Archive for August, 2007

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Returning

Note: This piece is a bit odd, kind of a stream-of-consciousness thing. Take it as such. Take it as you will.

Prayer is a problem
Repentance is a problem

Here we go again. Elul, the month where we’re supposed to…well, what are we supposed to do? I mean, I know: We’re supposed to repent or something. But in practical terms, we don’t really talk about what to do. We act as if you just sort of decide to repent, and whammo! You’re a better person. Ok, to be fair, lots of books talk about the long and arduous path of repentance. But that kind of assumes we know where the path is, only that it’s difficult. We, right here, right now (or, me, at least) have a deeper problem. We don’t know where the path is. Like I said, we don’t know what to do. I woke up this morning, and said “ok, repentance!” but then…I was stuck.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” – Marianne Williamson

Maybe I should back up here. We don’t even know what repentance is. We’ve stopped discussing the big things. We think we’ve learned about them before, so now we know, but we don’t know. Repentance is big. Really big. So we just discuss the results of it, not the thing itself. Repentance is…well, let’s try the Hebrew. The word teshuva isn’t just “repentance.” It’s “return.” We’re returning – to somewhere where we were before, somewhere familiar. That’s important. That’s crucial. I think this occurs on two levels which are, as always, somewhat intertwined.

The first level is personal. We want to be what we were. Well, sort of. No one can go back to what they were, not ever. But there is a sort of returning, a returning of mindset, a renewal of spirit. They say that everything you ever need to know you learned in kindergarten. Sorry, but that’s not true. There are many important lessons that we learn after kindergarten, but I think we often ignore those earlier lessons in favor of the newer ones. This is a tragedy. There’s a constant refrain in our heads, “it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple, it’s not that simple”, like a contrarian cuckoo clock. Sometimes, it is that simple, and that bears noting. We still have to be nice, to share, to care about others. We still thank God for all we have. We still have to respect those deserving of respect. Fine, we should take the lessons we learned after kindgarten, but we shouldn’t for a minute forget the first ones.

The return to self is not a new concept. It doesn’t have its origins in modern psychology or philosophy. Way back in the Bible, it says “vehayah ki yavo’u alekha kol hadevarim ha’eileh, haberakha vehakellala asher natati lifanekha, vahasheyvotah el levavekha bikhol hagoyim asher hidichakha Hashem Elohekha.” – “And it shall be, when all of these things, the blessing and curse which I have given before you, come to pass, then you will return to your hearts among all the nations in which Hashem your God banished you.” (Devarim 30:1) Though the bolded phrase is often translated as something like “you will take it to heart”, or “you will reflect”, the fact remains that the literal translation is not just about consideration or even contrition, but return. Note that there is a narrative here, but it’s also an imperative. We must (must!) reach back in our memories. Remember what we were, once.

“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin

And now the scary part comes. Bearing in mind what we were, we must look at ourselves. Have you ever done that? I mean, really looked? Scary as heck, that is. I was in Arizona for 5 months recently. It wasn’t part of my plan, really, but there I was, living in Arizona, alone and on my own. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t surrounded by people. I wasn’t with anyone. And when you’re like that, you’re forced to look at yourself, to see the real core of the ‘you’, when everything else is stripped away. Like I said, it’s terrifying. Or it was for me, anyway. Try it.

Stop. Close your eyes.

Breathe in.

Breathe out, and with it, release your environment. Let go of what your friends think of you, how much your relatives love you, all of the influences imposed upon you from outside yourself. If you can look at that person and allow yourself complete honesty and be satisfied, then count yourself among a tiny minority. But if not, and like I was, you’re confronted by something grotesque or perhaps just unsettling, seize upon that. You’re seeing a gulf between what you know you can be and what you are. Or seen differently, it’s a dissonance between who you believe yourself to be inside and who you are. It gets your blood pumping and your pulse racing. It wakes you up. This is crucial. The only way you can return to yourself is to realize both who you were, once, and what you are now.

And here, we get to the second stage, which arguably, is an organic part of the first, or even it itself, viewed from the other side. The next verse after the one quoted above states, “vishavta ad Hashem Elohekha vishamata bikolo kikhol asher anokhi metzavikha hayom, ata uvanekha, bikhol levavikha uvikhol nafshekha.” – “And you will return to Hashem your God and hearken to His Voice in everything that I command you today – you and your children, with all your heart and all your soul.” (Devarim 30:2). I think we also exhibit a deficiency here. How often do we think about – I mean really think about God as a lover, as someone who we want to make happy with every breath we take? The sources are replete with this idea, but do we truly think about it, or just dismiss it as fanciful language or the domain of only lofty souls? Because if we really truly believed, on some visceral level, that we had the potential for a love-relationship with God, wouldn’t we be acting differently, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively? After all, when viewed through that lens, Judaism is no longer a mere framework in which we fit our lives. It is life. And if, due to long-standing indifference, we don’t even feel the need for that love-relationship (let alone the love itself), then the heartbroken acknowledgement of that fact can still be utilized to propel us forward. Wanting to want to love God is already something positive. Maybe we have a full month of lead-in to the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days) to try and get from “wanting to want” to “wanting.”

“He who is satisfied has never truly craved, and he who craves for the light of God neglects his ease for ardor, his life for love, knowing that contentment is the shadow not the light. The great yearning that sweeps eternity is a yearning to praise, a yearning to serve. And when the waves of that yearning swell in our souls all the barriers are pushed aside: the crust of callousness, the hysteria of vanity, the orgies of arrogance.” – Abraham Joshua Heschel

So that’s how I understand teshuva, Jewish repentance. It’s about remembering what you stand for, reaching back to the “good old days,” whether real or imagined, and pulling that from the past back to the present. It’s about remembering the fundamental simplicity of the love-relationship we ought to have with God. Because we believe that for every person that is distant from him, God is standing, as it were, a lover scorned, looking hopefully for signs of our return. And hopefully, the momentum created when rising to the occasion and seeking His embrace can propel us even further than ever.

Postscript: I borrowed many ideas from various places here, though I would say that the main sources were the book Mussar for Moderns by R’ Elyakim Krumbein, and a short lecture given by R’ Reuven Taragin at Yeshivat Har Etzion in 2001.

Pre-fixing it

Whoooeee! So I just got back to Israel about 2 weeks ago, after spending one of the more bewildering weeks of recent memory hopping from place to place. I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I had 6 separate flights (4 international, 2 domestic) within 9 days, and that at one point I spent 9 hours in JFK terminal, and then a 9-hour flight later, I spent another 12 hours traipsing around downtown Istanbul. (Yes, the one in Turkey.) I think I’ll present one of the highlights1 here:

America seems to love the prefix “pre,” especially when it’s totally unnecessary. Among the precious pieces of mail still being sent to my parents’ house was a letter saying I was “pre-approved” for some sort of cellphone giveaway. I’m sorry, but is “preapproved” somehow a stage before approval? Because it seems to me that it’s just their way of saying “approved” while making me feel special: “Look, Mother! I’m not just approved for this, I’m pre-approved, before all those other chumps. I simply must order this product and/or service post-haste!” “Pre” crops up in other places, like a movie being exclusively “pre-released” or (one of my favorites) how the drinking before a college party (not that I went to parties in college…) is called “pregaming,” the “game” being (you guessed it) more drinking. But none of this tops my recent brief stroll into bewilderment with JetBlue. I walked up to the woman at the gate, and asked if I could board the plane.

“We’re pre-boarding,” she replied

I figured that this might mean that only the disabled and children were boarding. I was clearly not disabled, and, since I now sport a full beard, I also can no longer pass for a toddler. But I gave it a shot anyway: “So, can I go on?”

“Well, we’re pre-boarding.”

Then I came right out and said it. “How is that different than the actual boarding?”

“No, sir. We’re not boarding yet. This is pre-boarding.”

I kind of looked at her funny, shrugged, and boarded the plane. The Israeli in me was shaking his head and laughing, while the American was simply confused. I got to my seat and sat down without incident. Conclusion: pre-boarding looks an awful lot like boarding. Maybe they teach the difference in flight-attendant school.

Bonus story: I got a letter from Cornell, my alma mater, saying (yes, really) “We miss you as a dues paying class member.” I’m reminded of Conan O’Brien’s description of college fund-raising in his Harvard Commencement speech:

Here’s how it works. Your phone rings, usually after a big meal when you’re tired and most vulnerable. A voice asks you for money. Knowing they just raised 2.5 billion dollars you ask, “What do you need it for?” Then there’s a long pause and the voice on the other end of the line says, “We don’t need it, we just want it.” It’s chilling.

Yeah, I’m sorry, Cornell, but I seem to recall paying you about $128,000 in tuition. I think that should tide you over for a while. I did tell you not to spend it all at once, right?

  1. Note that by “highlights” I don’t mean the things I actually enjoyed, but the things that I think the reader will find entertaining.

Comic #3

Ok, party people. Here it is. Enjoy (and click to enlarge): Comic 3: Yes, guys can be this desperate. Not a pretty sight.

Here We Go

So, apparently, due to this unexpected (though totally appreciated) plug, I now have some fans. Like, people I don’t know personally in the real-world-out-there. Weird. To think, all it took was an hour with a digital drawing program and my twisted take on the uncomfortableness of first dates. (Ok, ilan, enough with the linking to your own posts, already!) Problem is, it looks like to fulfill people’s demands (and anyone who knows me well knows that I need,need,need to please people, sometimes to the point of psychological malady) I’m going to have to come up with some more comics, when I wasn’t really planning on making a series out of it. It was just another one of my dabblings. I tend to try various media on for size, and in that vein, I’ve made movies, mixed music, and played with Photoshop and other digital imaging – that sort of thing. Some of those results appear here and there on this site. I thought I’d give the comic a shot, but didn’t plan on continuing. But here goes. Expect another comic, say, within a week or so, ok? We’ll see where we go from there.

Ah, the burdens we bear. I already feel like a martyr to the holy cause of entertainment.

Matthew Lukwiya, Passion, and Competence

There’s a tragedy I see often: well-meaning people who lack of competence to get their ideas off the ground, to be able to help the world in the ways that they think it needs help. And they are amazing ideas, to be sure. (I think this is the part where I’m going to upset people….Please understand that I’m not saying that I know any better than these people, only that I wish I could help them.) I see this most tragically in chinuch. Teaching, since it is not the highest paying job in the world (and that’s a gross understatement here in Israel) is done by a group of people self-selected – not necessarily for ability, but desire. People who want to teach children are the ones who do. And a job that delicate requires a certain kind of intuition, a certain kind of competence that can’t always be taught.

But I digress. What I wanted to get at is that there are people who are really good at things, and there are people who truly have their hearts in the right place, but to find both present in abundance is rare. This is why I was really, really impressed by Doctor Matthew Lukwiya, fom Uganda. Lukwiya isn’t a household name or anything, but he should be. In the fall of 2000, Ebola broke out in Uganda. The fact that it “only” took 173 lives can largely be attributed to Dr. Lukwiya. You see, containing a disease as incurable, deadly, and contagious as Ebola is requires a very special mix – a fierce determination to help, even in the face of possible infection, and the professional rigor required to properly isolate existing victims and diagnose new ones. These qualities are precisely what Dr. Lukwiya had, and why he was so effective. A less dedicated man would have run away in fear, and a less competent man would have gotten infected himself before he even started containing the threat. I’ll stop talking about the story. Read it for yourself. Here’s a bit I copied from the Wikipedia article on him:

On the morning of 8 October, Lukwiya informed staff of his suspicion that the illness was a viral hemorrhagic fever. That afternoon, a group of local community leaders came to the hospital reporting that entire families were dying in their villages. He ignored the usual bureaucratic protocols and placed a direct call to Dr. Sam Okware, Uganda’s commissioner of community health services, who dispatched a team from the Uganda Virus Research Institute to take blood samples. By the time the team arrived, Lukwiya had already set up an isolation ward for suspected Ebola cases, in line with the WHO guidelines. The special ward was staffed by three doctors, five nurses and five nursing assistants, all volunteers.[1] When a South African lab confirmed the Ebola outbreak in October 15 , and a WHO delegation arrived in Gulu, they were astonished at the efficiency of the operation.

The crisis continued to worsen. By the third week of October, the number of Ebola patients had increased to almost 60, overwhelming the volunteers in the isolation ward. Lukwiya ordered other nurses to assist the patients and tried to lead by example, working with Ebola patients from 7 am to 8 pm. However, despite instituting risk minimization procedures, including wearing of robes, multiple gloves, surgical masks and goggles, hospital workers continued to fall ill. Twelve more died. At the funeral of an Italian nun on 7 November, he attempted to rally the morale of his workers: “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

Matters reached a breaking point in late November. While the national epidemic had already peaked, St. Mary’s endured a terrible day. In the 24-hour period ending at the dawn of 24 November, seven patients died, three of which were health workers. Two of these were nurses who did not work in the isolation ward. The thought of infections being passed to health workers who did not directly care for Ebola patients panicked many and the nurses mutinied. The day-shift did not go to work; instead 400 health workers, nearly the entire staff of St. Mary’s, gathered in the assembly hall of the nursing school. When Lukwiya rushed down to ask what they wanted, at least one nurse yelled that the hospital should be closed. Lukwiya silenced the nurses, most of whom he had trained himself, by stating that if the hospital closed he would leave Gulu and never return. He then spoke on how he had let himself be abducted by the rebels rather than risk St. Mary’s and that they would be responsible for the deaths that would result if the hospital closed. After hours of contentious discussion that extended into the afternoon, Lukwiya switched back to a conciliatory approach, stating that he would remain no matter if everyone left. The meeting ended with him and the nurses singing a song together; he had prevailed.

I simply read the article and was floored by it. He was a truly impressive man. Unfortunately, though, he died in the process of ending the epidemic. Dr. Lukwiya was a hero whose example we ought to emulate – both in his passion and his competence. May he rest in peace.