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.”

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Choose Now, Speak Now: Gematria for 5772

Ready or not, the Holy Days are upon us. They come right on time in the Jewish Calendar, and the middle of school life and busy family life, sometime during the fall of the year in relationship to the Western Calendar. They come, predictably each year, even when uncertainty reigns and chaos threatens on the stage of world events. This year, even as we try to put our own lives into perspective, hoping for a better year, a good and sweet New Year for ourselves, for family and friends, our hearts and minds turn inexorably to Israel, tiny Israel, threatened with annihilation.

In the early 1990's, when I was pregnant with the child who has grown to be the Catron Kid, (Cowboy in Training) I was serving briefly as Cantorial Soloist for our synagogue when we were between professional cantors. And one late summer Friday morning, when I was sitting in bed sipping my ersatz morning coffee, our rabbi called and with great jubilation said: "We are going to have peace! I want you to sing the Klepper Shalom Rav (the prayer that ends the Amidah) tonight." This was the Camp David Accords, when we really thought that trading land for peace would get us somewhere, and when we really hoped, irrationally, that in Yasser Arafat and Fatah, we really had a partner for talks. Our delusions lasted little longer than my musical career, and for some they have never ended. But by the beginning of the Terror War against Israel, I laid my own delusions to rest.

It was around the time of the High Holy Days 5761 (2000 CE) that the Terror War began in Jerusalem. It was framed by a complicit press as a popular uprising (intifada) against Israeli rule of territories won by the 1967 war. But it was not that, rather it was designed and orchestrated by terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah, funded by Syria and Iran. I remember crying on the morning of Yom Kippur, as we realized that stories unfolding in real time on the internet, stories intended to make Israel look like the aggressor and to make the IDF look like Nazis, were staged for the world media, and that the media was using them to vilify Israel.

In many ways, the beginning of the Terror War was the beginning of my own political awakening, when I began to understand that my parents had been right, and that the ideals of the left would lead inexorably to misery, poverty and war. I remember a heated exchange with an older, wiser friend which led me to admit to myself that the left is almost always and everywhere antisemitic. And so I cried that morning as I stood up on the bimah to chant the Yom Kippur morning Haftarah, which I began with an uncharacteristic personal whispered prayer: "For the sake of the unification of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) and Shechinah Imeinu (The Presence of G-d Who dwells among us)." It was on that day, at that moment, that I understood exactly how tenuous the existence of Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) really is.

And over the ensuing years we have watched the systematic murder of Israelis by terrorist suicide bombings, and the creation of a terrorized citizenry by incessant rocket attacks, all accompanied by a propaganda campaign intended to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world. We have seen Holocaust denial spoken from the platform of the United Nations, and we have heard Islamicist thugs and terrorists speak in American universities, praying for the coming of the "Khalifa" (Califate) to thunderous applause. And we have come to understand that no amount of land given over will ever be enough to bring peace to Israel, that our enemies wish to destroy the Jewish state completely, and that not content with that, they will not rest until they have killed every last Jew on the planet, and destroyed the United States as well.

Each Jewish year has an accompanying Gematria, a kind of numerology that derives patterns and meaning from the fact that Hebrew letters are also numbers. Usually people use the patterns to derive some theme for the year that will connect their everyday, Western lives to their spiritual needs and aspirations. Often the Gematria is derived from numerical equation of one Hebrew word to another. For example, the Hebrew word for "nut" (the food, not the mental state) is egoz, which has the same numerical value adding up the Hebrew letters as the Hebrew word for "sin", which is chet. Thus Jews avoid putting nuts into their High Holy Days recipes, because one wants to focus on forgiveness of sin during this time.

The Gematria for finding the theme or meaning for the year is a more sophisticated playing with numbers and letters intended to provide an understanding of what the theme for the coming year is not on a personal level, but also for all the House of Israel and all the world. Human beings are meaning-makers, after all, and our brains are organized to find patterns. Where there are none, we look for them anyway, in order to help us understand not only what is happening and how, but the "why" of events in our lives and in our world. In this way Gematria is not fortune-telling, it does not attempt to reveal an unknown future, but rather it allows a human being to impose a pattern on his uncertainty and formulate a theme and a plan for dealing with it.

We are all dealing with uncertainty at some level. This is the way of the Fourth Turning of the Saeculum, when together we enter a Great Gate in History, and experience changes in familiar patterns of our lives at many levels. For the Jewish people, this time is fraught with more fear and uncertainty, because we see that as the crisis nears its turning point, "never again" is an empty promise, and that we are once again standing in the breech.

With all this in mind, though much of it unconsciously, I turned to my custom of finding a theme for the coming Jewish year. Usually, I find some virtue that I want to focus on, some Hebrew word or phrase that will help me put all of my inchoate longings and desires to improve my life, strengthen my weaknesses, into a plan for action. Last year, the Gematria led me to the Hebrew word Emunah, a reliance upon the goodness of G-d and of life in the face of all kinds of changes and challenges. It was small and very personal, and although it did have connections to what was happening in the world at some level, I did not realize it then. I thought that if I could improve to some degree on this for myself, that it would give me more resilience in dealing with certain personal relationships that have challenges that are beyond my control.

Yesterday I began looking at Gematria for the coming year with the same intent: to find a theme for the year that would challenge me to greater strength of spirit, address certain personal weaknesses, and allow me to move forward with as much grace and purpose and I can muster. In short, I was looking for a personal theme for the year that would match the likely challenges I would face inwardly, and within my family and my work.

That is not what I found. Instead I found this Gematria for the year:
וְאַתָּה, תֶּאְזֹר מָתְנֶיךָ וְקַמְתָּ וְדִבַּרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי אֲצַוֶּךָּ אַל-תֵּחַת, מִפְּנֵיהֶם פֶּן אֲחִתְּךָ לִפְנֵיהֶם
In English: "And you, gird up your loins, and stand, and speak to them everything that I will command you; Do not be broken (scared, dismayed) before them, lest I break (scare, dismay) you before them."

Although this Gematria can have personal implications, it does not really apply to one small person living on the nowhere side of flyover country, for herself. This Gematria cannot be about making small changes to grow virtue where there was none in personal affairs; it seems to be for the Jewish people, here in America and in the rest of the Diaspora, and for those who love liberty throughout the world. It speaks to each of us as individuals, yes, but it requires of us some courage beyond that required to mend our personal breeches in small ways. For this Gematria is from Jeremiah the Prophet, who was called as a young man to speak for the Eternal to Israel on the brink of Crisis, on threshold of one of the Great Gates of History.

The context of this text is the time at which Jeremiah understood that he must speak, he must say what he saw coming, knowing that it was altogether hard and unpleasant words that he had to speak. And he was afraid, knowing that, and knowing the fate of prophets. He was feeling small and young and unworthy of saying what he knew he had to say to the House of Israel. But as Jeremiah well knew, there comes a time in history when all of one's fears and all of one's sense of unworthiness must be disregarded, for the moment of choosing is at hand, and by refusing to choose a side, to lift up one's voice, one has decided anyway.

This is that time. For the past number of years, I have watched and waited, as something awful has been taking shape, and the dreams of those who wish to rule over us have seemed to come to fruition. And when we first raised our voices together, I believed that attending a tea party, holding a sign and banding together a few times a year was all that I had to do. It seemed exciting and yet happy and innocent. Even in 2008 and 2009, at least, I did not believe that raising my voice would become dangerous, that attempts would be made to shut us down--first by ridicule and now, with increasing stridency, by threat of force and chaos.

As I see what is taking shape, and understand that we must raise our voices and take action against it, I have every reason to be afraid. I understand Jeremiah. And yet, in the face of derision and increasing hatred directed against us, it is necessary that I--that we all choose, knowing full well that once we step across the line, there is no turning back. For this we need courage, lev chazach , the strength of heart to do so willingly and with reliance upon the knowledge that for those who are determined, strength will be given.

Through his fear and hesitation, Jeremiah knew that by making a choice, by raising his voice he would be strengthened. For he heard: " This day I have made of you a fortified city, a pillar of iron . . . and they shall fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you." And he understood that once the step is taken, then the strength shall be made straight.

I do not know where this year will take me, and all of us. I know that great and awesome deeds are in the offing. War against Israel, thus far covert, will almost certainly become overt. World economies stand on the brink of destruction. To bring something good out of all of this at the end, to cherish and preserve the value of the individual, the preciousness of liberty and the goodness of life will take all of the courage and strength we can muster. And it seems more and more certain that if we do not choose now, speak now, our silence will rise up and speak against us. As small and weak and unworthy as each one of us may feel, we still are called to stand in breech and raise our voices.

We know that there are no promises that each one of us will come through unharmed, that the stakes are rapidly becoming frighteningly high; but we do have that one small but unwavering flame against the darkness: "I am with you." So long as we are standing on the firm foundation of righteousness, so long as we are unwavering in our commitment to our values and principles, that small flame will warm our hands and guide our heart whatever may come.

Be strong. Be strong. And may we all be strengthened.