Growing Up

Popular media abounds with cached tropes, with easy, prepackaged ideas that travel in the wake of simple visual or textual cues. A man kicks a beggar and has scary facial hair? Ok, so he’s evil. Another is clean-shaven and helps the beggar? He’s good, and will probably save the world, especially if he’s an orphan and/or was born under mysterious circumstances. You get it. The writers of these works put in cultural reminders, so we know early on how we’re supposed to feel about certain characters. It’s easier than developing them, and the superficial result is the same. Good writers, of course, will be aware of these tropes and use them carefully, or subvert them when useful.

One of the most oft-invoked tropes in coming-of-age stories is the loss of innocence1 as the step that causes a character to grow up. But what do we mean by “loss of innocence?” It’s not “innocence” in the sense of “having done nothing wrong” but in the “naive,” “blissfully ignorant” sense. The idea is that once the character has witnessed or experienced evil, or just tragedy, he or she is somehow an adult. Of course it’s not that simple, but I believe that it is one of those things that reappears so much precisely because it rings so true. We feel the truth of it. What is it, though, about witnessing bad things that causes a person to grow up? I don’t think it’s the comprehension that bad things happen or that they happen without clear justice. It’s the part after that. The part where things are broken. In the short-lived cult-TV series Firefly, there’s a scene where their ship isn’t working, due to a particular part being broken. The captain asks the mechanic, Kaylee, to find some way to fix the ship. Kaylee, who has a deep, almost affectionate connection with the ship, just looks up at him with despair in her eyes, and says, “Sometimes a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”

I think that’s the loss of innocence – the recognition that for all your good intentions, even for all your good actions, no matter how hard you try, things go wrong. Things go wrong, and they can be your fault, and there’s no way to make them right again. I imagine that it comes as a bit of a shock to anyone who encounters that late enough in life to understand that all of the storybooks and all of the movies had it wrong. Things don’t always go right, and you don’t even always get a chance at redemption when things go bad. True, it doesn’t always play out that way. Sometimes, you can fix it. But, sometimes, “a thing gets broke, can’t be fixed.”

And that, in part, is what it means to grow up.

  1. No, before any of my friends start getting all worried, let me assure you that I’m fine, and there’s no tragedy that sparked this post. ^

I talk funny

At 2AM:
Me: Ooo. The hours are getting too wee.
I think I must meet my Maker for a bit.
Layla tov.
My friend: great, i see you still speak in iambic pentameter

From my father

I was going through some old emails recently, and came across this quote that my father sent me a while back, saying it was “just something someone’s very wise grandmother used to say to him,” not specifying whose grandmother:

“If it is in your way, it is part of your way. And that way is derech Hashem.”

Life is good

“How is your life?”
“Mine is good.”
“That’s good!”
“Like, surprisingly so. As if ‘good’ just sort of crept up on me, put its hands over my eyes, and said, ‘guess who?’ And I turned, and said, ‘Oh, it’s you. We were just talking about you. Cool, come, sit down. Let’s hang out.’
Hmmm…I think we’re going to end the metaphor here.”

Why early mornings are good mornings

In the tradition of indexed, I thought I’d use a visual to explain why, in the morning, I prefer to daven at my local minyan, which is earlier, rather than catching a later one at one of the places that has minyanim every 15 minutes:
minyan

Oh, and chulent. Right.

Hold Your Applause

Back. No fanfare, no big reason for my absence. Ok, two big reasons and a bunch of little ones – I switched jobs and everything went somewhat kerflooey (that’s the technical term – I do have a degree in Engineering, after all), and I had a major role in a play that was about an hour from home. Other trials, tribulations, and time-takers I will omit and leave as an exercise for the reader, but suffice to it say that the longer you don’t write, the harder it is to take up the pen, er, keyboard.
So, the play is over (it went really well, by the by), things are calming down, and the new job is pretty good.
There is much to say, and there will be more to say in the near future, I’m sure. Such is the way of things.

Just wanted to say hello again, cyberspace. It’s nice to be back.

Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0

Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, does it again.
In this week’s edition of the London Jewish Chronicle, he wrote an amazingly eloquent response to the various recent proponents of atheism / critics of religion, managing to neither deliver an ad hominem attack nor retreat under apologetics. In his typical fashion, he simply stands up and says the truth about Judaism, speaking simply but not simplistically about complex issues. I have nothing at all to add, as he said everything I would’ve said on the topic, and then some, and said it better. Here are a few choice excerpts, but please, read the whole thing:

…Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is an angry and, at times, eloquent polemic on the evil men and women do in the name of God. It has only one drawback. It does not prove that God is not great. What it shows is that those who claim to be acting for the sake of God are not always great. But then, we knew that already.

Nor is it religion alone that is subverted by violence. So, too, is every institution through which human beings have regulated their conduct with one another. People have done evil in the name of politics. That does not mean that we should, or could, abolish politics. They have committed injustices in the pursuit of wealth. That does not mean we should eliminate property. They have committed crimes in the name of love. That does not mean we should ban love.

But Hitchens is not a prophet, and that is not merely because he does not believe in God. He does not believe in humanity either.

Human beings are complex, their interactions even more so. Yet we long for simplicity. Hence the perennial tendency to say, “if only”. If only we could abolish property, or class, or codes of self-restraint. If only, say the crusaders, people believed in God. If only, say the counter-crusaders, people stopped believing in God.

That is the eternal appeal of “final solutions”. They begin, every one of them, in a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell-on-earth. That is why the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not yet”. The mainstream of our tradition has always rejected the attempt to bring the end of history in the middle of history. If only people stopped saying “if only”.

The virtue of books like God Is Not Great is that they force us back to first principles — in this case to a truth about Judaism that has been far too little written about. It is, we know, a code of action and a set of beliefs. But it is also — and this gives Judaism its extraordinary internal complexity — a field of tensions: between particularism and universalism, exile and homecoming, acceptance and protest, halachah and aggadah, revelation and reason, mysticism and philosophy, sages and saints. Even religious leadership in the Torah is dual: the prophet and the priest. Judaism is not so much a creed as a conversation. It is complex because the human condition is complex. We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.

….

Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike, and re-engage in civil conversation about how best to secure a world safe for our grandchildren to live in. In the words of the Unetnah tokef prayer we say at this time: the great shofar of warning has sounded. Will we hear the ‘still, small voice’ – the voice you can only hear by listening? On that, the human future will depend.

[read it all]

(hat tip: Cross-Currents)

Breaking

There are times in your life when something in you breaks. You’ll be steeped in thoughts and they’ll rise to a critical point, or an offhand comment from a friend will poke a small hole in the dam, and it will just shatter. There’s this loud, audible CRACK, and you look around, expecting other people to have heard, to notice. But no one does. No one looks up from the sidewalk or peers out of their living room windows. The world careens around its axis, tilted and desperate as ever, and a sea of oblivious people flows around you, leaving you alone, with your ears ringing.

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.