Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hanukkah: For the Miracles

“For the miracles, for the times we were saved, for the mighty acts, for the victories, and for the battles you waged, for our ancestors in those days at this season . . .”

Al Ha-Nissim for Hanukkah


This little statement is sung each night of Hanukkah, following the blessings for the lighting of the Hanukkiyah, the eight branched menorah that we use to celebrate the minor Festival of Rededication, the Festival of Lights. At this time each year, we light the lights to advertise the miracle, to remember what it was like when our right to exist was denied us by rulers and powers, and what it was like to fight for our right to our unique identity among all the peoples of the earth.


It is easy on those nights, as we sing the happy childhood songs about latkes and dreidls, to remember the story about the miracle of the oil and it is easy to forget the reason why we light our lights and sing our songs each year at this season. It is every so easy to sing the Al Ha-Nissim in Hebrew while not thinking about the meaning of the words in Hebrew, and what memories they are intended to bring up for us.


Al ha-Nissim— for the miracles—in the Hebrew do not require a willing suspension of disbelief for our modern sensibilities, because they are not suspensions of natural law. Our G-d does not work that way, rather the Eternal renews the Work of Creation each day, which is a lawful work. A miracle is what human beings can accomplish through the illumination of the fire of the soul, entirely within the bounds of the Universe we know. The miracle that we advertise each year as we light the flames in our windows is the miracle of the flame of the Jewish soul, the continued existence of Jews as Jews against the darkness brought by those who would see it extinguished.

. . . v’al ha-purkan—for the times we were saved—the times that a hero or sage came to our aid, bringing to us a fiery reminder of the passion of our spirit; the strong arm brought to our defense by the passionate love of life and of the way we live it. We have been saved time and again, enduring and thriving in the face of certain destruction. The Hebrew understanding of salvation is not some metaphysical redemption, rather it is a very real and sometimes messy saving of flesh and blood from bondage and destruction.


. . . v’al ha-gevurot—for the mighty deeds—the acts of power and courage that come from the absolute conviction that our unique identity is precious and worth risking our lives to preserve for ourselves and for our children. Every time that we have been pushed up against the wall, we are inspired by the Eternal to resist the darkness and protect the light. That inspiration is the flame that burns small and strong against the cold and dark nothing that seeks to consume it.


. . . v’al ha-nifla-ot—for the victories—the wonder of winning over our foes, the wonder of once again being free to light up our lights against the darkness.


v’al ha-milchamot—for the battles that you fought for us . . . Make no mistake, miracles and salvation, mighty deeds and wonders do not come without a price. That price is the willingness to resist evil no matter the cost. It is the price paid by Judah son of Mattiyahu and his brothers, who resisted

. . . when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against your people Israel, to make them forget Torah and violate your law. You waged their battles, defended their rights and avenged the wrongs done to them. . . .

Al ha-Nissim for Hannukah

The price for their freedom to exist was to take up the sword against the oppressor, to wage war against a larger and better equipped professional army, and to win that war against all odds. This price has been paid again and again, by the men and women of the People Israel, from Devorah to Tania Chernova, and from Joshua to Yoni Netanyahu. Some of those who knew they had to fight lived to see the fruit of their courage, and some gave their lives.

Each night, when we light those small and flickering flames that shine against the darkness of winter, we remember them all, the heroes inspired by sages, those who lived and those who died, and those who died only because they were Jews. Against the bright lights of those more numerous and powerful than we, our flames seem small and weak; against those bright lights that last the night, ours waver and go out after a brief time burning. But we light them year after year, because they represent how:

you delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, and the wicked into the hands of the righteous . . .

Al ha-Nissim for Hanukkah

In our own time, a time I thought would never be seen again, the darkness grows against us once again. We see and hear of innocent Jewish children being attacked while the governments of the world are silent. We hear of our laws and customs forbidden in the lands of Europe, while the Islamists riot in the very same streets to demand their law replace the European enlightenment. We hear of a presidential candidate in the United States who has remained silent in the face of the virulent anti-Semitism among his inner circle and his supporters. We hear the Iranian president preach against us war and death and destruction to the sound of thundering applause. And as in the days of the Maccabees, we watch as some of our own people support our enemies and mouth their accusations against us.

The flame of one small candle flickers against the night, and goes out. But the next night it is two, and then again, three, and up to seven the number of Divine completion of Creation; and beyond to eight, the number of human fulfillment of tikkun olam, the Repair of the World. Year after year, lighting light against the darkness, counting up from a single flickering light to an abundance of light is re-enacted, always using small and single flames. They represent the miracles and redemptions, the mighty acts and victories, the battles that the Spirit of G-d that burns within, won for us in those days at this season. And particularly in this time of growing darkness in this time and season, the flames illumine our souls and ignite our courage and warm our hands and faces, preparing us for the time when the few will once again prevail against the many, and the weak against the strong. Not by might, and not by power, but by spirit alone will this once again be accomplished. Another one in the eternal chain of remembrance for which we sing:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

You Shall Live by Them

  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם

“You shall keep them, my commandments and my laws;  which if a man does them, he shall live by them.” (my translation)

Va-Yikra (Lev.) 18:5 (The Holiness Code)

“The commandments were given for no other purpose than to help men to live because of them, and not to die.”

Tosefta Shabbat 16-17 (Supplement to the Mishnah in the Babylonian Talmud)

“Judaism alone was primarily preoccupied with life. The Torah is called Torat Chayim, a Torah [teaching] for life, not for “eternal life” but simply for this life . . . the laws of the Torah are a preparation for life—the full life of the affections and senses, as well as of the mind and the spirit—‘which if a man do, he shall live by them’ (Lev. 18:5).”

Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differed: An Inquiry into the Distinctiveness of Judaism, 1956


Oftentimes I have been brought up short in a discussion or argument by the sudden realization that my partner in the debate and I have a completely different, and often irreconcilable world view. In these cases, much can be learned from continuing the discussion and I can pinpoint the consequences of each world view in the ensuing conclusions, but there can be no fundamental agreement reached.

I have been having some very intense and fruitful discussions with a friend whose world view, I am discovering, differs substantially from my own. This should not be surprising, given this man’s educated Protestant Christian background, but I have found it so because he has rejected Christianity its own-self. However, unlike so many of the adult children of Christianity that I know, he has not given up a primarily mystical world-view, instead replacing the Christian version with something else. Although I tend to think of this  as  “new age” kind of thinking, that label may in itself be problematic because it is used so glibly by religious and non-religious people in order to put  a premature closure on understanding of it, whatever it may be.

In the discussion we had last Sunday evening, two basic ideas over which we differ became stumbling blocks to any resolution between us about what is moral and what is not. One is the idea that this life is a kind of proving ground or antechamber for some form of existence after death. Or not. The other idea is the necessity to resist evil. Or not. Whether one accepts the second idea is actually related to one’s position on the first.

As those who have been reading this blog already surmise, I do not see life on earth as anything other than an end in itself. It is my identity as a Jew—and an educated one, that fundamentally makes this so. During the evolution from the Biblical Israelite religion to modern Rabbinic Judaism, one of the ideas that did not substantially change was the idea that life is for the living, and that physical existence is very good. Although Judaism has been infiltrated at the fringes by ideas about life after death, normative Rabbinic Judaism has rejected them, firmly insisting that it is what we do here and now that matters. If there is something more after death’s finality, then we do not know anything about it, and it is best to keep our feet firmly planted on the ground, because our actions here are what count for our weal and our woe.

The idea that death is not the end, that there is some utopia to be had after death, whether it be quasi-material or wholly spiritual, is related to apocalyptic thinking—the idea that what is, as it is, shall be completely remade into something better by a power that is generally conceived of as wholly good. These ideas (there are two of them, related but distinct) necessarily imply that things as they are now are not good, that human nature is fundamentally flawed, that physical existence and the material world are at least second best, if not downright evil.

Even within its creation stories, the Israelite religion rejected these ideas. The first creation story in Genesis uses words and phrases that, to the eye of those who know the Akkadian creation myth Enumah Elish, sets itself in opposition to it. Enumah Elish is a story of how there is a war in heaven, and the physical universe is created from the killed body of the loser, Tiamat. The implication is that the spiritual gods, disinterested and unpredictable, rule over the physical world, wreaking havoc as they will. The classic Hebrew creation story in Genesis 1:1 –2:1a in contrast posits an ordered universe brought into being through the spoken word, and declared to be “good” at each step. With the introduction of human beings, who have free will, the creation is pronounced “very good.” (The Hebrew word “meod” corresponding to the English “very” is a play on the Hebrew spelling of “Adam”, which means human being).

Throughout Torah (the canonical Five Books of Moses), there is no mention of afterlife or of apocalypse. Rather, law is presented as having real-world consequences: keep Torah and have life and the blessing of your children, discard it and experience death and the curses of those who follow. Life is good, death is evil. Body and spirit are intertwined and inseparable.

Later in Jewish history, even as ideas from Babylon and the Greeks brought into the culture notions of life after death, separation of body and soul (in which the body was presented as inferior) and apocalypse, the same circumstances also created the need to keep them firmly controlled. Particularly during the first war with Rome (60 – 65 CE), apocalyptic thinking influenced both the Sicarii (those sects fomenting rebellion against Rome for religious and political reasons) and the Essenes, a collection of sects that withdrew from an “impure world.”  The Rabbis understood that in those circumstances, both rebellion and ascetic withdrawal would result in the destruction of the Jewish people and its loss to the future. They therefore carefully confined any apocalyptic messianic ideation to ritual supplication and focused Jewish law and life upon living in the here and now.  

Although stories and ideas about ghosts and demons, judgment of the disembodied soul and life after death have flourished in Jewish superstition , incorporating customs such as lighting a candle for the dead, they are not normative, and tend to take on the flavor of the surrounding dominant culture. Jewish traditions surrounding dying and the dead forbid all of the displays that encourage such thoughts. It is forbidden to pray to the dead, to build them altars, to give them gifts for the journey, to mutilate one’s body or in any other way display excess grief. Life must go on, and as sad and sorry as we are at our loss, our duty is to life and to the living. This is illustrated in the Midrash on a verse in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes):

 It was said that when David died, Solomon sent to the Bet Midrash (House of Study) to enquire: ‘My father lies dead before me,and his body is lying in the sun. The dogs of my father’s household are howling for hunger. What shall I do?’ The Sages answered : ‘Feed the dogs first and then attend to the body of your father, for even a living dog takes precedence over a dead king.’ This is the origin of the verse: “For a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (Kohelet 9:4)

As a Jew, therefore, my allegiance is entirely to this life, the only one that I know, and I do not concern myself with “things far beyond it”, as the Psalmist says. When I weigh moral questions, I weigh them against the standard of life, this life. For Jews, there is no moral calculus that places some posited afterlife against life in the here in now. From the writing of the Talmud until now, no Jew can morally justify an action that places spiritual existence against physical life in the here and now. For example, the witch test--binding a woman hand and foot and throwing her in the water and if she drowns her soul is safe and if she does not drown then kill her—would be entirely immoral and forbidden. (Jews, being Jews, were more likely to be the victims of such acts than the perpetrators).

Many decisions are not moral decisions at all in this sense. For example, the decision to light candles on Shabbat is not an ethical consideration, it is a question of ritual, of custom and tradition. The decision to eat chocolate ice cream as opposed to vanilla is not a moral one either, it is one of simple preference. The obligation to preserve human life and to minimize suffering takes precedence over any ritual obligation or simple preference. One may not ignore a danger presented to human life by observation of a ritual or by preference. For example, a Jewish doctor is not only allowed but is obligated to attend emergencies on the Sabbath—when he or she would ordinarily not do any work—in order to save a life and minimize suffering. Any Jew would be obligated even to rescue an animal that has fallen into a well on Sabbath for that matter, in order to minimize its suffering because an animal cannot possibly understand a need to wait until sunset.

This way of thinking is foreign to my friend and debate partner. Because he believes with certitude that there is some preservation of the soul, some better life beyond this universe, questions of morality are informed differently. Since we did not explore these differences at great length, I cannot say with any certainty how they are informed. However, the preservation of one’s own life and the lives of others is apparently not primary to his moral calculus, and I am not sure how much weight it gets at all.

Further, he believes that this after-life or ongoing spiritual life has great influence on the physical world, and that humankind collectively is to make progress toward a “better way.” This points to utopian/apocalyptic ideation that assumes that the way in which human beings make moral decisions in this world is defective. This seems to be tied up with the conception that pacifism is morally superior to self-defense.

However, I have not gotten an answer to the question of whether my friend identifies himself as a pacifist or not, or what that word even means to him. After an hour or so of questioning and answering, mostly in order to clarify the assumptions he had about how I view life and death and heaven and hell, we called it quits. It was late. There was no resolution to agreement in this discussion anyway. There could not be as we start from very different concepts of life and its importance.

I think the conversation was fruitful for me, however, because it got me thinking about how this one basic idea—that of life after death—has consequences that extend to those who do agree with it.

As I said at the beginning of this entry, the idea of a life after death that is more valuable (better)than this life is bound up not only with the idea that human beings are defective in some way, but also with the idea that it is not necessary or even wrong to resist evil. That idea has grave consequences for the world here and now. That will be the topic of another blog entry.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Something for Nothing


There is something in the human psyche that wants to get something for nothing. It is a desire to cheat reality, to win over entropy, to obviate consequences. In the end, wanting something for nothing is the desire to escape a lawful universe.

The other day I had a long discussion with a friend that involved this desire carefully rationalized as a breakthrough within science. My friend, who is scientifically illiterate, refused to accept the definition of science, that it is limited to the study of the physical universe (aka: material world) by use of the scientific method. Instead, he seemed to want to use the cachet of science to contradict itself, and in the process, to deny its boundaries. That he has profound confusion about what constitutes matter made the whole discussion even more difficult—he thought that gases are not material, but he would not allow me to interrupt to clarify such problems of definition. This rendered the conversation frustratingly meaningless, because no definitions of terms were mutually agreed upon. 

The discussion involved the claim that a businessman from Italy had discovered a process and developed technology through which one can expect to get ten times the energy out that was put in. (The claim turned out to involve a “cold fusion” machine, but I did not know that until far into the discussion).

Now such a claim may simply mean that this man has developed a very efficient process using a certain amount of energy input in order to get the use of energy stored in a fuel source of some sort. We do this all the time, at different levels of efficiency, depending on the sophistication of the physical and chemical processes we have discovered. For example, our use of fossil fuels involves input of energy to effect combustion in order to break the energy stored in carbon bonds, freeing it for our use. Of course in all of these processes, the laws of thermodynamics are evident, and we know that we can neither get more energy out that was put into the system in the first place—that is, we cannot create matter and energy out of nothing—nor can we expect to get all of the energy out of the system for our purpose—that is, we cannot have perfect efficiency.

I do not think the above is the claim, because I was being pressed very strongly to “think out of the box” and deny the veracity of the laws of thermodynamics themselves. It was put to me that should this magic process (it was unexplained ergo magic) be true, wouldn’t I have to admit that the laws of thermodynamics are wrong. Einstein’s name was thrown around a good deal, as was the claim that this businessman had made several theoretical “breakthroughs” just in the past six weeks. Breakthroughs, it was implied that obviated our understanding of thermodynamics,and that the discoverer was loath to publish in order to protect his proprietary interest in the process. (In general, publishing theory does not endanger one’s proprietary interest in technology derived thereof, if only because the first is not at all the same as the second, and theory only shows a technology is possible, but not how it would work).

My friend seemed to have no idea that Einstein’s groundbreaking work in special and general relativity, as revolutionary as it was, did not overturn Newtonian mechanics, rather it resolved problems relating to special circumstances and established the speed of light as a constant in the universe, which is still more evidence that the universe is a lawful space/time. Einstein did not replace physics with magic, rather he began a revolution that extended human understanding of how the physical universe operates. (My ex-husband is a theoretical physicist and can undoubtedly explain this better than me, but this is the very, very short of it).

Certainly, if I were shown physical evidence that one can get something for nothing, I would have to rethink the laws of thermodynamics. But they are called  physical laws for a reason: they are fundamental to how the physical universe operates. Therefore, I am confident that if I am shown real evidence that appears to contradict them, an explanation can be found that leaves thermodynamics intact. The ongoing evidence that our understanding of thermodynamics is correct means that it more likely that the proverbial hell will freeze over than that the laws of thermodynamics will be overturned. (That hell is exothermic and so will never freeze over is demonstrated in this bit of humorous reasoning in response to a mythical exam question here).

The discussion came to no particular conclusion, and indeed it could not, given that there was no agreement on what the definition of terms was nor on the boundaries and limits that define science itself. As a scientist—and I used this phrase numerous times—I do not transgress the definitions of the physical universe and the method we use to discern them. What my friend did not accept is that science stops when non-physical “forces” are brought into consideration. Whatever one is doing beyond these limits, it is not science, and scientists have no reason to consider it. 

I think my friend was a little surprised also that I reacted quite strongly to his insinuation that it was his job to broaden my horizons as it were, that is to get me out the box he thinks I am confining myself to “as a scientist”. I, on the other hand, am quite content with the amount of stuff (literally) that exists for us to learn and discover within the bounds of the universe, and I find that the reality is far more surprising and wonderful than any magic that people can invent. As a libertarian, I don’t see it as my job to broaden anyone’s horizons and I do not take kindly to those who feel it is their mission in life to change my worldview.

What intrigues me, though, is this desire of human beings to get something for nothing. That desire is so great that they will use magical thinking, and insist on all manner of evasions of reality in order to acquire it, leaving themselves open to all kinds of scams, collapses and disasters. 

Ever since the Hebrews developed the story of the gate to Eden being barred by a flaming sword, the limitations of existing in a lawful universe have both made human knowledge possible and have caused humans to evade that knowledge using magical thinking. We imagine that there must be a way to get back to the womb. Even in the womb, of course, something is not provided for nothing. The price of order is energy, and that is never free. It may be abundant, but there is always a cost to getting it into the particular form needed to build up complexity and order. And when energy is not obtained, the order disappears.

Those who wish to get something for nothing wish to live outside the bounds of a lawful universe. This is an impossibility, it is a fundamental contradiction. A lawful universe is one that has regularities in its function, that is predictable and knowable. This regularity means that all substance has particular characteristics that establish its identity, and that we can count on each discrete thing to act in a particular way. From particular types of atoms combining in particular ways, we can predict how particular substances will always behave by their nature. This is necessary for something so complex and ordered and wonderful as life to exist.

It is impossible to even imagine what a universe without order, without lawfulness would be like. By definition, cosmos (universe) is the opposite of chaos. It is not by accident that science—the process of discerning the lawful characteristics of the  physical universe—arose in a culture that accepted the lawfulness inherent in cosmos, and the goodness of the material world. To deny either is to be profoundly anti-life.

We can see empirically that those who act upon the notion that within human beings, the spiritual* and the physical can be divided end up destroying both. One does not exist without the other, entwined as they are in a fragile, living whole. Therefore, those who act on the notion that something can be had for nothing become vampires, feeding off of the living energy of others. Physically, they must loot or mooch off of the work of others, and spiritually they must enslave others.  That is the cost of denying reality.

*I use the word spiritual here to mean the complex of emotions and notions that rise from our understandings of ourselves as living organisms in a material world, not as metaphysical in the religious sense--that is something endowed from outside the cosmos. 

Any population of organisms can sustain a certain small number of cheaters, that is those who wish to get somebody else’s something for nothing, and often a population will do so because so long as the number of cheaters is relatively small, the cost of removing them is greater than the cost of giving them a free ride. But when whole societies buy into the notion that something can be had for nothing, and institute it as a matter of policy, they begin to enslave others to produce what they consume, demanding and consuming more and more, until their consumption outstrips production. Insisting that the material needed to sustain their lives and civilization exists without thought or effort, they try to get by fiat what they refuse to make for themselves. This leads to a collapse of biblical proportions, producing great suffering and death, and the civilization may even cease to exist.

History is replete with this same story told in various forms, the details weaving different color into a similar pattern. You can’t get something for nothing. There ain’t any such thing as a free lunch.

The very existence of life depends upon there being a cosmos within which things are what they are, and not what they are not. They can be counted upon to act in certain ways. To suspend this law of nature is to invite not wonder and power, but chaos and death. The wonder of it all is that it is here in the first place, and it all works well enough to sustain life even for a little while. It seems churlish to complain that life requires effort from the living.  

If there ever was a snake in the orchard, the one who began whispering into the ear of the human being; human taken from the humus; that snake whispered that nothing is better than something, and that something can be had for nothing.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Late Fall: Home at Freedom Ridge


Late fall for me has always come with a feeling of melancholy longing as the days grow short, and the light slants more and more from the south, reminding me of the coming of the cold season. It brings also a strong need to gather in the places, the people and the events of the times and seasons, an ingathering of the spirit that completes the ingathering harvest of September and October. The Thanksgiving feast begins this turning inward for me, this diving into the depths of the season that begins with the fullness of the reaper and ends with telling the tale of the harvest and the prospects for the coming winter.

Within the passing years, this season becomes associated in my heart and mind with music—particular songs that seem to evoke the season and the times—for awhile. I first noticed this in the late fall seasons that ended the 20th century, during the late ‘90’s, when the season’s turning was evoked by a song played on the weekly Singing Wire program. I cannot find the song and I cannot remember even a line of the lyrics, but I remember that the song wove together the sense of autumn that I experienced with the traditional native preparations for dying in one of the plains tradition, evoking the peace pipe, the sweat lodge and the buffalo robe. This song became my autumn song that was played in the fall for a few years.

2001 marked a change in my life and in the times and seasons of this country, as the EG and I conducted a courtship that began in the promise of summer and culminated with an engagement diamond purchased on 9/11. That year in particular, the yearly seasonal turning at late autumn seemed to join with the sense of the late autumn coming into winter of the Saeculum’s turn from the Third to the Fourth Turning.  That was the year that the then Boychick (now grown into a Cowboy in Training) endlessly played at rebuilding the twin towers in the kindergarten room during High Holy Days, and the EG and I drove back from getting apples at Cochiti while we talked about the coming crisis with Mason Proffit asking: “Will the winds of Black September fall like shrouds upon the world . . . on the tape deck in the Focus. On the day before Thanksgiving, as I drove home through the Bosque, the last of the golden cottonwood leaves blowing in a cold November wind, I heard Leonard Cohen plead: “Sail on, O mighty Ship of State!”, evoking Longfellow: “ . . . in spite of rock and tempest’s roar, in spite of false lights on the shore, Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea, our hearts our hopes are all with thee . . .”. These songs played in my head every autumn through the early years of the new century; years in which we watched our country transformed from the fierce pride and purpose of 9/12 to the soft tyranny of Homeland Security.

And then as the first decade of the century passed its midpoint, in the time of moving and changes, and moving and changes again, my late autumn mood music changed too, and turned inward. As I did. As we did.

In 2008, the year of the market crash and the election of uncertain hope and cynical change, I heard anew the stern warning and the fragile hope of the Yom Kippur service: “ . . . who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water . . . but tshuvah, t’fillah v’ tzedakah temper death’s cruel decree” put to a deeper artistry in Cohen’s Who by Fire? In that time every day brought new revelations and we were hopping between opinions like birds, knowing not what was lost and what was gained and who was next. We, the pampered and entitled children of late 20th century America, began to reckon with uncertainty and risk not known since the time of our grandparents and great grandparents.

As the Obama administration wore on, giving us wars that multiplied, legislation against the express will of the people, government gun running and unsustainable economics, what we had said so glibly at the very first tea parties became frightening reality. We were waking up daily into a different country than the one we had been born in. In 2009 as I heard the first broadsides of anti-Semitism in an American political movement, I could scarcely believe that it would become part of parcel of the administration’s policy, and in the mouths of the supporters of a libertarian-leaning Republican Congressman and presidential candidate.  I can still scarce believe that the United States Senate just voted away the ancient and honored right of Habeas Corpus, making a de facto government violation of rights under Homeland Security into the purported law of the land.

Like the rest of us who yearn to restore the Constitution, I made many false starts in trying to figure out where it was that I must stand, with whom and what it was I was given to do. In that time I learned how to make judgments based on principles rather than personalities, construct arguments from those principles and to stand up for individual rights wherever they might be attacked and by whom.

And with my family, some close friends and member of the Tea Party and the local 9/12 group, I began to imagine what might happen when this economic and political house of cards comes crashing down, as it is bound to do. For the laws of thermodynamics are certain, and our lives are governed by them on the basic level of energy. You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t even quit the game. That is, you can’t get out more than you put in, you can’t get out what you put in, and these rules order any system that builds on complexity.

So we began to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. How was I to know in 2009 that those preparations would include leaving behind a beautiful home that I loved in order to go somewhere far away from the city, and move into a community where people live by the values that made this country strong and independent? The idea of removing myself and the products of my labors from the false economy of the looters seemed far fetched as I sat in my office, polished my beautiful floors and carefully planned and prepared holiday meals and ceremonies. And yet I wondered if I would have the ability to leave it all, as my ancestors did, in order to preserve my own values.

And so began one of the most fearfully amazing times I have ever experienced. With each necessary step once taken, we met the right person or found the right place to take the next one, and fraught with risk as each one seemed/seems, everything came together as if we had been guided. And so we were, as we began to take the actions of free men and women. In retrospect, even the missteps and mistakes become providential, bringing us to the teachers and learning that was needful for the next.

But in the time of the most protracted move of my life, I lost my home, the place that I carry with me wherever I am in time and space, my Makom, the place and source of all that true and good and growing in the world. I was living in a world turned upside down. And even if by my own choosing, I was experiencing a revolution in my own being, the revolution that John Adams said came long before the battle for independence. I had thought that the revolution was external, but the battle takes place first within each of us as individuals.

Last Thanksgiving, that first song—the contemporary Indian death song—was weirdly back in my mind, the rhythm and sense of it remembered, but not the words or the tune. I can hear the drum, the voice of the singer, but I still can’t find it, not really. None of the other music that defined late fall, and the transition from unraveling to crisis, spoke to me in the same way. Last Thanksgiving, I was rootless and mourning for my friend turned Cain and the death of his brother, Abel. I had gone east of my own Gan Eyden, not able to go down to the orchard, to taste its sweet fruit.  That I was content in the little island of our Thanksgiving at the ranch last year, does not contradict the sense of coming chaos that I knew at that time.

And all the past year, I have been packing and moving, saying good-bye to what was and cannot be much longer, and greeting that which is becoming what is, a very different and darker reality. This sense of exodus has been apparent in my sparse writings for Pesach and the Holy Days, and yet, standing upon the far shore of that deceptively calm sea, I am surprised to find myself home again. Home at Freedom Ridge Ranch.

On the Friday before Thanksgiving this year, on a journey to Sedillo to stay in our house for the last time, I got in the car after opening the gate to leave. And when I turned on the radio to the country music I had come to appreciate, I heard a deep voice singing:

“West—on a plane bound west, I see her stretchin’ out below,
Land—blessed Mother Land, the place where I was born . . .”

It was Dierks Bentley’s new song called Home. And it was like I knew the words though I had never heard the song:


“From the mountains high, to the wave-crashed shore,  there’s a way to find better days I know.

It’s been a long hard ride, got a ways to go, but this is still the place that we all call home.”      


That’s the word, the song that evokes the season of the year and the Turning of the Saeculum, the Makom, the sensibility that takes me to my place to stand.

“Scars—yeah, she’s got her scars, sometimes it starts to worry me—,

“Cause lose—I don’t want to lose sight of who we are.”


Since 9/11 and the foreboding that came before, I have been struggling with the sense that we have been losing who we are meant to be: A free and independent people bound together by an idea, and the courage to identify ourselves by it. We are an exceptional country created not by blood and soil, but by the premise that life, liberty and property are rights endowed to every human being.


Home. It is that idea that I was raised with, and that all my friends and schoolmates were raised with, a precious legacy that our children have not been taught and neither do they understand. But it is here still, the foundation to the place on which we are to stand. 

Home. At the ingathering of the harvest of our labor and the harvest of our thoughts, these are the words that evoke the late fall for me, in this time and place. And we continue to prepare to bring ourselves and those we love, our friends and neighbors through the gathering storm into the better days we will come to know.

Home.Those that came before us, they were brave enough to leave what was behind them and make for themselves and for us something new. And they fought and died for it.  That place we all call home.


“Brave—Gotta call it brave to chase that dream across the sea.

“Names—then they signed their names for something they believed.”

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Is Tolerance a Virtue?

Over the course of my life I have noticed that the quality tolerance has been morphed into a virtue right up there with the cardinal and natural virtues that were taught in my childhood as standards by which to measure behavior. This has created created confusion in those who have not explicitly defined their morality, and it permits people to unconsciously—or even worse, consciously—slip into the error of moral equivalence.

Years ago when my daughter was in her middle childhood, she took part in a model lesson taught by a Jewish master teacher at a National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) conference when it was held here in New Mexico. The master teacher was modeling a Jewish version of the Socratic questioning method on the topic of a particular blessing in the weekday morning Amidah. Although I have forgotten the name of the master teacher, and even though I have little opportunity these days to use the method he modeled, I will never forget the lesson.  It was the first time I explicitly understood that tolerance is no virtue.

In recent days and weeks I have thought about that lesson often as I have watched the sloppy thinking that is moral equivalence being deliberately used to confuse people. Moral equivalence is used to excuse every type of lawless and craven behavior from the publication of vicious lies about Sarah Palin to the murder of innocent civilians by Hamas and Hezbollah. In responding to a well-written commentary at Sultan Knish Blog about this problem, the memory of that lesson returned full force and allowed me to identify tolerance as an ersatz virtue that has opened to door to the use of moral equivalence without argument and to silence any opposition to it.  

The discussion text for the model lesson selected by the master teacher was about the blessing that includes a supplication for protection against “bad friends and evil companions.” “What,” the master teacher asked his model students, “is a bad friend?” The students gamely came up with all manner of examples.

According to the kids, a bad friend would get you to sneak a cigarette, would sell you drugs, would steal your homework, would talk you into all manner of childishly unrighteous behavior. After each such example, the master teacher would say: “That’s a friend?” His point, which the kids took a while to get, was that in the examples they were giving, the person in question was not really a friend, and therefore the supplication does not apply to such people.

When the kids got it, there was a long silence, which the master teacher—being a master teacher—allowed to stretch out in order to increase the tension of the unresolved question. He then led the kids through a sequence of questioning that began by getting them to define what is a friend, and continued until they determined that a bad friend is someone who’d rather be liked and would rather conform than confront his friends when they depart from the path of virtue. Even a child can recognize someone who is not a friend, someone who deliberately attempts to lead him astray. It is sometimes much harder to recognize the bad friend, the one who tolerates sloppy thinking and bad behavior in order to remain agreeable, the one who would rather be liked in the moment than protect a friend from the path of destruction. 

The sloppy thinking that leads to moral equivalence begins with the belief that tolerance is a virtue, although it clearly is not. A virtue is a particular moral standard that, according to Webster’s New Universal Unabridged English Dictionary (2003), allows a person to “conform one’s life to moral and ethical principles; uprightness, rectitude.” On the other hand, tolerance is the amount of variation from a standard that is allowable under certain circumstances. For example, in engineering, tolerance is the range of variation in physical characteristics of a material such as weight or hardness that can be allowed for a particular use. In the sciences, tolerances in measurements are expressed as error bars and must be included in order to be truthful about the precision that a particular instrument allows.

The point here is that tolerance is a measure of allowable variation from a standard, and therefore cannot be the standard itself. Tolerance is not a virtue because it is not an absolute; rather it is an allowable deviation from an absolute. Even the editors of Webster’s do not get this difference entirely, although the contradiction is apparent within the mess of definitions they provide. Their first definition of tolerance is:

"A fair, objective and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

Here the words “fair” and “permissive” are operative, and the use of the word “objective” is misleading. If one is being fair and even permissive about an opinion or practice then the differences between one’s own opinions and practices are being tolerated.  the objective reality of the standard is unknown,or does not exist, or one allows that it is disputed in particular instances.

For example, preferences in matters of the sense of taste are dependent on variations in physiology and culture and there are few objective standards. I may enjoy chocolate ice cream and you may enjoy vanilla, and as reasonable people we would tolerate that difference as being unimportant. Here, there is no objective standard that requires that we agree that my preference is good and yours is bad or vice versa.

But there are some physiological standards of taste. All human beings who can  smell and taste react with disgust to rotten meat, for example. Disgust is an inborn physical and emotional reaction to substances that if ingested or touched are bad for us, and that can make us seriously ill or even kill us. We have little to no tolerance for these things. And because the standard here is the allowance of poison into our systems, little to no tolerance is a good thing.

The same play of tolerance and standards is operative when we deal with other kinds of behavior in our relationships with others. We might tolerate certain annoying behaviors in children that we would not for adults. Children are young and have a lot to learn. In fact, there is so much behavior to teach that one could end up correcting children all the time in everything they do. This is not good pedagogy. The focus on correcting everything leads to lack of confidence in the student and perfectionism in the teacher. Nobody is satisfied and everyone is unhappy. Nobody learns. Much of good parenting and good teaching involves determining what to correct and what to ignore. One can for example, ignore a child’s impulsive blurting out of answers while correcting his impulsive darting out in front of cars. The first can be dealt with more gradually, but the learning curve on the second behavior is entirely too steep. The first behavior is tolerable—at least for a while—while the second leads to such immediate bad consequences that it is intolerable.

The same is true in other relationships. Take for example, a facet of the Webster definition of tolerance. One might indeed have a “permissive attitude” toward certain opinions and practices of another with whom one disagrees, while withholding such permissiveness towards other of their opinions and practices. For example, certain people believe that their religious opinions and practices apply universally to all human beings. (I am not talking about ethics and morality here, but rather specific religious opinions and practices. They are not the same thing and should not be conflated). Although I disagree with such a proposition, I can tolerate that some of my neighbors believe it, and I can even live side-by-side peacefully with them. I am tolerant of their wrong (in my eyes) opinions and practices within limits, however. So long as they want to tell each other than I am going to a mythological “hell” because I disagree, I have no problem tolerating them, although we are unlikely to be friends. However, should one of those neighbors decide that his religious happiness requires me to adopt his opinions and practices by force, then I can no longer tolerate it, because it interferes with my rights. Such behavior is intolerable, and it is no virtue to put up with it. The standard here is respect for each person’s liberty, and tolerance is how much deviation can be allowed, without destroying the standard. Force obviates liberty, and cannot be tolerated in the name of multiculturalism or any other ersatz virtue.

In sum, tolerance is relative to the standards and conditions and consequences of particular ideas and behaviors, it is not an absolute. It is not a virtue. It is simply an estimation of how much one can deviate, if at all, from from a particular virtue or other standard without destroying it.

A bad friend is not one who eggs one on to do wrong—that is not a friend;  rather a bad friend  is one who tolerates ethical sloppiness and questionable behavior in others and does not expect better.  Those who preach tolerance as a virtue and who excuse faulty ideas and bad behavior in those who agree with them politically through moral equivalence are the “bad friends and evil companions” that we need to avoid. Through such tolerance they nurture evil in others and use them as means to their own ends.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Growing Softly Stronger

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entry entitle No Justice: The Nanny State Becomes the Police State.  In it, I mused on the issue of justice, in which I mentioned the ordeal a friend had experienced when he was falsely accused, arrested and jailed.

Today, my friend Matt Cox is releasing a novel that he wrote which follows his experiences, Growing Softly Stronger in the Cracked Places. Much of that novel was written while he was in jail for six weeks for a crime he did not commit. In his writing, Matt touches on many of the themes that I write about here: liberty and tyranny, justice and injustice, and the terrible way in which innocent individuals are treated as if they are guilty from the moment they are placed under arrest.

DISCLAIMER: I had the opportunity to purchase the book at a Preview Signing Party, and I had read some of the proofs prior to its printing. I have received no compensation for the previews, and no “free stuff” for the privilege of reading it early. Nor am I being compensated for reviewing the book here and linking to it. I am reviewing the book as a favor to a friend and I chose to do so because I think the book can make my blog readers think about our world as we have allowed it to become. The views of author are not my views, but his. That this disclaimer is required on a private blog among friends ought to make us all aware of exactly how far down the rabbit hole of tyranny we have gone.]

This is a first novel, and the power of the work comes not from sophisticated writing, but from the raw experiences Matt had, what he made of them, and how they informed his thinking and changed his worldview. This is the story of a man’s experience when he was forced to take the Red Pill and how that event forever altered how he sees life, the universe and everything.

Each of us has our own unique way of waking up to what has been happening to the world outside of our daily lives. I have written here on this blog about how strange it is to be going about my business in what I call the surface world—the ordinary world of play and work, of bills, doctor visits, classes and meals to be prepared and eaten—and then suddenly recognize the gestalt, and realize how very fragile those experiences, that life is. Matt’s book tells the story of a man who takes the Red Pill in a powerful way.

Today is the official release date for the novel, and Matt is offering sponsored gifts and bonuses to those who choose to purchase it here:

Friday, October 21, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Fellow Travelers, Useful Idiots and the Wedge

“Dear Mr. Hammet:
And here I thought that you were a detective and a brilliant one, because The Maltese Falcon is one of my favorite mystery stories. Don’t you know who I am? This is not to say that everyone should, but I think you should. And if you do, you ought to know better than to send me an invitation like this. Well, you’re half right, at that. I do welcome anyone fighting against "Coughlin’s “Social Justice.” But when you give a party to fight both “Social Justice” and “The Daily Worker”, count me in, and I’ll give you $7.00 per ticket, let alone $3.50. Not until then, Comrade, not until then.”

--Ayn Rand, Letter to Dashiell Hammet, August 1, 1940; Letters of Ayn Rand, Google E-book edition. 



During the last two weeks I have experienced two or three moments of surprise and dismay in conversation or in reading Facebook posts and comments, because people I thought should know better have excused and supported the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Wherever (OWS) actions and agenda.

I have heard self-identified conservatives (Chris Christie comes to mind) compare OWS to the Tea Parties, saying that we have the same goals (?) but wish to use different means. I have read comments by purported libertarians who defend OWS, stating that if the protesters want to end the Fed and destroy “Jewish control of the money”, they are all for it.  I have had conversations with Jews who excuse the anti-Semitism displayed at OWS gatherings across the nation, saying that because Jews are taking part in the demonstrations, it is meaningless; and anyway “there is anti-Semitism on the right, too.” As if that makes it unnecessary to confront it.

Even the President of the United States and the leaders of the Democratic Party in Congress are saying that the OWS agenda reflects the concern and anger brewing among all Americans due to the stagnant economy.  And almost everybody in the MSM seems to be telling everybody else there that this “movement” is broad-based and grass roots, our very own Tahrir Square. I don’t what they’ve been smoking but there is no comparison between people who have been living under an Islamic dictatorship for more than 30 years and going hungry, with entitled individuals decrying the evils of corporations and demanding “free” stuff while texting on their i-Phones and ducking into Starbucks for a Venti Carmel Macchiato.

None of this is true, as even the casual observer can surmise just by identifying the organizers, watching the You Tube, and reading the various signs, manifestos and lists of demands coming from the OWS crowd. It has been known since last Spring, when Stephen Lerner (who is too radical even for the very left-leaning SEIU) was caught on digital stating the plan and purpose for OWS, that this movement is not grassroots. And since the protests started last month, such paragons of collectivism and unreason as the Communist Party USA, the American Nazi Party, the teachers unions and SEIU have provided material and/or moral support for the movement. Oh, and so has the Democratic Party. Now there are hard numbers to back up what the casual observer already knew. On Tuesday, October 18, Pollster Douglas Schoen wrote this in the Wall Street Journal:  

. . .the Occupy Wall Street movement reflects values that are dangerously out of touch with the broad mass of the American people . . .

“The protesters have a distinct ideology and are bound by a deep commitment to radical left-wing policies. On Oct. 10 and 11, Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at my polling firm, interviewed nearly 200 protesters in New York's Zuccotti Park. Our findings probably represent the first systematic random sample of Occupy Wall Street opinion.

“Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence.


Schoen goes on to give numbers. According to his analysis of the data compiled by Ms. Confino, 98% of her sample “support civil disobedience to achieve their goals.” (Since their actions are civil disobedience, and they are using force by “occupying” property, one has to wonder what--if anything--is going on in the minds of the other 2%). Further, 52% of them have protested before, and 31% would use violence to achieve their goals. 65% agree that “the government” is obliged to provide entitlements (free health care, college educations, retirement security) regardless of the bill, and to pay for it all, 77% support taxing the rich, but 58% do not support taxing everybody. Schoen continues:


What binds a large majority of the protesters together—regardless of age, socioeconomic status or education—is a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas. . . .

Thus Occupy Wall Street is a group of engaged progressives who are disillusioned with the capitalist system and have a distinct activist orientation. Among the general public, by contrast, 41% of Americans self-identify as conservative, 36% as moderate, and only 21% as liberal.


What is curious is that if even the casual observer can qualitatively know what the hard data now tells us, then why would Democratic Party leaders, and worse, conservatives and libertarians lend support to this movement, which after all is not large, and is completely out of step with the general public. After all, according to Schoen’s analysis, one quarter of the OWS crowd do not even plan to vote. However, the older and more conservative members of the general public do vote, and the independent registered voters tend to be moving away from supporting the Democrats in any case.

What would cause politically astute people to lend support of any kind to such a movement? And why in the world would libertarians, conservatives, and moderates  excuse, defend and even support the OWS crowd? Liberty-minded people support individual rights, economic freedom and personal responsibility, after all; whereas it is clear from Schoen’s analysis that the OWS crowd does not.

Certainly, there are those among the OWS supporters whose ideology is of the same hard-left, activist variety as that of the protesters themselves. They can be expected to proudly stand by them. And then there are those who agree with certain aspects of the OWS agenda, although they are not willing to go as far as joining in the movement itself. Nor do they wish to publically align themselves with socialism, fascism or communism and the overt supporters of these ideologies in the CPUSA, the American Nazi Party, or other variants. These are Fellow Travelers who end up serving a cause even if they do not wish to be seen as doing so, or with which they do not wholly agree. I suspect that most of the MSM are Fellow Travelers with one or another of the various collectivist ideologies.

But what about those who defend or excuse OWS even while claiming values and principles in opposition to those held by the protesters, the organizers and their overt supporters? The ones who claim to be conservatives or libertarians, or even moderates and traditionally “liberal” Democrats?

Some of them, especially the politicians among them, are likely not being totally honest about their most deeply held values and are taking on certain labels in order to woo voters. This dishonesty leads to the kind of corruption among the powerful we have come to almost expect. But I think the majority of these OWS excusers and defenders are confused about the labels they apply to themselves, or they have mixed premises, believing in liberty, but accepting certain anti-liberty premises as “practical” and “necessary.” Or they may be liberty-minded people who have not overtly examined the philosophy of liberty and therefore do not inform their positions on policy from liberty’s values and principles. These are the ones most likely to be duped into lending support to, or excusing movements like OWS, that are based on values and principles in contradiction to their own. In so doing, they become Useful Idiots.

Useful Idiots are people who make common cause with individuals and groups whose values are in opposition to their own out of  naiveté, either in an attempt to do good or to oppose some common enemy who is perceived to be more dangerous than the opposition with whom they cooperate. Unlike Fellow Travelers, Useful Idiots are cynically used by ideologues, and are induced to it by a covert strategy called the Wedge.

The Wedge works by introducing a concrete issue or policy into the discussion upon which each of two sides agree, even though each side holds principles contradictory to the other. Duping someone with the Wedge depends upon the individual not noticing that although he agrees with the particular policy or issue as framed by the ideologue, he does so for different reasons and/or may identify different solutions . (For a thorough review of the Wedge Strategy and its uses, see the four part series on Adam Reed’s blog, Born to Identify, beginning here).

For example, both the OWS activists and various liberty-minded groups agree that the Federal Reserve Bank and the banking system it controls is responsible for the housing bubble and the stock market crash and credit crunch of 2008. Therefore, members of both groups may wish to “End the Fed.” However, the OWS activists want to do so in order to increase direct government control over the economy, thus forcing private banks and other businesses to pay for the “free” stuff to which they believe they are entitled. On the other hand, conservative or libertarian individuals see ending the Fed as part of a larger strategy to set the economy free and re-establish Capitalism, an economic system in which all property is private and individuals are free to choose with whom they will do business and what they will do with their money. Ending the Fed is a Wedge that is conducive to the strategy of the statist organizers of OWS, who are far more interested in further collectivizing the United States than they are in ending the Fed. The Fed, after all, is a useful instrument for exerting more control over the economy, and with it, the lives of ordinary Americans.

Ending the Fed is one of several Wedges in play in the political discourse of the Occupy Wall Street movement. They are all useful in refocusing the opposition to their ultimate goal, seeking to make those of us who hold to the principles of liberty believe that we should, as one Useful Idiot puts it, “Unite against the 1% for Liberty and Freedom.” As Adam Reed points out in his blog series (referenced above):

 . . . if we agree with them on issue after issue, then there seems to be no contradiction between their ideals and ours. They might even be the good guys, and their ideas may deserve to be heard, and to be included in the national consensus on legislation and public policy.


In using terms like—“unity” and “freedom”--as a hook, the OWS organizers and their fellow travelers seek to conflate the goals and values of OWS with our own and thereby covertly get our cooperation with them. This can lead to them making converts to their cause, or at least confuse us enough to stop us from opposing their agenda, or from pointing out the characteristics that differentiate them from us.

This is why some Jews, for example, make excuses for the overt and unopposed anti-Semitism in evidence at OWS rallies across the nation. They buy the Wedge, even though it is false, and ignore the reality that anti-Semitism is a racist ideology opposed to individual liberty. This characteristic rhetoric ought to demonstrate that our principles and values are different than theirs, and that there can be no compromise, no “popular front” between us.

In order not to be taken in by the Wedge Strategy, liberty-minded individuals must be conscious our values and principles and consistently and deliberately apply them to the goals and strategies expressed by those who wish to make common cause with them. When our values and principles are not aligned with theirs, we can recognize when a Wedge is being used against us. In order not to serve, defend or excuse a cause that violates our principles, we then must not participate in the organizations and activities of those who promoting such a cause.

Further, once the Wedge is in play in the shared political discourse of a community or country, we ought to point it out because sunshine is the best disinfectant. In our own discussions of the issue or policy being used as a wedge, we need to promote our view from the standpoint of our values, and point out the difference between our reason and theirs. In so doing, the consequences of our line of reasoning will differentiate implications to our advocacy of the issue that our opposition will disagree with, making it clear that we do not have common cause or a “popular front.”

In this way, we remain true to our own values, come what may, and we keep our principles ever before us so that we can create the future that we plan to live. One of liberty and respect for each individual’s rights.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Sukkot: The Liberating Insecurity of Freedom

The most important part of the Sukkah . . . is the s'khakh,
materials of vegetative origin such as evergreen branches
or marsh rushes that form the roof. . . Though completely
covering the top, the s'khakh should be loosely spread so as
to be open to the heavens, with the stars visible through it.
Thus, the s'khakh is the perfect expression of Divine Protection.
G-d is not a mechanical shield that protects from all evil; G-d
is the Presence who gives strength to persevere, to overcome."
--Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way

As surely as the harvest moon waxes from new to first quarter to full, so too does the month of Tishrei grow from celebrating the Birthday of the World on Rosh Hashannah, to returning again from the death of idolatry to life renewed at Yom Kippur, and growing full at Sukkot, the Ingathering Harvest, the Season of our Joy.

Picture: The CIT and friend throw hay from the trailer into the hayloft at Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011. EHL

At this season, we recount the harvest of the previous spring and summer, gathering the hay into barns, animal feed for the winter; the cans and jars and bottles into the pantry, food for our bodies; and we bask in the sweet and fleeting warmth of Indian Summer, taking rest and pleasure, experiencing joy to fuel our spirits through the dark and cold of w

Although the Sukkah--the harvest booth--that we are commanded to dwell in for the seven days of the Festival originated in agricultural practices of the ancient Near East, it has come to mean far more than that. It symbolizes the temporary shelters that our ancestors used on the long and arduous journey in the wilderness that marked their transition from slavery to freedom.

If at Pesach we celebrate the high of the liberating moment, at Sukkot we remember the first uncertain steps made in freedom. At Pesach we remember that our ancestors served idols, and at Sukkot we recognize the shaky sense of vulnerability th
at accompanies the refusal to worship that which was made by our own hands. The Sukkah itself is designed to be a symbol of that shakiness, of the impermanent nature of much of what we believe or fervently hope is permanent.

This year, thanks to my summer spent unpacking the library, we rediscovered an old friend, Rabbi Irving Greenberg and his book on living the Jewish holidays. In the way that the turning of the Torah year by year causes us to reveal and rediscover new meanings, so, too, does the turning of the seasons of the year, year by year, cause us to recognize and see anew the meanings of the Holy times and seasons, and how they relate to our lives in the world as it turns and changes. During the somnolent warmth of an Indian Summer Shabbat afternoon, as the dogs dozed and insects hummed, we read:

"The move into the sukkah
is a movement from the certainty of fixed position toward the liberating insecurity of freedom. [Those who dwell in the sukkah] open up to the world, to the unexpected winds, to the surprise setback as well as the planned gain. The joy of Sukkot is a celebration of the privilege of starting on the road to freedom, knowing that to finish the task is not as decisive as the failure to start is."

At the table in the Sukkah, we looked at each other, and smiled over the sweet Sabbath wine in recognition of the reality of those words; the recognition that this entire year has been exactly that for us: a year of unexpected winds (and rain and mud!) and surprises, a year in which we have made the choice to start out on a new road to freedom in our lives, even as the world turns into the saecular winter, a season of uncertainty and crisis.

Moving into the Sukkah, even to ce
lebrate Ha-chag, THE Holiday, the one in which we celebrate the joy of the harvest, is also to move into the recognition that nothing much in life is permanent, and that to attach our hearts too securely to the idea that what is now is what will always be is dangerous idolatry, bound to fail us. That is why the Sukkah is constructed to shake in the wind--it is to remind us that most of what we believe protects us is in fact, ephemeral. As Rabbi Greenberg writes:

"The sukkah . . . instructs Jews not to become overly rooted, particularly not in the exile. For thousands of years, Jews built homes in the Diaspora. Civilizations of extraordinar
y richness--culturally, religiously, economically and socially-- we created. But all such Jewish homes and civilizations have proven thus far to be temporary ones, blown away when the turn of the wheel brought new forces to power. Often, self-deception and the desire to claim permanent roots led Jews to deny what was happening until it was too late to escape."

Picture: The Engineering Geek in the Sukkah after Havdalah ended Shabbat Chol-ha Moed Sukkot 5772, Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011 EHL

Indeed. One need only to think of those Jews who believed that they were too assimilated, too German; that the high civilization of Germany would protect them, and that they had acquired too much to give it up , to flee with nothing, leaving everything, in the middle of the night. I remember wondering--as I studied the early days of the Shoah and the fall European civilization into darkness; as I read Hersey's The Wall, and as I watched Defiance--I remember asking myself, could I do it? Would I be able to leave everything for the sake of my life and those of my children? I would look around at my beautiful home, at the wealth bound up in fine furniture, at the Polish tea set passed down from oldest daughter to oldest daughter, at my mother-in-law's Passover china, and I would know how hard that choice would be.

But during the past year and a half, as we watched the world teeter once again on the brink of financial ruin and moral darkness, as we listened to the rising voices of antisemitism, and heard the voices of collectivism blaming the Jews, and talking of "eating the rich", we made a decision. We recognized that all of the things we value can be built again by those who place the highest value not the things themselves, but on the lives of those who made them. And so we chose to plan prudently, to remove our work from those who believe they own us, to "go Galt" and preserve ourselves and our values for a new turning of the wheel. And I left the home I loved for a new and more rugged place; and we left the retirement we planned for new challenges in self-sufficiency, in order to provide for ourselves and those we value a shelter in case of trouble. We cannot know the whole of what is coming, and we cannot guarantee for ourselves and those we love perfect protection from all evil. But we can find for ourselves and offer to others, a place to stand; one rooted not in a place and possessions, but one rooted in a Presence identified by the spirit of freedom and adventure, that One who gives us the "courage and strength to persevere."

Thinking of all of this, recognizing who we are are and why we are here, we held hands as we made Havdalah in the Sukkah, tasting the sweet wine, smelling the spices, and holding our hands out to the light of the twisted candle, we sang of our longing for redemption and of the sweetness of joy in the coming week, knowing that whatever may come, we will face it as free individuals who have chosen this path. This ability to choose and to act in the face of the uncertainties of life is the very thing by which we find happiness and fulfillment. In this way, freedom and openness to the world of unexpected winds and surprise setbacks still brings joy. At Sukkot we are
commanded to enjoy ourselves, to take pleasure in the fruits of our action and in the harvest of our choices.

Picture: Setting the Table for Kiddush in the Sukkah, Freedom Ridge Ranch, Catron County, NM; October 2011 EHL

"One fundamental criterion of a life well lived is love of life. It is terribly important, therefore, to enjoy life as it goes along. Joy cannot be postponed. Life as it is, is of infinite value . . .The joy of Sukkot represents maturity. It is the happiness of a free person who chooses to live this way, who chooses this mission above all alternatives."

The openness of the Su
kkah, the frailty of it before strong winds, the beauty of the sun and the stars shining through the s'khakh, all of these things reminded us again this year that the Journey to Freedom that Sukkot commemorates is long and difficult; that our recognition of the temporary nature of most of our experiences is part of the journey; and that the very insecurity of freedom itself fills our lives and choices with meaning. Happiness comes of our choosing freedom over the enslavement of idolatry, and it is in the choosing to love our lives as they are, with all of their challenges and adventures, that we find joy.

This is what we learned anew this year, in the midst of all the adventures here at Freedom Ridge Ranch, during this Harvest Festival, the Season of Our Joy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Yom Kippur: Worthy of the Covenant

"The Soul that you have given me is a pure one, O G-d.
You have created it, you have formed it, you have breathed it into me, and within me you sustain it. So long as I have breath, therefore, I will give thanks to you, Adonai my G-d, and G-d of all ages, Master of all creation and Sovereign of every human spirit. Blessed is the Eternal, in whose hands are the souls of all the living, and the spirits of all flesh."
--Birkat ha-Nefesh from Sha'arei Tefillah: The New Union Prayer Book, CCAR

The Day of Atonement 5772 was a different experience for me.
Normally, even on the holiest of days, part of my mind is occupied with the tasks of a Jewish wife and mother, making sure that everything is prepared, that my husband and son have everything that they need so that we all may get to the synagogue on time for Kol Nidrei on Erev Yom Kippur, and Shacharit services in the morning. Even during services, I am usually easily distracted with the needs of my husband and those of my children, especially my son, whose Aspie character creates certain difficulties for him in large gatherings. This is, of course, the Orthodox argument for seating men and women separately for prayer, although it is not the whole of it, because in Orthodoxy women's prayer is not seen as equal or even as necessary as is that of men.

This year, the first Yom Kippur for which we lived at the Ranch, required logistics planned out far in advance, in order that we might travel up to our house in Tijeras, have a good pre-fast meal and then spend the Eve and the Day of Atonement at synagogue. Preparation was even more necessary given the time and distance between us and Congregation Albert. G-d willing, we would all get there. "G-d willing and the creek don't rise," as we used to say in the Midwest.

This year the creek rose. We were bogged in from the Sunday afternoon before Yom Kippur through Wednesday. On Thursday morning, I left for Albuquerque and Tijeras a day ahead in order to keep an appointment and to prepare the pre-fast meal and make everything smooth for the Engineering Geek and the Catron Kid, who were planning to drive up on Friday morning. But it rained Thursday night and Friday morning, and my guys were once again bogged in. They observed the Great White Fast at the ranch, and I observed it at the synagogue.

Being wholly alone with my thoughts is a luxury that I do not often experience. As a wife and mother, I am eminently interruptable, even when I am being a scholar and a writer. It is an experience that I have not had since I became a mother more than 25 years ago. Although I was disappointed that our plans had come to naught, I also relished the the idea of experiencing Yom Kippur as an individual, albeit one amidst the Holy Congregation.

Early on Yom Kippur morning, absolved from the duties that usually attend making a family ready to go the synagogue, I awoke to snow and silence. Since ordinary distractions are forbidden on the Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of Sabbaths), I opened the Machzor--the High Holy Day Prayer Book--and the pages fell open to a page within the Musaf (additional) Service. I read the following, set apart in the middle of the page:

I know that I am worthy of the Covenant, and that I am able to fulfill the Mitzvot.

The Day of Atonement is not only about the relationship of one human being and another, the breeches in which the Day of Atonement fast does not atone; rather it is also, and perhaps primarily, about the relationship of the Jew to the Covenant, and the moral and ethical demands that Judaism makes upon the individual. All of the Mitzvot (commandments) that are still observed are meant to remind a Jew of the high moral and ethical demands that Judaism makes. For as the daily Birkat ha-Nefesh (The Blessing for the Soul) states so forthrightly, Judaism teaches that the human being is born with the ability to choose between good and evil, between actions that lead to life and those that lead to death.

Jews have never accepted the Christian doctrine of Original Sin--that a human being is born depraved--nor has it accepted the Islamic concept of Submission. Rather Judaism requires that every human being stand up and choose life, not just once and for all time, but in every situation and every action. The presence of the Holy Congregation, and all of the Mitzvot--whether they are ritual or ethical requirements--have the purpose of reminding and guiding the Jew in this all important task, for it is through human choice that holiness is brought into the world.

One of the problems that many Jews today struggle with is the sense that in our generation we are not worthy of Covenant. This sensitivity comes from many sources: the abandonment by G-d and man only because we are Jews that was so recently experienced during the Shoah; the accusations of collective guilt and expectations of collective punishment we experience even now that are the evil heart and soul of modern antisemitism; and more banal, but more pervasive, the evasion of individual responsibility that is part and parcel of the "new age" notions of "cheap grace" and self-indulgence that permeate the secular culture.
When confronted with the stark demands of the Covenant to be Holy--to do justice, to act righteously, to love goodness and hate evil--we/I quail at the thought, and turn away.

Turning away from the awesome power of my own humanity, I feel not the awe that I am endowed with the ability to distinguish between good and evil, but the fear that I am not capable of doing so. Over the last few years I have become convinced a good part of the problem is that we live in a society that worships niceness--that is being weak, compliant, and easily led--over righteousness. The dominant culture worships the ease of moral equivalence over the difficulty of rewarding good and requiting evil that is the virtue of justice. Rather than accepting the difficulty and freedom that come from identifying and judging good and evil, we are being taught to comply with and take our ease in politically correct equivalencies between them, thus giving up our individual liberty and the custody of own lives and thoughts. We accept the lie that we are not individually capable of making judgments between right and wrong physically, emotionally and spiritually. In so doing, we make ourselves slaves to whims of an idol, whether that idol be a charismatic leader, or a construct such as "society" or the "common good."

Human agency and responsibility require freedom. As Jews, our Covenant demands human liberty in order that we stand up every moment of our lives and make choices between right and wrong, good and evil, in matters large and small. For this is what it means to be a mensch--a real human being.
On Yom Kippur we stop to remember our own power as free human beings, and reflect that our sins and failings come from evasion of that reality. And we dignify other individuals with similar agency, recognizing that they, too, are human beings capable of recognizing and choosing between good and evil.

Yom Kippur is the Great White Fast--not a day to bow and scrape and pretend our unworthiness--but rather a day in which to come before the Eternal in thanksgiving that we are worthy and capable of transcending our weaknesses and accepting the demand to find the best within us.

On Yom Kippur each individual declares:
“I am worthy of the Covenant and capable of fulfilling the Mitzvot.”