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Raise your words

Anywhere is my Destination

It was a spectacular November morning, the high desert air clear and sharp, the sun ablaze in a cobalt sky. The future was mine for a song.

It was my first day on the road, the beginning of my grand adventure. It was my ultimate break with the past, my rejection of the familiar, and my repudiation of the predictable. There I was, on the cusp of metamorphosis, about to tear through the walls of my cocoon and take flight into a brave new world.

I was terrified.

It had seemed like a good idea, leaving everything and everyone behind to hitchhike across America. But that first morning out, standing on barren stretch of New Mexico highway 650 miles from where I’d started, all I could think of was getting back on the train to Southern California and slinking home to confess my reckless folly.

Click here to read the whole essay.

Don’t expect perfection

California and the Waters of Life and Death

Whenever headlines carry the painful images of human being caught in the path of catastrophic flooding, we should all take a few moments to contemplate how quickly nature can become our greatest adversary.  Water is both the source of all life and the greatest destructive force on earth.  I ponder the paradox in these reflections from after the Pacific Rim tsunami of 2005.


The Tsunami and the Circle-Maker

california-flood-bicyclist-jpg_5902745_ver1-0_640_360Volcanoes. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Fires. Tornadoes. Blizzards. Drought.

In a time when reports of terrorism have become all too common, it is sobering to consider the myriad ways nature possesses to inflict death and violence on a scale surpassing the most destructive instruments devised by man. Of all these, however, destruction by water, whether from the sea or from the sky, holds a unique terror in the scope and measure of its devastation.

Aside from the 150,000 lives already reported lost across nearly a dozen countries along the Indian Ocean, dehydration, disease and hunger threaten as many as 5 million more in the wake of the recent tsunami. And rare though tidal waves may be, the more familiar trial-by-water of floods has, with much greater frequency, left similar numbers homeless and in danger of starvation.

It seems ironic that water, the source and foundation of all life upon our planet, can become nature’s most malevolent instrument against the beings whose lives depend upon it.

Devastation by water occupies a prominent place in human history. Virtually every ancient culture records the tradition of a great flood that inundated the world, lending credence to the biblical account of Noah and the ark. Jewish tradition describes this not as a random event, but as a divine response to the corruption of mankind.

The Talmud, however, reports a much more enigmatic account of divine intervention through water. It was in a time of terrible drought that the Jewish people approached the sage Choni HaMagil and beseeched him to pray for rain on their behalf. When Choni’s supplications to the Almighty went unanswered, he drew a circle in the dust and stepped inside of it, vowing not to leave the circle until G-d bestowed rain upon His people.

Immediately, a fine mist settled upon the earth, too little to alleviate the drought but sufficient to free Choni from his vow.

Choni called out to heaven: “I asked not for this, but for a rain to fill all the wells and cisterns.” Immediately, raindrops larger than melons began to fall, wreaking destruction upon homes and fields.

Again Choni called out to heaven: “Neither did I ask for this, but for a rain of blessing.” Immediately a normal rain began to fall, filling the wells and cisterns of the people as Choni had requested. But the rain did not stop, and soon the entire population of the land feared that they would drown in the rising waters.

One last time Choni called out heavenward: “Master of the World, Your people, Israel, whom You brought out from Egypt, can tolerate neither too much blessing nor too much misfortune.” Immediately the waters abated, and the people returned to their fields. From this time onward, people referred to Choni by the name HaMagil   —   the Circle-maker.

What was the point of G-d’s demonstration to the people of Israel? What did Choni mean that the people could not tolerate too much blessing? And why did Choni find it necessary to remind the Almighty, at this particular moment, that He had brought the Jewish people out from Egypt?

The Exodus from Egypt may be described, in commercial terms, as the largest loan ever extended in the history of man. During the generations of slavery in Egypt, the Jewish people had forgotten their Creator and lapsed into the same idolatries as their Egyptian masters. And although, to their credit, the Jews had guarded themselves against assimilation, this alone was insufficient to earn them the privilege of miraculous redemption. Nevertheless, G-d gave them an incalculable line of credit: Freedom from slavery, freedom from oppression, freedom to chart their own course into the future.

Moreover, He promised them immeasurable blessing and unbounded prosperity, on condition that they would repay their loan   —   repay it by living according to G-d’s law, repay it by rising above material pursuits and petty self-interest, repay it by using all the blessing that G-d would bestow upon them to aspire to moral, ethical, and spiritual perfection.

In this light, blessing may be understood as a double-edged sword. Wielded in one direction, it cuts down all enemies and obstacles that stand before us. Wielded in another, it obligates us to a standard of righteousness and moral behavior that we may find nearly impossible to meet.

This was the meaning behind the Almighty’s response to Choni the Circle-maker’s plea:

Two roads lie before My people, and it is their choice which to follow. One leads back to Egypt, back to the oppression of materialism and the slavery of self-indulgence, back to spiritual emptiness and the absence of all blessing. The other road leads forward, to spiritual fulfillment and spiritual greatness, if My people will only find within themselves the potential to seek greatness and discard all lesser goals. It is for this that I redeemed them, that they might cast off the chains of physicality and reach for the heavens.

H19060-L75167491And this too was the meaning behind Choni’s appeal to the Almighty:

Master of the World, You brought your people out from slavery and oppression on condition that they would use their freedom and the blessings to strive for spiritual heights. Your people, however, have demonstrated from their beginnings that, whatever their potential may be, they still suffer from human failings and human shortcomings. They cannot tolerate too little material blessing, lest the struggle to survive overwhelms them and they abandon all higher aspirations. And they cannot tolerate too much blessing, lest they cower before the goal set for them and lose all hope of its attainment.

By all accounts, the world that we live in today enjoys a level of material affluence unattained and unimagined by previous generations. Such basic necessities as rapid transit, instantaneous communication, indoor plumbing, electrical lighting and refrigeration, which we take for granted, provide us with an ease of living simply unavailable to even the wealthiest, most powerful monarchs until the last century. The very existence of an “entertainment industry,” much less the staggering sums of money devoted to it, testifies to our abundance of resources   —   which is to say, our abundance of material blessing.

Nowhere does Jewish tradition teach the condemnation of wealth or of recreation.

Nowhere does Jewish law mandate the forcible redistribution of wealth from those blessed with good fortune to those less fortunate. But Jewish tradition does warn us of the responsibilities of prosperity. It warns us in the narrative of the flood, in the story of Choni HaMagil, and also in the Hebrew word for charity: tzedakah, derived from the word tzedek, or justice.

It is only just that those who are blessed share a portion of their blessing with their less fortunate neighbors. It is only just that, before overindulging in one’s own good fortune, he ponders why he deserves having received such blessing while his neighbor has not. And it is only just that he ask himself how, even in the absences of tax incentives or legal mandate, he might reach out with his blessing to ease his neighbor’s plight.

If the waters of the earth, the life-giving waters that are the source of our greatest blessing   —   life itself   —   have risen up to inflict enormous tragedy, swallowing human life and draining billions of dollars of aid to spare human suffering, we will all be remiss if we do not pause to consider whether we have used our blessings wisely, and what we must do to ensure that we will continue to deserve them.

Originally published by Jewish World Review.

It’s about time

hqdefaultAre you feeling more rested this week?  Do you notice your watch running a smidgen fast?  Maybe it’s because of the leap-second added by the National Institute of Standards and Technology on New Year’s Eve.

A few of us may take comfort knowing that our clocks are back in sync with the earth’s relative positive to the sun, and find it reassuring that all the cosmic gears and cogs are once again in perfect alignment.  The rest of us couldn’t care less.

Does it really matter?

Well, yes; it just might.

There are two ways to look at time.  First, as a convenient touchstone for organizing our lives.  Without some universal standard for tracking our days and our hours, imagine the trouble we would have arranging our affairs and interactions.

But you can also make the case that time really does mean something.

Click here to read the whole article.

All the things that might have been

earths_fractal_brain_2What happens to the road not taken?  Does it wait for us to return, or does it blink out of existence?  And if we do return, is it truly the same road, since we ourselves have changed?

What about us:  do we divide into two at every fork, with one alternate version of ourselves taking one way and another the other?  And if that is so, might we reconnect further down the path of life, or crisscross, or switch back onto the road we left untraveled?

What of the people we meet along the way?  Are we destined to meet them no matter which road we follow, or do future friends and cohorts come into existence and disappear with every choice we make?  Will we find our soul mates whichever path we choose, or do different choices make us different people with different souls and different soul mates?

If you’re expecting me to answer these questions, you might as well stop reading here.  I have no more idea than you do, and maybe less.  But I do have a story about crossing paths and hidden possibilities.

Read the whole essay here.


Lighting our way to the Palace of the King

ballroom-at-the-grand-palace-in-peterhofThere is a story of a prince, a true prodigal son, whose antics and excesses taxed his father’s patience until the king, with no other recourse, sent his son penniless into exile to learn responsibility and humility.

The prince wandered from place to place, half-starving, unqualified for any craft or labor, until he finally found work as a shepherd in a distant land. The job of shepherding was not overly difficult, but the sun burned the prince’s back by day, the wind froze him at night, and the rain soaked through his clothes in winter.

Other shepherds built little huts to protect them from the elements, but whenever the poor prince tried to build himself a hut it toppled over in the first strong breeze.

Years went by, until at last the prince heard that the king was coming to the province where he lived. There was a custom in the kingdom that people would write their wishes upon scraps of paper and throw them at the king’s carriage. Any requests that the king picked up a read would be granted immediately. So the prince positioned himself along the parade route and, as the king’s carriage passed, he took careful aim and tossed his note.

The paper fell at the king’s feet. He unrolled it and, recognizing his son’s handwriting, he began to weep. For the note asked if the king would give the prince a little hut to protect him from the sun and the wind and the rain.

“My son could have asked to return to the palace,” cried the king, “but he no longer knows he is a prince.”

So it was in the days of the Maccabees, when the Jewish people were so steeped in the physical aestheticism and indulgences of Greek culture that many of them forgot that they were in exile, forgot that they were inheritors of a priceless spiritual legacy, forgot that they were children of the King.

But a few didn’t forget. A few risked their lives to honor the Sabbath, to circumcise their sons, to study the Torah of their fathers and grandfathers, to preserve the divine spark that had guided their ancestors for a thousand years. And, when their moment came, those few took up arms against their oppressors and fought for the privilege of living as Jews. They recaptured the Holy Temple and, as they rekindled the menorah, divine light flooded the streets and courtyards of Jerusalem, pushing off the darkness of exile, waking the people from cultural forgetfulness, inspiring a generation to remember its ancient roots cast its aspirations once more toward the heavens.

Today, 2,180 years later, we too live in an age of spiritual darkness, when the loudest and most persistent voices in our surrounding culture cry out to expunge every mention of the divine, to condemn every moral judgment, to sanctify every perversion in the name of “tolerance.” We live in an era of unprecedented material comfort and convenience, tranquilizing our bodies and our minds so that we can easily stifle the yearning of our souls.

slvm5919016But when the days are shortest and the nights are coldest, just then can a little light shine forth and dispel much darkness. Like a lighthouse guiding a ship home, the lights of the Chanukah menorah can draw us back from the abyss of spiritual oblivion. And as we add candle upon candle and light upon light, the growing radiance of the menorah reminds us of the divine flame that has guided us through the darkness of exile and saved us from the darkness of assimilation for generation after generation.

If we, like the Hellenist Jews, allow the material values of contemporary culture to shape our thinking and guide our actions, then we have truly forgotten who we are. Like the prince whose soul longed for nothing but a little hut to protect him from the sun and the rain, we will be destined to live out our days in futility.

But if we cling to all that which is noble within us, if the values of our tradition drive us to perform acts of kindness and charity, to devote a few moments each day to heartfelt and meditative prayer, to treat neighbors and strangers alike with respect, to set an example of morality and character for our children — then we will have rekindled the spark of divinity inside us, and we will have earned the privilege to have our Father, the King, bring us home.

Originally published in 2003 by Jewish World Review

The Gift of Gratitude

johnfkennedy105511If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.

— Arthur Ashe

There’s no arguing that tennis legend Arthur Ashe had good reason to complain. His mother died when he was four years old. His brilliant tennis career was cut short at age 36 by a heart attack, followed by two open-heart bypass operations and one brain surgery, only to discover that he had contracted AIDS via blood transfusion. He died at age 49.

It’s extraordinary that a person could suffer so much and not cry out against his fate with anger and bitterness. But the explanation used to be obvious, before it became increasingly rare:


Click here to read the whole article.

What Problems?


We can only hope

4I returned and saw under the sun
that the race is not to the swift
nor the battle to the strong,
neither is there bread to the wise
nor riches to men of understanding
nor yet favor to men of knowledge,
but time and fate will overtake them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11