Tag 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.

eve of judgment day

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there is bliss on the day of judgment

גמר חתימה טובה

Jonah In The Whale

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found in a Jerusalem garden…
and finally an answer to those of us who were wondering all these years, what was Jonah doing in that whale? studying torah, of course.

on every level

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I could feel the approach of spring as I traveled up north a couple of weeks ago, to the western Galilee. The rolling hills were showing green. There were flowers peeking through the grass, promising the delights of spring despite the chilly weather and the low hanging dark clouds that hid the sunlight more often than not. I’d slip out of my guest cottage on my way to the home of a friend, and find myself enchanted by the flowers in random stretches, in corners, cyclamen hugging the roots of sturdy trees. Though photography had not been the object of my trip, the gorgeous sights stimulated my somnambulating appetite and I had a great desire to take out the camera and capture some of those flowers. But like the birds who smiled at me from the branches of high trees till I began to unveil my camera, and then lifted their wings and flew away… so it was with the flowers whose petals blushed in a moment of sun, and then retreated in modest shyness as a cloud passed overhead, withdrawing the hot yellow brought by the sun. Though teased and frustrated by the momentary flashes of sunlight, once I had gotten my camera out, there were moments when I reluctantly accepted compromise, and took a shot of the blossom in the shade.

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Today is the eve of that great holiday, Passover. It honors the spring and reminds us to tell our children of the exodus from slavery, challenging us to examine our longing for freedom, and all the good reasons that lead us astray along the way. This obligation to tell our children of our aspiration for freedom and the many difficulties in achieving that state most characterizes the nature of our holiday. Their questions are valued, and we don’t have to have all the answers. But spending the whole evening around the dining room table in serious discussion, and the participation of all ages is the major feature of the holiday. The feast is the most extravagant of the three major festivals of our culture; those three events in which all of Israel would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in ancient times. We prepare fun and games for the kids in order to keep the them awake as long as possible, till the middle of the night. This is a week long holiday, so a lot of folks go out on family expeditions to enjoy nature. Some go camping. And there are some unique dietary laws that remind us of the very special quality of these days.

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We do all we can to make the festival perfect. But we know as we strive, that nothing is perfect, just as in our desire for freedom we know that it beckons to us only when we’re out there somewhere, still escaping slavery… once we have that freedom, history has taught us just how easy it is to corrupt and disrupt, and if we picture ourselves amusing the cows in the meadow by playing lullabies on a flute, it’s just a fleeting vision to be followed by monkeys’ mischief and entropy.

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We had barely left Egypt when we began wailing nostalgically for the watermelon of the ‘old country’. Forty years we traveled around in the desert, working to change ourselves from slaves to free men and women. And since that time, a lot of years have gone by, and every year we’ve commemorated the exodus, studying still another aspect of the work of freeing ourselves. And in every living room, another set of folks have considered those same questions in a different context, and found answers from a different perspective. Some see slavery as addiction, or obsession, or fear… or chasing after an illusion. And everyone sees freedom in his own subjective way. We’ve known miracles, so we don’t dismiss any goal as impossible. There’s been ups and downs all along the way. Even the most miserable of circumstances have left souvenirs in the shape of handwritten and hand illustrated copies of the Passover chronicle as it was recited and learned.

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Since I can’t share with you the many tastes, aromas and textures of those special Passover dishes, nor can I sing you the songs and responses that we sing to one another through the first evening, or share the light headed inebriation fostered by a minimum of the obligatory four goblets of wine this evening, I have chosen to share with you a few photos of spring’s nature. As it happens, these are the pictures I took when the clouds were hiding the full colors available only in the light of the sun. Take them for what they’re worth. Maybe next year I’ll have better.

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Close to our borders, the hyenas are preparing a picnic. They say it’s going to be a peaceful get together, but some of us are suspicious. We have been attacked before on holy days… and hyenas are better known for their attacks than their picnics. So a lot of young fathers are going to be called away to watch the border on this joyous occasion. But we still hope it’ll all work out alright this year. A happy Passover and a beautiful spring to all my friends.

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?!

sanctity

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

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

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

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

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one of my favorite streets in our neighborhood

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

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everyone has his own point of view

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

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Nechama at home

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

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

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

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

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