Category Archives: philosophy

politics

President Trump
It’s been a year since the citizens of the USA elected their new president, and both the social media and the news media have great difficulty accepting the results. We read the stream of disparaging comments regarding the president, alongside the moaning and crying of the disappointed. Since then, there’ve been devastating hurricanes in Florida and Texas, and a terrible fire in California. Those natural tragedies became old news very quickly. But the anger and the insult over Trump’s election have not gone away. It looks as if it’ll continue till the end of his term in office. Is this in our best interest? They’ve had a lot of presidents there, and they’re strict about the rules. Once a president is elected he serves for a term of four years, and if the people like him they can ask him to serve for another term. It’s very hard to fire a president. There is a mechanism for it, but it’s never been really done.

Let’s take a break from the super charged emotions, and study the situation objectively. Looking at ourselves, it’s important to remember just how lucky we are. Most of our ancestors lived in harder times. We don’t choose when or where to get born or which culture to be raised in. It’s a matter of luck. We come, we live a while, and then we’re gone… like a lot of people before us. Usually, not long after we get here, we notice a few things that could be improved. And if we don’t notice, someone tells us. Youth, having come recently, are most enthusiastic about change. The older folks are more aware of the complexities.

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Quite a few years have gone by since that first democracy in Greece. It wasn’t perfect. Only about 10% of the population voted, slavery was legitimate, and there wasn’t equal pay for women. But over the years, the institution has grown. The objective of democracy is to govern the society according to the will of the majority with consideration and sympathy for the minorities and for the helpless. You could say that it’s a lot more comfortable living in a democracy these days than it was in the past. And there’s hardly any room for comparison with living in a dictatorship, whether it’s governed by a king, an ideologue or a despot. All of us live in countries that have known better leaders… and worse. One of the nice things about living in a democracy is that leaders are exchanged after a while. In other regimes, leaders have been known to hand the reins over to a son or best friend. Once, they were offered to a horse.

In this last election there was an elderly professional politician with a dubious reputation running against an elderly TV personality who had organized a number of ‘beauty competitions’ in the past. Most of the voters didn’t like either of them, but the rest of the candidates were even less popular. The majority chose the woman politician. She would have been the first woman to be president in their country. But according to the time tested conventions of American government, the position was awarded to the TV personality. He was more popular in more states or something like that. The race was close. Keep in mind that these rules were established long before any of the voters were born.

Since then, the crying and moaning, good jokes and bad about the president; and some really vulgar insults and hints that he might have betrayed his country have become an obsession of the news media. Some of the most enlightened citizens of the west, intelligent and educated people, think nothing of descending to the lowest levels of foul mouthed insults in order to express their disapproval of the president. The half of the country that voted for the TV performer are insulted as well. Instead of offering new goals and aspirations, the disappointed are demonstrating their contempt for the president, and for government, and the barbarians are watching.

This isn’t only happening in America. I’ve seen the same phenomenon here in Israel. Political groups rally against one another with outspoken hatred, and hurl insults and lies at each other. I do not believe in political correctness. But at the same time, I’m amazed that the same people who worry about the feelings of minorities and handicapped people see no necessity for respect and politeness to their fellow man when it comes to political expressions. From what I’ve seen, such emotion packed politics have become common in Europe as well. Let’s not forget that respect and self-respect are part of the same thing.

Society as a whole is built on common conventions. Just as we personally undergo change, our society and our rules change with the passage of time. We make new laws in order to improve our collective well being, and sometimes these laws are retracted or changed because they didn’t work. An example of this in the US was the prohibition of alcohol which led to a rise in criminal activity and public disobedience. The law was rescinded. The nature of leadership has progressed in like manner. Like the swing of a pendulum, the leadership has gone back and forth, giving priority to conservatives and liberals alternatively. What might be considered an advantage to one part of the population may be suffered as a grievous injury to another part. And yet we need the cooperation and the partnership of the vast majority of the population in order for this sort of government to work. When encountering injustice, we may protest. The most severe protest in a democratic society is civil disobedience. It’s considered elegant. But often, it is accompanied by violent anti social behavior as well. If we are to countermand civil order, we risk chaos and an increase in the power of the police and army, and a reduction of our own civil liberties. Because of the price that has to be paid, the public is usually loathe to employ such methods. For we know, that in another four years we’ll have a new opportunity to change the government.

If we insult or provoke our political opponents, we will just amplify the hostility between the sides. If I have a neighbor with whom I disagree, but I see him every morning as we go to work and again as we return home in the evening, I prefer that we’ll wish each other a good day and smile when we meet. Our fellow citizens are our neighbors. Those that voted for the prohibition of alcohol didn’t intend to bring gang fights and machine guns to their city streets. They just wanted more peace and quiet. Those that think that aggressive confrontation against injustice will teach the other side to respect our freedom should take a long look at Syria where a half a million civilians have been murdered in the past few years, and many more millions have fled the country and remain refugees in far off places.

I believe that a truly progressive person should speak clearly and softly. He or she should be careful to stick to the truth and focus on reason much more than on emotion. We should remember that the message is not meant to influence our greatest opposition, but to convince those that are still undecided. If we convince some of the opposition, that’s good too. But time and experience may convince even those who don’t want to listen to us. And all the while, we certainly don’t want to alienate any of those who might be considering our merits.

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a modest mermaid in Jerusalem

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human frailty

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Charlie, contemplating human frailty

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photo of the central bus station in Nahariya

there is no loneliness more painful than that in the company of your fellow man.

soul searching

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As human beings we live with an endless chain of paradoxes. We have a desire to know the world. And yet, the more we learn, the more we are aware of all we don’t know. For each step in the learning process widens our horizons, and allows us a glimpse of something more. Many have found that the most difficult subject to learn is the nature of ourselves.

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How well we know the situation in which someone we know is able to give advice and support to others, but is unable to help himself or herself when caught in the same situation. Our view of ourselves is subjective. When we first hear our own recorded voice, we are surprised. ‘Do I sound like that?’ we ask ourselves. And for many, a photograph of themselves can be a strong emotional experience. Some people can’t bear to be photographed… and not because they believe that the camera steals the soul from the individual. Which reminds me of a miniature poster I saw attached to the refrigerator of a dear friend I visited in Berkeley in the 90s. It said: ‘Denial is not a river in Egypt’.

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Early in childhood, we begin to see ourselves in a certain image relative to the people around us. As a young student, I enthusiastically adopted the viewpoint that we all have similar potentials, and that our education and environment direct us to the view we have of ourselves. Since then, I have become convinced that genetics have an important part in the forming of the personality, and I now believe that it is a combination of inherent personality characteristics and the early experiences of coming to terms with others, including parents, siblings, and general environment. But as important as these influences are, I also believe in personal choice. That we can work with what we were given, and that exercising this choice, we can find freedom. We know people who seem filled with themselves, positive, and self confident… and others who are painfully shy, and self-effacing. The better we get to know such a person, the more apparent it is that there is no true reason for such an extreme persona.

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A good part of the problem is the subjective nature of a person. If we are extremely self critical, a compliment can be interpreted as ridicule. If we are very self confident, a word of criticism may be interpreted as an attack, or as an expression of jealousy on the part of the person who criticized us. Most of us do not reach such extremes. We are somewhere in between. But there is always the danger of losing sight of ourselves. This is the nature of subjectivity. The antidote to that is objectivity; seeing ourselves from outside. Now and then it is necessary to detach ourselves from all the stimuli around us, and study ourselves… our behavior and our thoughts… the vision we have of our own image.

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The existentialist thinkers emphasized the present, and saw dwelling on the past or the future, a distraction from reality. It wouldn’t be true to say that the past no longer exists. Much of it does still exist. But it has been integrated into the present, and by becoming aware, as much as possible, of all that has been taken from the past and incorporated in the present, we have a better grasp of our own unique world than when we are relating to separate tidbits of experience and memories isolated in another framework of time. If we had a traumatic experience, for instance, each time we revisit the memory, we are once again shocked and crippled by the experience itself. However, if we were able to see ourselves objectively, including the scar that we carry from the time of the original trauma, we might come to a very different conclusion about the importance of that trauma, and might choose to relate to it differently.

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Denial has tremendous power. We can bury ourselves, or invent a false image of ourselves, all for the purpose of avoiding certain truths that we can’t bear to see. We might be conscious of making the same mistake over and over again… and try to stop this errant behavior. Yet our distaste for a certain subject, or a certain memory… our embarrassment or shame… may lead us while our efforts at repair go unresolved. This process, the examination of our own behavior, and looking at ourselves as others see us, is called ‘soul searching’. We are searching for the true individual behind the defenses, the excuses, and the persona with which we negotiate inter personal relations with others.

students

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One of the most beautiful aspects of the summer is that it’s vacation time for students. And just as the rest of us are inclined to fall into routine, to live our lives automatically, like unfeeling robots (with a headache, at times), so too, students can get into the habit of learning bits of information by heart, and collecting them under the tongue or in the inner ear, till they start sliding out the nose. How wonderful, and how necessary, the vacation. And in honor of summer vacation, let me share with you my thoughts on this very special occupation.

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Unlike monks, priests, rabbis, nuns, religious or monastic men and women, there is one category of holiness that requires no ascetic self discipline. That is the role of the student, who follows his curiosity, and grows day by day, increasing his understanding of the world around and within him, his awareness of his fellow man, and his love for all living things and even the inanimate objects that make up our universe.

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Unfortunately, because society has deemed it necessary for children and youths to study certain functional bits of knowledge, and combined this need with the need of adults to be rid of children for the majority of the day… so that they, the adults, may be free to work, there has been an ever growing resentment towards study. This anger becomes more acute, and at times turns to outright hatred when the ‘baby sitting’ is accompanied by torturous tests which humiliate the so-called student.

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But those who have tasted the sweetness of study for its own sake, and have opened their hearts and minds to the thirst for knowledge, there is no pleasure that can compete with learning, for it is in itself a transcendental experience. The study hall is richer than the finest palace, and its occupants melt from pleasure as their awareness grows without bounds or boundaries. Nothing is forbidden. Everything makes sense. If not at first, then eventually. The student learns to be self assured in the knowledge that whatever is known by another human being can be learned by any man or woman.

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The true student doesn’t study for the sake of a degree. He has no need for prizes or awards. Even if graduated or accredited in his profession, he continues to apply himself diligently because learning is uplifting and fills him with joy. Our greatest teachers were simple craftsmen who didn’t make a profession either of learning or teaching.

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Study itself is best unselfish. Students take great pleasure in sharing their knowledge. And the best teacher is one’s fellow student who’s taken an extra step ahead. All the social stigmas fade and disappear in the study hall. One’s personal wealth is negligible. Beauty is skin deep. Toys and luxuries are forgotten. The more one learns, the stronger one becomes. Not like the muscle builders on the beach who become bound and crippled by their overwhelming muscles, the wise student becomes more sensitive and modest with each passing day, and more aware of the infinite presence of the universe. His or her determination to learn more is not for the sake of self aggrandizement, but out of love for the world as it is.

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Tests… yes, there are tests. Life is full of tests. As long as we are alive and conscious we are tested. We may choose to avoid, to evade, or try to escape those tests, but they come running after us with indefatigable determination. The test of knowledge is that it be clear in your mouth. So that if someone asks you something, you need not hesitate, and then tell it to him. You should be able tell it to him immediately, and in such a way that it is easily understood.

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The photos seen here are of students and their living quarters at the University of Ariel. Oh what a pleasure it is to be a student.

thinking of tolerance

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A newly found blog friend of mine, Corina, posts a regular sort of weekly post, in which she says, “If we were having coffee”, and then shares what’s been happening in her life, or some ideas she’s been thinking about. Turns out there are a lot of people who post their Weekend Coffee Share as a regular feature. Last week, when I was writing about the walk along the promenade opposite the old city in Jerusalem, I mentioned the monument to tolerance, and I thought I’d use this template to discuss tolerance this week.

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The monument was built by Aleksander Gudzowaty. And he carved his thoughts on the subject into stone, next to the sculpture, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English so that everyone might think about his inspiration for building this piece. When considering publishing the photo of the shrine, I couldn’t help thinking of how such righteous messages are received on the internet. There are so many fine posts regarding improved human relations, sensitivity to our fellow man, and peace. So how is it that within most societies, we see countless examples of needless cruelty, prejudice, and unfair treatment?

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What is the true measure of tolerance? Does it mean that when working alongside of a man or woman whose skin is of a different color than ours, we should treat him or her as an equal? Well to tell you the truth, I believe that a person who judges others by the color of their skin, is so unaware or stupid, that he might be a danger to himself. When I hear jokes about dumb blondes I have to make a quick exit to get a breath of fresh air. And on the other hand, someone who insists and preaches to us that blacks deserve equal rights to whites sounds much the same as someone who gets on a podium somewhere and announces to us that the world isn’t flat. So just maybe, tolerance demands that we listen to those who declare the obvious with respect and patience.

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It might mean that one who is a vegetarian or vegan have patience with those who eat cows and chickens, insects or frogs… for if we travel around the world, we find that there are those that eat horses, and those who eat dogs and cats. Tolerance is accepting the habits and customs of those unlike ourselves… as long as they don’t attack us or murder or kidnap our children. But at what point do we put an end to tolerance? There was a museum exhibit in New York, a number of years ago. As it happened, I was visiting there at the time, and heard the controversy first hand. It seemed that an artist of some sort was granted the opportunity to exhibit a little figurine of Christ on the cross in a bottle of piss. I don’t have to explain to you what this provocation did to those people who see Christ as a physical manifestation of god himself. There were those who felt the exhibit should be removed from the museum. Others felt that removing it would be a deathblow to freedom of speech, and the cultural enrichment of the American people.

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Sometimes it’s hard to know just how tolerant we should be if it is peace we truly desire. When one thinks of tolerance, one remembers all those circumstances in which we were bothered by the behavior of another, and overcame our immediate desire to make light of the taste or behavior of another. Perhaps some of us are too quick to take offense. Maybe we are insensitive to others, and don’t give them enough space… don’t respect their need to express themselves, or to follow their own intuition or beliefs. But is it possible to tolerate any and every affront… or attack. How do we design the borders of social behavior? I would like to ask you, my reader. Is there a point at which tolerance must stop? And what is that point?

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Where I’m staying as I write this post, I am about half a kilometer from a Moslem neighborhood. On schedule, a number of times a day, the local mosque broadcasts prayer calls at full volume, with powerful loudspeakers aimed in my direction. Even listening to the music, with the windows closed, the prayer is heard, disrupting all other sound. I do believe in the freedom to worship. But I find such practices disturbing.

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poster composed of paintings by children on the subject of ‘different but together’

Here in our country, we have neighbors who opposed our laws and believed that we had abused the rights of their co-religionists. They started shooting rockets at us. To insure that we wouldn’t strike back, they surrounded themselves with their own children while they were shooting at us. They would shoot at us and run away, leaving their children surrounding the rocket launcher. And when there was return fire, they held a press conference, waving the body parts of their children to show just how cruel we were.

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The monument found in Jerusalem is the work of an artist who appeals for sympathy regarding the beliefs and practices of others. But let me tell you how the concept of tolerance is used in mechanics or in building. When a part is made that has to configure within a machine or a physical system of any sort, it’s dimensions are cited by the engineer or designer. However, since an exact measure is often unobtainable, the tolerance describes the allowable deviation from a standard. For example, the range of variation permitted in attaining a specified dimension in machining a piece.

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sculpture by Ran Morin

Is it not necessary then, that we delineate our objectives in codifying human behavior within a social system before we speak of tolerance? Otherwise, we may find ourselves looking out at the world from behind the teeth of predator who is about to swallow us up and devour us, about to leave this world behind forever…

fate or free choice

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blue skies and the snow beginning to melt away

I got the letter from goodreads this week, with the March New Releases. I found interest in a book called ‘The Bookseller’ by Cynthia Swanson. It tells the story of a woman in her late 30s who runs a book store with her best friend and enjoys her life and circumstances. But then she starts having this reoccurring dream in which she lives a different life, married to a wonderful man and the mother of three children. And as the story continues, she finds herself torn between the two lives.

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sculpted by nature; I see two birds facing one another

It reminded me of a poem I read many years ago, by a Chinese author, Chuang Tse, in which he tells us that he doesn’t know whether he is a man dreaming that he’s a butterfly… or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. And strangely enough, the book, and the whole idea of alternative lives or alternative universes integrated well with some ideas I’ve been having about our national elections, coming up in less than a month.

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red anemones raising their heads between patches of snow

I have noticed in recent years, that the democratic contest at election times has become more and more desperate. Where once we listened to ideological arguments regarding the economic system, or the best way to insure the national security, we are now bombarded by insults and accusations coming from both sides of the barricades. Accompanied by hysteric claims that life won’t be worth living if the opposing side were to win the election. Charges of corruption are heard every day. And the mood that is felt in public seems less like that in the halls of academia, and more like that in the football arena, each side shouting their support for sporting heroes, and insulting the opposing side. I have seen this happening in England too, and in the US.

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cultured flowers whose seeds were blown by the wind… and came up in the middle of the park’s grasses

How and why this has happened, is interesting. And I have some thoughts on the subject. But more important to me, is whether we can overcome the urge to look at the political determination as a life and death struggle. The truth of the matter, is that when we live among friends or as a family, we have to accept that we are not all the same, nor are our desires identical. We make compromises. We forgive all kinds of irrational behavior, difficulties… even pain. My beloved cat Nechama, scratches me at times. She has bitten me. These are momentary outbursts; the expression of disappointment, or of frustration. Sometimes, frustration just because I didn’t understand her.

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clover amidst the grasses

Even within ourselves, we have to make compromises in order to live this life with some sense of wholeness. One of the most valuable lessons, is that which we heard as children, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’. On a national level, we should keep in mind that our society is made up of a whole lot of people, some of whom have needs very different from ours. With great difficulty, we’ve tried, as human beings, to find the mechanisms which will reflect the majority, with care and insurance for the very small minorities as well. Nothing is truly guaranteed. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone sins now and then, And still, if we look back in time, just a few hundred years, we can see that the majority of people lived a much lower standard of living than we are living today. They had shorter life expectancies, and suffered more from disease and ignorance. Let’s not turn a blind eye to all the advantages we have today, and only focus on what we’re missing, and what we want for ourselves. How much happier we could be if we were to appreciate our riches and not envy those who have more than us.

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a little park in our neighborhood, with fantasy meant for children

Today, many of us tell our children, ‘you can do anything you wish if you just desire it enough, and work unceasingly towards your aim. But this too can be misleading. We can do anything, just so long as we understand our strengths and limitations. For our lives are a tapestry of fate and free choice. Chance has delivered us to the parents that raised us, to the country in which we were born… has given us talents and capacities at birth, certain physical characteristics… and perhaps certain mental and emotional dispositions as well. And within that framework, we have the ability to make choices, to learn or not to learn… to look and listen, or to crave attention. By way of our choices, we can direct our course in life. Or we can allow ourselves to be continuously buffeted by the winds of fate.

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And there is nothing so warm and so consoling as the love of our brothers and sisters, our friends, and our fellow human beings that have to face the uncertainties of life’s challenges the same as we do. These have been my thoughts as I watch the snow recede after the last storm, and listen to the excitement about the upcoming election. May we accept the choice of the majority, even if it requires compromise on our part. We are all part of the family of man.

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imperfection

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The strident cry of an ambulance siren on the freeway, coming in from the north… on it’s way to the hospital on mount scopus, not so far away… begs to remind the speeding drivers that at times, there are incidents even more important than their own intentions. The drivers slow for a moment, moving a little, left or right, to make way for the ambulance. It passes, and the traffic resumes its previous pattern.

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The sun is shining. The skies are blue. A few white cotton clouds floating up there. Blue and white above, and fierce geometric patterns of shadows falling from the corners of stone buildings opposite, across the street. In my pleasant room, there is a light breeze through the open window, and the sounds of overwhelming beauty from the guitar strings of Lanzboim coming through the speakers. The name of the album is ‘Beyond This World’. Life seems as beautiful as it can get. What happens now?

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In the garden of Eden, it seems that our first sin was rampant curiosity… or was it the temptation to experience the forbidden. And then came hatred, jealousy, and murder. I heard on the radio this week, of a young man who died from shooting some designer drug right into his veins. It had been intended for smoking. But he wanted a more intense experience. I hear of bungee-jumping. There are people out there looking for thrills. Sometimes it seems to me that the greatest sin is taking this world and the life we were given for granted.

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And on the other side of the street there are people struggling to overcome a handicap. Some were born blind, and others blinded by illness or accident, and are working hard to appreciate the world with their other senses. Despite their handicaps, they are trying to enjoy the world around them as much as you and I do. And it seems sometimes, as if a handicap can be a present from heaven, reminding us of how precious life is… how precious, that which we do have… and that which we can enjoy.

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A few weeks ago, we were on the balcony with Gila… on another beautiful day like this. We were drinking beer and soaking up the sun. Our friend Ilanit told me that she had heard somewhere that life is like riding a bicycle. If it’s easy, it means you’re going downhill. If it’s hard, it means your climbing. I liked that one.

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Yesterday, I had an early dinner with a friend in the Fortuna restaurant here in Jerusalem. It’s a modest restaurant. You would have trouble finding it, if you weren’t a resident of Jerusalem. The owner prepared the food, and carried it himself to our table. There were quite a few little plates with all kinds of different salads on them. The salads were wonderful… just as good as the main course. The photos on this post are from the machaneh yehudah neighborhood, where the restaurant is found.

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Sitting there, eating my meal, and talking with a friend… after having had my eyes examined by an optical cat scan, and thinking that even blindness might be an experience that could enable an appreciation of life… it occurred to me that we don’t really need a handicap to appreciate life… nor a bungee-jump for the thrill. It is enough to remember that life is a temporary experience. We’re here today, and gone tomorrow. And if we remember that, we should be able to treasure each day, and every experience that comes our way.

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Here in Jerusalem, we have another recipe for keeping life precious. Six days a week, we go about our work and play. And on the seventh, we take a break. A break from all the work and all the regular things; a celebration of life, of simple sensual pleasures like a good meal and a walk… of song… and reading a good book. It works most of the time. But, of course, there is always the temptation to break the rules. This evening, my Sabbath begins with the setting sun. My best wishes to my readers and friends.

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