Tag Archives: religion

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.

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Sabbath Chanukah

The picture of the day was a line of customers buying sweet white bread (which we call Challah), cookies and cakes, and of course, the favorite and traditional pastry of Chanukah, which is the jelly roll. This picture is on the front yard of the bakery.

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While walking to the bakery, I noticed that my neighbor has been lighting his Chanukah lamp (called a chanukiah) outside in front of his house in order to share his joy with the neighborhood. This is an old custom in Jerusalem, which has become less popular as apartment houses have grown taller, and many are distanced from the street. Still, there are those who put the lamp behind a window which faces the public thoroughfare.

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a mischievious holiday

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This evening we’re going to light the first candle of Chanukah. That in itself has usually been reason enough for a blog post in the past… maybe just a picture of one candle, representing the first day. But this day started strangely. I turned on the radio, and the first thing I heard was that Rabbi Steinman had a heart attack and that a missile had been fired from Gaza at Ashkelon, our famous city. The same place where Samson used to take Delilah to spend a night at the local motel. I was thinking about that, when Nechama came into the room. She complained that her water was stagnant. Said she just couldn’t bear to drink it. Would I please get up immediately and change the water in her bowl. I got up with an apology and a sigh, washed her bowl, and poured her some fresh cool water, accompanied her to her dining corner, and then sat next to her as she ate breakfast. I don’t start my day with eating.

I remembered that the old rabbi had a heart attack about a month ago… but I hadn’t checked up on how he was doing in the last couple of weeks. There had just been too much news. It was distracting. Last week, for instance, there had been rumors flying around the middle east that Trump was about to announce moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And then, on the same day that the US president was scheduled to make an ‘important announcement’, the Israeli army imploded a tunnel which had been discovered deep in Israeli territory and coming from the Gaza strip. These tunnels are designed to kidnap Jewish people in order to negotiate the release of terrorists from jail, or alternatively to kill as many Jews as they can with the intention to depress or scare us. They see how pampered and soft we are and think that if they could really scare us, we’d leave for Europe or places unknown. It doesn’t matter. What’s important to them is that they get rid of us so that they can build a modern Arab state instead of Israel; something on the order of Syria, Iraq, or Iran.

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potatoes and onions are important
in making potato pancakes

Then that night Pres Trump spoke, not only revealing that he was going to move the embassy, but also saying that the capital of Israel was Jerusalem. Now this wasn’t really news, ‘cause everyone knows… but a lot of people pretend that it’s not true, so it was about as shocking as saying that Santa doesn’t really live on the North Pole. The announcement didn’t really lead to dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv, but a lot of young folks stayed up till late that night for the amusement of following Arab tweets promising to raise hell in the holy land. As the Pals explained, they were so incensed by what Trump had said… that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel… that they were going to show him. They would turn life into hell here in Israel, and that would make Trump wish he was never born. “This is war!” said the head of the local Islamic Jihad. And then Hamas promised a brand new intifada. The PLO which has recently repaired their relations with the Hamas terrorists, took time out from burning pictures of Pres Trump in front of the news cameras to declare that the coming three days would be ‘days of rage’. Out of respect for the individuality of man, they left it open. They didn’t dictate exactly how their youth should express their rage. What we know from past experience is that usually on days of rage some emotionally unstable or brainwashed individuals take their kitchen knives into the streets and try to stab some unsuspecting victim, or throw a stone through a car windshield as someone drives down the street. Bombs are better, but they’re harder to obtain these days. No sooner does a guy buy the ingredients than the secret service comes round for a ‘heart to heart’. Usually there are a lot more Arabs killed and wounded in such waves of violence than are Jews. But that’s okay from their point of view, because the Jews get much more upset if you kill one of them than the Arabs do. The Arabs know that if a young man gets plugged trying to kill a Jew he becomes a martyr and goes straight to heaven where he gets 70 virgins to reward him for his good deed.

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some eat the pancakes with sour cream and others with apple sauce

Meantime, back in Gaza, a meeting was called by and for the Directorate of the central committee for democratic revolutionary Islamic Steering. The posted agenda was, “What to do?” This was the shortest agenda published by the Pals in 20 years, though the last tunnel to be discovered by the army under our territory was only 3 weeks ago. Things seemed to be getting serious. All the serious leaders crawled out of their subterranean bunkers for the meeting, in contrast with the Israeli leadership which has to be called back from the Bahamas, New York, Boston, Paris and Catalonia when there’s an important vote in parliament. But unfortunately, a rift developed during the meeting of the Hamas leadership. Exactly half of the self elected delegates insisted that it was of paramount importance to take vengeance on Trump for his saying that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, while the other half believed that the most pressing obligation of the resistance was taking retribution for the destruction of the tunnel. In the ensuing debate, two paramilitary officers were clubbed with dull weapons, one lost his short term memory after being struck at the base of the skull with a huge stapler made for book binding and provided by the UN committee for international culture, and one member of the steerage committee became an invalid, suffering from a broken knee and an uneven crack in his skull disappearing under his army surplus green and brown camouflage cap. Achmad Sayonara, chief military officer, and acting mayor of Gaza, chose two men, one from each side, as a delegation to a spiritual leader in Gaza, to find a solution to the dilemma.

In a few short hours, the delegation returned with happy news from the Imam. It was possible, they learned, to mount an attack on the Zionist entity that would be dedicated both to vengeance on Trump and retaliation for the destruction of the tunnel. In no time at all, three rockets carrying heavy loads of TNT invented by Alfred Nobel, the very same person who later established the Nobel Prize, awarded for achievements in culture and science, but most revered for its recognition of peace making. Obama got that award. So did Yasser Arafat. Did I say three rockets? Yes, all three heading towards Israel. Sadly, two of these rockets fell on the Pal side of the fence. But one made it all the way to Ashkelon, where it was intercepted by an ‘iron dome’ missile which effectively neutralized it.

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my daughter Rivka preparing jelly rolls
they’re as important as pancakes in celebrating the holiday

At the same time that all this was going on, the doctors in Bnei Brak were giving their all to saving the greatest rabbi of the generation, Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman, recognized by our whole country as the finest of living rabbis. As the president of our country said about him, “his intellectual brilliance was only exceeded by his great modesty”. He was 104 years old; a genius, and a great teacher. When  there arose an issue or a question that no other sage could answer, they would go to him to hear his answer. He was known as a strict teacher, but his modesty was legend. I heard a student of his tell the story of how he was bawled out by the rabbi once, when he demonstrated sloppiness in his studies. The student, properly chastised, returned to the study hall and devoted himself to learning. But a few days later he was called back to the rabbi, who apologized to him for the way he had upbraided him earlier. “I let my emotions influence my judgment”, he said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I truly regret it if I offended you”. Though he suffered a serious heart attack the time before, his doctors who were also his students, couldn’t bear to see him die, and did their best to revive him. And somehow managed to keep him alive for a month. And even last night, when he had another heart attack, they revived him. And it was only after the second heart attack this morning, that he finally died. One of the reporters asked the doctor, what is the point of trying to revive a man, 104 years old, after he has had two heart attacks and is so weak he can barely speak? The doctor said, I can’t explain it. We loved him so much, and just couldn’t bear to see him go. He was buried today.

His position was not an elected office, nor was it a national appointment. We have a chief rabbi of the country. No this is something else. He is chosen by the wisest rabbis, and the heads of the rabbinical seminaries. There is no pomp or ceremony around him. He lived in a very simple apartment. People who visited him reported that he lived as a poor man, though he could have had anything he wanted.

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this is how the jelly rolls are served

The rabbi asked in his will that his followers not follow him to his burial. Don’t print announcements in the newspapers, he wrote. People have better things to do than make a spectacle of my death. This made no difference, though. There were crowds at his funeral. He said, “please don’t call me a ‘righteous man’ after I’m gone. I don’t want to be ridiculed for it in the world of truth”. Of course, very few listened to his wishes. We will not be sad this evening. We’ll celebrate the holiday We have days of mourning which bring us tears, and celebrations that fill us with joy. That’s the way our religion reminds us that there are ups and downs… even when the intensity of day to day life could mislead us.

for more on the holiday, see:
https://thehumanpicture.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/the-golden-path/

 

A Christmas Greeting

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Merry Christmas

For the last three months or so, it has been very hard to for me to write my usual Friday blog post. What has been going on here in my country… a post modern war… has provoked thoughts and feelings that I’ve been unable to share with any but my closest friends who live here and understand the paradoxes that are part and parcel of coexistence with a hostile minority that takes advantage of all the many comforts of our free and modern society, while trying to destroy the state at the same time.

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Especially, because my view of how to deal with the situation differs from the policy of our government, and because I know that the ‘enemy’ is listening, I dare not discuss the issues while we are still at war. And I won’t hide the fact that what’s been happening on the streets of my beloved city cause me great pain and sadness. This too, limits my ability to express myself… to the extent that I didn’t even reply to the generous comments of my friends on my posts. Last week, I had intended to post an article about how I deal with this depression and sadness. But then there was another insane attack, and once again I was struck dumb. I just posted a picture I had composed during the week, and let it go at that.

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I see my lunch… how’re you doing?

This week too, there have been a number of news items that radically influenced my state of mind. Not just on the subject of the war. There were a number of subjects I could have discussed, had I been in a more positive mood. But unhappy as I felt, it seemed best to say nothing. I thought I’d just publish a photo I like to let my friends know that I’m still alive. But then, this morning, I looked at the calendar, and realized that it was Christmas day. Unexpectedly, I desired to send my heartfelt good wishes to my Christian friends for a very happy holiday.

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we see the spirit of creation in all nature

You know, I’ve spent some time in Europe, and in the Americas, where Christianity was the religion of the majority, in many of the places that I visited. And I was aware of certain characteristics that might be criticized, when the establishment is identified with religious morality. But this was half a century ago, and since then religion has become much less imposing, and many young people pay it no mind regardless of their cultural heritage. And that is even further complicated by the commercial abuse of the traditional holiday. But in my country, Christians are a small minority. And those I’ve gotten to know exemplify forbearance and modesty as well as a desire to do good deeds and act out their love for their fellow man. They remind me a bit of an animal who is native to our country, but seldom seen because he’s shy; the rock badger, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions.

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cuddles from Jerusalem

Since my neighborhood is at the very edge of Jerusalem, rock badgers often come and visit. And when I go off to meditate or collect my thoughts in a park or nature preserve, and sit quietly for a length of time without moving, I have the opportunity to see them and watch as they relate to one another and to the wild life and lush vegetation in our fair city. They are exceptionally intelligent, and different members of their community have different roles to fulfill within the framework of their organized life. I am often amused at the thought that they are related to the elephants, for they are quite small, between the size of a cat and a dog, and have very small ears compared to those of an elephant. In any case, I’ve chosen to share some pictures of them together with my wishes for a Merry Christmas.

the Sabbath approaches

Oh how beautiful it is in Jerusalem, as the Sabbath approaches, and each of us, in his own way prepares to welcome her, to embrace her, and accept her. Whatever we were doing all week comes to the end of the chapter. There is a break now. We are aware of time and a freedom that transcends most human affairs. But it is not all spiritual. There is bread and wine, and the finest delicacies prepared for the palate. And the song of one’s heart is translated to a song from the throat… welcome to the ear. Even when we are in mourning, there is a break for the Sabbath. The clothing is different, we wash ourselves, and reboot our minds, and bless our friends and ourselves… Sabbath be blessed, blessed be our children, blessed be our friends, blessed be our aged… blessed be the queen Sabbath.

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an alley in Jerusalem

Succoth 2015

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At the synagogue in Mazkeret Batya

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