It has been more than a week since my wife and I received our 2nd vaccination shots against COVID-19, and we are both in good health and feel well (I am 41-years-old, and she is 36-years-old). After both our 1st and 2nd vaccination shots, our arms were sore at the injection sites, but otherwise we experienced no noticeable side effects.
A younger cousin of mine (~38-years-old) who works in the entertainment industry here in Israel finally got vaccinated (even though she did not want to) because of the pressure put on her by her employer (and general society). To be honest, I didn’t have much sympathy for her vaccination skepticism, as I’ve written before. Simply put, these vaccines are the single best hope that our global society has for defeating COVID-19 and shifting back in the direction of normalcy.
For those who harbor concerns over the potential ill effects of receiving these vaccines, I recommend watching the following video, which is neither too long, nor too complicated to understand:
As of today, the State of Israel has now vaccinated more than 4.4 million people (48% of its population). Of the overall figure, more than 3 million people (33% of the population) have received the 2nd dose of the vaccine.
For those who are wondering how Israel was able to jump the cue when so many other countries are now struggling to get vaccines, the answer is pretty straightforward: some chutzpah… and a small population (1/33rd the size of the US). Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister, has basically staked his career on the vaccine rollout, and he convinced Pfizer to supply Israel with enough vaccines (around 10 million) to cover the whole population, in exchange for sharing data in a kind of real-world vaccine trial…
Putting aside whether or not I am comfortable with our Prime Minister sharing the Israeli public’s health data without its consent, which I am not, the fact remains that the State’s deal with Pfizer is now a fait accompli. Either way, the vaccine was made readily available to me and my family, and I did not hesitate in the slightest to take advantage of that privilege.
I’m aware of that privilege every day now: as I walk through the rainy, wintery Jerusalem streets, my body is working for me, building up immunity to COVID-19 and significantly lowering the chance of me becoming a super-spreader at work or in public.
Given that all human beings are in this boat together, as I see it, the major challenge now facing humanity is: how do we get the COVID-19 vaccine into the bodies of every human on the planet?
Especially in those countries lacking reliable and effective health infrastructures?
Introducing… ‘Green passports’!
The State is finally easing out of its 3rd lockdown (our daughter returned to preschool on Tuesday of last week, thank goodness), but now there’s a caveat: for full access to all of Israel’s recreational facilities, one must hold a ‘green passport’. These ‘passports’ are chief among the reasons that many Israelis are getting the shot (including my cousin, mentioned above).
The Israeli government has been campaigning hard, for its part, on all the benefits that vaccinated citizens will enjoy. These include access to leisure and cultural facilities (including gyms, sporting events, hotels, and swimming pools); and -in the future- mass events and travel. All Israelis who have been fully vaccinated or who have recovered from the disease are eligible for a ‘green passport’.
The government, you see, cannot force its citizens to get vaccinated, but it can make life very inconvenient for those that do not. Some may consider this draconian, but I am fully supportive of this initiative. Simply put, vaccination against COVID-19 is humankind’s greatest hope for defeating this global pandemic. It was certainly my privilege to get vaccinated early (compared to the rest of the world) because I live in Israel; but – I also consider it to have been my responsibility.
The U.S. President provoked actual riot. 🤦♂️
Ev'ry grievance he claimed, they would buy it.
Hordes stormed the halls of Congress,
Hell-bent on making a mess...
Well, I s'pose no one thought he'd go quiet!
Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.
Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?
We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.
Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.
Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.
The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.
What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?
According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):
The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.
As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):
… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו…
… and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…
I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:
People of decency ought to strive for truth.
But – are there limits? There must be some, right?
The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged,arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):
תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות
Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.
Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):
13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?
Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):
וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי:
R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.
It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.
My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.
In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.
Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.
I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?
We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.
What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?
Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.
And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.
While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.
Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…
And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’
‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.
This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):
To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.
In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In Exodus 6:12, Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:
And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’
Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.
The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the ChassidicRebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:
Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).
Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:
The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.
Far too many did I poo-poo
In the past, for sheerest fears
Of disaster, dawning faster
When they'd been caught unawares
When they questioned fair elections
Fingers wringing, furrowed brows
I would smile ever politely--
There shall come again a now
Now I wonder, faith asunder
As every channel tells of hell
Discord 'round our world spreads further
None preserve her while death knells
She knows her leaders prey on chaos
While rehearsing empty words
No option left to us but watching
Their Theater of the Absurd
My reading of Jewish texts on Jewish eschatology and death rituals has been fairly wide-ranging, and it continues to expand. (My copy of the just-publishedKaddish.com will be in my hands this week!) Since my father’s death last summer, I’ve filled my bookshelf with more books than I have had the time to finish, but I will still be exploring them for years to come.
It’s also refreshing and broadening to go beyond Jewish sources. My friend Sagi has lent me a book titled Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, which provides a humorous survey of philosophical approaches to death, intended as a light read on a heavy subject. Towards the beginning of the book, the authors introduce us to Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book: The Denial of Death.
Becker posits that we humans delude ourselves into thinking that we are not going to die by constructing “immortality systems”, which are “nonrational belief structures that give us a way to believe we’re immortal” (‘Heidegger’ p. 15-17):
There’s the ever-popular strategy of identifying ourselves with a tribe, race, or nation that lives on into the indefinite future, with us somehow a part of it. Then there’s the immortality-through-art system, in which the artist foresees… herself immortalized…
Then there are the top-of-the-market immortality systems enshrined in the world’s religions, ranging from living on as part of the cosmic energy in the East to sailing off to be with Jesus in the West. At a less lofty level, there is the immortality-through-wealth system…
Virtually every civilization has evolved a shared immortality system. In fact, these systems are the basic function of a culture. Without them, we’d all go wacko with death-angst and we wouldn’t be able to keep our civilization humming along… Denial of death is civilization’s survival strategy!
I see the truth of these very human mechanisms coming through in my own thinking:
[By reciting the mourner’s kaddish on behalf of his father,] the son demonstrates why his father deserves to be granted a good fate. The son is not the advocate, the son is the evidence…
When it comes right down to it, I couldn’t imagine my father dying (blog #19) any more than I can imagine my own end; and not a day goes by that I don’t still expect him to be updating his mathematics website or uploading new wildlife photographs to Facebook.
* * *
I sit here in my chair, some nine months after Papa died, plugging away at my keyboard, contemplating my family’s heritage and posterity, struggling to wrap my mind around his non-existence, but. There’s a degree of dissociation that goes into my writing.
On one hand, it’s therapeutic – my most intimate thoughts find their purchase in published language, freeing my mind to get through the days along with the rest of me. On the other, this is an original story I’m writing. By the time you’ve read this, it’s no longer about the character who wrote it. Who is David Bogomolny anyway?
Besides: we read blogs every day. The truest form of anonymity rests perhaps in our public identities. You see a face, a name, some strings of words, a person whom you don’t know writing about the death of a father you never met. Oh, he writes so well; it’s so moving; so sad; so terrible.
Most likely: you don’t know me; these posts on David Bogomolny’s devastating loss are hypothetical to you. (We are but extras or bit characters in the lives of all but our dearest loved ones.)
Or maybe: you know me somewhat but dissociate your heart and mind from my gaping, bottomless wound. It’s simply too terrifying to go there.
I relate to your immortality systems. When I read through my own ‘Skeptic’s kaddish’ blog posts, much of what I’ve written to date feels unreal to me.
The shared human experience of grief is that which is truly immortal, not its messenger.
* * *
I won’t lie. I’m quite ready to be done with these stanzas, but I can’t stomach the alternative: Show up at Papa’s grave and recite a series of unrelatable biblical passages on faith? What for? How utterly hollow to me and to Papa.
104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
I won’t bother splitting the verses above into two separate semi-stanzas, but it’s clear that stanza מ (mem) is organized much like most other stanzas of Psalm 119. The 1st semi-stanza of 4 verses (97-100) ends with the keywordpikudim and the word אֶתְבּוֹנָן (I gain understanding); so too does the 2nd semi-stanza (101-104).
Whereas the 1st semi-stanza repeats the word שִׂיחָה (conversation) twice and emphasizes learning that leads to intelligence, wisdom, and understanding, the 2nd semi-stanza twice uses the word אֹרַח (way, style, manner), thereby contrasting the Psalmist’s rejection of [evil & false ways] with his dedication to [God’s word & edicts].
Actually, the theme of verbal expression snakes through both semi-stanzas. The 1st and 3rd verses (97 & 99) of the 1st semi-stanza relate to the Psalmist’s perpetual “conversation” on matters pertaining to God’s instructions to humankind (Torah), as well as to testimonies to His supremacy (eidot). Following this, the 2nd semi-stanza’s 1st and 3rd verses (101 & 103) relate to God’s imrah & dvar, which Radak (1160–1235) understands to mean the verbal expression basic to all of God’s commandments.
The 1st half of stanza מ thus focuses on the Psalmist’s speaking God’s Torah;the 2nd half focuses on God’s utterances. Going further still, this distinction between our stanza’s two halves is suggestively underscored in yet another way: the Psalmist’s mouth in the 2nd semi-stanza (verse 103) engages in conversationno longer! It is too busy, rather, savoring the ambrosia of God’s holy imrah.
The contrast between our two semi-stanzas is perhaps most stark at stanza מ’s bookends. The 1st verse (97) uses the language of ‘מָה-אָהַבְתִּי’ (O how I love) in reference to God’s Torah, in juxtaposition to the words of the final verse (104): ‘עַל כֵּן, שָׂנֵאתִי’ (therefore I hate) in reference to false ways [of living]. The Psalmist’s purposeful choice of language trumpets, “The Torah is the True Way!”
* * *
A nuance intrigues me. Let’s compare the language of verses 100 & 104 (the final verses of our two semi-stanzas), both of which contain ‘pikudim’ and ‘I gain understanding’:
Verse 100 is the capstone to the 1st four verses of our stanza, which focus on the Psalmist’s personal growth through learning and commitment to God’s commandments. The verse’s logic is: commitment to God’s edicts brings the Psalmist to gain understanding from his elders. More precisely:
Keep pikudim >>
[Learn from] elders >>
104 From Thy pikudim I gain understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
What might the Psalmist be suggesting?
My initial interpretation goes as follows: According to the Psalmist, keeping God’s commandments opens up two avenues towards the achievement of greater understanding.
The individual dedicated to a Godly life is thereby connected to others who share his commitment. His dedication births within him an openness towards and respect for the elders of his community, who nurture his ‘love’ for Torah (verse 97) and broaden his horizons with their accumulated wisdom. Gaining understanding along this path is a rewarding end in itself, along with greater wisdom and intelligence. It grows out of one’s learning.
Committed observance of the Divine precepts itself shapes one’s character, granting him the natural intuition necessary to discern between God’s true word and false, evil alternatives. In this model, understanding comes straight from ‘the Source’, as it were. The dedicated individual develops understanding enough to make the crucial distinctions between True & False, Good & Evil, Sacred & Profane. This grows out of deep commitment.
* * *
Learning for its own sake was my father’s lifelong passion. His was a curious mind, always seeking to master new concepts, ever engaged in the pursuit of further knowledge. He relished fresh insights, delighted in challenging exchanges, and savored understanding for its own sake.
Papa also had a profound, innate sense of Good & Evil and was one to rely confidently upon his intuition. In politics, he remained ever clear-eyed and principled, harboring no illusions about the flaws of his preferred candidates, nor about the existential threats that he saw represented by others.
I write this post, just as the elections for the 21st Knesset come upon us. Tomorrow we go to the polls, and I still find myself pulled in several directions. My principles have always been more squishy than Papa’s before me; concerned as I am with the all too real, existential threats that worried my father, I… I remain undecided on the eve of elections.