Category Archives: religion

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.

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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.

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.

full moon

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We sat around the table in my patio last night… a few friends sampling the different cheeses that Mariana and Paul brought back from Bucharest. I had prepared the old fashioned rye bread, and my friends put together the cheeses, salads and vegetarian enchiladas to make a satisfying dinner to be eaten outdoors. There was a full moon in the sky. We drank a spritz, white wine and soda. It brought back memories of our more sophisticated friends who would have been revolted by mixing good wine with soda… there are all kinds of blasphemy in this world.

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Paul is about to get a gift from heaven; a cube of melon

And talking about the past (when spritz was more accepted), it didn’t take long till we got to the future. Paul was telling me about Harari’s latest book which he saw selling like watermelons at the open market when he visited the book fair there. ‘Ah, they have the book fair there too’, I asked. ‘All over the world’, he said. Harari’s book is about the future. He sees the start of the new epoch too. He sees it as the end of the organic age. Everything, including biology will be designed by computer.

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I suppose it’ll give us a lot of free time… not only because the computer is well known as a time saving device, but also because we won’t have to waste good time arguing whether computers exist or not. Everyone’s in agreement about that.

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under a full moon, Mariana

He had spent the spring meditating on Gnosticism, and gave us a short run down on the essence of such studies. Materialism is evil, but the gnostics didn’t bother with pitting good against evil; they were dedicated to releasing the real god from the spark found in every human being (maybe in every living thing?) Instead of denouncing sin, they denounced ignorance, which explains why there are so many agnostics running around these days. Basically, it’s mysticism, so if we have the patience we can wait, and soon Hollywood stars will be explaining it to us. And since it persevered all the way to China in the last millennium, it might be just the religion appropriate to the global village.

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What did I learn? That if you have a beautiful river running in front of your living room window, it is likely to be accompanied by a super highway which will emanate the roar of fast moving up to date motor vehicles. At night you might hear motorcyclists racing one another which is more like a soul shattering whine. If you have a beautiful park behind your house, it’s very likely that it’ll be chosen as a perfect venue for a rock concert if you’re lucky, or a convention of the young enlightened with trance music in the background if your luck has turned. On the other hand, the leaves are greener in Europe, whereas the bureaucracy is further entrenched.

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enchiladas, bread, Noga & Nechama

For dessert we had cherry muffins that Mariana had made herself, and one of our number (I’m not naming names), applied an edible plastic whip cream to the top of the muffin which no doubt gave a taste of the future to come. Oh, it’s wonderful to sit outdoors while still enjoying all the comforts of home, and welcome the summer.

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celebrating lag b’omer

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Purim Pics 2 (’18)

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I must be out of step with the universe these days… I told you about starting to work on one post, and then being distracted… and when I came back to finish it, I found myself writing another… which isn’t finished yet. Can you imagine, I have a number of unfinished posts languishing in a folder on my computer… begging to see the light of day. This led to last Friday when I spent a few hours downtown, thinking it might amuse you to see us amusing ourselves… I’d written about Purim a number of times, and didn’t want to repeat myself… but thought a few pics would be good. And took more than just a few, most of which I haven’t yet examined myself.

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And then this morning found myself traveling to the north of Israel by bus and train bringing back memories of half a century ago… (as an unexpected side effect of deciding I was too old to drive, I’ve been seeing more, and thinking more… even staring into space more, though a lot of good that does me); and if we’re talking about thoughts worth the telling, or sights worth the shooting, what about the dignity of that post called Purim Pics 1. If I were to interrupt that series by sending you shots of wild cyclamen… without even going to Purim Pics 2… would that be ridiculous? And if it was, would it matter? A typical Purim dilemma.

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And then I opened the Hebrew Paper on the train coming here, and saw an article about Stephen Hawking suggesting that he might know what happened before the big bang. No, don’t tell me it was the little bang. And it wasn’t. According to this article, he has no difficulty describing the nature of things 13.8 billion years ago. In case you were wondering about that, he assures us that time didn’t exist then, and the entire universe was about the size of a very dense atom. Hawking tells us that because the equations can’t explain what happened before the expansion, the universe materialized out of nothing. One of the talkbacks at the bottom of this article asked him if nothing existed before the big bang, would he be kind enough to make a shoelace. ‘Cause one of his (the reader’s) shoelaces tore as he was reading the article.

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That’s kind of what Purim is about. It’s the occasion where we remember that we take a lot of artificial and inauspicious things very seriously… and so doing, miss what’s really going on. I hate to remind myself, but some of us have trouble remembering what was in a book we read thirteen months ago. So now we’re going to entertain a theory on what happened 13 billion years ago?!

Purim Pics 1 (’18)

A few pictures from Shushan Purim in Jerusalem 2018
This action was close to the city hall, around the Safra plaza.

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