Haazinu

  1. In the first pesukim of this reading, we have three forms of water supporting vegetation. But in the middle of these three forms, we see storm winds attacking it. The storm winds stick out. Rashi says they help vegetation grow and be strong – but they don’t really do this. Rashi was a vinter (a wine maker). As vinters know, harsh conditions improve the wine even as they may damage the bush. The harsh conditions of the Jewish people, described later in the parsha, might perform the same duty.
    1. The text talks of corruption. For law to work, it has to be accepted in the main by the population. Corruption undermines this acceptance. If the law of the Torah is the basis of our relationship to Hashem, then corruption undermines that relationship. This has devastating consequences.
  2. The second reading talks of the borders of the nations being set by the mispar of the Jewish people. We often interpret this as the nations being dependent on our numbers. But when we count Jews in Chumash we normally use the word pekudim  – reckonings (excepting counting of impersonal things like names rather than people). mispar is a much less personal word – like a phone number. The only time the concepts of mispar and world-wide borders being rewritten coexist is in World War II. Empires fell, countries were split – the entire map was rewritten. Perhaps that rewriting was based on the testimony of the mispar (numbers) of the Jewish people – tattooed on their wrists. Those who refused us entry, those who actively killed us, those who fought even when they didn’t need to  – they were all treated differently because of their relationship to our mispar.
  3. The third reading makes reference to the ‘blood of grapes.’ Blood is associated with spirit. We spill out the blood of animals because we have no right to their spirits. Itis fascinating to me that grapes have spirit we can consume. Perhaps this is why we use wine for sacramental reasons. We are imbibing spirit to connect to Hashem.
  4. The fourth reading speaks of our persecutors having aspects of Sodom and Gomorrah. These cities represent great wealth creation without any peace or charity or rest. We are brought low by tremendously powerful and wealthy nations that lack any divine spark.
  5. The Torah promises just as followed a non-god, we will be persecuted by a non-people. But the Torah refers to other gods as being gods – just false gods of wood and stone. Again, looking at history, we can see few cases of an entire nation following a belief system entirely dedicated to materialism. But there is one – the USSR. Communism, in its pure form, raises the material above all else and seeks to eradicate the divine. Perhaps, due to our participation in this, this was our non-god.
  6. The word kaper (from the same root as Yom Kippur) shows up here. It refers to Hashem kapering His earth and nation by punishing those who punish us. What does this mean? I’d suggest it is repairing His reputation and place. But the translation makes this parsha’s storyline become very unattractive. Hashem seems like an abusively jealous husband. He sees us with other men, he lets criminals beat us to within an inch of our lives and then he shoots the criminals because – after all – we’re his wife. Is this really what the parsha is suggesting?
  7. In the final reading, we get an answer. “Set your hearts to all of the words which I bear witness for you this day… For it is not an empty thing for you, for it is your life…” What separates Hashem from the jealous husband is that we were created for the purpose of having a relationship with him. Angels know too much to have a relationship rather than total obedience. In the Torah, all the goodness of creative acts and Kedusha of timeless acts are building blocks of a relationship with G-d. But if there is no relationship, there is no purpose in having a Jewish (or other) people. While acts of Tov and Kedusha are key to establishing the foundations of that relationship, it is prayer that makes it real. Just as Hashem gave us spirit through His breath, we establish a bridge to that spiritual source through ours.

Rosh Hashana Day Two

  1. Avraham splits the wood before leaving. On the one hand this shows a tremendous level of conscientiousness. He seems to be making sure the offering faces no hickups. On the other, surely there will be wood closer to mountain. Why doesn’t he just bring Yitzchak, a knife, some fire and an ax and hop on a horse? Perhaps Avraham, unable to square Hashem’s request, is slowing things down while ensuring he can carry out the command. He is not wasting time – just doing things as thoroughly as possible.
  2. Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Rav Bick points out that Avraham travels three days and the mountain is still far away. In essence, he tries to square Hashem’s command, but it is still distant. He can’t make sense of it. I’m always interested in the word used for knife – it literally means eater. It is a brutal blade.
  3. Yeshivat Har Etzion talks about the trait of fear of Hashem being developed through this story – this is why Hashem sees it in Avraham. What fear though? Of losing his son and his future? He’s giving that up. I think the correct translation is awe – acceptance of the appropriateness and truth of even that we don’t understand. Amazingly, Hashem doesn’t just learn about Avraham, Avraham sees Hashem. What does he see? Perhaps he understands that Hashem wants to develop our souls – and while that sometimes that requires pain and confusion for even the greatest of people, pain and confusion are not the goal or even the reality.
  4. Why are we compared to the sand on the lip sfat (literally language or lip) of the sea and the stars in heaven? Why not the sand in the desert. Last week’s parsha might have an answer. It says the Torah is not in Heaven or across the seas but in our hearts and in our mouths. Perhaps in our role as stars we pull the Torah of the heavens into our hearts and as sand on the lip of the sea we draw the Torah of the world’s creation into our mouths (lips).
  5. In this reading, Avraham learns his brother is far ahead of him in offspring. But we know how this turns out – Nachor is not a major character. Perhaps it is a lesson to us – we should trust in Hashem to maximize our reality and not concern ourselves with immediate comparisons to our brothers or friends.

Addendum

The Mussaf Amidah has a progression of Shofar blowing. There is Malchiut (Kingship). We blow for each other and to coronate Hashem by indicating our joy in serving him. The tone should be powerful, confident and regal which is why I blew the Kudo Shofar.

There is Zichronote. When Hashem Zochers in Chumash he is rescuing those in dire need about whom there is a brit (covenant). There is not necessarily any merit in the rescuee – just a brit that obligates Hashem to save. Noach and the animals needed Zichron when they ran out of food (Noach would have needed to eat the animals who were supposed to survive). FYI, Tzvi Fischer pointed out the Noach connection. Yishmael needed Zichron when he was near death from dehydration. He was saved by the covenant with Avraham which promised he would be a great nation. The Jewish people were remembered in the same way when they risked being like other slaves, no longer having children. And so on. I think the most recent Zichron was the creation of the State of Israel after the desperation caused by the Holocaust. The Zichron blowing is one of the Jewish people to Hashem. It is a blowing of desperation. I used the small and tinny shofar for these brief notes.

Then there is Shofarote. In Chumash, the shofar is the sound of revelation. It is the sound of redemption – either by us recognizing Hashem’s Kingship or by us being in desperate straits. In either case, Shofarote is the voice of Hashem to the Jewish people. It is the Shofar heard round the world. It is strong. And so for these notes I again blew the Kudo.

 

Syria – Sept 3, 2013

I’ve been struggling with what the proper U.S. response should be to the crises in Syria. Both obvious answers (intervention or not) leave a tremendous amount to be desired. I will assume the readers of this thought are well informed and spare them the recap. I do, however, highly recommend the work of Michael Totten. He has an incredible grasp for the dynamics of the neighborhood.

At this point in this post, I don’t place myself in the knee-jerk intervention or knee-jerk non-intervention departments. By the end of the post, I will probably have a clear position. I just don’t know what it is yet 🙂

Going back to fundamentals, I believe law should support creation while enabling people to rest and thus spiritually capitalize on the fruits of their creative activity. This in turn enables them to create – as Diana Nyad said after her historic swim across the Florida Strait, “It’s amazing how the emotional can lift the physical.”

There is, potentially, a virtuous circle.

This concept has a few implications. For example, law should be predictable. If it isn’t then people will:

  • be unlikely to invest and create
  • be unable to experience rest due to the lack of predictability around them

In my analysis, law that supports the principles of creation and rest will be:

  • Predictable (and with it, understandable etc…)
  • Embedded in the fabric of the community (not just a legal or governmental function)
  • Supportive of creative work and investment (in part by enabling people to reap the rewards of their creative work)
  • Protective against real world risks (e.g. through welfare, government or not)
  • Connective us to times past and future
  • (you’ll notice I’m missing many standard rule of law criteria like equality, that’s a discussion for another day)

The obvious question to ask is, what does this have to do with Syria?

A law, of some form, emerges in any community. It can be a community of individuals or a community of nations. The law of nations is not written by the U.N. or set by treaty – those laws only have force if the involved nations actually, basically, obey them. Israel and the U.S. are rare for generally not signing conventions they won’t adhere to. A traditional law – maybe not a good one – is that the big boy will flatten you if you piss him off.

I see international law as having two levels. Law between states and international agreements on laws within states. Laws between states can be predictable, embedded, risk mitigating and connective to times forward and past. However, states themselves don’t tend to be productive – their citizens do. Laws within states, on the other hand, can have the full package.

So what is the state of international law? I would say historically that this period in human history has more mitigation of international risk than most. Democracies (of which there are many) don’t go to war willy nilly. The costs of war are so detrimental to modern state structures – even non-democratic – that they tend to shy away from it. The real war mongers are non-state actors like Al Qaeda. I found France’s effort in Mali and the Sunni Awakening to be comforting. They reinforces the notion that embedded international law doesn’t support these wild-card actors.

On the internal measures, we are terrible. We have lots of treaties that guarantee many many things for individuals and groups and that are routinely ignored (in some cases, for the better).  The embedded law of the nations is quite different from the paper law of the U.N. This gas attack is just the latest example. For these laws to be followed, there needs to be a realistic threat of enforcement. But there is no enforcer.

Obama talks about the U.S. as a potential enforcer (e.g. we can’t allow people to flaunt international conventions). However, even if we had the power (which we might) and the will (which we don’t) we lack the track record to be that enforcer. An enforcer who has a reputation for backing off when the enforcement gets tough is worse than useless – it is like a parent who threatens to spank their child but gives in after a minute of caterwauling. The threat becomes useless – so you have to follow through every time instead of setting a few examples and having others believe. It gets expensive for all parties while never establishing the rules at hand.

On predictability, we score a bit lower than some other periods. When I look at long-term minority populations around the world a remarkable trend emerges. Each of them has a predictable coping pattern. I know I am oversimplifying here, but I think the overall trend is very real. Here are some examples:

  • Jews (traditionally), had a few key people embed themselves as useful knowledge workers to people in power. They supplied advisory services, banking services etc… In return, they worked to protect their greater communities. There were few reservations about cheating to survive. When things hit the fan, they kept their heads low. They were predictable.
  • Druze go with the wind. They are loyal to whomever is in power in their area. If the winds of power shift, so do they. They are predictable.
  • Alawites (traditionally) assassinate those who oppress them. It kept a cap on anti-Alawite activity. And it was predictable.
  • Sikh hired themselves out as mercenaries – but if you got them angry you’d know they’d attack you and with enough concentrated force to be problem. It was predictable.
  • etc….

The trend is that these groups behave predictably – although individuals might be different. Because you know what to expect, you can interact with them appropriately. But recently, the position of some of these groups (notably Jews and Alawites) has changed dramatically. They suddenly don’t know how to behave – although the old habits die hard. The Alawites are brutal assassins to protect their interests – but the tool doesn’t work the same way when you’re in power.

Among the unpredictable groups is the U.S. We ride to the rescue when things go really really bad. We protect our own interests – but occasionally feel badly enough about it that we stop. And we sort of spasticaly get involved in protecting what I’d call good law within nations. This all gets worse because we are *so* powerful. We have a lot of weight to throw around, but we actually make international law less predictable because nobody knows when we’ll do it. If they knew, Iran and Syria wouldn’t be on their current path and we wouldn’t need to threaten them.

In looking directly at Syria there are a few clear factors.

First, we aren’t seen as predictable. Our long-term threats carry no weight. People know we won’t do it. We do blow the crap out of things occasionally. But because we’re afraid of entanglement, and our enemies know it,  they can win if they can survive an initial burst of activity.

Second, the Alawites will slaughter people to survive. It is what they they do. They have chemical weapons for a reason – to use them. I don’t think they’ll do it if they don’t feel fundamentally threatened. We can depose them – in a few hours we could eliminate their airport capacity and stop the flow of arms into and around the country (as well as air support functions). But if we do that, they will feel fundamentally threatened. They might realistically be genocided by their neighbors. They’ll line the runways with prisoners (done that already) and on the way out, they’ll gas everything and fly kamikaze missions into our ships (promised this).

The only way they won’t feel fundamentally threatened while we threaten to punish them is if we simultaneously promise to depose them and protect them. For example, we could offer to protect an Alawite homeland and secure a % of Syrian oil revenues in return for their retreat. The problem is, nobody believes we’re reliable enough to guarantee this sort of deal. Ironically the only people who could guarantee the (non-oil) protection and be trusted is Israel. Israel could populate the Golan with exiled Alawites (by the way, Israel developed a plan to do this over two years ago).

In theory we do need to enforce our red-lines. But a half response won’t make us believable and a full response will be too risky. The reason we need to enforce them over this little issue is so that others will believe we’ll enforce them on things that matter far more to our national interests (e.g. energy and nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists). But a Syrian attack is risk for a potentially very minor credibility win. Furthermore, the real issues can be addressed with a short and devastating attack that won’t trigger chemical revenge.

With these issues in mind, I think the appropriate U.S. response is two-fold.

  1. Ignore Syria. Nobody will believe us even if we launch the missiles and the side effects are tremendously dangerous. We won’t establish any of the credibility we already lack. Plus, Syria isn’t the real threat, Iran is.
  2. Do the short-term mission that we have to do because our red-lines aren’t trusted. Bomb the crap out of Iran’s nuclear establishment and religious leadership. It will cost more in munitions – but it will cost less in fallout. The Persians aren’t going anywhere, we can protect oil shipping, and I doubt they think we’ll care much if they decide to create a little pain in their immediate neighborhood.

To be clear, I’d love international law – between and within states – to be predictable etc… But we don’t have that. I do think a consistent U.S. approach to threats and acts of evil would go a long way towards creating it. That, however, is an issue for another day.

For now, while we might arm our proxies in this way we should stay out of direct involvement. We should, post haste, get to frying the real fish.

What do you think?

 

 

Nineteenth Annual Yom Kippur Greeting

Every year for the past 19 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle. This year’s greeting is below. For the more traditional among you, I’ve attached a Rosh Hashana (New Year’s) card for your viewing pleasure as well as an annual recap at the bottom of this message.

*******

I was listening to the Moth (themoth.org) storytelling podcast a while ago when I heard an interesting story. A friend of the storyteller loved Mother Theresa. The friend managed to intercept Mother Theresa when she came to New York. Wanting to do important work, the friend asked to join the Sister of Charity in India. Mother Theresa took one look at her and said (I paraphrase), “You can’t do what I do if you want to do it for yourself.”

The storyteller’s friend was crushed.

But to me, Mother Theresa seemed to be wrong.

Of course we want to do things for ourselves. We want to make the most of our lives. What could be wrong with working with Mother Theresa – or being Mother Theresa – as a path towards accomplishing that?

Perhaps (I thought) the difficulty was in our different religions.

In mainstream Orthodox Judaism, there is no special weight placed on personal sacrifice. The emphasis is on impact, not suffering.

But I wasn’t willing to simply disregard her answer so I continued to wrestle with it.

Now, I believe I both understand and agree with what she was saying.

***

When we’re born, statisticians might take a look at us and say “you are X, Y and Z and so you’re likely outcome is Q.”

You might be poor, African-American and born in rural Georgia in the late 40s. The statistician can make a very confident determination of your outcomes. Of course, you might end up a Supreme Court Justice (Clarence Thomas).

You might have been born in 1878 as the only child of three who survived past infancy. Your mother might have been a housecleaner and your father a cobbler. Statistically, you were going to go nowhere. Of course, you might end up as one of the world’s great mass murderers (Josef Stalin).

You might be born to a prostitute in a Kentucky cave in 1875. A long (or even fruitful) life is probably not in the cards. And by all the measures a statistician would use, you might end up fitting perfectly. But you might have met a man named Lomax in 1939 and thus influenced generations of American music and culture (see The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience).

You might have an IQ of 68. The statistician would set your course. But you might conclude your academic career with a Ph.D. in Operations Research from Columbia University (my father).

Or you might have been born in Skopje, Macedonia in 1910; one more nobody in a backward land. You’d be statistically irrelevant. But, perhaps, you could become Mother Theresa.

Statistics can be interesting. They can be borderline irresistible in their apparent power. But they don’t really apply to an individual. An individual can defy the statistics, by being an outlier. Or an individual can accomplish things statistics can’t even measure.

This weakness of statistics is one of many reasons we should be loath to cast people’s fates on the basis of their backgrounds. This weakness of statistics is one of the fundamental flaws of eugenics and its continued intellectual offspring. This weakness of statistics – and their apparent power – is one of the reasons the Bible forbids the counting of people.

 

Of course, our goal shouldn’t just be to overcome the statistics. It isn’t necessary or sufficient to live a life of note, of fame or of power. Stalin, Hitler and Mao all beat the statistics – and (as Stalin might note) created their own.

Instead, we should seek to lead a life of positive impact. We should take our creative and spiritual potential and we should try to convert as much of it as possible into reality.

 

When I read the opening of the Torah (Bible), I see the description of the human challenge. It is a challenge that is relevant whether we believe in G-d or not. When we live in Eden, we do not create; we lose our drive. And we when we do not create, we lack the fuel for building spiritual meaning. A life without productive work rots us – humans are meant to do more than live, we must built.

In my reading, we are cast from Eden not because we sin, but because we need evil to drive us to create good. But once we realize sufficient creation, we can find ourselves in a sort of Eden. And then we stop creating, just as the Torah describes. And then, paradise is lost and destruction drives us to create once again.

 

We see this pattern again and again. Societies rise into relative Edens. And then, fat on success, they fail. Families experience tremendous wealth and growth. And then, fat on success, they fail. Companies rise, get fat, and collapse. The Torah describes the arc of the Jewish people in the same way – they will wax fat and kick. Sometimes it takes a generation – sometimes many more. But the pattern repeats itself continuously. True creativity, amazing lives of positive meaning, rarely rise from Eden-like societies and situations. They arise from pain.

 

It is the human challenge to break this cycle. We shouldn’t need evil to drive us towards our potentials. Of course, the cycle isn’t easy to break. There’s a reason it has repeated itself for thousands of years.

 

Historically speaking, many (but not all) of the people receiving this email live remarkably blessed lives. We rarely go hungry; few of us are malnourished. Even the poor have access to life-saving therapies unavailable just a century ago such as antibiotics and aspirin. And despite the decline of the Rule of Law (particularly with the rise of laws citizens can’t possibly understand), we live in a remarkably free society. While sickness and pain and death affect all of us, many of us also enjoy unprecedented health and life spans. We live, historically speaking, near Eden.

 

In this situation, our desire to lead a meaningful life often isn’t enough to propel us through the challenges of creation and the uplifting of our souls that creation can enable. In this situation, we often need something more. And failing to find something more can lead to collapse and suffering.

 

***

When I was about six years old I went through a thought process I imagine every six year-old goes through. I posited (although I didn’t use that word) that I was the only real person and that everybody else was there to test me; to see if I’d push myself and make the most out of my life. I figured, until recently, that it was a harmless exercise. I’d even recommended it to others. As I saw it, whether or not other people were real, the test would remain the same. The behaviors and drives of a successful life would be the same.

 

But, of course, I was wrong. In order to pass the test and go beyond the statistics, you need to draw on a reservoir of strength. And many of us in our state of blessing, lack the fuel needed to go beyond the statistics.

The storyteller’s friend had the same challenge. As Mother Theresa said, “You can’t do what I do if you want to do it for yourself.”

 

That answer reveals two pathways to a life of meaning.

While we might live in a near Eden, others are very very far from it. To motivate ourselves while remaining close to Eden; to realize the greatest possibilities of our lives; we must open ourselves to being motivated by the challenges of others. One of my favorite examples, William Wilberforce, was motivated by the pain of slaves and their lack of ability to realize their own creations. But this motivation can be far more mundane. Southwest Airlines is famous for getting the most out of their crews by emphasizing that their efficient performance enables the elderly grandmother to afford a ticket to visit a grandchild. They motivate their staff by reminding them that their creation – an efficient airline – can give others spiritual value.

And, of course, as Mother Theresa’s title suggests, we can also be motivated by a desire to serve the divine. Our faiths are different; our understandings of how to improve others’ lives are different; our shortcomings are different; but the motivations can be the same.

As she wrote in a diary entry (with the sacrifice bits removed):

‘Today I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health… Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard.’

 

It is my goal in the coming year to move beyond asking, ‘how can I create more from my life?’

Instead, I need to learn to ask, ‘how can I help others make more of their lives?’

The answer to both questions has always been the same. But the second question carries with it the power of others’ needs and the motivation to push oneself further and harder than would otherwise be possible. The second question, powered by empathy, opens up a world of additional willpower.

The second question carries with it no answers – but provides the power to make one’s answers into reality.

 

Of course, the pain of others is not an ideal motivator. Ideally, there will be no evil and no suffering. Ideally, we will judge between this good and that good. And ideally we will create nonetheless.

With Rosh Hashana, we start a New Year. A New Year full of creative and spiritual possibility; a year in which we must seek to convert that possibility into reality. In my reading, the core of the Rosh Hashana service is the statement that we will do the right thing out of the joy of divine service – so G-d need not give us – any of us – pain.

Somehow, we need to learn to create without suffering so we can aspire to something even better than Eden.

 

My family and I ask Kaparah (forgiveness) for our sins against you – intentional and unintentional, known and unknown. I ask Kaparah for failing to drive myself as effectively as possible. I hope to change this in the year to come. Of course, we extend the same forgiveness to you.

 

Perhaps most importantly, I pray that we all experience a year in which we can use joy to drive creative and spiritual growth. It is a New Year, a year of open possibilities. Statisticians , economists and other wise men and soothsayers may make their predictions, but we make the reality.

 

Shana Tova,

 

Joseph Cox & Family

p.s. last year I said I was writing a book. I am actually writing two; both of which have received very positive feedback so far.

One is a work of fiction tentatively titled “Powder.” As a brief summary: Fulabaso Yogula is a 14 year-old street kid in West Africa. But he’s not just any street kid. His mother and father were important people – before the clans had them killed. Starting on the streets of Garubia and rising to the halls of power, Powder captures the dangerous, exciting, tortured and redeeming life story of Fulabaso Yogula. The first two chapters have been posted at 365shorts.com. The rest will be released serially.

The second book is called “21st Century Pshat: A Year’s Aliyah Insights.” This year in shul, I’ve been delivering innovative one to two minute divrai Torah before every Aliyah (if you don’t understand that sentence, it probably isn’t for you). I started with parshat Shemot and have posted 249 divrai Torah so far. This is also at 365shorts.com.

 

By way of a Rosh Hashana update – Nava is six and the trips are 4 and half. Nava is entering 1st grade while the Trips return to Pre-K. They are all, k’naina hora, doing well – Maayan Torah is doing a wonderful educating them. Nava is very strong academically and physically as well. She might be 6, but she can lift the occasional 14-year-old. Itai remains the What You See is What You Get (WSYWYG) child. His empathy is something to behold – we used to joke that could punish Itai by taking away Yitzchak’s desert. Over time, he is learning to control his power and we expect it will serve him well. Yitzchak is the most determined of our children. For the Chai Lifeline Jumpathon he did 614 jumps – the average was close to 60. For her part, Yaira is very sharp and very beautiful. She is a spark plug and something special to behold.

For those who don’t know, we are planning on making Aliyah next June. Because of this, we took the opportunity this summer to explore the parts of the Pacific Northwest (e.g. the Canadian Rockies) that we hadn’t seen before. The explorations have been great and the kids have loved them.

The monsters are beautiful and things are going well. G-d willing we will go from strength to strength.

Shana Tova,

Rebecca, Joseph, Nava, Itai, Yitzchak & Yaira

Rosh Hashana Day One

  1. There are many paths through the Days of Awe. In the first verse of this reading, we see Sarah providing the ultimate example of being held to account. In the first verse of this reading. Hashem pakads Sarah. This is often translated as ‘remembered,’ but it is closer to being selected or accounted for. Sarah was so great that when special attention was paid to her, it resulted in a positive miracle rather than a danger. This is the highest level we can achieve during Rosh Hashana – to be blessed because we deserve it.
  2. I’ve always had a hard time understanding this laughter – until this year. I heard a beautiful and funny story on the Moth podcast. The storyteller was explaining that her mother had died and she was adrift and got into writing fiction. She published over 10 books and is rather well known for her mystery series. After recounting this, she mentions that she wrote her first book when she was 80. The audience laughed, I laughed. And then she said, in a deadpan, “There’s hope for you all.” I think this is the lesson of those who laugh at Yitzchak’s birth. Through Hashem, there’s hope for us all.
  3. At the end of the second reading, we see Ishmael is fated to survive. But then Hashem hears his cry and rescues him from death. If he was promised life, why would the cry matter? This matters to the Jewish people – we’ve been promised life. But we are remembered when we cry. We see this first in Egypt. This cry is not a normal cry or a whine. It is a cry that says “we can go on no longer.” In Egypt the risk was that the Jewish people would stop having children – here it is that Yishmael will die from lack of water. We don’t want to fall so far that our rescue must come by way of this sort of cry. It is far better to return to Hashem and be pakad long before we give the cry of total desperation.
  4. One might ask why we should have this last bit about Abimelech tacked on to the reading. In fact, the Yitzchak and Yishmael story is stuck in the middle of the greater Abimelech interaction. Abimelech has a lesson for us. Initially, he makes amends to Avraham for his initial sin. But here, he recognizes that it isn’t about him – it is about future generations. We should approach Hashem the same way – we should repair the short-term. Ultimately, though, teshuva is about our children and grandchildren.
  5. This final reading is loaded with significance. There is a brit (covenant), eidah (witnesses) and sheva (oath) between Abimelech and Avraham concerning wells. The Jewish people have a brit with Hashem, as last week’s parsha discussed we have witnesses to that brit. But in the meantime we have a year-to-year and far more mundane relationship with Hashem. The sheva is about these – sheva is the basic unit of Jewish time (a week). On Rosh Hashana we are part of the long-term brit – but we also must remember to establish the foundation for our year-to-year relationship to Hashem.

Addendum:

Rosh Hashana kicks off with the concept of Kingship. This is not power (Saddam had power, Elizabeth doesn’t, but the 2nd is a monarch). I didn’t understand kingship until my wedding. I was king for a day. What did it mean? It meant it was better for me to ask somebody else to get my jacket than to get it myself. It was ajoy for them to do it. A King is one who it is a joy to serve. In making Hashem King, we must serve serve with joy. Otherwise he is simply a tyrant. We can see what occurs in the progression of musaf – from Kingship to Rememberance to the Shofar’s revelation. Perhaps this is why the Torah reading starts with the birth of a boy whose very name means mirth.

Chapter Two

The heroin gangs in Garubia are seriously violent operations. They operate on the same basic wavelength as I do – there isn’t enough to go around. But instead of creating a tinpot gang of orphaned kids, they determine their membership in a more time-honored way; by family.

It is why my parents’ marriage caused so many problems. You can’t cross the family and you can’t betray the family. Loyalties can’t be allowed to drift.

There is another difference between us, of course. I cut kids loose if they break the rules. They will probably die, but it is not a certainty. The gangs are more straightforward. They kill people. There are no opportunities to try to make it on one’s own. The possibility is removed from their table.

Mumbato is the future of this business. I’ve seen some awful things on the street. Kids starving to death, women prostituting themselves for drugs, men loaded with lead. This kid is no stranger to driving that kind of destruction. I don’t know the exact curriculum, but I imagine that even by the age of 10, he’s killed and tortured men. In a few years, he’d probably get some practice with rape. When he comes of age, Mumbato will be the King of his hill. Everything he’s learned and will learn has been about two things: maintaining his kingship and growing the hill he’s king of.

My curriculum was different.

I didn’t start out the King of any hill. I wasn’t handed my little gang. I simply saw it as my future and seized it. The street kids of Duomba (our city) don’t think more than a day or two into the future. They’d probably love to, but they can’t imagine it.

But I was never quite happy with simple surviving.

In Duomba there are madrassas and missions. They both offer education of a sort. And food. But as with everything else, there isn’t enough to go around. The madrassas seem to have more resources and many a street kid signs up to get food; from their perspective, the education is secondary. The kids who emerge from the madrassas seem very different from those who go in. But while their perspective has changed, I wouldn’t call them educated.

As far as I was concerned, the food would have been nice, but what I really needed was reading, writing and arithmetic. Even as a five-year-old, I could see that those who could calculate came out ahead. It took me longer to realize that those who could record agreements avoided needless fights and those who could account could plan. And those who could read were exposed to a wider world. It is hard to learn what you can and can’t do all by yourself. Slipups in my world result in death. But if you can read about somebody else doing it, then you can avoid some deadly mistakes.

So, I went to the Mission school. I asked them to admit me. But there wasn’t enough to go around, so they turned me away. I came back, time and again but, time and again, there wasn’t enough to go around. The minister who ran the Mission, a South American man named Sabato Barea, was genuinely troubled that he couldn’t help another desperate child.

Finally, one day, I asked Mr. Barea what they didn’t have enough of. ‘Food’ was the first answer. No problem, I said. I could go without. ‘Books’ came next. I could just watch the class. ‘Paper’ was third – I could scrawl in the dirt. Desks, chairs, teacher time – I could do without each of them. I would stand in the back of the room. I would watch and ask no questions. And I would practice outside, in the dirt.

Finally, with a grateful smile, he said ‘yes.’ He had enough for that.

And I began to learn.

I was the most dedicated student there. I knew what I needed, and why. And I wasn’t expecting the Mission to take care of me. Every minute I spent in their little building was a minute I couldn’t spend trying to earn on the street. I worked hard and I learned the skills that would set me apart. Sabato would share cookies with me – sweet Western style oatmeal cookies. They smelled earthy and warm. He also tried to pray with me, to share what he called “time for meditation and peace.” But I didn’t buy into that nonsense. They were selling salvation, but I wasn’t going to be suckered. I only needed education. In time, Sabato said, my dedication had secured me a special grant. I’d be given supplies, a desk and regular lunches.

I learned a lot while at the Mission. Of course, I didn’t just study reading and math. And I didn’t want to live at the Mission itself. I wouldn’t learn enough that way. Unlike those who stayed in their little corner of the warrens – who hid away with what they could understand – I went everywhere in the city. I wanted to learn about my world, not just the world of books. I was a kid pushed around by circumstance and I wanted to be in control.

At this point I wasn’t the head of a gang. There was no gang. Just chaos on the street. But I had a job I could fill. I became a banker and judge of sorts. Other kids would record their debts with me. For some reason, I didn’t want everybody to know I could read and write so I just drew little pictures in my notebook. So and so promised so and so payment of 3 bananas in return for the Okale board he’d provided. I wrote it down in pictures. And all of a sudden, the Okale board could be put to better use – without having to wait for the bananas to be available. The street kids could leverage their assets. And if there was a dispute, they could come to me and I could review their agreement and perhaps return the Okale board to the non-paying party.

I brought two things to the other street kids. Rules, and some sense of the future. After all, what is debt but a requirement to pay – but not today. Not everybody could handle it; but those who did began to see life a little differently.

Most importantly for me, they began to respect me.

And then, one day, I suggested that a group of us join forces. We wouldn’t do anything complex. But we’d do something one street kid on his own couldn’t pull off.

The distract-and-pick is probably the most common sort of street crime. Two people have a fight, the more violent the better. And while everybody else is looking, a pick pocket targets the richest in the crowd and lifts their belongings.

It is a good strategy, as long as people don’t know about it. But anybody in Duomba who’s not a foreigner will instinctively grip their belongings as soon as they see a fight. Most importantly, they’ll keep their eyes out for street kids on the prowl – and they’ll keep their distance.

Pick pockets can sometimes get away with big hauls in this environment, but it isn’t easy. More importantly, in the good parts of town, a pick pocket can be arrested and his team punished on the spot.

My solution to these challenges required a gang, not just a team. We’d pool our resources and buy one nice set of clothes for our best and most respectable-looking pick pocket. It would be something with real brands and no holes. We even bought him shoes, something none of us had. We’d clean that kid up. We’d make him smell not of the warrens, but of soap and cologne.

When we made a scene and people gripped their bags and looked out for the kid doing the lifting, they’d see what they’d expect. One of the other kids, dressed especially poorly, would be prowling around on the other side of whatever confrontation they were witnessing. And so the people far from that kid would relax.

And then our well-dressed lifter would get to work. Nobody would be looking for him. And if the scrawny fake pick pocket got nabbed, he’d have nothing on him. We’d all be safe.

We tried it; it worked – and we quickly made back our money. Respectability went a long way. We’d rob grain stalls, play the shark in Okale games, and pretend to weep at the fate of beggar kids (also from the gang) but mourn that we didn’t have cash (just then) to help them. Before long, we were the best dressed street gang in Duomba.

Throughout, I handled the money. There needed to be rules, clear and consistent rules. There had to be one person responsible for them. And that person was me.

Our gang was growing and thriving, at least from a street kid’s perspective. We were in control. And, although I never let them see it, I am proud that I’ve survived and thrived and that my people have too. They believe in me and I want them to do well because of it.

But now, Mumbato has shown up.

I am King of my hill. But it is a small hill. I guess, in some way, that I want to climb. I want to escape the poverty. But I don’t want to get involved with the heroin gangs. I’m scared of screwing up.

And now, they’ve picked me up and I have no idea why.

Do they consider me a threat, to be eliminated because of my cross-bred blood? Do they want me to do a job? Are they just trying to keep the streets chaotic?

I am thinking about all of this as Mumbato leads me out of the warrens and to the closest street. Once there, he walks up to a Land Rover – an incredibly conspicuous car in a neighborhood where bicycles are a sign of wealth. He opens the front passenger door and I look in. And then, one of his goons sticks a bag over my head. I’ll admit, I’m disappointed. I’ve never been in a car before. If nothing else, I really wanted the chance to enjoy the ride.

The truck takes off and I think about what is happening.

If Mumbato wants me dead, that’s it. I have nothing to stop them, nothing to offer them. If they want a cut of my business there isn’t much to cut. I’d never be able to afford even one of the tires on this truck. But if they do want rent. I’d have no choice but to pay it. I’d hate it, but I’d have to pay it.

I quickly realize that some idiot has decided to leave the windows open. I can’t imagine why. I can’t see, and I have no idea what a car feels like in different places. But I can hear and I can smell everything. The open sewers of the warrens have a very distinct stench. And unlike the roads, they run straight; nobody wants to be near a bend in a sewage ditch. We cross a ditch and I know where we are. We’re heading towards the city center.

Maybe I can get something from the meeting. Maybe I could kill Mumbato’s father – after all, he’d killed mine. Maybe I could strike some sort of alliance. Somehow I doubt it. Street kids can be useful, but I know my place.

The smells outside the car get cleaner and cleaner. Feces are replaced by dust. And dust with soft asphalt. The smell of palm trees becomes more common. With each change in smell, the traffic gets slower and slower. I know the scene well; crowds of cars jammed together with bicycles, motorcycles and cobbled-together vehicles of every description. The cars in particular are moving at an impossibly slow pace. You can walk faster than these cars. I have. But it is definitely classier to drive.

From all directions, I can hear music pumping out of car stereos – people dancing as they pass the time. I know street merchants are moving between the cars offering everything from cooking stoves to cassava yams.  We stand out. Our stereo is off. Our car is not filled with dancing people. The street vendors can probably see me, bag over my head – my fellow occupants aren’t even bothering to hide it. They know to stay clear of this particular Land Rover.

We pass a park, the complex scents of jasmine and freshly rained-on grass mixing with palm. And then we enter someplace dark. A garage – with the soft scent of motor oil.

They pull me out of the car and into another. The seats of the second one aren’t leather, they are decaying fabric.

And then we leave the garage. The windows are still open. We leave the city center. We drive past the fish market and the docks. And then we leave the city altogether. I haven’t often gone to the countryside. But the smell of manure and of recently turned dirt is both recognizable and very different from the smells I know.

We drive for a time, with the wind coming through the windows faster and faster. I have no idea where we are, there are only broad strokes of scent. And then we dip back into a city and slow down. I don’t know what city. But it smells like human life and human waste.

And then a particular scent passes my nose – it is earthy and just a bit bitter. A stockpile of cassava root. There are many of those, but not many next to what comes next; the distinct smell of Chinese cooking. Now, I know where we are. We’ve ducked back into Duomba. We aren’t anywhere near my neighborhood. But we are near the apartments the Chinese built for the workers building the new road to Togu. Interestingly, it is nowhere near the Yogula clan’s home neighborhood.

A minute later, we pull into someplace dark. Perhaps another garage.

I gather myself together and get rid of any thoughts of pleasantries. Small-time child gang leaders aren’t yanked off the street by heroin clans to be treated to a royal feast and a promotion.

Especially not the children of parents the clan has troubled to murder.

I smile, sadly.

Perhaps all my education has been for nothing.

 

The car stops.

Mumbato removes the bag from my head.

One of his goons opens my door.

I step out, totally unready for whatever is coming next.

Nitzavim-Vayelech

  1. Gods are described as being chelek – assigned. It is a word we use with the inheritance of the land. We get our portion (chelek) in the land. The chelek of gods connects to the prior portion – we are assigned Hashem and can see, hear and feel like no other people. They are assigned wood and stone and can not. But we inherit the bounty of Hashem. And here there is a worm in the works. Hashem points out there will be a root in Israel that produces hemlock and wormwood. Literally this means head and intentional sin. There will be a person who produces headstrong intentional sinners. And the branches of that root will yield a bitter inheritance.
  2. Here we have a return of the concept of having the heart circumcised. But it is different here. Before we circumcised out heart. This time, Hashem does it for us. Why? It seems, we have two visions of return. In one, we come to Hashem and circumcise our own hearts – in essence saying we want to recover from our rebellion like a drug addict makes the decision to try to recover from his addiction. Here, after going through the incredibly vivid curses, Hashem circumcises our heart for us. We seem to fail to take the step, so he does it for us. Why?
  3. Why is Moshe saying that the Torah is not far from us? While the concept of it being in our hearts and mouths and not across the seas or in the heavens is fascinating, why bring it up here?
  4. In this reading, we see Moshe explaining that he can no longer go or come. What does this mean? There are many explanations but a simple one is this. We just read about how the Torah is not across the seas or in the heavens. But it was in the heavens – Moshe got it. Moshe is literally saying that he can no longer go or come to Hashem. Hashem has told him he can’t cross the Jordan – he’s lost that unique connection and no longer has a purpose in the world.
  5. Here we return to inheritance. We have an inheritance in the land. Why? Because of the forefathers. We understand, as we did in Ve’etchanan, that this is due to the love of Hashem for our forefathers and visa versa. But this inheritance is connected to our obligations. But what kind of inheritance comes with these riders? How does Hashem justify our pain if we’ve inherited the bounty of love?
  6. All of a sudden, the discussion turns personal. It is between Moshe and Hashem. Hashem tells Moshe he’s going to die and the people will rebel. And it seems one has to ask, if the people ignore the Torah Moshe brought, what is Moshe passing on? The answer is in how Hashem describes Moshe’s death. When Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaacov and Yosef die – they are gathered to their nation. Hashem describes Moshe’s death by saying he will lay with the forefathers. In essence, his inheritance is that he gets to join in passing on the gift of the forefathers.
  7. Throughout this parsha, we’ve had witnesses come up again and again. The earth and sky. The poem. The Torah. Why? I think the answer is all about inheritance. Hashem promised the land of Israel to the Bnei Yisrael as an inheritance. They deserve it because of the forefathers love for Hashem. It is critical that it be understood that the love of and for Hashem lasts for thousands of generations. It is in Ve’etchana and the Ten Commandments. But there is a contrary inheritance – the inheritance of those who hate Hashem. That is also in the Ten Commandments. It is also in Ve’etchanan. It is immediate punishment or punishment for three or four generations. How do we reconcile these? With the intermediate suffering. We rebel, we produce headstrong iniquity, we worship gods we did not inherit – and Hashem punishes us. But eventually he must honor the longer-term inheritance – the inheritance of our forefathers. As we’ve seen there are two routes to this. One is that we circumcise our own heart and return. Another is that, forced to honor our inheritance despite the fact we’ve earned all the curses, Hashem circumcises our hearts for us. By laying with the forefathers, Moshe joins in this longer term inheritance.

The Day the Car Blew Up (non-fiction)

You might have heard about my car. It is a pretty fun story in retrospect. Here’s what happened. My brother, my girlfriend and a salesperson of ours were driving down to Philadelphia. We were going down South Street in Weston, MA (this street leads from Brandeis U to the MassPike) when I saw a pipe sticking vertically out of the road. It was dark and I was going about 25 miles an hour. The pipe was about 10 feet in front of me. I had the opportunity to swerve out of the way, but thought the pipe would be smaller problem than a swerve. I slowed down a touch (didn’t want to throw the car forward slamming on the brakes) and didn’t even consider the pipe a real problem. We all heard a big crack as I drove over the pipe. I looked in the rear view mirror, saw a fireball and hit the brakes shouting “Get out of the car, get the f*ck out of the car.” We all got out and I watched the fireball travel up to the car erupting into a huge flame when it hit the car. Think Die Hard 2. The pipe had ripped a huge hole in the gas tank and started a spark (the trail of fire leading up to the car was at least 1.5 feet wide). The car was destroyed within 5 seconds of our getting out.

We were afraid that the salesperson was still in the car so my little brother tried to get back inside the burning car. Thankfully he failed. Thank G-d, everyone was fine.

The accident, which drew 6 fire vehicles, 1 police car and 1 ambulance. The chief fire inspector walked up to me afterwards and said, “Sir, were you driving the car.” I said, “Yes.” He then proceeded to explain that my gas tank had been leaking! It was a correct diagnosis, but still a very poor one. I pleasantly led him back to the pipe sticking out of the road and said, “Our gas tank started leaking here.” And indeed, you could see. The burn patch in the pavement was over a foot wide and it started right there.

Photos below!


The *good* side of the car. The otherside is far more messed up. That’s me seeing if I can get anything out. In particular, I was looking for my digital camera in some hope it had survived. It hadn’t.


You can see one of the components the pipe grabbed in the process of destroying the car.


This is my steering wheel.


A view through the front end of the car.


Where my girlfriend at the time was sitting.


The tire is in the car cause the fire department put it there.

Eighteenth Annual Yom Kippur Greeting

Every year for the past 18 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle.

Prior to the holiday, we examine ourselves. We search ourselves for sins – sins to beg forgiveness for, sins to repair, and sins to eliminate from our futures. Our search can never be complete; our human memory is fallible, and we often succeed at hiding our greatest shortcomings from ourselves. Nonetheless, the search can guide us as we seek forgiveness. And it can guide us as we seek to improve ourselves.

Among other things, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to restart the clock and wipe away the mistakes of the past. However, the Yom Kippur prayers and fasting only serve as a vehicle to wipe away our sins against G-d. To clear away our sins against our fellow man, we must secure forgiveness from them directly. Because of this, it is a Jewish custom to ask those whom you may have hurt during the year for forgiveness. It generally takes the form of a short note or a brief question.

In my case, I have written a more involved letter – a meditation on the year past and the year to come. This is the 18th such letter. In Judaism, the number 18 literally spells Life. I’m sending this year’s greeting a little early, because it speaks about more the possibilities of the next year than the errors of the past.

As a note, I have found as the years have passed that the religious content of these letters has increased. Jews are forbidden from trying to convert people. So while there are religious aspects to what I’ve written, and while you might find it enlightening or infuriating, there is no desire to convince anybody of anything 🙂

My letter is below.

—-

Central Park

The man is picking through the trash when he notices me out of the corner of his eye. He looks up, pure joy emanating from his face. He’s clearly delighted to see me.

“I know who you are,” he says, bubbling with enthusiasm.

I nod my head. He does indeed know.

“Your name is–” he starts. But I cut him off.

Not by interrupting, but by running at him and shoving him into oncoming traffic.

I watch dispassionately as the first car slams into his body.

I turn and walk away.

There is mayhem on the street behind me.

Of course, nobody gives me a second glace.

I found a solution and my task is complete.

He was walking through Central Park in the spring when I first met him. He looked just like the file said he would. His hair was long and unkempt, his face pockmarked with the scars of life. His clothes look like an afterthought – they were mismatched, badly worn and barely adequate. He had nothing in his hands, nothing in his arms, nothing on his back. I knew he carried no wallet or identification.

But I knew who he was, and I was here to save him.

“Adam,” I said, softly as I approached. I didn’t want to upset him.

He didn’t notice me. His eyes were drawn to a bird, some kind of warbler, landing on a nearby tree. A string of syllables, unintelligible to me or the bird, came from his mouth. Gibberish it seemed. But he listened to himself, repeated the word and nodded in satisfaction. He pointed at another bird, another warbler, and repeated it. A pattern had been established.

“Adam,” I repeated. He continued to ignore me.

I needed to talk to this man. He was in my file.

And so I began to follow him. For hours, he walked from bird to bird, pointing at each one and speaking. There were patterns. Those with similar sounds or appearance ended up with similar names. But rarely identical ones. His memory for the made up words was fantastic. I couldn’t keep track of every association, but those I could remember he recalled perfectly.

Occasionally I’d try to get his attention but he’d ignore me. It was like I was just another bird in the park.

He stopped for lunch – a leftover veggie burger on a park bench. I watched him eat and he continued to ignore me.

I had his file. I reopened it. “Adam Jones, 23” it said. There were all sorts of reports in it. Transcripts. Excellent grades in mathematics. Declining grades in everything else. Eventually no grades in anything but mathematics. And then no grades at all. But he kept attending classes. And then he stopped doing that. Not long after, he’d had his first arrest for indecent exposure. But he didn’t face any charges. Then he’d been found to have schizophrenia. He’d been hospitalized a few times.  But the meds hadn’t helped. Finally, he stopped speaking. He stopped making noise. Except, of course, in Central Park.

He finished eating and handed his leftovers to a nearby squirrel. He pointed at it, and named it.

The squirrel chirped happily and he smiled. A joyous, innocent and deep smile. Adam Jones didn’t have schizophrenia. But I was the only one who knew it.

He sat for a minute. His eyes shut. His lips moved and then the smile deepened beyond his face, seeming to enter his chest and his legs and the bench beyond his body. And then the park as a whole. The entire place seemed to light up with his spirit.

And then slowly, it all receded and returned to normal.

He never frowned.

I continued to follow him, watching him name things.

When I was ready, I pointed at a warbler and I repeated his string of now intelligible sounds.

Then, he looked up. As if confirming what I said he pointed at the same bird and repeated the same sounds. I nodded in concurrence and repeated them after him.

It wasn’t a complex language, just names of things. Even so, he seemed willing to communicate with me. I just had to speak his language.

That was how it started. Talking of things. Concrete things. Only concrete things. The man was simple and straightforward. He didn’t come up with new ideas or create concepts. And, even in his own language, he wasn’t a brilliant communicator. He thought, but not like other people. He was an observer, cataloging what he saw – recording it in his own strange way.

Amazingly, he assessed nothing. Nothing was good or bad. Nothing was beautiful or ugly. Nothing was surprising or particularly interesting. Things just were. People just were. They too were to be pointed at and named. But nothing more.

And after every found meal he sat, and glowed, and lit up the world around him, and then resumed his rounds of the park.

I walked with him for weeks.

I was waiting for something more, trying to inspire something more. But he was a happy man. A man at peace. What greater desires he might have had were perfectly tucked away.

He was satisfied with his lot. And he was pleased with his meditations. He lived a life without fear or risk.

There seemed to be nothing I could do to help.

Adam Jones wasn’t schizophrenic. He was holier than any man alive.

He was connected to G-d and to nobody and nothing else.

 

And then one day I came to the park and he was picking through garbage on the side of the street.

He was looking for food.

And he’d figured out who I was.

It was then that I pushed him into traffic.

 

Seven days later Adam Jones wakes up. He’d been hospitalized.

A woman is sitting beside him as he wakes. She’s a nurse. She’d seen him arrive. He’d been damaged, almost destroyed. But she’d seen him smile. She’s seen the power of his smile.

She’d read his chart, just as I’d read his file. And just like me, she knew he wasn’t schizophrenic.

She is a part of him and she loves him. But she represents something he repressed. Where he is satisfied, she is restless. Where he is content to observe, she wants to be involved. Walking through the park, naming things and feeding on scraps of other people’s food won’t be enough for her.

She needs more.

 

Nonetheless, when Adam Jones opens his eyes, she is waiting.

 

She will save him. He will see fear and risk and he will feel hunger. But he will also experience the joy of creation and of assessing the work of his own hands.

In his struggle, he will never again see the park as it was.

 

I can look at my work, and I can see that it is good.

—-

The religious world has a tendency to define good as that which G-d chooses. In this rendering, nothing could be greater than living the life dictated by G-d. And nothing can be worse than stepping away from it. There are differences in this broad definition. For example, while Christians tend to see Eve’s eating of the Apple as the Original Sin, the standard Jewish interpretation is thatchoosing to do Good – which can only happen with knowledge of Evil – enables us to be greater than the angels themselves.

 

But is choice all that makes us greater than angels? Imagine the perfect choosing man. He knows the will of G-d and he is aware of Evil. But he has so connected himself to G-d that the possibility of choosing anything but the will of G-d is totally outside of his capability. He is a man who lives in peace and security and who is filled with the wonder of G-d.

What is this man missing?

The answer is clear to any of us.

This man isn’t using his own initiative to impact the world. He isn’t creating and assessing. He isn’t contributing anything new. He has entirely subsumed his character and his own unpredictable drive to create and add to the world.

This is not the image of G-d. G-d, the Creator, assesses Goodness after he creates. Man, in the image of G-d and filled with His spirit, is not complete unless he is creating and judging that which he creates.

Our perfect man, despite drawing himself close to G-d and despite living in divine peace, is not himself a doer of Goodness. He is very Holy, but he is not Good. This is Adam in the Garden of Eden. He has not sinned, he is living with G-d. But he has not created, and so G-d declares that ‘Man alone is not Good.’ And Adam detects, on some level, that something is missing. Unlike the animal species, he has no opposite.

Man in the garden needed, to quote my children, ‘a kick in the derriere’. And that kick is Chava (Eve in English). She makes man Good – a higher state than pure holiness. But it comes with a cost. Man is driven to create by the Evil of the world. Man is driven to create by fear and pain. We are forced create because we must plant and build and bear children just to sustain ourselves and our species. However, given that drive, we do create.

And Adam understood this.

Hashem says: “because you have harkened to the voice of your wife… unto dust you shall return.’ In the very next verse, the Torah records: “And the man called his wife’s name Chava; because she was the mother of all living.”

This seems to be the nature of humankind. Without risk, without fear, without Evil, we are not creative. Give people welfare and they will stop creating. They will devolve socially. Prop up whole societies and they will rot – demanding destruction to dampen their restlessness and pain. Wealthy societies and successful companies can suffer from the same effect.

The pained, self-destructive, restless, rich son is an image as old as civilization.

King Solomon, the wisest of men, lived a life so blessed that he could see almost nothing new under the sun, or understand that not all was vanity. It is not surprising that he turned to foreign women and idol worship. It is not surprising that he left a country on the verge of collapse.

On a more personal and banal note, I procrastinate because I seem to want to feel the pain of a deadline.

 

For many of us, the knowledge of Good and Evil is not a choice between two paths – it is a twin pack of motivation and action. Evil is a motivation even if the good is only a hopeless but beautiful protest against an inevitable reality.

 

But there are those who can create the Good without being beset by Evils.

In the past four Yom Kippur greetings, I’ve written about three such people.

The first was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce inherited great wealth and had Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister (at 24) as his best friend. Despite his good fortune, he dedicated himself to changing the social reality of an Empire while also doing more to end slavery than almost any man in history.

The second was Norman Borlang who fixated on feeding the world and created new crops than saved literally hundreds of millions of lives.

And the third was Nicolas Winton, a stockbroker who dedicated himself to saving Jewish children in 1939. He rescued 669 children, at least one of whom I have the honor of knowing.

 

There is a pattern that binds these examples together. The Torah says, “G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy by resting in it from all his creative work.” Holiness is created by divine rest. But G-d does more than rest. He works for six days – he creates the Good for six days – so that the world may rest and be in a state of divine peace on the seventh.

To follow Hashem’s example, we should create not just to combat our own difficulties, but to enable others to create and to rest in holiness.

 

Borlang, Wilberforce and Winton lived in the image of G-d. They used their own blessings to assault  hunger, slavery and murder and enable others both to experience some measure of peace and creation in their own lives. Finally, they did not deprive their beneficiaries of the need to create to sustain themselves. They did not reduce them to dependents.

 

In the past year, I made many choices that were neither holy nor creative: judging others without purpose, wasting time, not learning enough, and summarily dismissing the beauty, variety and value of others’ uniquely creative and holy souls. But I have done more than that. I have failed to do all that I can to support Goodness and Holiness in our society.

In considering my own talents and abilities, I have decided to begin to rectify the last of these shortcomings by writing a book. The first chapter is the story of Adam Jones. The book as a whole will be an exploration of how we can support goodness and holiness – personally, socially and politically. It will be an exploration of how we can use these objectives to bring purpose and satisfaction to our lives, to the lives of those around us, and to the lives of our children. And it will be an exploration of how we can extinguish evil.

If you are interested in seeing my work as it progresses, let me know.

If there are any slights or sins my family or myself have committed against you – whether known or unknown – we apologize and ask for your forgiveness.

 

And if you have committed any slights or sins, known or unknown, against us – you may consider them forgiven.

 

And may you have a year of health, a year of prosperity, a year of honor, a year of family and a year of joy. Last, but not least, may you have a year where you create the Good and experience the Holy.

 

Joseph Cox

p.s. For those wanting a New Year’s update, we have had a blur of a year. I’m working with WheelTug, Bec is with the VA. For the first time in a long time, we haven’t moved house. Nava and the Trips are progressing nicely. They are all going to school (Ma’ayan HaTorah) and, notably, Yitzchak can ride a bike without training wheels (at 3 and a half). Aside from freakish things like that, it is hard to say what is new about them because the timelines are so unclear. Nonetheless, we are continually doing our best to bring out the best of each of them and to help them learn, as they grow, to be creators in their own right. Thank G-d all are healthy. K’9 aHora it has been a good year.

Seventeenth Annual Yom Kippur Greeting

Every year for the past 17 years, I have written an annual Yom Kippur greeting. Yom Kippur is one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar and part of our New Year cycle.

Prior to the holiday, we examine ourselves. We search ourselves for sins – sins to beg forgiveness for, sins to repair, and sins to eliminate from our futures. Our search can never be complete; our human memory is fallible, and we often succeed at hiding our greatest shortcomings from ourselves. Nonetheless, the search can guide us as we seek forgiveness. And it can guide us as we seek to improve ourselves.

Among other things, Yom Kippur is an opportunity to restart the clock and wipe away the mistakes of the past. However, the YomKippur prayers and fasting only serve as a vehicle to wipe away our sins against G-d. To clear away our sins against our fellow man, we must secure forgiveness from them directly. Because of this, it is a Jewish custom to ask those whom you may have hurt during the year for forgiveness. It generally takes the form of a short note or a brief question.

In my case, I have written a more involved letter – a meditation on the year past and the year to come. This is the 17th such letter.

[As a note, Jews are forbidden from trying to convert people. So while there are some religious aspects to what I’ve written, there is no desire to convince anybody of anything :)]

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In the Five Books of Moses, the lives of the great from Abraham to Esav to Aaron and Moshe – are all ended in the same way. They are ‘gathered’ to their people. The Hebrew word, from the same root as my name, Yosef, is often used in another context.

It is used to describe the gathering of sheaves of wheat.

To me, this is a beautiful and haunting image. An image of souls being harvested at their peak – to be joined with the other sheaves of their peoples.

The Torah (Bible) speaks of sheaves and of harvesting in many other contexts. Of particular note, it speaks of ears of corn and kernels of wheat being left in the field – as gleanings for the poor.

The image reminds me of Yehuda HaLevi, the great Medieval Jewish sage. HaLevi said that when a man dies, his body and mind depart, and nothing remains but his soul. And if that man has not developed his soul, then nothing remains at all. But if you develop your soul then quite a bit remains – and you can leave kernels behind – remnants of influence – which spread in our world whether others’ memories of you remain or not.

We know the achievements of a Lincoln – but consider the possibility that the soul of an anonymous childhood neighbor lives on through his actions. Consider the leftover kernels of that soul still spreading through our world.

With Yom Kippur in our minds, we must ask: how can we accomplish this with our own lives? How can we create souls worth harvesting – whose gleanings can sustain those who come after us?

An answer starts with the story of a man who knew a thing or two about harvests.

In 1937, the man was a graduate student. He had an undergraduate degree in Forestry and had worked as a Forest Service officer on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River – where my parents would later live and where my eldest three siblings would be raised. He’d lost his job and returned to school. One day that year, he attended a lecture. The event itself would seem unremarkable. The lecture was given by Dr. Elvin Stakman – an expert in the identification and treatment of diseases in wheat. During that lecture, Dr. Stakman stated that “[science could] go further than has ever been possible to [end] the miseries of hunger and starvation from this earth.”

With that statement, the student – by all accounts a tremendously caring person – found himself drawn to a concept. A concept by which he could help hundreds of millions of lives.

With that chance encounter, the student, the teacher, and our entire world were forever changed.

The student’s name was Norman Borlang. And in the following decades, Dr. Borlang revolutionized farming – particularly in the Third World. He led the Green Revolution.

In the process, he saved many more lives than Hitler ever took.

It is worth noting that we often remember the people who have committed great evil, but forget those who have done great good.

Dr. Borlaug died in 2009 – one of only six people to have received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He is the only one of those six to have been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

His story – like the stories of many other phenomenally productive people – carries within it an answer to my question.

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In today’s world, people are consumed by the unplanned negative. Fundamentally, life is unpredictable and we live in fear of the unexpected. Death and illness are always lurking. And with our tremendously poor economy, a fear of the loss of income lingers constantly.

We try to avoid such things – we try to plan around them. But we exercise only the illusion of control.

Dr. Borlaug’s life, like the lives of so many other great people, teaches us that the unexpected need not be negative. In fact, a great life almost always involves the unexpected – the positive results of seemingly random encounters. Examples abound: from Moses killing the taskmaster because he decided to walk among the Hebrews to Dr. Borlang being inspired because he decided to attend a lecture.

We can easily avoid these sorts of unexpected events. We can avoid them by hiding from the world. But we can also cultivate them. We can cultivate them by interacting with our world. We can raise the odds of the positive unexpected occurring.

Jews are commanded to impact our world in a positive way. Because of this, there are no Jewish monks. Instead, we must walk within our world, we must learn and teach daily, and we must open ourselves to the unexpected. And when we interact, we must open ourselves not only to teaching, but also to learning.

As we examine our lives and our paths in this season, we must keep the lessons of a Dr. Borlaug in mind. In life, we have countless opportunities to change and develop the souls of ourselves and others. We can transfer bits of their essence to ourselves and bits of our essence to them. We can transfer bits of knowledge. And we can transfer bits of inspiration. And through this, all of us can grow and be strengthened.

We can do this as individuals – and we can do this as communities. And through this we can only bring great light to the world – we can eliminate the dark spaces where evil can grow unencumbered by the souls of the righteous.

Failing to do this – failing as individuals or as communities – is wasteful. It is wasteful of our lives and wasteful of the lives of others.

There is a time at which we ripen – and are ready to be gathered. We may be young or we may be old. But if we fail to grow, we may find ourselves cut down before we are meant to be taken. We may find our souls discarded where we could have joined the beautiful sheaves of our peoples.

Through the inspiration they provide, people like Dr. Borlaug can do more than create bountiful crops of wheat and corn and soy. They can create bountiful crops of people – beautiful souls yielding a better and stronger world. We must be open to that inspiration and the opportunities it can provide.

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As I examine my past year, this has been my failure: I have failed to seek out interactions within my communities and beyond them – and I have failed to seek out and grasp the wisdom of those I have interacted with.

I ask for your forgiveness.

If there are any slights or sins my family or myself have committed against you – whether known or unknown – we apologize and ask for your forgiveness.

And if you have committed any slights or sins, known or unknown, against us – you may consider them forgiven.

May you have a year of health, a year of prosperity, a year of honor, a year of family and a year of joy. Last, but not least, may you have a year of blessed serendipity.

Joseph Cox

p.s. If you would like to know about a growing resource to enhance the sharing of a particular kind of knowledge ask me about Bible4Community.com