Tag Archives: education

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.

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going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

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fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

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portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

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a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

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a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

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.

an ecological park

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Ariel Sharon… we called him Arik, was a legend in his own lifetime. He was born in the village of Malal, here in Israel, in 1928. He became a central figure in the army when the modern state of Israel came into being, and proved himself a fearless hero and a leader of men. His father was an agronomist. He was a farmer. He had a big farm, and put a lot of work into it, but was always willing to ‘serve the people’. During the 1973 war, after we were attacked on the day of atonement, he went back to the army, though at the time he was already successfully involved in politics. He turned the tide of the war by crossing the Suez Canal and breaching the Egyptian forces on their side.

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He retired from the army with the rank of Major General. Though successful in politics and a hero too, he wasn’t liked by all. He was often involved in controversy. The first real protest movement here against government policy occurred while he was Minister of Defense. In his long career, he served as Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Defense. In 2001 he was elected Prime Minister and held the office till 2006. While Prime Minister, he visited the garbage disposal site at Hiriah, near Tel Aviv, and decided to turn one of the ugliest sites in the country into a park.

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When he proposed the project, there were scoffers. But the park did come into being. Not only is it the largest park in the middle east, but its unique ecological character stands as an example to the young. The project demonstrates our ability to change a contaminated site into a place of beauty, relying completely on natural means.

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In 2005, he visited the mountain of garbage in Hiriah, just outside of Tel Aviv, where garbage had piled up for years, and suggested that the mountain be turned into a park. The original garbage pit had become a mountain of garbage. It’s still a mountain. But a pleasant one now. The emphasis is on the use of natural processes to improve the environment.

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There is a pond in middle of the park. It is the visible part of a complex underground water storage pool. A system of four more underground pools is located at the top of the mountain and these pools collect rainwater. Water overflows from the upper pools into the pond at the heart of the mountain.

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The depth of the pond varies and reaches eight feet at its deepest point. Around the pond is constructed wetland. This method helps maintain water quality by flushing the water through a system that uses both filters and water plants to purify the water. Schools of fish were also introduced to the pond to feed on mosquito larvae and other bugs, thus maintaining biological pest control. The pond is an ecological water project which serves as a natural habitat for a variety of wildlife species, including water fowl, amphibians and water insects.

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School children come to visit the park, and are given guided tours in which they learn about nature’s ways of cleaning itself, and how plants and fish and other life forms help purify the water. There are lawns and flower beds, and little rivers that cross the park making it a very pleasant place to visit. The man whose name was tied to bloody battles and fierce controversy is remembered today as a lover of nature. The park is now called the Ariel Sharon Park.

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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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reward

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the emblem of Jerusalem

We human beings see ourselves reflected in all living things… primarily in animals, but in plants and flowers too. The symbol of my beloved Jerusalem is the lion of Judah, going back to the days when our capital was established on the seam between the tribal lands of Judah and Benjamin by King David. Our sages used to say, it is better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox. When I was young, you could still encounter the big cats outside of the city. You don’t see them anymore. They have disappeared in the face of modern civilization.

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And though I identify with the cats, I have always had a special fondness for frogs and butterflies because they appear on this earth in their second incarnation. I saw them as a promise to those who wish to build themselves beyond the circumstances in which they were born. The frog is first a pollywog, and the butterfly starts out as a worm. The case of the swan is more an allegory than a reincarnation. He wasn’t really an ugly duckling. It was just the ducks who thought so.

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fleet footed

But when reaching for fulfillment, there’s no taking it easy. The higher we want to go, the more we have to be prepared for the depths. There’s a balance in this world between pain and pleasure. But there’s also blind luck that doesn’t make sense to our logical minds. Lions and elephants are born to be big. They don’t have to crawl on the ground like a worm before spreading their wings, and soaring through the air. And there are some artists too, who are born with the promise in their eyes. All they have to do is learn their tools, and play those rough cat games in their youth. Of course, they too have their share of pain, and humility… left alone at times, beaten, scratched and slapped. It’s all a part of growing up. And woe to the cat who indulges in self pity, or seeks out consolation for the traumas he’s had.

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aching for life

Woe to the pollywog who found it so hard to be a little fish in the big pond that he didn’t want to grow up ever… We live in the age of compassion, of special needs, of nurturing… Wild animals have been hounded to death, and our garden hedges look like well manicured poodles. Every handicap has been categorized and is compensated for by the big mama of social services. Still, the wails resonate in the halls of learning these days. Though the sad sacks are given wheel chairs, and the confused are given multiple choices, despair floats in all directions like low hanging clouds that block the view. Don’t look for sympathy, my children. Don’t look for instant pleasures, eating till your bellies drag along the floor. Better to be a lean cat with sharp nails trained and tested on the acacia tree than a fat pig, grateful for his good life, and unknowingly on the path to slaughter.

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father and son

The artist, the poet, and the musician labor long hours striving for perfection… for a straight line, for an effervescent color, for a rhyme that won’t be confused with a knee jerk, for the whisper of infinity on the horizon. He doesn’t look for breaks or for presents, or for recognition or fame, nor for honor or love. The true reward doesn’t come as prizes or compliments from sycophants. Forget the awards. The only reward worth knowing is personal satisfaction.

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marriage of a torah scroll

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he’s recording it for posterity

As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.

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the beginning of the procession

We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.

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the wagon with the torah on it

On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.

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the way they do it in Jerusalem

When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.

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children celebrate with torches in their hands

Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.

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and the adults in their own way…

We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.

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the villagers are more informal

We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.

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as seen in Jerusalem

I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.

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and yesterday in the village