Archive for the 'Intersections' Category

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On Smell

Days until departure: 10

So one thing that tends to interest me is when pieces of information from two generally unrelated areas of knowledge intersect. I feel like it validates the idea itself, and gives us a brief glimps of how interconnected everything really is.

So here’s one example. The sense of smell occupies an interesting place in the realm of human experience. It has been shown that while smells are not better at evoking memories than other senses, they evoke memories more intensely. For instance, if you smelled your grandmother’s perfume, you might be able to imagine she’s in the room with you. Not so by looking at a picture of her, or hearing a recording. In fact, and I cannot give more details than I can remember from the brief talk I heard, physiologically, the olfactory nerve (the one that conveys smell) has a more direct connection to the brain than the other senses do.

When I learned all this (in a guest lecture by Jofish Kaye), I was reminded of my first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. For those of you who have never been there, there is a cattle car that was used to transport Jews to the camps, set up so that you have to walk through it in order to progress through the museum. I was walking, and a teacher nearby leaned down to smell the cattle car. Perplexed, I asked him why he did so. He explained that four of the five senses were used in the first sin of Adam and Eve, tainting all of them, but leaving smell untainted. In Jewish tradition, smell is therefore considered the most “spiritual” or “pure” sense. (For instance, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b), the Messiah will be able to judge people by smelling them.)

So both scientists and rabbis have declared smell to be a peculiarly powerful sense, more pure in its effect and more evocative in its scope. Interesting collision of information, no?

On Mourning

Days until departure: 12
At times, when I’m thinking about some topic, especially when I intend to write something on it, I take notes on my thoughts. Last Tisha B’av, I wrote a bunch of notes on the ideas behind the initial part of the day, before noon. Here’s a brief set of thoughts emerging from those notes, before I have to go back to synagogue to finish up the prayers of the day.

According to the Rav, Tisha B’Av is one of the rare times that we express grief to such a degree, that we actually accuse God of creating our tragedy. It’s generally an unthinkable concept, more brazen than we usually are. Indeed, the first set of kinot (the “wailing” prayers we say on this day) often juxtapose what God did with what it seems he ought to have done. How dare we? The Rav points out that in the beginning of Tisha B’Av, we are like recently bereaved mourners – not even up to the shiva period that starts after burial, but onenim. An onen is one who has recently lost someone, before the deceased is buried. “His deceased is suspended before him,” the saying goes. When it’s that recent, that intense, that visceral, well then the normal rules don’t apply. An onen is exempt from many of the positive commandments, and also it is acceptable for such a person to be downright angry with God. Healing of the mourner’s heart, and of his relationship to an often inscrutable God may take place later, but for now, we let him off the hook.
So in trying to create a feeling of mourning, our sages patterned our customs and liturgy such that we would be like onenim for part of the day. We move on later in the day, but the specter of intense grief haunts us through the rest of the day.

An interesting thought occurred to me a while back. I was reading a book by the renowned psychologist Paul Ekman, called Emotions Revealed. In it, he talks about the concept of an “emotional refractory period.” I don’t have the book handy to quote from, but if my memory serves, the refractory period is when you experience an emotion so intensely that you are temporarily blinded to any information that would contradict that emotion. It is usually a very brief period, varying with intensity of emotion, but it’s qualitatively different from your normal mode of being. Your mind shuts down all access to anything that would lessen the feeling, though I believe it’s usually too brief to have any practical ramifications. It’s a scary thought, but Ekman really knows his stuff. In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether the onen’s permit to indict God comes from an acknowledgement that an onen is in the refractory period of his grief, and therefore cannot be held as entirely responsible for his actions. Thus, he is even permitted an action which would otherwise be blasphemy.

Leap Before You Look

I’m now starting this blog in earnest. I think I’m going to start by explaining the title (On One Foot) and the address (hop and hope .com), hoping that I’m not being overdramatic.

The phrase “on one foot” comes from the famous story about Hillel and the would-be convert. (It is actually one of a few such stories, all of which are told in Tractate Shabbat 31a.) In it, a non-Jew comes to Shammai, a great Torah scholar, and asks Shammai to convert him on condition that Shammai will teach him the whole Torah “while I am standing on one foot.” Shammai has no patience for such an absurd request. Even if the man means it metaphorically, that he wants one pillar, one basic tenet of Judaism, of Torah, it is an insult to himself and to Torah to think that it can be presented so simplistically. Shammai chases him away with the builder’s cubit (a stick, really) that he’s holding. The would-be convert goes to Hillel, often Shammai’s intellectual opponent, and asks him the same question. Hillel, as was pointed out by R’ Avraham Infeld (based on this and other stories), was a man who understood people. Not only that, but he incorporated this understanding into how he dealt with them. The “honest” thing to do would be Shammai’s response – to reject the man for his simplistic approach. However, Hillel sees that this man could be an actual truthseeker. He might be a heckler, he might not be. Hillel is uncertain, and so he isn’t positive how to deal with him. But he decides anyway. He converts the man and says “Anything that is hateful to you, do not do to others, and as for the rest [of the Torah] – it’s [just] commentary. Go and learn.” You’ll often hear people quote only the beginning of that, but Hillel tacks on an extra directive to the end of his teaching – “go and learn.” Hillel was unsure of how to deal with the man, but he was hoping that if the convert just learned a bit more about what he was asking, maybe things would become a bit clearer. Maybe the man would turn out to be the real deal. Hillel had to hedge his bets, because, in a way, he was teetering on one foot, not nearly as stable as one who deals rigidly and stoically with the law.

I remember one of my teachers once reflecting upon the Jewish way of life we follow – one in which we attempt to remain faithful to a millennia-old code of law while existing in, and drawing from, the modern world. Referring to a group of ultra-orthodox Jews, he said, “I don’t know if our way or their way is right, but our way is harder.” To my way of thinking, part of the reason I chose this path is because it is harder. We are not masochists, us Jews, but we do not, as a rule take the easy way out. We struggle with our past because it is out of struggle that we were born and reborn, on so many levels. One of the most profound things I find in Judaism is that there are times when even the holiest people mess up, and the greatest minds have to simply say, “I don’t know.” They’re human. They’re uncertain, and sometimes a bit wobbly. That’s the kind of life I understand. That’s the kind of life I can relate to.

I recently was listening to a song in which the singer is addressing a bunch of teenagers. She says:

Find your voice, do what it takes
Make sure you make lots of mistakes
And find the future that redeems
Give us hell, give us dreams
And grow and grow and grow.

It’s simple and it’s straightforward. I thought ‘Yeah, that’s the advice I would give to my teenage self if I could go back five or so years and talk to him.’ I’d tell him to make sure to make lots of mistakes, and grow. “All growth,” wrote the author Henry Miller, “is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.” But on the topic of entering the unknown, of leaping in the dark, I think the dancer Agnes DeMille put it best:

Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.

I think she’s right. Uncertainty is life. Embrace it. Grow from it.

It is said that in the End of Days, when life will be clearer and our questions will be answered, we will all follow the stricter rulings of the school of Shammai. But until then, we have to deal with the real world, with all of its twists and turns, with every imperfection it has to offer, and with each and every fork in the road where neither path seems to be the right one. Until then, we are in a world of uncertainty, and we follow the school of Hillel, which doesn’t let the world bulldoze it, but which doesn’t try to transcend it either. Hillel taught us an important lesson: we don’t always know. In fact, we rarely know anything important with as much surety as we’d like. But that cannot paralyze us. You can’t walk anywhere on one foot, but you can hop a bit. We must continue jumping – leaping in the dark. All we can do is hop, and hope.