Tag Archives: philosophy

life and times of a species

We are by nature very self-centered. At every stage in our lives, we look at those younger than us as being ‘young’. And those who are older than us are ‘old’. People from other countries, or other cultures, are ‘alien’. But we’re okay, we’re ‘normal’.

When relating to the animal world, I myself have a special regard for butterflies and frogs. Both of them have two incarnations, and I can very well identify with them. I have a feeling that we too have more than one incarnation, so to speak. The butterfly starts out as a worm, and the frog as a pollywog. Anthropology has always fascinated me because of both the similarities and the differences between people around the world.

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I remember reading an article many years ago about the life of species. I don’t remember who it was that wrote it, and don’t remember the name of the article. But what impressed me then, was that some researchers had found a type of snail that had lived slightly off shore of a Greek island, and they were able to evaluate the age of the shells by carbon dating. They came to the conclusion that they had before them the history of that species; from when it was a very young species till it had grown old, and was nearing extinction. As the species became more mature, the form of the shell became more beautiful. But at a much later stage, some of the round areas became more angular. The species was getting decadent.

This same process is seen in individual people, and in societies… and in nations. Sometimes it evokes sadness. More often contempt. Life at the height of its development, has contempt for weakness… but even in decadence we often see ourselves as superior to others, more aware… more connected to the truth. It takes a rare wisdom to be aware of the world as a whole; to leave our egocentric point of view and start searching for the wonders outside of ourselves.

Why do it? Because we are connected to all of the world, and the more we learn, the more we understand the world around us, the richer this life of ours becomes.

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idolatry

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In my previous post last week, I mentioned that the study of sculpture had been neglected in our culture because of the prohibition of idol worship. And this raised the question of why. Many in the west have accepted the concept of monotheism. And many are atheistic or agnostic. Because of the free thinking attitude towards faith and belief, many believe that the issue of whether it is proper or not to pray to, or worship an image seems irrelevant in our time.

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My dear friend Janet reminds us often that ‘everything in this world is interconnected’. This is the basis of monotheism, and one of the most important tenants of our religion. There are those who see powerful forces in this world as gods. The sea is a god to some, and there is a god of reproduction to others. Some people have a need to relate to an inspiring picture of a saint or a prophet in order to remind themselves of the virtues they believe in. There are so many pictures of saints, and medallions, and symbols of all kinds, that we have become accustomed to seeing such things. But our sages warned us that focusing on an image might distract us from our awareness of a god who is an intricate being reflected in all we sense in the world around us.

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I believe that those who coined the expression, ‘the almighty dollar’, meant to laugh at the phenomenon. But there is no doubt that a large portion of the population in the west has raised the importance of money to god-like proportions. Is it important? To some it is. To others not. For those of us who believe in god, it is important to consider what we receive from him, what sort of inspiration or example we envision when contemplating his presence in this world of ours, and how or if we choose to worship him.

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I have studied a bit of other religions, and found wisdom that has enhanced my own beliefs and worship of god in my religion. I have also found things that I cannot accept. Today is Friday, and this evening my Sabbath begins. And an essential part of my religion is not to work on the Sabbath. That is a day of freedom and appreciation of life, and it is set apart for contemplation and joy. This Sabbath is called the ‘Sabbath of consolation’, for on this last Sunday, we remembered the destruction of our holy temple. It was a very sad day for all. My best wishes to my readers for inspiration and delight from life. We all have our ups and downs. And how important it is, to maintain our perspective, to remember that there is beauty and pleasure in this life, despite the disappointments and pain.

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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connection and disconnect

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There was a time when you’d make a new friend, and you’d get to know his or her brothers and sisters, father and mother, or children… depending on the ages involved… you’d get to know the family. Today, the family is often a more complicated entity… with a somewhat fuzzy definition. My friend John has a daughter from his first wife, and a son from his second wife, but he’s closest to Annette, his second wife’s daughter from a previous marriage, and she was over having breakfast with him and his present wife Sally the other day when I came over with a recording of Oscar Peterson that John had wanted to hear. Annette had come with her best friend, Miriam, who as it turns out, loves Jazz too. Miriam is Annette’s ex sister in law, because she was married to Annette’s half brother Sam, before they divorced.

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Shortly after I arrived, Avigdor, John’s upstairs neighbor came by with Ruthy, his step mother who is five years younger than he is, and they joined us in the consumption of lox and bagels, while listening to the music and telling us exotic tales of intrigue in the world of jazz here in Israel.

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Miriam was telling me about the guy who introduced her to Jazz. That was Bill. He had one of the largest collections of CDs she ever encountered, and as it turned out, he was a second cousin of Ephraim… or maybe it was Oscar Peterson who was a second cousin of Ephraim. Ephraim is a disc jockey on radio 88, and his biological mother is Chava, who’s now married to Bill. They have these two boys who are part of the band called the ‘who dunits’, which is quite popular in France and barely known here… or was it Peterson who is well known in France but couldn’t make a living if he were living here…? Forgive me, it’s not that I don’t want to remember… it’s just that life has become a little confusing in recent years.

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Well, Miriam was telling me about how much she loved Oscar, and it was only about twenty minutes later that I realized she wasn’t talking about Oscar Peterson. It was when she mentioned that Oscar had died in a motorcycle accident when coming off the freeway in Tel Aviv. I told her that as far as I knew, Peterson had died in Canada in ’07, and I hadn’t heard that he was on a bike at the time… and it turned out that she was talking about Oscar Goldblum with whom she’d had a love affair before marrying her ex, Ilan, who is now married to Hagar, whose ex, Yekutiel has just recently joined the ‘who dunits’ in Paris, and they are thinking of doing a special ‘come back’ concert in Tel Aviv.

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While talking of her love for Oscar, she shared with us that his wife Ruby had arranged for a very private funeral service, and none of his old friends had been invited. So Miriam was aching for closure… she told us she felt like she was just hanging in air. John suggested that she might hold a wake for him, and invite all of his old friends. But Miriam said that he had a lot of old friends, and she didn’t know if you could legitimately advertise a wake with a ‘bring your own bottle’ policy. And then Sally suggested that she might organize a minion of ten people and visit the grave and say kaddish there.

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My role had been mostly that of a listener up till then. But having gotten completely lost in my attempts to follow the family ties in this story, I tried to approach the subject from a philosophical point of view, and raised the possibility that after the love affair had fallen apart, and both she and Oscar had each found a separate spouse, maybe it would have been best if she had forgotten all about him, and put the memories behind her. ‘Isn’t it better to disconnect when the relationship is over?’ I asked, ‘rather than to feel pangs in the heart each time you see him?’ Looking back, the question was probably superfluous, now that he was in his grave. But the answer I received was unanimous, right across the table. The general feeling seemed to be, the more love, the better. And once you realize that you and that special other weren’t really made for one another, there’s no reason not to be friends… and then there are no heart pangs either.

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‘But what about simplicity’, I groaned. How the hell do you remember all of your relatives? I looked across the table, in a vain attempt to find an ally. Sally met my eyes and winked at me as she said, ‘life isn’t that simple anymore’.

The photos here are of a hedonist gathering of friends on the balcony of my new home.

The Passover Sabbath

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I mentioned in my previous post, that a dear friend of mine, David, died last week… and because of that, I just didn’t have the right mood to write what I’d planned to write about, which was on the subject of the foods we eat on Passover. This holiday, which began on Monday evening is probably the most connected to food. And we eat from a completely different menu than all the rest of the days of the year. I had intended to tell you a bit about the Passover diet. But as I mentioned, I wasn’t really in the mood. What I didn’t mention, was that I had had a lot of bad news even before the death of my friend. It was a difficult time for me, on a very personal level. And that is what lead me to the subject of today’s post… not the whole list of things that had gotten me down. But about the holiday, in relation to one’s mood.

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goblets, washed and ready for the Passover banquet

I don’t have to tell you how often it happens, that when it rains, it pours. And how that’s true of the blues. You have something go wrong in your life, and then you’re not in the right mood to take the next little break down that comes along… and one thing leads to another, and we can fall into such a mean case of the blues, that all of life seems more misery than worth while. I’ve had periods like that in my life, and I’m sure you know what I’m talking about… It’s a good time to be creative, if the creative spirit burns within. But sometimes, you just don’t want to do anything…

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One of the advantages of our religion, is that there are these holy days, spread around the year… There’s the Sabbath that comes every week, and is considered the second most holy day we have. Only the day of atonement is more important than the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath we forget about our day to day concerns, and behave in a way that disconnects us from many of the goals and aspirations we have in life. Even if you’re a painter, you don’t paint on the Sabbath… even if you’re a poet and you’ve just had an inspiration, you don’t jot down a reminder on the Sabbath. But on the other hand, if you’re mourning the death of someone closest to you in the world, you get up on the Sabbath, and do your best to get into the Sabbath mood. Time out.

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And what’s true for the Sabbath is true for the holidays of the year. On Passover, there’s no mourning, and there’s no sorrow… no matter how bad things are. And aside from the traditional holidays, there are also traditional days of mourning, and fast days… and then, whatever is on your agenda, once again… time out. You stop doing what you were doing, and you cry your heart out, or fast, or do some very serious soul searching.

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And as you practice this tradition, year after year, you learn… whether you want to or not, that the capacity for joy, and the ability for soul searching, and the deepest sorrows… are all things that one can choose… that we can emphasize or direct ourselves in life. We learn to have a slightly different perspective. We learn to appreciate that we’re not the center of the world, and that life goes on, no matter what we’re feeling at a particular moment in time. And even an old man like myself can sometimes get so down in the blues, he forgets that overall perspective… and then, how good it is, all of a sudden, to be reminded by tradition and the discipline of religion, that there are rules that just won’t make exceptions for me personally.

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there’s a bottle of wine in that white bag

And so, during this holiday, I’ve been forced to have a really good time… even if I wasn’t in the mood. I listened to one of my young grandsons, playing a mean piano in the middle of the night, and got together with friends… different people, all of whom have their own sorrows and joys, and shared with them the holiday spirit, catching up, and celebrating. There were a lot of pictures. Some of which never met the camera… because we don’t photograph on the first or the last day of the holiday… But even so, there were more pictures than I could possibly post today… In fact, I’m sorely tempted to post a whole series of my friend Janne combing her cat, Charlie’s fur. I really enjoyed watching that, the night before last… Maybe I’ll post the series one of these days.

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My grandson David, pounding the piano at night

And now, as we are about to move into the Sabbath of the holiday, when we’ll enjoy both Sabbath and the Passover holiday together, I feel almost completely cleaned of the sorrow that I was wrapped up in before the holiday. You caught that, didn’t you. I said, ‘almost’. And almost isn’t really good enough. But I’ve still got a lot of improvement to do. It’s not just that I’m not perfect… sometimes I’m insufferable. But I keep trying. Who knows, maybe this Sabbath I’ll take still another step towards enlightenment. And meantime, let me send my best wishes to all my friends, whether you’re celebrating the same holiday that I am, or another, let’s let the holiday spirit lift us out of our own little worlds, and let us rejoice.

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in the company of two fine women, Noga and Janne

Forgive me for my lack of blog activity, and know that I will soon be back, and commenting and answering your beautiful comments too. And oh yes, I just have to show you at leas tone shot of Janne combing Charlie.

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