or the discover of the uses of fire. And we moved a step forward every time we encountered a practical way to get results that were even better than what we were getting before. There was a long period of time when man was learning how to harness the power of water moving in a river to perform jobs that people had previously been doing by hand. And then there was the steam engine, and then the internal combustion engine. And while these major industrial miracles were being celebrated, there were hundreds and thousands ‘little’ miracles that added to man’s ability to impose his will on nature.

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the same corner where we looked at post modern sculptures on that rainy day

The industrial revolution was perhaps the first time that major customs and conventions were replaced and changed in order to placate the demands of technological progress. After that came the electrical era, and we are now at the very start of the digital age. It is hard to guess just exactly where we’ll go. But I keep in mind that the god of technology is efficiency, whereas the god of art, music and philosophy is reflected in the infinite variations of human sensitivity, empathy, emotions, and the questioning of our own existence.

in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

I first came across science fiction in the 50s when studying in America. Came across those inexpensive SF magazines and paper back books with appealing covers enjoyed by a relatively small circle of readers. They offered conjecture as to the future; a future in which technology would offer solutions to many of the hardships associated with sustaining material existence. And they seemed to ask what would concern us in the era that seemed then to be just around the corner. What would have to be dealt with when we were freed of our day to day burdens that were then such a large part of maintaining our existence.

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Ursula K. LeGuin started publishing after I had left America, but she continued in the tradition of those writers and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. She challenged us to change our thinking as to the purpose and the content of human life. In her honor, I would like to re-examine one of her classic stories; a story translated to Hebrew and published in the newspaper here after she passed away a little more than a week ago. The story is called, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. It can be downloaded for free from the internet.

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It’s a short story which presents a version of Utopia. It describes a small city. No emphasis is put on technological inventions. Because the people there live simply. But she stresses, the people themselves are not simple. They are sophisticated and intelligent. They are happy. They have no king and no army. They have no cars because they don’t need them. There is music and sporting competition. She describes a festival, the first day of summer, and it is joyful. The one negative aspect of this utopia is an idiot child who is kept in a dirty basement, all alone and neglected. Her description of the conditions of this child’s living space are dismal and repulsive. But the young are taught that this is what has to be. That the happy lives they live are dependent on the misery of this one child.

She also tells of the those who leave the city. She doesn’t tell us much about them. Just that they leave. They leave alone, and we don’t know where they go. They seem sure of themselves. There is the suggestion in the story that they leave because they cannot bear to live in a city where even one person is treated so cruelly. It is of that I wish to speak, the people who walk away from Omelas.

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I have written in the past about my experience in kibbutz. I wanted to try living there after I had studied a bit about communism and socialism, and thought this would be an opportunity to see if the theories could be realized in real life. At the time, the Soviet Union was a cruel dictatorship, and I didn’t want to believe that this was the inevitable outcome of establishing a communist society. While on kibbutz, I fell in love with the society. But I also saw its faults. I left because my dear wife just didn’t appreciate this ideal as I did. I don’t regret that I have lived the rest of my life back here in Jerusalem. I consider myself blessed. Still the experience has stayed with me.

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My example of the paradox of ‘life in utopia’ is less dramatic than the story of Omelas. My work was being part of a team there that grew bananas. There was a fellow on the team that used to bum cigarettes off of me. As members of the commune, we both had all of our needs supplied. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. Once a week, I would find as many packs as I used to smoke then, in the same compartment where my newly laundered clothes would be delivered. No charge. Yet day after day, sometimes saying he had run out, and most often just asking if I had a spare cig’, he would ask for one of mine. I never asked him why. But I wondered. Could be he was trying to stop smoking… or was it his way of making friendly contact? No big deal, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.

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Often, what makes everyone happy, will make someone unhappy. Everyone wants to listen to music, but one fellow prefers silence. Everyone wants a nice green lawn in front of his home, but one fellow wants the grass to grow wild, to grow knee high around his house. Sometimes the happiness of the majority can be like a poke in the eye of a small minority. That’s the way it is among people. Even the best society can’t be perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. And no matter how good, there will always be someone looking for the faults; unhappy because of the imperfections. We’re not all built the same way, neither physically, emotionally or mentally. Ask yourselves, is it possible to build a society, even with no expenses spared… even with great consideration and respect towards all… in which one person won’t stand up and yell, “you’re all a bunch of happy idiots”? And isn’t that person an unhappy individual?

defragmentation

Believing, as I do, that everything is connected means you can study something years ago; let it slip away till it’s a faint ghost of a memory, and then realize later that it’s still applicable, though you’d given it up for lost… locked in a previous context.

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this fellow usually visits with me when I come by. but I was with someone, so he watched me from a distance

When I first started using a PC, and was working intensely, I would get to the point where there was a marked slowing in the ability of the computer to compute. Sometimes it would send me crazy irrelevant messages… until I realized that I needed to defragment the hard disk. No big deal. It just took quite a while… and I’d usually give it some time by itself, till it finished its work. Fragmentation of the hard disk is caused by the dispersal of bits of memory in non contiguous areas. Say, if I had a special drawer in my study, reserved for ‘important papers’… and when my friends would give me advise on how to make money or influence people, I’d ask them to write it all down and then I’d put the notes in that same drawer. I put my insurance policies there too, you know, the warrantees for the refrigerator, the washing machine, and the occasional computer I might buy… and of course post cards from friends and a drawing from a grandchild would go in that drawer too. I remember getting a check one time for a translation, or maybe it was taking a picture back in the days when you actually got paid for taking a picture… and it was raining so I didn’t really feel like going to the bank, and was going to put it in that drawer, but the drawer was filled to capacity, so I just put it between the pages of the book I was reading. And then there was the time when the pizza delivery guy came, and wasn’t able to change a 200 shekel note. I remembered that I had put something in a book. So I open the book on my desk, which is a dictionary of ‘full’ spelling of Hebrew words, in contrast to the traditional spelling, which used to be fine for scholars (the traditional), but was replaced by full spelling in an effort at standardization and the vain dream of avoiding misunderstandings.

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In going through the dictionary, I come across a bill of 100 shekels (or was it liras) with the image of Herzl on it, but that bill, though a collectors item, had gone out of currency long ago, and, I had to check book after book trying to find enough dough to pay the delivery boy… that’s fragmentation in my world.

Defragmentation is the moving of those bits of memory so that particular memories will be arranged in a contiguous manner, saving space, and making things easier to find. Nowadays, the computer is so smart it can automatically decide to put our house in order once a week, and even at 3:00 am, so as not to disturb me, though I’ll admit that I do sometimes wake up at 2:45 and go to the computer to check out what Wikipedia has to say about wells in the desert or some such pressing issue.

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We’ve been fragmented. We live in little houses by ourselves. We’ve been cut off from family and childhood friends. We have no room in our homes for the aged; no time to take care of them. We send them off to institutions. We send our mentally unbalanced off. We send our cripples and those born with ‘birth defects’. We leave behind us the wise and the experienced when they are no longer productive. We sit in our cars for hours, on our way to work or on our way home, finding ways to kill time so we won’t burn away from frustration. We’ve forgotten where we come from and where we’re going. We amass possessions that interest us for a short time until they’re replaced by new flashy toys; plastic boxes with LED monitors exhibiting maps, contacts and play lists. Boxes that take pictures, and can hear us when we ask for a song.

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the Lion of Judah has learned to throw trash in the trash bin

The environment is not just the planet and the hole in the ozone over Australia. It’s the neighbor you don’t know living in the apartment over your head, and the fellow who takes the garbage away, and the clerk in the store. There’s a saying I heard years ago… ‘you can’t take it with you’. It doesn’t just apply to money. It includes all the rest. The shoes and clothes, the car we drive, the refrigerator that makes ice cubes, the TV and the telephone… even time. It’s all temporary. There was a time when we had to work for a while most days so that we’d have something to eat and clothes to keep us warm when the weather got cold. Then we invented machines which could do some of the work and save us time. But strangely enough, we had less time. Now we don’t speak of time saving devices, because that illusion has faded.

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And through it all, the rat race, and standing in a line on the sidewalk, in the middle of the night, waiting for Apple to open their doors and sell their newest version of the telephone that is smarter than we are, we have momentary memories of happiness… memories of thinking that life is precious. Will we find that happiness again if we spend a weekend in Italy? Or in the Virgin Islands? Is there anything better than looking at nature through 3D eye glasses that can follow status updates and take pictures of the parking lot we’re wandering through, looking for the car we displaced?

Aldous Huxley said, “I wanted to change the world, but I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself”.

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granddaughters visiting

Maybe it’s time for social defragmentation. Freedom is the most precious commodity in life. let’s not waste it. Let’s not waste life itself.

sanctity

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what I like about the rock badgers is that they
are a community, as differentiated from a herd. Everyone knows
what he or she is able to do, or to contribute to the group

First, let me make it plain and clear that what I’m about to share with you is not meant as a recommendation. It is not the only way, and it is not better than any other way. But this is the popular way of seeing the subject in Jerusalem, and it’s the way I was raised and educated.

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we don’t see the bird, but we know her by her tracks

When I was young, before television came to our country, I enjoyed going to the movies. Before watching the actual movie we got to see the news of the day (or week) as presented on film, in black and white and in Hebrew. After that, there would be advertisements. These too would be in Hebrew, but they weren’t presented on movie films. We would watch a series of slides projected on the big screen, some of them in black and white and some in color, and a narrator would let us know the advantages of the different products. It wasn’t all that interesting, and we’d seen most of the advertisements before. But it was the way things were done, and we waited patiently for the slide show to end. In those days we didn’t have commercial advertising on the radio. Israel was a socialist country, and though you could see advertisements on posters or in the newspaper, it was something of a novelty, and we learned what was for sale.

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one of my favorite streets in our neighborhood

Since then, advertisement has become intrusive. First in radio and television, with little taste or sensitivity, and now on the net, on certain popular sites, or when I want to read the news. There is a certain news platform that I visit often. It has taken the place of reading the daily newspaper for me. But though I got the app that blocks pop-ups, this online newspaper which sports advertisement between blocks of text, also has banners on the top, and a few snakes climbing up from the bottom, so that it’s quite a bit of work just to read a page.

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everyone has his own point of view

Of course, there are tricks we develop to protect ourselves against the onslaught. I’ve learned to keep the sound on mute till I really want to hear something. Just so I won’t have to suffer the unexpected shriek in my ear. But in this age, when most people seem to be worried about sexual harassment, I have found that what bothers me the most is noise. And when checking to see if there was any literature on the subject, I was startled and dismayed to discover ‘ego depletion’, ‘Decision Fatigue’ and ‘negative feedback loop’ which led me to the book by John Tierney and Roy Baumeister: “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. It’s a book about self-control, and one of the first things I learned from them was that if you force students to choose between watching Debra Winger in “Terms of Endearment” or each getting his own bag of Doritos, the students will probably be so ego depleted that they won’t be able to study again until the following week. It seems that making a lot of decisions wears out the mind. My reward for sticking with the search was the discovery of a fascinating writer on technology and the future, Prof. Tim Wu who teaches at Columbia Law School, and is famous for ‘net neutrality’, a concept which he is said to have originated.

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Nechama at home

Tim Wu recalls a point made by the economist Herbert Simon who said in 1971 that the wealth of information causes the scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. He pointed out that what information consumes is the attention of its recipients. A wealth of information then, means a poverty of attention. This explains why those poor children, forced to learn reading and writing in school plus history, adding and subtracting, after a night in which they watched wholesale killing and romance on TV… maybe even so-called reality… while communicating with their peer group on facebook, tweeter, and telegram develop ADHD. According to Wu, there are engineers at work developing apps that are meant to squeeze more and more attention out of young human beings, creating an addiction to media.

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One of the names of god in our language is ‘the place’
this is to remind us that he is everywhere,
and exists at the very place we’re standing.
this picture sort of spells it out

Now, some three and a half thousand years ago… even before the invention of Ritalin, there was a man named Moses who started conversing with god, and received a divine gift. Now I know that there are a lot of reservations these days about the existence of god, so maybe we should describe this ancient belief in more contemporary terms. We could call him nature, or the universe… or the entirety of all existence. The idea was to stop all incidental activity for one day out of seven, and instead of that, to celebrate life itself. You see, sometime in childhood, every human being discovers that he or she is not going to live forever; that we are born and eventually we’ll die. This is a traumatic piece of news. But after that we learn that if we’re busy doing things… running around, playing games of tension and suspense, or stimulating ourselves with the help of hormonal discharges… we can forget the traumatic knowledge and enjoy the excitement. Now this gift of the one day in seven is meant to give us back our perspective; to remind us that we are part of nature. For one day, there is no work. But work is a concept too. It doesn’t just mean your job. Our sages delineated work according to the activities in the holy temple. So we refrain from lighting a candle or turning on an electric switch… or even listening to instrumental music. Or getting into a car. There are people who say, ‘Back in those days you had to get on a donkey, and he didn’t have GPS, so it was a lot harder then. But that’s not the point at all. You can read, you can eat (and we generally prepare the very best foods for this day), you can walk and you can sing. Actually, there are a lot of things that you can do. But this one day has a character all its own. The Sabbath is different from all other days. We call it a holy day. In Hebrew, the word holy means different. The root is found in a word for negative difference too. But usually holiness is used for the positive difference.

D1282_15
here’s to that which you can see
but you just can’t touch

And now we come to the very essence of what I wanted to tell you. The sanctification of this day; how it becomes holy. Sanctity is not automatic. The day does not demand its own respect. It is only we, each individual Jew who sanctifies it. First we light two candles, side by side, to mark the day. And then, at the beginning of the evening meal (because every day in our calendar starts with the eve and not the morning, nor midnight… but with the setting sun), we raise a goblet of wine, and bless the holy day. It doesn’t have to be wine. One can choose the alternative for any reason, and bless the day with bread. It’s either bread or wine. And most important, that the individual offers his devotion in order to make the object holy. Holiness is not imposed. It’s by choice. In a marriage between a man and a woman, we see a very similar process. The man says to the woman, ‘behold, you are holy to me’. Saying that alone, in front of two witnesses is enough to make a marriage. It is like love. The love is in its offering, and not in its acceptance, though that is important too.